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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:
A complete prohibition on rabbis and cantors to officiate in any way at intermarriages.
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.
A complete prohibition against taking any action that would intimate that native Jewishness can be confirmed in any way but matrilineal descent.
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.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>