Rupture, Reconstruction, and Revolution: Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s Landmark Essay on the Contemporary State of Orthodoxy
During my years of study at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I once had the pleasure of sitting with Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l and Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein for a Friday night dinner. While much of the meal I spent doing my best to catch what each of the Lichtensteins were saying, I had the opportunity to discuss with them the differences between Jewish American Orthodoxy in the 40’s and 50’s versus the current day. The primary distinction they proposed was the polarization between different Jewish Orthodox groups. I asked R. Lichtenstein how this difference manifests itself. He responded that when he was growing up, you went to the supermarket and picked up kosher meat. Everyone bought the same kosher meat, regardless of what group of orthodoxy they came from.[i] Today, he said, you go to the store and find that there are endless hashgachot for each branch of Orthodoxy! While this specific example is perhaps of a more trivial nature, it does reflect a broader and more significant shift in Jewish American Orthodoxy.
Though studying the makeup of different groups along the spectrum of Jewish observance continues to be a major topic in contemporary academia,[ii] the most important foray into this area in the last fifty years was made by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik in his article “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Dr. Soloveitchik’s article, published in the journal Tradition, has been described as the “most widely discussed article in the last 30 years of Tradition” by R. Yitzchak Blau.[iii] Moreover, Mark Steiner wrote that “seldom does an article evoke such discussion as Professor Haym Soloveitchik’s ‘Rupture and Reconstruction.’”[iv] Soloveitchik’s essay was landmark in the field of studying contemporary Orthodoxy, and its significance is attested to by the fact that any discussion in this field published subsequent to Soloveitchik’s essay has needed to include a discussion of Soloveitchik’s groundbreaking article.
Dr. Soloveitchik’s central claim in his article is that there has been a major shift from the Orthodoxy he experienced in his early years (which existed in Orthodox Jewish Society for many centuries beforehand as well) to the one that now exists in the post World War II era. Ultimately, this leads him to make certain controversial observations about the modern Jew’s sense of the Divine presence. In order to evaluate the legitimacy of Soloveitchik’s claims and their relevance to the modern day, the following questions should be raised:
- How accurate are Dr. Soloveitchik’s descriptions of what Orthodox Judaism was like in the past?
- How accurate are Dr. Soloveitchik’s descriptions of what Orthodox Judaism is like in the present?
- How compelling are Dr. Soloveitchik’s claims for why this shift occurred?
- Are Dr. Soloveitchik’s claims still relevant 20 years later for the sociological realities of Orthodoxy today?
As alluded to earlier, there were a wide variety of critiques levied at the article, including some by significant scholars like Isaac Chavel, Mark Steiner, and Hillel Goldberg. Each of these critiques related to one of these questions, and created an important discussion of this significant article. Dr. Soloveitchik also addresses a number of other fascinating topics by way of presenting his central thesis, which are also worthy of evaluation. A careful exploration of Soloveitchik’s article, as well as a brief survey of main critiques levied at the piece will provide deep insight into the nature of Orthodoxy post World War II.
Dr. Soloveitchik’s Central Thesis
Prior to addressing our earlier questions, let us outline the central thesis of Dr. Soloveitchik’s article. At the very outset of his article, Soloveitchik makes a startling statement: “The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore.”[v] Later, when explaining his decision to study this topic Soloveitchik wrote:
It seemed to me to that what had changed radically was the very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere. Put differently, the nature of contemporary spirituality has undergone a transformation; the ground of religiosity had altered far more than the ideological positions adopted thereon. (65)
Therefore, Soloveitchik set out to understand this transformation and studied the haredi community in order to do so. Hence, his article is a sociological analysis of Orthodoxy in the postwar world.
Dr. Soloveitchik argues that the social changes of the twentieth century, primarily as a result of the Holocaust, led to a dramatic shift in traditional Jewish practice. Simply put, Soloveitchik puts forth two different types of traditions: mimetic and text-based. A mimetic tradition is one in which people learn how to act by imitating others. The alternative, a textual tradition, is when information is passed down through the written word. Soloveitchik argues that pre-war Orthodox Judaism strongly adhered to a mimetic tradition. He describes:
Halakhah… constitutes 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. (66)
In contrast, Judaism in the postwar era largely follows a textual tradition and is disconnected from the mimetic tradition. Soloveitchik describes this change as the “new and controlling role that texts now play in contemporary religious life.” The last remnants of the mimetic tradition were lost in the absence of the shtetl lifestyle, a result of the Holocaust.
Soloveitchik demonstrates this change by contrasting two of the most significant halakhic works of the last few centuries: the Arukh Ha-Shulhan and the Mishna Berura. In the Arukh Ha-Shulhan, common practice had its own value and legitimacy, whereas in the Mishna Berura, common practice needed to be squared with halakhic literature. Thus, the Mishna Berura, when evaluating a practice, often times will explore earlier halakhic literature and then provide a post facto justification for a common practice. This shift in orientation indicates a transition from viewing received practice as being inherently valid to it no longer standing on its own. Soloveitchik dramatically hammers this point home by arguing that:
It is no exaggeration to say that the Ashkenazic community saw the law as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus (the Talmud and codes), and in the regnant practices of the people. Custom was a correlative datum of the halakhic system. (67)
Within this framework, Soloveitchik explains the “slide to the right” in the Jewish American Orthodox community. What is meant by this slide, is that there has been a heavy emphasis on chumrot in halakhic observance. As Rav Yehuda Amital once observed, when he was a student in yeshiva, when talmidim read sections in the Mishna Berura that were directed to a God-fearing person, they all would think of one special student in the beit midrash, and not themselves. Nowadays, when the Mishna Berura writes about a chumra relevant to a God-fearing person, everyone thinks it is referring to them!
Soloveitchik argues that “much of the traditional religious practice has been undergoing massive reevaluation” and that there has been a concentration on chumrot through the medium of the printed word. Soloveitchik sums up this transition as:
Fundamentally, all the above—stringency, “maximum position compliance,” and the proliferation of complications and demands—simply reflect the essential change in the nature of religious performance that occurs in a text culture. (72)
The most prominent example that Soloveitchik references is shiurim. Despite Jews having used the same type of shiurim for hundreds of years beforehand, the Hazon Ish totally upended this practice, by contending that the shiur size needed to be increased. This new chumra was adopted by many in the haredi world.
There are two primary reasons proposed for this change. First, we no longer have the strong mimetic tradition as a result of the rupture of the twentieth century, so we have lost our confidence in the mimetic tradition of our fathers and forefathers and have resorted to books as our guide instead of our parents. In other words, if we haven’t seen it in writing, we don’t trust it. Second, due to the secular culture Jews now find themselves in, they now strive to maintain their fidelity to authentic Judaism by taking upon themselves more chumrot.
Finally, we would be remiss if we were to not mention Soloveitchik’s bombshell found in the final section of the article. He proposes that that the transition from the mimetic tradition to an entirely text-based tradition has had a dramatic impact on a critical area of Jewish life: sensing the Divine presence within our daily life. Soloveitchik illustrates his argument with an example of tefillot on Yom Kippur. He writes about his experience at a yeshiva in Bnei Brak:
I spent the entire High Holiday period—from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The prayer there was long, intense, and uplifting, certainly far more powerful than anything I had previously experienced. And yet, there was something missing, something that I had experienced before, something, perhaps, I had taken for granted. Upon reflection, I realized that there was introspection, self-ascent, even moments of self-transcendence, but there was no fear in the thronged student body. (98)
Whereas, in his congregation in Boston, constituted of largely irreligious immigrants from Eastern Europe, the atmosphere was entirely different. He describes that during Ne’ilah “the synagogue filled and a hush set in upon the crowd. The tension was palpable and tears were shed.” He continues:
“What had been instilled in these people in their earliest childhood was that every person was judged on Yom Kippur, and as the sun was setting, the final decision was being rendered…these people cried…not from religiosity but from self interest, an instinctive fear for their lives…what was absent among those thronged students in Bnei Brak was that primal fear of Divine judgement, simple and direct.” (99)
Soloveitchik argues that Orthodox Judaism has undergone a change in the sensed intimacy with God and the felt immediacy of His presence. He attributes this to the way people understand daily events. While in modern times, a curious child may be told that diseases come from viruses, in the past he would have been told it is the direct hand of God. Soloveitchik argues that “God’s palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life—and I emphasize both “direct” and “daily”—, His immediate responsibility for everyday events, was a fact of life in the East European shtetl, so late as several generations ago.” (101) This change is also attributed to the influence of natural science.
Ultimately, Soloveitchik powerfully concludes:
“I think it safe to say that the perception of G-d as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious. …individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle…is no longer experienced as a simple reality.” (102)
As is to be expected with an essay that touches on so many important aspects of Jewish life, Soloveitchik’s thesis was subject to a wide variety of discussion and criticism. These criticisms fall into three categories: his assessment of the past, his assessment of the present, and the reasons he suggests for the transition from one tradition to the next. While limited by the scope of this essay, we will briefly explore the critiques found in these three as well as raise some of our own suggestions for why this transition occurred.
Critique of His Description of the Past
Two important critiques were directed at Soloveitchik regarding his description of the past as a primarily mimetic tradition. Hillel Goldberg wrote that:
That which he takes to be “new and controlling” is, in fact, part of a time-honored pattern in Jewish history. Without insisting on too strict a parallel and without ignoring contemporary nuances, the increased reliance on text at the expense of mimesis describes conditions that obtained in successive epochs when, for example, the Mishna was formulated, the Talmud was formulated, and the decisions of the Rishonim were codified in the Shulhan Arukh. In all these cases, where previously there was reliance on mimesis and a measure of halakhic diversity, now there emerged reliance on “texts” and a reduced measure of halakhic diversity. Where previously there was a living teacher, now there was also a written one. Where previously certain matters of halakhic discussion had practical import, now, with fixed decisions, they had mostly theoretical import. In short, while making due allowance for periodic coloration and local conditions, that which R. Soloveitchik takes to be “rupture” is, in fact, part of a familiar pattern.[vi]
Micha Berger, also took issue with Soloveitchik’s description of the past as a primarily mimetic tradition, but from a different angle than Goldberg:
I find this characterization ironic, given the identity of the author. His great grandfather and namesake, R’ Chaim Brisker, was famously textualist in his approach to halakhah despite living pre-war.[vii] Nor was Brisk the first: the Vilna Gaon often ruled based on theoretical argument in contradiction to mimetic tradition. Chassidus could not have emerged if people weren’t looking at the traditions and looking for a new justification for them.[viii]
Berger instead proposes that instead of just one rupture, there were in fact really two: the Haskalah and the Holocaust. He believes that the Haskalah movement led to the fall of mimeticism.
Critique of His Description of the Present
In this section, we will briefly relate to two important critiques of Soloveitchik’s depiction of contemporary Orthodoxy. The first was raised by Isaac Chavel, who took issue with Soloveitchik’s grouping of the Modern Orthodox community with the haredi community. Instead, he writes that the Modern Orthodox community has had a very different timeline than the haredim for important reasons.
The second, and perhaps far more crucial critique, was made by Hillel Goldberg. Goldberg found Soloveitchik’s claim regarding the lack of Yirat Shamayim to be inaccurate. He wrote:
- Soloveitchik has confused lack of yirat shamayim with lack of open, public proclamation of yirat shamayim. That’s not the style today. We live in cynical times. For people publicly to proclaim that they perceive God as a daily, natural force is to identify themselves as relatively unsophisticated.
Critique of Soloveitchik’s Reasons
In the article, Soloveitchik argues that the proliferation of halakhic books on Orah Hayyim topics is due to to the transition to a text-based tradition. Hillel Goldberg disagreed with him on this point, and understood this phenomenon very differently. First, he contends that it should be seen as part of a broader trend towards specialization in all advanced systems of knowledge. Second the “process of producing a book is easier, cheaper, and more decentralized than ever before.” Third, and most importantly, Goldberg writes:
For most, the present textual explosion fills in for Orthodox parents, teachers, mentors, or rabbis who have been missing since long before “contemporary Orthodoxy.” It is in this context that there is a textual process of reconstruction-an attempt to reestablish a link to the living past, not to replace it. R. Soloveitchik confuses cause and effect. The preponderance of new texts has not caused the diminishment of mimesis, but has creatively responded to the diminishment.
In a different vein, Mark Steiner argued for an alternative explanation for the lack of Yirat Shamayim in the haredi community. He wrote, “I would argue that haredi Jews today are in general less fearful and more aggressive than a generation ago, primarily because of improved material standards—and, in particular, they are also less fearful of God.”[ix]
Finally, Steiner disagrees with Soloveitchik’s claim that the loss of the shtetl led to the shift in traditions. Instead, he proposes:
“[There] has been a change: a change in the locus of authority. The traditional kehilla was no more, its potential leaders perceived as having sold out to the New World or to Zionism. What was left, a tradition without any religious legitimizing authority, was fragile and inherently unstable, susceptible to massive defections to the left and to the right. Most, of course, left the fold. Those truly interested in fulfilling God’s Will had no choice but to turn to what they considered to be the uncorrupted saving remnant, those talmidei hakhamim they began to call “gedolim.” In a world of technological change, universal literacy (in Orthodox circles, of course), and new options, halakhic handbooks began to be written to inform the “b’nei Torah” what these gedolim say about the new issues, and also to combat foreign sources of corruption.”
Prior to concluding the essay, I believe two other considerations are worthy of mention. First, R. Yehuda Amital argued that there was a need for in-depth Torah study because:
In a generation that attaches so much importance to the intellect, it is important that the intellect, too, be employed in the service of God. In a period when people invest such great efforts in various fields of study, should the service of God not demand strenuous application of the intellect? Precisely at such a time, it is especially important that Torah study should be serious and in no way inferior in intellectual profundity to other realms of study. The service of God will not survive in our day if its bearers are void of Torah scholarship. It is impossible to live a serious religious life without deep Torah learning.[x]
Lastly, the academic culture surrounding study of any discipline demands textual analysis. Many would fall prey to believing that halakhic observance does not have legitimacy historically if there were not texts to base observance on. In modern culture, in order for something to be legitimate, “it needs to be seen in writing.”
It is worthwhile to note that in the twenty years since the publication of Soloveitchik’s essay, significant changes have occurred in the Orthodox community. The spread of neo-hassidut, postmodernism, and individualism have all affected the nature of religious observance in the Orthodox community. It would be worthwhile for Soloveitchik to reinvestigate if his description of the Orthodox community should be changed as a result of these new trends. In conclusion, despite the various critiques discussed in this paper, it is clear that Soloveitchik’s article is a landmark and an incredibly important piece both because of the valuable content and ideas contained therein, as well as the discussion it opened. Without a doubt, it should go down as one of the most important articles of the last half-century.
Avraham Wein is a fourth-year student at Yeshiva college and is majoring in Jewish Studies, Tractate Shavuot, and Psychology.
Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s article can be found at http://traditionarchive.org/news/converted/Volume%2028/No.%204/Repture%20And.pdf
[i] It is somewhat ironic that R. Lichtenstein used this as an example, since his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, was famously involved in a major controversy regarding hashgachot of meat in Boston.
[ii] For example, see Menachem Keren Kranz’s article in Tradition (49:4) titled “The Contemporary Study of Orthodoxy: Challenging the One-Dimensional Paradigm.”
[iii] Yitzchak Blau, “From the Archives of Tradition,” Torah Musings, available at http://www.torahmusings.com/2015/01/archives-tradition-8/.
[iv] Mark Steiner, “The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy: Another View,” Tradition 31:2 (1997), 41.
[v] Haym Soloveitchik, Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (1994), 64.
[vi] Hillel Goldberg, “Responding to ‘Rupture and Reconstruction,’” Tradition 31:2 (1997), 40.
[vii] Also see Mark Steiner’s discussion of Brisker chumrot.
[viii] Micha Berger, “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road,” Aspaqlaria, available at aishdas.org
[ix] Mark Steiner, “The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy: Another View,” Tradition 31:2 (1997), 41-42.
[x] Yehuda Amital, “The Importance of In-Depth Torah Study,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: www.vbm-torah.org.