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Tradition at a Time of Crisis: An Innovative Approach to the History of Halakhah in the Modern Era

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 2 Ballroom


Jacob Katz was one of the most significant historians of Jewish history in the second half of the 20th century. In my lecture I would like to present a critical analysis of one of his most important theses: Jewish Orthodox society is a modern phenomenon distinct from traditional Jewish society. Katz's conclusion was based mostly on a series of halakhic case studies which, in his opinion, indicated a dramatic shift towards stringency in order to create a protective wall. The need for such a wall was modern because modernization brought the loss of autonomy and turned the observance of halakhah into a voluntary act. Rabbinic authorities, who feared the abandonment of traditional Jewish law, wanted to fortify the tradition, but achieved in effect the opposite result, creating a disconnect between traditional and modern halakhah.
This theory impacted many fields of scholarship about Orthodox society, among them: Silber's presentation of ultra-Orthodoxy, Feiner's study of the Haskalah-Orthodoxy relationship, Sivan's analysis of fundamentalism, Heilman's examination of Orthodoxy in America, and Rapoport-Albert's evaluation of Orthodox historiography.
My lecture proposes a re-examination of halakhic sources in accordance with a new methodology, which allows for a better comparison of Orthodox halakhah with traditional halakhah. I will present two case studies: calculating the time of Beyn Ha-shemashot (dusk), and mourning for a suicide. On the basis of my findings, I propose an analytical shift that emphasizes the continuity between Orthodox halakhah at the time of crisis and traditional halakhah. It corresponds to many conclusions of the sociologist Shils. While this new theory does not completely negate the model of "Jewish Orthodox society as a modern phenomenon" , which can still explain various characteristics of the Orthodox society, it will, nevertheless, enable a better understanding of the broad range of phenomena associated with Orthodox society, which is characterized by the coexistence of tradition and modernity.


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