In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Europe was rocked by the emergence of new ideological and political ideas that demanded changes in the traditional social order. What we call “conservative thought” is one of the responses to the revolutionary winds of the time. Conservative thought sought to defend certain aspects of the old social order and the institutions that maintained it, including (depending on different forms of conservatism) the aristocracy, the monarchy, and religion.
One of the most prominent formulators of the conservative defense was Lord Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a British thinker who rose to fame by virtue of his book Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he critiques the revolutionary spirit of France, laying out a well-argued defense of the existing social order. In a nutshell, Burke’s fundamental argument was that past traditions should generally be preserved, since they are the fruit of the shared, accumulated wisdom of previous generations, and their benefit has been proven through experience. Moreover, Burke argued that traditional social institutions grant stability to society – an essential good that we cannot do without. Tradition can be amended, and in a changing world this can be essential, but such changes need to be carried out in slow steps while empirically examining the results on the ground. Without this, the best of intentions could lead to unexpected results, leaving society without the good left by previous generations and subject to the harm of mad caprice.
The changes Burkean conservatism fought against were primarily political. Burke defended political institutions such as the monarchy and the aristocracy, as well as religion – as a political institution. In this sense, the revolutions he refers to did not directly affect the Jewish world. We had no monarchy or aristocracy, our religious institutions were far less robust than the Catholic Church, and the French Revolution, which sought to abolish these institutions, did not influence us deeply. The Revolution’s effect on the Jews was indirect, a consequence of emancipation: the equality of rights the Jews received in the wake of the abolition of the old social order.
The historic context provided by Burkean thought can shed light on the approach of the Chatam Sofer, explaining the change in his attitude to custom in halacha and the unprecedented status he granted it
The equal rights granted to the Jews were the central trigger for the appearance of the Haskalah and Reform movements, which were the Jewish equivalent of European revolutionary thinking. Below, I will seek to examine the Jewish conservative response to Haskalah – the response of the Chatam Sofer in particular – in the light of British conservatism as formulated by Burke. My argument is that there are some similarities between Burkean conservatism and that of the Chatam Sofer. The historic context provided by Burkean thought can shed light on the approach of the Chatam Sofer, explaining the change in his attitude to custom in halacha and the unprecedented status he granted it.
Guardians of Custom vs. The Chatam Sofer
The Chatam Sofer was not always known as the archetype of Jewish conservatism. Rabbi Moshe Sofer was born in Frankfurt in 1762. He studied with and lived alongside kabbalist Rabbi Nathan Adler, who led a group of Chassidim around the same that as Chassidut was being founded in Eastern Europe. Rabbi Adler’s students were known for their revolutionary religious tendencies. They diverged from Ashkenazi customs by praying in the Sefard liturgy, putting on Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin, forming an independent and separate minyan, and generally following Chassidic customs nobody had previously heard of. Ashkenazic Jewry, known for its conservative character, did not take kindly to such changes in tradition and began to persecute Rabbi Adler’s group. Rabbi Yosef Steinhardt, Rabbi of Fürth, wrote a scathing letter to the Noda Beyehuda, Rabbi of Prague, attacking the new sect who “with great haughtiness in their hearts, did not attend to the customs of the Jewish People, a Torah fixed from antiquity according to our ancestors zt”l, and changed them by the crudeness of their spirits.” The Noda Beyehuda lent his support to slamming Rabbi Adler and his sect, identifying them as a dangerous phenomenon akin to Sabbateanism.
In a pamphlet entitled “An Act of Trickery” published in Frankfurt in 1789, Rabbi Nathan Adler and his acolytes were accused of intending to “destroy the foundations of our customs, to cut off the roots of our received tradition, to build new manners […] and in their galling daring, they mocked our holy fathers, and deny those bearing the received tradition, and the wise men who founded our good customs were as grasshoppers to them.” This conservative fury led to Rabbi Nathan’s excommunication. He was expelled from Frankfurt (1782) and wandered through German communities while suffering repeated attacks. He remained excommunicated until two weeks before his death. In his wanderings, he was accompanied by his young student, the Chatam Sofer.
What all these movements shared – both Mitnagdim and Chassidim – was that they did not have much respect for common custom, “doing things just because that’s what our predecessors did.”
It is worth noting that despite the Noda Beyehudah’s opposition to Rabbi Nathan Adler and the Chassidim, he himself was far from being a traditionalist conservative. On the contrary, much like the Gaon of Vilna, his thought was characterized by a kind of early modernity: a return to the ancient texts out of opposition to existing custom (“restoring old glory”) and analysis of Torah through the lens of new tools of research. The Vilna Gaon went further and made use of philology and textual comparison – approaches reminiscent of the Enlightenment methods. Even the Vilna Gaon’s great rival, the Baal Shem Tov, was of course far from conservatism, initiating new customs much like Rabbi Adler. What all these movements shared – both Mitnagdim and Chassidim – was that they did not have much respect for common custom, “doing things just because that’s what our predecessors did.” They considered these to be unthinking habits or errors that became rooted among the masses. The Jewish world in which the Chatam Sofer operated was therefore characterized by a spirit of innovation and correction, with a readiness to deviate from accepted customs, and the Chatam Sofer himself was sympathetic with these ideas as a prominent student of Rabbi Adler.
The Chatam Sofer In Support of Custom
Just a single generation later, an entirely different kind of change in custom was being advocated in Germany. In this case, it was not Chassidic influencers or great Torah scholars who were seeking to change ancient rituals, but rather modernist reformers seeking to adapt Judaism to the spirit of the Enlightenment.
In addition to his struggle against Reform Jews by means of traditional halachic tools, the Chatam Sofer understood that the root of the threat derived not from a corrupt approach to halachic procedure, and not even the desire to move closer to the surrounding non-Jewish culture, but rather their readiness for religious innovation based on reason alone
The Chatam Sofer had in the meantime become the greatest halachic authority in Central Europe, the son-in-law of Rabbi Akiva Eger and the Rabbi of Pressburg. As the Reform movement rose in Germany, the Chatam Sofer entirely shifted his focus: Instead of occupation with the internal worship of God along the path of his mentor Rabbi Adler, he turned his efforts to strengthening the walls separating authentic Judaism from the dangers of new trends, devoting tremendous intellectual effort to establish a response to Reform. In his many writings, he analyzed their proposals for halachic change at length, proves their errors, identifying their theological fallacies, and even criticizing their political approach.
In addition to his struggle against Reform Jews by means of traditional halachic tools, the Chatam Sofer understood that the root of the threat derived not from a corrupt approach to halachic procedure, and not even the desire to move closer to the surrounding non-Jewish culture, but rather their readiness for religious innovation based on reason alone. He identified the danger in arguing for relying on reason alone and employing it to change religious arrangements that had been commonplace for generations. As he put it: “Here is our primary response to the heretic: […] There is something high above high […] and we may not innovate anything based on intellect, which may not be allowed entry into all such matters.”
Based on his approach against relying on rationalism while abandoning tradition, the Chatam Sofer opposed studying the plain text of the Torah – the Bible. Rather than allowing the student to approach the text itself, he insisted on “hearkening to the words of the Sages and their riddles.” In addition, he considered the translation of the Torah into German (by Moshe Mendelsohn) to be one of the great calamities of modern Judaism, and for forty-five years gave an annual sermon against this innovation.
Above all, the central tool employed by the Chatam Sofer in his fight against the Reform threat, and the greatest innovation in his approach, was the new status he granted custom. To fight the rationalist innovations of Reform, the Chatam Sofer empowered and magnified the importance of deeply-rooted tradition in Ashkenazi communities – a tradition in the name of which his teacher Rabbi Adler had been expelled from the same communities: the sanctity of custom.
Custom Before the Chatam Sofer
Custom always had a special status in Ashkenazic communities. Oftentimes, it was followed even when it contradicted written halacha, and halachic authorities did their utmost to reconcile the contradictions between them. Over the years, various justifications were given for upholding custom, come what may. Some pegged it to the consent of earlier sages: If the custom has been in force for many years, and sages of previous generations did not object, they must have considered it to be correct. Similarly, it was said that customs must have good reasons, even if these have since been forgotten over time. In a slightly different direction, phrases such as “do not abandon the teaching of your mother” or “do not change the custom of your fathers” were appropriated in halachic literature to provide justification for maintaining ancestral traditions. Another justification noted by the Chatam Sofer himself referred to laws of nedarim [oaths]. If Jews tended to be stringent concerning some matter outside of normative halacha, then it is as though they swore to act in this manner, and the oath of the fathers also binds the sons. A social argument was also raised to maintain customs: Undermining them could lead to strife.
A radical justification for custom was given by Rav Hai Gaon, whose approach was that the Torah was primarily received through tradition rather than in writing. We must therefore prefer the living tradition, which is custom, over what is written in books. According to this approach, the custom is more reliable than written, encoded halacha, and we ought to amend the latter in favor of the former rather than vice versa. This radical position is qualified in that the status of custom only serves as a testament to the tradition from Sinai, and should not be maintained in and of itself, as emerges for instance from the nedarim approach.
However, halachic authorities never relied on custom absolutely. The custom was considered a valuable source of worthy practice but was nonetheless subject to scrutiny. If it turned out to be an incorrect practice, one that contravened halacha, then it was dubbed a “minhag ta’ut” or “mistaken custom,” and was summarily abolished. Both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam followed this path, the latter even coining the famous quip “the custom of the letters of gehenom.” The Maharil’s book of customs, considered the most important source of Ashkenazic customs, is based on this assumption; as a leading disciple writes in the introduction to the book, we are beholden only to those customs that were followed (and therefore confirmed) by a great sage. The validity of the customs derives solely from the Maharil’s greatness in halacha and his diligence concerning the source and pedigree of the custom.
In the pre-modern period, custom was sometimes considered a competitor to written halacha; it was an “external source” and sometimes contradicted halacha outright. In rare cases, custom also served as a tool for dealing with outliers who violated tradition within the community, like Rabbi Adler and his group.
Given this background, the Chatam Sofer’s attitude to custom was a turning point in the history of halacha. He identified custom as the ultimate rival of modernity and consciously augmented its centrality, turning it into a potent weapon against Haskalah. The Chatam Sofer’s “conservative revolution” reinvented custom, granting it a higher status even than that of halacha; rabbinic law, for instance, became Torah law based on the nedarim (oath) model. Moreover, based on the new approach the very validity of halacha draws from the power of custom and not vice versa, as was accepted over the course of previous generations.
The Sanctity of Custom
The conservative approach attributed to the Chatam Sofer is summed up in the pithy quote “chadash [the new] is forbidden by the Torah.” This principle served as the Chatam Sofer’s halachic philosophy, which determines that contrary to the accepted approach that halacha overcomes custom, it is preferable to leave customs in place notwithstanding halachic issues, because “chadash is forbidden by the Torah.”
The phrase “chadash is forbidden by the Torah” was coined by the Chatam Sofer in a responsum to one of his students who sought to prohibit the sale of dead, non-kosher slaughtered animals to Gentiles. The accepted custom at the time was to sell these organs, and this student sought to prohibit it due to halachic concerns. The Chatam Sofer defended the lenient custom, noting the custom to be lenient in the prohibition on new harvests as an example. In this context, the Chatam Sofer engaged in what he would later call a “good flourish” and wrote: “chadash [new/new wheat] is forbidden by the Torah.” This turn of phrase would ultimately become a symbol of the Chatam Sofer’s approach to internal halachic discussions and his approach to life in general. He demanded of his students that they avoid halachic innovations, both lenient and stringent, whenever these contradicted custom. At the same time, the idea was also expanded to debates with the early reformers, whose main activity was directed at using halachic arguments against custom.
Alongside the use of the well-known defenses in favor of custom, the Chatam Sofer also used a range of new arguments. He claimed that innovation creates instability and hints at implicit dismissal of Judaism in general: “We will not do new things, for those who do new things make wars, and God will set our peace.” In addition, he justified the reliance on the custom of previous halachic jurisprudence in that they determine both their regulations and rulings with heavenly help, and that the Holy Spirit guides their path.
The first major innovation in the status of custom formed by the Hatam Sofer was expanding the definition of the term. The old halachic arguments in favor of custom referred primarily to halachic customs, while the principle of sanctity of custom according to the Chatam Sofer now included popular customs. According to him, even spontaneous customs that cannot be said to be an inheritance from Sinai or consented to by the sages of previous generations receive validity and sanctity as being divinely inspired, recalling the saying “If [the Jews] are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets.” As a result, this sanctity causes the masses to preserve their forefathers’ customs even against the innovative instructions of their Rabbis.
The Chatam Sofer’s halachic teachings were conservative in their form, by contrast with such authorities as Noda Beyehuda and the Vilna Gaon, and with spiritual influencers like his own mentor Rabbi Nathan Adler and the Baal Shem Tov. As the Chatam Sofer said of himself: “I fear issuing new instruction and hate innovation.” Yet, all this was but a prelude to the truly radical revolution of the Chatam Sofer, whereby the preservation of custom became constitutional, no less, to the halachic system.
Judaism as Conservatism: The Consistoire and Kitniyot
In 1807, Jerome Napoleon, while acting as King of Westphalia on behalf of his slightly more famous brother Bonaparte, decided to establish a branch of the famous Napoleonic Sanhedrin in Germany. This branch was called the Consistoire, and it possessed a disposition toward reform. Towards 1810, the Consistoire decided to repeal the prohibition against eating Kitniyot, to make life easier for Jews serving in the Napoleonic Army. A member of the Consistoire, Rabbi Mendel Steinhardt, published the arguments in favor of the repeal in his book, arguing this to be a minhag ta’us – a mistaken custom originating from the Saducees that was not widely adopted by the Jews – and included a range of selective quotes from previous authorities (including his prominent late uncle).
In response to this severe breach in the halachic wall, the Chatam Sofer developed the peak of his doctrine of custom: the idea of custom as oath. “What our fathers adopted and accepted obligates the sons, for the son is a portion of his father.” This idea became the formative core of Judaism in the Chatam Sofer’s teaching. By this approach, the source of our obligation to keep all Torah commandments is due to the oaths our fathers took at Sinai. Moreover, such a binding oath took place not only at Sinai, but each time a Jewish community decides to follow a particular custom. He proceeded to demonstrate that such a neder cannot be rescinded, by contrast with ordinary nedarim, because this is an oath taken by the many. The Chatam Sofer thus unified the idea of custom as neder with the approach of Rav Hai that the entire Torah is based on custom. As noted, this principle was now applied to every custom, and with radical consequences: Violating a custom became as grave as violating the Torah itself.
In his will, the Chatam Sofer entrenches this principle and writes to his sons: “Do not turn to the new, for we have an old Father who has not changed and will not change.” The eternity of God Himself is symbolic of the prohibition to change customs. According to the Sages, we must not deviate even one iota from ancestral tradition, even when it ostensibly contradicts halacha; certainly, we must not do so on account of modernist ideas.
In their response to modernity, there is much similarity between British thinker Edmund Burke and, mutatis mutandis, our revered Rabbi the Chatam Sofer. Both came from a background that was not conservative – the Chatam Sofer from the school of Rabbi Nathan Adler, and Burke from the British Whig party that espoused social reform against an aristocracy aiming to preserve the old order. In the wake of the totalizing revolutions of modernity, both underwent a significant change and understood that if they wish to preserve all the good their society possessed, they needed to fight the revolutionaries. Subsequently, they both identified the danger latent in the dismissal of custom emanating from the revolutionary winds. They both understood that the fundamental problem of the revolutionaries was their primary reliance on reason, which allowed them to wave away customs rooted in the public consciousness of many generations.
At the same time, it is important to distinguish Burke’s conservatism and the Chatam Sofer’s protection of custom. Burke’s approach understands humanity as being a partner in history, part of a great contract between the dead and the living. We are able to repair custom and are even duty-bound to do so yet must be careful not to shatter them; every correction must be undertaken out of respect for the past, cautious advancement, and an empirical examination of results. This permission to change past approaches does not appear in the Chatam Sofer’s teachings, and in a certain sense is more reminiscent of the Conservative denomination in Judaism.
In the generation following the Chatam Sofer, a split emerged among his students. Some founded the zealous stream that flourished in Eastern Hungary, from which emanated leaders of the more fanatical Orthodox groups in America and Israel today (the most well-known is perhaps Satmar). Other students of the Chatam Sofer, led by his son the Ktav Sofer, led the Orthodox community of Western Hungary, which was more moderate. The latter were accused of deviating from the path of the Chatam Sofer, since they did not apply the idea of custom preservation in its absolute sense. However, they did draw on other sides in the Chatam Sofer’s personality, such as his openness to Haskalah and his natural moderation.
It is difficult hard to know if the Chatam Sofer’s doctrine on custom was a prelude to the development of the more extreme approaches, or whether it aimed for a more moderate order, in the spirit of the Ktav Sofer and the central Hungarian stream in Hungary and in our day. Perhaps this missing chapter in the Chatam Sofer’s legacy is up to our generation to write.