Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Rupture and Reconstruction, again.

Eleven years ago Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Soleveitchik (or Dr. Grach, as someone cleverly calls him) published an article in Tradition 28:4(1994):64-131 called Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Judging by the amount of buzz it generated at the time (or so it seems; I was still in high school and not really clued into things like that) and the constant appearance of this article in footnotes ever since, it seems that Rupture and Reconstruction can rightfully be called seminal.

The piece attempted to explain current trends in Orthodoxy in light of the Holocaust as the seminal "rupturing" event in the Jewish world, followed by its "reconstruction" to make the Jewish world of today. Soleveitchik's premise is that pre-Holocaust Orthodoxy was of
mimetic in character. Jews knew how to behave as Jews by learning in the home. No one, except for a scholarly elite, thought about tzitzis, for example. No one wondered what the correct size was. One wore tzitis, shoin. One thousand years of settlement in a place will do that to a society. Then the world was destroyed.

Following the Holocaust, Soleveitchik argues, there has been a (really radical) shift to an Orthodoxy that is not mimetic, but one that gets its norms from texts. Which is not to say that Jews didn't look into halakha seforim before 1945 or anything like that. But the specific issue that he raises to illustrate his point, that of shiurim is illuminating. Basically, before WWII the issue of what is the proper size of a kizayos (and how it pertains to, say, matzah) didn't exist. One knew exactly how much matzah to eat. Every year since you could remember you attended your family seder. Your father ate matzah. His father was their too, or his father-in-law. Everyone knew how much to eat.

In the 18th century it was discovered by certain rabbis that there is good reason to believe that the shiurim are in error, namely because halakhic tradition had it that a kizayos (olive) is half that of a kibeitza (egg). That is demonstrably not the case. Be that as it may, it seems that no one thought about it until the 18th century. Then you had certain rabbis who argued that it must be that "our" olives are smaller than olives in Talmudic times and they advocated a larger, precautionary shiur. The Gra may have eaten more and maybe his students did too, but by and large the issue was roundly ignored. Until the Chazon Ish wrote about it in about 1940. He advocated, basically, a shiur approximately twice that of what was then considered a kizayos. Following the war, as anyone who has any experience in the yeshiva world knows, the Chazon Ish's shiur has basically become the norm. It no longer matters that your fsther, say, doesn't eat that much matzah. Azoy shteit the Chazon Ish. Three thousand years of Jews eating too little matzah is no deterrent; we will eat more otherwise we are not yotze!

Rupture and Reconstruction is not a judgement piece (i.e. disapproving the phenomenon) as some people think it is. It may well be that the Chazon Ish is right in his conclusion, despite what our ancestors ate. It only describes what has occurred in Orthodoxy.

The Holocaust was of such scale and produced such upheaval that afterwards there was basically a possibility of total reinvention. And that is what happened. An example is when American roshei yeshiva from Slobodka were able to reinvent the European yeshiva here in America as they wanted it to be, rather than what it may have actually been.

Everyone should read the article. It seems to describe so much of post-war Orthodoxy and explain it.

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