Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Reform Da'as Torah

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.

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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).

The other most frequent issue addressed in the book is that of intermarriage. How to deal with it in terms of synagogue membership, children from a mixed marriage, and conversion procedures resulting from an intermarriage just abound throughout the book. It is a sad expression of the times in which Cohon lived, which has only gotten worse today. This leads to what is really the most fascinating part of the book, an appendix consisting of letters from a college-age female with whom Cohon corresponded. She had heard him speak about Judaism on her college campus and wished to discuss the religion with him. The daughter of a Jewish mother and Christian father in rural Kentucky, she describes the cultural and religious environment in which she was raised and her own conflicted religious growth.

The letters in this book are significantly different from Freehof's. On issues of religious practice, Freehof would quote traditional authorities (such as the Chasam Sofer) to establish Jewish law and then discuss whether he feels bound by it. Cohon, instead, turns to Talmudic and Biblical sources, including historical literature, and draws conclusion directly from them, generally bypassing 1500 years of Jewish legal development. Although when giving advice on standard religious procedures, he often refers to the at-the-time recent codex Otzar Dinim U-Minhagim by J.D. Eisenstein.

Sometimes he decides to follow the laws he describes (e.g. not allowing a wedding on Friday night after sunset) and sometimes not (e.g. selling war bonds on Shabbos, allowing an intermarriage for a soldier going out to war if the woman promises to convert afterward). Generally, what I find in the letters is someone who has a strong belief in God and Jewish theology, is concerned with maintaining a strong Jewish community, and likes Jewish tradition. But because he does not consider Jewish law binding, he is willing to make exceptions when necessary.

That is exactly what I would expect from someone who does not feel an obligation to maintain Jewish law and just does it out of desire. When push comes to shove, Jewish law has to bend. However, Cohon will not let it bend when he thinks it is a bad idea, like moving the Sabbath to Sunday or performing a mixed marriage. He seems to evaluate every issue based on his personal judgment and, despite his consultation with Jewish tradition, uses that judgment as the main arbiter of whether to permit or forbid a practice. He expects his authority as a rabbi to convince people who do not find Jewish law binding to accept his decisions. Call it Reform Da'as Torah. Based on what I see today in the Reform community, I don't think it was a successful approach.

The book is long -- 400 pages, sadly without an index but with a detailed table of contents. There are many different sections. I think it is worth noting that there is a 25-page response by Prof. Cohon to accusations against the Talmud. In general, the book is mainly of historical interest but if American Jewish history appeals to you, this book is fascinating.

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