Reconstructing Originalist Judaism

Here’s a summary of the famed “Rupture and Reconstruction” essay by Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik:

Following the Holocaust, Soleveitchik argues, there has been a (really radical) shift to an Orthodoxy that is not mimetic, but one that gets its norms from texts. Which is not to say that Jews didn’t look into halakha seforim before 1945 or anything like that. But the specific issue that he raises to illustrate his point, that of shiurim is illuminating. Basically, before WWII the issue of what is the proper size of a kizayos (and how it pertains to, say, matzah) didn’t exist. One knew exactly how much matzah to eat. Every year since you could remember you attended your family seder. Your father ate matzah. His father was their too, or his father-in-law. Everyone knew how much to eat.

While he does a pretty good job of explaining the history, I disagree with Rabbi HS’ implied stance (yes, he does have one). The sad truth is: Jews today lack reliably accurate and detailed traditions (or “Masores”). We are all basically Gerim (converts). We must wake up and learn seriously and independently. “Mimetic culture” (that is, certain Halachic actions, or silence upon observing certain actions, by “Vasikin”, or scholars) is logically reducible to merely one more source-text, just as though the scholar in question had written out his view and got it copied or printed. And each Jewish text is assigned different weight, of course. We pay less attention to Rabbi Akiva Eiger than to a Gemara; so too must we pay less attention to custom by a lesser authority than to that of a greater one. And sufficient proof from many Rishonim can beat a widespread custom.

We lack knowledge of the Holy Alter’s location, which animals and birds exactly are Kosher, the Arba Minim, and much more. Yes, we do know some things, but this was never enough, and reality is thankfully forcing us into making numerous decisions about Jewish matters left unplumbed for thousands of years.

The shift is positive. Thank God, we have done some Teshuvah and are now more faithful to our texts. Or as Forthodoxy calls it, “meqoriyuth” (or mekoriyut). Yet there is still much work to be done. By the way, the Chazon Ish deserves a lot of the credit for this revolution.

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