Guid­ance, Not Gov­er­nance: Rab­bi Solomon B. Free­hof and Reform Responsa

Joan S. Friedman
  • From the Publisher
December 23, 2013

Solomon Ben­nett Free­hof (18921990) was one of Amer­i­ca’s most dis­tin­guished Reform rab­bis. Ordained at Hebrew Union Col­lege in 1915, he was of the gen­er­a­tion of Reform rab­bis from east Euro­pean immi­grant back­grounds who moved Reform Judaism away from its clas­si­cal” form toward a reap­pro­pri­a­tion of some tra­di­tion­al prac­tices. Free­hof him­self, how­ev­er, was less inter­est­ed in restor­ing dis­card­ed rit­u­als and more con­cerned with artic­u­lat­ing the way in which the Reform approach to rit­u­al obser­vance was root­ed in the clas­sic halakhic tra­di­tion. Like his teacher and men­tor, Jacob Z. Lauter­bach, Free­hof held that Reform Jews need­ed to study the halakhah not to know and adhere to cod­i­fied law, but to be guid­ed in deci­sion mak­ing by its val­ues and its eth­i­cal insights. In the 1940s, as some in the Reform rab­binate called for a code of prac­tice and oth­ers resist­ed any­thing resem­bling the impo­si­tion of stan­dards, Free­hof attempt­ed to chart a cen­trist course for Reform Judaism by propos­ing a tax­on­o­my of Reform Jew­ish prac­tice where­by only per­son­al sta­tus and litur­gi­cal mat­ters were to be decid­ed author­i­ta­tive­ly by the rab­bis, while in all oth­er areas of prac­tice pop­u­lar cre­ativ­i­ty — which he equat­ed with min­hag — was deter­mi­na­tive, sub­ject to loose rab­binic over­sight guid­ed by the eth­i­cal spir­it” of the halakhah. He fol­lowed through on this pro­pos­al by writ­ing Reform Jew­ish Prac­tice and Its Rab­binic Back­ground, a two-vol­ume work that became a de fac­to guide for Reform Jews.

While Free­hof resist­ed any attempt at cre­at­ing a code of Reform prac­tice, he advo­cat­ed turn­ing to the halakhic tra­di­tion for guid­ance on an ongo­ing basis through the writ­ing of respon­sa. In the 1940s he emerged as the Reform move­men­t’s pre­mier schol­ar of respon­sa because of his wartime chair­man­ship of the com­mit­tee that wrote respon­sa for Jew­ish mil­i­tary chap­lains. In the post­war era, as the chil­dren of east Euro­pean immi­grants flocked to new Reform syn­a­gogues in the new sub­urbs, bring­ing a more tra­di­tion­al sen­si­bil­i­ty with them, many Reform Jews were uncer­tain about what con­sti­tut­ed prop­er obser­vance in a Reform con­text. They began turn­ing to Free­hof for answers even before he was named chair­man of the CCAR Respon­sa Com­mit­tee in 1956. Over near­ly five decades Free­hof answered sev­er­al thou­sand inquiries regard­ing Jew­ish prac­tice, pub­lish­ing sev­er­al hun­dred of these in eight vol­umes of Reform responsa.”

Discussion Questions