Reform Responsa

Orthodox rabbi Gil Student writes:

When you think of Reform responsa, you automatically think of Reform Rabbi Solomon Freehof, who published some eight volumes of responsa (on Freehof, see the article in Wikipedia – link – and listen to the lecture by R. Adam Mintz – link). Now there is another name that will be added to the short list of Reform responsa authors. Baruch J. Cohon recently published his father Reform Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon’s rabbinic correspondence from 1917-1957 under the title Faithfully Yours, along with the son’s comments about the significance of various letters.

Cohon was a longtime professor of Jewish Theology at Hebrew Union College and taught generations of Reform Rabbis. When these rabbis went out into the field, they often contacted their professor with questions of both theology and practice. This was at a time when Reform Judaism was developing in America and Prof. Cohon played a significant role in the changes.

The book is fascinating for many reasons. For one thing, there are a large number of theological issues addressed, to rabbis, educators, laypeople and Christian clergy. Cohon responded, sometimes briefly but often with detailed citation of relevant passages in rabbinic and occasionally Christian literature (there is one letter where he corrects a minister’s understanding of the Christian Bible). Some questions are very complex and others are exceedingly simple. Sometimes people asked for Cohon’s opinion on curricula and other times about proofs for the existence of God (he accepts the argument from design). Surprisingly, the most frequent theological question he seems to address is that of the afterlife. Questioner after questioner asked about it. Cohon was a specialist in theology and was able to answer all of these questions expertly (although I found a scathing critique of one of Cohon’s theological works by Emil Fackenheim in a Sep. 1949 issue of Commentary magazine – link).

Firsty posts: Orthodox rabbis do the same thing. Everyone decides everything on the basis of his own personal judgment. The only diffrence is, orthodox rabbis feel the need to contrast, distinguish, and often ignore, sources that point to a diffrent conclusion than the one they want to get to. Reform rabbis simply dont bother to go through that exercise.

Judges do the same thing. They have an automatic preconceived notion of what the law should be, based on their political makeup, and then make the precedent fit the way they want it to fit.

There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes you will find someone saying it should be X, but the law is Y, and I’m stuck. But mostly people just make the law/halacha do what they want it to do. It’s just the way it is.

EFREX POSTS: Equally fascinating is a topic that R’ Mintz only briefly brings up in his lecture: the interdenominational "response committee" of CANRA (the Jewish Welfare Board’s organization to support chaplains in WWII) comprised of Rabbis Freehof, Milton Steinberg ("As a Driven Leaf"), and Leo Jung. To be a fly on the wall at those discussions…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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