Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Redefining Heresy

I was always puzzled by the Gemara which speaks of Yochanan the High Priest becoming a heretic after 80 years in the job:

Believe not in thyself until the day of thy death? For lo, Johanan the High Priest officiated as High Priest for eighty years and in the end he became a Min?

He must have been at least 100 when he gave up being a frum Jew and became a Christian instead! Most people don't make such a switch at that time of life.

Rabbi Haber once explained the Gemara to me in a slightly different way (I don't remember if he was quoting someone else or if it was his own chidush). He said that Cohanim were always conservative traditionalists. When the "Jewish Spring" came about, towards the end of the Second Beit HaMikdash period, they were the last ones to embrace "modern Judaism". It was not that Yochanan himself gave up his beliefs. Rather, the definition of what is "kosher" and what is "heresy" changed during Yochanan's lifetime, so that by the end of his life he was a relic from a bygone era, and the modern Jews considered him a heretic.

We have seen many examples of this throughout history, and many more recently. People who were once considered acceptable sources of Jewish hashkafa (Rambam, Abarbanel, Hirsch and many others) have become "heretical" (or at least some of what they wrote is heretical) according to some modern Rabbis. Rabbi Slifkin's books and ideas, which were used by the entire spectrum of English speaking, kiruv Judaism, from Aish HaTorah to Artscroll, became heretical retroactivel. There are many other examples of the "Jochanan" syndrome.

One case, which is unfolding this week is regarding the book Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith by Rabbi Norman Solomon. Rabbi Solomon is an Orthodox Rabbi who served as a communal Rabbi in several cities in England. He was under the auspices of the United Syngagogues and the Chief Rabbi. It is true that not every United Syngagogues Rabbi has identical hashkafa to talmidim in Lakewood or Gateshead or Bnei Brak, but they are all Orthodox Jews with Orthodox smicha from a recognised Orthodox Rabbi/institution (in Rabbi Solomon's case I believe his smicha is from Jews College - but I may be wrong on that).

His book grapples with the apparent contradiction between the axiom of Jewish faith that all of Torah came from Sinai, and the historical/archeological/textual evidence that seems to refute that axiom. I have not (yet) read the entire book, but he deals with the issues in a mature and intelligent fashion. His conclusion will be difficult for some to accept (and I'm not sure that I agree with him, or with his choice of terminology), and is probably on the fringe of Orthodoxy, but it is not incompatible with any of Rambam's 13 principles, and I suspect that many Rishonim would not reject his approach (I may also be wrong - it makes no difference for the purposes of this blog post).

Professor Martin Lockshin reviewed the book. He quoted exerpts from it, such as this:

Rabbi Solomon’s thesis is straightforward: “The classical doctrine of ‘Torah from heaven’… with its erroneous historical claims and occasionally questionable moral consequences, cannot be upheld by the serious historian, scientist or philosopher.” And yet the claims that “Torah is from heaven” and that Moses wrote the Torah are, in a certain sense “true,” as they are Judaism’s “foundational myth.”

Rabbi Solomon rushes to explain that he uses the word “myth” not in the sense of something untrue. “Myths are among the most important symbols of our life; they say what cannot be reduced to nameable facts.” Furthermore, “a story can be at one and the same time both myth and history, and it is certainly more persuasive if it is both; but even without the support of history it can function effectively as myth.”

Professor Lockshin admits that this will be difficult for some Orthodox Jews to accept, and that it will be rejected by many.

Of course, the usual suspects wasted no time rejecting the book without reading it, based on the review.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, a Rabbi of a Shul in Toronto (all of the players in this story - apart from Rabbi Solomon himself - are Canadian for some reason) not only rejected the entire thesis of the book and of the review (it is difficult to know whether he has read the book, and whether he dislikes the book more, or the review), but goes further and claims that Rabbi Solomon is now a Reform Jew and non longer Orthodox.

Then (though I may have got the timeline backwards - this may have happened before the Korobkin review*) the Toronto Beit Din issued a cherem on the ideas presented in the book. They ruled that:

Halacha rules, unequivocally, that the denial of the G-dly origin of "even a single word" in the Torah, or its interpretation as transmitted by tradition (in "Torah shebaal peh), contravenes this principle and constitutes "kefirah baTorah". The practical Halachic implications of this ruling are far reaching.

(All the quotation marks are theirs - I don't know "why" they feel the "need" to use them "so much").

They don't mention him by name, but they refer to "a recently published article", so they are threatening Martin Lockshin with "far reaching implications" for what he wrote.

I don't really have an opinion on the correctness or validity of the book (I need to spend more time reading it), nor am I surprised that Professor Lockshin is trying to push the envelope in Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, I'm not sure that Solomon does deny the G-dly origin of a single word of the Torah (again, I need to spend more time with the book). I think he was only questioning the literal historicity of Mount Sinai as described by the Torah/Gemara and Rishonim (all of whom seem to have different opinions about what happened). In the same way that the halacha is Divine (even though "it is not in Heaven") I imagine that Rabbi Solomon could consider every single word of the Torah to be of G-dly orogin (He may not - I don't yet know).

BUT the Rabbis of the Vaad have (probably) not read his book, and possibly not the article. Instead of dealing with the issues raised, they make a new halacha that someone who denies the G-dly origin of even a "single word in the Torah" (apparently a single letter would not make one a kofer) is a denier of Torah and should watch out for the consequences.

This is a completely untennable position, which nobody who has ever learnt Shas or Rishonim could agree with. There are times when Chazal clearly felt that the Torah we have today is not the same one that Moshe received. There is the famous Tosefot on Shabbat 55b (and Rabbi Akiva Eiger there) who say that our Torahs do not agree with the mesorah - the list is endless.

But now, all of that has become heretical. So just like Yochanan the High Priest, after 2000 years, some of the Tannaim and Amoraim have become heretics. Along with most of the Rishonim.

Apparently "they could say it, we can not".

(Note - I am not in any way comparing Rabbi Solomon and his opinions (or Martin Lockshin and his) with Chazal/Rishonim and their opinions. But both would be considered heretical by the new halacha of the Toronto Beit Din).

This whole story was even covered by the Huffington Post

* I have been informed by reliable sources that Rabbi Korobkin is in no way associated with the ban of the Vaad. My apologies to him for connecting his review to their ban.


  1. I think we need to distinguish between what the Rambam personally believed (the question of truth) and what he held was the limits of permissible belief (the question of law).

    The Rambam holds something related to the idea that there are no disputes in laws that are halakhah leMoshe miSinai. (There are counter-examples and other quotes in the Rambam that seem to say otherwise, so this position of his has a long list of interpretations.) When it comes to what we received in Sinai, it is not a question of differing interpretations, no true machloqesin, only a right and a wrong. And I think the same kind of reasoning holds here when he says that we have the accurate Torah -- which also has conflicting sources (R' Meir's statement that we no longer know all the cases of full and deficient spellings) and therefore needs interpretation.

    However, with respect to the 8th principle of faith, the legal limits of belief, it seems to me that the Rambam is speaking about semantics, not syntax. If he were speaking of words and spellings, the Torah sheBe'al Peh being from heaven would require a separate iqar. As long as all the versions of the Seifer Torah convey exactly the same meaning to the reader, e.g. that any sane translator wouldn't base a decision on which text he has, I think the Rambam's criterion would be met.

    Second, I would distinguish between the Rambam's 8th iqar and the version we accepted in practice. Halachic thought was shaped by the inclusion of Yigdal and Ani Maamin in the siddur -- and the decision to include and keep them reflect halachic thinking. Therefore, when a beis din is trying to decide whether a geirus candidate is a believer, or a hekhsher would have to decide whose touch would prevent them from certifying a wine, a far looser form of the iqarim is actually utilized; something broader than the Rambam's criteria.

    I think "they could say it, but we must not" is valid. The limits of belief are a legal decision, and the halachic process is dynamic. It is no different than noting that Rabbeinu Tam fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin, but if we used tefillin of his design, we would not.

    If the beis din really considers this kefirah, they should mandate that every Miqraos Gedolos contain warnings that we not take the long lesson from the parts of the Ibn Ezra that appear or do say things we must not accept personally.

    But, there is a huge difference between quiblining over spelling, a word or two, or even verses of narrative, and making the same claim about the majority of the Torah. If the text of the Torah isn't dictated by G-d in the Sinai, then the whole notion of derashah becomes a game, and things labeled deOraisa become just as man-made as any other. (Even according to the Rambam, derashos are mined, not inventions.) There is no coincidence that JTS which invited in Document Hypothesis with Solomon Schechter ended up fostering a legal system that does not resemble what Orthodoxy considers halakhah. Once all the pieces are there to conclude that rabbis of the past were playing a game to remake the law as they wanted, they have no reason not to do the same themselves. (And if even deOraisos are man-made, it's all fair game.)

  2. This article has a lot of "haven't finished it yet"s and "it is difficult to know"s. Why don't you get the facts before making your own decisions? Otherwise, you're guilty of the same thing you charge the Vaad and others with. Maybe you would find, on the last page of the book, something that you actually realized was total kefira and you would have to retract your whole post. How can you villify others for "probably" not being thorough, when you yourself have surely not been.

    I haven't read the book, but Lockshin's description of Solomon's thesis, that the historical claims of the Torah are FALSE, should give us pause. Is that orthodox?