Several days ago, you received an email from our colleague, Chuck Simon, executive director of FJMC, informing us of his plans to offer an option to follow the Torah reading on Shabbat at a forthcoming FJMC convention from an e-reader. Elliot Dorff, CJLS chair, wrote a response to Chuck, summarizing his concerns about the matter (Danny Nevins' reasoning is found in his paper on the subject). In addition, JTS, Ziegler, USCJ and the RA jointly affirmed our commitment to the halakhic process of the CJLS and shared our concerns about the larger consequences of such an action, notwithstanding Chuck's good intentions in wanting to do so. We are appreciative that Chuck graciously engaged with us in all of these discussions and ultimately decided not to use e-readers at the Men's Club convention.
For over a year, an internal working group of the CJLS led by Pamela Barmash has been creating and implementing recommendations to help the outstanding rabbis who serve the CJLS to select and frame questions of greatest importance to our constituents, execute responsa more quickly and provide ancillary materials that will bring greater education and inspiration to our Movement. We have asked Chuck to present to that group in a special meeting, and will also invite other organizational representatives to present ideas that will help the CJLS not only guide us in matters of Conservative practice, but deepen the understanding of our underlying philosophy. As the head of one of our volunteer arms, we believe that Chuck has important insight to provide.
We feel that this process has been very constructive for all of us, as representatives of our Movement institutions, in that we were able to tackle a difficult problem together, reaffirm our fundamental values as Conservative Jews, reach a joint solution that supports our ideals, and utilize this opportunity to advance the sacred goals of our communities. We share Elliot's letter with you to keep you informed. We thank Chuck, as always, for his friendship and leadership.
Rabbi Charles Simon, CEO of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), contacted me some months ago to discuss his decision to encourage attendees at the upcoming FJMC convention to us iPads to follow the Torah reading on Shabbat. He also asked me to help him in drafting a letter to FJMC members to discuss this.
At the time both of us knew that a substantial majority of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which I chair, had voted for a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Daniel Nevins that permitted the use of electricity on Shabbat for some things but not for iPads. Still, as is the case with all rabbinic rulings approved by the CJLS (with the exception of Standards of the Movement, which Rabbi Nevins’ ruling was not), individual rabbis may choose to following an approved ruling of the CJLS or not in interpreting and applying Jewish law for their congregations. In either case, rabbis act as the mara d’atra, the teacher of their local community, a position they gain by virtue of their education and ordination as a rabbi and their appointment to the post they occupy. Thus I had assumed that Rabbi Simon, as CEO of the FJMC, is also its guide on matters of Jewish law, and therefore he had the right to rule as he did for the FJMC, despite the CJLS approval of Rabbi Nevins’ ruling to the contrary.
In editing the draft of his letter explaining his position, my only concern was that he specify that the practice at the convention was not a precedent for any synagogue, both because the rabbi of the synagogue may agree with Rabbi Nevins and the CJLS on this issue rather than Rabbi Simon, and also because at the convention everyone would be housed in the same building, but using an iPad in a synagogue would involve carrying it to the synagogue, and carrying on the Sabbath from private quarters to public quarters is forbidden by Jewish law except if there is an eruv to mark a large area as one domain.
I want to thank Rabbi Simon for consulting with me about this before he sent out the letter that he did. I also want to indicate that some Conservative rabbis agree with Rabbi Simon rather than Rabbi Nevins; Rabbi Simon cites Rabbi Elie Spitz, who wrote a thorough dissenting opinion to that of Rabbi Nevins on this issue, and there are certainly others. We all should recognize that Jewishly committed people can reasonably disagree about this issue.
In further thinking about this matter, however, I have come to see that the international organizations of the Movement are not like synagogues. They represent the Movement as a whole in a way that no synagogue does. This stance is embedded in the official agreements among the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, all three of which nominate members of the CJLS and, in so doing, have committed themselves to abide by the rulings validated by the CJLS. Where there are two or more stances on a given topic that the CJLS has validated with supporting legal rulings (responsa, teshuvot) for each side and with sufficient votes for each, any of these organizations may choose to follow whichever one they think best fits their circumstances and their interpretation of Jewish law; but they have bound themselves to abide by the rulings validated by the CJLS. Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and FJMC have not entered into similar formal agreements, but as international arms of the Movement, it seems to me that they too should follow the rulings of the CJLS so that we can have some clear guidelines that identify us as a Movement. Had Rabbi Spitz presented his opinion as a dissenting opinion open to a vote of the CJLS, and had he attained the minimum number of votes necessary to validate his stance, that would be a different story, but he instead chose simply to file it as a dissenting opinion, which is his option as a CJLS member but which also means that his ruling is not an official stance of the CJLS.
In taking this stand, I am keenly aware of the conflict of interest involved. I am, after all, Chair of the CJLS, and I am saying that the CJLS should determine matters of Jewish law in our Movement. I want to say as strongly and plainly as I can, therefore, that I am not taking this stand either to destroy the healthy pluralism that has marked our Movement from the beginning or to arrogate more power to either the CJLS or me, but rather to help us as a Movement define what we mean when we say that we are committed to living according to Jewish law as a sacred trust and as the living legal system that we understand it to be.
Thus, although I continue to appreciate the thinking that Rabbi Simon and others have put into this issue, and although the specific issue of using iPads on Shabbat may be revisited by the CJLS, that has not yet happened. As a result, for organizational and procedural reasons – and, indeed, for the sake of our identity as a Movement – I believe that all the international organizations of the Movement should commit themselves to abide by the rulings of the CJLS. How individual rabbis interpret and apply Jewish law for their local institutions remains a matter of their jurisdiction.
I want publicly to apologize to Rabbi Simon for not thinking of these ramifications earlier during our discussions, and I want to thank him for consulting me as chair of the CJLS in the first place, thus trying to make sure that he was working within the parameters of the Movement. In the end, though, I would urge him and FJMC, along with Women’s League and the other arms of the movement, officially to adopt the policy that has governed the RA, JTS, and the USCJ for over a quarter century. This will clarify yet further our identity as a Movement as one open to halakhic pluralism – and hence the procedural rules allowing the CJLS to approve contrary stances on some halakhic issues and our rule that individual rabbis may rule otherwise based on their authority as mara d’atra -- but one also committed to living according to Jewish law as interpreted by the CJLS.