Book by Professor Joan Friedman Receives National Recognition
Named National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category of contemporary life and practice
WOOSTER, Ohio — Rabbi Solomon Freehof is widely regarded as one of America's most distinguished Reform rabbis, and a recent book about his central role in shaping Reform Judaism in the United States has been honored by the Jewish Book Council. Guidance, Not Governance: Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof and Reform Responsa, by Joan Friedman, associate professor of history and religious studies and campus rabbi at The College of Wooster, has been named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for 2013. The book, published by the Hebrew Union College Press, grew out of Friedman's doctoral dissertation on Freehof.
Reform and the other streams of modern Judaism emerged from the desire of 19th century Jews, newly freed from European ghettoes, to remain faithful to their religious tradition while being full participants in the social and intellectual world around them. Because a Jew's daily life is shaped by rituals imbued with deep spiritual significance, these modern forms of Judaism all wrestle with the question of whether and how to modify these long-established practices. Freehof had a central role in determining how Reform Judaism would resolve that dilemma.
"Because of his scholarly expertise in traditional Jewish law, during World War II Freehof chaired a rabbinic committee that guided Jewish military chaplains in reconciling the demands of religious practice with wartime military life," said Friedman. "To accomplish this, they engaged in the time-honored rabbinic practice of consulting and interpreting Jewish law to derive answers to new dilemmas. These type of rabbinic decisions that resolve real-life questions are called in Hebrew she'elot u-teshuvot, "questions and answers," or responsa."
In the postwar period, Freehof gained prominence as the Reform movement's premier writer of responsa, as colleagues, laypeople, and even Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion turned to him to resolve questions raised by the interaction between the Jewish community and the modern world into which it became more and more fully integrated. From 1956 through 1976, Freehof served as chairman of the Reform rabbinical organization's Responsa Committee and published eight volumes of responsa.
"Freehof would receive thousands of questions from Jews around the world on such issues as marriage, divorce, conversion, synagogue ritual, and medical ethics," said Friedman. "Reform, as the most liberal of the modern streams of Judaism, has the most difficulty setting limits: At what point is something so radical that it is no longer authentically Jewish? Freehof got a tremendous number of questions that implicitly or explicitly were asking this question. What I did was trace the positions he took in his answers to show how he shaped Reform Judaism over a period of 30-40 years."
The book's particular scholarly contribution is its analysis of Freehof's original approach to the classical Jewish legal texts on which he relied. As a matter of principle, the founding rabbis of Reform Judaism rejected the authority of these texts, insisting on their right to interpret the Torah as they saw fit. While Freehof agreed with them, he argued nonetheless that the Talmud and the other great works of rabbinic law were the repositories of Jewish values and therefore had to be consulted – that they offered modern Jews "guidance, not governance."
As for the honor, Friedman said she was astonished and delighted. "The Jewish Book Awards are the premier honor for all Jewish books written in English," she said. "Even to be chosen as a finalist is a huge distinction. I am very honored."
Friedman's book will be adorned with a silver seal on its dust jacket proclaiming it a National Jewish Book Award Finalist.