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.