Unchanging Orthodoxy, Constantly Evolving
Here [with thanks to Shira Schmidt] are the two main things wrong with Orthodoxy:
- It is ossified, petrified, will not acknowledge new information, scientific discoveries or social changes, refuses to change with the times.
- It is hypocritical, since it changes constantly and yet claims not to change. It accuses Reform and Conservative of playing fast and loose with tradition, yet does the exact same thing itself. It has evolved so far from what it was originally that a Second Temple Jew would not recognize it as Judaism — heck, a 19th century shtetl Jew would not recognize it! — yet criticizes the heterodox movements for evolving in just the same way. Just because they have stepped up the pace of evolution a bit, Orthodoxy hypocritically accuses them of being inauthentic.
Actually, there are elements of truth to both of these images of Orthodoxy. Its combination of resistance to change and flexibility within certain parameters is what has given Judaism its longevity — 3000 years and counting.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I felt ambivalent about making a party for my daughter’s bas mitzva, because the very idea of a bas mitzva party was a Reform innovation. I was taken to task for denigrating Reform when we Jews need unity in the face of common enemies.
So then I said,
The ones who changed the status quo are the ones who cracked the facade of unity, not the ones who kept on doing faithfully what we had always done!
Shawn Landres took issue with this:
Although there is no question that Reform and other movements within Judaism have made changes to the status quo, there also is no question that Orthodoxy has changed…. In the mid- to late 20th century, U.S. Orthodoxy moved to the right….. So let’s not indulge in the myth of an authentic, essential, immutable “Orthodoxy”…
This elicited a variety of comments, acknowledging that Orthodoxy has indeed changed, while explaining how those changes differ from Reform [and Conservative] changes.
(Parenthetically, I note that Mr. Landres objects to the rightward movement of American Orthodoxy in recent decades, but he could just as easily have found evidence of a “leftward” move in the last century, e.g., the founding of the Bais Yakov school system and resulting higher standards of women’s Torah scholarship.)
OK, some of the “changing Orthodoxy” comments:
1. Yaakov Menken spoke of changes in the percentages of dark vs. light peppered moths, in response to changing levels of pollution. Dark and light colors were pre-existing natural variants. All that changed (within Orthodoxy) were the proportions; the species remained the same. Here’s what he said,
So the shift in Orthodoxy is indeed a reality. What is called “Orthodox” in America today is, on average, a far more Torah-observant model that it was fifty years ago. This is not, however, the result of an evolutionary shift to some previously-unknown, stringent form, as implied by Heilman or Shapiro. It is merely the natural growth of that form of Orthodoxy always found before, but in smaller numbers — not unlike the colors of Biston betularia.
2. R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein used a different analogy:
A tree is remarkably resilient. Facing the strength and fury of a gale, the tree bends, and therefore doesn’t snap. Surely, it is flexible. But just because it can bend, does not mean it can pick itself up and walk twenty paces.
What makes it different from the heterodox movements is that there are definite limits and boundaries to that change. There are rules that make the degree of change predictable. The rules themselves may show a small amount of wiggle room between different Orthodox approaches, but they bunch up pretty closely on a continuum of possibility.
3. Finally, Shira Schmidt basically said that Orthodoxy does not change, but circumstances change:
Rather than use the term “change” it would be helpful to say that halakha, which is eternal in nature, is applied to new, different, and changing circumstances.
The analogy that I want to use is a little different. In the middle of a chess game, the board looks quite different than it looked at the beginning. There are any number of legitimate mid-game configurations of the board. There are also many illegitimate moves. For example, up-ending the board in frustration and tossing the pieces in the air is not a legitimate move. Letting your kid play through to the end even though he lost his king right at the beginning is also not kosher.
Orthodoxy does look different today than it did a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. The board has changed a lot. But we have always played by the rules.
A chess expert can look at a board and tell whether the current configuration was arrived at legitimately. He might say, “Whatever you guys have been playing, it isn’t chess. You can’t keep playing without the King!”
A Reform chess player may respond, “Men made up these rules and men can change them. The King is only a human construct anyway. I don’t need Him.”
A feminist chess player might add, “Men made up these rules, and women can change them. The old ones are too patriarchal. Nowadays we know that a Queen can do anything a King can do.”
The chess grandmaster tells them both that if they want to tamper with the rules of the game, they can play however they like, but they can’t call it chess. They both turn on him in fury and say, “We don’t see you keeping all the white pieces on your side of the board! Your board has changed since the start of the game! You make all these changes and then you criticize us!?”
I could have used a Scrabble analogy, too. I want the board to look a certain way, so I rummage around in the bag and find the tiles I need. If seven tiles aren’t enough, I take out eight or nine. If I want a Q and a Z to make a nifty triple-score word, I just write Q and Z on the blanks. Well, no, can’t do that. You have to play with the tiles you have.
Of course I realize that our apriori assumptions are not the same. Reform assumes that not only the plays made in each round, but also the original rules, are man-made. Orthodoxy starts with the assumption that the rules of the game are Divinely ordained. That’s the big difference right there, the distinction that marks the boundaries of what kinds of changes can and cannot take place in the Torah world.