July 25, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 25, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A New Symposium Explores Masorah

The concept of tradition evokes powerful emotions in religious debates. While less orthodox religious streams give tradition a vote, but not a veto, the more conservative segments give it a veto in many circumstances. In the latest debates over the left boundary of Orthodoxy, the term “Masorah,” roughly translated as tradition, has been invoked to oppose religious innovations. What does it mean and why is it so important to us today? Last August, TorahMusings.com hosted a symposium critically examining Open Orthodoxy. In a new online symposium on TorahMusings.com over the next two weeks, traditional scholars will analyze Masorah from multiple viewpoints.

Masorah contends with two tensions that vex contemporary Orthodox Jews—autonomy vs. authority and continuity vs. change. Can an individual decide for himself what lies within the Masorah and what does not? If the Masorah were strictly defined by clear texts, the value of a textual expert’s opinion would be self-evident. But since, at least to the general public, Masorah seems to be more of a Fiddler-on-the-Roof feeling of traditionalism, why should rabbis retain a monopoly on remembering the past? Additionally, if we are bound to follow tradition, is there any room at all for religious innovation to fit the times? By definition, anything new is non-traditional. Masorah seems to be a code word for ultra-traditionalism, not a guide for modern Jews.

Which brings us to the real question underlying this discussion: How binding is Masorah? To many, Masorah seems to be a new term, cynically rolled out by rabbis to counter innovations that do not meet their approval. Actually, it is an old and respected term.

While the oral tradition of laws is a primary part of the Masorah, other elements of Judaism are included as well. The Mishnah tractate Avos begins with an overview of the transmission of the Masorah: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua; and Yehoshua to the elders, etc.” Commentators ask why this transmission is placed at the beginning of Avos—more than halfway through the Mishnah—rather than at the very beginning of Berakhos, the first tractate. Rav Menachem Meiri explains that since the tractate discusses proper and improper ethical behavior, rather than explicit mitzvah and sin, one might have thought that the subject is not part of the Masorah. Therefore, the chain of tradition is placed at the beginning of this tractate, thereby emphasizing that these behaviors are also part of the Masorah.

Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine, on whose editorial board I sit, published a symposium in its Spring 2010 issue on the subject of Masorah. The symposium includes articles by Rav Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University; Rav Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director emeritus of the Orthodox Union and Rav Emanuel Feldman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta.

Rav Hershel Schachter writes that Masorah is not a body of knowledge, but a process of transmission, of learning and teaching. The Torah teaches that when you are uncertain about a matter of halacha, you must ask the Beis Din Ha-Gadol, the central rabbinic court. The court’s role here includes not only serving as a central authority, but also as the great scholars of the generation. Similarly, whenever someone has a question about Judaism, he should ask his mentor or a great scholar of the generation. This process of consultation and learning is called Masorah. Commitment to Masorah consists of accepting the teachings taught by your teachers and the great scholars of the generation. Even though scholars disagree, you are still following the Masorah if you follow the teachings you receive from one of these great scholars.

However, Rav Schachter explains, innovation is a positive force in Judaism. God wants innovation. The tension between the passive role of accepting a transmission and the active role of innovation can be resolved only by the great scholars of the generation. Only they have the scholarship and sensitivity to distinguish between innovations that cohere with received teachings and those that contradict them.

Rav Emanuel Feldman attempts to describe Masorah rather than define it, because its multidimensional nature requires lengthy analysis. Aside from various explicit teachings, Masorah includes a spirit of Judaism based on the wide-ranging intent of the Torah and its commandments. It connects the dots between the commandments, offering a comprehensive guide to life. It is the spirit of the Torah and determines what lies within the bounds of acceptability, even beyond the technical limits of the law.

Rav Feldman states that while innovations are not inherently bad, each proposal must be weighed by an expert in the Masorah. History offers numerous examples of innovations, such as pruzbul and various special edicts. These innovations arose due to historical changes that the leading sages determined warranted the innovations. However, despite title inflation, not everyone is a genius or a wide-ranging expert of Torah. Only a few in each generation have earned widespread trust due to their impeccable integrity and deep Torah knowledge.

Rav Tzvi Hersh Weinreb writes that Masorah is the Jewish lifestyle, including laws, customs, music, folklore and more. While there are core and peripheral parts of the Masorah, distinguishing between them is difficult and fraught with controversy. Rav Weinreb offers two observations to guide us when conflict arises between Masorah and modernity. First, continuity is inherently valuable. Masorah in its broadest sense—”the complex combination of adhering to practical habits, maintaining attitudes of hope, clinging to a community, gaining inspiration from worship and finding meaning in a consistent daily regimen”—has enabled Judaism to continue through centuries of hardship. Secondly, the different elements of Masorah reflect specific Jewish values. Laws, customs, practices, and common attitudes emerge from distinct ideas about God, community and individuals.

Yet even after those essays, there is still more to discuss. In the upcoming symposium on TorahMusings.com, we have gathered scholars to examine Masorah from different viewpoints. Rabbi Alex Ozar explores the notion of Masorah within the framework of Analytic Philosophy, Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff and star researcher Menachem Butler examine a historical example—the bat mitzvah ceremony—that highlights aspects of the complex notion of Masorah, Rabbi David Brofsky discusses the laws of customs and Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey Woolf analyzes Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s theological concept of Masorah. Together, these essays explore, in different ways, the necessity for and parameters of Masorah in an attempt to answer the question: What is Masorah?

By Rabbi Gil Student

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles