This article is excerpted from a statement of principles issued in 1988 by the major institutions of the North American arm of the Conservative movement (known outside North America as the Masorti ["traditional"] movement). Reprinted with permission from Emet Ve-emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, published by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of America (now called United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.
The sanctity and authority of halakhah attaches to the body of the law, not to each law separately, for throughout Jewish history halakhah has been subject to change. Reverence for the tradition and concern for its continuity prevented rash revision of the law, but Jewish practice was modified from time to time. Most often, new interpretation or application of existing precedents produced the needed development, but sometimes new ordinances were necessary. Sometimes, as in the education of girls and the creation of the Simhat Torah festival, the changes occurred first in the conduct of the rabbis or the people and only then were confirmed in law.
Tradition and Development in Halakhah
The rabbis of the Mishnah, the Talmud, and midrash recognized that changes had occurred and that they themselves were instituting them. They took pains to justify the legitimacy of rabbis in each generation applying the law in new ways to meet the demands of the time. They pointed out that the Torah itself requires such judicial activity, a mandate which they interpreted broadly to include, at times, even outright revisions of the law.
Each individual cannot be empowered to make changes in the law, for that would undermine its authority and coherence; only the rabbinic leaders of the community, because of their knowledge of the content aims, and methods of halakhah, are authorized by Jewish tradition to make the necessary changes, although they must keep the customs and needs of the community in mind as they deliberate.
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