Gabriel Abensour


A principle common to the various Masorti discourses is that of ongoing dialogue with Jewish tradition. The loyalty of Masortim to Jewish heritage as such can be seen both in their everyday practice and in their declared views. We have seen that the Jewish element is central to Masorti identity, and that 93% of Masortim regard their way of life as being in accord with Jewish values.108

The idea of loyalty to tradition found notable expression in Meir Buzaglo’s A Language for the Faithful. Buzaglo viewed such loyalty as one of the linchpins of Masortiyut. To explain what Masorti loyalty is, Buzaglo contrasted “transmission” with “reporting:”

Transmission [mesira] is passing something down from generation to generation, as in the transmission of Jewish heritage. Reporting, however, is when someone describes to someone else something that he regards as true. […] Unlike reporting, transmission entails an intimate relationship between the transmitter and the recipient; the recipient is devoted or “given over” [masur] to the transmitter; he is loyal to him and does not merely believe him.109

In other words, loyalty to tradition is not related to truth or falsity. Therefore, it is not loyalty to an informative precept such as “There is a God,” or “God chose the Jewish people.” In Buzaglo’s view, Masorti loyalty is first and foremost an approach to the individual’s relationship with the generations that preceded him, via his concrete, intimate relationship with his parents and family.

An interesting variation on the principle of loyalty to tradition can be found in a seminal article by Muki Tsur, in which he tries to illuminate what the proper attitude to tradition should be for those affiliated with secular Jewish renewal:

Listening to tradition is a choice. But the choice should be made out of willingness to listen to the whole. The intellectual openness should actually be non-selective. There should be discussion of sources, customs, the historical and philosophical side of the scriptural literature and the mitzvot. In a certain sense, the attitude toward these things is like a person’s attitude toward his own biography. A person who is aware of his past, of its landscapes, actions, feelings, and thoughts, can and should make them an inseparable part of his active engagement with the present, and this is his experimental platform for building the future. His past cannot free him from the need to choose criteria for his actions. Neither nostalgia nor erasure of the past, but rather creative construction on its foundations.110

Secular Jewish renewal developed out of a strong sense of disconnection from tradition due to the rebellion of the halutzim, the generation of early Jewish immigrants to Palestine/Eretz Israel. The idea of loyalty based on an intimate connection between transmitter to recipient thus sounds, on the face of it, impossible. However, it appears in Tsur’s writings as a willingness to hear non-selectively, which turns the entire tradition into the person’s past. That is, tradition is first of all a given, a biographical detail foundational to the Jewish person’s soul by virtue of his belonging to the Jewish people. This being the case, the intimacy is no longer on the diachronic axis, between father and son, but on the synchronic axis, within the person himself.

An attitude toward tradition based on loyalty rather than coercion also lies at the heart of the new National-Religious discourse seeking to distance itself from stringent Orthodoxy and pave softer Jewish pathways. In his Diversity in Judaism, Rabbi Ido Fechter proposes moving away from halachic observance based on constraint and coercion to an approach focused on loyalty and obligation to Halacha:

Instead of looking upon Halacha as something imposed on one from the outside, I want to look upon it as a system of obligations that one takes upon oneself of one’s own free will. It is the individual who limits his freedom, out of recognition and faith that only by this means, through practical obligations to ideas and values, can Halacha realize its objectives and enrich his life. Although at certain points the individual’s range of options will be reduced due to his choices, he will bear the yoke with love, in recognition of the value of such obligation and its importance in terms of assimilating halachic values within his personal life.111

Of course, a change in perspective from constraint to choice and from a sense of coercion to a sense of loyalty creates a different attitude toward Halacha itself. Halacha is no longer a given supra-human system but rather a living tradition that can develop and renew itself over time.

On tradition and reinterpretation: a side note

The approach that views tradition as a given that the person takes upon himself out of loyalty to what was transmitted to him before any criticism could be applied to the material transmitted, may explain the complicated relationship between the Masorti sector and the liberal movements in Judaism. As we have seen above, and as we shall see in the next section, there is no contradiction between loyalty to tradition and the possibility of reinterpreting it. Moreover, a sizeable share of Masortim openly acknowledge that they would like to see halachic change. Nevertheless, repeated attempts by the liberal movements in Israel to recruit Masortim to their ranks have proven futile. The explanation for this paradox lies in disagreement about the nature of Jewish tradition and of loyalty to it. As early as 1925, Franz Rosenzweig gave expression to this position in a letter to Yosef Prager:

You don’t see the great fundamental difference that subsists between us and the old Reform, that is, between us and its current successors. We don’t touch objective Judaism, we don’t want to change it; rather, we leave it to find its own path to reform as it has always succeeded in doing. We don’t want to build a new house next to, and certainly not on place of, the old house. We only pitch tents for ourselves, since in the place where we are currently situated there is no house and we still want a roof over our heads. We’re aware that the tent can’t serve as a house; when we once again have the house before us we’ll be happy to enter it. With us, action comes before exegesis, while in Reform the opposite was the case.112

Not coincidentally, Franz Rosenzweig’s approach has enjoyed a place of honor within both Mizrahi-Masorti circles and secular Jewish renewal circles. Rosenzweig wanted to recognize the tradition in its entirety, with its advantages and its disadvantages, and to let it develop organically. This approach views some of the Reform and Conservative interpretations as an attempt to remove things from the tradition, so that less desirable parts of it will be forgotten. Neither is Orthodoxy immune to criticism, as it does not “leave” tradition “alone,” but rather keeps it from finding its own “path to reform.” In this sense, the contention of many Masortim that Halacha should be updated does not constitute support for active reform but rather a plea that Orthodoxy also let Jewish tradition proceed with its natural development.