Has Orthodoxy changed?

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One of the most ubiquitous canards used against the Orthodox is that we are petrified and don’t change, or that we are petrified of change. For a change, though, we are now being accused of too much change. This charge was leveled by J. Shawn Landres in the comments section on the essay by Toby Katz (“Correspondence about my daughter’s bas mitzvah”).

Toby ruminated about the problematic innovations surrounding the Bas Mitzva observance introduced into Orthodox communities via German Reform practices. On the whole, Toby is correct in that the Orthodox preserve what we call “Yisrael Saba” – the traditions of previous generations. It was the Reform and Conservative who brought in non-halakhic change. But Shawn levels the following accusation against the Orthodox: there is a

myth of an authentic, essential, immutable ‘Orthodoxy’ that was always exactly as it is….There … is no question that Orthodoxy has changed.

Usually we are accused of being impervious to change. Now we are criticized for changing too much (rightward shift). Seems we’re darned if we do, and darned if we don’t.

In actuality the Orthodox do respond to their surroundings. I will illustrate the dynamics with an example. During the last few decades women’s dress, in America and in Eretz Israel, has become increasingly decollete and revealing– with more and more exposure of previously covered areas. It isn’t surprising then that in order to separate from the surrounding culture (or lack thereof), more attention is paid to tznius, the Jewish laws of modest attire (that pertain to men and women) and consequently the standards are becoming stricter.

Rather than use the term “change” it would be helpful to say that halakha, which is eternal in nature, is applied to new, different, and changing circumstances. In the example above, halakha was applied to deteriorating public dress; in the example of bas mitzva, it was applied to the deterioration in girls’ education during the previous century. This is how Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg, ztz”l (of blessed memory) explains his permitting some limited bas mitzva observance with the strong caveat that it not be in the synagogue proper, but in the home (or hall). Dr. Judith Bleich has pointed out that his decision in his Seredei Esh is often cited without the caveats, something that has led to the situation Toby decries.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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16 Responses

  1. Isaac Kohane says:

    On the topic of Orthodoxy changing, what to make of the following (?) :

    http://tinyurl.com/abfj9

  2. Michoel says:

    Shawn,
    Thanks for posting some sources. At risk of sounding like a cop-out, I don’t not have time or money to run around looking for books and reading them. If you feel that these sources can support your claims, please supply some key quotes from them that we can discuss.

    Thanks

  3. Some evidence to back the points that EJ and I are making:
    1. Howard Lupovitch, “Between Orthodox Judaism and Neology:
    The Origins of the Status Quo Movement. ” in Jewish Social Studies 9.2 (2003) 123-153. Available online via Project Muse.
    2. David Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (1990).

  4. Michoel says:

    EJ,
    That is all well and good. But the Judaism of middle-eastern Jews was fundamentally the same as the Judaism of Ashkenazi Jews. One group did not consider the other to be heretical. Also, one group was willing to marry members of the other group, trust the kashrus of the mikvaos and schitah of the other group. (There may have been some exceptions but that is largely the case.) The lament that many Sefardim may feel is an ethnic concern regarding their distinct, treasured minhagim. They don’t consider themselves to now be part of a new stream of Judaism. Regarding your statement: “BTW, The fact that comments to this blog are being screened for heresy presupposes an Orthodoxy from which the presumably heretical comments depart.” I couldn’t agree more, but that doesn’t, in any way, help your contention that Orthodoxy is a modern movement that developed out of traditional Judaism.

  5. E.J. Kessler says:

    Michoel, the traditional communities of Iran, Yemen, Bulgaria, etc. (you might have mentioned Syria) didn’t develop into Orthodox communities. The Jews in those places left and joined Orthodox communities in Israel and America. Some in those communities, by the way, lament that their traditional Judaism (that is, their particular folk Orthopraxy) is being lost as their populations are becoming chareidized in the manner of Ashkenazim. I am not making this up. I am not an historian of Orthodoxy, or anything, for that matter, but as I understand it, a self-consciously Orthodox movement, really a tendency, was founded in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and even had political parties in Poland before the war. (BTW, The fact that comments to this blog are being screened for heresy presupposes an Orthodoxy from which the presumably heretical comments depart.) Probably the first people an historian would identify as Orthodox are the folks who excommunicated Spinoza. By the time they lit the black candle and blew the shofar for Mordecai Kaplan at the Biltmore Hotel in 1942, the folks doing the excommunicating called themselves the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

  6. Michoel says:

    EJ,
    You write: “Shawn Landress comment is not an accusation. Its a fact. Orthodoxy, like Positive Historical Judaism (aka the Conservative movement) and Reform is an ideological movement that developed out of traditional Judaism in response to modernity.” I think this claim of the CM has already been overdiscussed in other places but since you bring it up here it should be addressed. Please explain when, exactly, the OM was founded. We know when the CM and RM were founded and we know that they openly departed from (recent, according to them) historical precedent. Also, please explain when and how the the traditional Judaism of Iran, Yemen, Bucharia, Greece and Russia all “developed” inot Orthodoxy.

    Thank you

  7. dilbert says:

    The whole issue of change is obviously complex. As noted by R. David Novak in Halacha in a Theological Dimension, coming to a pesak sometimes involves emphasising one aspect of halacha and muting another. Almost all complex issues involve competing imperatives. It is the balancing of the imperatives that allows one to come to different conclusions at different times. However, R. Novak also holds that it is the corpus of information in the talmud, rather than the conclusions drawn by later generations that are held to be immutable. And, to paraphrase

    One point shared by the fundamentalist and liberal community is confusion of the unchangeable core of Halacha with the most immediately manifest behavior of the community in customary usage(minhag). They differ in that the liberals look for standards more lenient than classical Halacha, and the fundamentalist seem to look for standards stricter than classical Halacha. In both communities, sociological ideology seems all too often to be the norm. If the law is always according to the latest authorities(halacha k’batra’i) then halacha is always what is manifest here and now. This principle(by no means the view of all halachists) explains the power of gedolim. They reflect and enforce the current state of opinion in the community.

    A more historically oriented approach to Halacha sees minhag as part of a changing and changeable process of understand and particular application of the primary prescriptions of the Written and Oral Torahs as commandments. For this reason, the very commitment of the authority of the Halacha should stimulate us in our enterprises of textual and historical criticism, to see beneath thecustomary usage, and discover its historical contingency. This is especially important today when customary usage can be seen at times as impeding the operation and intent of the primary prescriptiosn of the Orah and Written Torahs.

    The halachic process stands between the revelation of Sinai and the full redemption in the days of the Mashiach. Affirmation of revelation means that the Halacha is in substance the commandments of God as men and women attempt to fulfill them. Change then, is called for when the status quo prevents us from doing a mitzvah as fully and devotedly as we might. This often calls not only for new practical appications, but for new theories as well. The substance is everlasting, the form changes. TO EQUATE THE STATUS QUO, WHICH IS CUSTOMARY USAGE, WITH THE COMMANDMENTS THEMSELVES IS TO DEIFY MINHAG. This is Theologically unjustifiable.

    Our incomplete doing of the commandments of God is not only because we are lazy or obstinate. It is also because the world in which we live is not the kingdom of God, and social survival often requires compromises which are necessary, but not desired. Our recognition of this is not a cause for triumphalist rejoicing, but a sober recognition of the as yet unredeemed character of this world. Halacha is a self contained system, but is not self-sufficient existentially. Without the affirmation of mediated revelation, we reduce Halacha to minhag, and ill prepare our people for their confrontation with western culture. Faith must be more than antiquarianism. Revelation presents a source of authirity which transcends the minhag of any generation. However, without the affirmation of messianic redemtion, we become utopians, convinced that with our halachic ingenuity, we can solve our human problems with human solutions

  8. othie says:

    “In actuality the Orthodox do respond to their surroundings. I will illustrate the dynamics with an example. During the last few decades womens dress, in America and in Eretz Israel, has become increasingly decollete and revealing with more and more exposure of previously covered areas. It isnt surprising then that in order to separate from the surrounding culture (or lack thereof), more attention is paid to tznius, the Jewish laws of modest attire (that pertain to men and women) and consequently the standards are becoming stricter.”

    What does this analogy mean? First, the deterioration in education led to a kula – allowing bas mitzva parties – not a chumra. Second, if the rest of the world is becoming laxer in t’znius and wearing decollete dresses that are not permissible according to Shulchan Aruch, there is no reason to change the halachic standards to make them stricter – the gap between Jewish society and secular will widen of its own accord. Finally, the standards for how revealing necklines may be have not changed. Apart from the basic halachas outlined in SA, the main concept of t’znius is to adapt to the standards customary in one’s own locale. The only mechanism for making t’znius guidelines stricter than the basic halacha requires is adaptation to customs of the locale one finds oneself in. When the surrounding secular culture is stricter than the basic halacha is on t’znius (hadors and burqas), Jewish women must comply with the stricter standards of their culture. However, when one moves to an area that is more lax, or when the culture one lives in becomes more lax, then apart from adherence to the core laws of t’znius that are unchanging, Jewish women as a whole may adapt to the laxer environment. The only possibility for halachic change when the surrounding culture becomes more lax is in the direction of greater leniency!

    Perhaps you can clarify what point you had in mind with the analogy to t’znius.

  9. E.J. Kessler says:

    Shawn Landres’s comment is not an ‘accusation.’ It’s a fact. Orthodoxy, like ‘Positive Historical Judaism’ (aka the Conservative movement) and Reform is an ideological movement that developed out of traditional Judaism in response to modernity.

  10. Michoel says:

    The original post that this string is a response to was dealing with hashkafa issue such as :”Many rishonim argued on the Rambam so how can the Orthodox say that a person is an apikorus if they don’t believe in the 13 ani maamins.” See that post.

  11. Adaptation and change are two different things.
    As new needs and/or threats appear, we adapt while our values are unchanging. This is the rationale for kolel, the Beth Jacab movement, Orthodox newspapers and sink filters.
    The true threat is that the reaction to change not be a knee jerk one to prohibit (see frumnet.blogspot.com). Then we become reactionary rather than creative.

  12. dovbear says:

    Your remark puzzles me. Are you arguing that Orthodoxy does not change. Or do you agree that Orthodoxy has changed, and continues to change, but perfer to camaflouge this reality; thus your preference for the word “applied?”

    Orthodoxy has changed, and though I won’t disagree that those changes were “halachic” and “justified” and “guided by sages” etc. it’s counter-productive to pretend that our Orthodoxy (by which I mean our specific practics and our way of thinking about the world) is in every way identical to the Orthodoxy of previous generations.

  13. Calev says:

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that bat mitzvah ceremonies were invented by Reconstructionism founder Mordechai Kaplan rather than the ‘German Reform’ movement.

  14. David says:

    In terms of the accusation of Orthodoxy “changing” this charge is often leveled when Orthodoxy renews or strengthens an existing halacha that has fallen into disuse. The Orthodox are then accused of inventing stringencies.

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