In 1994, Professor Haym Soloveitchik wrote one of the most impactful essays on contemporary Jewish life, entitled, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” In this essay, he asserted that there was a rupture in contemporary religion starting from the beginning of the 20th century. Beforehand, we experienced a mimetic tradition, but after this rupture, Jewish contemporary orthodox culture reconstructed itself to become a text-based culture. A mimetic tradition essentially means that religious practice was conveyed by living example and not through texts. We follow a halachic position because our parents followed it and their parents followed it, etc. However, from the beginning of the 20th century, contemporary Jewry lost its roots and it led to insecurity and people now turned to detailed texts as opposed to their parents and elders to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.
Professor Soloveitchik highlighted two manifestations of this change. One manifestation was the “shift to the right,” or a culture of stringency. People were reading texts and if there was a text that had a more stringent view than common practice, many people would follow it, perhaps due to their religious insecurity in maintaining common practice that was at odds with a minority view found in the halachic texts. A second manifestation was that there was less of a feeling of the immanence of God as there was in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. The mimetic tradition connected us to our roots and our past, but the text-based culture disconnected people from their past. They were observing detailed halachic minutiae, but the perception of God as a daily, natural force was no longer present in any sector of modern Jewry.
This essay was both praised and criticized for a variety of reasons and over the past 25 years, the orthodox world has experienced several significant changes. On the 25th anniversary of the essay, Tradition, the journal that published the original essay, published an issue almost entirely dedicated to different perspectives and reflections on this essay 25 years later and I was fascinated by many of the wonderfully written essays about this topic in this issue.
I would like to address two of the significant changes over the past 25 years that were discussed in some of these essays and how they impact Professor Soloveitchik’s thesis. The first change is the digital revolution. If Professor Soloveitchik claimed that we became a text-based culture 25 years ago, certainly now we are even more of a text-based culture. We have access to so many texts thanks, in part, to the proliferation of databases like the Bar Ilan Responsa and the Otzar Hahochma databases. Being a text-based culture has its advantages. There is greater literacy amongst Jews and we have access to and we are studying more and more Torah than ever. Additionally, before social media, individuals struggling with a halachic issue may have felt alone in their own communities, and now digital communities have been created to provide comfort and knowledge to these individuals and access to other experts beyond their own geographical community to help them navigate these issues.
At the same time, whereas Professor Soloveitchik asserted that this text-based culture has led people to search texts and look for greater stringencies through access to obscure sources, it’s fair to say that this culture has led to the opposite direction, as well. Certain segments of the population are more inclined to practice greater leniencies, or may adopt questionable halachic practices based on obscure sources, as well. There has been more of a democratization of the halachic process, and some have argued that we have witnessed a lack of reliance on authority. This is true not just in the Jewish community, but in all faith communities. In many circles, every opinion on social media is given equal weight. As Rabbi Daniel Korobkin wrote in one essay, with the explosion of social media and the internet, “every belief that was once sacrosanct is cynically questioned, every socio-religious structure deconstructed with casual dismissal.” In an era when we can read so much online and then select what fits into our own religious worldview, this personalized religion can be very appealing because it’s very personal and hence very spiritual. However, it can also lead to an erosion of respect for leadership.
A second change is the secularization of society. We find ourselves in a more godless and secular society than ever before, as religion is frowned upon in the public square and this, too, has had a profound impact on our community. Five years ago, Jay Lefkowitz articulated the rise of social orthodoxy in a large segment of our community that is orthoprax and not orthodox, meaning that they practice orthodox behavior in order to belong to a community, but they don’t believe in God. In the old days, many of these people who didn’t believe in God eventually left orthodoxy. Now, we witness many remaining in their communities and watering down the religious vibrancy of those orthodox communities. In a sense, one can argue that this is a mimetic tradition, as these people are simply doing what their parents did without checking texts. However, this mimetic tradition is different than that which Professor Soloveitchik described. The mimetic tradition that he described in 19th century Eastern Europe was a fundamentally God-conscious community. However, in the godless secular society of 2019, blindly practicing orthodoxy for social reasons will unlikely lead to any meaningful connection to God.
How, then, do we find inspiration and sense the immanence of God in 2019, in a hyper-text based culture and in a more godless, secular society, which has contributed to the likes of social orthodoxy? Should we return to a mimetic culture or should we embrace the path of a text-culture? Some in our community have embraced neo-Chassidism because they are searching for inspiration and they haven’t found it in either a Jewish culture that is heavily focused on texts, or in an Americanized secular mimetic culture. These individuals may focus more on big picture issues, like God consciousness, rather than on halachic minutiae.
So, for those of us searching for inspiration and a connection to our birthright, what are we to do? First, I think we need to continue to strengthen our text-based culture. We need to increase Jewish literacy and we are fully aware that Jewish education is one of the greatest predictors for Jewish continuity. In a godless society, we need God. We need to study His texts and the texts of our ancestors rigorously. There is too much noise in the world that can distract us from our mission and therefore, we need to study more and use the frame of halacha to help us grow. We can also study more hashkafa, more Jewish philosophy, to help us understand big picture theological questions with which many of us may struggle.
But I think we need to do more to find our inspiration. The Torah is not merely a book of mitzvot. It is a book of stories. It is a book of people. And the stories and the people are meant to inspire us. In 19th century Eastern Europe it was the spiritual leadership or the profound religious experiences of the surrounding culture that inspired people and connected them to God. That is what we need now too.
What does that look like in 2019? For one, we must go back to being a society that sought and supported leaders. I remember Erica Brown addressing our shul a number of years ago and during one of her talks she said that everyone these days talks about leadership, but what about followership? What about our community’s desire to create, build up and not knock down leaders? There is a societal trend to denigrate leaders, and our community is not immune.
In the age of the digital revolution, there is less respect for authority. We live in a culture of gotcha, and we pay a price, because having set the bar impossibly high and insisting on nothing less than perfection, there are no leaders left to inspire us. Admittedly, the change in reverence for Rabbis is also sometimes self-inflicted, with the advent of different Rabbinic scandals casting aspersions on the Rabbinate as a whole and the lack of good communication between Rabbinic leaders and their community. At the same time, we need to find leaders to inspire us. Even if some of these leaders are flawed, which they likely are because they are human, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be inspired by them. (Obviously, the severity of the flaw is critical in making this determination.) Even if our religious worldview does not line up with a Rabbinic leader 5% or 10% of the time, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be inspired by them 90% or 95% of the time. We need to find more ways and allow ourselves to be inspired by leaders in our community.
Additionally, we need to create more spiritually uplifting experiences in our community. Again, in his essay, Rabbi Korobkin compared Rabban Gamliel to Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai in the aftermath of the destruction of the second Temple. Rabban Gamliel enacted legislation in the wake of the destruction, such as takkanot and seyagim (Rabbinic ordinances and decrees). Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai enacted many laws that were “Zecher lamikdash,” in commemoration of the Temple, to retain the memory of a generation and world that was lost. For Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, preserving the mimetic culture, the traditions, the faith, the morals and the ethics of a previous generation were key to preserving Judaism for future generations, and undoubtedly, he was more successful.
We as a community need to remember what it is that connects us to God and to our faith, and we need to be cognizant of those moments in our lives that make us feel spiritually alive. In our shul community, I am so excited about a weekly night seder program that we recently started. The reason why I am so excited by it is that it connects so many of us to a time when we spent a year or two studying in a Yeshiva in Israel, and we felt so connected sitting in a packed Beit Midrash. We felt alive then and we need to replicate these experiences.
Hopefully, we as a community in 2019 can ask ourselves two questions. One, how do we as a community cultivate and build up our leaders, and create an environment in which they can inspire us? Two, when have we felt a true sense of connection to God in our lives, how can we replicate these experiences in our own communities?