A Subversion of Tradition

To some, defending tradition requires an allegiance to the past. Notions like “the decline of the generations” (yeridat hadorot) are ubiquitous in many cultures that construct authenticity as a defense, or retrieval, of the past, and a firewall against the dangers of innovation in the present. Judaism, though, also has a counter-tradition, which is captured in the notion of innovation, or chidush. For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the architect of Modern Orthodoxy, chidush functions as an act that “creates” the law (“halakhah”), and the law perpetuates creation to prevent its atrophy and ultimate demise. But the law constantly needs (re)creation through chidush. Chidush, then, is an act mandated by revelation: “The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires,” writes Soloveitchik, “is man as creator.” (Halakhic Man, 101) This is not accomplished through the performance of mitzvot but through chidush, the act of metatextual creative interpretation as an expression of human freedom that reveals to the world and tradition its inherent deficiencies. Soloveitchik and Reb Nahman of Bratslav, a major 19th-century figure in early Hasidism, represent two articulations of chidush as an act of subversion of tradition. These two figures in some way represent opposite ends of modern Jewish religiosity; Soloveitchik the halakhic rationalist and Nahman the opponent of rationalist and defender of simple faith and pietism. But they may have more in common than we think.

For Rebbe Nahman, chidush functions as an act of self-disclosure of the unique tzaddik through which the new is introduced into the world, overcoming all that has preceded it, including tradition. By self-disclosure, I mean the tzaddik carries the potential for redemption and salvation in his very being. For Nahman, chidush is a moment where revelation of the Torah is overpowered by renewed creation in the unique tzaddik — Nahman himself. For Soloveitchik, chidush is an act of disembodied metatextual reasoning (the talmudic text is the occasion and not the subject of the chidush); for Nahman, chidush is embodied in the very figure of the tzaddik — that is, the person of the tzaddik replaces the “body” of the text. For both, chidush is enacted, or performed, by the reader/interpreter of the text (the scholar or the tzaddik) in a way that makes the text in some sense superfluous.

Soloveitchik notes that darkness and chaos were not simply primordial components erased by Creation; they remain embedded in Creation itself. God “created them in order that they dwell within the cosmos… They wish to burst forth out of the chains of obedience…and seek to plunge the earth back into chaos and the void. It is only the law that holds them back…” (Halakhic Man) To ward off the chaos, Soloveitchik offers us chidush as a creative act that can counter the darkness that plagues the human condition, even though chidush may threaten the stability of the status quo — tradition itself. In this way, chidush does not necessarily support the past; rather, it sometimes points to its overcoming: Tradition still embodies the deficiency of all creation in need of rectification, not through the cautious mode of adaptation, but through innovation.

Nahman understands chidush in a somewhat different, but compatible, way. Throughout his writings, Nahman defined himself as a chidush, one who never before existed and who would never exist again: “An innovation (chidush) like me has never before come into this world.” While Soloveitchik calls us to become “creators” through innovation, Nahman had become its quintessence. He did not innovate; he was innovation. Thus, in his collected teachings, Likkutei MoHaRan, Nahman argues that one who witnesses the words of the unique tzaddik, witnesses Creation itself, pure chidush. The unique tzaddik surpasses revelation. (Likkutei MoHaRan 1:19) A Hasidic friend once told me he approached a Bratslaver Hasid on the streets of Jerusalem and asked him, “Do you think Rebbe Nahman was greater than Moshe?” The Hasid looked at him incredulously and answered, “Of course the rebbe is greater than Moshe,” and went on his way.

We often think of modernity’s radicalism in its notion of progress, desacralizing tradition through history. Incremental change often becomes the sine qua non of such progressive thinking, adaptation to changing circumstances. But Soloveitchik and Nahman’s ideas of chidush are actually far more radical. They suggest the possibility of a categorical overcoming of an entire system, a move whereby the human, or the tzaddik, no longer reveals, but creates. Whatever external halakhic practices and fidelity to tradition are maintained in the communities both produced, Soloveitchik and Nahman’s chidush is far more challenging to any defense of tradition than history or progress. In these two thinkers, chidush is not progress; it is rupture.


Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University. His teaching focuses on Kabbala, Hasidism, Judaism and gender, Israel/Palestine, and American Jewish thought and culture. He is the author of Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica and Radzin Hasidism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and most recently, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014). He is a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of America and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue.

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A Subversion of Tradition

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