We all have this romantic image of the shtetl, that mythical place in eastern Europe where for centuries our ancestors lived and worked while random violinists sat on their roofs and played songs that would make Shlomo Carlebach's estate green with envy. The food may have been bad, the schnorrers insistent and yes, there was always the threat of those Cossacks in the next valley over launching a pogrom but on Shabbos everyone put on his shtreiml and davened like Moshiach was on his way while on Pesach you couldn't find a bite of chometz for miles around.
Reality, of course, was quite different. The shtetl, along with much of Jewish life in eastern Europe, was quite miserable. People did what they had to in order to survive. They clung to the faith of our ancestors with a passion we cannot understand but the waysthey expressed this passion were quite diverse. Their culture was rich and deep but it occured in the shadow of hatred and darkness. No Virginia, we don't all come from people who look like the denizens of Meah Shearim. They were never the gold standard.
Yet for some folks there is value in rewriting history to pretend that this was in fact the case, that a religious Jew has always been identified by specific garb, practices and mannerism virtually indistinguishable from what the Chareidi community today claims is the only authentic expression of Orthodoxy. They would have you believe that if you were to go back in time 100, 200 or 1500 years you would find observant Jews wearing black clothing, black hats and black striped tallis kotons. They would be speaking Yiddish, working only a little if at all and be consumed with their learning almost to the exclusion of all else. And, of course, there would be a separation between men and women in all spheres of life that we could only dream of today.
All this would be a lie.
In truth, Jewish life is and has been more complex than we could ever truly comprehend. Recollections of life in Europe focus on those aspects we want to remember or are distinctly Jewish, jettisoning those parts that are inconvenient. Roman Vishniac's famous work, A Vanished World has been criticized (unjustly in my opinion) for presented a slanted view of Polish Jew life just before the war yet it is clear that he could only photograph a small part of that gigantic culture. How many Chasidim have read the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and seen how he, as a former member of their community, portrays his memories of that world?
The odd thing about this is how this innovation of rewriting history, intentional or not, is juxtaposed with a stated commitment to avoid change at all costs. The people who want you to believe that what they're doing nowadays is exactly what their ancestors in the Pale of Settlement did centuries ago are changing history. they are innovating to hide innovation.
Every so often I point out that Modern Orthodoxy has an opportunity to grab some area of Judaism and make a meaningful contribution to it. I believe this is another such area.
Consider: it is quite clear that there is tremendous continuity between ourselves and our ancestors. In many ways it can be easily demonstrated that we are following in the direction they led and upholding the banner of God they uplifted at Sinai. Yet if we were to go back in time 500, 1500 or 2500 years we would find them practicing a very different form of Judaism than we do today. Acknowledging this is stating the truth, not kefirah.
Consider one of the few nigh-universal rituals that Jews of all backgrounds engage in: the Pesach seder. Reading historical accounts, heck, reading the Talmud's account of how a seder went one sees that what we do is highly different from what they did. Yet across history Jews have, from time immemorial, sat down to remember the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim and praise God for taking us out of Egypt on the 14th of Nissan.
Understanding how the seder has changed over time is crucial for two reasons. One is that we can learn a great deal about the thinking of our ancestors over the ages as we investigate the changes. Another is that we can understand how to counter the changes of those who say that the seder must change nowadays to reflect modern sensitivities. If we know how and why change is mandated, we can better understand how to ensure it is done correctly. Standing back and saying "It can't change and it's always been this way" is not truth and therefore not compatible with Torah which is truth.
As some in the Chareidi community continue, in their fervent Taliban-envy, to rewrite the requirements of traditional Torah Judaism and then pretend that it's always been this way it is essential that an opposing force demands honesty in understanding and respecting our history and presenting that history in an enriching way that helps us understand Torah better.