Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D.: A Life of Service and Study

Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice, distinguished ethicist of the Reform Movement, and beloved teacher and mentor of generations of students on our Cincinnati campus, retired on December 31, 2021. Associated with HUC-JIR for nearly five decades, Dr. Washofsky received his rabbinical ordination in 1980 and his Ph.D. in 1987. He has served as a member of the HUC faculty since 1985, and in 2006 succeeded Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, as holder of the Chair established in honor of Dr. Solomon B. Freehof by The Allen H. and Selma W. Berkman Charitable Trust.

Specializing in the literature of the Talmud and Jewish law, he has imbued his students at HUC and adult learners in the larger Reform Movement with a deeper understanding of how Jewish tradition responds to contemporary issues. Dr. Washofsky has contributed numerous articles to, and has taken leadership roles in, the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah. He chaired the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1996-2017 and has been a sought-after expert in a broad array of Reform responses to Jewish ethical and legal issues. His book, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, serves as a desk reference for many congregational leaders and professionals. His extensive publications include Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century and essays and articles on medieval halakhic literature, the application of legal theory to the study of Jewish law, Jewish bioethics, outreach and conversion, among other topics.
Rabbi Washofsky shared some personal reflections at this culmination of his career at HUC-JIR.

What was your journey to HUC?

I was born in New Orleans but grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana. Our small-town Reform Jewish community lacked many things — for example, Jews; we didn’t have a lot of them — but growing up in its midst left me with a deep sense of my Jewish identity. That identity convinced me that I was different from everyone around me, and I had a powerful desire to learn what that meant. So when I got to college (the University of Alabama, which resembled Lafayette in that it had a small Jewish community, although the football team was much better), I read and studied everything I could. Critical for me there was my encounter with two wonderful role models (the Jewish studies professor and the Hillel director), each of whom combined his rabbinate with profound learning and intellectual curiosity. I was hooked; I wanted to be like them, to live a life of Jewish service and study. HUC seemed like the logical next step for me, and fortunately, the admissions committee agreed.

What inspired your work as the leading expert on Reform halakhah?

First, I have always found the study of law — particularly the interpretation of legal texts — to be a fascinating process, in which the present converses and argues with the past in an effort to make old texts apply to new conditions of life. Halakhah, while it’s not exactly the same thing as “law,” is a good example of that sort of argument, and that’s how I’ve tried to present halakhic literature to my students. Second, I have always regarded it a mitzvah to identify and nurture the connections between Reform Jewish practice and the halakhah, which is the authentic source of all Jewish practice, including our own. In this, I’ve tried to follow the example of Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, z”l, who taught us all how to “do” Reform halakhah and who bequeathed to us a huge responsa literature of enduring value. It’s one of the great disappointments of my life that I never had the z’khut (merit) to meet Rabbi Freehof, but I feel better knowing that I’ve tried to carry on his work.

Of which academic achievements are you most proud?

Much of my academic work has involved the application of contemporary legal theory to the understanding of halakhic literature, particularly rabbinical responsa. I have argued in a number of long articles that insights drawn from the Law and Literature movement, rhetorical studies, and the theory of translation help to explain how rabbis construct and argue for their rulings in written responsa. I’m hardly the only person working in this field, but I believe I was one of the first.

Please describe your impact on your HUC students and their impact on you.

My goal has always been to offer my students a model of a Reform rabbi who is in love with the Rabbinic-halakhic literature, convinced of its abiding relevance to us, and committed to its study. I hope my enthusiasm has been catching. I know for sure that I have deeply enjoyed learning with them. Their curiosity and questions, and the discussions and arguments that these have sparked, have always made classroom time a delight for me (and I hope for them, too).

What has your time at HUC meant to you?

HUC-JIR has been my academic and professional home for almost fifty years. It has allowed me to devote my working life to things that I love: to study, to teaching, to research, and to building ongoing relationships with students and colleagues. I can look back on my career and say, with all honesty, that it has been deeply satisfying. The Hebrew Union College, as an institution, as a geographical place (the Cincinnati campus), and as a community is largely responsible for that, and I am grateful beyond words.

What will you be doing during this next chapter of your life?

I do have some writing projects lines up, including a projected volume called “Reading Reform Responsa.” In addition, as Chair of the Freehof Institute for Progressive Halakhah, I’ll have the opportunity to write and to teach the material that I love to a wider audience. It all should keep me busy!