For example: After the destruction of the Temple (70CE) most laws of ‘purity’ were abrogated. Therefore the mikva (ritual bath), which had held an important place had in daily life, was relegated to a position of less importance. While in Jerusalem and other places in ancient Israel the mikva had been an integral part of the wealthy person’s home – the less frequent use of the mikva later in history made it a community– not personal project.
After the Exile (70CE), the change of status from ‘rulers of their own land’ to a ‘people dependent on the good will of others’ caused a major upheaval in Jewish thinking and practices. For close to two thousand years living as second-class citizens at the whims of despots placed the Jews in an unenviable position. The threat of assimilation, whether forced or by choice, on all levels was a major cause of fear and Jewish leaders had to act and react quickly before this phenomenon could spread and the Jews would disappear.
From the Dark Ages onward, Jews very often lived in an area by the grace of some nobleman or government functionary, and had to adapt their life style so as to keep a balance between the uniqueness of their Jewish life and the demands of their patron and environment. The limits and restrictions imposed upon the Jews demanded the establishment of modes of coexistence with the population around them –living together but without surrendering their deeply rooted beliefs.
In some cases the attitude of isolation and insulation prevailed while in other communities a dialogue and modus vivendi were established. But each of these styles came at a price.
The very active role that the Church played vis-a-vis the subjugated Jews was a major concern to the Jewish community. The active attempts to convert Jews to Christianity – to a somewhat lesser degree Islam had the same agenda – posed many problems both to individuals and the Jewish community as a whole.
Within the Jewish community major changes were taking place. Some of these can be directly attributed to the progress of science and man’s inventiveness. The Jews accepted the printing press, long opposed by the Church, with open arms because they understood that the printing press would expand Jewish knowledge – by making prayer books and study books available to the Jewish masses. This brought about an increase in literacy.
The new sources of power and new implements at hand presented the rabbinate with a new set of questions and problems that had to be solved.
Although throughout the ages, the social history of the Jews changed drastically and dramatically, from one extreme to another, from place to place, from primitive to sophisticated, and the situation of the Jews vacillated from good to bad, from safe to insecure, from optimism to pessimism – the Torah did not change.
The ingenuity, profundity and complexity of halachah enabled it to fit into the framework of the varied and sometimes contradictory conditions.
The Torah has never changed and remains eternal – it is halachah - both the lenient and the more stringent points of view – that has undergone change after change after change.
Unlike Rabbi Akiva who accepted ‘ol malchut shamayim ‘ (the yoke of heaven), people today are taking on ‘ol malchut (the yoke) of Bnai Brak, Boro Park, Monsey and Lakewood‘.
About the Author: Chaim Burg was born in New York and was strongly influence by the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Z.D. Kanotopsky. A graduate of Cooper Union, Burg spent most of his active business career as a communications consultant for major U.S. and international corporations. A well regarded author and lecturer, he mainly deals with thought provoking views on the evolution of Halacha. Burg made aliya in 1975.
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