Am I Still Orthodox? Answer to a Jerusalem Rabbi

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 22 januari 2016

In memory of Dafna Meir who lost her life in a terrorist attack on Sunday, 7 Shevat 5776; January 17, 2015

Recently, a Jerusalem Rabbi challenged my suggestion to lift the ban on famous philosopher apostate Baruch Spinoza, which was pronounced by the rabbis and leaders of the Portuguese-Spanish Community in Amsterdam on July 27, 1656 (The Jerusalem Post Magazine, “Letters,” January 8, 2016).

I chose not to respond, but several of my readers have asked for clarification.

First, I must say that the rabbi reminds me of the man who was asked to review a book but decided not to read it since he didn’t want to be biased.

As Moshe Mordechai van Zuiden stated in his response (The Jerusalem Post Magazine, “Letters,” January 15, 2016), the rabbi completely ignored the reason I suggested removing the ban: A ban is an admission of weakness and, as such, is an insult to Judaism’s strength.

Once the city magistrates of 17-century Amsterdam had made it abundantly clear to the Portuguese-Spanish Jewish Community that it could settle in Amsterdam only on condition that no member would ever dare to challenge the belief in the biblical God and the Old and New Testaments, Spinoza’s so-called heretical ideas became a serious challenge for the rabbis and leaders. It was a clear infringement of the agreement with the City of Amsterdam. They therefore felt they had no choice but to enact a ban on Spinoza after all options had failed. It was just too risky to endanger the entire community because of one young man’s ideas.

Second, the Portuguese-Spanish leadership had great difficulty in building a cohesive Jewish community comprised of all the Marranos who had just left Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition in 1492, and who were raised in the Christian faith and had little knowledge of Judaism. They were definitely not in need of a young man who was undermining this very goal with his heterodox ideas. (See the link to my article on Spinoza and the ban at the bottom of this essay).

It is very likely that the ban would never have been imposed had these unique circumstances not prevailed.

As is well known, throughout the 20th century several requests were made to lift the ban on Spinoza. I believe that it is shortsighted and highly unwise to refuse to do so. By maintaining and reinforcing the ban today, the rabbinate and leaders of Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Spanish community give the impression that they are afraid of Spinoza’s ideas. This only harms the Jewish Tradition and stigmatizes it as a fearful, dogmatic religion, which it isn’t.

Another mistake the rabbi makes is to argue that the ban on Spinoza can’t be lifted since no later Beit Din can undo an earlier decision of a Beit Din unless it is greater in wisdom and number (Mishna Eduyot 1:5; Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 2:2).

The ban on Spinoza and his writings only applied as long as he was alive, as Chief Rabbi Yitzchak-Isaac HaLevi Herzog wrote in a letter to Georg Herz-Shikmoni, director of the former Spinozaeum in Haifa in 1953 (Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992] p 203). In his Pesakim u-Teshuvot, vol. 5, 111, Rabbi Herzog concludes that the rabbis of Amsterdam did not ban Spinoza’s books for future generations. Therefore, a specific prohibition against reading Spinoza’s books because of the ban does not apply. Surely Rabbi Herzog would not have argued that one should reconfirm and strengthen the ban in 2016! Indeed, it is most telling that today, Spinoza’s writings are sold in the shop of the Portuguese-Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam!

However, since it is generally believed that the ban is still in force, my suggestion to lift it is purely symbolic and for educational reasons.

Ravad, Rabbi Avraham ben David (c. 1125-1198), in his commentary on Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 2:2, disagrees with the Rambam, clearly stating that a later court is empowered to abolish a law of an earlier court, even if the later court is inferior, if the original reason for the law is no longer applicable. According to some opinions, and/or in certain circumstances, when the original reason for a law has ceased to exist that law is no longer binding, even without an official revocation by a rabbinic court. (For a full discussion on this topic, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. 1, pp. 599-602 and vol. 6, pp. 698-705; Rabbi Leib Etlinger, “Ein Beit Din,” Shomer Tzion HaNeeman journal, vol. 1, pp. 17a-b, 19a-b, 21a-b, 23a-b; and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Halacha: Kocha VeTafkida [Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 2006] pp. 224-264).

If that were not the case, it would seriously hamper the capability of Halacha to deal with new circumstances. I am reminded of the Talmudic metaphor that teaches a person to always be soft, like a pliant reed that yields to strong winds, swaying to and fro but never uprooted, and not to be hard like an unyielding cedar tree, which could be broken by a forceful wind (Ta’anit 20a).

While the rabbi in Jerusalem is correct to say that it is unheard of for an Orthodox rabbi to disagree with the Rambam’s “halachic weltanschauung without bothering to support his argument by quoting an earlier dissenting major source,” it is far from true that these sources do not exist or that they are found only in non-halachic kabbalistic or academic circles. It was the Ravad who took strong issue with some of Rambam’s halachic decisions. In fact, he disagreed with the entire approach and methodology of the Mishneh Torah (Ravad’s gloss on Rambam’s introduction to the Mishneh Torah). On one occasion, Ravad states: Why has he (Maimonides) called such a person a sectarian? There are many people greater and superior to him … (who disagree with him). (Glosses on Hilchot Teshuva 3:6-7). The same is true of the Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (c. 1250-1327). Both felt it highly problematic that Rambam “wrote his book like one delivering a prophetic message from the Almighty, providing neither reason nor proof” (Rosh, Responsa 31:9). See, also, the important observations by the Maharshal (1510-1573), although a bit kabbalistically tinted, in Yam Shel Shlomo, Introduction to Bava Kama. Others, such as 16th-century Maharal of Prague (Netivot Olam, end of ch. 15), and his brother Rabbi Chaim ben Betzalel (Vikuach Mayim Chaim, Introduction, no. 7), also questioned the validity of unequivocal codification. To argue that later thinkers or halachic authorities are not allowed to disagree with Rambam’s opinions even if earlier authorities have not done so is to cause all of Judaism to stagnate, and violates the principle that one needs to go to the authorities of one’s day and not rely on those who have passed away (Rosh Hashana 25b).

For issues related to Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, the best book to study is Orthodox professor Marc B. Shapiro’s remarkable work: The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford, UK: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), in which he brings hundreds of examples of earlier authorities who took issue with Rambam’s principles.

A further mistake made by the rabbi is that he claims I am referring to Spinoza when I mention Rambam‘s statement that anyone who accepts and believes his 13 principles is admitted to heaven even if he transgresses all the commandments (Commentary on the Mishna Sanhedrin, 10:1). I only mentioned it because it shows that Rambam added this opinion without giving any clear Talmudic source for it and may have even contradicted the Jewish tradition. See Orthodox Professor Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything? Second Edition (Oxford, UK: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006) pp. 52-56. Whether or not this contradicts Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva 3:9-11 is unclear.

I suggest that instead of disdaining academic literature on the Rambam, the rabbi would be wise to read some scholarly works relating to the Rambam’s ideas on dogma, such as Professor Kellner’s above-mentioned book (particularly pp. 33-43), as well as many of his other works on Maimonides. I would also recommend Professor Isadore Twersky’s Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980). As for his Orthodox credentials, he was the Talner Rebbe of Boston. In addition, he was the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, a chair previously held by the well-known Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974). Wolfson authored The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), the standard work on Spinoza’s philosophy. He also studied at the Slobodka Yeshiva under Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866-1933). Regrettably, he became secular.

Although I spent 12 years studying in Chareidi yeshivot, these books were great eye-openers for me, revealing aspects of Maimonides that were never discussed in the yeshiva world but that are crucial to understanding this giant’s method and weltanschauung.

To this day, I am puzzled as to why the Mishneh Torah is an almost unchallenged authority in the yeshiva world, whereas little attention, if any, is given to Rambam’s philosophical magnum opus, Moreh Nevuchim, which is still considered a suspicious work influenced by secular Aristotelian philosophy. A rather strange situation – as if there were two Rambams who had nothing to do with each other. One that is trustworthy and one that is suspect!

I would suggest that the rabbi also read Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein’s biographical work Mekor Baruch, ch. 13, sec. 4 (vol. 2, pp. 1103-1104) and ch. 23, sec. 4 (vol. 3, pp. 1307-1311). Rabbi Epstein (1860-1941), who is best known for his Torah Temimah commentary on the Torah, notes in Mekor Baruch that a harsh and erroneous approach to those who are on the brink of leaving Judaism and the Jewish people has caused significant damage. (See Talmud Chagigah 15a concerning Elisha ben Avuya, the rabbi turned heretic, and the uncensored edition of Sanhedrin 107b concerning Jesus. See, also, my “Thoughts to Ponder” no. 325). Rabbi Epstein specifically discusses the case of Spinoza’s forerunner, Uriel da Costa (1585-1640), who was also banned by the rabbis of Amsterdam for his heretical ideas and ultimately committed suicide.

Last but not least, my Orthodoxy:

If “Orthodox” means fearful, small-minded Judaism, I am surely not Orthodox.

If, however, “Orthodox” means fearless, bold, and non-dogmatic Judaism, I am fully Orthodox.

As someone who comes from a completely secular background in which Spinoza was the ultimate authority, I am astonished at how little faith some Orthodox rabbis have in Judaism. While they are surely much greater scholars than I am, I seem to know something they don’t know: that Judaism is an exalted and most profound ideology, philosophy, and way of life. It need not feel threatened by anything and no longer requires the imposing or reinforcing of bans.

I wonder whether it is time for mainstream Orthodoxy to stop being so frightened and defensive and to start abandoning its mental ghettos.

Since when does Judaism have to fear heresy? Does it not have sufficient strength and enough arguments to defeat heretical ideas? What kind of religion is Judaism if it can’t demonstrate its preeminence over what it believes to be faulty ideas?

Shouldn’t the heretics be afraid of Judaism?

You may like to read my entire article.

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