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.
The teshuvot passed by the Law Committee cover topics as diverse as Shabbat and holidays, marriage and divorce law, biomedical ethics, and business ethics. Some of these teshuvot effectively change the accepted practice of Jewish law. For instance, the teshuvot permitting women to lead services and to become rabbis represented a shift from traditional understandings of Jewish law. Other teshuvot address issues not considered by classical Jewish texts. Such issues might include questions related to euthanasia, surrogate motherhood, and new technology.
Most of the teshuvot published since 1980 are available on the Rabbinical Assembly website, and all of the teshuvot approved between 1980 and 2000 also appear in books printed by the Rabbinical Assembly.
A look at a representative teshuvah gives us a sense of some of the issues and methods used to create these contemporary legal positions.
Kohanim and Others
Every Jew is either a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. Kohanim and Levi’im are descendants of the biblical Aaron (Moses’ brother), whom God placed in charge of all sacrificial practices. While the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, the Kohanim would preside over all sacrifices, and the Levi’im would perform various associated tasks. Even after the destruction of the Temple, the Kohanimand Levi’immaintained their higher status within the Jewish community.
Traditionally, Kohanim and Levi’im receive the first two aliyot to the Torah. On certain occasions, the Kohanim offer a special blessing to the congregation. This practice, known as n’siyat kapayim (lifting the hands) in Hebrew or duchening (from the word “bench”) in Yiddish, takes place on major holidays in the Diaspora, on every Shabbat in the land of Israel, and every morning in Jerusalem. Because of their elevated status, kohanimhave also traditionally been prohibited from marrying converts and divorcees.
The laws relating to the Kohen and Levi present a number of problems for contemporary Jews. First, the very idea of maintaining even the vestiges of an official class system conflicts with our modern sense of equality. Second, the special status accorded to the Kohen and Levi has historically applied almost exclusively to men, though the daughters and wives of the Kohanim did receive some special privileges during Temple times. Finally, it seems cruel to prohibit a Kohen from marry a divorced woman or a Jew-by-choice with whom he has fallen in love.
A series of Conservative teshuvot written between the early 1950s and the late 1990s address these issues relating to the role and status of the Kohen. Some of the teshuvot in this group allow the daughters of Kohanim to participate in the rituals previously reserved only for men, give permission to abolish the practice of calling a Kohen and Levi for the first and second aliyot, and authorize rabbis to perform marriages for a Kohen and a Jew-by-choice or divorcee. The authors of these teshuvot base their decisions on reinterpretations of biblical and rabbinic law, social and historical factors, and distinctions between custom and law. For example:
Some of these teshuvot point out that we can no longer be sure who is a legitimate Kohen, and therefore should not enforce marriage restrictions on someone of unclear status.
Some teshuvot note that the daughters of Kohanim were permitted certain privileges in Temple times, and therefore should also be able to enjoy the privileges of the Kohanimtoday.
Still others note that the prohibition against marrying a Jew-by-choice is based on a worldview that sees all non-Jewish women as promiscuous. Today, we no longer make such assumptions about non-Jews.
Beyond teshuvot, there are a few key texts that Conservative Jews tend to use in their halakhic practice. The best known of these is Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. This guide offers basic information about Jewish practice and incorporates decisions made by the Law Committee (of which Klein was a member) prior to the book’s publication in 1979.
Conservative rabbis generally rely on the Moreh Derekh, a handbook for rabbis that includes material for lifecycle ceremonies, copies of key documents, and instructions for other areas of rabbinic practice. Rabbis and laypeople charged with leading services also frequently consult the United Synagogue Luach (calendar). This luach, which is published yearly, notes the Torah readings for each day; additions or changes to the service for Rosh Hodesh, holidays, and other times of the year; and other instructions for conducting services.
The United Synagogue book service also offers pamphlets and books on kashrut, individual holidays, conversion, and other lifecycle events. These publications tend to blend practical law with discussions of the origins and meanings of the traditions in question.
Two other recent Conservative movement publications seek to integrate legal discussions into everyday Jewish life. The Etz Hayim Humash, a Torah commentary published in 2001, includes halakhic commentary together with more literary or historical discussions. These halakhic comments highlight laws that emerge from the biblical text. The Or Hadash, a 2003 commentary on the Sim Shalom siddur incorporates instructions for prayer into its commentary on the text of the liturgy.
Other books consider the meta issues that guide the development of Jewish law. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who will be the chair of the Law Committee beginning in 2007, has published several reflections on the nature and practice of Jewish law. A Living Tree (written with Arthur Rosett) examines the sources, techniques, and forms of Jewish law while also paying attention to the philosophical and ethical issues that influence the development of law. The Unfolding Tradition focuses on the ways in which Conservative legal scholars have understood and interpreted Jewish law.
Jewish law is constantly changing and developing to address new circumstances and new questions. The Conservative Movement’s engagement with Jewish law represents a contemporary attempt to make Jewish law relevant and meaningful in a changing world.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: tuh-SHOO-vah, (oo as in boot) Origin: Hebrew, literally “return”, referring to the “return to God” teshuvah is often translated as “repentance.” It is one of the most significant themes and spiritual components of the High Holidays.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.