Monday, March 2, 2009

Mimetic Tradition - A Public Question

Have you ever wondered why mimetic tradition goes out the window when nothing whatsoever in the surrounding circumstances has changed, and somehow, davka when circumstances have changed, חדש אסור מן התורה suddenly becomes the rule.

I mean, think about it. Thrips infestation of stawberries is nothing new, nor are dental fillings, but somehow, what Grandma and Grandpa did doesn't count.

But at the same time, the social status of women has changed drastically over the last number of decades, but when a huge Rabbinic scholar rules that women can be given aliyot, nearly the entire Rabbinic world rejects him outright.

If anyone out there has some insights on this, I would be interested in hearing them.


  1. C'mon, Chuck, it's easy.
    Halachot dealing with physical, quantifiable materials are much easier to handle. You can use all your gemara-learning skills, sharpen your shalka v'taria and at the end of the process you will have come up with new halachot/chumrot whatever. You can use a lot of energy and excitement and not have to make profound changes in yourself.
    To deal with more value-oriented issues, you might be challenged to rethink well-established attitudes, orientation etc., in light of the developments that have taken place in the "general" world. Matters touching upon women's issues, psychology, the arts, philosophy etc., threaten to change one's hashkafat olam and (I guess) very comfortable societal surroundings. Very dangerous.

  2. A few points to add to the discussion:
    1. The freezing of halakha as snapshot that cannot be changed or worse, today's humra hunting was I reckon, initially an anti-reform reaction that gave rise to existential fear. In order to control the situation a "change-freeze" (as we would call it in the IT world) was called. This later became a tightening of halakha to take on stringencies as an antidote to the slackening of the reform.

    2. This situation was exacerbated by the accelerating rate of change in the world (change is exponential not linear), which totally outpaced the comfort level of poskim and Jewish philosophers. This prompted the claim that halakha never changes or at least a serious putting-on of the brakes in order to try to keep in control.

    3. An explanation I once heard of humra-hunting is that in the past it was really easy to feel the presence and a need for God in the world as many diseases were untreatable and so many natural phenomena were unexplainable. With the advance of science and technology, this has changed. Atheism and secularism seem totally valid alternatives to many, which could never have been conceived in the past. This crisis of faith (or even a need for faith) gave rise to a new way of getting close to God by trying to get closer to his will by fulfilling halakha in ever increasing minutae.

  3. Rafi, your comments are very very interesting and convincing, especially point no. 3.
    Just one note to further broaden the socio-religious picture. Parallel to the humra-hunting mindset you describe, there is, of course, the trendy(?),new way to get close to God - the new Breslov-style/"HKBH - anachnu ohavim otcha"/super-experiential approach. It, too, could have emerged as a response to the valid non-religious options you mentioned.

  4. Is this some backhanded way of celebrating international women's day next Sunday?