Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo publiceert regelmatig en neemt daarbij geen blad voor de mond.
In Memory of My Father, R. Yacov ben Naftali Lopes Cardozo z.l.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the great Jewish leaders and thinkers of modern times, asks us to take notice of a strange incident that occurred in the days of Moshe. After Moshe left Egypt with a multitude of people, his father-in-law, Yitro, criticized him for the way he was arbitrating disputes among the Israelites:
What are you doing to the people? Why are you sitting alone and letting all the people stand around you from morning until evening? And Moshe replied to his father-in-law: Because the people come to me to seek God. Whenever they have a problem, they come to me, and I judge between man and his neighbor, and I teach God’s decrees and laws. And Moshe's father-in-law said to him: What you are doing is not good. You are going to wear yourself out, along with this nation that is with you. (Shemot 18:14-18)
Yitro then suggested that Moshe reform the existing legal system so that only the major problems would be brought to his personal attention while minor disputes would be decided on by a large number of wise people who would assist him. “It will make things easier for you, and they will share the burden. Moshe took his father-in-law’s advice and did all that he said” (Ibid 18: 22, 24).
Rabbi Hirsch poses a very simple question: Could Moshe not have determined this on his own? Did he not realize that he was exhausting himself and it would not be long before he could no longer cope with the situation? One does not have to be a genius to recognize the problem. Moreover, Yitro's suggested solution is basically a simple one and does not require any extensive judicial knowledge. So why did Moshe, who possessed great wisdom, not think of this himself?
Before studying Rabbi Hirsch's comment we would like to pose another question. We are informed that at the end of Moshe’s life "His eyes had not dimmed and his vigor was unabated" (Devarim 34:7). His physical strength was beyond average, and indeed we do not see that Moshe ever got tired (except in the case of the Jews fighting Amalek, when his hands did become heavy (Shemot 17:12). It is therefore strange that Moshe suddenly felt weary while judging the people. We would not have been surprised to read that Moshe told his father-in-law not to worry, since he was untroubled by fatigue and he could easily handle all those who came to see him.
Moshe, however, made no such claims. Instead, he seemed most eager to implement Yitro’s suggestion. We must therefore conclude that he did indeed feel extremely tired!
Our question, then, is obvious. Why did he suddenly feel weary? Would the man who was without food and water for forty days at the top of Mount Sinai not have been able to sit from early morning until late at night to judge the people without exhausting himself? Why did God suddenly deny him his usual though unprecedented strength?
All this aside, we would suggest that God had good reason to ensure that Moshe actually maintained his strength. As the great leader and teacher of Torah, Moshe desperately needed to stay in contact with all of his people. The best way to accomplish this would be by guaranteeing that he would see them on a regular basis. Once he would no longer encounter all of them, they would become spiritually distanced from him, and he would be unable to teach them in the manner to which he was accustomed. (Indeed, this seems to have happened after he implemented Yitro's advice!) So what were God's motives in causing Moshe to suddenly feel tired?
We may now refer to Rabbi Hirsch's observation:
Nothing is as instructive to us as this information regarding the first legal institution of the Jewish State, coming immediately before the chapter of the Law-giving. So little was Moshe in himself a legislative genius, he had so little talent for organizing that he had to learn the first elements of state organization from his father-in-law. The man who tired himself out to utter exhaustion and to whom of himself did not occur to arrange this or some other simple solution, equally beneficial to himself and his people, the man to whom it was necessary to have a Yitro to suggest this obvious device, that man could never have given a constitution and Laws out of his own head, that man was only and indeed just because of this the best and the most faithful instrument of God. (The Pentateuch, translation and commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch, rendered into English by Isaac Levy (Gateshead: Judaica Press, Ltd., 1989).
In other words, Moshe, in spite of his immeasurable talents and abilities, lacked basic insight into how to administer proper judicial process. God denied him this insight to prove to later generations that he could never have been a lawgiver and that the laws of the Torah were not the result of his superior mind.
I would like to suggest a second reason. God denied Moshe his usual strength so as to allow a non-Jew to come forward and give him advice! The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, known as Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743), indeed alludes to this when he writes that the very reason why God caused Yitro to come and visit the camp of the Israelites was to teach the Jewish people that although the Torah is the all-encompassing repository of wisdom, gentiles, while not obligated to observe all its laws, are fundamental to its success and application. There are areas in which Jews do not excel and where non-Jews are much more gifted. One such area seems to be judicial administration skills. (Shemot 18:21)
Judaism has never been afraid to admit that the gentile world incorporates much wisdom and insight. While Jews have to be a nation apart, this does not exclude its need to look beyond its own borders and benefit from the wisdom of outsiders.
“The gentile world may not possess Torah, but it definitely does possess wisdom.” (Eichah Rabati 2:17)
It is this message that God sent to His people only a short while after He had delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians. Due to their experience in the land of their slavery, they had developed such animosity for anything gentile that they became utterly convinced that mankind at large was anti-Semitic. God immediately crushed that thought and sent them a righteous gentile by the name of Yitro, to impress upon them that the non-Jewish world includes remarkable people who not only possess much wisdom but actually love the people of Israel and contribute to Jewish life.
Moshe's sudden weariness and God's decision to deny him his usual strength is therefore highly informative. The Jew may begin to believe that he is self-sufficient and can do it all alone. This attitude, rooted in his conviction that all gentiles are anti-Semitic and therefore not to be relied upon, could lead not only to total isolation but also to an air of Jewish arrogance contrary to God's will. By allowing Moshe to become exhausted, God made sure that he would indeed require the knowledge from someone else.
At the same time, it kept Moshe humble.
By designating Yitro to be the father-in-law of the most holy Jew of all times, God made it crystal clear that He would not tolerate any racism and that even a righteous gentile could climb up to the highest ranks of saintliness. Only after that message was sent were the Jews ready to enter the land and begin their life as an independent nation.
Based on an introduction to a discussion between Professor William Kolbrener and Professor Elliott Malamet (1). Honoring the publication of Professor William Kolbrener’s new book “The Last Rabbi” (2) Yad Harav Nissim, Jerusalem, on Feb. 1, 2017
I never had the privilege of meeting Rav Soloveitchik z”l or learning under him. But I believe I have read all of his books on Jewish philosophy and Halacha, and even some of his Talmudic novellae and halachic decisions. I have also spoken with many of his students.
Here are my impressions.
No doubt Rav Soloveitchik was a Gadol Ha-dor (a great sage of his generation). He was a supreme Talmudist and certainly one of the greatest religious thinkers of our time.
His literary output is incredible.
Still, I believe that he was not a mechadesh – a man whose novel ideas really moved the Jewish tradition forward, especially regarding Halacha. He did not solve major halachic problems.
This may sound strange, because almost no one has written as many novel ideas about Halacha as Rav Soloveitchik (3). His masterpiece, Halakhic Man, is perhaps the prime example.
Before Rav Soloveitchik appeared on the scene, nobody – surely not in mainstream Orthodoxy – had seriously dealt with the ideology and philosophy of Halacha (4).
In fact, the reverse is true. While many were writing about Jewish philosophy, the Bible, the prophets, and universalism, no one touched the topic of Halacha and its weltanschauung.
Halacha was ignored as an ideology, and the impression is that most Orthodox scholars were embarrassed by the strange and incomprehensible world of halachic thought and argument, and chose to disregard it. Its highly unusual way of thinking, its emphasis on the most subtle details – often comprised of farfetched arguments, hairsplitting dialectics and casuistry – made it something that no one wanted to approach and it was consequently a non-starter.
I once argued that Halacha is the art of making a problem out of every solution. Its obsessive need to create obstacles where no difficulties exist is well known to all Talmudists. Its constant fixation with creating life-and-death situations out of the grossest trivialities is typical.
Rav Soloveitchik, however, saw the need to deal with this problem head-on and undertook the extremely difficult task. For him, Halacha was the supreme will of God, and behind its strange disposition lay a fascinating and highly original world that needed to be revealed in a society that increasingly tried to undo it. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, there was no greater and more sophisticated ideology than the world of Halacha.
Single-handedly, he turned the tide and made Halacha the center of philosophical discussion. Not even Rambam, the greatest of all halachists, had done anything like that.
His classic work, Halakhic Man, is highly sophisticated and full of deep insights using general philosophy, psychology and epistemology, which place the philosophy and theology of Halacha not only on the map but at the center of all discussion concerning Judaism. No doubt it took time before this essay had any impact. It was first published in Hebrew in 1944, as Ish ha-Halakhah, in the journal Talpiot (5). When it appeared in English in 1983, as Lawrence Kaplan’s translation Halakhic Man (6), it slowly became the object of serious debate and contemplation.
It may be argued that Halakhic Man forced the Conservative, Reform, and even Reconstructionist movements to give much more attention to Halacha, which grew to be the norm to the extent that general Jewish philosophy almost became of secondary importance. For Rav Soloveitchik, Jewish theology had to be an outgrowth and expression of the normative halachic system. A great example of this would be his teshuva drashot (sermons) where the laws of teshuva and the lamdanut (Talmudic analytic learning) of tzvei dinim become the basis of two dinim and concepts in Jewish philosophy (7).
And here is where we encounter one of the greatest and most tragic paradoxes in Rav Soloveitchik’s legacy.
In complete contradiction to his philosophy of Halacha, Rav Soloveitchik did not move Halacha forward in areas that most urgently needed it. He did not innovate a new, practical halachic approach to major problems confronting the larger Jewish community. While brilliantly explaining what Halacha essentially is, he made no practical breakthroughs (8).
This is true about issues such as the status of women in Jewish law (with the exception of women learning Talmud) (9); the aguna; the mamzer problem; the application of Halacha in the State of Israel; and similar crucial halachic issues. In that sense he was not at all a mechadesh but rather a conservative halachist.
He did, however, stand out as a highly gifted exponent of the ideology of Judaism and Halacha. He had no equal – perhaps with the exception of the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his work God in Search of Man, Rabbi Heschel laid out a theology of Judaism and Halacha, which, while dramatically different from Rav Soloveitchik’s, was also a tour de force explaining what Halacha is really all about (10).
When it came to Talmudic learning, Rav Soloveitchik was an old-fashioned Rosh Yeshiva (in Yeshiva University), whose brilliance was not different from that of my own Roshei Yeshiva in Gateshead, England, and later in Yerushalayim’s Mirrer Yeshiva. He was the proponent of the Brisker method of Talmudic learning, which is widespread in many of today’s yeshivot, and from which I personally have greatly benefited, although I doubt its real value.
Rabbi David Hartman, in his book The God who Hates Lies, rightly criticizes Rav Soloveitchik for his refusal to find a way to allow a kohein to marry a giyoret (convert) (11). While Rabbi Hartman uses purely ethical reasons to oppose the negative response of Rav Soloveitchik, it was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z”l, the most important halachic authority in America in those days, who often found halachically permissible ways to allow these people to marry (12). This no doubt must have been known to Rav Soloveitchik, and I am utterly astonished that he did not discuss it with or take advice from Rabbi Feinstein. It’s even more mind-boggling when one takes into account that Rav Soloveitchik did not see himself as a posek (halachic authority and decisor) but only as a melamed (teacher).
Rav Soloveitchik’s famous argument with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman – renowned Talmudic scholar and thinker, later to become Dean of Bar-Ilan University – is another example of the former’s sometimes extreme halachic conservatism. In several places, the Talmud introduces a rule that states: Tav Lemeitav tan du mi-lemeitav armelu – It is better to live as two than to live alone (13), which refers to the fact that a woman would prefer to marry almost any man rather than remain alone.
Rav Soloveitchik sees this as a “permanent ontological principle,” which is beyond historical conditions, and that even in our day needs to be applied and cannot be changed. This principle operates under the assumption that even today’s women prefer to stay in a marriage, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances may be. To be alone is worse. This means that a woman cannot claim that had she known what kind of person her husband is, she never would have married him. If she could make this claim, her marriage would be a “mistaken marriage,” which would not even require a get (bill of divorce), since the marriage took place on a false premise and the woman would never have agreed to it had she known. In that case, she was never considered lawfully married and could leave her partner without receiving a get. Since this obviously has enormous repercussions for today’s society, it could help thousands of women (14). Rav Soloveitchik was not prepared to take that approach and thus blocked the possibility for many of them to leave their partners without a get.
Rabbi Rackman (15), who had the greatest respect for Rav Soloveitchik, strongly disagreed and claimed that a Talmudic presumption such as this depends on historical circumstances, as in the days of the Talmud when women had no option to live a normal life if they were not married. They were often abused and would suffer extreme poverty and other misfortunes. Understandably, women in those days would prefer to remain married; but none of this is true in modern times when women have great freedom and are able to take care of themselves, both financially and physically. If so, there would be good reason for a woman to claim that had she known her husband’s true nature, she would never have married him and she would be able to leave her husband without the need for a get.
There is little doubt that Rabbi Rackman was right in this matter. Interestingly, he noted that Rav Soloveitchik told him: “Rackman, you may be right and I may be wrong. You view the Halacha historically and I like to view it meta-historically” (16) I have heard statements from other students that Rav Soloveitchik admitted this. Even stranger is the fact that, like all his predecessors, Rav Soloveitchik considered Rambam the ultimate halachic authority and defended him whenever possible. Professor Menachem Kellner points out that Rambam viewed Halacha in a historical context and clearly not in an ontological one (17)! So one wonders why Rav Soloveitchik didn’t follow in Rambam’s footsteps and agree ab initio with Rabbi Rackman; unless one argues that Rav Solovietchik didn’t follow Rambam’s philosophical approach to Halacha.
This observation is astonishing. If Rav Soloveichik was not even sure himself, and all evidence was against him, he could have singlehandedly liberated many women. No doubt he must have been worried that such a ruling might be misused. But this is an extremely weak justification for his conservatism, considering the immense suffering of so many women whose husbands refused to grant them a get. He could have made a major contribution in this field had he accepted Rabbi Rackman’s compelling argument (18).
It is even more perplexing when we compare Rav Soloveitchik’s highly conservative stand with other great halachists of his day, such as Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the most famous student of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, author of the responsa Seridei Eish and one of the greatest halachic luminaries of the post-Holocaust era. Rabbi Berkovits was of the opinion that with the establishment of the State of Israel, and the radical changes that had taken place among modern-day Jewry, there was a need to liberate Halacha from its exile status. According to Rabbi Berkovits, the unfortunate conditions under which the Jews had lived for nearly 2,000 years created a “defensive halacha,” which now had to be liberated. It had been in waiting mode and now had to return to its natural habitat. In his important work HaHalacha: Kochah VeTafkidah, Rabbi Berkovitz shows how we can solve many serious problems related to the status of women, agunot, mamzerim, conversion, and even the shemitta year with its enormous burden on modern Israeli society and its often inconsistent and paradoxical application (19).
In many ways he reminds us of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) who, as a first-class halachist, also realized these new conditions and, in his responsa Malki BaKodesh (20), suggested new approaches that would solve many problems.
It was especially in the Sephardic world that two outstanding halachic luminaries – Chacham Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine from 1939-1948, and of Israel from 1948-1953; and Rabbi Yosef Mashash (1892-1974), rabbi of the city of Tlemcen in Algeria and, later, Chief Rabbi of Haifa – demonstrated ways to overcome halachic problems. Their courage is mind-boggling and proves what can be done when one has an approach to Orthodox Halacha that in so many ways is completely at odds with that of Rav Soloveitchik and other traditional Ashkenazic halachists (21).
Most remarkable are the observations of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he was asked to give his opinion about Rav Solovietchik’s book Halakhic Man. According to his students, he said the following:
“Ish Ha-Halakha [Halakhic Man]? Lo hayah velo nivra ela mashal hayah [There never was such a Jew]! Soloveitchik’s study, though brilliant, is based on the false notion that Judaism is a cold, logical affair with no room for piety. After all, the Torah does say, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might.’ No, there never was such a typology in Judaism as the halakhic man. There was—and is—an Ish Torah [a Torah man], who combines Halakhah and Aggadah, but that is another matter altogether” (22).
While I wonder if these are the exact words of Rabbi Heschel – since there are, after all, some emotional and not only logical dimensions to Halakhic Man – it cannot be denied that this work depicts an image of an ideal halachic human being who in many ways lives a mathematical and almost stony life, although various parts of the book paint different if not contradictory images. The book is definitely poetic.
It is interesting to note Rav Soloveitchik’s observations concerning Heschel’s famous book The Sabbath (23). After praising it, he said: “What does he [Heschel] call Shabbat? – A sanctuary in time. This is an idea of a poet. It’s a lovely idea. But what is Shabbat? Shabbat is lamed tet melachot, it is the thirty-nine categories of work and their toladot, and it is out of that Halacha and not of poetry that you have to construct a theory of Shabbat” (24). These are remarkable words, because Rav Soloveitchik was constantly trying to lift the “harsh” Halacha out of its own confines and give it a poetic, perhaps even romantic dimension.
The earlier-mentioned poskim thought out of the box when it came to Halacha, and introduced creative and new halachic approaches to major problems. With few exceptions, we see little of that in Rav Soloveitchik’s methodology.
It seems that he did not realize, or did not want to accept, that Halacha had become defensive and was waiting to be liberated from its exile and confinement.
In many ways, this is an extraordinary tragedy. With his exceptional standing in the Modern Orthodox halachic community, Rav Soloveitchik could have made breakthroughs that would have given Orthodoxy – especially Modern Orthodoxy – much more exposure and influence in the Jewish world and would probably have been a major force against the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism, of which he was so afraid. In many ways, Modern Orthodoxy was unable to develop naturally, because it had become too dependent on Rav Soloveitchik’s conservative halachic approach.
Exactly where Rav Soloveitchik put Halacha on the map, in all its grandeur (without denying its possible shortcomings), and transformed it into the most dominant topic of discussion on Judaism, there is where he seems to have been afraid of his own thoughts and withdrew behind its conventional walls. Had he taken the road of Rabbis Berkovits, Hirschensohn, Uziel, Mashash and others, Orthodoxy would have become a driving force in contemporary Judaism, able to show the way and lead all other denominations.
It seems to me that the above-mentioned rabbis were talmidei chachamim no less than Rav Soloveitchik was. Their disadvantages were that they didn’t occupy a central role in Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva University circles, and above all they didn’t belong to renowned Ashkenazic rabbinical families. Had they been called Soloveitchik, their Torah would have received far more attention and would probably have been much more effective.
Finally, I am deeply disturbed by the almost unhealthy obsession with Rav Soloveitchik within Modern Orthodox circles. It borders on avodah zarah and has almost transformed into a cult, something he would not have liked. In all my years in the Chareidi Gateshead and Mirrer Yeshivot, I never saw such exaggerated admiration for our great Roshei Yeshiva.
There is, however, a very good reason for this. Modern Orthodoxy has always been insecure with its own philosophy and halachic approach. Over the years, it has looked over its shoulder to see what the Chareidi community had to say. As a result, it hid behind Rav Soloveitchik, the only figure who equaled the Chareidi Talmudists in their level of Talmudic learning; and only he could protect them against the onslaught of the Chareidi community.
What Modern Orthodoxy did not realize is that Rav Soloveitchik himself was a Chareidi, who combined that ideology with religious Zionism and tried very hard to give it a place in the world of philosophy and modernity. He therefore wavered and showed signs of a troubled man who was unable to overcome the enormous tension between these two worlds and turned into a “lonely man of faith,” with no disciples but with many students, each one of whom claimed their own Rav Soloveitchik. The truth is that the real Rav Soloveitchik was more than the sum total of all of them – a man of supreme greatness who was a tragic figure. May his memory be a blessing.
* With thanks to Yehuda DovBehr Zirkind and Channa Shapiro.
(1) We hope to publicize a video of this event in the near future.
(2) William Kolbrener, The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016). While there have been many books and articles on Rav Soloveitchik’s life and thought, Professor Kolbrener’s book is groundbreaking and entirely novel. It offers a much richer, yet more complicated reading of his life and thoughts. It can be purchased here.
(3) See, however, notes 10 and 19.
(4) See: David Singer and Moshe Sokol, “Joseph Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith,” in Modern Judaism 2, 3 (1982) pp. 232-239. For an Introduction to Halakhic Man, See: David Shatz, “A Framework for Reading Ish ha-Halakhah,” in Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature: Presented to Dr. Bernard Lander, ed. Michael A. Shmidman (New York: Touro College Press, 2008) vol. 2, pp. 171-231.
(5) Vol. 1, nos. 3-4 (New York, 1944) pp. 651-735.
(6) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983.
(7) “Two dinim” is a term that is widespread in the lexicon of the yeshiva world. It refers to a method of Talmudic analysis whereby a Talmudic law or concept is divided into two constituent elements. One common example is the distinction between gavra and cheftza (subject and object). This method is the hallmark of the Brisker approach to Talmudic study, championed by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, Lithuania (1853-1918), the grandfather of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. For an analysis of the Brisker method, see: Norman Solomon, The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and His Circle (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993); Yosef Blau, ed., Lomdus: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning, The Orthodox Forum Series (Newark, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2006).
(8) For an evaluation (perhaps one-sided) of Rav Soloveitchik as a posek, see: Walter S. Wurzburger, “Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy,” in Tradition vol. 29, no. 1 (Fall 1994) pp. 5-20. We see a similar phenomenon in the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, where he suggests the most novel ideas about Halacha but refuses to use them in his responsa.
(9) Ibid. – for a few more unusual decisions by Rabbi Soloveitchik.
(10) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955) chs. 22-33. The other person who proposed a philosophy of Halacha was Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in God, Man and History: A Jewish Interpretation (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1959) Part 2.
(11) David Hartman (with Charlie Buckholtz), “Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong? The Mistaken Halakhic Presumptions of Rabbi Soloveitchik” in The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011) ch. 5, pp. 131-157.
(12) Rabbi Feinstein was of the opinion that if a family of kohanim was no longer observant and was assimilated, their claim to be kohanim could not be relied upon. I received this information by personal correspondence from one of his students. See his Igrot Moshe, Even Ha’ezer, vol. 4, nos. 12, 39. See also: Rabbi Mordechai Tendler (grandson of Rabbi Feinstein), Masoret Moshe: Hanhagot HaGaon Harav Moshe Feinstein (Jerusalem 5773) p. 396.
(13) See, for example: Talmud Bavli: Ketubot 75a; Yevamot 118b; Kiddushin 7a and 41a; Bava Kama 111a.
(14) For Rav Soloveitchik’s view on this matter, see the transcript of his talk delivered at the RCA convention in 1975, published as “Surrendering to the Almighty,” in Light, no. 116 (17 Kislev 5736) pp. 13-14. A full transcript of this lecture, “Talmud Torah and Kabalas Ol Malchus Shamayim” is accessible online. Remarkable is the fact that some assumptions of the Talmud were definitely lifted in later days. See for example the assumption that a woman would not be so bold as to declare in front of her husband that he had divorced her unless it was in fact true. But Rabbi Moshe Isserles, quoting others, states that nowadays this is no longer true and most of the time can’t be relied on!! (Rema, Even HaEzer 17:2) See, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Slifkin, The Rav and the Immutability of Halacha in, Rationalist Judaism, 11.7.2011.
For a comprehensive analysis of this complicated issue, see: Aliza Bazak, “The ‘Tav Lemeitav’ Presumption in Modern Halakhic Discourse,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Bar-Ilan University, 2012; Moshe Be’eri, “Is the Presumption of ‘Tav Lemeitav Tan Du’ Subject to Change?” [Hebrew] in Techumin vol. 28 (2008) pp. 63-68; Aviad Hacohen, The Tears of the Oppressed – An Examination of the Agunah Problem: Background and Halakhic Sources (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2004) chs. 6-8; Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, “’Tav Lemeitav Tan Du Mi-Lemeitav Armalu’: An Analysis of the Presumption,” in The Edah Journal 4:1, 2004, Iyar 5764, 1-24; Susan Aranoff, “Two Views of Marriage—Two Views of Women: Reconsidering ‘Tav Lemetav Tan du Milemetav Armelu,’” in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, no. 3, Spring/Summer 5760/2000, pp. 199-227; J.D. Bleich, “’Kiddushei Ta’ut’: Annulment as a Solution to the Agunah Problem,” Tradition–A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 33 (1), 1998, pp. 102-108. Many more articles in Hebrew have been written on this topic.
(15) Emanuel Rackman, Modern Halakhah for Our Time (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1995) pp. 71-73; Rackman, “From Status to Contract to Status: Historical and Meta-Historical Approaches” [Hebrew], in Marriage, Liberty and Equality: Shall the Three Walk Together, Tova Cohen, ed. (Bar-Ilan University, 2000) pp. 97-100; Rackman, “The Problems of the Jewish Woman in this Generation and the Ways to Solve Them” [Hebrew], in HaPeninah – Sefer Zikaron le-Peninah Refel (Jerusalem: Bnei Chemed, 1989) pp. 187-188. For a comprehensive treatment of Rabbi Rackman’s disagreement with Rabbi Soloveitchik, see: David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy,” in Modern Judaism, vol. 28, no. 2 (May 2008) pp. 134-148; Lawrence Kaplan, “From Cooperation to Conflict: Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy,” in Modern Judaism, vol. 30, no. 1, (February 2010) pp. 46-48.
(16) Emanuel Rackman, “Soloveitchik: On Differing with My Rebbe,” in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, 15/289, (March 1985), p. 65.
(17) Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, (Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007) Afterword: “Contemporary Resistance to the Maimonidean Reform,” pp. 286-296.
(18) See also: Emanuel Rackman, One Man’s Judaism (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2000) and Modern Halakhah for Our Time (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1995).
(19) Eliezer Berkovits, HaHalacha: Kochah VeTafkidah (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1981) A shortened version in English – Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha (New York: Ktav Pub., 1983).
(20) Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki BaKodesh, new edition of first two volumes (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University / Jerusalem: Shalom Hartman Institute, 2006, 2012). See also: David Zohar, “Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn – The Forgotten Sage Who Was Rediscovered,” in Conversations: The Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 1 (2008/5768), pp. 56-62; Ari Ackerman, “Judging the Sinner Favorably: R. Hayyim Hirschensohn on the Need for Leniency in Halakhic Decision-Making,” in Modern Judaism vol. 22, no. 3 (2002), pp. 261-280; Marc B. Shapiro’s review of Jewish Commitment in a Modern World: Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn and His Attitude to Modernity, by David Zohar, in The Edah Journal 5:1 (2005).
(21) On Chacham Ben-Zion Uziel, see: Marc D. Angel, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999); On Rav Joseph Mashash, see: Marc B. Shapiro, “Rabbi Joseph Messas,” in Conversations: The Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 7 (Spring 2010/5770), pp. 95-102.
(22) For all of Rabbi Heschel’s observations, see: Samuel H. Dresner, ed., Heschel, Hasidism, and Halakha (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002) pp. 102-104.
(23) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).
(24) See: Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, “A Hesped in Honor of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik,” in Memories of a Giant: Eulogies in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, ed. by Michael A. Bierman (Jerusalem/New York: Urim Publications, 2003) pp. 286-287. It is interesting to note, however, that in a very illuminating and telling statement, Rav Soloveitchik admitted that during his youth he experienced feelings of discontent toward the dry and rigid halacha-ism of his father and grandfather. “The rebellious son asks: Is it always necessary to live in accordance with Halacha, which appears to him to be dry and lacking emotion? Is it not possible for Judaism to contain more kindness and mercy, delicacy and beauty? Is it necessary for Shabbat to be expressed only through [the laws contained in the chapters of Tractate Shabbat] Ba-meh Madlikin and Klal Gadol?” (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Yemei Zikaron [Jerusalem: Elinor Library, 1986] p. 104).
As the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and some of our halachic authorities seem to have taken a path that results in causing people great pain (1), thereby making Judaism repulsive in the eyes of millions of Israelis and Jews around the world, it may be worthwhile for them to take notice of a remarkable observation made by our Talmudic Sages.
The Talmud discusses the identity of a Gavra Rabba, an exceptionally great person or Torah Sage. It quotes a most remarkable observation made by the well-known Sage Rava, who states:
“How foolish are some people who stand up [out of respect] for a Sefer Torah but do not stand up for a Gavra Rabba” (Makkot 22b).
When asked what is so exceptionally great about these men, Rava ignores their astonishingly vast knowledge of Torah, and even their outstanding ethical and religious qualities. Instead, he notes their power and courage to change the obvious and literal meaning of a commandment as mentioned in the Torah. This is, to say the least, most remarkable!
The example that Rava gives is very telling:
While the Torah commands the Beit Din (Jewish court) to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses (Devarim 25: 2-3), the Sages reduced them to 39 (2). This courage, says Rava, to change the literal meaning of the text, is what made them into extraordinarily great people. They recognized the authority vested in them to interpret the biblical text in accordance with the spirit of the Oral Torah. This authority gave them the right, even the obligation, to change the literal meaning of certain biblical texts if it became clear that a deeper reading, as well as the spirit of these texts called for such a move. In our case, they concluded that the number 40 could not to be taken literally and should therefore be reduced to 39.
For this reason, Rava maintains that these Sages should be respected even more than the actual Sefer Torah, the biblical text. After all, the text is only the frozen aspect or outer garment of the living organism, the essential Torah. It is only in the Oral Torah as explained by the Sages that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent (See Thoughts to Ponder 514).
Still, this cannot be the full meaning of Rava’s statement. If the power of the Sages is revealed in their willingness to change the meaning of a text (such as in the case of the number 39 instead of 40), one should ask the following: Why didn’t Rava quote the first case ever mentioned in the Torah, concerning which the Sages changed the specific biblical number to a smaller one, and use that to prove that they are great people?
It is well known that earlier, in the Book of Vayikra (23:16; Torat Kohanim ad loc. 7), the Sages changed the number 50 to 49. This was in the case of the Omer period, during which the Torah requires counting a full 50 days between the first day of Pesach and the festival of Shavuot, which would then fall on the 51st day. After carefully studying the text, the Sages reduced the number of these days to 49 and stated that the 50th day, not the 51st, should be Shavuot.
It is remarkable that Rava didn’t bring this case to point out that their willingness and courage to reduce the number of days earned them the title of Gavra Rabba. This is especially surprising because the Talmud always brings proof for a specific teaching from the earliest biblical source possible, never a later one. In our case, however, the proof of the Sages’ courage is learned from a verse mentioned in Devarim, toward the end of the Torah! This is perplexing. Why didn’t Rava use the earlier verse, in Vayikra?
The answer is obvious. Changing the meaning of the biblical text, or reducing a number, is not enough for a Sage to warrant the title of Gavra Rabba. It may show great courage, but it does not reflect the essential component of an exceptionally great person and Torah Sage.
One becomes a Gavra Rabba when one discovers a way, by hook or by crook, to reduce the pain of fellow human beings! When a Sage finds the means, through biblical interpretation, to mitigate the legal punishment of another human being, only then can we speak of a Gavra Rabba, an extraordinarily great person. This is especially remarkable when the person being punished is not a righteous man but a sinner, or a criminal, who deserves lashes!
In our case of 40 lashes prescribed by the Torah when certain offenses have been committed, it is an act of mercy to find ways to reduce the offender’s sentence and administer only 39. Such initiative and courage shows absolute moral greatness.
But in the case of reducing 50 days to 49, so as to make Shavuot fall one day earlier, there is no alleviation of human pain, so neither the Talmud nor Rava characterizes the Sage in question as a Gavra Rabba, however brilliant he may be (3).
The message is clear: Only when making a sincere effort to reduce the pain of one’s fellow human beings can one be called a great person!
Chief Rabbis, as well as other halachic authorities who do not apply this approach, are not only inadequate religious leaders, but they also become an obstacle to Judaism and should step down. Allowing them to maintain their authority is a sheer disgrace.
(1) A few examples: 1) Get Zikui; 2) forbidding a man to serve in the capacity of chazzan if he owns a Smartphone; 3) rejecting conversions by prominent Orthodox Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and undermining an Orthodox conversion by New York’s Rabbi Haskel Lookstein; 4) not allowing religious girls to do national service; 5) not allowing women to don tallit and tefillin or read from the Torah at the Kotel
(2) Makkot 22a. In earlier days, Jewish Law would sometimes demand physical lashes under very specific circumstances, but only if offenders would be able to endure them without risking their life or health. It therefore could have happened that the court would administer only a few lashes, since more would have created a health problem. Tormenting anyone, even a criminal, is absolutely prohibited.
(3) This idea is based on an oral teaching that was transmitted to me in the name of one of the pre-Holocaust Chassidic leaders whom I’ve been unable to identify.
In Memory of My Mother, Bertha Lopes Cardozo-Terwee, z”l,7 Iyar 5678-27 Tevet 5767 / 19.4.1918-16.1.2007
“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” - G.K. Chesterton
Jewish Tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being”, consists of the Hebrew letters: Yud, Heh, Vav, and Heh. According to the Sages, the name reflects the various dimensions of “being” related to time: past, present and future. As such, God figures as the One Who lives in these three dimensions and exists simultaneously in all three. This actually makes them one and the same, which means that God is completely beyond time while paradoxically existing in the confines of time. And that is why human beings are not allowed to pronounce this name, for if they were to do so, they would give the impression that they actually understand the unfathomable concept that God lives simultaneously in the past, present, future, and beyond (the only person who was allowed to pronounce God’s full name was the High Priest on Yom Kippur in the Holiest Holies, the single place where time did not seem to play a part [Kiddushin 71a; Yoma 39b]). That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying. God is incomprehensible and beyond all description (See: Yoma 69b; Rabbi E.E. Dessler, Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 3, p. 315). He can only be addressed; His being cannot be expressed (Donald J. Moore, Martin Buber: Prophet of Religious Secularism [Fordham University Press, 1996] p. 134).
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this in his famous work Elima Rabati:
“When your intellect conceives of God…do not permit yourself to imagine that there is a God as depicted by you. For if you do this, you will have a finite and corporeal conception of God, God forbid. Instead, your mind should dwell only on the affirmation of God’s existence, and then it should recoil. To do more than this is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is in Himself and such reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore, put reins on your intellect and do not allow it too great a freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny your intellect the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect” (1:10, 4b).
Introducing God is one of the most difficult things to do. It is like presenting a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Still, God is the most captivating figure in human history and His track record is most unusual. His deeds are unprecedented, yet very disturbing. He is to be loved, but often irritates. He transcends human limitation, but He gets angry and downright emotional. He is beyond criticism, yet He is judged by the strictest criteria of justice. Religious people believe that He is the only One Who really has it all together and knows what He is doing. But others are convinced that He is absent-minded, allows matters to get out of hand, and causes unnecessary pain to some of His creations.
Nobody has ever been the cause of so much controversy, deafening silence, and admiration. And no one is so conspicuous even while using an ingenious hideout called the universe. Though He is the great mystery in our lives, some people have a relationship with Him as if He is their best friend, one with whom they can converse and to whom they can complain. He is the personal psychologist of millions, but is ultimately blamed for anything that goes wrong. Others deny His existence because of the many inconsistencies in His behavior; and then there are those who believe in Him but, out of anger or frustration, refuse to speak to Him. In the words of famous novelist and poet Miguel de Cervantes, “Man appoints, and God disappoints” (The History of the Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote of La Mancha, vol. 5, translated from Spanish by Peter Anthony Motteux (London: Hurst, Robinson, and Co., 1822) p. 137).
Who is this strange figure called God?
The main thing to realize is that the term God is used arbitrarily. It often stands for completely opposing entities used by religious and quasi-religious ideologies. All of them agree that “God” affirms some absolute reality as the ultimate. But they fundamentally disagree as to what that reality entails. For Benedictus Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher and supreme Jewish rebel, and for other pantheistic thinkers, He is really an “It,” a primal, impersonal force, identical with nature – some ineffable, immutable, impassive Divine substance that permanently pervades the universe, or is the universe. God is only immanent, not transcendent; a Divine spirit that has little practical meaning in a person’s day-to-day life.
Although this view is close to the kabbalistic idea of Ein Sof (the Endless and Boundless One) this is not identical to the Jewish perception of God. In the Jewish tradition, God is not an idea or just a blind force. God is the Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, Who is both immanent and transcendent, surpassing the universe, which is His creation. He has the disturbing habit of being everywhere and anywhere, and He is known to interfere with anything and everything. He is a living God, a dynamic power in the life and history of humanity, moving things around when He sees fit, smiling when He is pleased with the behavior of His creatures and annoyed when they have blundered yet again. But most important, while He does not fit into any category, He has – for lack of a better word – “personality,” and His own consciousness. Indeed, His essence cannot be expressed, but He can definitely be addressed.
No doubt this is the reason why religious Jews spend little time discussing God, to the extent that it appears they have expelled Him from their emotional and intellectual lives. This may explain their “obsessive” occupation with Halacha, His Law, since that is really the only way to draw close to Him. Their intense occupation with Halacha compensates for their inability to discuss His very Being. This, however, has led to great problems in Jewish education, because it has ignored the enormous need of searching young people to actually discuss basic issues concerning faith, theology and the meaning of life, on which the whole premise of Halacha stands or falls. Even prayer, which is the most direct way to address God, has by now been so “halacha-ized” that in many synagogues it is the laws concerning prayer that have taken precedence, often at the expense of realizing to Whom one is actually speaking! It was the Chassidic Movement – with its emphasis on the actual experience of prayer – that tried to respond to this acute problem. It is not surprising that this has led to some antinomian tendencies within the Chassidic movement (See: Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism, [Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003]).
This radical difference in the conception of God makes for an equally profound divergence in attitudes about all of life and the universe. While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies He has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of God. In Judaism, He is the source par excellence of all moral criteria, although He seems to violate some moral standards in the way He deals with people. Apparently, this is due to the fact that He needs to achieve certain goals with His creation that are only known to Him and remain unintelligible to humans. God’s perfection, then, is not that He is already perfect but that He strives for it. If He were to be perfect, He would lack the capacity to become perfect, which would be a terrible deficiency in His being. One is reminded of American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard’s famous observation: “Life is a paradox. Every truth has its counterpart which contradicts it; and every philosopher supplies the logic for his own undoing” (Elbert Hubbard’s Selected Writings: Part 9 [Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 1998] p. 408).
According to pantheism and the like, the world is eternal, with no beginning. As such, it has no intrinsic purpose, since purpose is the conscious motivation of a creator to bring something into existence. It therefore follows that in the pantheistic view human beings, too, have no ultimate purpose. They, like the universe, just are; so, moral behavior may have some utilitarian purpose but no ultimate one. For radical pantheists, acting morally is not the goal of humans; it is simply a means to their survival, a way to prevent pain and achieve happiness.
On a deeper level, some pantheists view the universe as an illusion – a flux of sensory deception, to be escaped. Made from a purely Divine substance, it cannot accommodate any physical reality and therefore can have no real meaning. In that case, neither can humans. Once their physical existence is branded as an illusion, they can no longer be of flesh and blood. Nor are their deeds of any real value. Since it is the body that enables people to act, and their body is part of the deception, it must follow that all human behavior belongs to the world of illusion.
It is this view that Judaism protests against. God is a conscious Being Who created the world with a purpose. This world is real and by no means a mirage. People’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion. While they may not be the primary goal of creation (see: Thoughts to Ponder 396: “God is too Great to be Justified” and Thoughts to Ponder 413: “Avraham and the Impossible God”), they are of enormous importance. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of people, which depersonalizes them and must ultimately lead to their demoralization. If people are part of an illusion, so are their feelings. Why, then, be concerned with a fellow human’s emotional and physical welfare?
Paradoxically, this pantheism infiltrated Western culture via the back door. When we are told by certain modern philosophers that a person is only physical and their body a scientific mechanism in which emotions are just a chemical inconvenience, we are confronted with pantheism turned on its head. While pantheism denies the physical side of existence, this scientific approach rejects the spiritual dimension of a human being. In both cases, emotions are seen as part of an illusion and are therefore of little importance.
Judaism, on the other hand, declares that emotions are what make a person; they are real and of crucial importance. In fact, emotions are central to a person’s existence, since they are the foundation of moral behavior. It is for this reason that Judaism views God as an emotional Being. By metaphorically attributing emotions to God, they are raised to a supreme state. If God has emotions such as love, mercy, jealousy and anger, then they must be genuine, important, and not ignored when found in humans.
While some philosophers considered such anthropomorphism as scandalous, the Jewish tradition took the risk of granting God emotions so as to uphold morality on its highest level and guarantee that it would not be tampered with. For the sake of humans, even God is prepared to compromise His complete Otherness, albeit not to the point where He would be regarded as a human being.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed to the danger in Western society where God has become insignificant. While the vast majority of people in the Western Hemisphere declare their belief in God, they seem to add two words to their declaration of faith: “I believe in God; so what?” In this way, the most radical encounter a person could ever have with the Master of the Universe is reduced to a senseless blur of charlatanism. It is to this that Judaism objects. Abraham Joshua Heschel put it very plainly: “God is of no importance unless He is of Supreme importance” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976] p. 92).
Or is He?
Sponsored Le-ilui Nishmatah shel HaZekenah Miriam Robles Lopes Cardozo, eshet HaRav Ha’Abir Neim Zemirot Yisrael Abraham Lopes Cardozo, by her daughters Judith Cardozo-Tenenbaum and Debbie Smith.
In the last few years, more and more books and essays written by well-respected Torah teachers have been condemned as heresy by some influential – mainly ultra-Orthodox – rabbinic authorities (1). This has done great harm to many young people who are looking to connect with authentic Judaism but become deeply disillusioned when they realize that some ultra-Orthodox, very learned rabbis seem to be unaware of science, modern philosophical thought, and other disciplines. These rabbis consequently condemn books that show how our holy Torah can easily relate to the latest developments in all these branches of knowledge. Yes, it sometimes needs creative and bold thinking, which was not exhibited by earlier generations, but this is exactly what is so beautiful about Judaism: its ability to adapt while in essence remaining unchanged.
It is a well-known fact that after Darwin’s death, his evolution theory became more and more popular, and many young Jews were attracted by his ideas and left the fold. In 1885, in the city of Kovno, there was a meeting of rabbis that included the famous geonim (Torah giants) Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector and Rabbi Alexander Moshe Lapidus. One prominent leader suggested that any Jew who studied Darwin’s works should be ostracized. Rabbis Spector and Lapidus strongly opposed the move on the grounds that “mayim genuvim yimtaku” (stolen waters are sweet) (2), and banning Darwin’s books would only make his theories more appealing (3).
Judaism has little interest in using thought control. Prior to the emancipation of the Jews, bans were sometimes used when the coherence of a Jewish community, living in gentile and often hostile surroundings, was at stake. Yielding to unity then was crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. The rabbis, however, were very reluctant to impose bans, knowing how harmful they would be for the so-called renegades and even for their families (4). But above all, they realized that such condemnations were for the most part counter-productive.
Religious condemnations today, by ban or other means, reflect negatively on those who issue them. They are symptoms of fear and lack of intellectual honesty. They indicate a refusal to conduct scholarly debate, and they display fundamentalism and dogmatism. Willfully or unintentionally, bans are identified with the Christian clerical authorities who condemned Galileo in the seventeenth century for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the universe. Bans have been enforced against demons, witches and other objects of superstition – hardly activities that rabbis would want to be identified with.
Should rabbis wish to send a message to their followers that they are not in agreement with the contents of certain books, they should first realize that bans and condemnations are not the road to take. It is no longer possible to contain censorship or denunciation solely within a certain social group. Once released, it travels to every corner of the world to be seen by all, Jews and gentiles. Most of the time, it elicits laughter and greatly embarrasses authentic Judaism. This is especially so when certain rabbis try to withhold scientific information from their followers, or want to hold on to ideas that the intellectual community and authentic Judaism have long since rejected as simplistic, outdated, and even incorrect.
No doubt, rabbis have a right to convey their displeasure, but they should do so through appropriate and convincing arguments, never through mind control (5).
Refuting arguments in your own study is easy when you have to answer only yourself. The art is to confront the adversary and see if your arguments really live up to the challenge. Instead of condemning a book or essay, meet with the author, ask them to explain their point of view and then try to refute their opinions. The first requirement, of course, is to actually read the book carefully from beginning to end. Reviewing or criticizing a book before having read it is highly problematic, unless the reader is afraid of being guilty of prejudice by reading it!
Furthermore, a truthful criticism should reflect great expertise. Recklessly condemning scientific or philosophical claims is a sign of great ignorance, even if some of these ideas may be open to debate. Such condemnations indicate the critics’ inability to suffer disagreement because they are unable to defend themselves. They reveal an incapability to handle opposing views. Pulling something apart is often the trade of those who cannot construct. As English writer Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Criticism is like champagne: nothing more execrable if bad, nothing more excellent if good” (6).
It is also a matter of decency not to condemn somebody’s views when they are, in essence, restating earlier and well-established sources quoted by great rabbinical authorities. One should have the courage to challenge the earlier sources and not attack those who rely on them and are more vulnerable. Yet lately, the latter has become the practice. This is dishonest. To hide behind false valor and take the easy way out shows great cowardice. Courage is the direct result of resisting and mastering fear; never is it a consequence of escaping fear.
Criticism should not be quarrelsome and destructive, but should rather be guiding, instructive and inspiring. Judaism has never feared dissent and debate but has in fact encouraged it. What, after all, is the benefit of condemnation if Judaism simultaneously loses its soul?
It is time to reestablish Judaism on its authentic foundations as a tradition of moral and intellectual heroism, one that encourages open-mindedness. We must never forget that “we owe almost all our knowledge not to those who have agreed but to those who have differed” (7).
Jews have greatly suffered from condemnations and inquisitions. The Talmud and its many commentaries have often been put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) of the Catholic Church. It has been condemned and burned but has outlived all its foes. Let us therefore be careful not to follow in the footsteps of the Church, which loved the truth so much that it was afraid of overexposure. Such attitudes have no place in the Jewish religious world of today. Truth will not be served by imposing bans and issuing condemnations, but only by honest investigation and dialogue. Today it is wrong to use a ban or open condemnation, even when one is right, let alone when one is definitely mistaken.
Judaism overcame many of its intellectual opponents because it showed courage. It is committed to the truth because it is convinced that the truth is represented by the holy Torah.
“The stones that critics hurl with harsh intent,
A man may use to build his monument” (8)
(1) Several years ago, the books of Rabbi Natan Slifkin were put under a religious ban by several rabbinic leaders in Israel and the USA. The rabbis claimed that his books on Torah and science include heretical views that contradict Jewish Tradition. This ban turned into a major desecration of God’s name (it hit the New York Times in 2005), greatly damaging the image of Judaism. Most disturbing is the fact that the condemnations hurled at Rabbi Slifkin were seemingly meant for earlier eminent rabbinic authorities who were the first to make these “heretical” observations. Apparently, the rabbis who condemned his book did not dare to challenge those earlier authorities and therefore attacked Rabbi Slifkin. This indicates unadulterated cowardice. In addition, several rabbis who signed the ban seemingly did not even read Rabbi Slifkin’s books but simply relied on hearsay. For a full overview of this awful and debasing story, in which some rabbis showed their true face, see: www.zootorah.com, the section headed “Books.”
(2) Mishlei (Proverbs) 9:17; Nedarim 91a.
(3) Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, (Jerusalem: Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991) p. 55.
There is a beautiful end to this story: “Then, [the famous sage, tzaddik and exponent of mussar] Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm enunciated an entirely different approach. How can anyone blame a man like Darwin for propounding his theories of evolution and descent from animals and lower forms of life? He kept the company of so many British lords who were only interested in waging war, people with little or no regard for the rights of their fellow beings…. ‘If Darwin had mingled with individuals like my mentor, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter,’ said Reb Simcha Zissel, ‘he could never have uttered such a ridiculous theory.’ Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv contended that the most effective way to counteract Darwinism and any teaching antithetical to the Torah is not to avoid them but to overcome them by inculcating moral and ethical values” (ibid). Obviously, we know today that Darwin’s theories are far from foolish. They have added much to our knowledge, though the discussion concerning his claims still continues. The venerable Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, mystic, philosopher and former Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, was of the opinion that evolution conforms to the teachings of Kabbalah. See for example: Orot Hakodesh, vol. 2, p. 537.
(4) See for example: Responsa of the Rosh 43.9 and Responsa Mahari Bruna, 189.
(5) It is well known that the “heretic” Uriel da Costa of Amsterdam (1585-1640), forerunner of Baruch Spinoza, was put under a ban several times by the leaders of the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam and consequently committed suicide. Concerning this most unfortunate and tragic case, the famous sage Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the Torah commentary “Torah Temimah,” made the following comment:
“This phenomenon, to our sadness, seems to repeat itself in every generation. Whenever people quarrel over matters related to ideology and faith, and a person discovers his more lenient opinion is in the minority, all too often—although his original view differed only slightly from the majority—the total rejection he experiences pushes him over the brink. Gradually, his views become more and more irrational and he becomes disgusted with his opponents, their Torah and their practices, forsaking them completely…. Instead of instructing him (da Costa) with love and patience and extricating him from his maze of doubts by showing him his mistake, they disparaged him. They pursued him with sanctions and excommunication, cursing him until he was eventually driven away completely from his people and his faith and ended his life in a most degrading way…” (Mekor Baruch, chap. 13:5.)
This surely also applies to the ban on Spinoza, which only harmed the Jewish tradition by turning it, in the eyes of millions, into an old-fashioned fanatical religion. The truth is that the ban was mainly motivated by fear on the part of the Portuguese Spanish Jewish community that it would be forced by the Dutch authorities to leave Amsterdam. On December 6, 2015, at a Conference on Spinoza organized by the University of Amsterdam and the Crescas Jewish Educational Center, I pleaded for the lifting of the ban. See the video of my lecture. To my regret, neither the rabbinate nor the lay-leaders of the Portuguese Spanish Community have acted on it. I consider this a huge and unforgivable mistake.
(6) C.C. Colton, Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words, Addressed to Those Who Think (New York: E. Kearny, 1820) p. 384.
(7) Idem, p. 379.
(8) Arthur Guiterman, A Poet’s Proverbs (E.P. Dutton & Company, 1924).