When the Committee of Army and Navy Religious Activities was reconstructed on January 14, 1942, one of the first committees which it appointed was the Committee on Responsa. The committee consisted of Dr. Leo Jung, Dr. Milton Steinberg, and Dr. Solomon B. Freehof, chairman. From the moment of its appointment, which was before America entered into the war, the Responsa Committee had considerable work to do and this work continues now even though the war has ended.
Questions for responsa came to the Committee through various sources. Sometimes the government itself would ask a question of Jewish law, either directly or indirectly, or the officers of CANRA would anticipate that the government, planning a certain policy, would ask certain questions. Sometimes questions would come from soldiers and sailors in service and were asked of us through their chaplains. Sometimes questions came from rabbis in civilian life in relation to the sons and daughters of their members who were in the service; and sometimes questions came from men and women in civilian life, not rabbis, concerning their relationships to the men and women in the service.
A typical question coming from the government (either directly or indirectly) was the one on disinterment and reinterment. During the war the government had already begun to plan the possible transfer back to the United States of the bodies of soldiers buried overseas, and it wanted to know the attitude of Jewish law on disinterment and reinterment. Or the officials of Selective Service would want a decision on the justice of the claim of an inductee that he was a conscientious objector on religious grounds because he was a Cohen, for if he were sent into battle he would come into contact with dead bodies, which is forbidden by Jewish law for Cohanim, and hence his induction would be in violation of his religious conscience.
A chaplain asked, when should Friday evening services begin in the regions above the Arctic circle where there is often no daily sunset.
A coastguardsman asked how could he say Kaddish on his yahrzeit when he was on lonely patrol service for a week with only one other comrade, a Gentile. Could Kaddish be recited without a quorum of ten worshippers, a minyan? Another soldier asked whether he could have a pidyon ha-ben in absentia. He was in service in Colorado and his wife had given birth to their firstborn son in Brooklyn.
A civilian rabbi asked us to appoint a court, a beth din, to declare officially that soldiers on the casualty lists were dead so that on the basis of our official statement the woman would be permitted by Jewish law to remarry.
A civilian woman asked us whether she might not, according to Jewish law, marry a soldier who was just about to embark for overseas service when she had obtained her Jewish divorce, her get, only a month before and not the required ninety days previously, even though her civil divorce had been issued a year before.
Thus the questions that we received came from many different places all over the world wherever American soldiers and sailors and marines were stationed, and they covered a vast variety of subjects.
The Committee was confronted by many difficulties, not the least of which was the necessity for quick and definite decisions. 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. When for such reasons a rabbi would hesitate to make a definite decision, he would, nevertheless, go into the question in considerable detail, come to his conclusion on the basis of the facts and precedents and logic, but he should add that his decision was for the purpose of study but not for definitely and practically deciding the law. He felt justified in avoiding the responsibility of giving a radical decision on the matter, feeling that he had done his duty sufficiently when he illuminated the new theme by his studies. Thus he would carefully say at the end of his responsum that all the foregoing was l'halacha (to clarify the law) but not l'maaseh (for the purpose of being a directive in actual practice).
We, fortunately or unfortunately, did not have the privilege of using such wise caution. 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. Inasmuch as many of the questions were far from having been decisively treated in the Jewish legal literature, and many new ones were hardly touched upon at all, our decisions will sometimes seem to have insufficient grounds or not to cover the entire literature; but we did not have the leisure either for completeness or for certainty. We were compelled to get substantially the attitude of Jewish law and make our practical decisions. We did not have the joy of studying merely l'halacha; we had to give a definite decision l'maaseh.
Another difficulty which confronted us was inherent in the composition of the CANRA itself. The CANRA was organized by and consisted of representatives of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry, each of whom has a different attitude to Jewish law. How then would it be possible ever to come to a decision on a question of Jewish law that would be satisfactory to all three? Theoretically it would seem that a committee such as our would be unable to function for a joint Orthodox, Conservative and Reform organization like the CANRA. But in practice almost no difficulty at all was ever experienced in arriving at a decision. The decision was based upon classic Jewish law. 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. On this basis it was possible to come to a decision on virtually every question which confronted us with almost no disagreement either among the members of the Committee or from the complete Committee of the CANRA when these reports were presented to it.
The fact that we had always to decide l'maaseh, to give practical directives, as well as the difficulties inherent in writing legal decisions suitable for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, might have made the task of the Committee impossibly difficult if it were not for the contrary fact that certain elements in the situation made our work easier. We limited ourselves very early as to the type of questions with which we would deal. At first we discussed a number of questions with regard to marriage and divorce, but we very soon decided to stop dealing with such matters. The basis of our decision was that we were concerned primarily with such questions as were involved essentially in a man's or woman's service in the armed forces. While the soldier was profoundly interested in having the status of his marriage or divorce settled, it was clear that this status dealt with his whole life which is overwhelmingly civilian. Even in matters such as kosher and trefah food which were vital to many a soldier's welfare, we confined our decision only to the part of the question which dealt primarily with life in the armed forces, and we avoided general decisions that might be applied to civilian life. Thus we restricted ourselves to matters that dealt with the war emergency. In this way not only was the subject matter limited, but it was also understood that even on these matters our decisions applied only to the period of emergency. Even in army matters they applied only to wartime and thus were horaath shaah.
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.
It may perhaps be that some of our decisions, even though they were meant as "guidance for the hour," may prove to be of assistance in case, heaven forbid, war comes again. At all events, they will be of interest to chaplains and workers in the war effort, and perhaps to many of the soldiers and sailors. It is chiefly as a memento of wartime that these are now published. The very existence of these responsa is an evidence of the eagerness of our government to be scrupulously careful of the religious rights of its citizens. It is also an evidence of how widespread was the desire not only on the part of the chaplains but of the soldiers themselves to maintain the observances of their faith under the strain and danger of a world war.
SOLOMON B. FREEHOF
Chairman, Responsa Committee
Division of Religious Activities
National Jewish Welfare Board