On Shavuot let's celebrate the spirit of rabbinic innovation

While some may argue the 'new is forbidden', rabbis have always been creative in their application of Torah


The slogan, “Torah forbids anything new”,  was coined in the 19th century by the Chatam Sofer, the leading light of Hungarian Orthodoxy, who was engaged in a battle against Reformers for the hearts and minds of his community.

While this soundbite doesn’t represent the majority of the Chatam Sofer’s thought, which was creative and original, it was taken up by other conservatives — for example, the Chafetz Haim, who objected to electric lighting in synagogues because it was “new”. Its preservationist philosophy endures in some Jewish communities today, who crave for the past, equating the ancient and the static with the authentic.

But the Chatam Sofer’s aphorism was neither ancient nor authentic. And its philosophy is at odds with mainstream rabbinic thinking, which is often highly creative. 

In fact, the slogan is a cheekily out-of-context mis-citation from the Mishnah, which discusses neither innovation nor novelty (Orlah 3:9). Instead, it prohibits eating new grain from the spring harvest before the Omer offering has been brought on the day after Passover.

The Chatam Sofer describes his soundbite as a “pun” and his radical re-interpretation of the Mishnah is itself an innovation; no previous authority had understood the text like this before.

He attributes the pun to Rabbi Eliezer, a second-century Mishnaic sage who also opposed innovation and change. The Mishnah calls Rabbi Eliezer a “sealed cistern which does not lose a drop”, a vessel that can conserve and transmit, but cannot adapt and can never innovate.

Rabbi Eliezer boasted he never taught a single word which he had not heard from his own teacher. The Talmud illustrates his limitations by recording that he was asked 30 halachic questions while on a voyage to Galilee but was only able to answer 12 (Succah 28a). Perhaps his teachers hadn’t yet taught him answers to the others; perhaps the questions were new ones.

Either way, Rabbi Eliezer’s preservationist philosophy, which the Chatam Sofer resurrected in the 19th century, was rejected by the sages of the Mishnah because it blocked development and change. Rabbi Eliezer himself was excommunicated when he would not accept that halachah could alter by majority vote. 

In the famous debate which led to his expulsion, the correctness of his opinion was validated by a divine, heavenly voice. Yet the Sanhedrin voted differently and excommunicated him.

During the dispute, Rabbi Eliezer produced a series of miracles symbolising his opposition to halachic change: a living tree was spontaneously uprooted; a flowing stream reversed its course; the walls of the beit midrash, the study hall, began to buckle. 

This last act was unacceptable and his opponent, Rabbi Yehoshua, intervened to command the walls to remain still. Then, almost unimaginably for a religious tradition based on divine revelation, he declared, “Torah is not in Heaven” (Baba Metzia 59b).

Rabbi Yehoshua states that “without innovation a beit midrash cannot exist”  (Chagiga 3a) and the rabbis of his time were innovators: they positioned the synagogue at the centre of the Jewish world without erasing the memory of the Temple service; they created the prozbul to allow lending across the sabbatical year; they created the eruv to permit carrying on Shabbat; they used the idea of midrash to connect their innovations with the written text of the Torah, opening the door to future change without abandoning the past.

In more modern times Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller, a contemporary of the Chatam Sofer living in Poland, where Reform was weaker, writes in the introduction to his Ketzot Hachoshen that halachah relies absolutely on innovation and creativity, propelled by human intelligence and inevitably containing elements of human error.

His work remains a staple of yeshivah study today and his ideas are repeated by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the most important American rabbinic authority of the 20th century, in the introduction to his responsa. They are echoed by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, writing at the same time in the Land of Israel, who sees halachah as the “bridge over which Torah moves from written word into living deed”.

If the authentic rabbinic tradition is one of development and growth, why do we hardly see this today? One reason may be last century’s denominational strife; like the Chatam Sofer, mainstream religious leadership feared innovations which looked like Reform.

Another, equally important, may be the conservatism of Jewish communities, which do not always support change even when halachah permits it. Great rabbinic leaders can sometimes bring their communities to new heights. But more usually, if a congregation lacks the will and the education to progress, its leaders cannot either.

At Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah. This year all of us — both as individuals and as members of larger communities — should consider what our own roles and responsibilities could be in its unfolding.

Benedict Roth is a member of Golders Green United Synagogue

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