Reform Judaism & Halakhah

Seeking guidance from the Jewish legal tradition, without a belief in its binding nature?especially in light of contemporary moral sensitivies.

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Reform Judaism (also called Progressive Judaism) in its earliest phase, in the 19th century, sought to justify its innovations with recourse to the language and literature of halakhah. Reform halakhic literature waned, though, after the early decades. Since the late 20th century, the leadership of Reform Jewry has showed renewed interest in adding its voice to the discourse of halakhah. This is reflected in the publication of guides to Jewish practice and volumes of teshuvot (rabbinic responsa to practical questions in every realm of life).

Here, a scholar and advocate of Reform halakhah offers a portrait of what makes Reform halakhah different in practice from that of other movements. Reprinted with permission from the author's book Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, published by the UAHC Press (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), 2001.

Halakhah in Reform Judaism

Halakhah is a heritage that belongs to us as it belongs to all Israel. Its continued vitality in Reform Judaism links us to the religious expressions of other Jews, uniting us with them as part of a community whose history spans many countries and many generations.

This does not mean, however, that rabbinic law and its literature function for us in exactly the same way as they function for other Jews. Just as we have our own particular experience as a modern Jewish religious movement, so do we have our own unique approach to halakhah which emerges from that experience.

Where Reform Responsa Differ

Let us look for a moment at Reform responsa, our own version of the "questions and answers" literature that rabbis have been composing for centuries. In some important respects, Reform responsa are quite similar to those of other rabbis. They are, as we noted, halakhic documents, learned answers to questions Jews ask, written in the mode of traditional Jewish legal reasoning.

Yet Reform responsa differ from other rabbinic responsa in significant ways. Some of the more obvious and important differences can be listed here.

Advisory, Not Authoritative

First and foremost, Reform responsa are not "authoritative": the answers they reach are in no way binding or obligatory upon those who ask the questions, upon other Reform Jews, or upon the movement as a whole. Our responsa do not claim this sort of authority because, however important it may be to the definition of our religious practice, we do not regard halakhah as a process which yields mandatory conclusions.

In Reform Judaism, religious decisions are arrived at by individuals or communities who take into account all the factors that seem relevant to them and then choose accordingly. Decisions are not imposed upon individuals or communities "from the outside," whether by rabbis or lay leaders. Thus, our responsa writers have always described their work as "advisory," emphasizing the right of its readers to reject or to modify the answers as they see fit.

Responsum as Argument

To say that our responsa are not "authoritative" does not mean, of course, that we are neutral or impartial as to the decisions our people ultimately reach. Far from it: the very purpose of a responsum is to recommend a particular decision to the consideration of the person or persons who ask the question. As noted above, a responsum is essentially an argument, a reasoned attempt to justify one particular course of action, out of two or more plausible alternatives, as the best possible reading of the Jewish legal tradition on the issue at hand.

A responsum takes sides, presenting an interpretation and advocating its acceptance. Like any true argument, it seeks to win its point through persuasion, and it can persuade its intended audience only by appealing to those texts, ideas, and principles which that audience, a particular Jewish community, accepts as standards of religious truth and value.

A Reform responsum is just this sort of argument, directed at a particular audience: Reform Jews committed to listening for the voice of Jewish tradition and to applying its message to the religious issues before them. It is an invitation to the members of that audience, its partners in religious conversation, to accept the understanding of Torah and Jewish responsibility that its author or authors set forth. It is an attempt at persuasion, not an act of power or authority. This, we believe, is what the responsa literature at its best has always been.

Halakhah as Ongoing Conversation

A second feature that distinguishes our responsa from most others is our definition of the "right" answer to a question. Our responsa, like others, search for that answer in the halakhic literature; for all the reasons we have stated, we are deeply interested in what the halakhah has to say.

We do not, however, identify halakhah as a set of crystallized rules or as the consensus opinion held among today's Orthodox rabbis. We see halakhah as a discourse, an ongoing conversation through which we arrive at an understanding, however tentative, of what God and Torah require of us. As far as we are concerned, this conversation cannot be brought to a premature end by some formal declaration that "this is the law; all conflicting answers are wrong."

We hold, rather, that a minority opinion in the halakhic literature, a view abandoned long ago by most rabbis, or a new reading of the old texts may offer a more persuasive interpretation of Jewish tradition to us today than does the “accepted" halakhic ruling. We therefore assert our right of independence in halakhic judgment, to reach decisions in the name of Jewish law which, though they depart from the "Orthodox" position, make the best Jewish religious sense to us.

In so doing, we follow the opinion, held by the some of the greatest teachers of Jewish law, that the "correct" halakhic ruling is not determined by the weight of precedent or by "what all the other rabbis say," but by the individual scholar's careful and honest evaluation of the sources.

Law in the Context of Ethics

A third difference lies in our history as a liberal Jewish religious community. Our experience has led us to see that Torah, if it is to serve us as a sure source of religious truth, cannot exist in the absence of certain essential moral and ethical commitments. These commitments are discussed and elaborated in the great theological statements issued by our movement and in the writings of our prominent religious thinkers.

They operate in a concrete way in our responsa literature as underlying assumptions which govern our work and direct our conclusions. Among these, we can cite the following examples:

Equality

1. Reform Judaism is committed to gender equality. Our history teaches us that the ancient distinctions between the ritual roles of men and women are no longer justifiable on religious, moral, or social grounds. We reject any and all such distinctions in our responsa process.

2. Reform Judaism affirms the moral equality of all humankind. The Bible and the rabbinic literature sometimes seem to restrict the field of their moral concern to the people of Israel, suggesting that the "neighbor," "fellow," or "brother" to whom one bears true ethical responsibility is a Jew and not a Gentile. At least, that is what some Jews understand our sources to be saying.

We, on the other hand, do not share in this narrow-minded view of Torah. We are moved rather by those passages in our traditional texts which call upon us to regard all human beings as children of God, entitled to justice, righteousness, and compassion from us.

Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews are appropriate in the area of ritual behavior, for it is by means of these rituals that we express our exclusively Jewish identity. We reject them as most inappropriate, however, in the arena of moral conduct. Thus, Reform responsa hold that the standards of ethical behavior whichour tradition demands of us apply to our dealings with Gentiles as well as Jews.

Innovation

3. We are open to the possibility and the desirability of religious innovation and creativity. We do not believe that existing forms of ritual observance are necessarily the only "correct" forms of observance from a Jewish perspective. We believe that the tradition permits us to adopt new ritual and ceremonial expressions which serve our religious consciousness better than those we have inherited from the past.

Permission to innovate, to be sure, is not an invitation to anarchy. Our responsa literature will call upon us to innovate in accordance with the basic guidelines by which the tradition defines and structures our worship and other rituals, Our responsa will also remind us that traditional observances, precisely because they are well-established, define us as a religious community, speak to us from the depths of our people's historical experience, and therefore make a powerful claim upon our allegiance.

Yet while we should innovate carefully and respectfully, and while we should not abandon the standards of traditional practice without good reason, our responsa will not say "no" to new ideas merely because they are new or because they depart from familiar forms of practice.

4. Finally, while our responsa seek to uphold traditional halakhic approaches whenever fitting, we reserve to ourselves the right to decide when they do not fit. When even the most liberal interpretations of the texts and sources yield answers that conflict with our moral and religious commitments as liberal Jews, we will modify or reject those interpretations in favor of others that better reflect our religious mind and heart.

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.