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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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.

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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.