Reform Judaism & Halakhah

Seeking guidance from the Jewish legal tradition, without a belief in its binding nature?especially in light of contemporary moral sensitivies.

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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.

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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.