by Rabbi Tzvi Avraham
In the West, there are basically two styles of worship: high church and low church. High church emphasizes ritual, continuity with tradition, and decorum. Low church acquires its character from its concern with religious feeling, which it promotes and expresses in various ways. Neither is better than the other: these are not value laden terms, and, at the extremes of the spectrum, both can fall into serious shortcomings: high church worship into spiritual aridity, low church worship into antinomianism that considers religious feeling reason enough to suspend the rules. “High church” and “low church” are useful terms because they suggest a simple, polar typology. A typology always oversimplifies, but in its simplicity it helps us see through complexity to basic distinctions. In Judaism, Yekkishe davening belongs to the “high church” type,” Chassidic davening in its early days to the “low church” type.
The Jewish paradigm for “high church” worship is the Temple service, where the service of G-d lies in performing Divine commandments. As Divine commandments, they are as fundamental as the laws of physics, for like the laws of physics, they govern the order of creation, but they govern it as it serves the spiritual purpose for which it was created: the Jewish people and their service of G-d. Keeping those laws inspires the kohen who believes in them. The more profoundly he believes and understands them, the more profoundly his spirit conforms to them, the more deeply they take hold of him and lift him above the physical plane into knowledge, fear and love of G-d.
The Temple service is centered in fulfilling the Law. When that Law prescribes a time limit, for example, there is no place for delay in favor of spiritual inspiration or devotional preliminaries because, in the high church paradigm, devotion begins with reverence for Divine Law. That reverence is what empowers obedience to lift the spirit to G-d. It is unthinkable that a Kohen would compromise his obedience to the Law to express his religious devotion, because that devotion is anchored in reverent submission the Law that is more meaningful and more compelling than any impulse to disobey the Law in favor of religious self-expression. The Yekkishe concern for conducting things as law and custom prescribe, and the Yekkishe character that subordinates feeling to practice suggests that the way the Yekkes worship is inspired by the Temple service, that, for them, the synagogue is truly a mikdosh m’at.
I see that symbolized in the way that a Menorah is placed in front of the Aaron Kodesh in Breuer’s (Washington Heights) and in the synagogue of Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz in Bnei Brak. It is as though, when we enter the synagogue, we step into the Heichal of the Temple. The Lechem Haponim and the Mizbeach Hazahav are missing because the mitzvos that pertain to them can no longer be fulfilled. But the mitzvah of learning Torah and observing the commandment it teaches, and the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah, still apply. The minhag of placing the menorah near the Aron Kodesh declares: “You have entered a mikdosh m’at!”
Chassidism began as a kind of Jewish “low church,” indeed, as an extreme version of it: the antinomianism of the early Chassidim turned many Gadolim against the movement. But in the course of time, things straightened out, and surely, no one would say today that Chassidim are lax in keeping the mitzvos. On the contrary, no one demonstrates more concern to keep the mitzvos than the Chassidim. But the antinomian origins of the Chassidic movement help explain the way Chassidim worship and the changes that the Chassidic masters introduced into the Siddur. Not all Chassidim jump, clap, or wave their hands while davening, but it was once the signature of Chassidic synagogue; and it would seem that is was an antinomian impulse that drove the Chassidic movement to take the radical step that defied Law and tradition when the universal nusach of European Jewry was changed to create what is called Nusach Sephard.
Minhag Ashkenaz contrasts with the Litvisha yeshiva world in different way. After the forced migration and dispersion of Jewish communities caused by war and social change, local traditions no longer served to govern Jewish practice. Halachic standards once established by tradition now had to be formulated by scholars. But the standards of practice they prescribe arise out of an effort to resolve the practices of different communities, anchored in their local poskim and traditions, into a universal standard of practice that, insofar as possible, takes them all into consideration. The result: we no longer do things because “That’s the way my father did it,” but because “That’s what it says in the Mishnah Brurah,” and not infrequently we are told to conduct ourselves in a way that satisfies all the shitos while, paradoxically, doing things in a way that it is not actually prescribed by any one of them, in a way that neither expresses or ever formed the religious devotion of a Jewish community! The certainty and simplicity of traditional observance is replaced by piskei din that arise out of a forum in which one opinion is almost always contradicted by another, and then, what’s considered right today may be deemed inadequate tomorrow because of a new chumra. The result is that practice loses its “magic” for a different reason: the heart gives its all only to that which is certain. When there is doubt, or when authority is compromised by being subject to refutation, the heart holds back and the emotional/religious satisfaction in keeping the law is diminished.
Consider, for example, the psok pertaining to wearing tefillin on Chol Hamoed. The Sephardim have a clear tradition that goes back hundreds of years: they don’t put on tefillin. German Jews also have a clear tradition. Minhag Ashkenaz prescribes putting on tefillin as usual, blessings and all. But those who have no tradition and rely on the guidance of poskim are left in doubt. The Mishnah Brurah (אורח חיים לב:ב) writes that it is not clear whether the mitzvah of wearing tefillin applies on Chol Hamoed. Therefore, they should be worn in a way that expresses our doubt. No blessing should be recited, and when tefillin are put on, they should be put with the following intention: if I am obligated to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, I do so to fulfill the mitzvah, but if not, then I am not putting them on to fulfill the mitzvah. “This satisfies the opinions of all the poskim” [those who say that that the mitzvah applies on Chol Hamoed and those who say it doesn’t]. The psok of the Mishnah Brurah is based on doubt and prescribes a practice that expresses doubt. Perhaps, in the absence of an authoritative tradition, there’s no alternative. But can a person who is not sure that G-d desires what he is doing put on tefillin with deep intention and heartfelt devotion? The simple faith that draws the heart into the deeds of the hand is complicated by doubts and distinctions that, however easy to understand, are hard for the heart to handle. The mind can manage doubt, but the heart is overcome and stifled. Indeed, the Mishnah Brurah concludes his discussion saying that those who have a tradition of putting on tefillin [with a blessing] should not change their practice. Tradition is not required to defer to other opinions. Tradition trumps all the doubts that complicate the halachic guidance of the poskim. Tradition sustains the certainty which is the precondition to the whole-hearted practice of the commandments. Moreover, although the practice which the Mishnah Brurah prescribes “satisfies the opinions of all the poskim because even those who hold that the mitzvah of tefillin does not apply on Chol Hamoed would agree that a person who does not put on tefillin with the intention of fulfilling a mitzvah does not violate the prohibition of בל תוסיף, the practice that the Mishnah Brurah prescribes to satisfy all the shitos was not prescribed by any one of them! This is a second way in which, with the loss of tradition, the continuity of Jewish observance is broken.
Tradition bespeaks the consent of the gedolim of times past who approved it, as well as the collective wisdom of the Jewish people who sustained it. An ancient tradition has proven itself to be the external form of Jewish love and fear of G-d, for if it were not, it wouldn’t have lasted. Religious practice that is obedient to scholarship and argument is qualitatively different from religious practice that is dictated by the way Jews have worshipped for hundreds and hundreds of years.
So it seems to me that besides the intrinsic value of minhag Ashkenaz, returning to tradition is important in its own right, because it enables a Jew to say: “Whatever the discussion in the later poskim and whatever their doubts, I have my authoritative tradition and I can rely on it to teach me what Hashem wants me to do. I have no doubts, and every assurance, that I am doing things as G-d wants them done, as they were always done and always will be done, at least by those who share my authoritative tradition. Tradition restores the certainty that empowers the practice of the commandments to carry the heart to G-d.