- “Guidance, Not Governance”: Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsa by Joan S. Friedman
Until now, few scholars have fully recognized the importance of Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, whom Joan Friedman rightly calls “one of the central figures of American Reform Judaism in the twentieth century” (xxi). By analyzing Freehof’s responsa and the impact of his writings, Friedman’s “Guidance Not Governance”: Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsa helps us to understand Reform Judaism’s centrist pull over the twentieth century and further challenges the boundaries of American Jewish movements during that time.
Solomon Freehof was born in London in 1892 to a traditional Jewish family. He moved to Baltimore in 1903, was ordained by the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1915, and immediately joined the HUC faculty. He remained there until 1924 when he accepted a rabbinical post in Chicago, later moving to Pittsburgh as a senior rabbi. In addition to his role as a pulpit rabbi, he worked for the Reform movement on the national level, serving for a time as President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). His “crowning achievement,” argues Friedman, “was his responsa, in which he integrated his love for the halakhah with Reform Judaism” (47). Chairing the movement’s Responsa Committee, Freehof succeeded “in making Reform Jews aware of their connection to the rabbinic tradition, and in putting the question of the relationship between Reform and halakhah squarely back in the movement’s consciousness for the first time since its earliest days” (xxv).
Freehof’s tenure on the Responsa Committee coincided with a stronger push within Reform Judaism for a “reappropriation of ritual,” which naturally engendered questions about law and practice (25). Freehof was the movement’s most influential voice on this issue, believing that “the law is authoritative enough to influence us, but not so completely as to control us. The rabbinic law is our guidance but not our governance” (205). His “cardinal principle,” according to Friedman, was that “popular creativity is the real engine that propels religious life. The idea that progress and creativity in religion always come from the people would become the basis for his theory of the relationship between Reform Judaism and the halakhah” (48). Friedman argues that the rabbi’s role, [End Page 201] according to Freehof, “was to organize and regularize popular practice, not to mandate or control it” (216). Thus Freehof, she maintains, “offered a coherent, centrist conception of Reform Judaism” (67).
Friedman notes that “the most commonly asked questions that found their way to Freehof’s study were about the parameters of Reform Jewish existence… not only between Jews and the larger gentile world, but also between Reform Jews and other Jews, whether secular or more traditional” (201). With regard to boundaries with the larger gentile world, Freehof hoped to keep Reform Jews authentically Jewish, and “within those limits, however, the Jewish community was to be as welcoming as possible to gentile spouses in order to encourage their conversion, and gentile parents raising Jewish children also deserved appropriate acknowledgment” (161).
At the same time that he was drawing a “firm border…between Judaism and other religions,” Freehof also “drew a firm border around Reform Judaism, clearly demarcating its difference from other ideologies of modern Jewish life” (201). Yet Freehof did so within a halakhic context—he helps us to understand that like Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Reform, too, struggled with the challenge of applying halakhah to modern American life. Freehof’s committee made its decisions by “studying traditional rabbinic sources,” though it did so differently from Orthodoxy by reading “those sources critically rather than as traditional norms” (11). He also marked a boundary with Orthodoxy by arguing that when questions arose about the relationship between halakha and modern American life, “Orthodoxy brushes them aside. Reform Halacha faces them and deals with them” (146). This, it is important to note, was also a Conservative criticism of Orthodoxy, and Freehof’s claim that “Jewish law no longer possessed the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances” also echoed...