The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road

In a famous article in Tradition titled “Rupture and Reconstruction“, Dr Haym Soloveitchik describes a change in how we relate to Judaism from pre-war Europe to post-war US and Israel. The rupture in Jewish life caused by the Holocaust forced a reconstruction process. Pre-war religion was largely mimetic, i.e. based upon what people do and how they respond. A transmission of the tradition by culture. In order to reconstruct, we turned to texts, to halachic codes and other formalizations.This fits with a saying of Chazal. “‘Listen, my child, to mussar avicha — the tradition of your father, and do not neglect toras imekha — the Torah of your mother.’ Do not read ‘imekha — your mother’ but ‘umasekha — your nation’.” Mandatory formal education is an obligation of the father, mussar avikha. The Torah learned by absorbtion, at the mother’s knee, by breathing the culture of our nation, is toras imekha / umasekha.I find this characterization ironic, given the identity of the author. His greatgrandfather and namesake, R’ Chaim Brisker, was famously textualist in his approach to halakhah despite living pre-war. Nor was Brisk the first: the Vilna Gaon often ruled based on theoretical argument in contradiction to mimetic tradition. Chassidus could not have emerged if people weren’t looking at the traditions and looking for a new justification for them.

And this isn’t simply true pragmatically. Philosophically as well, we started looking for movements to justify our lifestyle. The aforementioned Chassidus, Hisnagdus, Mussar, Hirschian neo-Orthodoxy were all trying to provide a basis rather than relying on Tradition, as Tevya the Milkman would have.

In distinction to Dr Soloveitchik’s thesis, I would instead speak of two ruptures. The first was the Haskalah, and with it the fall of mimeticism. However, the response to this in the 19th century was primarily to find new derakhim to give depth and meaning to our lives. (This is even true for Brisk’s hashkafah that halachah stands on its own, and hashkafah is to be played down, and the Hungarian approach of banning change. Asserting that structure must come from halakhah, or that one must manually preserve that which was hitherto part of the Jewish preconscious, are themselves textualist, formal changes.)

The Alter of Novorodok, in the first essay of Madreigas haAdam, speaks of various eras in human history. From the tanna’im until the haskalah was the period of the yeshiva. With the haskalah, the ir, the city, went out of sync with the yeshiva. Therefore there was a new need for Mussar, for the conscious inculcation of those values and reactions that until then would have been transmitted unsconsciously. In our terms, toras umasekha no longer tracked mussar avikha. It now had to relayed textually and formally, in the manner of mussar avikha.

It was therefore after the haskalah that the Ashkenazi world faced a fork in the hashkafic road, between sheleimus (self-completion, walking in G-d’s image) and deveiqus (cleaving to G-d, walking to Him).

The shift after the Holocaust was, in my opinion, the loss of direction. Rather than trying to fill in the gap with a formal philosophy or a program for tikkun hamidos and/or deveiqus, we’re just in a vacuum. We’re not just textualists, we’re focused almost exclusively on halachic texts. Aggadita is limited to nice truisms that can be repeated at the Shabbos table. And ironically that gives us fewer tools for halachic resolution. How does one decide which pesaq is right amongst those justified by the sources without focusing on a pre-halachic definition of “right”? And so we “play safe” or invoke the rules of doubt. A 19th century Chassid had a priority system by which his poseiq could decide which issues warrant chumrah, which qulah.

Uncoinicidentally, it was after WWII that Rav Dessler said we need to pursue a fusion of the two paths. That our generation is too poor to select Mussar or Chassidus (being the movements that extended sheleimus and deveiqus to their maxima) exclusively, that we need all the tools at our disposal.

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