Professor Chaim I. Waxman
Rutgers University, New Jersey,
and Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
A commonsense answer to the question in the title above might seem to be: ‘Of course not!’ Yet there are those, typically Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews, who insist that both the Written and Oral Torah as we know them were given at Sinai, and that any mention of halakhic development is heresy. This article seeks to highlight change in American Orthodox Judaism from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twenty-first centuries. The first part, which I have examined in detail elsewhere1 so is only summarized here, deals with cultural change. The second part looks at change in the halakhah-related sphere that is deemed to be religiously acceptable in the halakhah-observant community.
The denominational designation ‘Orthodox’ did not exist in the United States until the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. Thus when we speak of American Orthodox Judaism we are referring essentially to Orthodox Judaism that was transplanted from Eastern Europe. Some prominent Eastern European Orthodox rabbis, such as Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen Kagan (1838– 1933), popularly known as the Chafetz Chaim, opposed immigration to the United States. Some Eastern European Orthodox rabbis who immigrated were highly critical of American society and culture and saw little future for ‘authentic’ Judaism there. Moses Weinberger, for example, wrote a stinging critique of the deplorable condition of traditional Judaism in New York, in which he lambasted, among much else, the Constitutional notion of separation of religion and state. Another, Rabbi Jacob David Wilowsk (1845–1913), the rabbi of Slutzk (now Belarus), commonly known as ‘the Ridvaz’, is alleged to have condemned anyone who went to America because Judaism was trampled on there, so that anyone who left Europe left not only their home but their Torah, Talmud, yeshivah and sages.
Less than fifty years later Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), who was rabbi of Luban (now Belarus) until his emigration to the United States in 1937, where he headed a yeshivah in New York and became a leading authority on halachah within Orthodox circles, gave a sermon in which he lauded America’s separation of religion of state. Contra Weinberger, he asserted that in enforcing separation of religion and state the government of the United States is following the will of God, that this is the reason the country flourishes, and that Jews are obligated to pray that the government will succeed in all its undertakings. In contrast to the dismal state of Jewish education described by both Weinberger and Willowsky, and their pessimism about the future of Judaism in America, a number of high-level yeshivah seminaries, mostly transplanted from Eastern Europe, were established during the 1930s and 1940s, and a movement of primary and secondary-level yeshivah day schools was formed in the 1940s. These sparked the founding of day schools that provide intensive Jewish education along with a quality secular curriculum, and there was a virtual boom in the growth of the day-school movement from World War II to the mid–1970s in cities and neighbourhoods across the country. In addition, a day school often became the feeder-school for a higher-level yeshivah, so that by the fourth quarter of the twentieth century the number of Jews in post-highschool yeshivah seminaries was greater in the United States that it had been during the heyday of Jewish Eastern Europe.
Ironically, this type of day school, combining both sacred and secular education, was anathema to the Orthodox rabbinic leadership in Eastern Europe, and still is to the haredi rabbinic leadership in Israel. Many of the rabbinic leaders who spirited the day-school movement into existence had previously been adamantly opposed to it. As it turned out, the day-schools movement is perhaps the most significant innovation enabling the survival and growth of Orthodox Judaism in America.
The Americanization of Orthodox Judaism stands out in the approach of the rabbinic leadership to the English language, especially in sacred learning. Initially English was viewed ‘goyish’, a non-Jewish language the use of which is part of an assimilation process. There had been even stronger opposition to English in sacred settings, and calls for the exclusive use of Yiddish in rabbinic sermons and Jewish education. Yet the contemporary generation of even ‘Ultra-orthodox’ or haredi Jews in the United States not only speak English, but their sacred learning is also in English – or more accurately ‘Yinglish’ – and an increasing number of sacred texts are published in English, mostly but not exclusively by the Ultra-orthodox ArtScroll Publishers. At the celebration of the completion of reading the Talmud cycle, Siyum Hashass, at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in the summer of 2012, marked by the world’s largest gathering of Jews, sponsored by Agudath Israel of the United States, most of the speeches, lectures and salutations were in English.
Ultra-orthodox Judaism was traditionally opposed to secular higher education, and fiction was alien to it. Today, American Ultra-orthodoxy uses cutting-edge psychology and counselling terminology and techniques in its popular literature, and a new genre of Ultra-orthodox fiction has emerged.(2) Likewise, the entire area of sports was shunned as being part of ‘Greek’, i.e., pagan, culture. Yet today American Orthodox people of all varieties are engaged in sports, both as observers and as consumers in sports-salons who perceive the benefits and importance of physical fitness. Finally, whereas popular music was previously viewed as non-Jewish and to be avoided, contemporary American Orthodoxy has enthusiastically adapted popular music by giving it a Jewish flavour.
Equally interesting is the impact that social change has had on traditional Jewish religious practice, and a series of American Orthodox halakhic innovations will now be briefly indicated. An extensive analysis and discussion of them awaits book-length treatment.
Decorum in Shul
The first major attempt at reforming Jewish religious services in the United States was made in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1824, when a group of forty-seven members of Congregation Beth Elohim, who were unhappy with the way synagogue services were organized, attempted to reform the congregation’s services by abbreviating them, having parts of the service read both in Hebrew and in English, eliminating the practice of auctioning synagogue honours, and having a weekly discourse or sermon in English. These reforms were radical at that time and the leadership of Beth Elohim rejected them, which led to the group splitting off from the parent congregation and forming their own, which then introduced much more radical reforms. Ironically, the group’s initial demands are quite compatible with contemporary centrist Orthodox synagogue services in America.
Talmud for Women
Until the twentieth century it was axiomatic that females were not to be taught or to engage in Torah study. This was based on the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (BT Sotah 21b) and reiterated by Maimonides. During the first half of the twentieth century, Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen Kagan (author of Mishnah Berurah) and the Lubavitcher Rebbe asserted that in these days women are obligated to study the Written Law as well as those laws which specifically pertain to them. The Maimonides School, a day school in Boston founded by Rabbi Dr Joseph B. Soloveitchik, was the first Orthodox day school in America to provide co-education for both males and females, including Talmud study, through high school. Soloveitchik, who was widely revered as a Talmud scholar and halakhic authority, gave the inaugural lecture at the opening of the Beit Midrash programme at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 1977, thereby indicating his support of educational equality at the highest levels. Yeshiva University subsequently established a Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies, and several other Orthodox institutions of higher Jewish learning for women have been established.
In his first reponsum dealing with the issue of Bat Mitzvah, written in 1956, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein – widely known as ‘Reb Moshe’ – asserted that there is no reason for celebrating a female’s coming of age and that such a thing is hevel be’alma, ‘simple nonsense’; that the meal in honour of the Bat Mitzvah is not a se’udat mitzvah, ‘decreed dinner’, so has no religious significance; and that it is a violation of the sanctity of the synagogue to hold the ceremony there. Three years later, Reb Moshe retained his opposition to holding the ceremony in the synagogue itself, but permitted, albeit reluctantly, a kiddush in honour of a Bat Mitzvah to be held in the social hall of the synagogue.
A careful reading of his responsa on Bat Mitzvah suggests that his basic opposition was to having the ceremony in the synagogue, and that this was because of his opposition to changes in synagogue ritual and practice, as well as his steadfast opposition to Conservative and Reform Judaism. Were the Bat Mitzvah celebration to be held in the home he probably would not have objected, since a number of his elders and colleagues are reported to have held such celebrations even in Lithuania.4 But increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews now celebrate Bat Miztvah in a communal setting, most typically in a social hall and frequently in a women-only ceremony, and some are finding ways to hold the ceremony in the synagogue itself in ways that are now deemed to be halakhically approved.
Reb Moshe’s opposition to non-Orthodox Judaism was steadfast and he merely dismissed Reform Judaism, which does not merit much discussion in his work, as heretical. For example, in a responsum as to whether it is proper to honour Reform and Conservative rabbis with blessings at Jewish organizational banquets, he asserts that even if they pronounced the blessing properly, their blessings are void since they are heretics, a description that he regards as so obvious that it needs no elaboration. He addressed Conservative Judaism in greater detail, and in a number of responsa emphasized its heretical nature. In one on the question of whether one may organize a minyan, a quorum, to pray in a room within a synagogue whose sanctuary does not conform with Orthodox standards, he distinguishes between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues. In a Conservative synagogue, he asserted, one should not make a minyan in any room, ‘because they have announced that they are a group of heretics who reject a number of Torah laws’. One should distance oneself from them, ‘because those who deny even one item from the Torah are considered deniers of the Torah’. However, in an Orthodox synagogue which is ritually unfit because it has no mechitzah, separation between men and women, or because it contains a microphone, or some other such irregularity, the members ‘are not heretics, Heaven forbid; they treat the laws lightly but they do not deny them’, so there is no obligation to distance oneself from them. With respect to non-observant Jews, Reb Moshe adopted a conciliatory position, in direct opposition to Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen Kagan, whose multi-volume Mishnah Berurah (MB) is widely viewed as halakhically authoritative. While the latter cited precedence for excluding Sabbath violators from a minyan (MB 1, 55:46), Reb Moshe says they may be counted, and even allowed them to be called up to the Torah unless they are overt heretics. In a similar vein he allowed a suspected Sabbath desecrator to be appointed president of a synagogue, and barred only those who publicly and brazenly do so. Likewise, he ruled that a kohen who is not a Sabbath observer may be permitted to bless the congregation. In all these cases, Reb Moshe, the foremost halakhic authority in twentieth-century American Orthodoxy, was obviously influenced by the social and cultural and religious patterns of American Orthodox Jewry. He was willing to accommodate non-observant Jews so long as they did not challenge the authority of Orthodoxy. Those who did challenge its authority were deemed to be beyond the pale.
The phenomenon of the eruv (pl. eruvin) – symbolically enclosing a neighbourhood or community to allow Jews to carry on the Sabbath – established in cities across the United States, is another example of the impact of social change on traditional Jewish religious practice and halakhah. Many who are familiar with Orthodox amenities in America today might be surprised to learn that until 1970 only two cities in the entire United States had an eruv, and that both were highly controversial. The first, established in 1894, was in St Louis, Missouri. New York City had two eruv controversies. The first, on Manhattan’s East side in 1905, was widely dismissed as unacceptable. The second, enclosing the entire island of Manhattan, stirred up a controversy from 1949 to 1962.5 But by 2011 there were more than 150 eruvin in communities across the United States. A variety of sociological factors contributed to the increased halakhic acceptance of eruvin, perhaps the most significant being the increased social and geographic mobility of the Orthodox, many of whom moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s.
Electric Timers (‘Shabbos Clocks’)
When electric timers first made it possible to switch electrical appliances on and off on the Sabbath, resistance in the Orthodox community was based on several halakhic issues. Reb Moshe wrote two responsa in the 1970s in which he emphatically prohibited their use because they distort the objective of the Sabbath. He did, however, reluctantly permit their use for setting lights to go on and off on the Sabbath, because there was precedent for it in synagogues and it contributes to the enjoyment and thus the sanctity of the Sabbath. For all other appliances, however, he categorically prohibited them.
More recently, however, such timers have come to be widely used within the Orthodox community for a variety of other appliances, such as those for home heating, air conditioning and food heating, as well as a variety of other functions which can barely be considered within the category of actions which contribute to the sanctity of the Sabbath.
According to halakhah, milking must be supervised by an observant Jewish adult to assure that it is indeed cow’s milk, halav yisrael, and not that of a nonkosher animal. In a number of responsa written during 1954, Reb Moshe ruled that in the United States milk that is under government supervision is surely cow’s milk, because the dairy would be severely penalized for violating the law. All milk under the label of a reputable company is therefore kosher. In 1970 Reb Moshe reiterated this lenient ruling, but added that it is proper for one who is punctiliously observant to be strict and use only halav yisrael. Principals in yeshivah day schools, he asserted, should certainly provide halav yisrael only to their students, even if it is more expensive, precisely in order to show the students that Torah Jews should be stringent even if there is only a slight chance of transgression. Reb Moshe here initially took a lenient position, but bowed to social pressure for a more stringent one, presumably because there were already a of number dairies selling halav yisrael and there was an increasing population of consumers of it.
It is usual to assume that the influence of American society and culture is to urge greater leniency in religious practice. But the impact of American experience can cut both ways, occasionally towards leniency and at other times the opposite, as in the case of halav yisrael. I have analysed elsewhere a phenomenon I termed ‘the haredization of American Orthodox Judaism’,6 and gave examples of such stringencies. What is now called for is an analysis of the criteria under which stringency emerges, and also of those under which there is a move towards leniency.
Additionally it should be noted that increased stringency can itself lead to a countermove toward leniency, and, as Yehuda Turetsky and I have indicated, there has in general been a ‘sliding toward the left’ in American Orthodoxy.7 While in the past, such moves resulted in breaking away from Orthodoxy – leading to the formation of Conservative Judaism in the US and Louis Jacobs’s Masorti movement in Britain – it is still unclear where institutions and groups such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat and the International Rabbinical Fellowship are going. Perhaps contemporary American Orthodoxy is and will continue to be considerably broader and more flexible than its established spokespersons wish to admit.
- Chaim I. Waxman, ‘From Institutional Decay to Primary Day: American Orthodox Jewry Since World War II’, American Jewish History 91 (Sept-Dec 2003) 405–21; ‘From Treifene Medina to Goldene Medina: Changing Perspectives on the United States among American Haredim’, in Steven T. Katz (ed.) Why Is America Different?: American Jewry on its 350th Anniversary (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010) 114–27; ‘The Americanization of Orthodoxy’, paper presented at the ‘International Conference on Ultra-Orthodoxy Between Modernity and Post-Modernity’, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, 31 December 2012.
- Yoel Finkelman, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2011).
- The latter was in response to a query from Rabbi Meir Kahane, later notorious as the head of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party in Israel. At the time of the correspondence he was the recently ordained rabbi of a modern Orthodox congregation.
- For an in-depth analysis of the history and development of Bat Mitzvah see Norma Baumel Joseph, ‘Ritual, Law, and Praxis: An American Response/a To Bat Mitsva Celebrations’, Modern Judaism 22 (October 2002) 234–60.
- For a social history and analysis of eruvin in the United States, see Adam Mintz, ‘Halakhah in America: The History of City Eruvin, 1894–1962’, PhD diss., New York University, September 2011.
- Chaim I. Waxman, Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, No. 376, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 15 February 1998.
- Yehuda Turetsky and Chaim I. Waxman, ‘Sliding to the Left? Contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy’, Modern Judaism 31:2 (May 2011) 119–41.