Chang­ing the Immutable: How Ortho­dox Judaism Rewrites Its History

Marc B. Shapiro
  • Review
By – October 9, 2015

Accord­ing to a reanaly­sis of the 2013 Pew study focus­ing on Ortho­dox Jews, 10% of Amer­i­can Jew­ish adults are Ortho­dox, and 62% of that group describe them­selves as Hare­di, or ultra-Orthodox.

This sta­tis­tic is rel­e­vant in light of the main objec­tive of Chang­ing the Immutable an ency­clo­pe­dic dis­cus­sion of the com­plex evo­lu­tion­ary process­es involved in cre­at­ing and shap­ing Jew­ish tra­di­tion. For Shapiro, the issue is truth” — that is, how facts are rein­ter­pret­ed, omit­ted or, to use an extreme term, cen­sored in the process of trans­mit­ting Jew­ish tra­di­tion from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

The book begins with the famed pho­to­graph of fed­er­al offi­cials, includ­ing Hillary Clin­ton, watch­ing the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s home. A ver­sion that appeared in Haredinews­pa­pers omit­ted Clin­ton. This, for Shapiro, is a vivid illus­tra­tion of the alter­ing and con­scious rewrit­ing of Jew­ish his­to­ry and thought.” 

Shapiro offers hun­dreds of ideas that are inten­tion­al­ly for­got­ten,” Rab­binic rul­ings that are some­times changed, and ter­mi­nol­o­gy that is mod­i­fied. His book is a call for authen­tic­i­ty and hard facts. At the same time, he offers a series of rea­sons why these changes are made: some­times to pro­tect rab­bis whose ideas might be viewed dif­fer­ent­ly at anoth­er time; often to pro­tect the rep­u­ta­tion of an indi­vid­ual or pub­lic fig­ure or to pro­tect the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty from a hos­tile gen­tile world; and most often to respond to chang­ing social con­di­tions and tastes. 

The book is a cri de Coeur, sug­gest­ing that truth should be a time­less com­mod­i­ty. Yet, the book has anoth­er, larg­er mean­ing. It out­lines how Jew­ish tra­di­tion, a high­ly decen­tral­ized and in a mod­est way, a plas­tic enti­ty, is shaped and changed. But the key here is not pop­u­lar think­ing. The clam­or of the mass­es is not ignored, but is also not deci­sive. Rather, the rab­binic elite of each gen­er­a­tion assess and eval­u­ate — or reeval­u­ate—halacha and min­hag with the under­stand­ing that prece­dent mat­ters and some decisors are more author­i­ta­tive than oth­ers. Some opin­ions, which are artic­u­lat­ed by thinkers of lim­it­ed stature, exist in print­ed mate­r­i­al. But these are not nec­es­sar­i­ly prece­dents and may be beyond the bound­aries of what is nor­ma­tive. Oth­er ideas become accept­ed by groups of peo­ple who, over time, move away from tra­di­tion­al or what we today call Ortho­dox Judaism. This process is a fas­ci­nat­ing one, quite dif­fer­ent from reli­gious groups and even Jew­ish denom­i­na­tions that vote” on mod­i­fi­ca­tions — where major­i­ty rule, a West­ern demo­c­ra­t­ic notion, pre­vails rather than a reliance on an unap­point­ed elite who are rec­og­nized as the legit­i­mate author­i­ties in that era.

The Pew find­ings are espe­cial­ly mean­ing­ful today in light of the pre­dic­tions of ear­ly soci­ol­o­gists that moder­ni­ty inevitably includ­ed sec­u­lar­iza­tion. What we see in these find­ings is a grow­ing cadre of high­ly tra­di­tion­al Jews but, at the same time, a grow­ing pro­por­tion (now 30%) who have no denom­i­na­tion­al iden­ti­ty. While Shapiro decries the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of facts, he pro­vides ample evi­dence that this process has a high­er pur­pose in main­tain­ing Jew­ish uni­ty, con­ti­nu­ity, and inspi­ra­tion for peo­ple to be com­mit­ted to an ancient albeit chang­ing tra­di­tion. While in today’s open soci­ety this allows for greater strin­gency along­side active par­tic­i­pa­tion in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety — Ortho­dox Jews in the Unit­ed States, includ­ing Hared­im, are more afflu­ent than the pop­u­la­tion as a whole — in oth­er con­texts and at oth­er times, rab­binic deci­sions were more lenient in rec­og­niz­ing the con­tin­gen­cies and the con­texts of Jew­ish life. 

Relat­ed Content:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions