Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Historical approach to most every contraversy in Judaism

Note: Much if not all of the information here was culled from the articles by Prof. Judith Bleich and Rabbi Norman Lamm that appear in: Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew, part of the orthodox forum series.(Maybe some energetic blogging rabbi will republish the series so I wont have to buy used copies off of alibris)

Physicists have long been looking for the unified field theory, a construct that would explain, in one tidy package, all the forces in the known universe. I think that most of the problems that beset Judaism, especially those that involve relations between groups such as reform, orthodox, mo, chareidi, etc, can be organized and percieved with much more clarity by looking back 200 years at the rise of Reform, and the response to it. With this view, even seemingly disparate issues such the Slifkin ban, what is orthodox dogma, metziza befeh, relations between orthodox and reform, even the dispute mentioned in the previous blog entry between R. Greenberg and R. Lichtenstein, can be understood in relationship to basic attitudes. If everyone would realize how their position is a reflection of a stance taken 150-200 years ago(unlikely), some progress could be made in resolving some of the divide that seperates us. I am sure that this is not a novel idea from me, and may seem quite simplistic, but its my blog(well, Nisht's).

There had always been small groups in history that differed from Tradition Orthodoxy, way back from the Kariites, to the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. There had also been individuals who did not follow Jewish Law exactly. However, Reform was different in a number of ways: The large scale, the institutionalization of differences, the claim that Reform was authentic Judaism, and very importantly, the decline of the organized social structure in the community along with the emancipation. Because of the new freedoms in society, the traditional community no longer had the power to physically enforce religious behavior, and the population had the freedom to follow the community, or not, options that previously were not available.

The first literary activity between orthodox and reform was in the form of classic she'elot and tshuvot(questions and answers), with Reform trying to show from classic sources that their beliefs and actions were based on tradition, citing sources from Bible, Talmud, and commentators, including codes of Jewish Law. The first written response was in Eleh Divrei ha-Berit(these are the words of the covenent) published in 1819. It was a collection of 22 responsa. It not only covered halachic answers to the issues raissed by reform, but also predicted that this start would lead to the abandonment of allegiance to halakhah.

In the face of this tremendous challange to orthodoxy, one response was to treat each and every detail of practice, no matter how minor, as a red line, that could not be crossed or tampered with. Thus, things like changing the place of the bimah, wearing robes, having weddings in the synagogue, sermons in secular languages all became important issues. The Hatam Sofer and others brought out the phrase "chadash assur min haTorah" to eliminate any change in practice, for fear of encouraging or providing a foothold for the reform.

The response to reform was not only on an institutional basis, but also on a individual basis. A decision had to be made as far as who was a member of the reform, and how that person should be treated. Thus standards as far as practice and beliefs, previously more of a theoretical or minimally applied issue, became an important fulcrum of debate. According to the Gemara, violators of Shabbat were to be considered apostates(Hullin 5a). R. Jacob Ettlinger(a pioneer in what would be called Torah u'madda) made a distinction between those that violated Shabbat for economic reasons, and those who did it on ideological grounds. Distinctions also were made based on education. The leaders were assumed to know better, and therfore were more culpable. The masses, not having had proper education, were looked more upon as tinok sh'nishba(a child who was abducted- and not raised with a proper education) and could not be found willfully guilty because they had not been given the appropriate information.

to be continued

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