Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Outer Limits of Orthodox Theology

A response to Dr. Marc Shapiro's book

(This is in part a response to Dr. Shapiro's book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, and in part a reaction to how some seem to be reading his book.)

There is an interesting yerushalmi I posted about a while back, in the first perek of gittin (Yerushalmi Gittin #1: Jewish Geography), about the borders of Eretz Yisrael and the direction from Eretz Yisrael to Bavel.

If a get (bill of divorce) comes from outside the Land of Israel, the agent delivering the get must say that before him it was written and signed. As a result, it is important to define the limits of the Land of Israel:

ד, ב פרק א הלכה ב משנה רבי יהודה אומר מרקם ולמזרח ורקם כמזרח מאשקלון ולדרום ואשקלון כדרום מעכו ולצפון ועכו כצפון ר' מאיר אומר עכו כארץ ישראל לגיטין:

Mishna: Rabbi Yehuda says: From Reqem and to the east, and Reqem is like the east {that is, it is considered outside Eretz Yisrael}; from Ashqelon and to the south, and Ashqelon is like the north; from Akko and to the north and Akko is like the north; Rabbi Meir says: Akko is like Eretz Yisrael for the purpose of bills {of divorce}.

דף ד, ב פרק א הלכה ב גמרא ר' יוחנן אמר לציפורייא אתון אמרין בשם ר' <יוחנן> חנינה אף המביא מבבל לכאן אינו צריך לומר בפני נכתב ובפ"נ ואני אומר שהוא צריך דהיא מתניתא ר' יהודה אומר
דף ה, א פרק א הלכה ב גמרא מרקם ולמזרח ורקם כמזרח. ואפילו תימא חלוקין על ר"י שאין רקם כמזרח. שמא מבבל לכאן

Rabbi Yochanan said to the residents of Tzippori: They come and say in the name of Rabbi Chanina: even one who brings {a bill of divorce} from Bavel to here {Eretz Yisrael} need not say "Before me it was written and before me it was signed." And I {Rabbi Yochanan} say that he must, for it is the Mishna. "Rabbi Yehuda says: From Reqem and to the east, and Reqem is like the east. And even if you say that we argue on Rabbi Yehuda that Reqem is not like the east, would you say that from Bavel to here??!?! {since Bavel is surely even further in that direction.}
Rabbi Chanina is in agreement with the opinion of Rav that Bavel is considered like the land of Israel as regards bills of divorce, and Rabbi Yochanan is arguing on him, based on the Mishna.

My approach to gemara and mikra is generally not homiletic, but I will make an exception in this instance and use the gemara to make a point.

That point is that while Chazal can argue about the limits of Eretz Yisrael (EY), with Rabbi Yehuda saying that Akko is outside EY and Rabbi Meir saying that Akko is inside, and Rbbi Yehuda saying Reqem is outside EY and a theoretical position brought up by Rabbi Yochanan (perhaps also Rabbi Meir) saying Reqem is inside EY, everybody will agree that there are *some* limits to EY. Surely if you go as far east as Bavel, everyone will say you are outside EY, says Rabbi Yochanan!

This dispute about the outer limits is not limited to national boundaries. If we look at our history, we will see that there have been many disputes about the limits of acceptable Jewish theology. Indeed, the very presence of the Rambam's ikarei emuna (principles of faith) testifies to the fact that there was some disagreement, for otherwise why formulate them? (OK, one could say because of contact with Islam, but still, disagreements about such matters surely were at least a partial impetus.)

Dr. Shapiro's book gives many many examples of great rabbis who disagree with some aspect of one of the Rambam's principles, or with an entire principle. Many of these examples were no surprise to me, as I've encountered them in classes and books before.

However, while there may be disputes about the exact parameters of each of the ikarei emuna, or those who reject one in its entirety, what you will *not* find is any of these people dismissing the idea that there *are* limits, and that at a certain point a belief can be heretical. That is, if you go too far east, eventually you will pass over the outer limit of EY, or of acceptable Jewish theology.

The message some people get from the book, however, is that since there are disputes about all these matters, one can deny all of the ikarei emuna and not be a heretic. I doubt Dr. Shapiro would agree with such a statement.

Consider the following excerpt from a review:
Shapiro, a Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and himself an Orthodox Jew, sets out to show that this attitude is completely modern, and that historically – both before and after Maimonides – his Principles were widely discussed, disputed and even dismissed by mainstream Orthodox authorities. Maimonides himself did not accept several of his own Principles, and certainly did not think that to deny them was heretical.

{Note: Perhaps she does not mean this, and is only referring to those that the Rambam did not accept in their entirety. Still, the overall impression one gets from this review, and from some other people I have seen citing the book, is that none of the Rambam's principles are binding, and one can entirely deny any and all of them and not be a heretic...}

The Rambam might not have accepted the principles as most narrowly defined, but he certainly thought that one who denied entirely certain principles was a heretic. For example, principle 1 (in the ani maamins, a crude summary) is that Hashem created the world and directs it, and that He Alone created all creations. Principle 2 is the belief that Hashem is One and he exists and will exist forever. Principle 3 is that Hashem is incorporeal, and there is no real comparison to a body.

Now, people argued with the Rambam on some of this, and perhaps the Rambam did not believe these as narrowly specified, but the Rambam would consider a Cristian, who believed that God could have a human son, and could take human form, and was part of a trinity, to be outside the pale of Jewish belief. The Rambam would definitely consider someone who believed this to be a heretic. It is silly to say otherwise, and Marc Shapiro would not say otherwise.

What if someone entirely denied the existence of God? - and as a result denied principle 1, since a non-existant God cannot create or direct the world, and principle 2, since if He does not exist then He did not exist and will not exist in the future, and principle 3 since if God does not exist, He is not incorporeal (nor corporeal). Many other principles fail - how can the words of the Prophets be true if they speak the word of a God who does not exist? I think the Rambam would call such a person a kofer - a denier of the existence of God, and a heretic. And Marc Shapiro would surely agree.

The Continuum View
One can view opinions on theological matters on a continuum.

Here at the far left (as a straw man position) is the belief that every single letter and its form as was given to Moshe exists in our prsent day sifrei Torah.

A little to the right - well, the script was ktav ivri, and it now is ktav ashuri (though perhaps it was originally given in ashuri...). At about the same position - well, the final letters were instituted by the Prophets.

A little to the right - we are not experts in plene and defective spelling, so except where we have an explicit tradition (such as it is used in a drash) perhaps there are some extra or missing letters used to mark pronunciation. The integrity of the message is maintained.

A little to the right - certain words were changed deliberately - a tikkun sofrim - but these were kept track of, so we know what they are.) This is as opposed to treating tikkun sofrim as initial intent but written by Moshe in a polite way.

A little to the right - a few specific words might have been changed (see the 3 sifrei torah harmonized, each with one word different), but the meaning remains the same.

Further to the right - many words were messed up due to non-meticulous scribes, or scribes who did not understand, so we should engage in Lower Biblical Criticism to reconstruct the text.

Start again at the far left: Every single word in Torah was written by Moshe.

A little to the right - certain psukim could not have been written by Moshe since they describe what happened after Moshe's death, and as a result, specifically the last 8 psukim were written by someone else. Furthermore, that person also was Divinely inspired, the student of Moshe, and thus wrote them in that same approximate time period - it was Moshe's student Yehoshua.

A little to the right - other psukim were written by Yehoshua. Specifically, those that say Ad Hayom Hazeh or others that imply some distance in time.

A little to the right - certain, specific parenthetical, explanatory, or introductory psukim were written, or elaborated upon, by a still later (Divinely inspired) hand, such as the Ezra or the Anshei Knesset HaGedola.

Further to the right - the words were not in fact authored by Moshe, but by a single author. Or, further to the right, by multiple authors but based on true traditions passed down.

Further to the right - the words in the Torah are based on several different myths, held by different tribes, or sources, and assembled by an incompetent human editor, such that there are contradictions. The Torah is not from Sinai, is not from Moshe, is not from God, and is not Divinely inspired, but is rather an amalgam of fairy tales. This is more or less Higher Biblical Criticism.

Now, all of these steps along the continuum, save the first, involve violations of, at the least, the strict formulation of one of the Rambam's principles of faith. But you can see how each step is a more drastic violation than the previous. And, while you will find rabbis through the generations offering quote unquote heretical thoughts, these are but interesting pushing at the edges. Their contemporaries may think what they are saying is kefira, heresy, and in fact perhaps in certain cases it is. However, in these cases one might say that it is a matter of dispute - it is Reqem. (Note: See my post on "Commentators Who Live In Glass Houses," where Ibn Ezra thinks his own opinion on the authorship of certain psukim is true, while the opinion of Yitzchaki, further along the continuum, is heresy and should be burnt.)

However, at a specific point everyone will agree that certain beliefs are heretical, in that they deny God and the Torah. This far east, you are in Bavel, and definitely outside of Eretz Yisrael. I would say Higher and Lower Biblical criticism, as can be found in certain text such as the Anchor Bible, are definitely heretical.

Violations of the 13 Ikarei Emuna in Biblical Criticism

In fact, in Biblical Criticism you will find absolute denial of almost all of the 13 ikarei emuna.

Take the following list (note the source :), which is admittedly a non-exact approximation:

1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, be He blessed, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.

Biblical criticism assumes the non-existence of God. As a result, miracles must be imagined or elaborations of regular occurences. If a prophet predicts something that can be confirmed in the historical record, they must have said (or recorded) it after the event, not before it. As a scientific discipline, it will not let the existence of God be considered seriously.

In terms of treating God in the Bible, they may well think that God as depicted in the Bible is not perfect.

2. The belief in God's absolute and unparalleled unity.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

However, they might claim various pagan influences and sections of Torah, such as references to HaElohim in mishpatim referring to house gods as opposed to judges, and might claim that the Torah believes in the power of other gods.

They will also compare creation myths of other gods to the narrative found in perek 1 and perek 2 of bereishit (as well as in tehillim and various neviim). They would treat God as just another god.

3. The belief in God's non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

However, they will point to psukim such as that in parshat Veyera as proving that God is understood to be corporeal.

4. The belief in God's eternity.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

5. The imperative to worship Him exclusively and no foreign false gods.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

They would admit that this imperative is found in the Torah.

6. The belief that God communicates with man through prophecy.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

In fact, they treat prophecy as found in Tanach as myth or politically inspired falsehoods.

7. The belief that the prophecy of Moses our teacher has priority.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.
With the denial of #6, this principle cannot be held.

They do not think Moshe wrote the Torah, so what prophecy of Moshe our teacher? It is a poorly redacted composite of other, false, sources.

8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

In fact, they do not think there was a divine origin of the Torah. According to Hirhurim, this also involved immutability of the psukim. If so, both Lower and Higher Biblical Criticism deny this.

9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah.

Again according to Hirhurim, this means:
1. That the Torah will never be abrogated, i.e. that the commandments will always be binding.
2. That there will never be a new Torah.
3. That nothing will be removed from the Torah.
4. That nothing will be added to it.
They would not treat the Torah as binding, being fiction.
Adding and removing from the Torah in this sense means commandments, and in fact they claim that various commandments were authored in different times in response to different realities or political/religious requirements, and that accounts for some of the differences between formulations in different books.

10. The belief in divine omniscience and providence.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

They might well say that the Torah does depict lack of divine omnicience, as in e.g. Sodom, where God went down to see what was going on, or the Flood, where He had regret.

11. The belief in divine reward and retribution.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead.

With the denial of #1, this principle cannot be held.

In fact, you can read books on Bible that are predicated on the denial of all the ikarei emuna, principles of faith. And all of the people cited in Marc Shapiro's book, if they read such a book on Biblical criticism, would absolutely say it contains heresy.

Rabbi Parnes' Article

It is strange then, that the book is supposed to be a response to Rabbi Parnes. A while back, as I was reading the book, Eliyahu gave me the articles and letters to the editor to read, so that I would have appropriate context. And it struck me that Rabbi Parnes says X, and to disprove him Marc Shapiro should show NOT X, and instead he shows NOT Y.

Rabbi Parnes' article was a warning on unrestricted intellectual inquiry. He pointed out that the Rambam is held up as the paragon of the virtue of combining Torah and Maddah, yet the Rambam himself says that it is prohibited to read a book written by heretics containing heresy. Thus, we see that even the Rambam felt there were some limits.

This blow landed, and no matter how many examples you can bring, in an article and book, showing "heretical" beliefs, that you claim would render this inpractical, the Rambam still says this. Thus, the Rambam does indeed place a limit on intellectual inquiry. What exactly the Rambam meant by this, and what the exact parameters are, can be determined. But Rabbi Parnes made a valid point, one that is lost amid all the hubbub.

Rabbi Parnes then gave concrete examples of what he felt would constitute books written by heretics containing heresy. Among the examples he gave were (Lower and Higher Biblical Criticism), and evolution, agnosticism, cosmology, and determinism.

Now, I am not going to get into evolution, because this is perhaps resolvable as non-heretical (See Rav Slifkin's books - heh), and because it would take me too far afield, but I think that certain books on Lower and Higher Biblical Criticism are definitely written by heretics and contain heresy. This is not an emotional condemnation of such books, but rather a detached observation that they are definitely heretical, denying God, Torah, and almost the entirety of the 13 principles as formulated by the Rambam (as well as what is understood as articles of faith by almost every Jewish rabbi through the ages, including those mentioned in Shapiro's book), and very far along the continuum I might add.

Rabbi Parnes then made the unfortunate mistake of summing up (in a fairly innocuous sentence at the end - the second to last sentence of the article) by talking about heresy as that which goes against the 13 ikarei emuna as spelled out by the Rambam. He said: "Based on all of the above, Torah u-Madda can only be viable if it imposes strict limits on freedom of inquiry in areas that undermine the י"ג עיקרי אמונה."

This unfortunately gave Marc Shapiro a straw man to attack. For if you insist on the ikarei emuna specifically as formulated by the Rambam, well then, the Rambam formulates it differently in different places, so we are not sure what exactly they are. And others have minor divergences from a strict interpretation of that formulated by the Rambam.

After all, Rashi says (citing a gemara) that the last 8 pesukim of the Torah were written by Yehoshua. That would deny the principle, as interpreted most strictly, that Moshe received the entire Torah. As a result, we would not be able to read Rashi on the Torah and gemara. This is silly, and therefore Rabbi Parnes' article is silly.

The response should be that this is a dispute of the exact limits of acceptable Jewish theology. Rashi would agree that someone who thought the entire Torah was written by Ezra was a kofer. He would say that Higher Biblical criticism was kefira. And this violates the same principle of the Rambam. The difference is that Rashi holds that that vast majority of the Torah was written by Moshe - with the exception of the very end, only 8 psukim, which leads into sefer Yehoshua, were written by a Divinely inspired student of Moshe - Yehoshua.

This opinion cited by Rashi constitutes a major shock to some students in Intro to Bible at YU, but the fact is that it is an acceptable Jewish theological opinion. It is a minor violation of the principle - it is in Reqem territory. Higher Biblical Criticism is in Bavel, and is certainly kefira.

The answer, put another way, is that we do not, and have not, strictly adhered to the ikarei emuna as formulated by the Rambam. But, they do constitute a frame upon which the actual beliefs loosely hang. We more or less assume that Moshe wrote the Torah, and that the words of the Prophets are true, etc.. There is wiggle room, and occasional outright dismissal of a single principle. And, we see Rashi and accept that he is right, or perhaps wrong but not a kofer. (In other words, "Nu nu, what do you want, I am not being exact but speaking in general.")

However, Rabbi Parnes spoke of Biblical criticism, which violently dismisses all of the 13 principles, and is surely heretical, and should thus perhaps be avoided as the Rambam rules.

Learning Rashi, and thinking of ideas similar to that of Rashi, could well be within the "strict limits" on intellectual inquiry Rabbi Parnes mentioned.

Dr. Shapiro's book elaborates on his argument by showing a bunch of others that hold beliefs against what one would think acceptable based on a strict reading of the Rambam. But as Shapiro himself shows, the Rambam himself would be a kofer by the strict definition, and holds things which may be construed as violations.

Dr. Shapiro's point seems to be that the beliefs of Chazal are not as narrow as one might believe if one only had a yeshiva (or yeshiva high school) education. In that, he is absolutely correct, and it is an important point to convey.

However, one should not then take the next step and say that there must be no heresy, and anything goes. And the citing of one opinion early on the continuum does not justify opinions at the far end of it.

I still have two points to make:

Collecting Opinions

In another context, about psak, I heard a certain prominent rabbi say that normal people have quirks. It is the meshuggena (lunatic) who collects everyone else's quirks and takes them all upon himself. In the context of psak, this means that some Rishon or Acharon might have a weird opinion, or take on a specific issue, but that does not make them a meshuggena. The meshuggena is the one who takes the zany opinion from this one, and the strange interpretation from that one, and the quirky reading from the other one, in order to arrive at a totally kooked-out combined psak to permit what one wanted to permit.

We can transfer this to the realm of theology. More or less, Jewish theology approximates the 13 ikarei emuna. However, you occasionally have people with quirks. This one thinks God is corporeal. This one thinks specific psukim are written by Yehoshua. That one has a different conception of divine reward and punishment. The other one thinks mashiach has already come in the days of King Chizkiyahu and will not come in the future. They are all normal members of Chazal, with a quirk. It is the meshuggena who collects them all and tries to hold them all. Or, it is the historian.

I'm not calling Dr. Shapiro a meshuggena. However, I'm trying to make the point that individuals might have slightly quirky theological beliefs. But they are just that - quirks. In most instances, most of their contemporaries disagreed with them. The psychological effect of the book, which puts them all together, is that there is no mainstream theology, but rather anything goes, and went. Further, Biblical Criticism combines many of these violations, such that it is no longer a quirk.

Further, the fact that certain obscure or even prominent rabbis held something at some point of time does not automatically transform it into something acceptable in the mainstream. It may be a quirk, and should not influence and justify the mainstream.

I think Dr. Berger, who wrote The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, would agree with me here, against Dr. Shapiro. After all, certain Lubavitchers have essentially argued that mashiach can come from the dead, or that a tzaddik (such as the Rebbe) can be the physical manifestation of God on earth, such that he can be prayed to. And they argue this based on obscure sources and point out that it is thus justified theologically and not heresy. But citing and combining obscure sources does not make for mainstream theology.


Anonymous said...

Yasher Koach! Great approach!

Anonymous said...

great analysis. Obviously there are limits to what is acceptable hashkafa-but to show the variety of acceptable opinions as Shapiro stated from people who clearly accept the Mesorah is important. We don't have to accept the Rambam-Yigdal and Ani maamin to the contrary.

Eliyahu said...

As strange as the position may seem to moderns, the idea that God is corporeal is not a good example of a "quirky" position. Certainly there are many sources to defend the position and a great many Jews of previous eras believed that God is corporeal(I believe I saw quoted -in Dr. Shapiro's book? that Rambam himself claims that a majority of Jews in his time believed that God has a body). The fact that Rambam is alway cited as the the antagonist would seem to indicate that earlier Sages did not find fault in this view or even supported this position. The Rambam himself says that he knew a Talmid Hacham(im) who believed that God has a body.
On a similar note, picturing God as having a body when Praying seems to me to be a position with a strong rationale. Indeed ShaDaL writes that for the great majority of people it is essential for them to think of God as having a body.
Perhaps our problems in having Kavanah in Tefilla stem from our departure from earlier traditions and acceptance of the Rambam's ethereal intellectual portrayal ;-) of God.


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