Preserving Our Mesorah in Changing Times: Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

by | in Jewish Thought

The Jew who arrives early to the daily synagogue service will soon hear these words chanted:
“Ashreinu . . .
Happy are we, how good is our portion,
How lovely our fate, how beautiful our heritage.”

With these words, we express not only our allegiance to our tradition, but our enthusiasm for it. We do not only adhere to our mesorah, our heritage, but we cherish it.

Whereas the term “mesorah” can be defined narrowly, it has taken on a much broader definition over the course of Jewish history. In some ways, mesorah is almost synonymous with Torah. “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and [‘mesarah’] handed it on to Joshua.” Mesorah here refers to the core of our religion, that which was revealed at Sinai.

But the term mesorah has come to mean so much more, and it is this broader meaning that the siddur has in mind with those exultant words.

“Our portion, our fate, our heritage.” These words refer not only to the laws which are central to our religion, be they of Biblical or rabbinic origin, but to the entire corpus of Jewish practice: halachah, customs, both major and minor, mores, synagogue music, folklore, and gender relations. In its broadest definition, mesorah comprises our entire lifestyle.

It is thus possible to distinguish between core mesorah and peripheral mesorah, although it would be difficult, indeed, to reach consensus on what is core and what is peripheral. But both aspects are cherished components of a very ancient tradition whose roots trace back to a distant past.

From time to time, this tradition is challenged. All of it, most of it, or fragments of it come to be seen as obsolete, out of date, no longer relevant, perhaps even misguided. Can it be modified? Can mesorah be changed?

The tension between an unchanging tradition, with its hold over our sentimental natures on the one hand, and alluring innovations on the other, is an ancient one. Some would find the roots of this tension in the Biblical story of Korach. Perhaps it does go back that far. But only in the last two centuries, since the Enlightenment, has this tension become the central theme of the Jewish religious experience.

The continuity of mesorah and the degree to which it can be modified is a vast topic upon which volumes have been written. This brief essay will refer to the positions of two great rabbinic leaders.

Two Rabbis, Two Approaches

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known by the title of his masterwork, Chatam Sofer, struggled with this tension in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, first chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, faced this tension much later, when it took on an entirely new form.

The Chatam Sofer confronted the growing strength of the Reform movement. He was faced with those who demanded relatively minor modifications in religious observance, as well as those who were ready to abandon much more essential Jewish practices. His strategy in preserving the mesorah was a simple one: no compromise whatsoever. Borrowing a phrase from a specific halachic context, he asserted, “Chadash assur min haTorah; All that is new is prohibited.” He opposed modernization in all its forms.

The Chatam Sofer’s approach reflected his deep mistrust of the historical developments of his time that originated in non-Jewish sources. To him, all values had to stem from impeccably Jewish origins. Every deviation, no matter how slight, was to be vigorously opposed. Every proposed innovation, however innocuous it might seem, had idolatrous roots and would lead to serious transgressions.

For the Chatam Sofer, not one iota of mesorah could be sacrificed. He used to say, “Let one thousand of my opponents be lost, but let not one jot or tittle of Jewish custom be dislodged from its place,” and, “Anyone who questions our norms and customs is suspect [of heresy].”

Was the Chatam Sofer correct in his approach? Was his strategy effective? Can “Chadash assur min haTorah” be applied to other historical circumstances?

For the answers to these questions, some look to the conduct of a rabbi who lived exactly a century later. Rav Kook faced a very different set of challenges in the early twentieth century, in what was then Palestine, the Holy Land. By that time, the ideas and principles of the Enlightenment were no longer new. Reform Judaism was an established movement. The challenge then was nationalist Zionism—the call to Jews to migrate to the Land of Israel and found a Jewish state. The “modernity” of the early nineteenth century was replaced by twentieth-century concepts and values: the power of science and technology to affect the future of mankind; the theory of evolution and its implications for belief in God; psychoanalysis and its view of human nature; the political philosophies of nationalism, communism, socialism, and liberal democracy. How could these forces for change be confronted and accommodated?

From time to time, this tradition is challenged. All of it, most of it, or fragments of it come to be seen as obsolete, out of date, no longer relevant, perhaps even misguided. Can it be modified? Can mesorah be changed?

Rav Kook coined his own slogan to epitomize his approach: “Hachadash yiskadesh, vehakadosh yischadesh; The new will become sacred, and the sacred will be renewed.” Rav Kook accepted some of the new developments. He passionately embraced the pioneers whose return to the Holy Land was motivated by a thoroughly secular nationalism. He was open to Western art, literature and philosophy. He was not averse to adopting modern administrative techniques in running his rabbinic office. His openness to innovation is even evident in his poetic writing style.

It would be naïve and overly simplistic, however, to see the Chatam Sofer as a rigid rejectionist and Rav Kook as a liberal humanist. In fact, the Chatam Sofer also wrote poetry.

Every student of his magisterial and voluminous responsa knows full well how exquisitely sensitive he was to the needs of those in difficulty, irrespective of their level of religious observance. He raised funds for diverse charities of which all sorts of Jews were beneficiaries, without discrimination. And his support for settling the Land of Israel, in the limited form it took in his day, is legendary. Those familiar with his responsa are also well aware of his ability to be astoundingly lenient in his halachic decisions.

Rav Kook, for all his openness to novelty and for all his tolerance–some would even say excessive tolerance–of modernity, was vigorous in his defense of mesorah. In a letter he addressed to the “Jewish communities and individuals in the United States of America and Canada,” in 1923, he refers to those “who are ready to destroy God’s vineyard and to forsake the Lord and His true teachings.” He speaks of the changes within the structure of communal life in general and in the traditional form of service. He calls modifications of “hallowed customs and usages handed down to us by generations gone” evil, and is concerned that “one bad step leads to another.”

Rav Kook draws from his wide-ranging erudition to quote numerous sources, confirming his position that “customs adopted by our forefathers are to be considered integral parts of our Torah laws.” He concludes, “There is no ground whatsoever to treat lightly the customs of our sacred forefathers, and certainly not in matters of public conduct that are founded on the basic sanctity of the Jewish people.”

Mesorah’s Intrinsic Value
The contemporary Orthodox Jew faces today—perhaps in an unprecedented way—the conflict between living a life adhering to the mesorah and living a life adhering to a modern, or even post-modern, worldview and lifestyle. How is he or she to reconcile this conflict?

To answer this question, I would like make some observations.

Firstly, there is intrinsic value to continuity and to tradition. The traditions of our ancestors helped guarantee that they would survive the vicissitudes of Jewish history. The complex combination of adhering to practical habits, maintaining attitudes of hope, clinging to a community, gaining inspiration from worship, and finding meaning in a consistent daily regimen is known as mesorah. And it is precisely those elements of Jewish life that have resulted in each and every one of us being here today. Mesorah, whatever else it may be, has proven to be of immense practical value to the Jewish people. It should not be frivolously rejected. The fashions and fads of the passing moment hardly possess the promise of ensuring a Jewish future for posterity.

Secondly, mesorah is not just a cultural hodgepodge of practices accumulated over the ages in a variety of Diaspora settings. Rather, every important component of mesorah reflects some basic Jewish value. There are overarching concepts in our religion under which specific halachot and minhagim are subsumed. The custom of keeping yom tov sheni, for example, in spite of our contemporary certainty regarding the accuracy of our calendar, underscores the fundamental distinction between the Holy Land and the lands of the Diaspora, upon which our religion insists.

Every halachic practice, every minor custom, expresses, in some way, a meta-principle of our faith. Even playing dreidel, it has been argued, is part of our mesorah. On Chanukah we celebrate the Divine Providence that acts independent of the odds that favor the mighty and the many over the weak and the few. In dreidel play, we enact a contrasting view of life, one that prevails when we are left to our own devices without God’s hashgachah—life as a game of chance, in which blind odds rule and randomness prevails.

One way to view mesorah is as an intricate network of behaviors expressing the higher values of our faith. Sometimes these behaviors convey these values in explicit and very obvious ways. Other times they only do so implicitly. Sometimes a custom directly reflects an eternal value, and sometimes it only does so symbolically.

Viewed this way, mesorah is so much more than a system of traditional practices that can be easily modified. Rather, mesorah is the exquisitely nuanced, intricately complex system through which the loftiest values of our religion can find expression. The Chatam Sofer knew this; hence his ardent opposition to all that was new. Rav Kook knew this too, but he strove to see how the new behaviors of which he was skeptical might nevertheless express ultimate Jewish values. But he, too, knew full well that every Jewish custom, particularly in community and in synagogue life, was of cosmic religious significance and far too important to be tampered with arbitrarily.

These considerations are among those which must be taken into account today, as we cope with attempts to “improve” or “advance” our mesorah.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is OU executive vice president, emeritus.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2010.

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