Modernity is the Size of an Olive

A 2,000 year old Olive Tree in Israel

Recently, Ben secularized the idea, paralleled in Mircea Eliade’s study of religion, of “homogeneous” history. For Eliade, profane time – that is, time without divine intervention to organize it – is a vast, homogeneous expanse, the meaningless tohu vavohu (unformed and void) that precedes creation. Significant theological events punctuate these equilibria, giving birth to a radically new order, a “sacred history.” Some of these sacred interventions are familiar: the creation of the world, the revelations at Sinai or in the Cave of Hira, or the life and death of Christ. I’d like to talk about a more obscure theological event: the shrinking of the olive.

Since the writing of the Talmud, Jewish law has used the olive (k’zayit) as a standard of bulk. But that size, which was then itself subjected to a complex legal dialectic, has changed over time, as Natan Slifkin has shown. Haredi Jews today hold a k’zayit to be much bigger than any existing material olive, about the size of an egg. To resolve this disparity, many Haredim claim that olives today are much smaller than those of the past. There is abundant archeological and literary evidence to the contrary. Further, because olive trees are exceptionally hardy, some have survived for 2,000 years; many such trees are found in the Middle East, and their olives are the same size as those of younger trees. The Haredim do not mind: they are describing not the natural world, but a miracle.

The “shrinking of the olive” enacts in miniature the central feature of what Menachem Friedman calls the “Haredi historiographic conception.” Friedman claims that “Haredi society divides Jewish history into two main periods,” that is, the past and the present:

The first arguably commences with the Patriarch, receipt of the Torah, or perhaps the mishnaic and Talmudic eras and concludes with the inception of the Haskalah [Jewish enlightenment]. According to Haredi historiography, there was only one kind of Jewish identity during this period, one whose sole legitimate expression was unconditional commitment to Halakha… generation after generation… Contrasting with this age of fulfillment and wholeness is the modern period… This period was marked by a substantial and fundamental rift, as great masses of Jews abandoned the traditional Jewish identity and unconditional commitment to Halakhah… The contemporary mythology of Haredi society may well be based primarily on this interpretation of historical realities during the age of schism. The rift was so vast and so dramatic that even those who remained loyal to the values and customs of the previous age… were somehow affected by it… Awareness of flaws, of incompleteness relative to the previous era, is a central component in Haredi society’s self-perception.

In other words, “the olives aren’t what they once were.” The large k’zayit, interestingly, is essentially a stringency: one must eat a k’zayit of matzah at a Passover seder. Slifkin points out that even if olives were larger in the past, it’s not clear what that means for practice today; indeed, early medieval sources explicitly say we follow the size of modern-day olives and do not worry about the past. But within the Haredi historiography (and worldview), following the olives of the past (despite explicit legal precedent saying the opposite) makes perfect sense; the past, as Friedman writes, is considered “a way of life which Haredim aspire to maintain,” a lost innocence which our practice seeks to preserve.

The Haredim see a sociological, moral, and theological rupture between present and past which interrupts the working of both natural history (uprooting the ancient olive tree’s evidence) and of fundamental human sameness. Being “fallen,” Haredim cannot trust the reality of the present and must follow the (imagined) past. Most of us see the flow of time from past to present as continuous or homogeneous; the Haredim see a mythic, sacred line dividing two eras.

It’s telling that Friedman cannot situate “the past” precisely in history; this sacred, mythological history stands apart from the Bible’s pre-existing mythic structure. Haredim rarely interpret the present in light of the stories of the Deuteronomist, which could be natural precursors to modernity. These stories formed the basis for traditional Jewish historiography, described by Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi as basically cyclical. The Israelites deserts God, are punished, repent, and return to God’s favor, until they desert God, are punished… and so on, always cycling through a constant pattern. Haredi sacred time, in contrast, revolves around the axis of “modernity,” and sharply cleaves two times from each other; this break does not follow the pattern of past history. The Haredi worldview is, paradoxically, a new mythology.

Haredim see themselves as resisting modernity, but scholars like Friedman and Haym Soloveitchik have used cases like the olive to argue that the Haredi conservatism is itself uniquely modern. Opposing what he calls “textual” and “mimetic” sources for authority, Soloveitchik writes:

Jews have been practicing the Seder for thousands of years, and no one paid very much attention to what [the k’zayit] was… One simply did as one’s parents had done… The problem of “minimal requisite quantities” has been known since the mid-eighteenth century… Though the men who raised this issue… were some of the most famous Talmudists of the modern era… nevertheless, their words fell on deaf ears and were without any impact, even in the most scholarly and religiously meticulous circles… A theoretical position [about the k’zayit] that had been around for close to two centuries suddenly begins in the 1950’s to assume practical significance… From then on, traditional conduct, no matter how venerable, how elementary, or how closely remembered, yields to the demands of theoretical knowledge… Fundamentally, all the above… reflect the essential change in the nature of religious performance that occurs in a text culture. Books cannot demonstrate conduct; they can only state its requirements… Performance is no longer, as in a traditional society, replication of what one has seen, but implementation of what one knows…

For Soloveitchik, modernity signifies the primacy of “textual,” rationalist authority over the “mimetic” traditions passed through the family. Mass migration from Eastern Europe to America and the devastation of the Holocaust “wrote finis to a culture.” Since the 19th Century, dialecticians had theoretically revised the quantity of the k’zayit; only after the loss of the tradition was this reasoning applied in practice.

It’s a fascinating narrative, which is unfortunately wrong about the olive. For if the Haredi history involves miracles (like sacred botany), Friedman and Solovetichik require the historical equivalent. The olive’s expansion did not begin in the 18th century, as Solovetichik claims, but rather, as Slifkin shows, in the 12th century, when Jews emigrated north from the Mediterranean and became Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi rabbis began to closely scrutinize Talmudic texts, exploiting comparisons between various sizes (e.g between an olive and a thumb, or an olive and an egg) to infer the size of an olive. They offered progressively larger definitions of an olive. Slifkin explains:

…the Ashkenazi authorities never saw an olive. Olives do not grow that far north; they only grow in the Mediterranean region. In medieval Europe, transporting commodities was expensive, and was only done with foodstuffs for which there was high demand. Many food items were simply unknown in some regions.

Spanish rabbis continued to hold that to determine an olive’s bulk, one looks at an olive; but for Ashkenazi rabbis things were not so simple. By the 16th century, the Ashkenazi discussion of the k’zayit had grown quite ornate, whereas the Spanish rabbis rarely discussed the question.

When, in the aftermath of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, R. Yosef Karo united Sephardic (i.e. Spanish) and Ashkenazi halakha in the Shulchan Aruch, he recorded only the Ashkenazi opinion (that an olive is half an egg). He preceded it with the tag, “some say,” – that is, indicating it was a dissent from the common opinion. But because the more “mimetic” tradition of Spain had produced no complex dialectics – or indeed, any controversy – it was not recorded in the Shulchan Aruch. Probably, this omission meant little to the Spanish Karo – after all, he had seen real olives. As a compiler of an authoritative law code, he did not want to exclude an important existing custom, even if he didn’t take that custom seriously.

But future halakhic discourse would not depend on what Karo saw, but on what he wrote; the theoretical stringency he recorded prevailed. Already, textual reasoning triumphed over mimetic tradition and straightforward trust of reality – 400 years before Soloveitchik’s “rupture and reconstruction.”

To read the olive as the signum demonstrativum of Modernity – as do Soloveitchik and Friedman – suggests “sacred history”; these historians sharply divide tradition and modernity, placing the line between past and present roughly at the Holocaust. Their myth is more familiar to me; “post-Holocaust theology” seems more natural than “post-Haskalah theology.”

But both the Haredim and their historians are invested in the historiography of “rupture,” of Modernity as a distinctly new historical epoch. If we follow the olive’s history, however, we should probably speak of the repeated reconfiguration of Jewish tradition in the wake of myriad “modernities.” That is to say, modernity happens over and over again, each time that a tradition is dislocated from the life-world that produced it.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster distinguishes story, a succession of events connected each to the last by “and then,” from plot, a structure by which an author orders those events and gives them meaning. Sacred history superimposes a transcendent plot on a homogeneous story; it is sacred because just as the author transcends her text, God transcends the world. I mean “transcend” here in a specific usage; both God and the author stand outside the world of the text, on an entirely differently level of reality.

The historian cannot avoid plot; without it, information lacks order and meaning. But not all plots are sacred: sacred plot implies the rupture of transcendent interference, the creation of foundational new categories, the will to say “everything is new.” What I’m proposing, in speaking of “modernities,” is neither homogeneous time nor sacred history, but rather “human history,” that is, time organized by the material changes to human situation. I’m following Richard Rorty’s defense of modernity:

The way to stop the pendulum swinging between ‘irrationalism’ and ‘defences of reason’ is to let historical self-consciousness take the place of metaphysics. Such historical self-consciousness would not require ahistorical metaphysical or epistemological back-up, but merely a vocabulary which, as [Hans Blumenberg] says, has ‘a durability that is very great in relation to both our capacity to perceive historical events and the rate of change involved in them’. In other words, if we can tell a story about why we moderns are in better shape than the ancients and the medievals, we’ve got what he calls ‘sufficient rationality’ – the same sort of Whiggish rationality as we use when telling stories of scientific progress. We can ignore the question of whether the heuristic vocabulary we use in telling this story – the vocabulary which describes ‘the constant matrix of needs’ which humans fulfil by telling themselves philosophical and theological and historical stories is – grounded in anything.

That is to say, modernity ought not be thought of as a new metaphysical or existential condition, created ex nihilo. It is instead the simply the logic of certain historical sequences; it exists today alongside other logics, to a greater or lesser extent, and needs to be grounded not in revelation (or, for that matter, foundational rational justification), but merely as a pragmatic response to particular events. According to Rorty, we should stop worrying whether the scientific method is “grounded,” that is, whether its conclusions (ideally) correspond to the outside world and are thus absolutely true. Instead, science is a good way of achieving consensus on some difficult, old questions; it is a very useful tool in achieving human happiness.

What happens to the halakhic olive’s  symbolism? Perhaps it just vanishes; changes in its size reflect simply the constant redefinitions of halakha as a living community bumbles its way through an ever-shifting cosmos. But instead, I’d like to offer the olive as a Lacanian real, its symbolism deriving precisely from its arbitrary materiality and resistance to simple historical stories. The olive instantiates the difference between our symbolic narrations of history and the irreducibly chaotic reality. In Hebrew, the word for nothing (cloom) comes from the word for olive-pit (loom). In writing history, we always discard that which is not useful to our narrative – the olive-pits. Yet the olive-pit, inedible and incapable of being assimilated into human history, survives, serving as a constant reminder that our stories are the not ultimate truth, that our “nothing” may be the egg from which a future narration is born.

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18 Responses to Modernity is the Size of an Olive

  1. Yair says:

    I think your comparison of Soloveitchik and Slifkin is a bit off here; they probably both agree with each other, except in your post. Soloveitchik clearly isn’t saying in “Rupture and Reconstruction” that the actual development of the olive’s size in rabbinic texts occurred in the 19th century, but rather that this size’s adoption by broader Orthodoxy only occurred then, when people lost the mimetic tradition (“whatever one’s parents had done”) and turned to texts which had indeed featured fantastically larger olives since the 12th century, as Slifkin documents (Soloveitchik, admittedly, does seem to place the tradition – what he calls a to-this-point “theoretical position” – in the 16th/17th century, but that is mainly a dispute amongst historians as to when the position became more prominent in the literature).

    Thus, Slifkin traces the textual evolution of the olive in the scholarly tradition, while Soloveitchik documents when those texts actually became normative outside the elite / those who wrote them. Slifkin explicitly nods to the difference, noting “There is a further point to consider in evaluating the adoption of the view of the Rishonim of Ashkenaz. Ri and Rabbeinu Tam did not deliberate over the size of a kezayis in the context of issuing a practical ruling, but rather as part of an attempt to resolve a conflict in the Talmud. It is far from clear that they were of the view that for one’s own obligation, one always needs to replicate the size of a Talmudic olive. They may well have adopted the view of the Geonim, that if one has access to olives, one should follow the size of an olive in one’s own time and place.” (p. 11) Sounds almost identical to what Soloveitchik says in your citation above about the mimetic tradition vs. the “theoretical” textual one, doesn’t it? Note also that all the normative authorities Slifkin quotes – that is to say, poskim – vis-a-vis the k’zayit are from the last two centuries, further buttressing Soloveitchik’s point (which, given its prominence, Slifkin surely would have debated had he disagreed in any way.)

    Ultimately, this is a dynamic – specific textual requirements formerly only of academic concern now become, in this recently dawned textual age, the stuff of practice – not restricted to the olive, as Soloveitchik argues persuasively and repeatedly demonstrates in “Rupture.” There’s a reason this article is seminal in Jewish studies – it would be a shame if you dismissed it as offhandedly as you seem to above!

  2. Yair says:

    I’d add that Karo isn’t as explicitly clear-cut about the k’zayit’s large size as you imply (see Slifkin p. 11 on this), and that – as I’m sure you’re aware – there are many, many laws and customs in his code that have been non-normative through history, including to this day (look up some of the fast days he lists, for instance!), so even were one to read the Shulhan Arukh restrictively, one would not be arguing against Soloveitchik, who is arguing that this was simply one of many ignored texts that only came to prominence in modernity with the rupture from mimeticism.

  3. Yair–thanks for commenting.

    This is indeed the main plausible objection to my argument. But here are some questions:

    1) Before the shulkhan aruch, in Ashkenaz, how did people poskin on the size of the olive? Did they just not rule at all?

    2) Where’s Soloveitchik’s evidence that no-one ever took shiurs seriously before the Chazon Ish? To me this depends upon the notion of an unbroken, continuous, perfect tradition before modernity–but that’s a romantic (and Romantic) view of the history of Judaism. Also, it seems clear that at least in the circle of the GRA, people did take his innovations seriously–a small group, to be sure, but not insignificant…

    3) In general, indeed, while Soloveitchik’s article is seminal, I think it also vastly misconstrues modernity. You should see, for instance, the conclusion to Halbartal’s People of the Book , in which he notes the ways in which modernity has replaced textual community with “traditional” community–ie, a nationalistic collective that derives normativity from shared historical practice. (Were you the one who recommended the Halbartal to me? It was lovely!)

    4) Even if it were true that nothing before modernity were practical p’sak, still my point would stand that the development that Soloveitchik traces in practice had occurred in theory 400 years earlier. Consider this my fallback position: if you don’t buy the preceding critique of Soloveitchik, still the Shulkhan Aruch represents a triumph of textual reasoning over the received material world — in theory. I consider theory important–theory reflects real intellectual and religious concerns just as does practice…

    5) The other point here is that in general, frum Orthodox baal habatim today are far better educated than pre-haskalah frum Jews, and so it’s possible that there was a knowledgable class pre-modernity that used stricter shiurim, which massively expanded in modernity…

    6) I think Soloveitchik is very popular in part because he is of use to people who dislike Charedi Judaism, and who want some variety of modern Orthodoxy but feel threatened by the claim of a “total, non-modern” community. Thus, it’s very nice for those people to point out that even the Charedim are modern. This goes to the left too: a lot of of “Open Orthodox” psak and stuff to the left even of that uses the Soloveitchik argument to suggest that we need to go “back to the traditional polis.” I don’t care for that type of nostalgia, and I think it’s worth dismantling this Soloveitchikian bogeyman of “tradition”–nowhere defined, nowhere proved, nowhere subject to scrutiny…

  4. Also, I think it’s important to note that a) I don’t necessarily agree with Slifkin about how to interpret his work in relation to Soloveitchik’s, and I never claimed to agree with him and b) I don’t think I misconstrued Karo–I think I was pretty clear that the “yesh omrim” was probably initially included as a nod to an alternative. My point is that Soloveitchik’s “modernity” only gets off the ground precisely because of the victory of that textual alternative over the unwritten practice (ie, what the yesh omrim dissents from)…

  5. Yair says:

    1) I am very impressed at the turnaround time for response on this blog! Thanks for getting back so quickly.

    2) I am glad you enjoyed People of the Book, and gratified that you followed on my recommendation! I thought you’d like it. It appears I’ve got to go dust off my copy and compare Halbertal’s ending to Soloveitchik, as you propose in #3. Relying on instinct and dusty recollection, I believe Halbertal there is, true to his origins, writing more with reference to Israel (think Tisha B’av as a popularly observed national fast day there, even amongst the completely secular, unlike anywhere in diaspora Jewry), while Soloveitchik is explicitly addressing a mainly American phenomenon. So the comparison of the former’s “national collective” with the latter’s “text-based religious community” may be somewhat inapt.

    3) I do think that points #1 and #2 still dance around Soloveitchik’s actual thesis and basically miss his point. Psak was not nearly as pervasive in the pre-modern kehillah, and rabbis were not consulted on every minute issue as they are today. Only with the annihilation of Jewish community life and the rupture from mimetic familial practice did Jews have to turn to scholarly literature, and ultimately, scholars themselves, for answers. Soloveitchik has got a bunch of examples beyond the olive, if I recall correctly, of how this plays out. So yes, there was no psak about olives – such questions, according to Soloveitchik (following his teacher Jacob Katz’s delineation of the role of the rabbi in the kehillah), were not the practical province of rabbis at all until very recently. And I would think the GRA’s circle is the intellectual elitist exception that proves the rule! Most folks were not nearly as educated and text-centric (or capable of being so) as the GRA’s coterie – indeed, few rabbinic authorities were as textual as the Gaon (hence his sui generis textual criticism and rather presumptuous emendations of many traditional texts), and few communal Jews – or even local rabbis – had actual copies of many of these texts.

    4) I think you may very well be right – if slightly unfair – in your contention in #6 as to the appeal of the Soloveitchikian line of thought to certain more modern Orthodox elements. That isn’t actually an argument against it, of course, and there’s a lot of academic research beyond Friedman and Soloveitchik that backs up the narrative of “Haredism as a modern movement”. The seminal article in this respect is Michael Silber’s “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition” in The Uses of Tradition edited by Jack Wertheimer. Generally, I think the evidence assembled by academia to date makes the Haredut as a modern phenomenon thesis pretty hard to refute.

    5) #5 is an interesting counter-narrative, though it would require some evidence to stand on its own. I would say Soloveitchik’s story of the expansion of the yeshiva, the promotion of textual experts to arbiters of practice, and the resultant tension between veneration of the expert and the democratization of the text explains more facets of modern [American Orthodox] Jewish life more elegantly, more chronologically, and with more historical support. But maybe your research will accrue more evidence to challenge this story!

    6) I take #4 and agree that your thesis remains valuable – if arguable – on the theoretical plane, and that’s far from insignificant. It is, however, a very significant retreat from the original post! I was intervening less on the philosophical level, and more on the historical one. I don’t pretend to be as well-versed in the former as yourself, but do think I have what to offer to complicate your picture of the latter.

  6. I think we’re coming closer together! A couple of points (I won’t go one by one, since there are now too many strands, and some of this is what I am just thinking of…)

    0) I definitely should cede that your line is the line Soloveitchik would (and does) take, and that it’s a plausible argument… still…

    1) Note that the Geonic line is not “you know an olive because you know what your family ate at Pesach,” but rather, “you know an olive because… an olive is a physical object in your life.” So indeed, “mesorah” here turns out to be at an abstraction a degree removed from the “physical” Geonim–who do not base the legitimacy of their reading in the tradition. This is an important, obvious way to historicize Soloveitchik’s “tradition.”

    2) Your point about America and Israeli is probably somewhat right, and fascinating. Still, non-Orthodox Jews in America certainly ground their praxis in “communal tradition” even in non-explicitly-Zionist ways, and Charedim in Israel are certainly subject to textualism (and non-Zionist, mostly…) (see Friedman, who’s writing in an Israeli context). So I don’t think it’s fair to limit Halbartal’s critique to being about Zionism (though that is the brunt of his line). Rather, I’d invoke Benedict Anderson, and point out that there is inherantly something secular and modern about ‘tradition’, that is legitimizing modern praxis not in terms of divine command of revealed text, but historical practice of a community.

    3) I don’t disagree that Charedim are modern; rather, I question whether “modern” is best thought of in terms of rupture. You’re right that my contextualization of Soloveitchik is no argument against it; I think though that it’s important to note the difference between the falsifiable parts of history and the interpretive, narrative parts (even though they may be hopelessly entangled). So I can buy the argument that Charedim are modern without that meaning that modernity is this revolutionary, totally new, grounded in itself thing that we are necessarily subject to, and that before modernity the world was placid, traditional, etc. etc. (To hopelessly oversimplify)

    4) I should note the great respect I have for Soloveitchik; when I first read that article, I was ebullient about it literally for weeks after, and could talk about little else. I think it’s certainly true that what I’m doing here is on the level of an olive, not an egg, and certainly not a full-fledged argument… will this olive become more? Who knows. Certainly there is support for this way of thinking about modernity outside Jewish studies, and indeed, within certain strains of liberal, non-Orthodox Judaism.

    5) “And I would think the GRA’s circle is the intellectual elitist exception that proves the rule”… this is a major disagreement–because indeed, these are people mwho “modernized” without the catalyzing effects of the Shoa or the mass emigration to America–suggesting to me that this modernity has an intellectual component to it indepenent of this giant rupture…

    6) Good point about p’sak being a much rarer phenomenon. Still, out of curiosity, are the fasts recorded by Karo things that were never observed, or just not observed today?

    6b) I am glad you think something of my argument remains, and I think that people who don’t accept my strong critique of Soloveitchik should just read the piece in this weaker way (which I think still has some neat bits to it)… in part, I think my point about the SA’s theory bit being a necessarily lynch-pin in the later practical change (this is all within the S narrative that I dispute…) is crucial to establishing that even in those terms, the argument has some practical weight… I should also say that pressure to write something reasonably short made me not address some of this in the piece itself, and I probably should not have cut the original bits about the S response… well, comments are useful

    7) I’m not sure if you agree, but I’m glad that this argument has now fanned out into so many threads that I’m not sure I follow it all…

    Thanks very much for these very challenging and delightful comments! Also, for others thinking of commenting, don’t be scared by Yair’s facility with sources (and my butchering of them)–feel free to comment about the piece without engaging the micro-dialectics…

  7. Yair says:

    Regarding the fast days – it’s probable that all of them were observed, we just don’t know when, where and for how long, or why some of them were instituted (and in some cases, there are fantastic intergenerational scholarly discussions as to the reason a given fast day was established).

    Regarding #3 – I couldn’t agree more with you on the tendency of scholarship to overplay modernity as a specific watershed moment in human thought and self perception. I actually just don’t think Soloveitchik falls into that trap, because his thesis is highly specific and tied to key – and cataclysmic – historical events (i.e. the Holocaust, migration of the Jewish community to America) rather than some nebulous speculative conception of overturned Jewish self-understanding due to the advent of modernity. I.e. had the Holocaust not happened, Soloveitchik would not have written his article. Most theses about modernity don’t work that way. Another support for this reading of Soloveitchik’s thesis as isolated from broader questions of “modernity” is that his thesis has been applied by other scholars to post-Temple Judaism (another catastrophe resulting in necessary communal restructuring) – in other words, Soloveitchik’s point is valuable without any reference to modernity at all!

    On the subject of overemphasizing modernity at the expense of the continuity between the past and present, both historically and in terms of human subjectivity, I highly recommend Marilynne Robinson’s recently published short lectures in Absence of Mind (did you ever get to meet her or hear her speak while she was at Yale?). I’m only partway through the book, but I’m sure you’ll find much to enjoy, ponder and disagree with in it. It’s quite something.

    • Via fast days– this means fast days are not an example where Karo is not involved in some type of practical p’sak, right?

      Via rupture–interestingly, I think the same thing that you like about S makes me question–that is, the extensive conditioning of consciousness upon this particular event (ie the Shoa). It’s interesting how Haredim talk about the shoa metaphorically all the time (ie, as a symbol for the haskalah) “the spiritual holocaust of Reform” for instance, is a stock phrase; on the other hand, outside the Haredi world, or the argument ad hitlerum is thought to be very bad form (even if common enough), and to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for something is absolutely offensive (I think)… I’d like to write more, but shabbos approaches…

    • Did I get this right in terms of which to delete…? I hope so…

      • Yair says:

        Yup. Thanks!

        I am also less enthused when folks take the Holocaust as a radically consciousness-defining point – as Yitz (Irving) Greenberg does with his post-holocaust theology – and am wary of pulling that particular catastrophe out of the continuum of Jewish history, in which many such tragedies occurred. I’m more with Jonathan Sacks in his Covenant and Crisis, where he argues that the Holocaust can be dealt with – and is dealt with – in traditional theological paradigms (which includes everything from old-school theodicy to arguments about the depravity of Reform Jews, because Jewish theology is flexible in that way!).

        All that said, I don’t think Soloveitchik’s thesis is making that kind of flawed argument. He’s making a purely factual claim – that the Holocaust razed the European Jewish community, effectively migrated the remnants to America, created something of a lost generation in terms of tradition, and ultimately – given the severing of communal, family traditions (mimeticism) – led to a turn to texts for a recovery of practice. It’s an argument that only works in a very specific set of historical circumstances. Tellingly, when Soloveitchik first delivered the lecture at an academic conference, and when he published an abridged version of it in the conference volume, it was simply titled “Migration, Acculturation, and the New Role of Texts” (which, is, I think, a great summary). “Rupture and Reconstruction” is the later title he gave the extended treatment in Tradition, but that poetic license should be chalked up to the fact that the journal’s audience is primarily lay, rather than academic. As such, I don’t think the title should be taken as an existential statement. They just don’t publish articles with the words “migration” and “acculturation” in their headers.

        With all the negatives, I’m having trouble parsing your question about Karo and the fast days! My understanding of his codifying them, to clarify, is that he wasn’t necessarily prescribing them, but rather cataloging all those he’d heard of. But really, I don’t think we have any way to know. It’s hard to figure what Karo thought would be psak and what he didn’t.

        Shabbat Shalom!

  8. Briefly, visa Karo: my point is that, even if he’s not recommending it, it’s not just a theoretical point (ie, for someone, somewhere, it was practical p’sak, or in S’s language “adopted”). Thus you need another example if you want to claim that Karo was recording theoretical disputes with no practical implication–practical psak that’s not our minhag is different from theoretical musings.

    Briefly, visa the shoa: my point here is that S views the shoa as an irreversable change which disturbs a thousand year (at least) old transition. I’m not so much suspicious of his history of contemporary times as his genealogy of how we got there..

  9. Sam Le Dily says:

    I just want you to know that I enjoyed this essay, and that engagement with any sort of microdialectics was not necessary.

  10. Jonathan Berger says:

    This essay–and the dialogue in the Comments!–really made me question my assumptions about the impact of “modernity” (and, in fact, my very understanding of the term). Thank you for teaching me and challenging some of my assumptions.

    Your first paragraph made me think of Yerushalmi’s distinction between history and memory. Would you mind fleshing out the connection–or clarifying the distinction, if you see a difference–between “homogenous history” (which seems to me to correspond somewhat to Yerushalmi’s idea of history) and “sacred history” (which likewise might correspond to his idea of memory)?

    • Jonathan–

      Very kind of you! Been some time since I thought about this, but I think you’re right that there’s some connection between Yerushalmi’s memory and Eliade’s sacred time. Both are organized, both have ruptures or fissues separating pieces from each other. More than that is hard to say offhand.

      • Jonathan Berger says:

        Thanks for the quick, al regel achat response. I think it’s time for me to read Eliade myself…

        I realized after I posted the comment that the date of the original post was two years ago! However, it was only yesterday that someone sent me the link. Looking forward to reading some of your newer posts.

        …And, if you are the Raphael Magarik I used to know from Ramah (you’d know me as Yoni, which is generally how I’m still known), it’s good to see you again, albeit only on my computer screen.

  11. I am one and the same—though unfortunately, I don’t remember you (I have a lousy memory for names). But it’s still good to hear from you!

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