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Responsa in War Time

As was noted in the obituary for Solomon Freehof which was kindly posted by Menachem,

“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.

2 Responses to “Responsa in War Time”

  1. 1
    Hanukkah Candles for Soldiers:

    […] during the war with the Responsa Committee of the National Jewish Welfare Board. See more about it here. With the founding of the State of Israel, there began a greater need for halakhic responses to […]

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    When he was in Europe right after the war in his capicity as a chaplin, he basically was just looking for responsa. He records this in one of his books, either on collecting books or he has a diary type work on his time in Europe
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 06.27.06 – 11:50 am | #

    Joan Friedman’s fourth chapter “From Military Responsa to Reform Responsa” of her dissertation is dedicated to this topic.

    Regarding what Dan mentions, see what Friedman writes (p. 252:

    “Freehof also enlisted the help of the overseas chaplains in expanding his library, even while the war was still going on. In November 1944 he wrote Chaplain Jacob Honig expressing his regret that Honig was unable to get him a copy of Shu”t Mayinz Ha-vim by Rabbi Jacob Messas on his last visit to North Africa, and informed Honig that Messas was no longer in Tlemcen but rather in Fez. He persisted, “If ever you get a leave to North Africa I would be grateful if you would pick up a few African teshuvos. There is, for example, an interesting one published on the island of Djerba.” Six months later a letter of Chaplain Marvin Reznikoff to Rabbi Lee Levinger at the JWB acknowledged that he had received, through Chaplain Henry Tavel, Levinger’s request on Freehof’s behalf that he try to obtain a copy of Rabbi Messas’ responsa.”

    In the footnote (#70, p. 474), she writes: “He did succeed in obtaining a copy of this volume. whether at this time or later: in 1974 he referred to “a decision by Messas. the Rabbi of Tlemcen in North Africa. perrnimng the ark to be opened to show to Gentile visitors.” as precedent for allowing the Gentile stepfather of a bar mitzvah boy to remove the Torah from the Ark at the boy’s bar mitzvah.”
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 06.27.06 – 11:59 am | #

    Rabbi Freehof authored several responsum prior to World War II and was even was on the CCAR Responsa Committee from 1922-24. Freehof later responded to queries in his capacity as the chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Responsa Committee from 1955 until 1976.

    The rationale behind having Freehof as chairman, explains Friedman, is that “neither the Orthodox nor Conservative representatives were willing to give credence to the other movement’s claim to possess the correct interpretation of halakha by consenting to allow the other movement’s committee representative to serve as chairman” (p. 33). Fundamentally, both the Conservative and Orthodox representatives felt more comfortable accepting as chairman the committee member who’s views of halakha were radical, as the major denominational battles being fought during those years were between the Conservative and Orthodox, with Reform by the side; in a sense, choosing a Reform chairman was a middle-of-the-road decision, as it was an action where neither Jung or Steinberg granted legitimacy towards the other’s halakhic analysis. This early action of choosing a committee chairman was as an early demonstration of joint-cooperation of their eventual work in coauthoring Responsa throughout the war.
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 06.27.06 – 12:06 pm | #

    Menachem B.- Since you don’t let suspicious characters like me leave comments on your blog and I know you read this one I just wanted to say that I met you at the YU seforim sale a few months back (asked you about Shapiro’s book which you said was out of stock) but since I was new to the blogosphere I did not know who you were. Chaval that I did not take advantage to converse with you.
    andy | 06.28.06 – 6:15 pm | #

    Andy — It’s not that hard to create a FREE blogger account. I don’t let anonymous commenters at AJHistory because of spammers. Feel free to email me at And we received a new shipment of Shapiro’s book on Saul Lieberman numerous times during the sale.

    MenachemMendel (Michael) — did you receive the email which I sent you last week?
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 06.28.06 – 9:19 pm | #


    I didn’t get an email from you. Try sending it again
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 06.28.06 – 9:54 pm | #

    I then don’t have your correct email address. Can you email me at ?
    Menachem Butler | Homepage | 06.28.06 – 10:54 pm | #

    Menachem B.- I was just being facetious. A friend of mine had his brother-in-law who learns in RIETS pick the book up for me later.
    andy | 06.29.06 – 5:05 pm | #




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