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History of Orthodoxy Branche of Judaism

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Hungarian Jewish history has been primarily occupied with understanding concepts sparked by the Haskalah movement. With a focus on the closely tied phenomena of emancipation and the tendency for assimilation, historians were interested in the trend of modernization within the Jewish faith and tradition . As a result of the institutional schism which officially began after the events of the Jewish Congress in 1869, Judaism broke up into two main streams.

There were the reformers, a modern cohort of worshippers, who had been deemed worthy of historical analysis. Reformers were believed to represent a wave of innovation, a challenge to tradition, a breaking with old ways. Meanwhile, the Orthodoxy, often seen as the strict preserver of tradition, was dismissed as having nothing new to offer, and for a long time, was neglected as a concept of significant interest .

Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, however, trends have changed and there was increased emphasis and attention dedicated to learning more about the Orthodox population of the Hungarian Jewish community. Silber, an historian and editor of the Jerusalem Anthology (on which this paper largely focuses on), argues that “the peculiar nature of the Hungarian Jewish community was […] the result of the strong anti-assimilatory stance of the large number of Orthodox layers”, as opposed to its population of reformers (page 7) .

The claim is provocative, as it suggests that Orthodox Judaism is the defining force of Hungarian Jewish history. Instead of seeing Orthodoxy as a rigid continuation of the old, Silber and other historians see this branch as a new division of Judaism, born precisely with a mission to oppose liberalization. Through its process of active protests, then, Orthodoxy represents modernization. The everyday demands associated with repelling the pervasive forces of the religious reform and the Haskalah, specifically the act of choosing to stay loyal to one’s tradition in an era so drenched with provocation, forced the creation of a new kind of Judaism. As another historian, Nathan Slifkin argues, “[Orthodoxy] was traditionalist rather than traditional (page 3) .”

The focus of this paper will be to shine light onto the modernity of the Orthodox community, rejecting the notion that this group of believers is a product of the past. In a chronological order, the ideas of various authors will be discussed, to explain the evolution behind understanding this topic.

The line of study begins with Jacob Katz, one of the most influential researchers in Jewish history. He serves as an initiator in reconsidering Jewish tradition and modernity, being the first to suggest the modern origins of the Orthodoxy.

In the first place, Katz believed that the beginning of the modern period began sometime during the 18th century. He argued that it was the radical transformation of the “traditional” Jewish community structure and way of life, which remained unchanged, that marked the break from the Middle Ages. By dragging the end of the Middle Ages out into the 18th century, Katz accentuates the importance of this era when looking at the concept of progress. As the determinants of modernity, the historian looks at the idea of the institution, and the importance of this within Jewish life.

His work “Hazassag es hazaselet a kozepkor vegen” takes a sociological approach in the sense that it examines various institutions in terms of their functions, in order to pinpoint the signs and find the roots of modernity. In his work, he considers not only the kahal, but also concepts such as marriage, family, halakhah and the interaction between Jews and non Jews, as separate institutions. But as Voros mentions, Katz does not use these themes based on their intrinsic value; rather, Katz used them as a tool to reach a conclusion about “the [then] contemporary beliefs, characteristics and value systems” (p. 202) embraced by the Jewish community, with a goal of comparing ‘premodern’ and modern times.

This leap from early modern to officially modern era is the main interest of his work on institutions. He presents the transition from older to more modern times through the relative comparison of the two, rather than giving a black and white list of the differences between the two time periods. Katz cares less about what emerges as a new phenomenon and is most interested in the way that the new concept relates to the old one , “since it is the old which serves as a background for the growth of the new” (p. 67).

What he claimed as his finding, was that the early modern jewish community was a well-organized, balanced society that easily maneuvered between the ideal and the real world, (as required) updated and has successfully implemented anything that made it easier and more secure for the continued existence of Jews in a fundamentally hostile world .

While the structuralist and functionalist approach impeded Katz from critically examining the institutions on their roles in modernization , his early work was nevertheless very influential, as it opens the discussion about the orthodoxy’s novelty.

Joseph Ben David, another historian with a Hungarian background, further develops the ideas which Katz raised in his work. He does not only defend the position of orthodoxy’s modernity, but he refines the thesis with his objective research methods. In his work “A modern zsidó társadalom kezdetei Magyarországon a 19. század elején (1952)”, Ben David analyzes the dynamics of the jewish society in two steps (p. 14).

First, he looks at the social factors which ensure the stability of the community over time, by looking at the structure of the traditional Jewish life (pp. 81-82). Based on this, Ben David explains the force which threw off the balance by which the schism occurred. His findings indicate that during the institutional divide, there emerged a conservative movement that was simultaneous with the birth of the Haskalah and the growth of the Jewish elite (p. 110).

Ben David agrees with Katz, as he dives in to explore the traditional functions of the jewish community . The two shared the idea that to understand something new, one must look to the old structures, since a “new society can only be built on the foundations of an older, pre-existing structure” (p. 108). Despite of these similarities, Ben David disagrees on many points. While he sees the causes of the change being the results of an institution, he argues that the institutions were not the result of family and marriage, but instead, they were the offspring of the sphere of education. More precisely, he interprets the change as a metamorphosis of the yeshiva and the Talmud scholars’ role in Jewish life and society (pp. 89-90).

The stability of the traditional society lay on the fact that the religious elites and the bourgeois jewry were largely intertwined. Despite of the differences between these two groups, there was continuous interaction among them. Following the new influences sparked by the French Revolution, by the 1820-30s, the structure of Jewish society began to experience increased divide. The economically wealthy Jewry became less and less in need of the religious elite, which largely affected the status of this group (p. 94).

The Talmud scholars found themselves in an unfavorable situation, and were forced to choose between two outcomes. They were either to “bridge the gap caused by the secession of the reformers, and establish a status for themselves which would ensure economic stability; or, they could focus on developing Talmud study into an independent model, by founding a basis outside of the traditional communal settings” (pp. 121-122).

The first route was chosen by the maskilim, which ultimately failed at creating a viable community, and by the 1850s, have ceased as a whole . Ben David was more interested in the second route, which the Talmud students and scholars represented. Assuming that the traditional Jewish community was an “organic” system, (where each limb moved together, for the good of the community as a whole), then the newly “fermenting” changes influenced the community in its entirety (p. 128). Therefore, Ben David argues that it is highly improbable that the conservative movement happening in parallel with the Haskalah was solely preoccupied with preserving tradition, without undergoing a change itself.

Ben David mentions the creation of large yeshivas in the Kingdom of Hungary, to which thousands of students arrived. According to the historian, this phenomenon was not the continuation of past traditions, but instead, signified a new era characterized by the youth movement, which became the basis of Orthodoxy. Here, he cites Hatam Sofer’s work and influences. The key success behind this movement was the relationship between the Talmud scholar and his students, as well as his charismatic persona. These events caused Ben David to define the “conservative Hungarian movement as a new, charismatically religious movement” (p.135), which developed with the purpose to respond to the demands of modernity.

The main argument of Ben David, is therefore, that the conservative movement is not a product of the past, but instead it is the conscious and novel reaction launched against the violent reforming forces.

Some 45 years later, in 1997, there was a forum created which heavily criticized Ben David’s ‘hyperbolic’ and rough analysis of the events. Historians such as Bacon and Breuer also claimed, that Ben David’s model of the Hungarian yeshiva was too difficult to compare to other similar movements, and therefore, it could not provide a truthful account for the conservative movement’s widespread success .

Nonetheless, the study of Ben David was very influential on Jacob Katz’s newer works. Possibly due to the shared experiences and the similar backgrounds of the two authors, they shared many ideas and developed a close friendship during the years.

Katz took Ben David’s step further when he argued that the birth of Orthodoxy and of Neology was the “very same transition manifesting in two distinct forms”. In this work, Katz gives more power to the internal Jewish factors. He saw tradition as the dynamic redefining agent of the Jewish society and spirit, and he began writing Hatam Sofer’s biography in order to reach the roots of the Orthodoxy.

This Talmud scholar, considered a genius, Hatam Sofer’s goal was to develop a theory (with the ultimate goal to sanctify the importance of tradition), dedicated to wipe out the differences found between the Torah’s absolute laws and the rabbis’ subjective rituals and predicaments (p. 177). Sofer believed that the tradition must be guarded and observed in its most radical form. This notion stemmed from the awareness that tradition was endangered by the modern ideologies circulating. The key of this research is that it draws on Hatam Sofer’s ability to adapt his rigid and traditional ideologies and adjust them to the demands of reality, whenever necessary. This once again suggests, that despite of its emphasis on tradition, the Orthodoxy was a significantly new phenomenon.

Nathaniel Katzburg and Michael Silber’s studies both concentrate on the Hatam Sofer’s legacy, and the strengthening of the political, religious and legal polarization in Jewish society, as a result of the initiatives taken by the Hatam Sofer’s students.

Katzburg talks about the 1865 rabbinic assembly, behind which the increasingly wide polemic of the Orthodoxy and Neology stood. Until 1860, the Orthodox population was winning in the ‘battle’. The basis of this community was the rabbinate which emerged out of the legacy of Hatam Sofer, as well as the growing Hassidim in the Eastern regions of the Kingdom (p. 183).

The Congress debated the inner and external structure of the synagogues, as well as the prayer and worship services. There were various prohibitions, such as not being allowed to use languages other than Yiddish for the sermons. This greatly upset the reformers, who have been mostly speaking German as their first language, at the time. More surprisingly, there were Orthodox objections to these proclamations, as well. In general, the Orthodoxy tried to avoid open clashes of opinion.

Katzburg presented the schism and the events which led up to this divide. He demonstrated that it is a mistake to judge the Hungarian orthodoxy as being a coherent unit. Katzburg provided evidence that the Orthodoxy is the product of the modern Jewish politics.

Michael Silber, the editor of the anthology, closes the line in the book. In his own research, he builds on the work of Katzburg and Katz. At the same time, his work is much more modern in approach, and instead of focusing on Hungarian Jews, his interest is on ultraorthodoxy as a defining aspect of Jewish culture.

Silber tries to answer the question of how the divided orthodoxy managed to rise above the difficulties during the years of 1860 (p. 210). He argues that the conservative movement fighting against the challenges of reforming resulted in the birth of the Ultra-Orthodoxy, who were the descendants of Hatam Sofer’s legacy. Silber refines Katzburg’s analysis on the Orthodoxy’s heterogenous beliefs, exerting that there were three orthodox trends crystallizing as a response to the polarization inside the conservative group.

These branches were either leftist, centralist or right-wing believers (p. 217). The Jewish Congress’ decision gave voice to one of these subgroups, the ultra-orthodoxy, which wished to fully implement and realize Hatam Sofer’s conservative ideology. According to Silber, the ‘winners’ of the Congress of Nagymihaly wished to target not the reformers, but the orthodox rabbis who have been prone to accepting western reforming influences inside their synagogues (pp. 223-224).

After 1867, when the fight against the neology was close to its end, the Neoorthodox community took the institutional divide to its end (p.231). However, after the schism, both the Neology and the Ultra-Orthodoxy branches got engulfed by the main stream of the Orthodoxy (p.232).

The second half of his study examined the ideologies of the Ultra-Orthodoxy, who were seen as rigid reinforcers of the old tradition. However, as Silber explains, overly fanatic worship was to be avoided. The people avoided reaching this point, by reconstructing their interpretation of the Talmudic laws (p. 241).

The central claim of Silber’s work is, that the Ultra-Orthodoxy was not the heritage of an unchanging tradition, but it was responding to the challenges posed by the reformers. The Ultra-Orthodoxy did this by renewing and readjusting their own tradition rooted in the past, with special attention to the viability of this in the real world.

Of course, this harmonic and almost undivided agreement between these four historians does not reflect the rich debate behind the modernity of Orthodoxy.

There are plenty of historians who refuse to view Orthodoxy as a modern phenomenon, in more contemporary times. One of these thinkers is Aviezer Ravitzky, who challenges the significance of this movement. Ravitzky exerts that “Judaism always superimposed itself on the past, rewriting history in its image, in order to view itself as loyal to the legacy of its forefathers” . In this sense, he explains that there is nothing new about the ideology, or the reaction of Orthodoxy to the challenges they have faced during the period of the divide.

Nathan Slifkin, however, believes that simply because Orthodoxy did not perceive itself as a changing ideology, does not negate the fact that it was not itself a modern branch, through its new approaches to Judaism. Slifkin brings up the evidence that the reaction demonstrated by the Orthodoxy altered deeply from the traditional ideologies which preceded it, during the various cases of threats which Judaism faced throughout the history (p. 14).

As demonstrated, viewing the Orthodoxy as a relatively young branch of Judaism is not always a universal phenomenon. The idea is often challenged contemporarily, just as it was done before the works of very influential writers have been published. Nonetheless, there is significant evidence pointing to the novelty of the Orthodoxy’s origins, which have led to its extensive studying.

Cite this paper

History of Orthodoxy Branche of Judaism. (2020, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/history-of-orthodoxy-branche-of-judaism/

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