To a healthier Judaism

In his seminal 1994 article, Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy, in the journal Tradition, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik describes how the “rupture” of traditional Orthodoxy caused by the mass migration from Eastern Europe and the subsequent encounter with modernity, and of course by the extermination of those communities in the Shoah, led to a very different type of halachic culture. He refers to the previous way as “mimetic” – people knew what to do because they saw everyone else doing it the same way. This was replaced with a text based culture where the authority was books, not the home. Now certainly people had looked at books before, but their influence was never as it is today. This can be seen very clearly in how people relate to various halachic measurements. Whereas today it is not uncommon to have a guide at the Pesach seder showing exactly how much matza and maror must be eaten, such a thing would never have been found in our ancestors homes. And while there might have been theoretical discussions in the past about such levels of precision, they weren’t followed in practice. Soloveitchik writes:

The problem was theoretically interesting, but practically irrelevant. And then a dramatic shift occurs. A theoretical position that had been around for close to two centuries suddenly begins in the 1950’s to assume practical significance and within a decade becomes authoritative. From then on, traditional conduct, no matter how venerable, how elementary, or how closely remembered, yields to the demands of theoretical knowledge. Established practice can no longer hold its own against the demands of the written word.

Significantly, this loss by the home of its standing as religious authenticator has taken place not simply among the modem orthodox, but first, indeed foremost, among the haredim, and in their innermost recess—the home. The zealously sheltered hearth of the haredi world can no longer validate religious practice. The authenticity of tradition is now in question in the ultra-orthodox world itself.

This text-based approach has led to lack of inner confidence in our practices, in what our families do – and to greater and great stringencies (chumrot).

A similiar phenomenon, from a different realm, is presented by the writer Michael Pollan.  In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan explains how the process of industrialization and commercialization of food in the 20th century has caused eaters in Western society to forget how to eat. Instead of eating food, there is a focus on consuming certain nutrients (and avoiding others). This trend he calls “nutritionism“, and it’s very similar to Soloveitchik’s text based culture:

The “What to eat” question is somewhat more complicated for us than it is for, say, cows. Yet for most of human history, humans have navigated the question without expert advice. To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother. … But over the last several decades, mom lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers … Most of us no longer eat what our mothers ate as children, or, for that matter, what our mothers fed us as children. This is, historically speaking, an unusual state of affairs. (page 3)

The ironic thing about the drift to nutritionism is that Americans have become less healthy, not healthier, since it began. And while Soloveitchik doesn’t say it outright, the message from his essay as well seems to be that although we are becoming more strict in our halachic practice, our religious life is not significantly healthier, if at all.

The difference between Soloveitchik and Pollan is that Pollan offers some suggestions of how to improve the situation, even if the clock can’t be turned back (or shouldn’t be). I believe by looking at Pollan’s “rules” (page 148) we can find inspiration on how to heal the rupture to some degree. (These conclusions of course are mine, not Soloveitchik’s).

  • Pollan’s rule: Don’t eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

We can add: Don’t look for chumrot that your great-grandparents would not have kept. In fact, there is already a halachic concept for this – motzi laaz al rishonim (Gittin 5b), that Solovetchik (footnote 22) points out we ignore today.

  • Pollan’s rule: Avoid food products that contain unrecognizable ingredients

We can add: We already have a set of 613 commandments, and number of rabbinic regulations, and some long standing customs. If something doesn’t fit in these categories – is some kind of “new” fad halacha, custom or chumra, treat it with suspicion.

  • Pollan’s rule: Avoid food products that make health claims.

We can add: Avoid customs that promise some immediate divine benefit. “Hafrashat Chala for kohanim” or “Hafrashat Chala for remembering the mitzva of chala.” Not for some unrelated request.

  • Pollan’s rule: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket or stay out of the supermarket altogether

We can add: When you can, spend time in the farmers market of Judaism, enjoying “organic” practices with people who have not made wild changes one way or another. This is particularly good advice for baalei teshuva.

Now don’t get me wrong. Innovation has its place in food and health (we don’t need the 30 year life expectancy of ancient man), and in religion. I’m not interested in “paleo-Judaism”. But the reasons must be considered. Certainly innovations or changes for ethical reasons, to help the oppressed, weak or poor, should be given particular weight, since such hessed is the goal of the Torah itself. And some changes which are designed to bring us back to the earlier, pre-exilic state of Judaism should be seriously considered.

If we can regain this balance, then perhaps future generations of both eaters and halacha followers will again have the confidence to trust what they see at home, and act accordingly. The rupture can be healed.


About the Author
David Curwin is a lifelong lover of language (although not a professional linguist). He has been writing the blog Balashon, about the history of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connections with English, since 2006.