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

Hebrew Union College Press  2013


Solomon Bennett Freehof (1892-1990) 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."

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