Rupture and Reconstruction at 25 Years

Twenty five years ago, Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik published “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” in Tradition Magazine.1 The paper quickly became the topic of much conversation within the Orthodox community, including being cited in 325 other articles according to Google Scholar.2 Most notably, the article became a topic of conversation in the street and in synagogue, even if sometimes in oversimplified form.

How We Know What We Know

The paper addresses fundamental differences R. Dr. Soloveitchik observed in how Orthodox Jews who grew up before the Shoah relate to Torah and halachah compared to how those of us born after the relocation of the remnants of European Jewry mostly to the United States and Israel. He writes that this change is due to a break, a “rupture,” in the chain of transmission that the destruction of pre-War European Jewry caused, and the subsequent need to “reconstruct” Orthodoxy afterward.

A discontinuity in the life of the community as fundamental as this will break its culture. The author uses the technical term “mimeticism” to refer to learning by seeing, the informal transmission that occurs through immersion in a culture. Once the chain is broken, all society can do is produce texts that explain the ideas through a conscious exercise of formal learning.

Culture can transmit very different things. We learn basic values from our parents and the other people around us, not in classes but in watching their actions and responses. Dr. Soloveitchik notes that the European-born Jews of his youth, even the not-entirely observant among them, would cry in shul on Yom Kippur because they felt the awe and terror of the day. Whereas the following generations know from books that Yom Kippur is a day of awe. If we cry, it is often part of an effort to work ourselves into feeling that awe.

Through immersion, we can also pick up behaviors, not just attitudes. How do we know how much matzahto eat at the seder? The mimetic approach is to recall what one saw at their father’s and grandfather’s table. The amount everyone eats must be sufficient. In contrast, today there are numerous guides to the proper amount of matzah and marror to consume, and numerous haggados have helpful templates to measure your food against. This is the textual approach – read up on the commentaries, responsa and other rulings, weigh the arguments or consensus, and if you can’t, rely on an author of a popularization who did that work for you.

Dr. Soloveitchik attributes our community’s general “slide to the right” to this shift. Whereas mimeticism inherently means maintaining society’s norms, relying on codes and halachic guides opens the door to choosing stringency.

It is a neat picture, and one for which we can find precedent.

Historical Ruptures and Reconstructions

One could argue that something similar happened in the days after Moshe Rabbeinu’s death. 300 laws were forgotten, and doubts arose in another 700. Rav Avohu tells us, “החזירן עתניאל בן קנז מתוך פלפולו – Osniel ben Kenaz restored them through his analytics.”3 Apparently this included measures and weights, about which another gemara says, “שכחום וחזרו ויסדום – they forgot them, and they returned and established them.”4

That last phrase also appears in connection to Anshei Keneses haGdolah. The final letters were attributed to them. The Talmud asks how can that be? Don’t we say “אלה המצות שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה – ‘And these are the mitzvos’5 – that no prophet is authorized to introduce anything new from now on”? “אלא שכחום וחזרו ויסדום – rather, they forgot, and they returned and established them.”6 It would seem that the break in Jewish Life during the Babylonian exile caused us to lose parts of the tradition that were only restored by formal analysis and reliance on texts. An earlier Rupture and Reconstruction.

Arguable the very compilation of the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmuds were driven by similar ruptures in our cultural life due to persecution and relocations, and this forced the formalization of texts to lean on. And it is not likely coincidental that the Shulchan Aruch was the product of a refugee of the Spanish Expulsion. The flight of Jews from Spain and Portugal ruptured the more natural mimetic chain of transmission, and this led to a greater need to depend on a codification of halachah in a text.

Still, I am not sure I understand the progression of this latest rupture an reconstruction exactly the way Rabbi Dr Haym Soloveitchik does in his paper. I would start the story earlier.

Responses to Enlightenment

As I alluded to above, mimeticism describes the transmission of some very different things. The mimetic transmission of ideals, attitudes and worldview need not go hand-in-hand with the mimetic transmission of ritual details, of halachic rulings.

Before the Enlightenment, the majority of Jews lived in ghettos. Mimetic tradition was ensured, because Jews lived among Jews, in our own communities that retained some level of autonomy. A Jew couldn’t lose the thread of that cultural transmission since no other culture was willing to let him enter.

Not shortly after the ghetto walls fell, communities founded on ideologies emerged. German Reform was one response, but there were parallel responses that kept people within the observant community.7 Chassidus, the Lithuanian Yeshiva Movement, German Neo-Orthodoxy, Mussar, and others were all ideologies that were lying within Torah but at this point in time became Isms, communal rallying cries. They became new ways to motivate Jews to continue observing the Torah and to find meaning in our lives. They are formalisms taken from books to replace the natural absorption of values and responses that had previously been accomplished by osmosis, total immersion in a Torah-based culture. The times had changed and immersion lost its viability.

Mimetic transmission collapsed over centuries. The Holocaust did not begin this process but serve as a pronounced inflection point.

Communities then emerged around these Isms as their enthusiasts sought supportive peers. The Alter of Novhardok, Rav Yoseif Yoizel Horowitz, describes the history of the relationship of the “street” – the general Jewish community, and the “yeshiva” – the Torah as transmitted formally and the community who studies it.8 The Alter says that the Enlightenment opened a gap. Rav Yisrael Salanter’s innovation in the Mussar Movement was to teach in the yeshiva that which until more recently was learned growing up in a Jewish home, in Jewish society. This development embodies Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik’s thesis of rupture and reconstruction, but limited to a rupture in the transmission of values and emotions, of mussar,9 and placed back in the late 18th century.

The Alter’s internal depiction of the Mussar Movement’s origins was typical of a century of such communities forming in response to the rupture caused by Enlightenment and Emancipation.

From Ideas to Practice

Because newly constituted communities need ways to express their unitingideal (and to signal membership), they necessarily shift to some degree away from mimeticism. For example, Chassidim adopted a new nusach more in line with the Ism by which they defined their lives’ goals. They changed how they tie tefillin, stopped wearing tefillin on chol hamoed, and generally prayed at later times than previously allowed.

The same happened, perhaps to a lesser degree, in other such communities. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch eliminated Kol Nidrei as it implied to many a loophole to making false commitments. Mussarists moved singing Shalom Aleichem and Aishes Chayil until after the Friday night meal began, to be compassionate to anyone who may be hungry and waiting.

The change away from a mimetic approach to the transmission of attitudes and feelings slowly infiltrated practice as well. But for these other, non-Chassidic communities, this transition happened much later, with serious changes in practice only becoming more common about a century later, in the latter part of the 19th century.

Within the Yeshiva Movement, which by definition was about learning and halachic theory, the Ism too yielded a change in practice in the late 19th century. A century earlier, the Vilna Gaon adopted new practices that he felt were better supported by Chazal, documented in Maaseh Rav. But these were seen as his personal practices, and did not spread to his students until well after his death.

When we get to the late 19th century, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik systematized “lomdus” a new way to analyze and make sense halachic texts and their differences of opinion as well as how different cases are ruled differently. Building on the Vilna Gaon’s precedent, it became more common to adopt rulings in line with the new understandings that lomdus enabled.

Thus we find that the Soloveitchik family, and other Briskers, would have two matzos at their seder table, rather than the mimetic norm of 3, because it would be odd to mark “lechem oni – the bread of the poor and oppressed” by having more than the two one would have on Shabbos or other holidays. They do not follow the norms of being lenient and allowing chadash – new grain before the omer offering would have been brought, or allowing use of a communal eruv, and so on.

I therefore found it quite ironic that Rabbi Dr Haym Soloveitchik, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s own great-grandson and namesake, sees this trend toward a more textual perspective on halachah as something that basically started with the Shoah.

Despite these historical precedents, there were many people who either didn’t actively affiliate with one of these Orthodox Movements, or who didn’t do so to the extent that they felt comfortable adopting a different halachic ruling or minhag to conform to a new Ism. The shift R. Dr. Soloveitchik describes of the masses to the Ism-driven Orthodoxy was, indeed, a product of the displacements of World War I and more finally, the Shoah. Less than a discontinuity that occurred in the mid-20th century, the reconstruction was a long process that was forced to a hasty close.

Recent Developments

For a sizable portion of the community, the “shift to the right” has unwound a bit in the 25 years since the paper was published. I think that with the shift in general society from Modernism to Post-Modernism, more people are looking for answers in places other than the Lithuanian yeshiva’s legal formalism. We are returning to where the reconstruction began, to looking for meaning and emotion in our Judaism through formal, textual, means. This is why we see an exploration of Chassidus in Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox circles, coming from an interest in textually rebuilding on the aggadic side. Without this interest in aggada, a more legally oriented textualism would naturally develop a practice based on ensuring that every formalism is met. In the past decades, for increasing numbers of people, pesak, decisions of practice, are increasingly based on whether a textually justified position has meaning within the adopted motivational ideology.

The genie cannot be put back in the bottle and the ghetto wall cannot be rebuilt. About a year ago, I was walking the streets of the Beit Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, a comparatively isolated Chareidi enclave. Still, I heard a boy notice a stuffed representation of “Chase” – a policeman dog from a popular children’s television show – and ask his mother for one, by name.

Even if we rebuild mimetic transmission of both halachah and aggadita, future generations will be exposed to cultural influences in a manner our ancestors in ghettos were not. The increased role of texts must be a permanent fixture of Jewish culture. This underlies the observation made in recent generations that our community’s survival requires near universal Jewish Education for 12 years or more.

We cannot return to the same levels of reliance on mimeticism; as the Alter of Novhardok put it, where the Jewish street fails, there is still the yeshiva. But we must recognize where the collapse of mimeticism all began – with a need to find an alternate way to live inspired lives focused on meaning. Our search for preserving halachah without being able to rely on minhag and mimetic transmission of practice came only as a consequence. To formally construct a core about which future Judaism can endure, we cannot be satisfied with the textual study of proper observance. We also must commit ourselves to providing lifelong programming of formal education in values, attitudes, and emotions.

(This article originally appeared on Torah Musings, and the improved readability over my usual fare is due to the deft hand of Rabbi Gil Student. For which I’m very grateful.)

  1. Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 64-130. Available at, and in HTML form at . Both retrieved on July 25, 2019. ↩

  2. Retrieved on July 25, 2019. ↩

  3. Temurah 16a. ↩

  4. Yoma 80a, where the restoration is credited to Yaavetz and his beis din. The gemara in Temurah identifies Osniel ben Kenaz with Yaavetz. ↩

  5. Vayikra 27:34 ↩

  6. Shabbos 104a, Megillah 8a  ↩

  7. I would suggest that “Orthodoxy” is less a movement than a property a movement can have. Some of the responses to modernity have retained an Orthodox nature; but unfortunately the larger ones have not been. ↩

  8. Madreigas haAdam, in the eponymous first essay. ↩

  9. With a lower-case “m”, the Torah’s teachings on character and morality. Not limited to the approach and positions of the capital “M” Mussar Movement. ↩

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