Judaism and tradition: Continuity, change, and innovation

Albert I. Baumgarten, Marina Rustow

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

11 Scopus citations


How and why did appeals to continuity become the principal means by which Judaism absorbed innovations? How, in short, did Judaism become a religion centered on tradition? In his introduction to the classic volume The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm distinguishes between "custom," the common set of behaviors that people observe in traditional societies, and "tradition," which, he argues, serves ideological functions, including that of legitimating and justifying power. Custom, Hobsbawm writes, "cannot afford to be invariant, because even in 'traditional' societies life is not so." He defines tradition, by contrast, as unvarying, repetitive, and frequently marked by rituals, costumes, and other appurtenances that no longer serve practical functions. "'Custom' is what judges do; 'tradition' (in this instance invented tradition) is the wig, robe, and other formal paraphernalia and ritualized practices surrounding their sub-stantial action." For Hobsbawm, tradition is unvarying because it has pulled asunder from the course of everyday life. Indeed, "the wigs of lawyers could hardly acquire their modern significance until other people stopped wearing wigs."1 In the ultraorthodox Jewish context, one might substitute the knickers, long coats, and fur hats of certain groups who continue to dress this way not in imitation of the Polish nobility, as is sometimes stated, but in deference to unalterable tradition - retroactively justified on the basis of talmudic prohibitions against changing even "the strap of a sandal" in times of persecution.2 That the era of modern nationalism saw the multiplication of invented traditions is by now nearly universally accepted. But the premises of Hobsbawm's argument are worth reconsidering. He pits custom or "genuine" tradition against the invented variety: "genuine" tradition characterizes premodern societies, while "invented" traditions are a hallmark of the modern. Custom is adaptive while invented tradition is static. Custom is unconscious and irrational, while invented traditions are consciously founded on acts of rupture and thus reflect artifice or manipulate the past. For Hobsbawm, then, invented traditions are an instrument or at least a symptom of false consciousness.3 In this respect, he expands upon Marx's famous observation that "the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." Marx observed this in accusing the revolutionaries of 1848 of rummaging in the arsenal of the past in search of weapons to use in the service of legitimating their own authority: for Marx, precisely when people seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language. Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.4 For Marx and Hobsbawm, unmasking traditions as invented serves not just historiographic but political ends, challenging the legitimacy that rests on these invocations of tradition. Such unmasking also rests on the assumption that it is always possible to distinguish between "genuine" and "invented" traditions. But even if that distinction can be sustained in the context of political authority, which relies perforce on tactics of legitimation, we find it more difficult to sustain when it comes to religion, in which change is usually more problematic, and in which, accordingly, so much depends on invention or continual reinvention. For that reason, the concept of tradition still offers up ample fertile ground for analysis. We take issue with two aspects of the "invented tradition" thesis. First, we find the distinction between "genuine" and "invented" traditions untenable in certain contexts and uninformative in others. There are instances in which a tradition is "genuine" and "invented" at the same time; and even when one can clearly distinguish between the two types, that distinction does not always yield analytical dividends. If we may borrow a term from mystery fiction, it is a red herring. We propose instead differentiating not between types of tradition but between types of appeal to tradition. The material from ancient, medieval, and modern Judaism that we will discuss in this essay has convinced us that a useful distinction can be made between appeals to tradition in a weak sense, that is, to a corpus of knowledge or practices handed down over the ages, and appeals to tradition in a strong sense, in which the past is construed so as to serve the needs of the present. Neither is more or less genuine. While we agree with Hobsbawm that constructions of the past always serve the needs of the present to some extent, our terminology - "weak" versus "strong" - obviates the need to make judgments of genuineness, which are often problematic or have an ideological motivation of their own. Our terminology also recognizes that some appeals to tradition that fit into our strong category have an excellent historical basis - a conclusion that Hobsbawm's terminology seems to preclude. The second aspect of Hobsbawm's thesis with which we take issue is the presumption that "genuine" appeals to tradition cannot be made sincerely in modern, industrialized contexts - or perhaps more importantly, we take issue with its converse: that premodern appeals to tradition are necessarily organic, genuine, and uninvented. Premodern cultures occasionally contested the genuineness of claims to tradition, calling them spurious or literally invented, in precisely the same spirit as Hobsbawm in his arguments for the high artificiality of nationalist constructs. Accordingly, we question the distinction between the premodern and the modern that Hobsbawm's thesis presumes and argue that modern and premodern Jewish appeals to tradition and continuity share more than divides them. The more important issues are how appeals to tradition function in specific historical contexts and how traditions move beyond their origins and become accepted as legitimate. At certain key moments, we will argue, one witnesses a culture-wide complicity in accepting innovations as traditional despite the widespread understanding that circumstances have changed beyond recognition - or even precisely because of that understanding. It is not, then, that traditions are invented and the history of their invention is suppressed and discovered later by historians. Rather, people accept traditions as legitimate because historical conditions have changed in some decisive manner; and tradition, understood in our strong sense, papers over the change. Gershom Scholem once made a similar point, arguing that in understanding the problem of tradition in Judaism, one "must distinguish between two questions. The first is historical: How did a tradition endowed with religious dignity come to be formed? The other question is: How was this tradition understood once it had been accepted as a religious phenomenon? For the faithful promptly discard the historical question once they have accepted a tradition; this is the usual process in the establishment of religious systems."5 The analysis of tradition that we propose shares Scholem's emphasis on how traditions are received. It also accepts Hobsbawm's focus on the kind of "rapid transformation of society" that "weakens or destroys the social patterns for which 'old' traditions had been designed": change is the sine qua non, the condition of possibility, of tradition in our strong sense, even though tradition is about making claims to continuity, to things not having changed at all. But we try to extend these questions into premodern times and to ask whether the invention of tradition is necessarily a response to modernity - and if not, how its dynamics worked in premodernity.6 Understanding the seeming paradoxes of tradition in Judaism - acknowledging the intimate connection between tradition and change - helps explain the historical development of a specifically Jewish religious discourse from ancient Judaism to the modern era. In what follows, then, we will look at how tradition has functioned in Judaism at certain key moments of rupture: in the Second Temple period, in the centuries following the Islamic conquests, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our concern throughout will be to understand how appeals to continuity became the means by which Judaism either absorbed and legitimated innovations or sacralized ancient practices.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History
Subtitle of host publicationAuthority, Diaspora, Tradition
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9780812243031
StatePublished - 2011


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