Responsa in War Time
“Dr. Freehof began his interpretations of Jewish law in World War II, when he headed a committee of Jewish chaplains. With Jewish soldiers stationed in Iceland, where night lasted six months, when was sunset? His decision was that it would be the same time as in New York.”
During WW II Freehof was the chairman of the “Responsa Committee Division, Religious Activities, National Jewish Welfare Board”. This committee was established by the Committee of Army and Navy Religious Activities (CANRA) of the National Jewish Welfare Board. The committee was established in order to answer questions regarding Jewish observance and ritual which arose during WW II, with questions being directed to the committee from numerous people, including official or unofficial government sources, individual soldiers, and rabbis. There were three members of the committee, R. Leo Jung (Orthodox), R. Milton Steinberg (Conservative), and R. Solomon Freehof (Reform). In his introduction to the published collection of responsa from committee, Responsa in Wartime, Freehof makes a number of important points.
One of them is that the committee often did not have the leisure of delaying an answer in order to research it more indepth. He says that,
“In civilian life a rabbi frequently will delay the decision of a far-reaching question, especially if the question involves radical interpretation of law, or is caused by situations which had never been confronted by the great rabbis of earlier generations…The questions which came to us from the government or from chaplains needed to be decided quickly and definitely. We were compelled always to make clear directives whenever it was at all possible.”
Freehof also explains how a committee which consisted of an Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbi could function, let alone come to a consensus on any given question.
“Theoretically it would seem that a committee such as ours would be unable to function…But in practice almost no difficulty at all was every experienced in arriving at a decision. Because of the exigencies of wartime, the more lenient authorities were generally chosen, and when even the liberal decision would be contrary to the practice of Reform Jews, their exceptional point of view on the matter was specifically provided for. Sometimes, too, the Orthodox member of the Committee would record his disagreement.”
In other words, they compromised as much as possible, and when the compromise was too much for one of the parties, their disagreement was noted. Freehof stresses that these answers were given during wartime and are not to be considered as applying to normal situations,
“It is for this reason that CANRA decided to limit the publication of these responsa so as not to create the impression that a new series of religious standards has been set up for Jewry in general.”
The committee tried to avoid questions dealing with marriage and divorce, trying to concentrate on questions which were directly related to service in the Armed Forces. The majority of the responsa in Responsa in Wartime are relatively short and the longest responsum is in regard to “Sabbath in the Far East and its relationship to the International Date Line” (their conclusion was since the military holds by the International Date Line, so should Jewish soldiers with regard to Sabbath observance). Of the responsa included in this collection, there seemed to be very few, if any, instances where there was a strong dissenting opinion.