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.

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Eliyahu HT
2 years 2 months ago

RYA- in the comment section, you stated- “The silence of YCT and IRF are a stronger indictment against them and their commitment to conventional halachic process, than they are of R Farber, may he be zocheh to come closer to authentic Torah, and resolve his doubts”.

I find quite curious your wish that R Farber “be zocheh to come closer to AUTHENTIC Torah”.

I empathize with your valiant efforts to protect the parameters of normative Orthodox belief- as a pragmatic matter.

But this comment reaveals much more. You seem to condescend to R Farber because you believe he is plainly wrong and misguided. Does this mean you equate Mesorah with Authenticity? Are they necessarily one and the same?

[YA – This is a matter of semantics. I refer you to the gemara in which one of the Amoraim was asked by someone to pasken for him a “din Torah” – and he refused. IIRC, the intent of the gemara is that the petitioner wanted the authentic, absolute, unvarnished emes of Torah in its pristine, abstract form. He responded that he could not do that. All human beings can do is follow the rules that HKBH has set down for us, i.e. the Mesorah, and come up with a human approximation of the Truth. In ignoring the mesorah, the Far Left can be described as inauthentic.]

Bob Miller
2 years 2 months ago

It may well be that many of us and our children are sheltered from contact with card-carrying apikorsim posing theological riddles. But each of us has his personal yetzer hara, always ready to play the role of internal apikoros. We should have a solid grounding in known answers before the predictable questions come up in thought.

2 years 2 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein,

You replied: “WE do have answers. In most cases, they are available only through personal contact with people who have developed them. There is a good reason for this. The people with serious intellectual issues are still in the minority in our communities – both MO and haredi. Discussion of problematic areas in public runs the risk of ensnaring people in questions that they would not have had to wrestle with, had they not discovered them in some public forum. We are reluctant, therefore, to publish on these areas, and prefer that the discussions be limited to those who need to involve themselves in them, with the proper guidance.”

In my humble opinion, this approach is a recipe for disaster. Are we going to not address issues because they may cause some to ask questions? We have answers! Let us be proactive! Let us shout from the rooftops our beautiful Mesorah, and we can then “Ba’vorn” the potential questions and their answers. (Incidentally, see Rav Gordimer’s response to a similar question from me on his recent post. Simple. Elegant. Positive. Mission accomplished.)

By relegating questions to Emunah to private meetings, students, young and old alike will be terrified to even ask! They will be branded as Kofrim or K’tanei Emunah – nebachs. I can state this as near universal fact, as I have been involved in Chinuch for decades. Thus, the result will be that we have created a generation of Baalei Sfaikos instead of Baalei Emunah, a generation of agnostics, conscious or subconscious, who are ripe for the picking for Rabbi Farber or the like.

Furthermore, if a talmid is willing to ask the questions — who should he go to? In your prior reply to me, you bravely admitted that not all Rabbonim are qualified to cogently answer questions of Emunah. So where should the talmid with questions even go — if he is willing to do so? Do we assign a special secret door with a special knock to get in? Where is the access to this knowledge?

If anything positive can come of this travesty — the bizayon of the Ikar of Torah min shomayim and the necessary strong response to it by Rav Gordimer, it should be that we have to proactively teach what we believe and why, and why we reject as falsehoods other approaches or denials of TMS.

I will share an example: Most talmidim, young or old can tell you why they do not believe in Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, etc. They will tell you that it does not make sense to believe in a faith that was communicated to one person (or a small, small group). Maamad Har Sinai, however, was a mass revelation, hence their Emunah in Torah M’Sinai and Yahadus.

Why? Because at some point they attended a Discovery Seminar, Shmooze, or a parent, Rebbe/Morah shared this idea with them. It is commonplace in schools to teach this. It is simple and short. Obviously, it does not cover EVERYTHING. Obviously, one could spend hours if not days discussing it, BUT IT GIVES THEM A PILLAR TO RELY ON!

This has been successful. How often to we see Frum children converting to Catholicism or Mormon?

But we have a big problem with “conversion” to apathy and agnosticism. You may want to portray the Orthodox world as being mainly in-line with Ikarei Emunah, with steady, simple faith. I counter that this is fiction and folly. So many frum Jews have no idea why they do what they do, and have no ability “l’hoshiv l’apikorus”. If they are not already secretly skeptical, they are ripe for the picking from those who would love to expose them to other views.

Chazal’s admonition of “Dah Mah L’Hoshiv” is not for rare individuals. It is for everyone.

Are we going to take the lead and give our people the tools to fulfill divrei chazal, or are we going to keep these answers hidden in (treasure) chest?

With much respect and hope,


2 years 2 months ago

Is it really always obvious that people who try to propose new ways of looking at things are betraying our ancestors. Maybe they are trying to find ways that have meaning for them which make it easier to accept what they have learned from prior generations. In any event, the classic literature on ikarei hadas makes it clear that these problems are not new.Maybe this is just another form of asking with Yirmiyahu tzadik athah hashem ki ariv alecha. You remain right but I still want to understand.

Steve Brizel
2 years 2 months ago

Yisrael Asper commented in part:

“Pre-Sinaitic Halacha also is something we rule on and that means it can have an affect on our beliefs concerning those days.”

Look at how the Mfarshim differ on the contents of the Halachos that were given at Marah before Matan Torah. I think that clear reading of the classical Mfarshim would lead any careful reader to conclude that whatever the content of the Mitzvos given at Marah, the same can be easily analogized to a preview or trailer of a movie. Bris Milah and Gid HaNasheh, while commanded to Avraham Avinu and Yaakov Avinu, only became binding on all of Klal Yisrael after Matan Torah.