Author Archives: Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky

About 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.

Reform Halakhic Texts

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. 

Smoking, Alcohol, and Drugs

Although there are differences in the degree to which different authorities are vociferous in denouncing or outlawing the use of tobacco, alcohol, and mind-altering drugs, the author accurately represents the consensus of opinion among scholars of Jewish law. This is evident from the source notes that appear in the book from which this passage is excerpted. 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.


At one time, smoking was generally considered a harmless, even worthwhile pleasure. Many thought that tobacco was a healthful substance, an aid to blood circulation, to digestion, and the like. A number of rabbis shared this opinion, writing in praise of tobacco’s benefits to human health. Some even wondered whether a blessing ought to be recited upon smoking, since the pleasure derived from it resembled that of eating, drinking, or the smelling of fragrances.cigarette

Today, scientific evidence concerning the dangers of smoking is accepted worldwide, and there is no longer any reasonable doubt that tobacco causes disease and death. Reflecting this change, rabbinic opinion now condemns smoking as a threat to human life and health. As Judaism forbids us to endanger our lives needlessly and to treat our bodies with reckless disrespect, so it forbids us to smoke. Those who smoke are under a strict moral obligation to do all in their power to stop smoking. It is wrong as well to encourage smokers in their habit by buying tobacco for them or by offering them a light. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions should prohibit smoking on their premises.


Judaism does not condemn the use, in moderation, of alcoholic beverages. On the contrary: the Bible speaks in praise of wine as a substance that “gladdens the human heart” (Psalms 104:15). Wine has always played a visibly central role in Jewish religious culture. This is evident in the fact that the tradition ordains special blessings to be recited prior to and following its consumption, just as it does for bread. The use of wine is required in such ritual practices as Kiddush [a declaration of the sacredness of a Shabbat or festival, recited over wine], the “four cups” at the Passover Seder, and the celebration of weddings and brit milah [ritual circumcision of a boy]. Other intoxicants can serve in place of wine under certain conditions in some (but not all) of these settings.

Medicine, Healing and the Jewish Tradition

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.

The practice of medicine is a mitzvah, a fundamental religious obligation incumbent upon the Jewish people.

While this statement might strike us as obvious and unexceptional, the attitude it conveys is far from unanimous in Jewish tradition. The Torah never explicitly commands us to practice medicine, and some biblical passages are highly critical of physicians and those who resort to them. This negative attitude stems, in large part, from the fact that for much of its history, medical “science” was not far removed from the arts of black magic, which the Bible condemns in no uncertain terms.jewish healthcare


Theological Objections to the Practice of Medicine

Yet there are weighty theological objections to medicine as well, and these have to do with the Bible’s conception of God as Creator of the universe and therefore the Source of both sickness and health. If God is the cause of all that happens to us, it stands to reason that illness is a sign of divine displeasure, a punishment for our misdeeds. And if such is the case, the proper response to illness is not medicine but prayer and repentance. Do we not read that “I am Adonai, your healer” (Exodus 15:26)? Does this verse not teach us that all healing belongs to God? If so, then to employ the services of a physician in search of a natural cure for disease betrays a lack of faith in the mercy of Heaven.

Thus, the biblical author criticizes King Asa of Judah because “in his illness he sought not God but rather physicians” (II Chronicles 16:12). The Talmud contains statements in a similar vein. According to one legend, King Hezekiah wins praise for hiding away a medical book as a means of encouraging the people to turn to God, and not to physicians, for healing. Elsewhere, the Talmud suggests that human beings committed a serious error when they began to practice medicine; “they should instead have learned to seek God’s mercy.” Perhaps this is what the Mishnah has in mind when it declares in no uncertain terms that “the best physician is deserving of hell.”

Cosmetic Surgery: A Jewish View

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.

Jewish law prohibits us from causing physical injury (havalah) to ourselves without sufficient justification. The debate over cosmetic surgery within the tradition accordingly centers upon the precise definitions we give to this prohibition.

Some assert that, so long as a particular cosmetic procedure is not unusually risky and is being contemplated for honorable reasons, the surgery does not violate the guidelines set forth by our sources and sages.

jewish cosmetic surgery ethicsOthers, however, argue that cosmetic surgery, like all other medical treatment, is permissible only for r’fu’ah, for healing, for legitimate medical purposes. The desire to improve one’s physical appearance is, in and of itself, not such a “legitimate medical purpose.” Indeed, it may be viewed as an act of arrogance, a desecration of the human form, and an example of misplaced values: with all the important work that we need to do in the field of medicine and healing, is the enhancement of physical beauty a proper end to which we ought to apply our knowledge and resources?

Reform responsa view the latter position as the better interpretation of Jewish teaching. Our reverence for the sanctity of the human body prohibits us from the capricious manipulation of its form, and surgery intended merely to improve one’s physical appearance should be discouraged.

Not All Plastic Surgery is Merely Cosmetic

There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule. We believe that reconstructive surgery, the restoration of one’s appearance to an approximation of its former state, is a proper medical objective and not merely cosmetic. Surgery to correct what are generally regarded as regarded as physical deformities is also permissible.

Moreover, for some persons “mere” cosmetic surgery may serve a useful medical purpose in enhancing a sense of psychological and emotional well-being. This is a determination which must be made in each individual case, although we think the argument is too frequently raised and too easily exaggerated. As we understand it, Judaism admonishes us to place less emphasis than we are prone to do on material values and to concentrate upon the development of deeper and more lasting measurements of self-worth and satisfaction. We ought to resist undertaking surgery intended solely for the improvement of physical appearance.

Reform Judaism & Halakhah

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:


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.


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.

Men’s Head Covering in Synagogue: Reform Judaism’s Views

The author, a historian of American Reform Judaism and one of those helping to shape contemporary practice, surveys the history of attitudes toward headcovering by men at worship or Torah study. He advises that, as in other aspects of Jewish life, Reform ideology requires each person to learn the arguments for and against traditional practice and choose a path with meaning and significance for him or her as an individual. 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.

Praying with uncovered head was the rule for many years in American Reform synagogues. This rule, at odds with traditional Jewish custom, was evidently based on the prevailing standards of honor and respect in the general culture which dictated that one remove one’s hat when inside a building and during solemn occasions such as worship.

reform perspectives with kippahIn 1928, Rabbi Jacob Z. Lauterbach, a professor at the Hebrew Union College and chair of the CCAR Responsa Committee, wrote a richly-detailed study in defense of the Reform practice, declaring that “there is no law in the Bible or Talmud prescribing the covering of the head for men when entering a sanctuary, when participating in the religious service, or when performing any religious ceremony.”

Where the Customs Arose

The practice of covering the head is not based on any explicit statement in Jewish legal sources; it “is merely a custom, a minhag, that first appeared among the Jews in Babylon” during the rabbinic period (roughly, from the beginning of the Common Era to 500 C.E.). In Palestine, by contrast, the sources indicate that “people would not hesitate entering a synagogue, reading from the Torah, and participating in the religious service with uncovered head.”

This difference in custom made its way to medieval Europe: in Spain, which tended to follow the Babylonian practices, authorities required that the head be covered during prayer, while in France and Germany, which were more influenced by Palestinian ritual traditions, there is some evidence that Jews would pray bareheaded.