Preserving Our Mesorah in Changing Times: Immanuel Bernstein

by | in Jewish Thought

Mesorah and innovation: a contradiction in terms? To understand how these two concepts can coexist, we must first define them. The term mesorah means a number of things. In its broadest sense, it describes the transmission of Judaism from one generation to the next, all the way back to the Revelation at Sinai. At the core of the mesorah—and the element most likely to clash with innovation and creativity—is the transmission of the content and methodology of halachah. It would seem that the most accurate definition of this aspect of the mesorah may be obtained by observing the mesorah itself, i.e., how each generation related to the halachot handed down to it that had been formulated and codified in earlier times.

The picture that emerges from this analysis is that the mitzvot—of both Biblical and rabbinic origin—are immutable and binding for all generations. Their mandate, meaning and value are constant, and as such, outside of their own parameters they are not subject to change due to shifting conditions or circumstances. This understanding is axiomatic in every page of Talmud, Codes and Responsa relevant to this topic, barring willful distortion or unwitting contortion. (Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim, and loc. cit. chap. 2 for a discussion of special cases where a specified reason was incorporated into the initial formulation of the halachic enactment.)

But the question beckons: What room is there for creativity and innovation in the face of laws that are unvarying and not subject to change? Additionally, were there not historical cases of halachic innovations in response to certain needs and situations, the classic example being Hillel’s enactment of prozbul to ensure availability of loans during the shemittah year?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once gave the following answer to this question: Toward the end of the Second World War, the Nazis seemed dangerously close to developing the atom bomb. This led to an intensified effort on the part of the Allies to reach that breakthrough first, which they did, and the results ended the war. One could say, therefore, that it was the notion of the Nazis winning the war that led to the invention of the atom bomb.

Of course everyone understands that that notion did not itself invent the bomb, rather it provided the impetus for scientists to discover the formula within the rules of nuclear physics. Similarly, explained the Rav, many societal changes and needs have indeed led to halachic innovations, but those needs themselves cannot create the innovation, rather the innovation must be found within the parameters of the relevant halachah (Nefesh Harav, p. 12-13).

The closest analogy to a halachic innovation, therefore, lies in the scientific realm, where there is ample room for creativity. In the scientific arena, innovation consists not of changing laws, but of trying to fathom their essence, unlock their secrets, and apply them to answer the needs of the time.

The venture of air travel would have been short lived, indeed, had the Wright brothers tried to accomplish their goal by emending the laws of gravity, constraining though they may have seemed. A breakthrough was only possible working within those laws; halachic breakthroughs, e.g., prozbul, heter iska and mechirat chametz, to name a few classic examples, are no different.

We usually understand creativity within halachah as referring to halachah’s response to technological and societal changes. In light of a new invention or circumstance, the relevant halachah needs to be examined, which may result in an innovative way of fulfilling the halachah (assuming the invention is halachically endorsed). A timely example would be the acceptability of using an electric menorah on Chanukah.

To determine whether it’s acceptable, many issues need to be examined. Among them: Does a light bulb qualify as a “ner,” candle? Is electricity sufficiently analogous to oil so as to provide an appropriate commemoration of the miracle in the Beit Hamikdash? Is every coil in the filament considered an additional light? Virtually all areas of halachah include such new questions, from machine-baked matzot to surrogate motherhood, and everything in between.

I would like to draw attention, however, to a lesser-known creative process that takes place within halachah but has nothing to do with societal or technological changes. By this, I mean the ongoing dialogue of halachah throughout the ages. Posekim engage in an ongoing analysis of halachah in an endeavor to fathom the conceptual makeup of various laws, with each generation yielding new insight from the sources. For example: The halachah stipulates where the Chanukah menorah should be placed, ideally by the doorpost or, should that prove unfeasible, inside the house on the table. The question arises, what is the relationship between the menorah and the house? Is the house merely the setting wherein one fulfills the mitzvah of lighting the menorah? Or is the menorah perhaps an accessory to the house—just as a Jewish house requires a mezuzah every day, it requires a lit menorah during the eight days of Chanukah?

This question has a practical application: what about the individual who is not spending the night in a house during one of the nights of Chanukah, e.g., one traveling through the night. Since he has no home for the night, does he still have an obligation to light a menorah? Discussions of this question are to be found in the Aruch HaShulchan, and in writings of posekim as recent as Rav Soloveitchik and the Tzitz Eliezer.

Two contemporary posekim who have made enormous contributions to the ongoing dialogue of halachah are Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Anyone familiar with the vastness and scope of the contributions of these two Torah giants will readily concur that that there is barely a corner of halachah which they did not illuminate with new insight.

Oftentimes when people pose the opening question to this article—is there room for creativity within halachah? —their question reflects an underlying notion: in a confrontation between halachah and a shift in personal or societal need, halachah should find a way to adapt itself to the need, and not vice versa. This attitude holds sway to varying degrees in different Orthodox circles. While it is understandable why so many subscribe to this view—it is, after all, a natural tendency for people to try and seek a path of less resistance—one must be honest with oneself when addressing the issue of innovation and halachah.

Ultimately, one’s attitude toward a conflict between a certain value and changing conditions is indicative of one’s orientation and relationship to that value: what needs to be brought in line with what? (It is a curious fact that in discussions dealing with questions of halachah and innovation, “innovation” tends to equal “leniency.” Any suggestion of an innovative stringency tends to bring out people’s traditionalist side.)

To illustrate: Imagine someone proposing that in today’s competitive corporate climate, the halachot against theft are somewhat anachronistic and should be changed to allow for various forms of corporate fraud. A person for whom the prohibition against stealing is sacrosanct will consider this categorically unacceptable. He will respond by strengthening his resolve to remain faithful to his principles, and by striving to achieve financial success without compromising his values.

Similarly, imagine a person suggesting that in light of the promiscuity of contemporary society, the strict fidelity required by traditional marriage is no longer realistic, and should be officially changed to allow for an occasional indiscretion. Anyone to whom marriage is sacred will be repulsed by such an idea and will work to invest more energy in strengthening his or her own marriage.

Likewise, those who understand that halachah is immutable will respond to the challenges of keeping it in its authentic form by delving into its essence and drawing on its timeless meaning and message. Notwithstanding the infatuation with all things novel, many have come to the realization that not every new development represents progress. The concept of newness—chadashi—in halachah is vital not only in the sphere of innovation, but also in that of renewal—hitchadshut. Indeed, the very changes that define our age could result in an even deeper appreciation of halachah’s eternal meaning and message.

If the word mesorah can itself be defined, it is the process which endeavors to link future generations back to Sinai. It is a faithful connection to that experience which will help ensure Torah living in all of life’s circumstances, and through all of its challenges.

Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein teaches at Machon Yaakov and at Michlalah Jerusalem College. He is the author of Devar Mikra, a commentary on Chumash and Bircas Yitzchak, a collection of novellae on Gemara.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2010.

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