Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sociology and Halakhah

The application of historical and sociological techniques and assumptions to halakhah is fraught with the danger of trivializing the sanctity of the halakhic tradition. It is all too easy to get caught up in the sociological framework and to forget the seriousness with which rabbis have taken their responsibilities to the chain of tradition in which they are but one generational link.

However, that does not mean that there is no room for such studies. There are areas where "public policy" has a role in halakhic decision-making and where sociological methods are appropriate. A prime example of this is the realm of the collision of traditional and modern society. That is where "public policy" has traditionally played a large role, and both time and place have an important role in the conclusion of the rabbinic authority. However, even in this area the danger remains that the analyst may underestimate the seriousness of the halakhic decisor. What looks like a public policy desion to the untrained eye might be a simple application based on a pure and timeless study of the halakhah. That is why such studies can only be carried out by a sensitive scholar.

Such individuals exist, and R. Dr. Adam Ferziger's Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity is a fascinating and careful study of the issue. Not only is this analysis of major halakhists of the nineteenth century extremely thorough as an historical work, the analysis of halakhic works is unusually solid. The author is a Ben Torah, and therefore is able to understand not only the texts that he is analyzing but also the broader context of the halakhic tradition. As a student of sociology, Dr. Ferziger attempts to categorize various reactions to the changing patterns of modern life through the language of the field. As someone whose knowledge of sociology ended with the Sociology 101 CLEP exam, I found this quite original. Most fascinating, though, is the combination of this sociology with accurate Jewish history and sensitive halakhic analysis. In the hands of a lesser scholar, the results of this study might have been somewhat offensive. But in the hands of someone who truly respects the scholars and texts he studies, the results are quite original.

All three aspects of this work struck me. There was much historical insight into these scholars (such as R. Ya'akov Ettlinger and R. Azriel Hildesheimer), including German texts of which I had not previously aware. The careful analyses of various halakhic texts also yielded quite a bit of insight. And the contrasts and comparisons of reactions to modernity through the eyes of a sociologist found previously unnoticed patterns. A very rewarding read.

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