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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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:

Equality

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.

Innovation

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.

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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.