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Origins of Orthodoxy

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A ‘kippah rally’ in Berlin in April 2018 expressing solidarity with Germany’s Jewish community. Photo: Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch.

I have just read Jacob Katz: On the Origins of Orthodoxy. It is an important collection of articles by and about the late Professor Katz, transcripts of interviews, as well as a bibliography. Edited by Giti Bendheim, Menachem Butler, Jay M. Harris, Uriel Katz and published by Shikey Press. This book is to be recommended both because of Professor Katz’s importance as a scholar, and also for the particular relevance of his research and ideas today.

Jacob Katz was one of the most important authorities on modern Jewish history of the past century. Not only was he an outstanding academic, but as a human being, he was remarkable as a gentle, kind person, fiercely honest, and equally protective of Judaism and Israel.

I first met him as a teenager in England. He was a regular guest lecturer at Levi Gertner’s famous seminars, during the 1950s that took place each summer under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, at the magnificent campus of Carmel College in Oxfordshire on the banks of the Thames, just outside Wallingford. Wallingford was one of the towns that had a Jewish community in the twelfth century. Katz pointed out that its Jews were expelled in 1289, one year before all of Anglo Jewry was thrown out by King Edward the First in 1290. He gave it as an example of how resilient the Jewish people were, to withstand expulsion, survive and return many generations later.

He was born in Hungary, but his early academic education was in Frankfurt on Main where he absorbed the ideology of  Torah Im Derech Eretz, the combination of Jewish learning with secular education, propounded by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, his son-in-law  Solomon Breuer, and his son Yosef Breuer. He came to Palestine in 1936 and started in education before establishing himself in academia with his unique approach that combined history with sociology.

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He published many notable works such as Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish Gentile Relations in medieval Times, The Shabbes Goy, before moving on to Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870 and A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry. He was awarded the Israel Prize.

However, it is concerning the term Orthodox in the Jewish context, that his contribution is most relevant today both in the Diaspora and Israel. The term was simply not known in Judaism before the nineteenth century. This does not mean that all Jews were observant and conformed to the norms of the religion up until this moment in history; quite the contrary. Jewish communities ran their affairs under the control of either Christian or Muslim overlords. They enforced their rules on their members and could punish non-conformists within limitations.

The only option left to a rebel was to leave the community — and that meant converting to another religion. Otherwise, one would be a complete outcast. After the enlightenment, Jews now had other options. Yet religious authorities in those pre-enlightenment days were much more flexible in applying halakha leniently because they had to deal with everyone. They followed the Talmudic principle that to permit was a greater quality than to forbid, and that one should not impose unreasonable demands on the community. (Oh, how things have changed!)

Before emancipation not only was there no concept as Orthodoxy (a Christian term ) in the Ashkenazi world. It did not exist in the Sephardi world, where rabbis had and continue to deal with both observant and non-observant members: Jews were Jews. Conversely, with the rise of the Reform movement, rabbis could always tell the non-observant that they were free to join less strict communities.

In the nineteenth century, Judaism in Europe had to face new challenges. Some communities that wanted to remain Jewish moved forward without regard to Jewish law or tradition. But within the traditional camp, new rival ideologies emerged. On the one hand, let’s call them moderates like rabbis Hirsh, Breuer, and Hildesheimer in Germany; and some Polish and Lithuanian rabbis who accepted the idea of combining strictness of Jewish law with secular education. And this is where they began to adopt the term Orthodox, a Christian concept (Or in German, Gezetztreue: Loyal to the Law).

The mainstream followers of the Vilna Gaon insisted that halakha, Jewish law should be the sole arbiter of Jewish life. The Hasidim on the other hand believed that it was the authority of their Rebbes that counted even if they were not scholars. They felt free to add whatever customs and nuances they approved of, usually to make as much distinction between them and the outside world as possible.

The traditional community also divided between those who accepted Zionism, not as a substitute for religion but as a political enterprise, and those who rejected Zionism altogether as a secular project even though they were completely committed to the idea of settling in the Holy Land and always had gone there whenever possible.

Katz was a pioneer in researching academically this development within religious Judaism. And he began to describe a process that has become increasingly problematic both in Israel and beyond with the entry of religious parties into Israeli political life.

The Agudah, organization was founded in Kattowitz in 1912 to represent the religious interests of European religious life. It was an alliance of Lithuanian and Chassidic communities, some committed to Zionism as a political movement and others opposed to Zionist ideology while being passionate about setting up a Jewish homeland. Some were accommodationists and others were hardliners.

In 1948 their representatives entered Israel’s Knesset in competition with the moderate and Zionist National Religious Party (Mizrahi). Their rabbinic masters established a Council of Torah Leaders who would determine how those elected to the Knesset would vote on all matters, whether halakhic or not. And they were caught between the demands of a democratic secular state and religious law, a situation not previously encountered.

To give its leaders authority the concept of Daat Torah  (an idea mentioned only once in the Talmud to mean something different) was adopted to include not only the limitations of Jewish law, but the notion that even politically their decisions would have Divine authority — which of course would mean that compromise with other points of view would be almost impossible.

This has driven a wedge between what came to be called Haredi Judaism (those who feared God and also feared God’s representatives on earth) and all other so-called Orthodox variations and denominations. And their agenda was to do whatever it took to strengthen their ideology.

It must be admitted that up to a point they succeeded; but at a cost. Politics is always about demanding the maximum even if one has to settle with less.  This is why extremes always do better than accommodationists.  And why the Haredi authorities refuse to compromise on almost every issue.

Confusingly, if their opinions have Divine authority, Haredi rabbis have often disagreed both on law and politics and sometimes set up rival parties, each with its own claim to authority. The greater the divisions the more it became necessary to impose new and stricter laws and customs to differentiate each sector of Judaism from the other that have changed the face of traditional Judaism, and new and innovative movements have been able to flourish even if many of them, too, have their fundamentalists.

All this was something that Professor Katz documented and considered detrimental to the moral and democratic future of Israel. He noted the difference between Psak Din, making a strictly halakhic decisions — the language used before the nineteenth century — and Daat Torah the meta-halachic obiter dicta now a foundation of Haredi thought.

He offered no solutions; his expertise was in historical analysis. But understanding how things have come about is the first step in trying to put things right. And that is his legacy.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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