Modern Consciousness and Mesorah

The Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote the following in an article included in the 1992 book, Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (Dr. Moshe Sokol ed.), pp. 165-167:

[S]urely we are sociologically and philosophically sophisticate enough to realize — given the wealth of studies on this very point — that it is this modern consciousness that is radically subversive of tradition of all kinds. At the very heart of Judaism, biblical and rabbinic, is an insistence on standing apart from, sometimes maintaining an oppositional stance to, the secular ethos of the age. The very concept — itself biblical — of a “fence around the law” recognizes that there may be behaviors which, while not directly in conflict with Jewish law or values, are nonetheless subversive of them. It was remarkable, therefore, to find a series of “responsa” rejecting a set of halakhic assumptions in favor of an uncritical acceptance of a late-twentieth-century American view of what is “sexist” or undemocratic. This fails to pass a minimal threshold of sociological insight, let alone halakhic integrity.

I would hazard this view: that concepts like ervah and kavod are culturally determined, and that a general disposition to find them meaningless testifies to a failure of cultural transmission. I have argued that [Conservative Rabbi Joel] Roth’s responsum fails the test of integrity, or what I have called Daat Torah, by concentrating on narrow and formal argumentation and ignoring the wider ambit of halakhic values. It fails, in fact, exactly on those grounds in which Conservative thinkers claim prowess: historical and sociological sophistication. But this is part of a wider failures.

Halakhah is often taken to be a set of rules, and as such is governed by the general jurisprudential considerations that apply to rules. This view governs, for example, the entire presentation of Roth’s book, The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis. But this is not so, as Maimonides makes clear in the Guide. The laws of Torah, he argues, are intended to do more than govern behavior. They are meant to shape character and cognition. That is why one cannot be halakhically indifferent to secular culture insofar as it shapes character and cognition in way antithetical to or subversive of Torah. We can go further. The extraordinary emphasis in both biblical and rabbinic Judaism on Torah not only or even primarily as law, but as an object of perpetual study, testifies to the degree to which Judaism finds its meanings not self-evident on the surface of either society or nature, but acquired through extended, indeed continual, education. A failure of talmud Torah will eventually lead to a failure of halakhah, for there will then be exactly the cognitive dissonance between law and sensibility that we find in the Conservative responsa. The answer to this is not halakhic change.

(Hat tip: R’ Gil Student on Hirhurim.)

Note how Rabbi Sacks words “it is this modern consciousness that is radically subversive of tradition of all kinds” are echoed in the sentiment in my most recent philosophy post, on Postmodernism and Mesorah. There I discuss the modern’s approach to texts and it’s relationship to more recent Conservative Jewish thought.

One popular Postmodern school is Deconstructionism. Rather than looking look for the meaning the text had to the author, but the meaning the text has to the reader. A hyper-correction to the opposite extreme. I think it’s the key to the Conservative movement’s approach to halakhah, once it left the classical academic approach of Historical School under the influence of Mordechai Kaplan’s concept of transvaluation. It literally asks the reader to recreate Judaism according to how he wants it to be.

[In contrast, m]esorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the gemara from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Brisker.  That is the true meaning, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.

Definitionally, talmud Torah is entering the stream. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption.

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