Friday, January 28, 2005

Acceptable and unacceptable "heresy"

I have what to say on the Rav Slifkin book ban issue, but I want to measure my words carefully, and so I don't know if I will ever got to posting something substantive on the matter. On the one hand, I would agree with many of the statements labelled heretical, while on the other hand I understand the impetus to declare the boundaries of acceptable Jewish theology. It is a non-trivial subject.

I would just like to point out, however, the contrast between people's reactions to bans/declarations of heresy on that which they agree with/feel comfortable with, and that which they do not.

Specifically, you have Rav Slifkin's views on the age of the universe and the fallibility/infallibility of Chazal when it comes to scientific matters. Many would agree with him (including Rishonim/Acharonim!), and consider attempts to label such an opinion as heretical as backwards and ill-advised.

Similarly, Marc Shapiro's book on the limits of Orthodox theology, which attempts to show that the Rambam's ikkarei emuna (principles of faith) were not universally held or accepted in their entirety, or as understood by the Rambam, is viewed favorably, perhaps in part because it supports privately held discomfort or disagreement with certain ikkarei emuna.

On the other hand, you have messianic Lubavitch, which holds that mashiach can come from the dead, and thus the Rebbe can still be mashiach. They also have sources, admittedly few, and in some cases not well known, but neither are Marc Shapiro's sources entirely mainstream. Yet the same people who would champion the first two would label this belief as heretical, and would write the belief as outside the pale of acceptable Orthodox theology. Dr. David Berger's book talks of the scandal of Orthodox indifference, in that we are not writing them outside of acceptable Orthodox belief, and the same folks who would denounce the idea that an idea could be labelled heretical in the first two cases would agree with, or at least find nothing wrong with, the idea in the final instance.

It is funny to see FailedMessiah.Com promoting on one sidebar Marc Shapiro's book and Rav Slifkin's book, and Dr. Berger's book on the other.

7 comments:

AARON said...
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AARON said...

Dude, don't knock the Bergerman. BTW Dr. Berger wasn't so happy with Dr. Shapiro's book. Of course not being happy is a far cry from his position on Lubavitch. I realize you're not actually knocking him but those who hold by his position and an the other two simultaneously. Still, play nicey ;)

joshwaxman said...

First, thanks for posting!

I actually agree with much of what Dr. Berger says in his book, and think that it is important to set the bounds of legitimate Jewish beliefs. I did not mean to knock him.

I think it is also acceptable for rabbis to say that certain beliefs are not acceptable, even if I personally agree with them. Otherwise, in 100 years another Marc Shapiro would point to belief X (be it mashiach from the dead, praying to a man, age of the universe, Chazal's fallibility) and show that "the rabbis did not protest." Other rabbis can say that those beliefs are not heresy.

Even the Rambam about the incorporality of God had to contend with other rabbis who felt such a belief contradicted pesukim and gemaras. If a rabbi believes a belief is truly heretical, it may be an obligation to speak out, so as to warn others. Whether a ban of a book is an effective way of doing this is another story altogether, and may be counterproductive, especially today, but depending on the audience that you hope receives your message.

John said...

Assuming that you are referring to the 13 principles of faith (Yigdal)... I didn't know that any of this was in any way disputed.

joshwaxman said...

yup. (although yigdal and 13 ani maamins at the end of Shacharitonly capture the rambam's ikkarei emuna approximately).

Shapiro's book provides a good partial listing of those who dispute individual principles. as an example, the rambam's 8th principle is that the entire Torah (as seen in ani maamin) found now in our hands was that given to Moshe.

But the gemara states that we are not expert in the plene and defective spelling of words (e.g. the letters vav and yud are often used to note the vowels o and i, and often are absent, and we are not always sure where tradition requires a vav and where not). This is something the Rambam most likely would agree to, so you cannot say the entire Torah in our hands was that given to Moshe, because what about vavs and yuds?

Also, Rashi, relying on a talmudic opinion (where it is a matter of dispute), states that the last 8 verses of the Torah were written by Yehoshua. If so, that implies they were not given to Moshe. (though if you actually look at the gemara, this is not necessarily so). So, would Rambam consider Rashi a heretic? Should we? Ibn Ezra says the same thing, but extends it to several other verses in the Torah.

However, on the whole, and more or less, the Rambam's ikkarei emuna have been accepted as definitive by the Jewish community. There's wiggle room in terms of definition and parameters, and there are individuals who argue on singular ikkarei emuna, but it is not the big deal people are taking it to be. (but more on that, perhaps, if and when I decide to post a review of Shapiro's book).

John said...

Okay... interesting. I have read some of the arguments about different letters (or lines, as in the case of haplography) in the Torah being lost or miscopied by scribes.

joshwaxman said...

thanks for posting. it gets a bit lonely in the comment section, and so your comments are much appreciated.

it was actually what you mention, classed under Lower Biblical Criticism (as well as other things), that was discussed in Rabbi Parnes' article, which in turn was the impetus for Marc Shapiro's book about how accepted in their entirety the Rambam's 13 principles are.

to explain why this would be considered heretical by the article:
there is of course a difference of degree between saying that we are not sure of the vavs and yuds (and possibly hehs and alephs), which are matters of spelling, in which the standard spelling had changed from Biblical to Rabbinic times, and that of saying that a word was miscopied and should be an entirely new word with different meaning, or that there is incorrectly missing or repeated text.

in the first instance, all that differs is spelling, not meaning, and that scribes were not always careful with preserving the nonstandard spelling is OK to say. (in fact, it is recorded in the gemara.)

saying that we have the wrong text, with a wrong meaning, dismisses the integrity of transmission of the text from Mount Sinai.

It is also often done, at least in Biblical studies, entirely based on speculation. The verse is hard to understand, so someone suggests the verse originally read something different.

We do observe the phenomenon of miscopied words and missing, repeated, and moved lines in rabbinic writings, such as Talmud. Often, though, we can see the correct version in another, variant, Talmudic manuscript, so it is often not merely speculative. Also, most would not claim that this approach to *Talmudic* manuscripts is heretical, and in fact the Vilna Gaon engages in such textual emendations. But the Vilna Gaon would likely consider the same approach taken to Chumash heretical.

Also, by Torah, there should be more resistance to such unintentional change. Firstly it is a sacred text, so scribes would show more care. A Torah which is off in one letter is pasul, invalidated. There were books written, and oral traditions, to establish the correct Masoretic text. There were also codices, such as the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex, to write people when they had a question could turn to find the correct text - as a standard. Earlier than that, they had the sefer Torah kept in the Temple to turn to. This is not to say that at various times Torahs were not produced without mistakes - but there were vulgar texts for the masses to use for learning, and those known to be especially accurate (such as that of R Meir). (There are also many more recent examples where individual sifrei Torah differed from the standard due to scribal neglect. But Rambam would likely say that these are erroneous sifrei Torah were the result of recent neglect by scribes, but our tradition, as reflected in the standard codex, is authentic and corresponds to what Moshe recieved on Sinai.)

Obviously, there are competing arguments in the other direction, and even sources that could be mustered to that end (such as the sifrei Torah of Ezra/the Azara which had 3 variants).

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