History often provides examples that reflect contemporary circumstances. Despite the necessary simplifications in the applications to different circumstances, the past often informs us about the present. A recent news report brought to mind just such a case, a centuries-old debate that sheds light on the current dichotomy in Modern Orthodoxy and offers me insight into situations in which I often find myself, both on this blog and in real life.
I. Premature Death
This past Sunday, a South African man awoke after 21 hours of unconsciousness to find himself trapped in a morgue refrigerator (link). This story fullfills a fear from centuries ago. In the mid-eighteenth century, some governments enacted regulations requiring multi-day delays before burial due to the concern that a live person might be entombed. It was a concern based on then-current medical theories, not actual experience. In 1772, Duke Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin enacted such a law and made it binding even on the Jewish community within his domain. Concerned about this challenge to the Jewish tradition of quick burial, the Jewish community enlisted Moses Mendelssohn to appeal to the duke. Mendelssohn successfully reached a compromise that satisfied the duke’s concern while maintaining the Jewish tradition: a doctor’s declaration of death sufficed to remove the delay period before burial.
However, Mendelssohn wondered aloud to the leaders of the Jewish community and to R. Ya’akov Emden, a leading halakhic authority of the time, whether Judaism may allow delayed burial. R. Emden strongly disagreed and the two, long on friendly terms, corresponded on the subject (see R. Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study, p. 288ff.). In an insightful unpublished 1984 paper on this correspondence, Prof. Lawrence Kaplan uncovers layers of attitudes that resonate centuries later (“On the Boundary Between Old and New: The Correspondence Between Moses Mendelssohn and R. Jacob Emden”). With his permission to use the unrevised draft, I will apply portions of his study to Modern Orthodoxy today.
II. Abolishing Practices
On first consideration, Mendelssohn’s position seems obviously correct. When there is real concern for preserving life, piku’ach nefesh, the imperative to save a life, should certainly override the obligation of quick burial. Mendelssohn had much more on his side, both from historical and textual observations, but they seem secondary to me when such a no-brainer calculus is involved. Yet R. Emden strongly disagreed. He countered that the danger to life is minuscule. A chevra kadisha, Jewish burial society, would certainly discover any live bodies. Halakhah need not concern itself with the extremely remote possibility, nearly impossible, that a live person would be mistakenly prepared and buried.
There are many elements to this conversation that I am omitting, including important points that Prof. Kaplan analyzes. I want to focus on one specific issue that Prof. Kaplan uncovers, which I think reflects contemporary thinking very well. At one point in the exchange, R. Emden emphasizes that he is personally quick to forcefully oppose improper Jewish customs. However, he did not equate all practices. He only advocated abolishing customs that are 1) late in origin, 2) local, 3) textually unfounded and 4) superfluous stringencies (this is Prof. Kaplan’s list of R. Emden’s considerations – p. 26). Even regarding the Ashkenazic custom of refraining from eating kitniyos on Pesach, about which R. Emden bitterly complained, he felt powerless to abolish it (see this post: link). Mendelssohn, on the other hand, wanted to abolish all practices that are irrational and for which a contrary rabbinic source exists. His fidelity to Divine will as interpreted by the Sages was unwavering. However, he wished to rid Judaism of irrational, and therefore damaging, accretions.
Both R. Emden and Mendelssohn shared this goal of ridding Judaism of improper practices that had arisen over the ages. However, their programs differed significantly in their attitudes toward tradition. R. Emden was part of his contemporary world of rabbinic Judaism, which he wished to preserve and strengthen. Mendelssohn wanted to recover an ancient, authentic rabbinic Judaism that was more in tune with Enlightenment thought. Mendelssohn saw the common ground between the two and mistook it as agreement. He failed to recognize their differing attitudes and was therefore surprised by R. Emden’s strong opposition.
To a degree, both of these attitudes exist in contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. I consider myself and my teachers in the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy to be followers of R. Emden (within this typology). We respect traditional practices and wish to strengthen today’s rabbinic Judaism. However, we have little patience for many new practices that have recently arisen and wish to abolish them. Whether segulos, upsherin or any number of new-fangled customs that serve no purpose and are generally based on superstition, we at most tolerate them and at best abolish them, particularly when there is a good reason. To cite one example, R. Hershel Schachter recommends discarding the new practice of a couple refraining from seeing each other the week of their wedding, and instead taking pictures earlier on the wedding day to avoid delays during the celebration. But we hold closely our long-standing customs, particularly those that are universally observed. If it were up to me and I had the power, I would abolish the custom to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach. But we don’t have that power and I cannot bear the thought of discarding centuries of Ashkenazic practice.
Some (not all and maybe not even most) to the left of Modern Orthodoxy are following Mendelssohn (let me hasten to add that I am not one who anachronistically equates Mendelssohn with Reform and mean no veiled attack in this; I see nothing wrong with being an intellectual descendant of Mendelssohn). They wish to abolish any custom they consider irrational or counterproductive and will latch onto any source that they believe gives them an ancient foothold on which to do so. They feel comfortable bypassing the consensus of halakhic opinion in order to recover the authentic, rational, compassionate Judaism. We see this in attitudes to conversion and women’s roles, where what are generally considered as at most minority opinions are raised as the necessary paths of the future.
Yet there is a misunderstanding of attitudes. Mendelssohn saw R. Emden as a colleague in his effort but R. Emden had a different program. Similarly, many people on the left see my attitudes toward a number of issues and think I fit within their program. On some issues, where our views intersect, I do. But they are often surprised, and even angry, when they learn that I am on the side of tradition. They also miss the progressiveness of right wing Modern Orthodox rabbis. Seeing their strong stances on issues of tradition, they mistake them for Charedim. Yet rabbis like R. Hershel Schachter and many others believe in change. They have a program like R. Emden’s, which opposes many recent excesses but stays firmly within the traditional world of Judaism.
What lies in the future? How do we overcome these gaps and move together as a community? I have no idea. However, this episode from the past helps us identify some of the differences we face today.
(Please note that any name-calling in the comments, particularly of contemporary rabbis, will be unhesitatingly deleted. Please think carefully before submitting a comment.)