Conservative Halakhic Texts

The Conservative Movement's legal texts represent a contemporary attempt to make halakhah relevant and meaningful in a changing world.

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Most of the teshuvot published since 1980 are available on the Rabbinical Assembly website, and all of the teshuvot approved between 1980 and 2000 also appear in books printed by the Rabbinical Assembly.

A look at a representative teshuvah gives us a sense of some of the issues and methods used to create these contemporary legal positions.

Kohanim and Others

Every Jew is either a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. Kohanim and Levi'im are descendants of the biblical Aaron (Moses' brother), whom God placed in charge of all sacrificial practices. While the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, the Kohanim would preside over all sacrifices, and the Levi'im would perform various associated tasks. Even after the destruction of the Temple, the Kohanimand Levi'immaintained their higher status within the Jewish community.

Traditionally, Kohanim and Levi'im receive the first two aliyot to the Torah. On certain occasions, the Kohanim offer a special blessing to the congregation. This practice, known as n'siyat kapayim (lifting the hands) in Hebrew or duchening (from the word "bench") in Yiddish, takes place on major holidays in the Diaspora, on every Shabbat in the land of Israel, and every morning in Jerusalem. Because of their elevated status, kohanimhave also traditionally been prohibited from marrying converts and divorcees. 

The laws relating to the Kohen and Levi present a number of problems for contemporary Jews. First, the very idea of maintaining even the vestiges of an official class system conflicts with our modern sense of equality. Second, the special status accorded to the Kohen and Levi has historically applied almost exclusively to men, though the daughters and wives of the Kohanim did receive some special privileges during Temple times. Finally, it seems cruel to prohibit a Kohen from marry a divorced woman or a Jew-by-choice with whom he has fallen in love.

A series of Conservative teshuvot written between the early 1950s and the late 1990s address these issues relating to the role and status of the Kohen. Some of the teshuvot in this group allow the daughters of Kohanim to participate in the rituals previously reserved only for men, give permission to abolish the practice of calling a Kohen and Levi for the first and second aliyot, and authorize rabbis to perform marriages for a Kohen and a Jew-by-choice or divorcee. The authors of these teshuvot base their decisions on reinterpretations of biblical and rabbinic law, social and historical factors, and distinctions between custom and law. For example:

Some of these teshuvot point out that we can no longer be sure who is a legitimate Kohen, and therefore should not enforce marriage restrictions on someone of unclear status.

Some teshuvot note that the daughters of Kohanim were permitted certain privileges in Temple times, and therefore should also be able to enjoy the privileges of the Kohanimtoday.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.