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Guidance, Not Governance

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

Joan S. Friedman
Volume: 37
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 352
Stable URL:
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  • Book Info
    Guidance, Not Governance
    Book Description:

    Solomon Bennett Freehof (1892-1990) was one of America’s most distinguished, influential, and beloved rabbis. Ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1915, he was of the generation of rabbis from east European immigrant backgrounds who moved Reform Judaism away from its classical form toward a renewed appreciation of traditional practices. Freehof himself was less interested in restoring discarded rituals than in demonstrating how the Reform approach to Jewish religious practice was rooted in the Jewish legal tradition (halakhah). Opposed to any attempt to create a code of Reform practice, he nevertheless called for Reform Judaism to turn to the halakhah, not in order to adhere to codified law, but to be guided in ritual and in all areas of life by its values and its ethical insights. For Reform Jews, Jewish law was to offer “guidance, not governance," and this guidance was to be provided through the writing of responsa, individual rulings based on legal precedent, written by an organized rabbinic authority in response to questions about real-life situations. After World War II, the earlier consensus about what constituted proper observance in a Reform context vanished as the children of east European immigrants flocked to new Reform synagogues in new suburbs, bringing with them a more traditional sensibility. Even before Freehof was named chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee in 1956, his colleagues began turning to him for guidance, especially in the situations Freehof recognized as inevitably arising from living in an open society where the boundaries between what was Jewish and what was not were ambiguous or blurred. Over nearly five decades, he answered several thousand inquiries regarding Jewish practice, the plurality of which concerned the tensions Jews experienced in navigating this open society—questions concerning mixed marriage, Jewish status, non-Jewish participation in the synagogue, conversion, and so on—and published several hundred of these in eight volumes of Reform responsa. In her pioneering study, Friedman analyzes Freehof’s responsa on a select number of crucial issues that illustrate the evolution of American Reform Judaism. She also discusses the deeper issues with which the movement struggled, and continues to struggle, in its attempt to meet the ever-changing challenges of the present while preserving both individual autonomy and faithfulness to the Jewish tradition.

    eISBN: 978-0-87820-122-8
    Subjects: Religion
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. ix-x)
  3. FOREWORD (pp. xi-xiv)
    Rabbi David Ellenson

    It is a great pleasure for me to write this Foreword to“Guidance, Not Governance”: Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsaby my colleague and friend Joan Friedman. I have known Rabbi Friedman for more than thirty years. We both attended HUC-JIR in New York during the 1970s and we worked together as teachers at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Kutz during that time. I was also honored to serve as one of the readers of her Columbia University doctoral dissertation on Rabbi Freehof, and I am especially pleased that she has so skillfully built upon that work...

  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS (pp. xix-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION (pp. xxi-xxviii)

    By virtue of his great learning, his wide-ranging activity on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the personal respect and affection his colleagues had for him, and his sheer longevity, Solomon Bennett Freehof was one of the central figures of American Reform Judaism in the twentieth century. This book is the first critical study of his crowning achievement, his responsa.

    Son of asoferandmohelfrom Ukraine who claimed descent from the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Freehof was born in London in 1892 and moved with his family to...

  7. 1 Responsa in Reform Judaism (pp. 1-23)

    Responsa and the CCAR Responsa Committee possess a relatively high profile within contemporary Reform Judaism. In an era when virtually every organization has a website as its public face, the CCAR website includes links to Reform responsa right along with links to the resolutions and platforms it has adopted over the years of its existence.¹ Within the last two decades, members of the CCAR turned to the Responsa Committee for answers on controversial topics such as the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue and rabbinic officiation at same-sex ceremonies even while the movement as a whole was weighing those...

  8. 2 How Freehof Became the Reform Posek (pp. 24-46)

    Solomon B. Freehof has been called the first genuine Reformposek, i.e., “a rabbi who emerges as a responsa authority on the basis of his own personal qualifications.”¹

    His emergence as such was the result of the intersection of three factors: the evolution of Reform Judaism’s attitude toward ritual observance and the ongoing debate over a code of Reform practice; Freehof’s own considerable personal prominence in the CCAR; and the expertise he acquired as a writer of responsa for the military chaplaincy during and after World War II. Very simply, he was the right person at the right time.


  9. 3 Freehof on Reform Observance, Halakhah, and Responsa (pp. 47-68)

    Solomon Freehof loved the halakhah with a deep and abiding passion. To study it was his deepest joy. His life’s crowning achievement was his responsa, in which he integrated his love for the halakhah with Reform Judaism. His conviction that Reform Judaism needed guidance from the halakhah, which he absorbed from Jacob Lauterbach, was an unchanging and essential element of his concept of Reform, and underlay his entire responsa enterprise. Yet despite his love for the rabbinic legal tradition, he had no desire whatsoever to move Reform Jewish life closer to a traditional pattern of observance or to create standards...

  10. 4 Marriage and Divorce (pp. 69-89)

    When he rejected the notion of a Reform code in 1941, Freehof named marriage, divorce, and conversion as the exceptions. Since “[t]he state has definite marriage laws … we too must have clear-cut laws which govern us…. We must decide them definitely and publish them that all may know our decisions.”¹ In the chapter on Marriage and Divorce inRJPhe began this process. The individual entries he included in this chapter were (in order): Forbidden Degrees of Marriage; Mixed Marriage and Intermarriage; Conversion; Forbidden Dates for Marriage; Double Weddings; Marriage of Mourners; Visit to Rabbi and Synagogue; Home or...

  11. 5 Conversion and Jewish Status (pp. 90-117)

    In 1941 Freehof had stated that the CCAR needed “a clear-cut code which shall have the effect of law for us … in the field of marriage, divorce and conversion … [because t]he state has definite marriage laws and we too must have clear-cut laws which govern us.”¹ The state, of course, did not care who was a Jew, though the rabbis most certainly did. Opposed to any sort of Reform code for any other reason, however, Freehof used a little sleight of hand and included conversion here. It was logical, since the question arose most frequently by far in...

  12. 6 Shabbat and Kashrut (pp. 118-144)

    Aḥad Ha’am famously observed, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Nothing so profoundly separated Jews from the peoples among whom they lived as a distinctive calendar—and a distinctive diet. But emancipation brought Jews into social contexts where Saturday was a weekday. Living and working as full and equal members of society while remaining completely Sabbath observant required a level of commitment that increasingly secularized laypeople generally lacked. Meanwhile, Reform rabbis increasingly questioned the theological premises upon which rested the mass of rabbinic law concerning Sabbath observance. Already in 1846 the Breslau rabbinical conference...

  13. 7 Looking Outward: The Boundaries of Judaism (pp. 145-162)

    One of the primary motivating factors in the creation of Reform Judaism was the desire for a Judaism that demanded less segregation from the larger society and that appeared less alien in the context of the majority Euro-American Christian culture. As Israel Jacobson said at the dedication of his Tempel in Seesen, at the very dawn of reform, “Let us be honest, my brothers. Our ritual is still weighted down with religious customs which must be rightfully offensive to reason as well as to our Christian neighbors. It desecrates the holiness of our religion and dishonors the reasonable man to...

  14. 8 Looking Inward: The Boundaries of Reform Judaism (pp. 163-201)

    Freehof was largely correct in 1944 when he stated in the Introduction toRJPthat Reform practice had crystallized to the point where it could be described. However, the postwar era tested the limits of Reform practice and challenged the very definition of the Reform synagogue. The progressive acculturation of the east European Jews and their influx into Reform congregations lowered the cultural and socioeconomic barriers between Reform Jews and the rest of the American Jewish community. This and the growth of Conservatism and Orthodoxy renewed questions about the relationship between Reform and more traditional forms of Judaism. Freehof’s responsa...

  15. 9 The Significance of Freehof’s Responsa (pp. 202-226)

    In 1955 Freehof received a comment onReform Jewish Practice and its Rabbinic Backgroundfrom colleague Steven S. Schwarzschild: “I sometimes have the feeling that you track down the halachah on a certain point most assiduously and revealingly—and then the ‘reform’ [sic] recommendation does not seem quite to follow from thehalachah(which is, of course, not too surprising). The question must then inevitably arise: why bother with thehalachahin the first place? Do you think my impression is mistaken?”¹

    Indeed, he was not the last to wonder why Freehof “bothered” with the halakhah when he had so...

  16. 10 Reform Responsa Since Freehof (pp. 227-256)

    At first in the postwar years it was Freehof’s unique personal stature that gave the responsa process its prominence in Reform Judaism. The ongoing challenges of boundary issues, however, coupled with the return to more traditional observance and the growing desire of a significant number of Reform Jews for ritual guidance, served to reinforce that prominence. By the time he stepped down as chairman in 1976, just as the movement was entering a quarter-century of turmoil over boundary issues, the committee was poised to play a significant but controversial role. For some rabbis, its decisions would acquire quasi-official status, while...

  18. NOTES (pp. 262-304)
  19. INDEX (pp. 305-321)
  20. Back Matter (pp. 322-324)