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Yes, Orthodoxy Changes. No, That’s Not ‘Rewriting History.’

Pssst! I’ve got a secret to share. It’s from deep inside the Orthodox Jewish world. Come closer… Okay, here it is: Orthodoxy changes!

It’s not much of a secret, actually. At least in these here parts. But it seems to be an unfamiliar concept for Marc Shapiro, a University of Scranton professor and author of the recent book, “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History.”

This concept also struck as somehow scandalous. The reviewer channels Chicken Little and draws a wild causal line from the sin of presenting great personalities in a flattering light to “devastating” consequences like an imagined “tens of thousands of young men and women in Israel and the United States who are living lives of desperation and poverty in order to fulfill an ideal of piety and scholarship that is presented as an age-old ideal but is in fact a recent invention.”

For such excess was the term “chill pill” created. The reviewer needs one, badly.

The truth is that ideas and even personalities can fall in and out of favor over time in the Orthodox community, as in all communities, as a result of what their approaches yielded in the real world over time. That’s not “re-writing history,” as Shapiro asserts. It is the playing out of history.

What’s more, sensitivities to reputations and feelings are taken into account in some Orthodox literature about historical happenings and personalities. That hardly constitutes the equivalent of Soviet-era attempts to change the past. If a biography of Bertrand Russell can choose to elide the great philosopher’s serial marital infidelities and not be accused of rewriting the past, a hagiography of a great rabbi should certainly be permitted to overlook judgments he made with the best of intentions that in retrospect might seem misguided to some today.

Such acts of civility are at times portrayed as scandalous by Shapiro and his reviewer — as are changes of practice or emphasis. But the truth is that religious praxis does change, and that should be expected. While the Torah’s mandate, to observe the laws God has given us, doesn’t ever change, the particular directives of halacha (Jewish law) regarding many of those laws continue to evolve, as they always have, with normative rulings in many cases emerging only over years. That is part and parcel of Judaism’s halachic system since Sinai.

One opinion in the Talmud, for example, permits fowl and milk to be cooked together and eaten. Just try ordering milk-braised chicken in your local kosher eatery these days; they’ll sic the mashgiach on you in a Borough Park moment. Men using mirrors was once forbidden as a “womanly” act, a once-true assessment that, for most Orthodox men today, is no longer considered applicable.

Orthodox societal norms, too, are subject to change, according to the guidance of the religious leaders of each generation. That’s nothing novel, either; the Torah commands us to heed the “judge who will be in those days” — even if what he says is different from what a previous generation’s judge may have said.

Consider a societal norm taken for granted today, like religious education for Orthodox girls. That was once entirely non-normative; every educated Orthodox Jew is well aware of that. But the religious leaders of the Orthodox world in the early 20th century — including the revered Chofetz Chaim — decided it was necessary for girls to be formally taught Jewish beliefs, texts and halacha. And so the radical change was made. A world without Bais Yaakovs is today unimaginable.

Even normative beliefs, at least to a degree, have changed in Judaism. Whereas once, a Talmudic sage could assert that “There is no Messiah for Israel” — that the ultimate redemption would be entirely Divine, without the reestablishment of the Davidic monarchy — today, that belief is, in the eyes of halacha, heresy, something pointed out by the revered Chasam Sofer.

Rulings, norms, and beliefs may change, just not the system that yields them. That system is the Mesorah, the “handing down,” the painstaking transmission of the Oral Law of Torah, and its application to new circumstances, times and places. The Mesorah itself is immutable.

Why is that so hard for Orthodoxy’s critics to understand?

When I read polemics that imagine Orthodox crimes and misdemeanors where there aren’t any, or that seize upon actual delinquencies in the Orthodox community (yes, we have them) but wildly exaggerate them or their effects, I’m always struck by how familiar such selective, negative vision seems.

What it reminds me of is the way so many citizens of the larger world choose to view Jews.

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