CLR Forum reader John McGinnis points out an interesting article in the New York Times this weekend, about Duke Law Professor Barak Richman’s quest to have the courts declare Conservative Judaism’s rules for naming rabbis a violation of the Sherman Act. It’s not entirely clear from the Times article, but, as I understand it, synagogues that affiliate with Conservative Judaism must select rabbis from lists approved by the Rabbinical Assembly, a membership association of Conservative rabbis. Richman believes this mechanism makes the Rabbinical Assembly an illegal “cartel” that “harms both the economic welfare and the religious interests of individual congregations.” He argues that the ministerial exception properly applies only to hierarchical religions and employers, not “congregational denominations,” like Conservative Judaism, in which individual congregations, not the central body, employ clergy. You can read his argument in an amicus brief he filed, along with several other antitrust scholars, in the Hosanna-Tabor case.
I don’t know whether this mechanism would violate the Sherman Act in a commercial setting. I’m confident the logic of the ministerial exception applies here, though. From what I can gather, Conservative Judaism is a hybrid polity, not hierarchical but not strictly congregational, either. Authority seems to be shared between the central body, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and local congregations. It hardly seems inappropriate to require local congregations that affiliate with the central body to choose clergy the central body approves; otherwise, the central body could lose control over the movement’s meaning and message. Although Professor Richman is correct that the rules impinge on individual congregations’ power to choose whomever they wish as clergy, that’s just a consequence of affiliating with the central body. If congregations want total freedom of choice, they can organize outside the Conservative movement and select whomever they wish.