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The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the central authority on halakha (Jewish law and tradition) within Conservative Judaism; it is one of the most active and widely known committees on the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly. Within the movement it is known as the CJLS. The current Chairman of the CJLS is Rabbi Elliot Dorff.
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It was founded by the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) in 1927 as the Committee on Jewish Law.
Conservative rabbis hold that the boundaries of Jewish law are determined through the halakhic process, a religious-ethical system of legal precedents. In this system, one may re-interpret or change the law through a formal argument. These arguments are effectively peer-reviewed. When a rabbi proposes a new interpretation of a law, that interpretation is not normative for the Jewish community until it becomes accepted by other committed and observant members in the community. New legal precedents are based on the standard codes of Jewish law, and the responsa literature. The Hebrew term for the responsa is '"She'elot U-Teshuvot"', literally "Questions and Answers".
There is no formal peer-review process for the entire Jewish community in general, since the Jewish community has no one central body that speaks for all of Judaism. However, within certain Jewish communities formal organized bodies exist: Each strand of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism has their own rebbe, who is their ultimate decisor of Jewish law. Within Modern Orthodox Judaism, there is no one committee or leader, but Modern Orthodox rabbis generally agree with the views set by consensus by the leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America. Within Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly has the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Conservative Judaism teaches that one can make use of literary and historical analysis to understand how Jewish law has developed, and to help them understand how such laws should be understood in our own day. It generally view the laws and customs from the various law codes as the basis for normative Jewish law. Solomon Schechter writes "however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition".
In fundamental ways Orthodox Judaism has a significantly different understanding of how halakha is determined; thus Orthodox rabbis generally do not respect the decisions of the CJLS as valid or normative.
The CJLS is composed of 25 rabbis (voting members), and five laypeople, who participate in deliberations but whom do not have a vote. When any six (or more) members vote in favor of a position, that position becomes an official position of the committee. Any particular issue can generate from one to four official positions. When multiple positions are validated, they usually have much common ground.
When more than one position is validated, a congregation's rabbi functions as its mara de-atra (local authority), adopting for their congregation the position he or she considers most compelling. As Mackler states:
"The positions authorized by the Committee offer important guidance for Conservative Jews and others. Still, each Conservative rabbi has the authority to make halakhic judgments. Eash rabbi formulates decisions about numerous issues not discussed explicitly by the Committee, relying on other halakhic sources and his or her own judgment. For issues the Committee has addressed, each rabbi may choose among various positions endorsed by the Committee, or may even find a different position best mandated by halakhah." 
Responsa are generally not enforceable on rabbis, except regarding standards of rabbinic practice. Willful violations of these standards have led to resignations or expulsions from membership of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). At present, three standards of rabbinic practice have been issued, containing four rules:
- 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], or death.
- 3a) A complete prohibition against taking any action that would intimate that native Jewishness can be confirmed in any way but matrilineal descent.
- 3b) A complete prohibition against supervising a conversion to Judaism that does not include circumcision for males, and immersion in a Mikvah for both males and females.
A separate article exists on Conservative responsa, the body of responsa created by Conservative rabbis (primarily by the CJLS.)
Difference in methodology from Orthodoxy
A key practical difference between Conservative and Orthodox approaches to halakhah is that Conservative Judaism holds that rabbis in our day and age are empowered to issue takkanot (decrees) modifying Biblical prohibitions, when perceived to be necessary.
The Conservative position is that the Talmud states that in exceptional cases rabbis have the right to uproot Biblical prohibitions for a variety of reasons; it gives examples of how this was done in practice, e.g. Talmud Bavli, tractate Yevamot 89a-90b, and tractate Nazir 43a. See the discussion by Rabbi Arnold Goodman in Solemnizing the Marriage Between a Kohen and a Divorcee p. 2 (bottom) p. 3 (top.) Goodman notes that "Later authorities were reluctant to assume such unilateral authority... Later authorities thus imposed severe limitations on the conditions and situations where it would be appropriate and necessary to uproot.." but then states on p. 3 that "Yet the right to uproot was never completely prohibited. There was often the need for an escape hatch, and the right of Rabbinic authorities to do so was articulated by the Rashba as follows: It was not a matter of the sages deciding on their own to uproot a matter of the Torah, but it is one of the mitzvot in the Torah to obey the 'judges in your day' and anything they see necessary to permit is permissible from the Torah." (Chidushai Rashba, Nedarim, p. 90a)
Conservative Jewish philosophy does not allow the use of popular will to overturn Biblical or rabbinic laws. Conservative Judaism requires responsa citing a full range of precedential authorities as part of any halakhic decision. Changes in halakhah must come about through the halakhic process. For examples of this view see Rabbi David Golinkin's essay "The Whys and Hows of Conservative Halakhah," Elliot N. Dorff's "The Unfolding Tradition" (esp. introduction and chapter 1), Joel Roth "The Halakhic Process" (Chapter 1, but throughout the entire book)
The CJLS has on a number of occasions accepted teshuvot which include moral and aggadadic reasoning alongside and within a precedent-based halakhic framework. As such they often come to conclusions that differ from their Orthodox peers.
Takkanot: Significant legislative changes in Jewish law
The CJLS has passed takkanot which significantly changes Jewish law. The following is a list of such takkanot; note that the reasoning behind these changes is not here explained in depth; for details please see the Conservative Halakha article.
- Driving to synagogue on Shabbat. The CJLS accepted a responsa which holds that if a person rides to synagogue on Shabbat with the intention of fulfilling various Shabbat mitzvot, and that if no other driving on Shabbat is done, than that person will not be held as being in violation of halakhah. ("Responsum on the Sabbath" by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob B. Agus and Theodore Friedman.)
- The CJLS issued emergency takkanot effectively lifting biblical restrictions on Kohen marriages. These responsa argue that the high rate of intermarriage and need to keep married Jews in the Jewish community meets traditional rabbinic standards for such actions, and notes "Should the current rate of intermarriage be reversed, a future Law Committee may well decide to review this issue. At this time, however, we face a crisis of such proportion that we dare not, in good conscience, stand between the marriage of two Jews whose union as forbidden by virtue of his being a Kohen and she a divorcee. Our steadfast refusal to solemnize their marriage, or even to agree to do this only after seeking to dissuade them, may well lead the couple to be married either in a civil ceremony or in a ceremony without full chuppah and kiddushin. ..."
- The CJLS effectively passed a takkanah ruling that women may be counted as witnesses in all areas of Jewish law. The CJLS does not view this as a change in Torah law, but rather as a lifting of a rabbinical prohibition that was rooted in social dynamics. See Myron S. Geller, "Woman is Eligible to Testify"; Susan Grossman, "Edut Nashim k'Edut Anashim: The Testimony of Women is as the Testimony of Men" and Joseph H. Prouser, "On Women Serving as Witnesses–A Dissent".
- The CJLS passed a takkanah which allowed Jewish women to count in the prayer minyan. In August 1973 a motion was passed which stated that "Men and women should be counted equally for a minyan.", with nine in favor and four opposed.
In other areas the CJLS did not issue takkanot, but found procedures to follow classical halakhah while maintaining what they view as the highest standards of moral behavior. For instance:
- The CJLS, in declaring that its rabbis would not accept evidence or entertaining questions as to the existence of mamzerim, declared that Biblical law represents only the beginning of a relationship with the divine and that in the Conservative movement, biblical law can be overridden on grounds of inconsistency with contemporary morality because "Aggadah controls Halacha"
- In December 2006 a majority vote of the CJLS (13 members for) accepted an innovative and controversial responsumwhich allows homosexual Jews to become rabbis and cantors, "Homosexuality, Human Dignity, and Halakhah" by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins, and Avram I. Reisner. The responsum abolished rabbinic laws restricting homosexual conduct other than male-male anal sex, concluding that the CJLS has authority to do this on grounds of the talmudic principle of Kavod HaBriyot (which it translated as "human dignity") on grounds that the existence of such sexual restraints represents an affront to human dignity as modern society perceives it. Four members of the CJLS resigned to protest this decision.
- On December, 2006, a majority vote of the CJLS (13 members for) also adopted a responsum by Rabbi Joel Roth maintaining the traditional prohibitions on homosexual conduct. The Roth responsum maintained that the Dorff responsum was untenable, claiming that virtually all classical authorities hold that the Biblical prohibition extends to a wider range of homosexual conduct. It also claimed that the concept of Kavod HaBriyot , which it translated as "respect" or "honor", permits setting aside rabbinic prohibitions in deference to others' honor, but does not permit setting aside prohibitions set up for God's honor in deference to ones own.
Criticisms of the CJLS
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There exist significant disagreements in the interpretation of Jewish law between all Jewish groups, even different groups within the same denomination (for instance, there are half a dozen large, different Orthodox Jewish rabbinical groups, none of which accepts the rulings of the other as necessarily correct or authoritative.
Conservative Rabbi Joel Roth (cited above as one of the two opinions on the issue of homosexuals serving as rabbis) left the CJLS after the ruling on homosexual rabbis. He does not agree with Rabbi Wolpe that the Conservative movement is not halakhic, and in fact publicly reaffirmed his commitment to staying in the Conservative movement and in the movement's Rabbinical Assembly. However, he felt that the members of the CJLS were no longer following the parameters of the halakhic system, and as such quit the CJLS.
Of the criticism of the Committee are its voting methods. Currently, as stated, a position must garner 6 votes to be held as legitimatized view. In times past, it was one. This has caused many to claim that Committee is very waved by popular opinion and creates inner fractions instead of attempting to making a conclusive ruling.
When dealing with rulings on Jewish law between entirely different denominations (Orthodox vs. Conservative, Conservative vs. Reform, etc.) it is thus to be expected that significant disagreements can be found.
As well, there is also a more extreme criticism that that Committee is a failure in being able to balance modernity and traditional practice. Citing for example the "takana" of driving on Shabbat for the exclusive purpose of going back and forth to synagogue, critics note today few Conservative actually just drive to synagogue (including the Rabbinical and Lay leadership) while some do not drive at all. Meaning that neither those who drive nor decide to refrain completely from driving have any revelancy to the original committee's decision, which in effect just allowed the doing whatever the indiviual member of the movement wanted to do based on everything but the Committee itself. The explanation by many critics that the committee would rather try to please everyone within its broad tent than make a decision that would be considered more correct but in anyway controversial (thus the wanting to approve all sides of all controversies.) Also explained as an overemphasis of modern political and philosophical thought over traditional Jewish thoght.
- ↑ Mackler, Aaron. Life and Death Responsibilities in Jewish Biomedical Ethics 2000, p.10
- Some current CJLS responsa
- Formulating Jewish Law for Our Time, The United Synagogue Review, Dr. Elliot N. Dorff
- How Conservative Judaism Makes decisions in Jewish Law
- All current CJLS responsa