Responses to Modernity
ADAM B. SELIGMAN
AS MENACHEM FISCH notes at the outset, Judaism does not speak with one voice. Indeed, it never has. In fact, as much as anyone, Fisch's own work has shown how a polyphony of voices constitutes the core moment of the Jewish legal tradition. Furthermore, and in terms of our interest here, it is well to remember that Jewish Orthodoxy, which Menachem has decided to take up in his essay, emerged in the nineteenth century as a reaction to modernizing and pluralistic tendencies within Judaism. With the spread of emancipation and its deepening within society, Jews began to accommodate themselves to modernity and sought ways to reshape tradition and its dictates. These moves were expressed in matters ranging from ritual slaughter, to the placement of the bridal canopy, to the length of time to wait before interring the dead, to the language of the rabbinic sermon, and to just about every imaginable regulation and custom in between.
The first Reform Rabbinic Assembly of 1844 (fifty-eight years after the death of Moses Mendelssohn) sought, in the words of the historian Jacob Katz, “to create harmony between public behavior and the injunctions of the halakah.”1 Less radical changes were instituted by the Neolog movement in Hungary, which, together with the Reform movement in Hungary and Germany, attempted to give institutional form to the growth of nontraditional forms of worship and behavior among both academically trained rabbis and their congregants. Orthodoxy arose in response, and virulent protest to these movements and their agendas—going so far as to prohibit not only attendance, but even entry into a Reform synagogue. (Jews, we should note, are permitted to pray in Muslim mosques.)
Of course, 150 years later the positions have somewhat changed, and movements such as Modern Orthodoxy have emerged which, under the banner of “Torah and science” betray an openness to aspects of modernity inconceivable only a few generations ago. This “openness” continues, however, to be mediated in matters of pluralistic behavior and the acceptance of any form of Jewish diversity. Thus we should recall the more contemporary version of the Hatam Sofer's prohibition