Halakhah in Conservative Judaism

"Tradition and change" is the Conservative movement's motto, balancing adherence to Jewish law with a willingness to introduce major innovations.

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.

We in the Conservative community are committed to carrying on the rabbinic tradition of preserving and enhancing halakhah by making appropriate changes in it through rabbinic decision. This flows from our conviction thathalakhahis indispensable for each age. As in the past, the nature and number of adjustments of the law will vary with the degree of change in the environment in which Jews live.

The rapid technological and social change of our time, as well as new ethical insights and goals, have required new interpretations and applications of halakhah to keep it vital for our lives; more adjustments will undoubtedly be necessary in the future. These include additions to the received tradition to deal with new circumstances and, in some cases, modifications of the corpus of halakhah.

Regulating Change

While change is both a traditional and a necessary part of halakhah, we, like our ancestors, are not committed to change for its own sake. Hence, the thrust of the Jewish tradition and the Conservative community is to maintain the law and practices of the past as much as possible, and the burden of proof is on the one who wants to alter them.

Halakhah has responded and must continue to respond to changing conditions, sometimes through alteration of the law and sometimes by standing firm against passing fads and skewed values. Moreover, the necessity for change does not justify any particular proposal for revision. Each suggestion cannot be treated mechanically but must rather be judged in its own terms, a process which requires thorough knowledge of both halakhah and the contemporary scene as well as carefully honed skills of judgment.

Following the example of our rabbinic predecessors over the ages, however, we consider instituting changes for a variety of reasons. Occasionally the integrity of the law must be maintained by adjusting it to conform to contemporary practice among observant Jews. Every legal system from time to time must adjust what is on the books to be in line with actual practice if the law is to be taken seriously as a guide to conduct. New technological, social, economic, or political realities sometimes require legal action.

Some changes in law are designed to improve the material conditions of the Jewish people or society at large. The goal of others is to foster better relations among Jews or between Jews and the larger community. In some cases, changes are necessary to prevent or remove injustice, while in others they constitute a positive program to enhance the quality of Jewish life by elevating its moral standards or deepening its piety.

When Normal Halakhic Development is Insufficient

We affirm that the halakhic process has striven to embody the highest moral principles. Where changing conditions produce what seem to be immoral consequences and human anguish, varying approaches exist within our community to rectify the situation. Where it is deemed possible and desirable to solve the problem through the existing halakhic norms, we prefer to use them.

If not, some within the Conservative community are prepared to amend the existing law by means of a formal procedure of legislation (takkanah). Some are willing to make a change only when they find it justified by sources in the halakhic literature. All of us, however, are committed to the indispensability of halakhah for authentic Jewish living.

Our dedication to halakhah flows from our deep awareness of the divine element and the positive values inherent in it. Every effort is made to conserve and enhance it. When changes are necessary, they are made with the express goal of insuring that halakhah remains an effective, viable, and moral guide for our lives.

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