Thursday, August 08, 2013

Judging kefira

In Rabbi Yitzchak Blau's recent guest-post at Morethedoxy, after addressing various salient points about Biblical criticism, he closes with the following paragraphs, which I agree with:
I would like to close with a couple of personal notes.  If someone is intellectually convinced of the DH, this does not make them evil and they are not necessarily involved in a sinister plot.  For all I know, the authors contributing to are very fine human beings and I have no interest in saying derogatory things about them.  Yet we can still strongly disagree with them and conclude that their views are incompatible with Orthodoxy. 
Secondly, there are voices in our community obsessed with kicking left wing Modern Orthodox rabbis out of Orthodoxy.  I view this as an unhealthy and problematic obsession and I want no part of it.  However, this does not mean that those criticizing are always wrong.   In this case, I think the traditional critics of R. Farber are correct. 
Finally, a word to my friends on the left.  It is the nature of things that those who feel persecuted and those who have experienced unfair criticism see all episodes in that light.  In the same way, some Jews cry anti – Semitism every time a Jew does not get a job or a Jew is censured.   Such a victim complex is extremely unhelpful and it prevents acknowledgment of real problems.   Whether or not your right wing critics are always correct or consistently fair now is the time to affirm that R. Farber’s views are incompatible with Orthodoxy.
In response, this guest post by Rabbi Dr. Avi Kadish, with these closing paragraphs:
At the same time, as a Torah Jew, there is no need to debate the “Orthodoxy” of people whose intellectual quests take them where you don’t see a need to go. Despite all the current verbiage to the contrary, there is no mitzvah nor any halakhic need to do so. 
To engage in this is the עצת יצר הרע, [counsel of the "evil inclination"], its greatest tool today for creating hatred and stifling thought and discussion in Am Yisrael. The yetzer works to cause evil specifically through Torah scholars and committed Jews, whom it has convinced that doing this is both necessary and right. Of course they sound convincing, and many of them like yourself are not at all malicious, but the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah. 
The constant effort to define “Orthodoxy” and make decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” has nothing to do with living our covenant with God in today’s reality. The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions. So instead please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you (and to me), not what you think it needs to mean for others.
Now I'll weigh in.

To summarize Rabbi Blau's concluding point as I understand it, and to expand upon it a bit, these folks at are not wicked people, who we should chas veShalom hate. We shall assume they are fine people with excellent conduct, the best of intentions, and intellectual honesty. We are evaluating whether the ideas they propound are true or not, and whether these ideas are kefira, not whether these people are the devil.

Furthermore, there might be various rabbis who are silent, and yet hold these beliefs. For example, maybe there are others in YCT who privately agree with this. But it is not our job to conduct tzitzis checks, patting them on the back to surreptitiously determine whether they are wearing tzitzis. We should not set out to delegitimize people on the left.

However, the folks participating in have come out publicly with their beliefs, such that we know them. Further, they created their website with the express purpose of convincing other Jews of the truth of their beliefs, and want to persuade other intellectually honest Jews to adopt these beliefs.

To say:
The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions.
simply ignores that those being "judged" are trying to persuade others of these beliefs, and to convince others of these beliefs, and that these are within the realm of acceptable beliefs.

As such, it is entirely within the scope of correct and polite discourse to evaluate the repercussions of adopting these beliefs. Are these beliefs within the realm of Orthodoxy, or does adopting these beliefs make one a kofer?

Or, at the least, if some rabbis have engaged in tzitzis-checks, and determined that a belief has put someone outside the realm of Orthodoxy, we can evaluate whether such a claim is correct and, in Rabbi Blau's opinion, the claim is indeed correct.

Indeed, it would be irresponsible for Orthodox rabbis, who do maintain that according to Torah and Rabbinic law, certain beliefs constitute heresy, to remain quiet and not inform their flock about the status of such beliefs. This, even though there are sometimes practical repercussions to such a conclusion. And this, even though the people who profess these heretic beliefs are likely going to be very insulted by your conclusion.

Many on the right want to label discussion, such as Torah miSinai vs. Biblical Criticism, out of bounds, because it is heresy.

Many on the left want to label discussion, such as whether a belief is heresy, out of bounds, because it is hurtful.

Those on the right say discussing these heretical ideas is an aveira.

Now, those of the left say that discussing whether these are heretical ideas is an aveira.

Personally, I think both are part of an honest discussion.

Now, why should we care whether a belief is "heretical". I am sure that many of my own beliefs are "heretical" to Orthodox Muslims. For example, I don't believe that Mohammed was a true prophet. And I am sure that many of my own beliefs are "heretical" to Orthodox Christians. For example, I don't believe that Jesus was either messiah nor a god. And I am sure that many of my own beliefs are "heretical" to many Orthodox Jews, and thus to some definition of Orthodox Judaism. For example, I don't think that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai authored the Zohar, or that the world is likely less than 6000 years old.

Heresy should not stop discussion, in an ideal world. Heresy is not the same as falsehood. I can comfortably deny the divinity of Oto HaIsh, and be comfortable that within the structure of Orthodox Christianity, I would be deemed a non-believer.

Some would say that Orthodox Judaism is truth, and if we determine that a belief is true, then it cannot be heresy. I would argue and say that Orthodox Judaism is a system like any other, and truth and heresy have separate existence. (I happen to think that many of the beliefs professed on are both untrue and heretical, but they still stand apart.) The proper balance might be to say these things are true and, if these beliefs stand outside of the system, then I and the ideas are indeed outside the system. And then make a new system.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. In our actual world, labeling something heretical shuts down discussion. And that is why it is not such a good thing to label ideas as heretical. Often, those who declared beliefs outside of bounds were simply closed-minded, are were not exposed to all the relevant facts. And then other closed-minded individuals will follow them, because the opposing view has been delegitimized as kefira.

Thus, surely there are people who believe in geocentrism because heliocentrism is kefira:
"Ma'amar Mevo HaShemesh" - a booklet (in Hebrew) by Rabbi Pinchas David Weberman which "proves" that heliocentrism is heresy. It's available on the "Controversy" page of the "Books" section of [Rabbi Slifkin's] website,
On the other hand -- well, now is the time to insult people, unfortunately. Not everyone is cut out to be a Biblical scholar or a great rabbi. There is the hamon am, who might not be able to effectively weigh the merits of the arguments pro and con -- though they might be just educated enough to think they can. And a rabbi, as a shepherd of his flock, has an obligation to guide them and let them know that not only does he deem these ideas wrong, but within the framework of Orthodox Judaism, these ideas are outside the pale.

And many are willing to entertain interesting ideas within the spectrum of the theologically "acceptable" (an Ibn Ezra on the secret of the 12, for example), but want to stick within the theologically acceptable because they have sufficient faith in the overarching system. So, they would not want to entertain ideas about a Trinity, or a Satan with powers and motivation entirely independent of God. And so, a judgement of what is within or without the system would be useful for such people, especially when proponents of the idea are strongly asserting that these ideas function within the system.

Also, I don't know how easy it is to say that it is an aveira to write ideas (and by extension, those who hold those ideas) out of Orthodoxy. The Rambam would almost certainly disagree.

Finally, within classic Judaism, there is an idea of forcefully shutting up someone whose ideas are outside the theological pale. A thousand degrees of separation between the present situation of alleged heresy and what I am about to say! And if you think to carry it out, then you would be an ignoramus and a terrible sinner. I am only bringing this up to weigh whether Judaism traditionally shuts down conversation. But the prophet towards idolatry in Devarim 13 is put to death, so that וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. And in the same perek, a close relative who entices towards idolatry is put to death:

ט  לֹא-תֹאבֶה לוֹ, וְלֹא תִשְׁמַע אֵלָיו; וְלֹא-תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ עָלָיו, וְלֹא-תַחְמֹל וְלֹא-תְכַסֶּה עָלָיו.9 thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him;
י  כִּי הָרֹג תַּהַרְגֶנּוּ, יָדְךָ תִּהְיֶה-בּוֹ בָרִאשׁוֹנָה לַהֲמִיתוֹ; וְיַד כָּל-הָעָם, בָּאַחֲרֹנָה.10 but thou shalt surely kill him; thy hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

Even though you have strong feelings of camaraderie and brotherhood with him, you do not have intellectual discussions with him, and see if his arguments are persuasive. By physically shutting down his biological functions, you are effectively shutting off conversation.

Putting someone in cherem, or putting the ideas in cherem, is a parallel means of shutting down conversation. And there is a long tradition of that in Judaism, people and ideas placed outside the pale. Jewish Christians, Sadducees, Karaites, Sabbateans, Hassidim, and so on,  It is a bold assertion that this "stifling [of] thought and discussion in Am Yisrael" is the עצת יצר הרע, and that "the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah. "


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Somehow you manage to write an intelligent, meaningful, balanced and insightful post about a controversial topic without ever making your position on the subject explicitly known.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that on the right you have folks who are working to create an ever more exclusive definition of "Torah True Judaism" and exclude more and more folks from the community.
On the left you have people who are trying to embrace secular liberalism without thinking they're breaking the rules by simply adjusting them as much as they think they can.
Which side is worse?

joshwaxman said...


Thanks for your kind words. I don't know that my own personal position on the subject is necessary or relevant...

kol tuv,


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