Is Heresy Horrible?
Heresy, to many Orthodox Jews, is what Trayvon Martin is to some black Americans: something that stirs up fears and concerns that they would rather not think about. The very mention of the word “heresy” unleashes torrents of unwelcome ideas and images. We think of witch-hunts, of confessions under torture, of the burning of Bruno, of the stifling of questions and inquiry. We would like to believe, like our black neighbors would like to think about racism, that heresy is a concern of a bygone era, an historical oddity we have left behind, but not something we need deal with today.
As the controversy surrounding Rabbi Zev Farber’s remarks about the authorship of Chumash heats up, it might be a good idea to examine a few points that commenters to Rabbi Gordimer’s essay have raised.
1) Is it really so important to take a stand about matters of belief? Isn’t what we do far more important?
Time does not permit anything but the briefest of responses. Readers might want to review the introduction of Chovos Halevavos, who makes the argument that if Hashem legislated the way we act for the purpose of instructing and elevating us, He would certainly structure the way our thoughts and beliefs ought to progress. Readers should look once more at mori ve-rabi Rav J David Bleich’s introduction to his With Perfect Faith, examining the different conceptions of principles of faith. They should also remind themselves that categories like “apikorus,” “min” and “kofer” are halachic constructs that carry with them several halachic consequences, among them validity of their ritual performance, e.g shechitah, writing mezuzos, etc.; validity of their testimony; inclusion in a minyan. Waving a PC wand at these constructs will not make them disappear. They have to be understood, and dealt with.
My friend Prof. Menachem Kellner argued in his Must a Jew Believe Anything? that if “belief is a matter of trust in G-d expressed in obedience to the Torah, my answer is that a Jew must believe everything. If ‘belief’ is the intellectual acquiescence in carefully defined statements of dogma, the answer is that there is nothing a Jew must believe.” This is a formulation very differents from what frum Jews more typically believe. Many responded to the book, and he in turn has addressed their critiques.
Yet even Dr. Kellner had to concede that believing what others believe and have believed can be important in Jewish life. “There are limits to what one can affirm or deny and still remain within the Jewish community. Denying the unity of G-d, for example, or that the Torah is of divine origin in some significant sense, or affirming that the Messiah has already come, are claims which place one outside the historical community of Israel.” Dr. Kellner’s argument against systematic theology is not something I believe or can accept. Even if we were to accept it, however, he argues that some beliefs place a person outside of the religious experience shared by his coreligionists. If we were interviewing a prospective leader of a community, or teacher of our children, most of us would want to know if his views stood outside the historical community of Israel. We might wish that we did not have to “check intellectual tzitzis,” but we do not always have that option. We can hide from the harsh sound of the heresy word, but we still need to decide as a community dividing lines between what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale.
Why? Because if there are no limits, we have nothing but teflon to offer our children. Immanuel Kant called Spinoza “that G-d intoxicated man.” Should we look more kindly upon Spinoza, go back to calling him Baruch rather than Benedict, and decide that pantheism is a legitimate form of belief in the G-d of Abraham? Why should we buy into the reading of the Amsterdam elders who banned Spinoza, rather than Kant’s? What about a person who announces that he is a fervent monotheist, but believes that this One G-d has three persons: a father, son and holy spirit? Will we accept him as Orthodox if he is otherwise mitzvah observant? If the belief system that Cross-Currents readers have been examining in the last few days is somehow seen as legitimate under a big tent of inclusion, will we posthumously welcome back Mordechai Kaplan and Louis Jacobs?
Why is it important to describe limits of acceptable belief? Because what we believe is important to how we function as Jews. It is simply not true that Christianity concerns itself with belief but not actions, while Judaism concerns itself with actions but not belief. We know that this is not true; our actions have to be embedded in some sort of intellectual axiology for them to connect us to our Creator. We need to determine, to borrow Dr Marc Shapiro’s phrase, the limits of Orthodox theology. Otherwise, we are left with a stale and sterile Orthopraxy, rather than Orthodoxy.
2) Shouldn’t we cut some slack to people whose sincere intellectual quest leads them to all sorts of conclusions, even if the rest of us cannot accept those conclusions?
We should respect the quest, and do whatever we can to teach the truth as we recognize it. But we should never compromise on the truth of our mesorah. We should explain the accepted Torah position, and attempt to replace error with truth.
A responsum of the Radbaz, R Dovid ben Zimra, deals with the complaint of a community against their rav. This spiritual leader preached in a derasha that the chet ha-eigel was caused, in part, by people who attributed Divine properties to Moshe. The Radbaz writes:
I cannot find an adequate reason to exempt him from punishment other than he erred in his analysis, and his noble pursuit caused his downfall. He is not any worse than a person whose faulty analysis causes him to err about one of the principles of faith…. Since his “heresy” comes from analysis that he believes to be valid, he is a compelled beyond his control, and not held accountable…
Many cite this as proof that we should never disparage the results of intellectual inquiry. They always omit the next few lines, in which the Radbaz sets forth his action plan.
Testify to him in my name, and show him this letter, that his approach to the text is an obvious error in its plain meaning, and that it offers an improper approach to the text from which can result faulty beliefs. If he is agreeable to renounce his error – good! If not, send me testimony to that effect, and I will cause a great wall to fall upon him…
The Radbaz is clear. Tolerate the process that led to the error – but insist without flinching that the error be corrected, when called out by the greatest Torah authorities of the day.
3) All of this talk about heresy will not make the questions go away. Whatever his unacceptable conclusions, Rabbi Farber struggled with issues and challenges posed by academic disciplines that are situated well outside of the perimeters of Torah thought. “Outing” his conclusions without addressing the questions is not going to accomplish much!
Yes it will. The Orthodox community has tens of thousands of people who do respect mesorah and authority. For them, the first order of business needs to be to draw lines beyond which one cannot go. Addressing the questions is important, but it is the second order of business, not the first.
However, the commenters who raised this issue do have a point. We have not done an adequate job on the second order of business. We do have some very good people who have excellent approaches, but we do not have enough of them. For the first time in many centuries, I believe, we do not have gedolei Yisrael who throw themselves into the intellectual struggles of the day. The circles of most rigorous Torah study have so completely eschewed all other areas, that they are not familiar with the questions, let alone in a position to provide answers. That burden has shifted to people who are not at the top of the Torah pyramid, but are solid yirei Shomayim. We do need to publicize more of their output. Before we do that, however, we need to draw clear lines between what can be part of an Orthodox community, and what cannot. When a fire breaks out, our first response has to be to put out the fire – not to fire-proof the rest of the village. Rabbi Gordimer’s first piece points unmistakably to both the fire and its source.
Even before we turn to the second order of business I believe that there is an overarching approach that should guide every loyal Torah-true Jew in times of intellectual confusion.
Taanis 8A sings the praises of “baalei emunah.” In support of placing them on a pedestal, the gemara refers to the story of the marten and the pit, whose fuller version is found in the Aruch. (See Maharal, Nesiv Ha-Emunah, first chapter.) A young woman lost her way. Terribly thirsty, she spotted a storage pit and a pail. She climbed down, drank, but was unable to climb back out. Shouting for help, a would-be rescuer pledged his help if she promised to marry him. After her rescue, he attempts to claim his trophy on the spot. She convinces him that such would be animal-like; she should return to her town, and when he joins her later, she will marry him in a proper ceremony. He asks who will witness the pact between them; she responds that the mole and the pit will serve as witnesses to their mutual pledge of matrimony.
She returns home. He, meanwhile, forgets about her, marries another, who bears him two children. One falls into a storage pit and dies. The other is bitten by a marten and dies. His wife is suspicious of the bizarre circumstances of the deaths of her two children. He tells her the story. She gives him the boot, telling him to return to the person to whom he made a commitment.
She has kept to her part of the bargain. She turns down suitors. When this seems forced, she feigns mental illness to keep suitors away. Her rescuer finds her home town, and inquires after her. He is told that she is damaged goods. He says that he nevertheless wishes to marry her. They marry, have lots of kids, and live happily ever after.
We are accustomed to translating emunah as “belief,” or “faith.” Those do not really work in our story. The young woman did not demonstrate belief so much as trustworthiness and loyalty. She refused to turn her back on someone who had once helped her.
To me, this gemara suggests that part of our response to question is emunah in the sense of chulda v’bor. Faced with the apparent reneging of her fiancée, she refused to betray the trust – even having evidence to the contrary about the other party. Emunah does not only mean belief. It means loyalty. When faced with questions about Torah, our first response has to be loyalty to the Torah that we love. We can live with questions, if we refuse to betray the trust that the Jewish people have with our holy Torah. We will find the answers in time. Our first reaction has to be to restate our commitment to that Torah, even in the face of difficulties.
We can deal with academic challenges later. First, we must have the trustworthiness, the loyalty, and the courage to reject any attempt to water down the most important event in the history of our people – the communication of a Torah directly from G-d to Man.
The rest is commentary.