Unchanging Orthodoxy, Constantly Evolving

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Here [with thanks to Shira Schmidt] are the two main things wrong with Orthodoxy:

  1. It is ossified, petrified, will not acknowledge new information, scientific discoveries or social changes, refuses to change with the times.
  2. It is hypocritical, since it changes constantly and yet claims not to change. It accuses Reform and Conservative of playing fast and loose with tradition, yet does the exact same thing itself. It has evolved so far from what it was originally that a Second Temple Jew would not recognize it as Judaism — heck, a 19th century shtetl Jew would not recognize it! — yet criticizes the heterodox movements for evolving in just the same way. Just because they have stepped up the pace of evolution a bit, Orthodoxy hypocritically accuses them of being inauthentic.

Actually, there are elements of truth to both of these images of Orthodoxy. Its combination of resistance to change and flexibility within certain parameters is what has given Judaism its longevity — 3000 years and counting.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I felt ambivalent about making a party for my daughter’s bas mitzva, because the very idea of a bas mitzva party was a Reform innovation. I was taken to task for denigrating Reform when we Jews need unity in the face of common enemies.

So then I said,

The ones who changed the status quo are the ones who cracked the facade of unity, not the ones who kept on doing faithfully what we had always done!

Shawn Landres took issue with this:

Although there is no question that Reform and other movements within Judaism have made changes to the status quo, there also is no question that Orthodoxy has changed…. In the mid- to late 20th century, U.S. Orthodoxy moved to the right….. So let’s not indulge in the myth of an authentic, essential, immutable “Orthodoxy”…

This elicited a variety of comments, acknowledging that Orthodoxy has indeed changed, while explaining how those changes differ from Reform [and Conservative] changes.

(Parenthetically, I note that Mr. Landres objects to the rightward movement of American Orthodoxy in recent decades, but he could just as easily have found evidence of a “leftward” move in the last century, e.g., the founding of the Bais Yakov school system and resulting higher standards of women’s Torah scholarship.)

OK, some of the “changing Orthodoxy” comments:

1. Yaakov Menken spoke of changes in the percentages of dark vs. light peppered moths, in response to changing levels of pollution. Dark and light colors were pre-existing natural variants. All that changed (within Orthodoxy) were the proportions; the species remained the same. Here’s what he said,

So the shift in Orthodoxy is indeed a reality. What is called “Orthodox” in America today is, on average, a far more Torah-observant model that it was fifty years ago. This is not, however, the result of an evolutionary shift to some previously-unknown, stringent form, as implied by Heilman or Shapiro. It is merely the natural growth of that form of Orthodoxy always found before, but in smaller numbers — not unlike the colors of Biston betularia.

2. R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein used a different analogy:

A tree is remarkably resilient. Facing the strength and fury of a gale, the tree bends, and therefore doesn’t snap. Surely, it is flexible. But just because it can bend, does not mean it can pick itself up and walk twenty paces.

Orthodoxy changes.

What makes it different from the heterodox movements is that there are definite limits and boundaries to that change. There are rules that make the degree of change predictable. The rules themselves may show a small amount of wiggle room between different Orthodox approaches, but they bunch up pretty closely on a continuum of possibility.

3. Finally, Shira Schmidt basically said that Orthodoxy does not change, but circumstances change:

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.

The analogy that I want to use is a little different. In the middle of a chess game, the board looks quite different than it looked at the beginning. There are any number of legitimate mid-game configurations of the board. There are also many illegitimate moves. For example, up-ending the board in frustration and tossing the pieces in the air is not a legitimate move. Letting your kid play through to the end even though he lost his king right at the beginning is also not kosher.

Orthodoxy does look different today than it did a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. The board has changed a lot. But we have always played by the rules.

A chess expert can look at a board and tell whether the current configuration was arrived at legitimately. He might say, “Whatever you guys have been playing, it isn’t chess. You can’t keep playing without the King!”

A Reform chess player may respond, “Men made up these rules and men can change them. The King is only a human construct anyway. I don’t need Him.”

A feminist chess player might add, “Men made up these rules, and women can change them. The old ones are too patriarchal. Nowadays we know that a Queen can do anything a King can do.”

The chess grandmaster tells them both that if they want to tamper with the rules of the game, they can play however they like, but they can’t call it chess. They both turn on him in fury and say, “We don’t see you keeping all the white pieces on your side of the board! Your board has changed since the start of the game! You make all these changes and then you criticize us!?”

I could have used a Scrabble analogy, too. I want the board to look a certain way, so I rummage around in the bag and find the tiles I need. If seven tiles aren’t enough, I take out eight or nine. If I want a Q and a Z to make a nifty triple-score word, I just write Q and Z on the blanks. Well, no, can’t do that. You have to play with the tiles you have.

Of course I realize that our apriori assumptions are not the same. Reform assumes that not only the plays made in each round, but also the original rules, are man-made. Orthodoxy starts with the assumption that the rules of the game are Divinely ordained. That’s the big difference right there, the distinction that marks the boundaries of what kinds of changes can and cannot take place in the Torah world.

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2 Responses

  1. sam says:

    I’ve heard the “rules of the game” analogy to orthodoxy before, and it always seems to lose sigh of its proper argumentation in the gleam of metaphor’s rhetorical flourish. With all due respect to Ms. Katz, earnestly claiming that orthodoxy has always played by the same rules doesnt make it so. The analogy breaks down in at least two significant ways:

    1) A grandmaster would be equally flummoxed by a midgame position where new rules were invented at points throughout the game as he would be by a game where rules had been annulled. While the Feminist player may be claiming that the queen now deserves as much value as the king (an ironic choice of metaphor indeed, since the queen has all the true power in chess), the orthodox player has been systematically introducing new strictures (both meta-halachic and halachic) over the past 2000 years. New rules undreamt of by the Indian king who invented chess are new rules, no matter which way they swing, or how legitimate you may think the legislation process may be. While you may argue that all changes to orthodox judaism over the centuries have been within an acceptable framework of halachic innovation, you’re eliding the basic fact that Judaism has changed. Thus, your issue is not with the idea of change which has necessarily occurred, but rather with the individuals who havelegislated the changes. Why then (aside from the obvious) are the rishonim or hasidim different from the folks at JTS, HUC, Edah and JOFA (and to forestall angry cries, I’ll hasten to add that this question is lesaber es ha’ozen, and not a real comparison)? You can’t say “we changed the rules BY the rules” – your metaphor breaks down when you do – but that’s what has occurred.

    2) I have historical problems with the idea that the orthodox methodology of evolving halacha has been constant or even rabbinically approved over time. Haym Soloveitchik (in his article in AJSReview 12) makes a compelling argument that the baalei tosafos’ discussions of basar vechalav or kiddush hashem were informed mostly by a desire to justify prior mass practice. Not exactly a systematic approach to legislation, is it? Similarly, his article “Rupture and Reconstruction” delineates the meta-halachic considerations behind the changes in orthodoxy over the past 100 years. What is clear is that there have been numerous and varied impetuses for wholesale change in the history of halacha, and that these changes have not been following any sort of rules other than a few imposed in a transparently post hoc fashion.

    The concern of critics, both here and in the broader discourse (such as it is), is that orthodoxy (specifically, yeshivish or haredi orthodoxy) over the past 100 years has developed a pathological fear of chadash assur min hatorah, coupled with a newfangled doctrine of rabbinic infallibility on all matters (hashkafic and halachic) that has led to the trenchant (albeit not quite unjustified) condemnation of any stream or movement’s innovations.
    This trend has been amplified over the past 50 years to levels undreamed of by any of the rabbinic leadership of generations past. Consequently, a spiritual paralysis has stricken the yeshivish and haredi worlds, where movement of any kind expects to draw the ire of some angry faction somewhere; any group’s kol koreh eventually gets signed (often blindly) by the mainstream leaders of the community, and thus all true adapatations of halacha to contemporary circumstances get torpedoed.

    Incidentally, as a metaphor, scrabble would have worked no better. Sorry.

  2. Michoel says:

    Very good mashel.