Orthodox rabbis in the last two centuries saw themselves as a bulwark against assimilation, fighting for the survival of tradition in the face of deep challenges from within the Jewish community. The Reform Movement in late 19th century Germany called for the rejection of most ritual practices, preferring a focus on the ethical teachings of Judaism. Increasingly large and vocal groups of secular Jews went further and rejected prayer and ritual altogether. Also at this time, the academic study of Bible and Talmud called into question beliefs about the divine origins of the law, which were considered essential to traditional observance.
Orthodox figures saw these innovative approaches as a direct challenge to the authority of halakhah and, ultimately, God. They sought to preserve the community’s continuity with the past in both study and practice of Jewish law.
During this period, Orthodox rabbis issued rulings on all areas of Jewish life. Many rulings simply presented decisions, either with or without explaining the relevant legal sources. Other more controversial issues required the scholar to present a range of opinions and to argue on behalf of one.
Some of these had been debated for centuries: When can Jews rely on a shabbes goy (a non-Jewish neighbor) to light or extinguish a fire on the Sabbath? In what types of urban areas may one build an eruv, the symbolic boundary that permits carrying in the street on the Sabbath? Others had to balance legal analysis against pressing communal concerns like anti-Semitism, assimilation, and economic survival.
In many cases, rabbis explored new realities that earlier sources had not dealt with. These included the use of electricity on the Sabbath; the kashrut status of gelatin; whether and when women should be permitted to study Torah; and how the law should relate to secular and Reform Jews.
In such cases, scholars offered arguments for how the new situation should be approached in halakhic terms, seeking to fit the new cases into previously established categories. Typically, there was initially a range of ideas on these questions. Some, like electricity, were soon settled by a combination of rabbinic consensus and communal sanction. Others, like the debate on women’s roles, have remained points of deep contention and have defined many of the fissures in the Orthodox world until today.