Guest Post by R. Yonatan Kaganoff
Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff served for many years as a Rabbinic Coordinator in the OU’s Kashruth Division and was the founding Online Editor of the journal Tradition. He has semikhah from RIETS, studied Jewish philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School and serves on the Board of Advisors of K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights.
Lately, I have come to realize that there are two types of Orthodoxy. Not, as one might expect, Modern Orthodox and Chareidi, though that, too, is a useful distinction, albeit more based upon sociology than ideology. I am thinking more of two ways in which Orthodox Jews conceive of Orthodoxy and its relationship to halakhah and praxis.
One way to think of Jewish law is to think of halakhah in a strictly legal sense, as a series of obligations, Biblical and rabbinic, that one is required to follow, either individually or communally. The only requirement for being Orthodox, then, is to keep halakhah as it is properly understood and codified, by whoever is empowered to accurately interpret and apply halakhah.
The other idea is that Orthodox Jews are those who have and follow a true mesorah or tradition, and Orthodox Judaism, as practiced now, embodies a mesorah historically continuous with earlier authentic expressions of this true mesorah. Any innovations from traditional practice must be rigorously justified. It is not enough for a practice to be technically permissible or not prohibited by Jewish law. Rather, it must already exist within this authentic tradition. Some examples of these innovations include women’s prayer groups, the Bais Yaakov school system, publishing religious Jewish newspapers, or teaching Torah utilizing new technology.
The former think like lawyers about halakhah. Whenever they evaluate a new practice for acceptability, we ask only this: Is it permissible, muttar, or prohibited, assur?”
This is not to say that the first type does not recognize conservative arguments such as the slippery slope and stare decisis. Such forms of reasoning, rather, are no more than legal principles, i.e. considerations internal to the halakhic process, rather than a priori considerations of propriety that precede the technical halakhic question.
The latter believe that we first must determine what the normative practice is, both as recommended by the canonical halakhic texts and as currently observed among those who follow an authentic tradition. Only after that has been established can we evaluate whatever reasons we may have to change the status.
Although the two groups operate with fundamentally different underlying conceptions of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew most of the time they are virtually indistinguishable in practice. It is only when a new activity, institution, or practice is encountered that the difference in ideology comes to the surface.
When the two factions engage in discussion, they often seem to be talking past each other. For the former group, the question is whether or not Jewish law permits this. The natural inclination is to examine the relevant texts, precedents, and parallels in the Rishonim and Achronim. For the latter, the question is whether or not there is a mesorah for this. If no such mesorah exists, then—unless there is some overwhelmingly compelling justification for the move under question—inaction or disapproval must be the default.
To be sure, every movement, religious or otherwise, needs a level of hischadshus, innovation. But this problem is solved by the idea of Gedolim, the leaders and halakhic decisors who are the arbiters of the tradition and who determine what is and what is not considered an authentic part of Judaism. When the Gedolim, the masters of the mesorah, give their imprimatur to an innovation, the innovation becomes justified and validated.
Therefore, one cannot point to any historical innovation and claim that change as a basis for the position that Judaism has changed and should continue to change. For if one can find Gedolim who defend a practice or innovation, either at the time or after the fact, that practice is validated, either immediately or retroactively. So the first group could point to an instance where an innovation was challenged or implemented without the prior approbation or approval of Gedolim. But then the second group would only have to find a Gadol who defended the practice ex post facto, in order to affirm their belief system.
Additionally, I would distinguish between new activities and prohibiting what had previously been permitted. There is far more room to prohibit, either explicitly or implicitly, that which had previously been accepted or even encouraged without violating the tradition, than to permit that which is new. That is why groups that would prohibit that which had previously been allowed (e.g. worms found in fish, yoshon) can claim to still be part of the authentic mesorah.
Support for both positions can be found in the thought of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. R. Soloveitchik emphasized the role of halakhah in Judaism and the centrality of halakhah as an independent autonomous legal system. R. Soloveitchik also emphasized the importance of mesorah, of maintaining authentic Jewish traditions. In practice, Rabbi Soloveitchik was radically innovative, changing practices to fit his preconceived notions of how Jewish life should operate and overturning numerous traditions of innumerable generations that he felt were incorrect.
In conclusion, we have two conceptions of Orthodox Judaism that are essentially different from each other, that yet may co-exist indistinguishable from each other. Or at least until the differences are brought out into the open.
 Of course, identifying only two groups with two approaches to halakhah is a grossly oversimplifies a complicated issue, as there is a range of positions on these questions. However this classification is useful in framing two ways of self-identifying Orthodox identity and praxis.  It’s worthwhile to focus on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position, as those to the left among his followers tend to the first approach, while those to the right tend to the second one.