For the past twenty years I have devoted much of my time to studying
and teaching halakhah and to writing responsa for Conservative/Masorti
Jews. What follows is not the official position of the Conservative
or Masorti Movement, but rather the observations of a participant/observer
in the making of Conservative halakhah. 1
Both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism are committed to the
observance of halakhah. They share the belief that to be a good Jew
one has to undertake to observe the entire system of halakhah. This is
in keeping with the biblical attitude of "na'aseh v'nishmah" ["we shall
do and we shall listen"] (Exodus 24:7) and with the rabbinic
injunction that "the chief thing is not to expound the law but to do it"
(Avot 1:17). Both groups would agree with the words of Prof. Louis
Ginzberg, one of the leading talmudists and halakhic authorities in
the Conservative movement for almost half a century: "Halakhah or
law is far more fundamental in Judaism than aggadah or beliefs, for
ideas are volatile but practices endure. If Jewish practice goes,
virtually nothing remains".
Nonetheless, there are many differences between the Orthodox
and Conservative approaches to halakhah. In order to understand the
differences, we must address two basic questions: "Why observe
halakhah?" and "How do rabbis interpret halakhah?".
The "Whys" of Conservative Halakhah
The standard Orthodox approach to "why observe halakhah" is
quite simple: We must observe the commandments because they are Divine in
origin; they were given to us in the Torah at Mount Sinai by God himself. A
statement by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, late Chief Rabbi of Great Britian, is
typical of this approach:
To me the belief in Torah min ha-shamayim (the divine revelation of the
Torah) . . . represents a definition of the essence of Judaism as inalienable as
the postulate of monotheism . . . Torah min ha-shamayim essentially
means that the Pentateuch as we have it today, is identical with the Torah
revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and that this expression of God's will is
authentic, final, and eternally binding upon the Jewish people...3
And what about all the laws that were added by the rabbis
throughout the ages? According to the fundamentalist approach,
they too were given at Mount Sinai as we read in the Palestinian
Talmud (Yerushalmi Peah 17a and Yerushalmi Megilah 74d): "Even
what a sharp pupil will expound before his teacher has already been
given to Moses at Sinai". In other words, every mitzvah we perform
as Jews was given innately at Mount Sinai. When a rabbi expounds a
new law or practice, he is simply revealing something that was
hidden in the Torah from the start.
However, this simple or simplistic approach is not satisfying to
most Conservative Jews. Many do not believe in a verbal revelation
at Mount Sinai. They are troubled by three main problems:
a) In regard to the act of revelation, they ask: What happened at
Sinai? How do we know that it was God speaking? Perhaps the whole account of the
revelation at Sinai is simply a product of someone's imagination. Even if God
did speak, how do we know that He was understood correctly?
b) In regard to the product of the act of revelation - that is, the
Torah - they ask: Is this the direct transcription of God's words? If so, how do
we explain some of the contradictions in its laws? For example, Passover is to
be celebrated for seven days according to Exodus 13:6, Leviticus 23:6, and
Deuter- onomy 16:3, but for only six days according to Deuteronomy 16:8. Exodus
20:21 permits the erection of a sanctuary anywhere, but Deuteronomy 12:4-5
restricts the sanctuary to one single shrine in all of Israel. And what about
the variations in its stories, such as the different orders of Creation depicted
in Chapters One and Two of Genesis? And how do we explain the similarity of some
of its laws (e.g. an eye for an eye) and stories (e.g. the flood stories) to
those of the nations surrounding the Israelites during biblical times?
And what about the variant versions of the Bible that we have?
Even if God revealed His will at Sinai, human beings have copied it
and interpreted it throughout the generations, so how can we be
assured that what we have in hand is anything like what God gave,
and how do we know that our interpretation of it is anything like
what He intended?
c) Finally, the Torah contains laws and stories which raise grave
ethical problems. Deuteronomy 23:3 says that a child
conceived by his mother from one man while she is still
married to another is a mamzer who may not marry a Jew
"unto the tenth generation". Is it ethical to punish the child
and grandchild for the sin of the parents? In Numbers 31, God
instructs Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites for the
sin of Ba'al Peor (Numbers 25). When the Israelites return after
having killed only the males, Moses is angry at them and
instructs them to kill all the remaining Midianites except for
young girls. Are these two problematic passages the will of
As a result of these problems, many Conservative rabbis and
thinkers do not subscribe to the fudamentalist view presented
above. They observe halakhah, rather, for a combination of reasons,
including many of those we shall innumerate below.
1. The first non-fundamentalist approach says that the halakhah is the
way that the Jewish people throughout the generations understood
God's revelation at Mount Sinai and interpreted it. A Jew who
observes mitzvot fulfills God's will as klal yisrael - the collective
people of Israel - have understood His will for 3,000 years. The most
famous advocate of this point of view was Prof. Solomon Schechter,
the founder of the Conservative movement. "It is not the mere
revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it
repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by
Tradition..." The center of authority is removed from the Bible and
placed in the hands of the collective conscience of "Catholic Israel"
or klal yisrael.
2. The second theocentric approach to observance also stresses the
partnership of God and man. The Torah and the mitzvot express the
eternal brit or covenant made between God and the Jewish people.
As Moses states at the beginning of Deuteronomy (5:3-4): "It was not
with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the
living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord
spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire". This statement would
not be surprising if it had been made to the people who had been
present at Mt. Sinai. But Moses is speaking here to their children,
forty years later, and yet he says "us", "every one of us", "you"! His
point was that the covenant was not a one-shot deal; it is renewed in
every generation as Moses clearly explains at the end of
Deuteronomy (29:13-14): "I make this convenant not with you
alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day
before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here
this day." And Rashi, the classic medieval commentator, adds: "And
with future generations as well." Every time we observe a
commandment or halakhah, we thereby renew our convenant with
3. The third God-centered approach states that mitzvot lead us to
holiness, they sanctify our lives, and bring us closer to God. This
was the approach taught by the Tanna Issi ben Yehuda in the
Mekhilta (Parasha 20, ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 320) 1800 years ago:
"With each new command, God adds holiness to the people of
Israel". This approach is also reflected in the standard formula of
blessings recited over mitzvot such as Shabbat and Chanukah
candles, lulav, tefilin and tallit: "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav
"Blessed are You O Lord our God King of the Universe who has
sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us...". And indeed, the
mitzvot do sanctify our lives - the mundane becomes special and the
profane becomes holy. Shabbat and festivals sanctify time. Blessings
and kashrut sanctify our meals. The wedding ceremony and the laws
of mikveh sanctify marriage. The laws of ona'ah (overcharging) and
eifat tzedek (accurate weights and measures) sanctify business. Thus,
through the observance of mitzvot, we strive to fulfill the verse found
in Exodus (19:6): "And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of Priests
and a holy nation" as well as the verse found in Leviticus (19:2):
"You shall be holy for I, the Lord Your God, am Holy."
The next three reasons are ethnocentric. They posit that the mitzvot serve to preserve, unite, and strengthen
the Jewish people.
1. According to the first approach, the halakhah is the "cement" which
binds together the scattered "bricks" of the Jewish people. Without
this cement, the Jewish people would have long ago disintegrated.
The mitzvot tie every Jew in the world to every other Jew in the
world. In the past few years, I have prayed in synagogues from Los
Angeles to Milwaukee to New York, from Haifa to Eilat, and from
London to Rome and I have always been struck by the fact that 95%
of the services are identical, no matter where you go. Similarly,
when I put on tefilin every morning, I know that a Jew in Morocco
does the same. When I light candles on Chanukah, I know that a Jew
in Argentina does the same. When I give tzedakah, I know that a Jew
in Australia does the same. Thus the commandments help us fulfill
the prayer we recite every Shabbat in the Minchah service: "Who is
like your people Israel, one united nation in the world!".
2. The second people-centered approach stresses the historical
continuity of the Jewish people. The mitzvot are the golden chain
which binds us and our children to our ancestors and the history of
our people. Without them we would lose our continuity and we
would feel like orphans in history. When I observe Shabbat, I know
that Moses did the same and when I wear tefilin, I know that Rabbi
Akiva did the same. When I give tzedakah, I know that Maimonides
did the same and when I study Torah I know that the Gaon of Vilna
did the same. Jews who observe halakhah are plugged in to the
history and traditions of their people.
3. The third ethnocentric approach is extremely pragmatic. The
greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish people today is
assimilation and intermarriage. For thousands of years the mitzvot have protected the Jewish people from these threats and ensured
Jewish continuity. The famous Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am said:
"more than the Jewish people has preserved the Sabbath, the
Sabbath has preserved the Jews". The same can be said of all the
mitzvot. Observant Jews do not put Christmas trees in their houses,
they do not experiment with cults and drugs, and their children, for
the most part, do not marry non-Jews. Therefore, the halakhah is an
excellent bulwark against assimilation.
The last two reasons I shall outline, are anthropocentric or man-
centered. They maintain that each individual performs the mitzvot
primarily for the personal benefits he or she derives from them.
1. The first such approach views the mitzvot as a means of self-
discipline, to improve our characters, and to make us better human
beings. This idea sounds very modern, but it is not. It was originally
emphasized by the Amora Rav who lived in Babylon in the third
century. He said: "The commandments were only given in order to
refine and discipline the person who performs them" (Genesis Rabbah
44:1, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 424-425). Abraham ibn Ezra of
twelfth-century Spain concurred. In his classic commentary to the
Torah he states (Deut. 5:18): "The main purpose of all the
commandments is to straighten the heart". Since heart in Hebrew
is frequently synonymous with mind, Ibn Ezra means that the main
purpose of all the commandments is to refine and discipline the
This idea was reiterated in our time by Rabbi Harold Kushner, a
Conservative Rabbi who lives in Massachusetts:
So many of the rules and rituals of the Jewish way of life are
spiritual calisthenics, designed to teach us to control the most
basic instincts of our lives - hunger, sex, anger, acquisitiveness
and so on. We are not directed to deny or stifle them, but to
control them, to rule them rather than let them rule us...The
freedom the Torah offers us is the freedom to say no to our
2. The second and last approach states very simply: Perform mitzvot
because they are fun! They uplift the spirit and bring joy to the heart.
This point of view has been popular from the Bible until today. The
Psalmist wrote (19:9) three thousand years ago: "The precepts of the
Lord are just, making the heart rejoice".
The rabbis of the Talmud developed this idea into the concept of
"simhah shel mitzvah", the joy of performing a mitzvah. Time after
time in rabbinic literature we are told that one should perform the
commandments with joy. We learn, for example, in the tractate of
Berakhot (31a): "One does not stand up to recite the Amidah, unless he
does so out of the joy of performing a mitzvah".
When it comes right down to it, many Jews perform many
mitzvot because they enjoy them. I observe Shabbat because I enjoy
observing Shabbat; it is the one day of the week when I can really
relax and spend time with my family. When we stay up learning all
night at a tikkun every Shavuot, we do so because it is fun! And why
do we dance like maniacs on Simchat Torah and dress up like
clowns on Purim? Because it is fun! And why do we build a Sukkah
and eat there for seven days? Because it is fun! Jewish law is not a
burden; it is a joy, "simhah shel mitzvah" - the joy of performing a
In summation, the "why" of Conservative halakhah is more
complex than the "why" of Orthodox halakhah. Orthodox Jews
observe Jewish law because they view all or much of it as the literal
will of God. Conservative Jews observe halakhah for a variety of
different reasons. Orthodox fundamentalism frequently leads to
rigid interpretations of Jewish law, while Conservative non-
fundamentalism frequently leads to more liberal interpretations, as
we shall see below.
The "Hows" of Conservative Halakhah
The Conservative movement does not have one uniform set of
principles guiding the rabbis who make halakhic decisions and,
indeed, there are diverse approaches among Conservative halakhic
authorities. However, close study of the responsa or halakhic
decisions written by Conservative rabbis during the past ninety
years reveals six general characteristics of Conservative halakhah,
five of which frequently distinguish Conservative responsa from
Orthodox responsa. In this section, we shall outline each general
characteristic and illustrate it using the responsa found in this
1. One of the mottos of the Conservative Movement is "tradition and
change". Changes are not made for the sake of change, but only in
order to deal with an urgent or acute problem. Frequently, after
examining all sides of a halakhic issue, Conservative rabbis simply
favor the tradition over any change. Thus, for example, my
responsum on avoiding charity cheaters (pp. 51-57) is based on
the opinion of Rav Yehudah (Bava Batra 9a) as codified in the
standard codes of Jewish law. He said that one investigates when
someone asks for clothing, but not when asked for food. I derived
from this that one waives investigation when faced with an urgent
situation of human suffering, but should investigate unknown or
new charities before giving them tzedakah. In other words, my
answer was based primarily on the traditional approach to this
question with some adjustment to modern situations.
2. Frequently, a rabbi has many different halakhic options from
which to choose and he or she can rule strictly or leniently or
somewhere in the middle. Conservative rabbis usually prefer a
lenient ruling to a strict one. This is based on the talmudic teaching "
'You shall keep My statutes and My laws which if a man shall do he
shall live by them' (Leviticus 18:5) - and not die because of them"
(Yoma 85b) and on the talmudic dictum "the strength of a lenient
ruling is greater" (Berakhot 60a).
Thus, for example, in my responsum on whether Israel should
return territory captured in 1967 for the sake of peace (pp. 31-36), I
compared the strict attitude favored by the followers of Rabbi Zvi
Yehudah Kuk z"l and Gush Emunim to the lenient attitude of Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Theodore Friedman z"l. After examining
both sides of the issue, I sided with the latter group and ruled that it
is permissible to return territories for the sake of peace.
3. One of the greatest differences between Conservative and
Orthodox rabbis is their attitude towards modern sciences and
methods of study such as history, archaeology, text criticism and
medicine. Many Orthodox responsa are totally unaware of or
actively opposed to these disciplines, and even if they do cite
medical studies, it is almost never with an exact reference to medical
literature. Conservative rabbis feel that not only is it permissible to
utilize modern methods and knowledge to write responsa; it is
essential to do so because you cannot arrive at a correct halakhic
decision until you know and understand the facts.
Thus, almost all Conservative responsa contain a historical-
chronological survey of the topic in order to determine if it derives
from the Torah, the talmud, the early rabbis or the later rabbis.
There is more readiness to change a relatively new halakhah or one
which was not adopted by the entire community or something
which is only a custom. They also utilize other modern sciences and
methodologies. My responsum on shucklen [swaying] during study
and prayer (pp. 25-28) quotes both Mohammed and the Moslem
poet Labid as quoted by Ignaz Goldziher in a German article
published in 1871. My responsum on the kashrut of veal raised on
factory farms (pp. 73-77) opens with a description of calf-husbandry
based on the books Calf Husbandry, Health and Welfare and The Calf.
My responsa on medical issues such as telling the truth to terminal
patients (pp. 57-64), genetic engineering (pp. 67-72) and smoking
(pp. 93-96) were only written after reading medical journals such as
Nature, Science, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, and Journal of
the American Medical Association.
4. The Shulhan Arukh written in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Yosef
Karo along with the Ashkenazic glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles is
one of the standard codes of Jewish law. However, it has attained
almost canonical status among Orthodox rabbis. Conservative
rabbis have great respect for the Shulhan Arukh, but do not view it
as the ultimate authority because it was written over 400 years ago
and much has changed since then in the halakhah, in society and in
our outlook on life. In addition, when the Shulhan Arukh was
published, many important halakhic authorities severely criticized
those who decided Jewish law according to the Shulhan Arukh
without checking the Talmud and the major authorites who
preceded Rabbi Yosef Karo.
Thus in a Hebrew responsum published elsewhere, I was asked
whether it is permissible to move a Torah scroll for a one-time
reading such as at a retreat or in the house of a mourner. Rabbi
Yosef Karo ruled in two different places in the Shulhan Arukh that
one may not bring a Torah scroll to Jewish prisoners even on the
High Holidays. Many Orthodox rabbis would simply stop there; I
did not. I discovered that Rabbi Yosef Karo's ruling is based on a
responsum by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg which is based in turn on a
passage in the Palestinian Talmud which says that one may only
move a Torah scroll for a one-time reading for an important person
such as a High Priest or an Exilarch. However, according to the
Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, it is generally permissible to
move a Torah scroll for a one-time reading. Normally, when there is
a dispute between the Palestinian and Babylonian talmuds, we
follow the latter. Furthermore, the strict approach was the exception
to the rule. Most authorities permitted bringing a Torah scroll to a
sick and/or important person or to the house of a mourner or to the
house of a groom or for the sake of a group of people.
5. The Conservative movement believes in halakhic pluralism. Not
all halakhic questions have one simple answer; sometimes, there are
two or more legitimate ways of ruling on a given halakhic issue. My
responsum on institutionalizing parents with Alzheimer's disease
(pp. 37-42) presents children facing this dilemma with three
legitimate halakhic options. My responsum on telling the truth to
terminal patients (pp. 57-63) maintains that most patients should be
told the truth because they want to know the truth, but makes
allowance for the minority of patients who do not wish to know the
truth. My responsum on shucklen (pp. 25-28) presents seven different
reasons for this custom without claiming that only one of them is the
6. Finally, Conservative rabbis place great emphasis on the moral
component of Judaism and the halakhah. The mitzvot between man
and man are no less important than those between man and God.
"Keep far from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7) is no less important than
"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (ibid. 20:8). Paying
taxes is no less important than sitting in the Sukkah. Honoring one's
parents is no less important than keeping kosher.
That is why six of the twelve responsa in this collection deal with
moral and ethical dilemmas. Our attitude towards parents with
Alzheimer's disease (pp. 37-42) is just as important as our attitude
towards Torah study (pp. 43-49). Our attitude towards charity
cheaters (pp. 51-57) is just as important as our attitude towards
making aliyah (pp. 79-82).
In conclusion, Conservative Judaism is sometimes depicted by its
opponents as a wishy-washy stream in Judaism somewhere
between Orthodoxy and Reform without a clear ideology. It is
obvious from the above that Conservative Judaism is halakhically
distinct from Orthodoxy and Reform. Unlike the Reform movement,
it views the halakhah as binding on all Jews. But, as we have seen, it
differs from Orthodoxy both in the whys and hows of its halakhah.
1. This chapter is based on my booklet Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law,
New York, 1991, pp. 9-16, 29-32.
2. Quoted in Seymour Siegel, ed., Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law,
New York, 1977, p. 51. Regarding Prof. Ginzberg's contributions to Conservative
halakhah, see David Golinkin, ed., The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg,
Jerusalem and New York, 1996.
3. The Condition of Jewish Belief, Northvale, New Jersey, 1995, pp.
4. Elliot Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants,
York, 1977, pp. 111-112.
5. Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism, First Series, London, 1896, pp.
6. Harold Kushner, To Life, Boston, Toronto, London, 1993, pp. 51-52.
7. David Golinkin in idem., ed., Responsa of the Va'ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical
Assembly of Israel, Volume 6 (5755-5758), pp. 81-90 (Hebrew).