Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Parashat Kedoshim: Experiencing Tradition

Experiencing Tradition
A Message for Parashat Kedoshim 2017
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Over two decades ago, historian Haym Soloveitchik described the transformation of contemporary Orthodox Judaism in an essay that has since become a classic in its field. In “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” Soloveitchik highlighted the dominance of texts upon present-day religious Jewry. He explained that while our sacred texts have always played a dominant role in our core beliefs and daily behaviors, halakhah has traditionally constituted a fundamental “way of life.” He explained that a way of life “is not learned but rather absorbed.” Its traditional transmission was therefore “imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school.” Soloveitchik explained that contemporary Judaism has undergone a rapid shift from this “mimetic” tradition to an unprecedented reliance upon texts and legal codes.[1]

I was reminded of Soloveitchik’s observation several years ago, when a halakhic conflict arose in the synagogue on one Shabbat morning. It involved a situation regarding the laws and customs of aliyot la-Torah. I ruled according to my understanding of the halakhah, but then observed a noticeable discomfort among several congregants during its implementation. Several weeks later, I clarified my ruling during a class dedicated to the issue. I explained the relevant sources and cited several prominent halakhic decisors who had preceded me in ruling on this matter. Following the class, one man approached me and in a respectful tone and manner said, “Rabbi, though your sources and books are impressive, I cannot be convinced on this matter. Our community has never ruled this way. Even if I can’t explain it, I know that it just isn’t our way.” Though I was unmoved from my initial ruling, I was nonetheless struck by the contrast in our perspectives. I was saddened by what I perceived as my generation’s significant loss of this “living tradition.”
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אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם
Every man shall revere his mother and his father, and My Shabbat you shall keep. (Vayikra 19:3)

The Torah’s peculiar mention of honoring one’s parents together with observance of Shabbat was long-ago noted by the Hakhamim. The Rabbis (Bava Messia 32a) inferred from here the boundaries of appropriate reverence to parents. They explained that observance of Shabbat and all other missvot supersedes the demand of a parent to act otherwise. Perhaps, however, this pasuk further hints at the integral role of parental transmission of tradition to observance of Shabbat and other missvot.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l often spoke about the experiential tradition of Judaism. On one occasion, he remarked:
Judaism is not only an intellectual tradition but an experiential one as well. The Jew not only observed but experienced the Shabbat, the Jew experienced Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He did not only recite prayers on those days. The seder was not just a ceremonial, but a great experiential event. There is a beauty, grandeur, warmth, and tenderness to Judaism. All these qualities cannot be described in cognitive terms. One may behold them, feel, them, sense them.[2]
On another occasion, he distinguished between the different traditions he had received from his parents regarding Shabbat:
I learned from [my mother] very much. Most of all, I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law, but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot…The laws of Shabbat, for instance were passed on to me by my father. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen was revealed to me by my mother…
R. Soloveitchik concluded, “The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.”[3]

Preeminent thinker R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l assessed the state of Judaism in the modern era in a manner akin to that of Haym Soloveitchik. He explained:
The various shades of modernity and Orthodoxy have removed Jews from the more rooted Judaism…Rootedness is never “by the book”; rather it is embedded in the current of life. The halakhic Jewish lifestyle is the flow of Jewish life – not the study of halakhic tomes.
In his concluding sentence, Rav Shagar chose a most appropriate metaphor for his analysis: “It was an era that gave rise to Orthodoxy that lives by the book, but is bereft of its Shabbat-like soul.”[4]

The transition from a Judaism that existed as a “total culture” to one that is defined solely by rules and texts has degenerated our experience of Shabbat. The soul and spirit of Shabbat, which once existed in tandem with the observance of its rules and regulations, are now foreign to our one-dimensional generation of rules and structure. The Torah subtly warned of this potential loss by preceding observance of the “living” parental traditions – “Every man shall revere his mother and his father,” to shemirat Shabbat “And My Shabbat you shall keep.”

[1] Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (1994), pg. 64-130.
[2] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed (Jersey City, NJ, 2000), pg. 115.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,” Tradition 17:2 (1978), pg. 77.
[4] R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Faith Shattered and Restored (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 62-3.