Past imperfect

Past imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative.

The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the past’s standard-bearer, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer, compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship long has been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules. (There are notable exceptions among halachists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on talmudic sources.)

Still, we can observe the evolution of attitudes toward religious tradition, and changes to the tradition itself, within a single lifetime. In the last few decades, accompanied by a trend toward stricter observance, Orthodox society increasingly has turned to texts, rather than prevailing custom, for religious guidance. This trend has been defined and interpreted meticulously by Haym Soloveitchik in his 1994 essay, “Rupture and Reconstruction.” Soloveitchik contrasts the culture of pre-war European Jewry – a mimetic society, where behavior was transmitted by example and imitation – with the modern text-based culture. Where previous generations absorbed the rules of Jewish observance in the home, street, or synagogue, much of Orthodox society has come to rely on books, thought to be more authoritative sources of halachah. Among other factors, this trend represents a desire to restore the more religiously authentic world of Europe before the Holocaust, based on a reconstituted image – supposedly captured in halachic texts – of what it was really like.

It would seem that tradition should view this phenomenon favorably. After all, we are describing an ostensibly deeper commitment to tradition. What could be truer to the traditionalist than a religious life restored to its original state, to a period of history unweakened by dislocation and acculturation? The old-world traditions of our great-grandparents and grandparents would appear to be superior to those of our parents, which may have been – indeed, in some cases have been – diluted by compromise.

But some of these assumptions do not hold up under scrutiny. What many perceive as restoration – a more rigorous observance derived from the past – in fact may be religious innovation.

In “Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry,” the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Manuel) Poliakoff of Baltimore sets out to correct misconceptions about the yeshiva culture of pre-war Lithuania. Rabbi Poliakoff, a participant in that culture, studied at the Telshe Yeshiva during the 1930s. He cites several modern religious practices wrongly assumed to have been followed in the great Lithuanian yeshivot and in their surrounding communities. For example, the wide adoption of the upsherren custom (allowing a boy’s hair to grow uncut until he turns 3 years old) and the “glatt kosher” standard (based on a kosher meat stricture), he says, are recent innovations – unknown in Europe or confined to particular communities – that gained currency only after World War II. He also points to rulings of R. Israel Meir Kagan in the “Mishnah Berurah” – today considered the most authoritative code – which never were followed in Lithuania, or even in the author’s hometown, despite his great prestige.

If certain customs that appear restorative actually are innovative, in broad segments of Orthodox society we also are witnessing the acceptance of practices that are undeniably new. Bat mitzvah and simchat bat celebrations, for example, were unknown in Ashkenazic Orthodoxy a generation ago. (Simchat bat has some precedent among Sephardim). These innovations are drawn primarily from the present; they are the product of egalitarian notions of gender and greater public visibility of women – both modern phenomena – and regarded as consistent, if not continuous, with tradition.

Under the right conditions, tradition can successfully assimilate the best modern values. This is one way to leave our children a more perfect past.