Frequently Asked Questions About the CJLS and JTS

What is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards?

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is the central authority on halakhah (Jewish law and tradition) within Conservative Judaism. It was founded by, and is a program of, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis.

What does the CJLS do?

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards sets halakhic parameters for Rabbinical Assembly rabbis and for the Conservative Movement as a whole. The committee discusses all questions of Jewish law that are posed by members of the Rabbinical Assembly or arms of the Conservative Movement. When a question is placed on the agenda, individual members of the committee write teshuvot (responsa), which are discussed by the relevant subcommittees and are then heard by the committee, usually at two separate meetings. Papers are approved when a vote is taken with six or more members voting in favor of the paper. Approved teshuvot represent official halakhic positions of the Conservative Movement. Rabbis have the authority, however, as marei d'atra (local rabbinic decision makers) to consider the committee's positions and make their own decisions as conditions warrant. Members of the committee can also submit concurring or dissenting opinions that are attached to a decision but do not carry official status.

How are halakhic decisions made by the CJLS?

The committee discusses all questions of Jewish law that are posed by members of the Rabbinical Assembly or arms of the Conservative Movement. When a she’elah (question) comes before the CJLS, it may be answered by the chairperson, citing past decisions of the committee. Or the chairperson may refer the question to a subcommittee that is specifically charged with responsibility for that subject. The chairperson may also ask an individual to research the question. In either case, a teshuvah is written by a member of the CJLS. The committee then debates that paper, usually at two meetings, and offers constructive criticism and give-and-take with the authors. As a result, the final papers often reflect the collective wisdom of the committee.

Papers are approved when a vote is taken with six or more members voting in favor. Six votes represent a valid position within the Conservative rabbinate. There are times when papers are approved with significant opposition—and sometimes even with contrary positions—that are also approved by at least six votes, making them official opinions as well. Much of the time there is a consensus. Every effort is made when there are differing opinions to have a statement drawn up that clarifies both the points of agreement and difference.

What is the composition of the CJLS?

Its membership consists of twenty-five rabbis who are voting members, as well as five nonvoting lay representatives of the United Synagogue, the organization that represents and supports the synagogues of the Conservative Movement, and one nonvoting cantor representing the Cantors Assembly.

How are CJLS members selected?

Out of the twenty-five voting members, fifteen are appointed by the Rabbinical Assembly, five are nominated by the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and five by the president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). The chairperson is appointed annually by the President of the Rabbinical Assembly. A member of the CJLS is usually appointed to serve for five years.

What is takanah?

A takanah is an act of legislation. Takanot, which occur very rarely, overturn previously established traditions. The CJLS has issued takanot on such matters as driving to synagogue on Shabbat, the category of mamzerut (bastardy), and biblical restrictions on Kohen marriage.

Chancellor Eisen is not a rabbi. Is he still considered the mara d’atra (halakhic authority) of JTS, or is there a rabbi or group of rabbis serving as JTS’s halakhic decision makers?

Chancellor-elect Eisen has appointed Rabbi Joel Roth as mara d'atra for JTS over matters of kashrut and Rabbi Bill Lebeau as mara d'atra over synagogue matters. For all other questions, he consults and relies on the advice, recommendations, and judgments of both rabbis.

What role did the JTS Board of Trustees have in the decision-making process regarding the ordination of gay rabbis?

The Board of Trustees was briefed by Chancellor-elect Eisen on the latest developments of this unfolding discussion; the board acted as one of the chancellor-elect's advisory bodies only in terms of how any decisions the CJLS makes might impact JTS.

Now that JTS has decided to ordain gay rabbis, will it now encourage its graduates to perform commitment ceremonies?

JTS would neither encourage nor discourage its graduates on this question. In matters pertaining to their work in the field, JTS graduates are encouraged only about adherence to halakhah.