A thought on the emergence of modern Orthodoxy

“Observance of the Sabbath gradually was abandoned in the larger cities and increasingly in the small towns as well

‘TO CALL Rashi or Maimonides “Orthodox” would be an anachronism.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘TO CALL Rashi or Maimonides “Orthodox” would be an anachronism.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For 2,000 years, the Jews in Europe suffered oppression – “Everywhere a guest, nowhere at home.” Being Jewish was synonymous with living in abject poverty. The way most Jews felt at the time can be best summed up in a passage written by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century as his alter ego:

Robbed of all characteristics of nationhood, we are, nevertheless, deemed a nation, and every one of us, by his very birth, is doomed to form a link in this chain of misery. It is the Law that is chiefly responsible for all this: it enforces our isolation and thereby arouses suspicion and hostility on the part of others; it invites contempt by its stress on humble submissiveness; it discourages the pursuit of the formative arts. Its dogmas bar the way to free thought. Through this enforced isolation, the law removes every incentive to achievement in the sciences and arts. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, Feldheim Publishers (1969), pg. 24)

The Jews in Europe were denied work in any of the free professions, nor were they even able to own land and farm for their existence. Confined to ghettos, the Jews lived on the fringe of society, impoverished and humiliated both in the eyes of their neighbors and in their own eyes as well. The only thing the Jews loathed more than their own existence was to be a Christian. It was seen as a totally traitorous act. So while baptism offered a ticket out of poverty, the Jews refused it and continued to suffer.

With the advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews were, for the first time, able to leave the ghetto without giving up their Jewish identity. They found work and went to school without having to accept the baptismal waters. Perhaps not since the time of Hellenism did Judaism face real competition for the hearts and minds of the Jews.

This newfound freedom led to many Jews abandoning the practice of their fathers, even if they did not officially convert. The privileges of the Enlightenment were so enticing that the Jew yearned to assimilate and become a good German, a good
Englishman, a good Frenchman and could do so without calling oneself a Christian.
Historian Howard M. Sachar describes this:

“Observance of the Sabbath gradually was abandoned in the larger cities and increasingly in the small towns, as well; at first, Jews surrendered the Sabbath secretly and shamefacedly and then, bit by bit, publicly and openly.”

While Judaism always had apostates and heretics, for the very first time in Jewish history, a significantly large percentage of Jews were no longer observant of the mitzvot. More importantly, along with the abandonment of Jewish observance came the eventual desertion from Jewish peoplehood. Before the Enlightenment, being Jewish was not a matter of choice. The Jew could not deny his identity any more than one can deny the color of one’s skin. Yet by shedding his observance, his identity and fidelity slipped away as well. Intermarriage, once a taboo, became an accepted norm.

There were also those who believed that instead of assimilating, the answer was to be found in the reformation of Judaism. Instead of praying in Hebrew, they would pray in German; instead of having their holy day on Saturday, they would have it on Sunday like their German compatriots. Berlin was their new Jerusalem!

This reform of Judaism was an attempt to modernize Judaism and have it be in concert with the zeitgeist of the enlightenment. It attempted to cut away those parts of Judaism that were distancing the Jew from his fellow citizens.
THOSE WHO remained faithful were looked down upon by their assimilationist brothers and reform-minded co-religionists and disdainfully labeled “orthodox.” 

The term “orthodox,” a Christian term referring to certain sects in Christianity, had a pejorative sting to it, similar to the term “narrow-minded” today. Jonathan Sarna points out that the term became common in America after the vociferous protestation by traditionalists of the introduction of an organ in a Temple in South Carolina in 1840. 

Traditional Jews accepted the Orthodox moniker as a means of maintaining their distance from Reform Jews while also creating their own separate identity as something wholly “other” than Reform. 

In other words, Orthodoxy is not the oldest form of Judaism. To call Rashi or Maimonides “Orthodox” would be an anachronism. But rather the Judaism practiced by them most closely resembles Orthodox Judaism. If one had to label or categorize it, it would be more precise to say that Orthodoxy is the most authentic form of Judaism. It is an attempt to capture and preserve the Judaism that existed before the onslaught of the Enlightenment.

In reaction to the assimilation and reform of Judaism, haredi Judaism emerged as a stopgap measure against the growing influence of the Enlightenment. It was a drive to place a line of scrimmage in the sand and perform a triage. Haredi Judaism sought to cut off what they perceived to be the rotting limbs of Judaism in order to save the body. It’s not that haredi Jews do not value Jewish unity, but rather Jewish unity was secondary to their fidelity to Torah. Jewish unity in the haredi mind is not the penultimate value. There are other values that trump it. Torah was not to be compromised.
THE CHIEF proponent of haredi ideology was Rabbi Moshe Sofer, otherwise known as the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839). Identifying the need to stem the tide of assimilation and reform, Sofer developed a haredi ideology to prevent the disappearance of traditional Judaism. One of the most important ideas expressed by Sofer is the motto chadash assur min haTorah (new innovation is forbidden by the Torah). 

Sofer brilliantly took this motto from an existing Halacha dealing with an agricultural law. Chadash, new wheat, was forbidden before the offering of the Omer in the Temple. Sofer took the line from the Gemara in Kiddushin 38b in which it says “Chadash assur min haTorah b’chol makom.”

In other words, the Chatam Sofer and his followers used a phrase that would already resonate deep in the soul of the Jew who may have already heard the Gemara, and gave it a brand new application. Not only did he give it a brand new application, but he also by, the very nature of the words, was able to give his ideology more authority. When a question would be asked about some new innovation in the synagogue such as the giving of a sermon, for instance, the answer would be “No!” When asked why, he’d be able to answer that it was never done before in our synagogue, and chadash assur min haTorah! The poor Jew posing the question, faintly recognizing this as somewhat familiar, accepted the reasoning.

Still today, some very haredi Jews will use the motto of chadash assur min haTorah as a broad rationale against the inclusion of modernity on their lives.■
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem