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RA Sets Standard of Rabbinic Practices

March 17, 1972
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The 72nd annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, acted this week to end a long-standing impasse under which one or two members of the RA Committee on Law and Standards could prevent the committee from setting standards binding on all members on issues of Jewish religious law, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, RA executive vice-president, explained today.

In addition to abolishing the right of any one or two law committee members to bar the committee from declaring official and binding standards, Rabbi Kelman said, the resolution “a standard of rabbinic practices consistent with membership in the Rabbinical Assembly” also sets procedures for imposing sanctions on rabbis violating such standards, and establishes safeguards against what some of the 1000 rabbis at the convention, which ended yesterday, called “heresy hunting.”

Sanctions range from suspension for varying periods to fines and expulsions, Rabbi Kelman said. He added that the resolution had established, for the first time, “machinery for really gross violations” of standards by RA members. The procedures embodied in the resolution changed the rule requiring unanimity for law committee action to establish a given standard. The new procedure requires 80 percent approval. Unanimity had rarely happened in the past.

The resolution also requires that the 25 law committee members are to be appointed to five-year terms by the president of the RA with the “prior explicit advice and consent” of the RA executive council. No president may appoint more than 12 members. Rabbi Kelman said that the impasse created by the unanimity requirement came to a head with a mass resignation of members of the law committee in Dec. 1970.

DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS RARE

The issue then was whether the Conservative rabbinate should have not only a binding ban against Conservative rabbis officiating at a mixed marriage–which has always been in effect–but also in clarifying such issues as requirements for conversion and whether a rabbi could give a blessing at a mixed marriage performed under other than Conservative auspices.

A committee headed by Rabbi Robert Gordis of New York was named to study the problem and the law committee was persuaded to reconvene pending the decision at the RA convention this month. Five draft resolutions were submitted to the convention resolutions committee, which met for an entire year on the problem, and boiled the proposals down to three, which were placed on the ballot for convention action.

Under the new provisions, the law committee may declare–by an 80 percent agreement–a particular situation to involve a binding single standard, subject to approval at the next RA convention. Thereafter, a complaint of violation of that approved standard by a member rabbi may be referred to the RA committee on ethical policies. If that committee decides that the rabbi has violated the standard, it may impose any sanction–such as suspension, refusal of placement service, or fine–but not expulsion. An expulsion decision must be ratified at the next RA convention to be effective, Rabbi Kelman said.

He noted that disciplinary actions against RA members have been rare; no more than four or five rabbis have been expelled. There have also been some suspensions and, on occasion, members have quietly resigned from the RA to avoid censure and publicity.

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