Response: The Canopy’s Dissolution

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Response: The Canopy’s Dissolution
by Jeffrey R. Woolf

It has been twenty-five years since the appearance of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction,” which introduced the concept of “mimetic religion into Modern Orthodox discourse. The essay has been a perpetual touchstone of discussion whenever questions arise of the present state and future direction of Orthodoxy in the United States (and, in many ways, Israel as well).

As is now widely known, Soloveitchik described the collapse of the seamless, organic character of Jewish life, of the type which was once vibrant in large parts of Eastern Europe (and throughout Mizrahi communities, though these don’t figure in his discussion). That mode of religious existence was largely non-self-reflective. Values and modes of religious conduct were internalized by participation in the life of the community, and by absorbing its identity and its heightened sense of historic continuity. Above all, the mimetic Jew was enveloped by a tangible awareness of the presence of God, which provided life with meaning and context, and religious observance with a heightened sense of His service. This all-encompassing, self-contained religious context, a “Sacred Canopy, in the sense advanced by the late Peter Berger, was the sine qua non of the mimetic culture that Soloveitchik described. It was a world in which, as he himself writes elsewhere, people did not hold beliefs, they were held by their beliefs. It is the demise of this all-inclusive world, wherein the Psalmist’s injunction to set God before us is a sufficient reminder to devote our lives to Him , which “Rupture and Reconstruction” describes and whose loss it bemoans (81-82 and 98ff.).

The central thrust of “Rupture and Reconstruction” is the transition from halakhic observance based on tradition (which is deemed to obligate, per se), to nearly exclusive reliance upon the formal codified literature of Jewish law. This development, he asserts, is largely responsible for the dramatic and unprecedented preference for legal stricture (humra) in the observance of the commandments and in jalakhic jurisprudence, generally. It is worth noting that the author’s own father, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, was outspoken in his insistence that people cling fast to the practices of their parents’ homes and not scour the Shulhan Arukh for either leniencies or strictures. There is no small irony in this, since the punctilious precision advanced by the so-called Brisker School of Talmudic analysis often contributes markedly to the phenomenon.

Almost all of the discussion that “Rupture and Reconstruction” engendered has centered upon this shift from an organically transmitted religious culture, to one that is based almost exclusively upon the study of sacred texts, with all of the educational, social, and behavioral implications thereof. This was to be expected. Therefore, it so no surprise that this is largely true of the consistently excellent and thought-provoking essays that make up a symposium on the original piece and its impact in the latest issue of TRADITION

Still, it has long been my contention that the more repercussive and fraught element of Soloveitchik’s argument is found toward the end of the article, where he discusses the decline in the profound, powerful awareness of God’s Presence that marked earlier Jewish communities (as well as non-Jewish ones). Truth to tell, the forces that helped to undermine enveloping faith (secularism, historicism, and materialist-atheist Scientism) were formidable. However, Orthodox educators and rabbis neglected the importance of the individual’s intimate and personal relationship, in favor of the admittedly important imparting of Torah knowledge. The tragic irony was that the triumph of Jewish religiosity based upon text study went hand-in-hand with the rise of the deeply flawed, and ultimately corrosive, phenomenon known as orthopraxis or Social Orthodoxy.” 

I was, therefore, very gratified to see that Rabbi Daniel Korobkin focused his superb contribution to this symposium on precisely this issue. I fully agree with his observation that Judaism is not sustainable, in the long run, without deference and commitment to God. Yet, ironically again, the exclusively text-based curriculum, in which we take justified pride, may well be undermining that very same commitment it is designed to foster.

The danger lies in the widespread disappearance of Modern Orthodoxy’s “Sacred Canopy,” of which God-awareness is the central quality. However, it also includes the conviction that, as Rav Soloveitchik frequently emphasized, the act of Torah study is not merely a cognitive or intellectual gesture. It is an act of worship, carried out in an ambience of reverence and the desire to live in accordance with His Will (cf. Sefer HaMitzvot, pos. 5). Given its Divine origin, the student of Torah will exhibit tremendous caution in interpreting the words before him, lest vouchsafed legacy be distorted. He or she will, in the manner of those who live in a traditional society, adopt an attitude of reverence and deference toward the words of the prior generations. In the absence of this posture, however, the sacred texts are exposed to the built-in skepticism, judgmentalism, and relativism that have rushed in to take the place of the previous integrated religious worldview. This leads to a revolutionary reevaluation of the way in which the sacred corpus of Judaism is perceived. These will be evaluated not from a position of humility but judgmentally, in line with the degree in which contemporary values and ideals take the place of the previous communal worldview. (This is not to deny that Judaism in manifestation doesn’t change over time. However, the dynamic that leads to such changes is very nuanced. I touch on this here.)

Hence, the dissolution of the Orthodox “Sacred Canopy” has a decisively corrosive effect upon Torah and halakha. If they are no longer experienced as the Word of God, care in observance will disappear (as will the concepts of sin and personal responsibility in areas of ritual). The Torah, at this point, becomes a mere function of transient intellectual and cultural fashion, reduced to a mere Jewish decoration (as it were) upon the body of a different culture. Anything that was originally part of Judaism that does not align itself with current norms or modes of perception will inevitably be dispensed with. 

In other words, the rupture described by Prof. Soloveitchik does not only lead to stringency. It can equally lead not only to leniency, but also directly to anti-nomianism. To paraphrase the author, “having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the absence of His yoke.”

[I’ve expanded upon some the points raised in this essay, both here and here.]

Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.

[Published on December 29, 2019]

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