Symposium on Masorah: Introduction

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by R. Gil Student

[A condensed version of this introduction appeared in some newspapers this week.]

I. The Importance of Masorah

The concept of tradition evokes powerful emotions in religious debates. While less orthodox religious streams give tradition a vote, but not a veto, the more conservative segments give it a veto in many circumstances. [1]Generally speaking, Orthodox Judaism gives priority to biblical and rabbinic obligations over desires for innovation. Customs and practices that do not rise to the level of halakhically binding … Continue reading In the latest debates over the left boundary of Orthodoxy, the term “Masorah,” roughly translated as tradition, has been invoked to oppose religious innovations. [2]For example, see the Rabbinical Council of America’s May 7, 2013 “RCA Statement Regarding Recent Developments at Yeshivat Maharat,” which describes the ordination of women as clergy as “a … Continue reading What does it mean and why is it so important to us today? Last August, TorahMusings.com hosted a symposium critically examining Open Orthodoxy. In a new online symposium over the next two weeks, traditional scholars will analyze Masorah from multiple viewpoints.

Masorah contends with two tensions that vex contemporary Orthodox Jews—autonomy vs. authority and continuity vs. change. Can an individual decide for himself what lies within the Masorah and what does not? If the Masorah was strictly defined by clear texts, the value of a textual expert’s opinion would be self-evident. But since, at least to the general public, Masorah seems to be more of a Fiddler-on-the-Roof feeling of traditionalism, why should rabbis retain a monopoly on remembering the past? Additionally, if we are bound to follow tradition, is there any room at all for religious innovation to fit the times? By definition, anything new is non-traditional. Masorah seems to be a code word for ultra-traditionalism, not a guide for modern Jews.

Which brings us to the real question underlying this discussion: How binding is Masorah? To many, Masorah seems to be a new term, cynically rolled out by rabbis to counter innovations that do not meet their approval. Actually, it is an old and respected term.

II. What Does Masorah Include?

Different elements of Masorah reflect specific Jewish values. Laws, customs, practices, and common attitudes emerge from distinct ideas about God, community and individuals

While the oral tradition of laws is a primary part of the Masorah, other elements of Judaism are included as well. The Mishnah tractate Avos begins with an overview of the transmission of the Masorah: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua; and Yehoshua to the elders, etc.” Commentators ask why this transmission is placed at the beginning of Avos—more than halfway through the Mishnah—rather than at the very beginning of Berakhos, the first tractate. Rav Menachem Meiri [3]Seder Ha-Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1995), ed. SZ Havlin, p. 5. explains that since the tractate discusses proper and improper ethical behavior, rather than explicit mitzvah and sin, one might have thought that the subject is not part of the Masorah. Therefore, the chain of tradition is placed at the beginning of this tractate, thereby emphasizing that these behaviors are also part of the Masorah.

In a different context, Rav Elazar Rokeach describes the chain of tradition from which he received the prayer text. He begins with the names of his teachers, continuing to their teachers and so on for a number of generations, concluding: “We have received the secret of the prayers from rabbi to rabbi, transmitted through the prophets, elders and pious ones and the Men of the Great Assembly, who instituted the prayers.” [4]Peirushei Siddur Ha-Tefillah Le-Rokeach (Jerusalem, 1992), vol. 1, p. 229, quoted in Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger, Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, English volume (Bnei Brak, 2010), pp. 15-16. Not just laws but the explanations and texts of prayers also come to us via tradition, Masorah.

However, this raises another question: If there are different versions of prayer texts, how can any or all of them be called a true Masorah? Presumably, the nature of a tradition is that there is only one. The multiple strands of Masorah can be explained by a difficult statement of the Rambam. In a slightly different context, the Rambam says that no law transmitted by tradition is debated. [5]Commentary to the Mishnah (Jerusalem, 1995), ed. R. Yosef Kapach, vol. 1, p. 11; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mamrim 1:3. Somewhat ironically, commentators hotly debate the meaning of this statement because it is easily refuted. Personally, I find convincing the approach of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes that there might be agreement about the general content of the tradition, but not the details. [6]Toras Ha-Nevi’im, Ma’amar Torah She-Be-Al Peh in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes (Jerusalem, 1958), p. 115ff. Similarly, we find widespread agreement about the general text of the prayers despite the notable differences. [7]I personally pray Nusach Ashkenaz but, for a variety of reasons, for nearly a decade I have attended a synagogue that follows Nusach Sefard. The minor differences are constantly on my mind. For a … Continue reading The Masorah in general is widely acknowledged within the Orthodox Jewish community even though scholars and communities may differ on the details of this Masorah.

III. A Previous Symposium

Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine, on whose editorial board I sit, published a symposium in its Winter 2010 issue on the subject of Masorah. The symposium includes articles by Rav Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University; Rav Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director emeritus of the Orthodox Union; Rav Emanuel Feldman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta; and Rav Immanuel Bernstein, an Israeli educator. [8]Rabbi Bernstein focuses on legal tradition, which is outside the scope of this introduction and therefore omitted from the summaries below. In addition to this symposium, see R. Micha Berger’s … Continue reading

Masorah contends with two tensions that vex contemporary Orthodox Jews—autonomy vs. authority and continuity vs. change

Rav Hershel Schachter writes that Masorah is not a body of knowledge, but a process of transmission, of learning and teaching. The Torah teaches that when you are uncertain about a matter of halakhah, you must ask the Beis Din Ha-Gadol, the central rabbinic court. [9]Deut. 17:8. Rav Avraham Kook interprets the Talmud Yerushalmi as applying this to uncertain matters of both Jewish law and thought, halakhah and hashkafah. See R. Bezalel Naor, The Limit of … Continue reading The court’s role here includes not only serving as a central authority, but also as the great scholars of the generation. Similarly, whenever someone has a question about Judaism, he should ask his mentor or a great scholar of the generation. This process of consultation and learning is called Masorah. Commitment to Masorah consists in accepting the teachings taught by your teachers and the great scholars of the generation. [10]Rav Schachter points out that great scholars of a generation have the halakhic status of a mentor for everyone. See Tosafos, Berakhos 31b sv. moreh; Terumas Ha-Deshen 1:138; Rav Avraham Danzig, … Continue reading Even though scholars disagree, you are still following the Masorah if you follow the teachings you receive from one of these great scholars.

However, Rav Schachter explains, innovation is a positive force in Judaism. God wants innovation. The tension between the passive role of accepting a transmission and the active role of innovation can be resolved only by the great scholars of the generation. Only they have the scholarship and sensitivity to distinguish between innovations that cohere with received teachings and those that contradict them.

Rav Emanuel Feldman attempts to describe Masorah rather than define it, because its multi-dimensional nature requires lengthy analysis. Aside from various explicit teachings, Masorah includes a spirit of Judaism based on the wide-ranging intent of the Torah and its commandments. It connects the dots between the commandments, offering a comprehensive guide to life. It is the spirit of the Torah and determines what lies within the bounds of acceptability, even beyond the technical limits of the law.

Rav Feldman states that while innovations are not inherently bad, each proposal must be weighed by an expert in the Masorah. History offers numerous examples of innovations, such as pruzbul and various special edicts. These innovations arose due to historical changes that the leading sages determined warranted the innovations. However, despite title inflation, not everyone is a genius or a wide-ranging expert of Torah. Only a few in each generation have earned widespread trust due to their impeccable integrity and deep Torah knowledge.

Rav Tzvi Hersh Weinreb writes that Masorah is the Jewish lifestyle, including laws, customs, music, folklore and more. While there are core and peripheral parts of the Masorah, distinguishing between them is difficult and fraught with controversy. Rav Weinreb offers two observations to guide us when conflict arises between Masorah and modernity. First, continuity is inherently valuable. Masorah in its broadest sense—”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”—has enabled Judaism to continue through centuries of hardship. Secondly, the different elements of Masorah reflect specific Jewish values. Laws, customs, practices, and common attitudes emerge from distinct ideas about God, community and individuals.

Yet even after those essays, there is still more to discuss. In this symposium, we have gathered scholars to examine Masorah from different viewpoints. Alex Ozar explores the notion of Masorah within the framework of Analytic Philosophy; Zev Eleff and Menachem Butler examine a historical example that highlights aspects of the complex notion of Masorah; David Brofsky discusses the laws of customs; and Jeffrey Woolf analyzes Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s theological concept of Masorah. Together, these essays explore, in different ways, the necessity for and parameters of Masorah in an attempt to answer the question: what is Masorah?

IV. How Do You Spell Masorah?

I add here one brief editorial note on the spelling of Masorah. Academics, who refer to Masorah in a very limited sense: as the recorded traditions about the biblical text and their related apparatus, [11]On the biblical Masorah, both Masorah Magna and Masorah Parva, see R. Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word (Jersey City, NJ, 2006), vol. 1, ch. 7. spell the word as Masorah (with a kamatz/a) while popular literature spells it as Mesorah (with a sheva/e). [12]Such as Mesorah Publications and the Orthodox Union’s Mesorah journal. Prof. Naftali Tur-Sinai (Torczyner), in the relevant Ben Yehuda Dictionary entry, vowelizes the word as Masorah, but explains the controversy. Historically, the word Masores was much more common. Modern grammarians disagree whether to vowelize our variant as Masorah (Bacher) or Mesorah (Ben-Zev). Buxtorf chose Masorah, which seems to have influenced the academic community. [13]I thank Ari Kinsberg for bringing this source to my attention. Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner) (1886-1973) was the first President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. He completed Eliezer … Continue reading However, the Sefardic tradition accepts the pronunciation of Mesorah. While I do not feel bound to arbitrary academic standards, [14]Such as spelling the name as Abravanel even though Abarbanel is equally correct. See Prof. Shnayer Leiman, “Abarbanel and the Censor” in Journal of Jewish Studies 19 (1968), p. 49 n.1. I had to choose one consistent way of spelling the word in this symposium. In the spirit of this symposium, I have chosen to use the Masorah spelling because that is how I remember my teachers pronouncing the word.

Over the next two weeks, we will be publishing essays in this symposium. The next entry is scheduled for Sunday night May 22. I thank Rabbi Moshe Schapiro for editing the contributions and Stephen Tolany for typesetting the PDF that will be available at the conclusion of the symposium.

 

Endnotes

Endnotes
1Generally speaking, Orthodox Judaism gives priority to biblical and rabbinic obligations over desires for innovation. Customs and practices that do not rise to the level of halakhically binding custom may be overridden, depending on a number of considerations.
2For example, see the Rabbinical Council of America’s May 7, 2013 “RCA Statement Regarding Recent Developments at Yeshivat Maharat,” which describes the ordination of women as clergy as “a violation of our mesorah (tradition).”
3Seder Ha-Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1995), ed. SZ Havlin, p. 5.
4Peirushei Siddur Ha-Tefillah Le-Rokeach (Jerusalem, 1992), vol. 1, p. 229, quoted in Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger, Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, English volume (Bnei Brak, 2010), pp. 15-16.
5Commentary to the Mishnah (Jerusalem, 1995), ed. R. Yosef Kapach, vol. 1, p. 11; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mamrim 1:3.
6Toras Ha-Nevi’im, Ma’amar Torah She-Be-Al Peh in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes (Jerusalem, 1958), p. 115ff.
7I personally pray Nusach Ashkenaz but, for a variety of reasons, for nearly a decade I have attended a synagogue that follows Nusach Sefard. The minor differences are constantly on my mind. For a more mystical approach to differences in Jewish law and thought, see Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Perakim Be-Machasheves Yisrael (Jerusalem, 2003), p. 295, based on the sources he quotes in that chapter.
8Rabbi Bernstein focuses on legal tradition, which is outside the scope of this introduction and therefore omitted from the summaries below. In addition to this symposium, see R. Micha Berger’s essay “What Does Masorah Mean?”
9Deut. 17:8. Rav Avraham Kook interprets the Talmud Yerushalmi as applying this to uncertain matters of both Jewish law and thought, halakhah and hashkafah. See R. Bezalel Naor, The Limit of Intellectual Freedom: The Letters of Rav Kook (Spring Valley, NY, 2011).
10Rav Schachter points out that great scholars of a generation have the halakhic status of a mentor for everyone. See Tosafos, Berakhos 31b sv. moreh; Terumas Ha-Deshen 1:138; Rav Avraham Danzig, Chayei Adam 127:10; Rav Moshe Ibn Chabib, Kapos Temarim, Sukkah 34b on Tosafos sv. ve-lidrosh.
11On the biblical Masorah, both Masorah Magna and Masorah Parva, see R. Yonatan Kolatch, Masters of the Word (Jersey City, NJ, 2006), vol. 1, ch. 7.
12Such as Mesorah Publications and the Orthodox Union’s Mesorah journal.
13I thank Ari Kinsberg for bringing this source to my attention. Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner) (1886-1973) was the first President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. He completed Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s 17-volume Hebrew dictionary. Wilhelm Bacher (1850-1913) was prolific writer and leading scholar of Judaism. Judah Leib Ben-Zev (1764-1811) was an early Maskil who was the first to apply modern scholarship to the study of Hebrew. Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629) was a Christian Hebraist who wrote a Talmudic Lexicon.
14Such as spelling the name as Abravanel even though Abarbanel is equally correct. See Prof. Shnayer Leiman, “Abarbanel and the Censor” in Journal of Jewish Studies 19 (1968), p. 49 n.1.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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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