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Freehof's Laws: A Guide for the Perplexed During World War II

Freehof's Laws: A Guide for the Perplexed During World War II

Yom Kippur services during World War II

“Showing up,” Woody Allen once noted is “80 percent of life.” Fair enough, but what about the other 20 percent? When it comes to religious ritual, for instance, because we don’t always have readily available roadmaps for responding to new or unanticipated questions about Jewish observance, sometimes just showing up is not enough.

What would you do, say, if you found yourself in the Arctic region, bereft of distinctions between day and night and did not know when to celebrate Shabbat or a holiday? Or when should you observe a holy day if you found yourself stuck on a plane crossing the international dateline? Or, to ask a totally different type of question, would it okay to be married over radio or telephone? What about conducting a funeral on a Friday night?

Such questions may read as exercises in intellectual horseplay, but guess what? These particular questions represent just a smattering of the type of unanticipated questions about Jewish observance that arose during World War II when more than 500,000 American Jews served in the U.S. armed forces and, despite myriad challenges – from the spiritual to the logistical – engendered by global war, still wanted to preserve their Jewishness despite such complexities.

As surprising as it may seem in the face of contemporary intra-Jewish conflict, in response to the Second World War, the organized American rabbinate, including Reform, Conservative, and, with few exceptions, Orthodox rabbis joined together via a jointly sponsored organization with the unwieldy name Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities of National Jewish Welfare Board, or CANRA. When thousands of American Jews were putting their lives on the line to defeat the Axis powers, the CANRA rabbis sprang into action to concretely respond to the Jews’ religious needs.

Among the CANRA’s many successes in enabling Jewish practice for those in the armed forces was the Responsa Committee, chaired by Solomon B. Freehof, the Reform Movement’s renowned interpreter of Jewish law throughout the 20th century. The Teshuvah or responsa system had for centuries been a traditional framework for rabbinical authorities to address questions of religious practice and ritual. Among many achievements, Freehof is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering work on responsa for Reform Jews. Freehof differed from many of his Reform colleagues in his belief in the “absolute centrality of the law to the Jewish religious experience” and that traditional Jewish study was a key component in a flourishing Jewish life.

The CANRA Responsa Committee was composed of among the American rabbinate’s leading lights and co-chaired with esteemed counterparts Conservative Rabbi Milton Steinberg and Orthodox Rabbi Leo Jung, and successfully adapted Jewish law and practice for the WW II era U.S. military. Despite genuine and substantive differences over theology and ritual practice among conflicting strands of American Jewry, the Freehof-chaired Responsa Committee usually reached unanimous decisions. As one rabbi who participated recalled, they achieved “harmony” over the “most controversial subjects in Jewish life,” permitting the “word of God to be truly ‘chayim,’ ‘living.’” Despite the seeming unsuitability of a Reform rabbi overseeing a pan-denominational effort, few others were so well suited.

Sensitive to the complex nuances and disagreements across the full spectrum of the American Judaism of his era, Freehof wrote almost 10 years after the conclusion of the war: “I have had so much experience in the responsa with our colleagues of the Conservative and the Orthodox rabbinate that I have learned to know which are the sensitive nerve ends.” Combining tremendous learning with thoughtfulness, Freehof ‘s leadership enabled the CANRA to meet its basic goal: enabling Jews serving in the armed forces and their rabbi-chaplains to maintain their Jewishness.

Rabbi Joan Friedman, Freehof’s chief biographer, wrote in her dissertation study on Rabbi Freehof about how his “characteristic graciousness and conciliatory tact,” became a key factor enabling the CANRA to arrive at consensus positions, if not unified solutions, to wartime ritual questions. These traits are underlined by his official pronouncements and his private correspondence. And while it may seem obvious, it should nevertheless be reiterated that Freehof’s success on behalf of the CANRA was also rooted in a deep commitment to k’lal Yisrael, or Jewish unity.

The CANRA responsa were specific to this era and based upon the particular war-driven realities of this time, and many of these questions might never have been raised were it not for the unique circumstances Jews and their chaplains faced during World War II. Under Freehof’s guidance, the CANRA provided the needed answers and created an orderly and usable ritual system for Jewish servicemen worldwide. Freehof and his colleagues did more than just show up; they committed 100 percent to sustaining Jewish life.

Photo: Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives

Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D., is a scholar and educator who teaches at Hunter College and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. His dissertation, Torah in the Trenches, examined the rabbinical military chaplaincy during World War II. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family.

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