Was the Chatam Sofer Really So Fair?

“Hechadash assur min haTorah b’khol makom” — That which is new is biblically forbidden in all places.

This statement, found in mishnayot Masekhet Orlah (3:9), refers to “new” grain – grain harvested from plants which took root after the 16th of Nisan (the second day of Passover.) It is forbidden to consume this grain until the 16th of Nisan the following year, after the Omer offering was brought.

One of 19th century European Jewry’s leading rabbis, the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer/Schreiber, 1762-1839), used a pun on this mishnaic dictum to convey his fierce opposition to the Haskalah and Reform movements. Rather than translating chadash in the classic sense of meaning “new grain,” he chose instead to render the word chadash as “innovation.” Thus, the Chatam Sofer stated categorically that “innovation is biblically forbidden” – the rules and tenets of Judaism had never before changed and cannot ever change in the future. This motto, “chadash assur min hatorah,” has become the rallying cry of those Jews who are opposed to all that is modern and innovative.

How, as Jews in the 21st century, do we reconcile our beliefs with the Chatam Sofer’s statement? Indeed, how did the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1839-1933) justify his responsum permitting Sarah Schenirer to establish the Beis Yaakov educational system for girls, an innovative idea in 1917, in light of the Chatam Sofer’s contention that innovation was absolutely forbidden?

One of the major issues dividing Hungarian Jewry during the 19th century was a disagreement over whether rabbis should give their sermons in German and Hungarian, or in Yiddish. The Chatam Sofer’s followers, basing themselves on “chadash assur min hatorah,” sided with the Yiddish-only camp. However, today most rabbis (including me) give their sermons in the vernacular rather than in Yiddish, and English translations of the Chumash (Pentateuch) and other sacred texts are widely available.

Rather than proceeding from the assumption that the Chatam Sofer was, God forbid, misguided or wrong, I think that we can find a way to harmonize the Chatam Sofer’s valuable idea with modern thinking. In order to do so, let us digress for a moment and examine the nature of matan Torah (revelation at Sinai.)

I suggest that even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses), who learned Torah directly from God, had areas within Torah where his understanding was incomplete. There are a number of sources that support this idea.

  • A well-known midrash is brought down in the Gemara, Masekhet Menachot (29b). Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended on high, he found God sitting and tying crowns onto the letters [of the Torah]. Moshe said to God: Master of the universe! Who is the cause of this delay? [in giving the Torah – it is complete, what purpose do the crowns serve?] God said to Moshe: There will be an individual at the end of a number of generations, and Akiva ben Yosef [Rabbi Akiva] is his name. He will expound on each point of each crown heaps and heaps of laws. Moshe said to God: Master of the universe! Please show him to me! God said to Moshe: Turn around. Moshe did so and went to sit in the 8th row [of Rabbi Akiva’s study hall.] Moshe was unable to follow anything that was being said, and became upset. When he [Rabbi Akiva] came to a particular issue, his students asked him “how do you know this” and he answered “halakha l’Moshe MiSinai” – it is a law given to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe’s mind was then at ease.
  • Towards the end of the weekly portion of Balak, we learn about an incident where Zimri and a Midianite woman have relations in public defiance of Moshe and God. Rashi (25:6) comments on this incident that the reason that Bnai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) were crying was because Moshe seemed to be unsure about what to do in response to Zimri’s brazen act. We see that the law concerning relations with a gentile woman was concealed from Moshe.
  • In the weekly portion of Pinchas, Tzelofchad’s daughters approach Moshe with their concerns about losing their deceased father’s share in the land of Israel because there were no sons in the family. Moshe needs to consult with God before making a decision because the law was concealed from him (see Rashi on 27:4).

Based on these three examples, we can make the argument that the corpus of Torah is infinitely large and no individual – even Moshe Rabbenu – can ever aspire to encompass it all, and that learning Torah is a lifelong endeavor that has no end.

I think that this idea is also an explanation for the purposeful juxtaposition of Matan Torah with Yitro’s advice to Moshe concerning delegation of authority. The pshat (plain meaning) of Yitro’s statement that “ki kaved mimkha hadavar, lo tukhal asohu levadekha” – the job is too big for you, you cannot do it all yourself – is that Moshe is unable to adjudicate all of B’nai Yisrael’s disputes single-handedly. An additional meaning is that “hadavar” refers not to the job of judging, instead, it refers to the corpus of Torah. (It is interesting to note that “davar” has the same root as “dibrot” in Aseret HaDibrot – the Ten Commandments.) Thus, another message in Yitro’s statement is that Torah is too big for a single individual to comprehend it all.

Chazal (our Sages) teach that every Jewish soul was spiritually present at matan Torah. Reflecting on the idea of the infinite depth of meaning within Torah, it makes sense that in order for the message of Torah be relevant to us in the 21st century, each and every one of us had to be present at matan Torah, since it was otherwise impossible for mere humans to transmit Torah in any complete way, let alone in a way where we would be able to see it as relevant to us now.

Let us now apply these ideas back to the Chatam Sofer’s statement that “chadash assur min hatorah.” I suggest that the Chatam Sofer uses chadash in the same sense that it used in Megillat Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) – “ain chadash tachat hashemesh” – there is nothing new under the sun. Kohelet is speaking about the gamut of human experience – what we think of as new and innovative has already been around for time immemorial and God has already anticipated it and addressed it within the Torah. The Chatam Sofer’s argument is not per se with the idea of innovation – rather, it is with those who claim that innovation is necessary because Torah is no longer able to address a particular situation and that it is no longer relevant. In other words, innovation itself it not heretical – what is heretical is the claim that God was so shortsighted when God gave us the Torah, God did not properly allow for Torah to speak in a relevant and satisfying way about the challenges facing Jews in every generation.

Perhaps, then, we can see that the Chatam Sofer’s dictum that “chadash assur min hatorah” is not necessarily inconsistent with innovation. As long as we retain our firm commitment to the centrality of Torah and halakha in all areas of human endeavor, we can be secure with the knowledge that we are engaged in the holy work of continuing the process of revelation that was begun at Har Sinai.

Since we have already established that we were all present at matan Torah, and that Torah is too big for any one human to encompass, it is not a stretch to say that each and every one of us, out of necessity, came away from matan Torah with our own unique Torah viewpoint.

As we bid Shavuot farewell, let us strengthen our belief that the Torah contains within it the answers to the challenges facing us in each generation. Let each of us approach all of our fellows with the perspective that we have something to learn from their unique viewpoints, and let each of us be successful in effectively discharging our obligation to share our own unique Torah viewpoints with each other and with the world at large.

About the Author
Daniel Geretz grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the founding rabbi of Maayan in West Orange, New Jersey. Daniel was awarded semikha by YCT Rabbinical School, and besides continuing to serve as the rabbi of Maayan, he works as a Spiritual Counselor at Center for Hope Hospice in Scotch Plains, NJ, and a Chaplain Intern at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ.
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