Outside the Pale


I am jealous of the scholarship of Dr Marc Shapiro – even when I often disagree with his conclusions. He never lets the reader down in amassing a huge amount of relevant material regarding the many topics he has written about. I do believe that he made a simple and perhaps understandable error in his response to Rabbi Zev Leff in the current issue of Jewish Action. He ignored a construct that is enormously important for the future of the community, but that he may find unattractive.

Rabbi Leff, one of the most important English language baalei machshavah in Israel, reviewed Dr Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology, which tries to demonstrate that there was significant disagreement regarding the positions that became Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith. Rabbi Leff argues that finding isolated voices who disagreed is irrelevant in the face of overwhelming acceptance of those principles over hundreds of years.

One who denies any of [the Thirteen Principles] is outside the pale of the faith community of Torah Judaism. For example, the conviction that G-d is a corporeal being is a belief that is outside the realm of Judaism, despite the fact that the Sages do not agree whether to deem one a heretic for harboring this belief.

Dr. Shapiro responds,

Which is it? Is the one who believes in a corporeal G-d (a violation of the Third Principle) a heretic, outside the faith community or simply an ignorant person who must be enlightened?…No less a figure than Rabbi Arele Roth [rejected] the Rambam’s view that such a belief turns a person into a heretic. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook also disagreed with the Rambam, and instead adopted the Ra’avad’s more tolerant approach.

It seems to me that the essence of Rabbi Leff’s argument is that one need not be adjudged to be a heretic to nonetheless stand firmly outside the boundaries of the Torah community. The answer to Dr. Shapiro’s question is that those who maintain beliefs at the margins are not to be seen as heretics, but can be seen as beyond the pale.

We use the term “heretic” too loosely; in that regard, we would be well served to take some of Dr Shapiro’s points to heart. Simply put, however, as my friend Rabbi Chaim Eisen put it (not in the context of the exchange between Rabbi Leff and Dr. Shapiro), there are beliefs that cannot be said to be impermissible, but are still unacceptable.

There is indeed a huge amount of latitude in what people can believe without being halachically termed heretics. There is usually no firm psak about matters of hashkafa. The counterexample cited by the Chasam Sofer in his last teshuva in Yoreh Deah likely has no peer. (The opinion of Hillel that the redemption would come without a human redeemer was fully rejected by a vote of his contemporary amoraim; there is no parallel with minority opinions regarding other principles of faith.)

Rabbi Leff’s point, however, is that there are ideas and values so important and so widespread that they define the experience of a Torah Jew. It might not be forbidden for people to think differently, but if they should do so, it would not be inaccurate to say that they would be living something significantly different from the rest of the community. We would not be able to point an accusatory finger and brand them as violators of some prohibition; we could accurately say, however, that they were not Torah Jews in the colloquial sense.

This is not quibbling. For many applications, we want assurance that we are getting something “authentic.” I have a feeling that Dr. Shapiro will firmly reject this construct. He will likely accept only a single touchstone – whether the belief permissible or heretical. Others will disagree. Many will expect the teachers of their children and the rabbanim of their shuls to share a common belief system, within limits. They will want those limits set not at the divide between the permissible and heretical, but within the experience of the vast majority of Torah Jews and Torah luminaries for hundreds of years. Situating oneself within these more narrow limits does not guarantee that one is “right,” but it does allow for a commonality of experience with more people in the same generation, and a sense of deep connection with generations that preceeded.

Whether one accepts Dr Shapiro’s or Rabbi Leff’s position has huge impact on Orthodox public policy. As parts of the community push the envelope in some areas, particularly the participation of women in shul and public life, some people find refuge in attempting to construct permissible halachic arguments. While most of these opinions are underwhelming to this author, this may be beside the point. What can be permissible can still be so out of synch with Jewish experience that it can be rejected as outside the pale, even if not assur. This may be true of new approaches to teaching Tanach, Gemara, and to entire institutions of learning.

If Dr Shapiro is correct, there ought to be room under the Orthodox umbrella for all of these. If Rabbi Leff is right – and I stand with him – some of these can and should be rejected indeed as fully outside the pale of Orthodox life.

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62 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding, “Comment by michoel halberstam — December 24, 2007 @ 10:18 am”:

    Some of my other ideas of this type have been called balebatish (oh, no!), but anyway…

    There is only so much one can put intelligibly into a concise prayer-poem with rhyme and meter such as Yigdal. I don’t think the cited omission implies any tolerance for worship to other than HaShem. This could also explain any other perceived deviations of the poetic, highly abridged Yigdal from Rambam’s long formulation.

  2. michoel halberstam says:

    Gil, regarding Ani Maamin versus Yigdal, how do you account for the fact that Yigdal does not contain the phrase “: Aino Rouy L’hispalel lezuloso,” an idea reflected in both Ani Maamin and The Perush Hamishnayos. Michoel

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Charles Hall referred to the religous kibbutzim permitting women to wear pants. I’m not being dogmatic, but that is a movement which, although officially Orthodox, does not always scrupulously consult with poskim. Find me a rav who poskened that way (there may be one) and then we can decide what the basis is, if it’s mainstream, and all the other stuff that everybody is arguing about. But this alone is mere sociology and insufficient evidence.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I’m not saying praying to angels is a metaphor in order to encircle Marc Shapiro in a circular argument. I simply do not have that intention when I say those prayers and don’t believe that others have it either. If there is someone who really believes he is praying to angels (how would Rabbi Angel feel about that?), speak up.

  5. Zev T. says:

    “On the whole, Rashei Yeshiva have had a more authentic understanding of Judaism than academics…”

    Care to back up that assertion? Assuming that “authentic” means “accurate,” the exchange between Rav Leff and Dr. Shapiro would very much seem to support the conclusion that academics have a more accurate understanding of Judaism than Rashei Yeshiva.

  6. ka says:

    “I once thought that way as well. Rabbi J David Bleich, who not only is as hefty a talmid chacham as they come in America, but also wrote a book on the ikarim, took strong exception. After looking at the Chasam Sofer again, I bow to his opinion.”

    I responded to this, but the comment did not go through. I see now that he does not state this specifically. But how then do you understand that he considers violations of ikarim to be violations of belief in torah and neviim?

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding Comment by LAWRENCE KAPLAN — December 20, 2007 @ 11:20 pm:

    This comment ended, “It would almost seem as if Rashei Yeshiva are not to be criticized, even on scholarly matters, while academics are fair game.”

    On the whole, Rashei Yeshiva have had a more authentic understanding of Judaism than academics, so hashkafic statements by the former are normally considered to be more authoritative, even when these might appear to be bold or innovative. Many academics look at traditional Judaism as an outsider would.

  8. Binyamin says:

    I cannot claim any sort of expertise inthe Rambams thought, but from the little I have done it seems clear that his Ikarim are based on his Aristotelian philosophy. I do not believe that he bases his Ikarim on the Tanach or Gemara, but they are rather the result oh his conception of what G-d must be like to be a logically coherent concept. This is particualry true of the more specific Ikarim he gives, such as that man cannot comprehend G-d. If this is correct, would requiring belief in the Rambams Ikarim also require us to accept the rest of his philosophy?

    The only Ikarrim which actually appear in the Torah are the existence of G-d, without any specifics, and that He gave the immutable Torah to Moshe.
    The acceptance of the Torah as a binding document is an Ikar in the sense that without it one is simply not playing the game, so its not relevant to discuss his beliefs.
    Does any other Ikar have a clear source in the Torah?

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:


    I might not have made it clear in the previous comment, but I support and believe in the Rambam’s ikkarim. It is also obvious from the review that Rabbi Blau was taking issue with the latitude which Dr. Shapiro allowed.

    I just observed an independent point(Rabbi Blau wasn’t making it in the precise way I did, thus I “extrapolated” it) that a loose usage of “heresy” in reference to an issue such as Zionism, may very well generate more interest in Dr. Shapiro’s position to some extent or another.

    Similarly, if an idea was acceptable as recently as in the era of Rav Hirsch, but in today’s generation is said to be beyond the pale, then one has effectively given more flux and instability to principles of faith–kol hamoseif goreia. You can disagree with this concern, but I’m simply mentioning it as a possibility.


    I agree with your comment.

  10. ka says:

    “Having support from the Ralbag, and hotly disputed support from a sub-visual view of the Rambam (meaning, you can’t find it anywhere in the Moreh and you can find many explicit statements that are against it)”

    It’s not subvisual in the meforshim on Rambam. See here for some of the references:

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Joel Rich-Are you aware of anywhere in print where R SD Shapiro has addressed the issues raised by R Yitzchak Blau?

  1. January 5, 2008

    […] Note that this might have some bearing on the previous discussion concerning what is “Outside the Pale” — that although one cannot point to certain beliefs and cry “heresy,” one […]