In one of the most famous biblical stories about the determination of law, the five daughters of Zelophehad complain to Moses about the laws that prevent women from inheriting their father’s property. Unsure of the correct response, Moses takes their complaint to God, who dictates a change in law.
Of course, making Jewish legal decisions isn’t usually so easy. Without the benefit of divine intervention, post-biblical Jews have engaged in a two thousand-year debate about who has the authority to create or change Jewish law, and about how and why such decisions may be made.
For most of Jewish history, the answer was tautological: one gained legal authority by being treated as an authority. That is: rabbis who earned a reputation for being legal scholars, and who took it upon themselves to write law codes or to respond in writing to legal questions, succeeded in influencing Jewish practice. From the early medieval period through today, Jews have submitted legal questions (she’elot) to respected rabbinic authorities, who respond with a written teshuvah, or answer. These teshuvot address individual situations, but also serve as legal precedents. The extent to which a particular rabbi is accepted as authoritative determines the influence of his decisions on later law.
This system–or lack thereof–is, on the one hand, radically democratic–as in You Tube or certain online forums, the ideas “rated” highest become increasingly important. For better or for worse, this system also allows for a great deal of variation in practice and opinion.
The Law Committee
In an effort to create coherence among affiliated synagogues, the Conservative Movement has formalized the process of accepting and rejecting teshuvot. The Rabbinical Assembly, the body that represents Conservative rabbis, includes the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (generally known as “the Law Committee”), which reviews and approves or rejects teshuvot.
The Law Committee consists of twenty-five rabbis plus several non-voting members who represent other branches of the movement. Any rabbi who belongs to the Rabbinical Assembly may submit a teshuvah for a hearing and vote. A teshuvah that receives six votes becomes an official position of the movement. This process is meant to preserve the value of legal pluralism–two contradictory teshuvot may both become official movement positions, and individual Conservative Jews and institutions may choose between these two options.
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