The Emergence of Ultra-orthdoxy - The Invention of a Tradition, Michael K Silber in
The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era Hardcover – January 1, 1993
Edited by Jack Wertheimer
Of all the branches of modern-day Judaism, ultra-Orthodoxy is undoubtedly the most tradition-oriented. Its rallying cry is "All innovation is prohibited by the Torah!" חדש אסור מן התורה a clever wordplay on a Talmudic ruling first coined by Rabbi Moses Sofer in the early nineteenth century that captures the essence of its conservative ideology. And yet, like other antimodem conservative movements, ultra-Orthodoxy itself is clearly a recent phenomenon. Belying the conventional wisdom of both its adherents and its opponents, it is in fact not an unchanged and unchanging remnant of pre-modern, traditional Jewish society, but as much a child of modernity and change as any of its "modem" rivals.
Ultra-Orthodoxy offered its own response to the challenges posed by secular education, linguistic acculturation, national identity, religious reforms, and minority status. They were troubled that tradition, as it was understood by the mainstream, often did not prove up to the task of providing a forceful response.
Tradition and the past were interpreted, shaped, filtered, and recast to better serve the cause of traditionalism. …. And providing the underlying rationale for these halakhic innovations was a freshly constructed worldview which pulled together often marginal elements of the existent tradition (whether halakhic, aggadic, or kabbalistic) into a consistent "myth" of what authentic Jewishness and Judaism were…
What strategy should be adopted on halakhic issues in an age increasingly lax in traditional observance? When the hold of tradition was still strong, leniency or severity was often a matter of the individual authority's personal inclination. Where tradition came to be challenged, however, it often became a matter of policy and general tactics. Should one eschew a stringent approach for fear of further alienating a not entirely committed congregation, or on the contrary, defiantly embrace a hard line, and thus prod a hesitant flock into making a firm commitment? The Hatam Sofer had already established the principle that "it is proper to make a fence around the Torah, to be stringent and not add lenient rulings.
…. "It is not that we do not know [how to rule leniently]. On the contrary. But we do know very clearly that in the present state of decline of our poor generation, faith is endangered on all sides. And everyone must admit that a weak, sick body needs more care and protection than a healthy body." Therefore, instead of seeking ways to lighten the burden, rabbis should find reasons to cling to even the most inconsequential traditions. "In this orphaned generation it is a holy obligation incumbent upon each and every one to root in his heart from the earliest years to keep and fulfill not only all the commandments, but even the most trifling customs which we received from our ancestors."
Several stratagems were employed. One way which the Hatam Sofer sought to arrive at stringent rulings was to collapse the differences between the various levels of precepts. "It is good to elevate a prohibition!" By this he meant to ground a stringent ruling in a new rationale, as well as to "promote" the prohibition to a higher level (e.g., to claim that a rabbinic prohibition was actually a biblical one).4? Since all elements of the tradition were equally sacred, there was no point in distinguishing between its various strata; that could only lead to its relativization. This was precisely the ploy of the reformers, who eagerly sought to differentiate between the authority of biblical precepts, rabbinical ordinances, and recent customs recorded in the Shulhan Arukh.
"Every rule in the Shulhan Arukh," stated Schlesinger, "is equal to the Ten Commandments; and every Jewish custom is equal to the Ten Commandments!"
The Talmud (Yebam. 90b) stated that at times to abrogate the Torah is to preserve it. If this was said in favor of issuing a lenient ruling, argued Lichtenstein, how much more must this hold true regarding a stringent ruling!
This tendency to over-justify clearly betrayed a basic insecurity, an uneasy sense that the halakhic rationale for both the traditional bimah and huppah stood on rather shaky ground. And indeed the Orthodox were faced with the embarrassing fact that on both issues the Shulhan Arukh was undeniably open to liberal interpretation.
By and large, the ultra-Orthodox ignored the mechanism which had guided Jews over the centuries in sifting, weighing, discarding and reconciling the multiplicity of aggadic statements that were often sharply at odds with one another. If in fact there is reason to designate ultra-Orthodox Judaism "fundamentalist/' it is precisely because of its tendency to ignore the "tradition" of these traditions in favor of a literal reading. Thus, any one strand of tradition could always be seized upon and cited, no matter how extreme or marginal, because it did after all appear in the written sources.
Division of Labor
The tactic of the ultra-Orthodox in delegitimizing the filtering mechanism was to espouse a strand of tradition which historically was quite marginal, and to pass it off as the only relevant and authoritative one.
This was what can be called the idea of division of labor, and it is in fact with this notion that Schlesinger opens his Lev ha-Ivri. God created different types of men, each endowed with a different purpose in the scheme of creation. The vocation of non-Jews is to master nature, to explore science, and to invent useful technologies. The vocation of the Jew, on the other hand, is to devote himself solely to the study of Torah. Each to his own, and any attempt to rebel against one's assigned vocation and infringe upon another invited dire consequences.
Here is an opportunity to see how Schlesinger manipulated his sources. He began with a reference to a well-known Talmudic passage: "R. Johanan said: A heathen who studies Torah deserves death, for it written, 'Moses commanded us a law for an inheritance' [Deut 33:4]; it is our inheritance, not theirs" (Sanh. 59a).
Just as a gentile who studies Torah deserves to die, he [Schlesinger] argued, "so too did the Torah decree conversely" that an Israelite must study only Torah and not the wisdom of the nations. "And if he transgresses," he added, "he deserves death."
"Someone once asked: why, if we have to be cautious concerning the customs of our forefathers, should we utilize new, useful things which gentile scientists have invented in our times? They answered him: In matters of human affairs, certainly the new is preferred over the old, for all that is new adds benefit; a rule which does not apply in the conduct of religion, whose source is God."? The division of labor created a useful mechanism which enabled the Jew to benefit from modern civilization as a consumer, but the ambition to be a cultural producer had to be unambiguously renounced.
Yet precisely these seemingly nonconfessional elements were invested by the ultra-Orthodox with supreme religious valence. "These are the things which our saintly forefathers transmitted to us as the very root of Jewishness [shorshei ha-yehudut]," wrote Schlesinger, "name, language, and dress." Following the Hatam Sofer, these three, shem, lashon, and malbush in Hebrew, were called by their acronym shalem, meaning complete, whole, intact, unimpaired, safe. The acronym alluded to the experience of Jacob who had successfully withstood the cultural temptations at Laban, his father-in-law, and "Jacob arrived intact [shalem] in the city of Shekhem" (Gen. 33:18).