re-inventing our traditions

parshat bamidbar

No one has a monopoly on transgressing the Torah. Think of the draft-dodging ultra-orthodox in Israel. They read Numbers 1: 2-3 along with the rest of us don’t they?

Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls.
from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: ye shall number them by their hosts, even thou and Aaron.

שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם–בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם
מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, כָּל-יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל–תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם, אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן

In a way reminiscent of the classic Reformists, the Haredim absolve themselves of military conscription and wish to read these verses, and others that mandate military service, as not applying to them, not applying in our times, not being literal or no longer relevant.

It’s not as though the Hebrew Bible does not offer exemptions from military service. It exempts the Levites; the Priests (see Numbers 1: 45 and 47) and builders of new houses, planters of new vineyards, newly-weds and the faint hearted (Deuteronomy 20: 4-8)

But nowhere does the biblical text provide an academic deferment.

According to The Israeli Supreme Court Decision Invalidating the Law on Haredi Military Draft Postponement, the original rational for the deferment for Yeshiva students was of a historical nature:

The original reason for the arrangement was the destruction of the yeshivas in Europe during the Holocaust and the wish to prevent the closing of yeshivas in Israel due to their students being drafted to the army. Today this objective no longer exists. The yeshivas are flourishing in Israel, and there is no serious worry that the draft of yeshiva students, according to any arrangement, would bring about the disappearance of this [yeshiva] institution.

But this temporary accommodation became permanent. As any reformer will tell you, you make an exception and soon the exception becomes the rule.

The other justifications given by the heredim for draft avoidance are clear rationalizations (namely that modern-day yeshiva students take the place of the Levites and/or that the yeshiva students, by the merit of their Torah Study, are in fact contributing to the security of State. see Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s critique of these arguments here).

The parallels between the rationalizations of reformists and fundamentalists is intriguing and is also an area of research by scholars.

In a fascinating book edited by jack Wertheimer, scholars review how in the 19th century the Ultra-orthodox engaged, consciously or not in the invention of a tradition. (The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era)

Just like the reformers, the ultra-orthodox believed that there were times where it was permissible, nay, incumbent to abrogate the Torah in order to preserve it. They quoted the Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 90b and the verse in Psalms 119: 126

It is time for the LORD to work; they have made void Thy law

עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה– הֵפֵרוּ, תּוֹרָתֶךָ

Most of the time the ultra-orthodox response to modernism took the form of added prohibitions. Here too, they like the reformers, liked to blur the difference between Biblical law, Rabbinic decrees and customary practice. Argued the ultra-orthodox leaders that since all elements of the tradition were equally sacred, there was no point in distinguishing between laws found explicitly in the Torah, Rabbinic additions and common custom. “It is good to elevate prohibition” said the Hatam Sofer. (ibid page 48). To the reformers, this worked in the opposite direction, in terms of all laws being man made customs…. The outcome was similar in terms of reinventing a tradition.

One of the most fascinating and, for an ex Yeshiva student, entertaining monographs in the book is one entitled The Lost Kiddush Cup in which Menachem Friedman documents how the Hazon Ish, the great Rabbinic leader and legislator (posek) determined the required amount of wine to be held in the Kiddush cup for the Sabbath meals. This is the same Hazon Ish, i might add, who negotiated the army deferment with Ben Gurion. The Hazon Ish was so respected that the size of the Kiddush cup that he required was called “shiur Hazon Ish”. Most of the Kiddush cups from the old country in Europe had disappeared along with European Jewry, but a few had survived and when the students of the Hazon Ish came home from the Yeshivah with their new, and I should add generous required pour they were surprised to find that the old cups saved by their parents were not adequately sized to hold the new wine of the re-invented Judaism of the Hazon Ish.

Recently my friend Frederic Brenner shared with me his newly published book An Archeology of Fear and Desire which has in it an image of an ultra-orthodox men wearing a black burqaesque veil to protect them from the immodest dress of fellow travelers at the airport. Haredi women were starting to wear burquas, he also informed me. I thought he was making it up until I saw an ultra-orthodox man walking down Madison Avenue with his wife in a black burqa.

Clearly we are observing the re-invention of Judaism before our eyes. For some it is the re-invention of traditions that never existed and for some of us, it is the reinvention of a Judaism that is yet to be. It’s all part of serving in God’s army, I suppose.


Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 90b

Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 90b


1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

One response to “re-inventing our traditions

  1. While I don’t expect to read the moroangph in the near future and thus am unable to respond directly, I’ll go out on a limb here and supply some insight I find meaningful.One cardinal Jewish belief is that God is involved in the world’s happenings to one extent or another. While our actions and reactions are shaped by our particular circumstances, it is God who is in fact, to one degree or another, producing them in the first place. Thus, there is typically talk of God’s ‘energies’ or ‘forces’, as a means of describing the juncture at which God and our world intersect.Now the medieval mind had a certain way of apprehending things, and positive forces came to be conceptualized as angels, while the negative were seen as demons. This is not just some modernist hogwash. An examination of angel/demon-saturated works like the Talmud and Sefer Chasidim indicate that angels/demons are essentially ‘messengers’ who deliver great fortune or awful mishap – merely a colorful visualization of God’s stewardship of our lives. Carrying this idea even further, they also have come to represent our own thoughts and deeds, and the fates we shape through our actions (thus lunacy (specific patterns of thought) might logically be described as ‘possession’). [I believe this angles/forces equation is indicated both in Moreh Nevuchim, and often in the works of Chasidei Ashkenaz]. Ergo, religious avoidance of certain foods or behavior isn’t an admission that one fears the revenge of the ‘hairy ones’ per se, so much as the concern that these represent God’s destructive ‘energies’ which will result in some subtle negative effect.Two issues do remain, however. One is how far accounts of these entities go in describing them in great, seemingly physical detail. And second is the contexts in which they are depicted as being of a mind of their own. All I can say to that is that I imagine the range of belief in those phenomena might be aligned with the range of empirical vs. imaginative thought. What’s reasonable/believable to one varies utterly from what is to another.On that note, I’m chagrined at the mean characterization of temimus’dike people who are faithfully repeating what they’ve been taught. Plenty of simple-minded Americans still believe in the existence of angels and ghosts too, and psychologists and anthropologists surely provide ample justification for these historic beliefs. Scholarship would do well to stick to systematic analysis and steer clear of resorting to plain jeering.

Leave a Reply