Sunday 23 April 2023

426) Developing R. Hayim Soloveitchick's view on the "controlling role of the text"



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Adiel Schremer,[1] explores the rather provocative notion that contemporary religious Judaism has adopted a new approach which was unknown to previous generations. Schremer builds on the thought and observations of Rabbi Professor Hayim Soloveitchick[2] (the only son of R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchick, known as the Rav, who served as Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University) who maintained this was due to an unhealthy obsession with the text - and he shows historical parallels of similar elevation of 'text above tradition' which were always reactionary to the former tradition.

R. Hayim Soloveitchick 

In his well-known “Rupture and Reconstruction” article published in 1994, Hayim Soloveitchick writes: 

“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” … especially the new rigor in religious observance now current among the younger modern orthodox community …  Put differently, the nature of contemporary spirituality has undergone a transformation…” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Soloveitchick then pinpoints exactly where, in his view, the new phase parted ways with the old traditional approach: 

“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” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Soloveichick acknowledges that we have always had texts (although their availability was far more limited than today) but he insists that the form of transmission of Judaism in the past was not regulated almost exclusively as it is currently, through Halachic texts. In previous generations, a more tangible and natural means of transmission took place, not through books but through a living tradition and 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” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Soloveitchick then asks and answers a fascinating question: 

“Did these mimetic norms the culturally prescriptive conform with the legal ones? The answer is, at times, yes; at times, no” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

He illustrates this transformation utilizing the example of 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” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Soloveitchick defines the contemporary situation as follows: 

“There is currently a very strong tendency in both lay and rabbinic circles towards stringency (humra). No doubt this inclination is partly due to any group’s need for self-differentiation, nor would I gainsay the existence of religious one-upsmanship … Books cannot demonstrate conduct; they can only state its requirements. One then seeks to act in a way that meets those demands. Performance is no longer, as in a traditional society, replication of what one has seen, but implementation of what one knows” (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Could one say about this new approach, that it too presents a challenge to the technical legalities of Halacha, as did the older traditional way although in the opposite direction - and in manner where the answer to the compliance question also is "at times, yes; at times, no”

Schremer builds on Soloveitchick 

Adiel Schremer summarises Soloveitchick and emphasises again that: 

“in the past orthodox Jews used to anchor their religious praxis in the living tradition of their fathers and forefathers, in the last generation a new tendency has arisen: orthodox Jews tend to base their religious praxis on the halakhic rulings written in authoritative and canonized texts of Jewish law” (Schremer 1999:105). 

Schremer thus differentiates, essentially, between two “modes of religiosity.” One is the older style grounded in observable custom – which “is the way former generations used to observe the halakha” and the new more clinical “text-based observance. The former “tradition-based observance” is today contrasted by current “text-based observance.” 

While many may feel uncomfortable with this stark delineation between the Judaism of a generation or so ago and contemporary Judaism particularly when we are constantly reminded of how nothing has ever changed in Torah Judaism the facts do seem to bear this distinction out, particularly with the proliferation of ever-stricter Halachic manuals that are becoming the mainstay of our Torah libraries today: 

“One of the most striking phenomena of the contemporary community is the explosion of halakhic works on practical observance" (Soloveitchick 1994). 

Certainly, Jews have always studied Halacha, but “learning groups of halakha now flourish as never before” (Schremer 1999:107). This does not make it ‘bad,’ but the anomaly of an unbounded, unbalanced focus on the praxis of Judaism over its other components, must be recognised as contemporary innovation. 

Sociological and psychological ramifications 

Schremer reminds us that Soloveitchick made some profound sociological and psychological observations (with far-reaching consequences) concerning this shift of authority from tradition to texts. And we often fail to recognize these ramifications: 

“Not only does this shift contribute to the tendency of religious stringency and alter the nature of religious performance; it also transforms the character and purpose of religious education and redistributes political power. For if religion is now text-based, it must be transmitted to the next generation by institutionalized education. In such a state of affairs, the influence of teachers and educators increases dramatically, especially that of the scholar, the one most deeply versed in the sacred texts. This in turn entails a shift in political power: authority is now vested in the Sages, masters of the canonized and sacred halakhic texts” (Schremer 1999:105). 

This means that almost in the blink of an eye, the entire social structure of religious Judaism has been altered. And with this change, of necessity, there has been a dramatic shift in the structure of the economy as the more institutionalised Judaism requires vast amounts of funding to maintain this new order. 

Historical reactionary echoes 

This is not the first time in our history that we have moved from a stable “tradition-based observance” to a more radical “text-based observance.” Schremer points out that during the seventh century, the Karaite movement emerged in Babylonia, where there was a turn away from the traditional ethos of Judaism and Torah study and a focus on the literal meaning of the Torah text. At one stage the Karaite Jews may even have outnumbered Rabbanite Jews, and Judaism could have gone the way of the Karaites. 

Schremer notes that a study of history reveals that usually, the obsession to return to the text is, ironically, the revolutionary consequence of dissatisfaction with the older tradition: 

“[T]he 'text-based' type of religiosity is a reaction to the 'tradition-based' one. Thus, by its very nature, the 'text-based' mode of religiosity is secondary and innovative” (Schremer 1999:107). 

Thus, while presenting as a return to tradition, it may instead be a reaction against tradition and perhaps should be viewed more as a reform of the tradition and an innovation: 

“This innovation is a process that reinforces itself. Once one becomes aware of the religious demands as presented by the written sacred text, it is difficult not to sense the discrepancy between these demands and one's traditional practice, which intrinsically is almost always somewhat remote from the fixed law. The awareness of this discrepancy has the potential to generate feelings of guilt that, in turn, strengthen the tendency to comply with the strict demands of religious law as embodied in the written authoritative text. The consequence of such a process is a growing denial of the living tradition as a legitimate mode of the religious way of life” (Schremer 1999:108). 

Israel Ta-Shema has similarly observed that the feeling of inadequacy and guilt may have played a role in the “return to the text” after the eleventh-century Ashkenazic Jews were introduced to the Babylonian Talmud and its halakhic traditions, which had just recently been introduced into Germany.[3] 

Traditions, it seems always emerged first. Then the need arose to embed those traditions within a solid textual base. Ephraim Urbach[4] shows that in all the Talmudic literature concerning Halakhic decisions by the authorities of the Second Temple era before the time of Hillel and Shammai there are surprisingly no references whatsoever to Torah sources as proof-texts. This was very different from later rabbinic and Talmudic literature which based all their interpretations on written verses from the Torah. Even in the writings of Hillel, there are very few references to the written text at all. 

“In light of the central role that scriptural citations play in later rabbinic discourse…the absence of scriptural proof-texts in halakhic sayings attributed to authorities of the Second Temple period is striking, to say the least, and undoubtedly calls for an explanation” (Schremer 1999:116). 

The explanation is enlightening and in keeping with the theme of this article: 

“Urbach has suggested that the fact that early halakha, as it is known to us from rabbinic sources, is presented in the form of decrees, testimonies and traditions derived from custom, but without reference to Scripture, indeed indicates that in those days halakhic decisions were not derived from Scripture. Rather, institutional authority was their main source of legitimacy” (Schremer 1999:116). 

In other words, it appears that the accumulated traditions and accepted practices of the earlier generations preceded the need to base Halacha on the authority of the written words of the Scriptures. A shift then took place, just prior to the Mishnaic period, and there was an intense focus on the text: 

“the appeal to the written text of the Torah as an authoritative source for halakhic matters, and as a means by which one is able to discuss halakhic questions, was a revolutionary innovation of first century BCE Judaism, and it was actually unknown prior to that era” (Schremer 1999:123). 

An interesting example of the written text contradicting previous long-standing traditions follows: 

מעשה בכהן אחד חסיד ברמת בני ענת והלך רבי יהושע לדבר עמו, והיו עוסקים בהלכות חסידים, וכיון שהגיעה עונתה של סעודה אמר לאשתו: הביאי טיפה של שמן לתוך הגריסין. הלכה ונטלה את הפך מתוך הכירה. א״ל: רבי, וכי הכירה טהורה היא? אמר לו: וכי יש כירה טמאה ותנוור טמא? א״ל והרי הרא אומר ׳תנור וכירים יותץ טמאים הם (ויקרא, יא:לה), הא שיש תנור טמא וכירים טמאים! ... אמר: רבי, כך הייתי נוהג כל ימי! אמר לו: אם כך היית נוהג כל ימיך לא היית אוכל קדשי שמים כתיקון

“There was a case of a certain pious priest in Ramat Bnei Anat, and R. Joshua went to speak with him, and they were discussing laws of piety. When it was time for the meal he said to his wife: Go bring us a drop of oil into the beans. She went and took the flask from the stove. Said [R. Joshua] to him: Rabbi, is the stove clean? Said [the pious priest] to him: Is there an unclean stove or an unclean oven [at all]?! Said [R. Joshua] to him: But Scripture says "Oven, or ranges, they shall be broken down, for they are unclean" (Lev. 11:35), so there can be that an oven and a stove may be unclean! Said [the pious priest]: Rabbi, this is how I used to do all my life. Said [R. Joshua] to him: If this is how you used to do all your life, you have never eaten sacramental food properly.” 

Also significant, apropos the observation made earlier that the text-based tradition advantages the authority of the teacher, the Sage, the institution and the economy, is that the abovementioned text appears within a context demanding obedience to the Sages: 

ודלא שמש חכימיא קטלא חייב 

“One who does not serve the Sages is worthy of death.” 

The emergence of Torah study 

Schremer concludes with another significant observation that it was during this early rabbinic period that the notion of Torah study began to emerge: 

“The first century BCE revolution of 'returning to the text' among various streams of Palestinian Jewry had a far-reaching consequence: it was among the primary catalysts of the emergence of Torah study among Pharisaic or, better, traditional circles in the late Second Temple period” Schremer (1999:116). 


So what came first, the tradition or the text? While the importance of the text cannot be undermined, it seems that initially “tradition-based observance” was the dominant mode of religious observance. This then transitioned to “text-based observance” and a need to tie every observance back to a verse from the Torah. This became more important and the generations progressed. 

The challenge, always, is that with the focus on “text-based observance” new structures of society, authoritative leadership hierarchies and a change in the economy are likely to take their toll as the vestiges of “tradition-based observance” begin to fade into oblivion. 

This has been compounded, sadly, by the devastating loss of traditions during the period of the Holocaust. This is something no text can replace.  [See: Kotzk Blog: 055) The Holocaust Didn't Just Kill Jews...] 

R. Hayim Soloveitchick wrote these ideas in 1994. Schremer built on them in 1999. Since then we have turned to a new ‘text,’ the cyber text. While it may still be too early to fully evaluate the consequences of this new category which we may call “Internet-based observance,”  it seems that two opposing streams are emerging side by side: A school advocating a further increase in rigidity and strictures is being met on an equal platform by a corresponding counter-voice, a school advocating a critical reappraisal thereof. It will be most interesting to see where the next phase takes us. Will it be a synthesis of sorts or a deeper divide?

[1] Schremer, A., 1999, ‘[T]he[y] Did Not Read in the Sealed Book": Qumran Halakhic Revolution and the Emergence of Torah Study in Second Temple Judaism’, in Historical Perspectives: From the Hasmoneans to Bar Kokhba in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Brill, 105-126.

[2] Soloveitchick, H., 1994, ‘Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy’, Tradition, 28/4. 

[4] E. E. Urbach, ‘’The Drasha’, 166-82.

1 comment:

  1. The last thing desired by yet another typical shady Johnny come Lately & ilk is a bonafide mimetic society
    (except insofar it conveniently stays out of their space)

    There have been many refutations since
    Even the good Dr, has himself offered revisions