RUPTURE AND RECONSTRUCTION:THE TRANSFORMATION OF CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOXY by Haym Soloveitchik

Published in Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994). Reprinted here with permission.

Haym Soloveitchik teaches Jewish history and thought in the Bernard Revel Graduate School and Stern College for Woman at Yeshiva University.

     This essay is an attempt to understand the developments that have occurred within my lifetime in the community in which I live. The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore. This change is often described as "the swing to the Right." In one sense, this is an accurate description. Many practices, especially the new rigor in religious observance now current among the younger modern orthodox community, did indeed originate in what is called "the Right." Yet, in another sense, the description seems a misnomer. A generation ago, two things primarily separated modern Orthodoxy from, what was then called, "ultra-Orthodoxy" or "the Right." First, the attitude to Western culture, that is, secular education; second, the relation to political nationalism, i.e. Zionism and the state of Israel. Little, however, has changed in these areas. Modern Orthodoxy still attends college, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than before, and is more strongly Zionist than ever. The "ultra-orthodox," or what is now called the "haredi"1 camp is still opposed to higher secular education, though the form that the opposition now takes has local nuance. In Israel, the opposition remains total; in America, the utility, even the necessity of a college degree is conceded by most, and various arrangements are made to enable many haredi youths to obtain it. However, the value of a secular education, of Western culture generally, is still denigrated. And the haredi camp remains strongly anti-Zionist, at the very least, emotionally distant and unidentified with the Zionist enterprise. The ideological differences over the posture towards modernity remain on the whole unabated, in theory certainly, in practice generally. Yet so much has changed, and irrecognizably so. Most of the fundamental changes, however, have been across the board. What had been a stringency peculiar to the "Right" in 1960, a "Lakewood or Bnei Brak humra,” as—to take an example that we shall later discuss shiurim (minimal requisite quantities), had become, in the 1990’s, a widespread practice in modern orthodox circles, and among its younger members, an axiomatic one. The phenomena were, indeed, most advanced among the haredim and were to be found there in a more intensive form. However, most of these developments swiftly manifested themselves among their co-religionists to their left. The time gap between developments in the haredi world and the emerging modern orthodox one was some fifteen years, at most.

    It seemed to me to that what had changed radically was the very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere. Put differently, the nature of contemporary spirituality has undergone a transformation; the ground of religiosity had altered far more than the ideological positions adopted thereon. It further appeared that this change could best be studied in the haredi camp, for there it takes its swiftest and most intense form. With this in mind, I read widely in the literature of the haredim, listened to their burgeoning cassette literature, and spent more time than was my wont in their neighborhoods. I tried my best to understand what they were doing in their terms and what it meant in mine. And the more I studied them, I became convinced that I was, indeed, studying myself and my own community. I uncovered no new facts about them or us, but thought that I did perceive some pattern to the well-known ones. As all these facts are familiar to my readers, the value of my interpretation depends entirely on the degree of persuasive correspondence that they find between my characterizations and their own experiences.

*  *  *

    If I were asked to characterize in a phrase the change that religious Jewry has undergone in the past generation, I would say that it was the new and controlling role that texts now play in contemporary religious life. And in saying that, I open myself to an obvious question: What is new in this role? Has not traditional Jewish society always been regulated by the normative written word, the Halakhah? Have not scholars, for well over a millennium, pored over the Talmud and its codes to provide Jews with guidance in their daily round of observances? Is not Jewish religiosity proudly legalistic and isn’t exegesis its classic mode of expression? Was not "their portable homeland," their indwelling in their sacred texts, what sustained the Jewish people throughout its long exile?

    The answer is, of course, yes. However, as the Halakhah is a sweepingly comprehensive regula of daily life-covering not only prayer and divine service, but equally food, drink, dress, sexual relations between man and wife, the rhythms of work and patterns of rest-it constitutes a way of life. And a way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school.

    Did these mimetic norms—the culturally prescriptive–conform with the legal ones? The answer is, at times, yes; at times, no. And the significance of the no may best be brought home by an example with which all are familiar—the kosher kitchen, with its rigid separation of milk and meat—separate dishes, sinks, dish racks, towels, tablecloths, even separate cupboards. Actually little of this has a basis in Halakhah. Strictly speaking, there is no need for separate sinks, for separate dishtowels or cupboards. In fact, if the food is served cold, there is no need for separate dishware altogether. The simple fact is that the traditional Jewish kitchen, transmitted from mother to daughter over generations, has been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified beyond all halakhic requirements. Its classic contours are the product not of legal exegesis, but of the housewife’s religious intuition imparted in kitchen apprenticeship.

    An augmented tradition is one thing, a diminished one another. So the question arises: did this mimetic tradition have an acknowledged position even when it went against the written law? I say "acknowledged", because the question is not simply whether it continued in practice (though this too is of significance), but whether it was accepted as legitimate? Was it even formally legitimized? Often yes; and, once again, a concrete example best brings the matter home. There is an injunction against "borer"—sorting  or separating on Sabbath. And we, indeed, do refrain from sorting clothes, not to speak of separating actual wheat from chaff. However, we do eat fish, and in eating fish we must, if we are not to choke, separate the bones from the meat. Yet in so doing we are separating the chaff (bones) from the wheat (meat). The upshot is that all Jews who ate fish on Sabbath (and Jews have been eating fish on Sabbath for, at least, some two thousand years2) have violated the Sabbath. This seems absurd, but the truth of the matter is that it is very difficult to provide a cogent justification for separating bones from fish. In the late nineteenth century, a scholar took up this problem and gave some very unpersuasive answers3 It is difficult to imagine he was unaware of their inadequacies. Rather his underlying assumption was that it was permissible. There must be some valid explanation for the practice, if not necessarily his. Otherwise hundreds of thousands, perhaps, millions of well-intending, observant Jews had inconceivably been desecrating the Sabbath for some twenty centuries. His attitude was neither unique nor novel. A similar disposition informs the multi-volumed Arukh ha-Shulhan, the late nineteenth century reformulation of the Shulhan Arukh.4 Indeed, this was the classic Ashkenazic position for centuries, one which saw the practice of the people as an expression of halakhic truth. It is no exaggeration to say that the Ashkenazic community saw the law as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus (the Talmud and codes), and in the regnant practices of the people. Custom was a correlative datum of the halakhic system. And, on frequent occasions, the written word was reread in light of traditional behavior.5

    This dual tradition of the intellectual and the mimetic, law as taught and law as practiced, which stretched back for centuries, begins to break down in the twilight years of the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The change is strikingly attested to in the famous code of the next generation, the Mishnah Berurah.6 This influential work reflects no such reflexive justification of established religious practice, which is not to say that it condemns received practice. Its author, the Hafetz Hayyim, was hardly a revolutionary. His instincts were conservative and strongly inclined him toward some post facto justification. The difference between his posture and that of his predecessor, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, is that he surveys the entire literature and then shows that the practice is plausibly justifiable in terms of that literature. His interpretations, while not necessarily persuasive, always stay within the bounds of the reasonable. And the legal coordinates upon which the Mishnah Berurah plots the issue are the written literature and the written literature alone.7 With sufficient erudition and inclination, received practice can almost invariably be charted on these axes, but it is no longer inherently valid. It can stand on its own no more.

    Common practice in the Mishnah Berurah has lost its independent status and needs to be squared with the written word. Nevertheless, the practices there evaluated are what someone writing a commentary upon Shulhan Arukh would normally remark on. General practice as such is not under scrutiny or investigation in the Mishnah Berurah. It is very much so in the religious community of today.

    One of the most striking phenomena of the contemporary community is the explosion of halakhic works on practical observance. I do not refer to the stream of works on Sabbath laws, as these can be explained simply as attempts to determine the status, that is to say, the permissibility of use, of many new artifacts of modern technology, similar to the spate of recent works on definition of death and the status of organ transplants. Nor do I have in mind the halakhic questions raised by the endless proffer of new goods in an affluent society. I refer rather to the publications on tallit and tefillin, works on the daily round of prayers and blessings in synagogue and home, tomes on High Holiday and Passover observance, books and pamphlets on every imaginable topic. The vast halakhic corpus is being scoured, new doctrines discovered and elicited, old ones given new prominence, and the results collated and published. Abruptly and within a generation, a rich literature of religious observance has been created and, this should be underscored, it focuses on performances Jews have engaged in and articles they have used for thousands of years.8 These books, moreover, are avidly purchased and on a mass scale; sales are in the thousands, occasionally in the tens of thousands. It would be surprising if such popularity did not indicate some degree of adoption. Intellectual curiosity per se is rarely that widespread. Much of the traditional religious practice has been undergoing massive reevaluation, and by popular demand or, at the very least, by unsolicited popular consent. In Bnei Brak and in Borough Park, and to a lesser, but still very real extent, in Kiryat Shmuel and Teaneck, religious observance is being both amplified and raised to new, rigorous heights.

    Significantly, this massive, critical audit did not emerge from the ranks of the left or centrist Orthodoxy, some of whose predecessors might have justly been suspect of religious laxity9, but from the inner sanctum of the haredi world, from the ranks of the Kolel Hazon Ish and the Lakewood Yeshivah. It issued forth from men whose teachers and parents were beyond any suspicion of ritual negligence or casualness. Moreover, it scarcely focused on areas where remissness had been common, even on the left. Indeed, its earliest manifestations were in spheres of religious performance where there had been universal compliance. The audit, rather, has encompassed all aspects of religious life, and its conclusions have left little untouched. And the best example and, also, one of the earliest ones, is shiurim (minimal requisite quantities). On Pesach evening one is obliged to a minimal amount of matzah—a quantity equal to the size of an olive. Jews have been practicing the Seder for thousands of years, and no one paid very much attention to what that shiur was. One knew it automatically, for one had seen it eaten at one’s parents table on innumerable Passover eves; one simply did as one’s parents had done. Around the year 1940, R. Yeshayahu Karelitz, the Hazon Ish, published an essay in which he vigorously questioned whether scholars had not, in effect, seriously underestimated the size of an olive in Talmudic times. He then insisted on a minimal standard about twice the size of the commonly accepted one.10 Within a decade his doctrine began to seep down into popular practice, and by now has become almost de rigeur in religious, certainly younger religious circles.11

    This development takes on significance when placed in historical perspective. The problem of "minimal requisite quantities" (shiurim) has been known since the mid-eighteenth century, when scholars in both Central and Eastern Europe discovered that the shiurim commonly employed with regard to solid food did not square with the liquid-volume shiurim that we know in other aspects of Jewish law. The ineluctable conclusion was that the standard requisite quantity of solid food consumption should be roughly doubled. Though the men who raised this issue, the GRA and the Noda Beyehuda,12 were some of the most famous Talmudists of the modern era, whose works are, to this day, staples of rabbinic study, nevertheless, their words fell on deaf ears and were without any impact, even in the most scholarly and religiously meticulous circles.13 It was perfectly clear to all concerned that Jews had been eating matzot for thousands of years, and that no textual analysis could affect in any way a millennia-old tradition. The problem was theoretically interesting, but practically irrelevant.

    And then a dramatic shift occurs. A theoretical position that had been around for close to two centuries suddenly begins in the 1950’s to assume practical significance and within a decade becomes authoritative. From then on, traditional conduct, no matter how venerable, how elementary, or how closely remembered, yields to the demands of theoretical knowledge. Established practice can no longer hold its own against the demands of the written word.

    Significantly, this loss by the home of its standing as religious authenticator has taken place not simply among the modem orthodox, but first, indeed foremost, among the haredim, and in their innermost recess—the home. The zealously sheltered hearth of the haredi world can no longer validate religious practice. The authenticity of tradition is now in question in the ultra-orthodox world itself.

*  *  *

    This development is related to the salient events of Ashkenazic Jewish history of the past century.14 In the multi-ethnic, corporate states of central and Eastern Europe, nationalities lived for hundreds of years side by side, each with its own language, its own religion, its way of dress and diet. Living together, these groups had much in common, yet at the same time they remained distinctly apart. Each had its own way of life, its own code of conduct, which was transmitted formally in the school, informally in the home and street—these are the acculturating agencies—each complementing and reinforcing one another. Equally significant, each way of life seemed inevitable to its members. Crossing over, while theoretically possible, was inconceivable, especially when it entailed a change of religion.

    These societies were traditional, taking their values and code of conduct as a given, acting unselfconsciously, unaware that life could be lived differently. This is best epitomized in the title of one of the four units of the Shulhan Arukh. The one treating religious law is called Orah Hayyim—The  Way of Life. And aptly so. In the enclaves of Eastern Europe, going to shul (synagogue) in the morning, putting on a tallit katan (fringed garment) and wearing pe’ot (side locks) were for centuries the way of life of the Jew. These acts were done with the same naturalness and sense of inevitability as we experience in putting on those two strange Western garments, socks and ties. Clothes are a second skin.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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