The Adoption of Heterodox Practices II

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(continued from here)

In this series
* Number 1
* Number 2
* Number 3
* Number 4

Modern Applications

The first modern halakhist that this author was able to find who applied this passage in practice was the great authority R. Moshe Sofer, the famed Hatam Sofer. Perhaps surprisingly, his utilization of this prohibition was not in the form of a polemic but as part of a responsum to a traditional rabbi who had requested guidance in planning the doors and outer hallway of a new synagogue. The doors to the actual sanctuary must be in the west[19] but, the respondent asked, is there any rule about the doors leading from the outside into the hall? After thoroughly analyzing this obscure topic, R. Sofer added that since Reform synagogues are built with the outer doors in the west, it is forbidden for a traditional synagogue to do likewise and, thereby, imitate the Reform.[20]

However, since R. Sofer is known as having taken an extremely strong stand against Reform some discount his rulings on related issues. While this author shudders at the thought of dismissing this venerable authority, since others have less hesitance to do so this essay will focus on authorities generally considered more tolerant of others who are different and of innovative ideas.

R. David Tzvi Hoffman

The introduction of the organ into the synagogue was one of the earliest Reform innovations in the second decade of the nineteenth century and was roundly denounced in the 1819 collection of responsa from the leading rabbis of Europe titled Eileh Divrei ha-Berit. However, even clear directives from such luminaries as R. Akiva Eiger and R. Moshe Sofer would not deter the budding Reform movement. They had received the permissive rulings they desired, responsa from relatively unknown rabbis that had been previously published in the 1818 book Nogah ha-Tzedek, and no amount of scholarship or rabbinic presssure would deter them.[21]

In 1897, long after Reform had come to dominate German Judaism and Orthodoxy, through the tremendous efforts of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Azriel Hildesheimer and others, had reasserted itself as a viable minority, the question was presented to R. David Tzvi Hoffman whether an Orthodox synagogue may use an organ during the week. In a monumental responsum, the man who later became the foremost halakhic authority in Western Europe neatly summarized the existing literature on the subject and then formulated his own extensive reasoning as to why an organ is prohibited in the synagogue even during the week.[22] He received approval for his work from R. Azriel Hildesheimer and all but one of the rabbinic authorities he consulted.[23] In addition to the prohibition against walking in Gentile ways, which he thoroughly analyzed from all positions, R. Hoffman also cited the prohibition against imitation, and thereby encouragement, of sectarians. Since the Reform movement certainly qualifies as sectarian, we may not adopt any of their practices which might confirm them in their ways. Once we take a small step towards Reform the public might think that, despite our protests to the contrary, this is only the first of many steps. This is not merely the concern of a dominant majority worried about the potential growth of a small deviant group for, as we have seen, this prohibition was invoked by R. Hoffman long after Reform had become dominant and a healthy Orthodox opposition had become established.

Rav Kook

In the summer of 1935, the issue of an organ in the synagogue was brought before the world-renowned Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. Evidently, a Sephardic rabbi in Israel had permitted the use of an organ, claiming that all of the previous rulings issued only apply to Ashkenazim. The matter was taken to Rav Kook who, without citing R. Hoffman’s recently published responsum which he may not have seen, arrived at the same conclusion that even if an organ were not a prohibited Gentile practice it would still be forbidden as a sectarian practice.[24]

Rav Kook further cited this prohibition in 1938 regarding cremation. In addition to the obligations to respect and bury a deceased person, about which he wrote at length, Rav Kook further noted that since Reform had accepted cremation as an option it is forbidden to accept or even assist with this sectarian practice.[25] If we are not allowed to encourage their practices through imitation, he argued, certainly the Orthodox “Hevra Kadisha” may not facilitate the Reform practice of cremation.

There is no question that in attempting to understand Rav Kook’s approach to the heterodox we must take much more into account – his love for all Jews and, more generally, all people, his attitude towards the unlearned and non-religious, his approach to pluralism and on cooperation with those with whom he disagreed, his eschatological views, and more. This certainly applies also to R. Hoffman and all the other authorities cited here. However, our focus in this essay is a narrow halakhic issue that will admittedly give us an incomplete picture but one that is still necessary.

Rav Herzog

A few years after Rav Kook’s response, in late 1945, his successor as Chief Rabbi of Israel, R. Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, utilized this prohibition in response to a timely question. Less than two years before the United Nations approved a Jewish state in Israel, Rav Herzog was asked whether an Ashkenazi may adopt a Sephardic, or more likely Modern, pronunciation of Hebrew for praying. While the respondent, R. Levi Rabinowitz, lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, this was certainly a relevant question in the burgeoning community of ingathered exiles in Israel. Responding to R. Rabinowitz’s specific situation in Johannesburg, Rav Herzog wrote that since Reform in that location had grown and was utilizing Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, it was forbidden for R. Rabinowitz to change his pronunciation because it would appear to be an imitation of Reform practice which, as we have seen, is prohibited.[26] This was not a “public policy” decision that it would be best not to change pronunciations. Rather, it was an outright prohibition based on the above issue and the realities of Johannesburg at the time.

R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg

R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg, the famed Lithuanian genius who grew to become the leader of pre-war German Jewry, cites this prohibition in three separate responsa. In one responsum[27] he responded to the question of whether an organ may be used in a ceremony to inaugurate a new Jewish cemetery. Citing both the prohibition against adopting Gentile practices and that against imitating sectarian, R. Weinberg clearly distinguished between the two and argued that both applied in that situation. Explicitly affirming R. Hoffman’s approach, R. Weinberg wrote:

If we allow the use of musical instruments at the inauguration of a cemetery, the unlearned and unlettered will say, “The Pharisaic sages have permitted the matter.” It is therefore incumbent upon us to preserve our ancestors’ actions and not to deviate from their customs by even a hair’s breadth.[28]

In a responsum[29] from 1936, R. Weinberg addressed the issue of planting flowers on a grave. After considering all the possible objections, R. Weinberg concluded that this would be permissible except that, since Reform had previously adopted the practice, for the Orthodox to then adopt it would be a prohibited acceptance of a sectarian observance. Since we may not encourage them or lend credence to their practices, we must carefully avoid any innovations they may have initiated, even those that otherwise conform to halakhah.

In a third and oft-quoted responsum,[30] R. Weinberg answered an inquiry about whether the celebration of a Bat Mitzvah is permitted. His main concern was that it might be considered a variation of the Christian confirmation ceremony, an issue he exhaustively analyzed and put to rest. However, a matter that he did not and could not dismiss was that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was a heterodox innovation and, as such, may not be adopted. Imitating a heterodox practice, even if unintentionally, “has within it the strengthening of the destroyers because they were the first to initiate the new practice of celebrating the Bat Mitzvah.” This, R. Weinberg rules, is a sufficient reason to prohibit the Bat Mitzvah celebration. The only way for such a practice to be permitted is to sufficiently differentiate it from the heterodox celebration. Basing himself on the view of Tosafot,[31] R. Weinberg argued that if it is obvious to onlookers that the ceremony is for a different reason than a corresponding heterodox ceremony would be for then it is permissible. The heterodox Bat Mitzvah is a dry synagogue ritual followed by a party for its own sake; the Orthodox Bat Mitzvah that R. Weinberg permitted is a celebration, specifically outside of the synagogue, of family joy and, more importantly, a time of educational strengthening of the religious development of a budding woman. As R. Weinberg quickly noted, those who do not utilize the opportunity properly and wish merely to have a party like those in the heterodox community have no halakhic permission to do so.[32]

(to be continued be”H)


[19] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 150:5

[20] Responsa Hatam Sofer, vol. 1 no. 27

[21] Cf. Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity, pp. 57-61; Judith Bleich, “Rabbinic Responses to Non-observance in the Modern Era” in Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew, ed. Jacob Schacter, pp. 40-53.

[22] Melamed le-Ho’il, vol. 1 no. 16

[23] R. Marcus Horovitz, the only rabbi to dissent, agreed with R. Hoffman’s conclusion and his analysis of the prohibition against imitating sectarians. He only disagreed regarding the prohibition of following the ways of the Gentiles. See his entire letter to R. Hoffman in Responsa Mateh Levi, vol. 2 no. 6. This position of R. Horovitz’s regarding following the ways of the Gentiles was later quoted and disagreed with by R. Hayim Ozer Grodzenski in Ahiezer, vol. 4 (Jerusalem: 1992) no. 38.

[24] Orah Mishpat, Orah Hayim no. 36

[25] Da’at Kohen, Yoreh Deah no. 197

[26] Pesakim u-Ketavim, vol. 1 no. 14. Cf. ibid. no. 1.

[27] Seridei Esh, vol. 2 no. 80

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., vol. 3 no. 111. Cf. R. David Tzvi Hoffman, Melamed le-Ho’il, vol. 2 no. 109

[30] Seridei Esh, vol. 3 no. 93

[31] Hullin 41a sv uvashuk

[32] The omission of this entire issue of imitating sectarians from the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein on this subject does not indicate disagreement over the prohibition. R. Moshe Feinstein gave brief responses to the question with little halakhic background. As R. Weinberg himself claimed, he and R. Feinstein wholly agreed and the only difference between them was that R. Weinberg discussed at length the underlying halakhic issues. See his letter to Ha-Pardes, Tammuz 5726 p. 37.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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