Response: On the Reception of “Rupture and Reconstruction”
In 1994, historian Haym Soloveitchik introduced “mimetic” to the Orthodox Jewish lexicon. His “Rupture and Reconstruction” described the transformed process of Jewish tradition transmission. In Eastern Europe, Orthodox children absorbed religiosity from their families and neighborhoods. Eventually, the forces of modernity and secularization changed that. Starting in the late-nineteenth century, Orthodox Jews grew more dependent on texts to learn how to “do” Jewish life. Textualization flourished in the post-Holocaust period, as mimesis and memory could no longer help this community recall the religious practices of the past.
The insight is captured in a humorous incident that occurred, I have it on good authority, in the 1970s. On one occasion, a teacher admonished her Bais Yaakov students not to eat in a home with just a single kitchen sink. By then, it was common for Orthodox manuals on Jewish law to recommend two sinks to better avoid mixing meat with milk. One student informed her teacher that this directive meant that she could no longer eat at her grandfather’s home. Her zayde was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Soloveitchik’s impressionistic portrayal resonated. It read more elegantly than similar ideas shared earlier by historian Jacob Katz in his Shabbes Goy. Soloveitchik’s article compelled Orthodox thinkers to respond to it, mostly in agreement. Historians and sociologists of Orthodox Jewish life incorporated the argument into their research. The recent Tradition symposium marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Soloveitchik’s essay testifies to the enduring impact that “Rupture and Reconstruction” has had on this community.
In fact, the transformation of “mimetic culture” to “book culture” emerged as an important point in a variety of scholarly fields. For instance, the late Yaakov Elman and Mahnaz Moazami borrowed it for their analysis of Second Temple Judaism. Mark DeWitt applied it to changing dancing traditions in Northern California. Talya Fishman found it useful for Medieval Judaism and Judah Galinsky for fourteenth-century Spanish Jewry. Zeev Gries and David Nimmer used it to analyze Hatam Sofer’s Hungarian environs. Deborah Dash Moore and Noa Gutterman drew on the thesis while writing on Reform Jewish women. Marina Rostow footnoted the article in her book on Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate while Samuli Schielke and A. Kevin Reinhart adapted the thesis for their work on Islam. It proved helpful to Seth Schwartz’s work on sixth century rabbinic culture, Mark Slobin’s on American Klezmer, and Shaul Stampfer on the Vilna Gaon’s disciples in the Holy Land. Soloveitchik himself had utilized the argument, though in the reverse, in several essays on halakhic change within Medieval Ashkenaz.
In other words, then, Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” alerted scholars to an all-important process of cultural transformation—encountered by Jews and others—wrought by what historian Oscar Handlin described as “uprootedness.” In response to migration and catastrophe, groups of people, desperate to reconstitute their lives, seek out stabilizing forces like firm textual traditions to anchor their communities. For Orthodox Jews, this transpired in the United States, as it did in other places and times.
But for postwar American Orthodox Judaism, there is more to it than that. Several writers like Isaac Chavel and Mark Steiner criticized Soloveichik for ignoring the rise of a rightward rabbinical culture that, perhaps more than any textual tradition, supplanted the earlier lived religious experiences of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. They pointed to the rigid Hungarian folkway established by the Satmar Rebbe that, arguably, introduced new customs like upshurin and stringencies—separating women and men in non-synagogue spaces and kosher slaughter standards, for instance—to American Jewish life.
In response, Soloveitchik asked: “Am I to assume that the long hand of the Hungarians has reached [Orthodox young people] or that the negative propaganda of the ‘Right’ is what moves them?” Surely, he surmised, this insular enclave could not have been responsible for the systemic changes apparent throughout the broader Orthodox community. Yet, there is significant merit to their critique. It wasn’t just the rise of Satmar or the rabbinic authority trumpeted by the Yeshiva World. In the Seventies and Eighties, scholars like Charles Liebman and Martin Marty wrote about the rise of religious fundamentalism in Jewish and Protestant quarters. In all these cases, movements were led by charismatic religious leaders.
In addition, the immediate postwar period of “Tri-Faith America” had conceded ground to more particularistic multiculturalism, ethnic pride and identity politics. In reaction to the political and social upheaval of the Sixties, many Americans started to abandon so-called liberal religion and explore compelling countercultures. Theirs was a quest for “authenticity.” As Liebman wrote in the late-1970s, the antimodernist Yeshiva World had by then emerged for many among the Orthodox and non-Orthodox as the “voice of Jewish authenticity.”
Nonetheless, Soloveitchik’s thesis still stands as one of several key explanations for historical change. For this reason, readers embraced the 1994 essay. It was also very helpful for an embattled Modern Orthodox community in need of self-confidence. Time and again, the Jewish press reported that the Modern Orthodox were “besieged” by religious elements to their relative “right” and “left.” Among the Yeshiva World, leaders like Rabbi Mordechai Gifter and Rabbi Elya Svei made headlines for their aggressive censures of Yeshiva University and President Norman Lamm. On the left flank, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others agitated for increased influence (Greenberg was all but barred from YU) and were planning and elevating their own institutions to compete with the Modern Orthodox establishment.
My historical sense is that Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” informed the mainstream Modern Orthodox community that theirs, despite what others had claimed, was the most authentic tradition among observant Jews. Their Orthodox coreligionists on either side of them were the ones imposing changes mostly unknown in prior epochs of Orthodox Jewish life, and that provided more than a modicum of solace.
Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College and Associate Professor of Jewish History at Touro College. His most recent book is Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life (Wayne State). His TRADITION essays can be accessed in our archive.
[Published January 13, 2020]