Reform Halakhic Texts

Reform Judaism is more halakhic than you think.


Reform Judaism is often thought of as a “non-halakhic” or “post-halakhic” expression of the Jewish religion. But this is a misconception. Reform Jews do claim the freedom to create new forms of religious observance and to depart from traditional standards of practice when these seem to conflict with the basic ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual commitments that characterize the modern consciousness. At the same time, however, Reform Judaism is and has always been deeply involved with halakhah.

Reform Jews have never abandoned the literature and tradition of Jewish law. On the contrary: throughout the history of the Reform movement, its members have studied those texts as a way of working out their own best understandings of how to live as Jews. In so doing, they have created a halakhic literature all their own, a literature in which they talk and argue about their forms of religious observance in much the same way that Jews have always talked and argued about those subjects. Reform halakhic texts, in other words, cite the Talmud and other halakhic sources, debate their meaning, and interpret them from a contemporary perspective. We can divide these texts into four major categories.

1. Reform Responsa

Responsa (she’elot uteshuvot, literally “questions and answers”) are by far the largest genre of Reform halakhic writing. As is the case with traditional responsa, each Reform teshuvah (responsum) is an answer to a specific question concerning a matter of religious practice and observance.

reform halakhik textsThe earliest Reform responsa were produced in early 19th-century Europe, written by Reform rabbis who sought to provide a halakhic justification for the liturgical and ceremonial changes the movement introduced into synagogue practice. Since that time, Reform scholars have written halakhic responsa that deal with the entire range of ritual, ethical, and social issues of concern to Reform Jews.

In 1906 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) established a Responsa Committee, which composes the movement’s “official” responsa. Like all Reform halakhic pronouncements, these responsa are advisory rather than obligatory in nature. No Reform Jew is required to practice his or her Judaism in a particular way solely because some rabbi or committee of rabbis says so. Whatever authority any responsum possesses lies in its ability to persuade its readers that this answer, as opposed to other plausible answers, is the best interpretation of Jewish tradition on this particular subject. 

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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.

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