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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Torah and Halachic Authority (3/12)
Section - Question 4.5: How does the Conservative movement deal with Halachic questions?

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   Conservative Jews view the laws and customs from the various law
   codes, such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulkhan Arukh, as the basis for
   binding Jewish law, and allow for law to be modified by today's
   halakhic authorities. While accepting the dictates of the movement's
   Rabbinical Assembly as normative, Conservative Jews also accept that
   rulings of Orthodox and Traditional (i.e., Union for Traditional
   Judaism) rabbis are legitimate halakhic positions.
   Jewish law and custom, as followed traditionally, is preserved by
   Conservative Judaism as much as possible. Changes are not made for
   their own sake, but rather to deal with an urgent, acute problem, with
   a preference for lenient ruling over strict ones. This approach is
   based Talmud Bavli, which states "The strength of a lenient ruling is
   greater" [Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 60a]
   Before giving a halakhic ruling, Conservative Judaism studies the
   subject in a historic and scientific fashion to determine if the law
   came from the Torah, the Talmudic sages, the early rabbis (Geonim and
   Rishonim) or the later rabbis (Acharonim). This is because there is
   generally more readiness to change a new law or something which is
   only a custom.
   Note that Conservative Judaism does not view the Shulkhan Arukh as the
   ultimate authority in matters of Jewish law and custom.
   The central halakhic authority in Conservative Judaism is the
   Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which was founded by the
   Rabbinical Assembly (RA) in the 1920s. It is composed of 25 rabbis,
   who are voting members, and five laypeople, who do not vote, but
   participate fully in deliberations. When any six members vote in favor
   of a position, that position becomes a validated position of the
   committee, thus there is the possibility that any issue can generate
   from one to four official positions.
   Unanimous decisions become the official position of the Conservative
   movement. When more than one position is validated, each
   congregational rabbi functions as the mara de-atra (local rabbinic
   authority), adopting for their congregation the position he or she
   considers most compelling. In the overwhelming majority of cases,
   Conservative rabbis choose among the law committee's validated
   positions. On rare occasions, an individual rabbi may ignore the
   committee and act in accordance with his or her own convictions
   regarding what is halakhically correct.
   CJLS decisions are not absolutely enforceable on rabbis, except
   regarding 'standards'. A standard requires an 80% vote of the full
   membership of the CJLS and a majority vote by the plenum of the
   Rabbinical Assembly. Willful violations have led to resignations or
   expulsions from membership of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). At
   present, there are four standards:
    1. A complete prohibition on rabbis and cantors to officiate in any
       way at intermarriages.
    2. A complete prohibition against officiating at the remarriage of a
       Jew whose previous marriage has not been halakhically terminated,
       whether by a halakhic divorce [get], hafka'at Kiddushin [annulment
       of the marriage], or death.
    3. A complete prohibition against taking any action that would
       intimate that native Jewishness can be confirmed in any way but
       matrilineal descent.
    4. A complete prohibition against supervising a conversion to Judaism
       that does not include circumcision for males, and immersion in a
       mikveh for both males and females.
   The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel (Israeli arm of the RA) has its own
   decision making body, the Va'ad Halacha. Responsa by both the CJLS and
   the Va'ad Halacha are equally valid. Due to different social
   circumstances, the CJLS and the Va'ad do not always come up with the
   same teshuva. In such a case a rabbi is free to decide which responsa
   to use. In addition, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
   (USCJ) maintains its own list of binding standards for all synagogues
   associated with the movement. Among other things, these standards
   mandate observance of the Sabbath and the laws of Kashrut.

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