QUESTION: During some conversion ceremonies the phrase "according halakhah" has been used. What does this mean for us as Reform Jews? (Leonard N. Fineberg, New York NY)
ANSWER: Let us begin by looking at the tradition. The traditional texts which deal with gerut indicate that the prospective convert must be instructed in some of the major and minor mitzvot, and then accepts Judaism in accordance with the interpretation of the tradition. That "interpretation," of course, has changed through the ages; in a specific period it may vary both in major and minor matters as seen in contemporary Orthodox discussions. "According to halakhah" therefore has some flexibility within traditional circles. It broadly indicates an acceptance of the written and oral law as sacred and as given by God at Sinai; it would allow some flexibility in interpretation.
Our view of this phrase is somewhat different. "According to halakhah" means according to our Reform Jewish tradition. Over the last two centuries we have developed a considerable body of halakhah of our own. Some of it in the form of books of guidance (S. B. Freehof Reform Jewish Practice; P. Knobel Gates of Mitzvah among others); through statements made at synods and conferences (W. G. Plaut The Rise of Reform Judaism; M. Meyer Response to Modernity), and through more than a thousand responsa written by Solomon B. Freehof and myself. There is therefore a Reform tradition which has been expressed in an expanding halakhah.
Our view of the halakhah is progressive; portions of the Torah came from Sinai and it continued to develop subsequently. We consider the principles enunciated by later prophets and sages also divinely inspired. Revelation continues as does our interpretation of the past. Interpretation has adapted Judaism to new ages and conditions; that is the "oral law" which we as modern Jews continue to adapt and alter. We view the tradition as a continuum and see ourselves not only as bearers of the tradition, but also as interpreters and innovators. Interpretation, along with new decisions become the basis for our halakhah. As time goes on these blend and create an authoritative halakhah (Elliot Stevens (ed) Rabbinic Authority; W. Jacob and M. Zemer Dynamic Jewish Law).
"According to halakhah" in our tradition therefore means according to the Reform halakhah as stated by the various Reform documents and halakhicsources.