Thursday, November 03, 2005


The trouble with us ex-yeshiva guy bloggers is this: we've looked behind the curtains and seen what the 'Positive-Historical' Jews of the 19th century did. What this means, practically speaking, is that what we've taken to be axiomatic about nearly everything, what halakhah is, what Torah she-be-al peh is, Jewish history, how to learn the Talmud, heck, even how to pronounce words!--is simply not something that we can continue to subscribe to. Some J-bloggers have given up, others are excited about the prospects of forging new understandings, and others are just perplexed. We need a new Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zeman, don't we? ;)

Roughly speaking, we're at the exact same spot that people like Zechariah Frankel were at a hundred a fifty years ago. That's more than a little unnerving.

Eventually, 'positive-historical' turned into Conservative/ Masorti Judaism. They claimed to be the natural heirs of traditional Judaism, while the Orthodox Jews are the intransigents who dug their heels into the dirt and stuffed their fingers in their ears. En hachi nami. The trouble from our perspective is that fifty years ago the Conservative movement did exactly what the Orthodox always suspected they would do and initiated a permission to be mechalel shabbos, probably mi-de-oraisa. You know, the driving thing. Earlier, they boldly broke halakha by permitting 'family seating', something that is often admitted has no halakhic basis for. in fact, there is an interesting article from 1987 called 'Minhag America' (a deliberately provocative title, meant to invoke the first American Reform siddur) in the journal Judaism (available online) about mixed seating. The point is admitted, that there is no real halakhic justification for it, however it is and was widely done and was therefore "minhag America", and minhag oker halakhah blah blah blah. So what does this mean? It means that protestations to the contrary, the Positive-Historicals turned their backs on tradition and halakhah. If it seemed predictable, it was. To many Orthodox Jews another nail was ordination of women which even Halivni couldn't justify halakhically and another were the essays in the Etz Hayyim chumash. Finally, it also seems to be the case that halakhah observance is confined chiefly to the Conservative rabbinate. Hey, its great to be exicted and positive about Jewish tradition and halakhah. But what about everyone else? A fraction of a percent of the Jewish people who actually learn Gemara and are meticulous about halakhah is not going to preserve Jewish practice and belief.

So for many of us, it would be the height of folly to simply repeat the mistakes of generations ago. But where does that leave the Orthodox Jews who looked behind the curtain? Well, some are fortunate and have a like-minded chevra. There are many Orthodox academics, both here and especially in Israel, who are very 'positive-historical' and perfectly frum. It's nice to have a chevra. But what if you don't?

By the way, don't bother suggesting "get a rebbe". I have, or should I say had, a rebbe. :( I have a rebbe who I love but what good is it if he can't address my historical knowledge or himself holds what I must say are misconceptions? I can smile and split myself into two and learn the traditional way, and I do--in fact I do that with a daily chavrusa. Same probably goes for others.

On a side note, I am reminded of a ma'aseh about Franz Rozenzweig Hirsch Grätz. It seems that he was visiting in England and given maftir one shabbos and he read the haftarah with emendations he had made in the text (!). He was afterwards seen wrapping his hankerchief around his neck before he left shul. This story, no doubt, has appeal to some of us. But how depressing too!

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