Mondays, October 30-November 20 (4 sessions)
Noon Eastern | 9am Pacific
One hour and 15 minutes per session
What does it mean for rabbis of a supposedly "non-halakhic" movement to use Jewish legal texts to argue questions of religious practice?
The literature of responsa (sh'eilot ut'shuvot, "questions and answers") is possibly the largest single category of rabbinic writing. In a responsum (t'shuvah), a rabbi answers a question about Jewish practice and offers an argument as to why this answer is better than other plausible answers to that question. In other words, responsa give us the theory, the why (and not only the what) of the halakhah, with the hope of persuading their intended audience that this answer represents the best interpretation of Jewish law and tradition on the question (sh'eilah) at hand.
Reform rabbis also write responsa. Like the traditional variety, Reform responsa are the largest existing category of Reform Jewish writing on questions of religious practice and observance. And like other responsa, Reform t'shuvot engage their intended audience in argument as to why one approach to the sh'eilah is preferable to others.
In our course, we'll begin with a brief introduction to the literature of the halakhah and then analyze some examples of Reform responsa.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky is an emeritus professor of Jewish Law and Practice at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where he received his rabbinical ordination (1980) and his Ph.D. (1987) and where he taught Talmud and Jewish legal literature from 1985 to 2021. He served as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1996 to 2017. He is currently the chair of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah. His publications include Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, the latest printed collection of Reform responsa, and numerous articles on the development of the halakhah, the application of legal and literary theory to Jewish legal writing, and Jewish bioethics.