Reform Halakhic Texts

Reform Judaism is more halakhic than you think.

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2. Guides to Religious Practice

Reform responsa are advisory and not obligatory, and the same can be said for the various guides to Jewish observance published under the auspices of the movement's institutions. There are, in other words, no authoritative "codes" of Reform Jewish practice. At the same time, the Reform movement is hardly neutral or indifferent to the ways in which its adherents practice their Judaism.

The CCAR has produced a number of books and programmatic statements that set forth the position of the Conference on matters of religious observance. These include Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle (1979); Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year; and Gates of Shabbat: A Guide for Observing Shabbat. Each of these volumes is deeply dependent upon the classical rabbinic and halakhic literature; these are halakhic texts par excellence.

In addition to specific details concerning practice, these books feature essays that discuss the theological rationale behind particular observances and explore the meaning of concepts such as "mitzvah" and "halakhah" in a Reform context.

The Conference also publishes literature intended specifically for professional rabbis but available to all readers. The Rabbi's Manual is primarily a collection of liturgies for lifecycle ceremonies, but it also includes notes that discuss and explain the Conference's stance regarding these ceremonies and on issues of personal status. The notes are drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Codes, as well as from Conference resolutions and from the collected Reform responsa literature. Divre Gerut: Guidelines Concerning Proselytism, prepared by the CCAR Committee on conversion, discusses standards involved in working with prospective Jews-by-choice. Divre B'nei Mitzvah expounds the rules and standards governing the observance of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah.

Alongside these "official" publications we find works by individual rabbis that summarize the state of Reform practice and explain it in light of the halakhic tradition. The classic example (in part because it reflects the state of observance during the "classical" period of American Reform Judaism) is Solomon B. Freehof's Reform Jewish Practice and Its Rabbinic Background. More recently, my Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice offers a statement of the movement's "official" positions and a detailed discussion of their halakhic background.

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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.