In a recent opinion piece in the Forward, Abbot Katz objected to the term "Ultra-Orthodox" (link). I happen to agree that the term "ultra" has a negative connotation to it, and is therefore objectionable. However, Katz goes farther and objects to people considering R. Moshe Sofer, the Chasam Sofer, as the beginning of Ultra-Orthodoxy:
“Ultra-Orthodox” manages to presume itself into Gorenberg’s treatment rather often, most irritatingly in his citation of the great early 19th-century German-Hungarian Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, known universally in the Orthodox world as the Chasam Sofer. It is he whom Gorenberg terms the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy. But what can that mean?>I believe that Mr. Katz is not entirely correct here. A close reader of the writings of the Chasam Sofer's students will find something very new and even radical in arguments based on his statements. Yes, he was a traditional Torah scholar; a brilliant one who earned a place as a leading decisor throughout the generations. However, there are some decisions that he made, or that are extrapolated from his positions, that are startling.
Click here to read moreFollow the implied chronology: 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and rabbinic scholarship suddenly mutate in the 19th century, culminating in an ultra-Orthodox strain branded as a new, firebrand alternative to that which preceded it. That is, the Orthodox were there first.
The claim is preposterous, but durable. In fact the Chasam Sofer is very much of a piece with his rabbinic predecessors and successors. Nowhere in the yeshiva world is he credited with striking a stance at any fundamental remove from his forebears.
A few years ago, I was learning at night in a small but fairly Charedi synagogue and we only had nine men for a minyan. Then the principal of a local (Charedi) elementary school walked in for some reason and did not have a hat with him. We wanted him to stay and pray with us but he objected that he did not have a hat. The rabbi of the synagogue, a world-class scholar, told him that it is not an issue and he completed our minyan. After services, I went up to the rabbi and asked him why he was not concerned with the position that a custom is considered a vow and therefore has biblical force. If so, a man who has the custom to wear a hat during services must--biblically--wear that hat or he is violating a vow. The rabbi waved it away and said it cannot be correct because then a custom would have more force than a rabbinic obligation.
Setting that argument aside, because there are always counter-arguments (cf. the commentaries to Yoreh De'ah 214, Orach Chaim 468, 690)*, the point I am trying to emphasize here is that the Chasam Sofer, according to some of his students, raised the status of customs to a much greater level of obligation than previous. There was a concerted effort to martial various traditional arguments that result in giving every minor custom the force of a biblical obligation. This is discussed at length in Prof. Michael Silber's classic essay "The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition" (in Jack Wertheimer ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era). Prof. Silber is arguably the leading historian of the Jewish community in 19th century Hungary. According to Silber, the Chasam Sofer and (particularly) his students believed that the nature of the times required being extremely stringent in halakhic matters. This is not a particularly radical suggestion by Silber because it is all explicit in the writings of these Torah scholars.
However, and this is something that Silber discusses explicitly, there was to some degree a battle for the legacy of the Chasam Sofer. His son, the Kesav Sofer, and the Maharam Schick were what Silber calls "Mainstream Orthodox" while other students, such as R. Chaim Sofer and R. Hillel Lichtenstein (and particularly R. Lichtenstein's son/brother-in-law R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger), were more extreme. For example, in the Maharam Schick's critique of the famous 1865 Michalowicz ban, he pointed out that it portrayed customs as being biblically prohibited. It was this latter group who portrayed the Chasam Sofer as being a radical and who continued this legacy, which was widely accepted among Hungarian Chasidim. They do, or at least many of them do, continue the tactics made popular and can, I believe, be justly called "Ultra-Orthodox".
Therefore, when Mr. Katz states that "Nowhere in the yeshiva world is he credited with striking a stance at any fundamental remove from his forebears", he is probably correct because the yeshiva world did not generally adopt the approach of R. Lichtenstein or other Hungarians on the far right. But in the Chasidic world, and the segment of the yeshiva world that has partly merged with it, I believe that he is incorrect because they accept that far-right legacy of the Chasam Sofer. Furthermore, it was not any contemporary writer who claimed that the Chasam Sofer was uniquely radical but some of his own students (particularly R. Schlesinger).
Additionally, that is only regarding the Chasam Sofer. There is an element of what can be called Ultra-Orthodoxy in the yeshiva world that takes its cue from the (alleged) legacies of other figures. It would make for an interesting study to treat the legacies of (for example) the Chafetz Chaim, the Chazon Ish and R. Aharon Kotler for similar trends as can be found with the Chasam Sofer. I believe that a case can be made that they have also been used to create a culture of intense closed-ness (if there is a such a term) and stringency in the same way that some of the Chasam Sofer's successors used his legacy, which may or may not be what they intended themselves and which other followers of theirs might dispute.
* This issue is further complicated by questions regarding the relative halakhic value of prayer with a minyan and preparation for prayer.