Monday, February 16, 2004

Lawrence's comment on my previous post made me think that I ought to discuss my opinion of Conservative halakha in a bit more depth. Since the CJLS (Committe on Jewish Laws and Standards) has not yet publicized all of its responsa, these comments are based solely on what I happen to know.

It seems to me that there is a basic methodological problem at the heart of the Conservative movement's decision-making process. JTS is full of theorists, and they are constantly producing lovely little treatises about combining tradition with modernity -- not unlike many of the speeches one hears at (Modern Orthodox) Edah conferences. However, I don't think the CJLS has come to any sort of a consensus on how this is to be accomplished.

Some of the unresolved questions: How much weight is to be given to traditional sources? If we consider Talmudic law binding, what about later legal codes, such as Maimonedes' Mishna Torah or the Shulchan Aruch? If we say that these later sources are "less binding" than the Talmud, when and how might they be overridden? Or do they simply have the status of suggestions? What about previous Conservative responsa? Are Orthodox responsa binding at all? What about responsa from before there were "movements" in Judaism? What about contemporary conceptions of justice and morality? When these values come into conflict with Rabbinic tradition, do we reject that tradition, or do we do our best to "reinterpret" (i.e. twist) it, ultimately allowing ourselves to be bound by its authority? Or is "reinterpretation" against the rules? If we allow ourselves to reject Rabbinic law when we see fit, what about Biblical law? What is Biblical law, anyway? Are we to interpret the bible according to the principles followed by the Rabbis, or are we to follow a more modern approach to the text? (If you think that no Conservative rabbi is so radical as to disregard aspects of Rabbinic law and revert to the Bible, think again.)

Lawrence cites the ruling permitting the consumption of meat with fish as one of the CJLS' more sensible decisions. I agree, but that was an easy one for them. There is a general consensus among Conservative authorities that rulings based on mistaken scientific premises are to be rejected (and some Orthodox authorities would agree). Moreover, the "prohibition" of eating meat with fish is, as Lawrence notes, post-medieval; hence, it carries minimal halakhic weight. In the same category is the CJLS' recent (more controversial) responsum permitting the use of electricity on Shabbat.

But how is the Conservative movement to deal with more difficult issues? What happens when our contemporary mores run directly against the grain of tradition, and there is no clear way out? Do we sigh and say, "the law's the law?" Do we "reinterpret" our sources until their original meaning is completely obscured? Or do we cite Psalms 119:126, assuming that God's will is identical to our own, and reject tradition entirely?

I don't presume to have the answers.

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