5/01/2006

On the Hegemony of the Shulchan Arukh


My recent post about the Mishna Berurah is part of the broader topic of the ‘acceptance’ of certain works at ‘authoritative’ and the effects it has on the community. I posted about the relationship between Canon and Heresy in an older post, which is part of this topic as well.

The last such work to achieve this status was the Shulchan Arukh, but I’d like to define some terms, list the other works on this very short list, and note the communal effects of each ‘canonization’.

The genre that we’re talking about is what I’d call the ‘normative curriculum’. There’s no single work which is authoritative per se, in that it is always followed to the letter. However, certain works have become the central text (oral or written) for the study of Jewish Law. Even when the central text is not followed, the text is studied and normative practice noted to be in conflict with the text.

The first work to become a normative Jewish curriculum was – the Torah. Obviously, right? Well, not necessarily. It didn’t gain that status until the time of Ezra. Whatever you want to say about the text of the Torah during the time of the First Temple, it was not, in the minds of the people, the source for the answer to the question, “How should I live my life?” Thinkers like R’ Tzadok of Lublin to R’ David Weiss-Halivni have written about this, but really it’s rooting in Midrashim about Ezra and, in my opinion, from a simple but careful reading of the books of Ezra and Nechemiah. Ezra’s community, which was of historical necessity VERY exclusive, was constituted by ratifying the Torah as their law. Pshuto Ke-mashma’o, it was their constitution. This group became known as The Judeans who returned to Zion, which ultimately became ‘The Judeans’ or ‘The Jews’. Those not included in this community, basically, are known as goyim.

Of course, that’s a bit oversimplified. There were groups not in Ezra’s community who did have some version of the Torah. The real schism with that group, though, revolved around the second set of texts to be included in the normative curriculum – the Nevi’im. While not legal works, they contain a heckuva lot of stuff which refines the values and principles of the Torah (for example, that when the Torah talks about ‘the place that God will choose’, it means Jerusalem). There were groups, notably the Samaritans, who didn’t buy it.

The third set of texts was finally closed at around the time of the destruction of the 2nd Temple. There was a whole host of works that were included by this faction or that (Saducees, Dead Sea Sect, Egyptian community, etc.), so that there remains an entire set of texts, the Apocrypha or Sefarim Chitzonim which, though included in the canon of some communities, didn’t make it into the canon of the Pharisee or Rabbinite canon, which became the normative Jewish one.

Since the canonization of Tana”ch, there have been only TWO works which have gained the acceptance, as a normative curriculum by the mainstream Jewish world. They are:
The Babylonian Talmud and the Shulchan Arukh. That’s it.

The main accomplishment of the Geonic Era was in making the Bavli the single source for all of Rabbinic Judaism. It was not without a struggle. Some, like the communities in Eretz Yisrael, had their own traditions and customs, and also felt that they should remain the seat of Jewish law. Others, like the group that became known as the Karaites, reacted against the entire notion of a legally binding Rabbinic law. The community which accepted the Bavli, however, became the bearer of  name and continuation of the historical entity called Judaism.

No work of the Rishonim ever gained widespread acceptance to the degree that it became THE curriculum for all of Israel. At the close of that period, with the twin publications of Beit Yosef and Shulchan Arukh, summarizing and deciding the works of the Rishonim, such a work finally arrived. A combination of factors – immediate distribution, quality of work, inclusion, within a few years, of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom, the sense of distance from the time of the Rishonim – contributed to the SA becoming the standard text for the study of Halakha. There were opponents of this as well; Maharshal and Levush felt that the Bavli should remain the source of the study of Halakha. It can even be argued that Chasidism is a rebellion against the rigidity and dryness of the lifestyle described in the SA. Either way, it never led to the type of splintering that accompanied each prior ‘canonization’.

So, will MB achieve this status? Is that what it means that ‘the MB is the last link in the shalsheles of Halakha? Hell, no. There are too many communities that didn’t accept it (like, for example, the entire Sephardic world). Much as ppl. say it is, it’s not, nor should it be. The list of times it DID happen that the community designated a book as its normative curriculum is very, very short (I count 5 times), and I don’t see us anywhere close to a 6th.
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