The primary concern of Judaism is the art of living. To accomplish this, it is committed to a strong sense of tradition and a determination to realize certain optimal goals. It is this that has made Judaism unique, standing out among the community of religions. This direct path—from a historical past to a messianic future, from the mysterious revelation at Mount Sinai to the categorical demand for justice for the orphan, widow and stranger—has saved Judaism from death by fire and ice, from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition, and from evaporating into a utopian reverie.
What we Jews have always looked for in the Torah is not just a way of living, nor is it the discovery of truth alone, but rather everything. And this is scarcely an exaggeration. Our love for the Torah was not just molded by particular teachings, but by our conviction that really everything can be found within its pages. God is no doubt central to Judaism, but because we never lost our intimate awareness of the multifarious colors of the Torah and its tradition, no dogma could ever gain authority. Even after Maimonides attempted, under the influence of Islamic theology, to lay down definite formulations of Jewish belief, Judaism refused to accept them as sacrosanct and did not allow such attempts to come between it and the inexhaustible Torah text. It is for this reason that tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism. No sacrifice of the intellect is demanded.
One look into the Talmud proves this point beyond doubt. The flow of thoughts and opposing ideas are abundant, as are the formulation and rejection of opinions and insights. The interaction between legality, prose, narrative, illusion and hard reality is astonishing and earns the Talmud its reputation as the richest ever literary creation. Not even Greek philosophy was able to produce such a symphony of ideas in which the waves of the human intellect interweave with those of divinity, moving forward and backward. There is an absolute lack of systematization and it is clear that any such attempt was nipped in the bud. From a modern point of view, one might argue that the search for truth in the Torah was not directed toward proportional truth because such a notion was lacking by definition. The most persistent intellectual energy and analytic efforts were devoted to the continual contrivance of beautiful and profound interpretation to discover the totality of life.
Since the Torah was considered God-given, it might have been logical that fundamentalism would ultimately triumph and lead to conflict with science and other disciplines. But this inference is founded on a major misconception. Precisely because the text is seen as the word of God, its essential ambiguity was granted implicitly, and every verse by definition has many levels of interpretation, both poetic and legal. There is even the compatibility of playfulness with seriousness, since the former is a most important component of human existence as created by God.
The attempt to streamline and straightjacket the Jewish Tradition and create a final Jewish theology—which took place long after the Talmud was completed, and in our days has nearly become an article of faith—is a major mistake and a complete misreading of its very character. While for practical reasons there is a need to put halachic living into pragmatic context, which requires conformity in action, this should never be the goal when focusing on Judaism’s beliefs. It is the task of the rabbis to do everything in their power to rescue Judaism from dogmatism. While it can’t be denied that Judaism incorporates certain definite beliefs, they were always kept to a minimum and were constantly a source of fierce debate. Most important, one must remember that such dogmas never led to conclusions of reductio ad absurdum. Freedom in doctrine and conformity in action was the overall policy to which the Talmudic rabbis were committed, even when convinced of certain fundamental truths. This is evident when one studies the relationship between the biblical text and the Oral Torah: minimum words and maximum interpretation.
It is detrimental to Jewish Tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and store up definite theories. The idea is not to become the owner of masses of information entrusted firmly to one’s memory and carefully transmitted into notes. Once one does so, one becomes scared and disturbed by new ideas, since the new puts into question the fixed information that one has stored in one’s mind. As such, ideas that cannot easily be pinned down are frightening, like everything else that grows and is flexible.
Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, the ideal is to hear and, most important, to receive and respond in an active, productive way. It should stimulate a thinking process, which ultimately leads to the transformation of the student.
To halacha-ize and legalize Jewish thought is to miss the whole message of the Talmudic way of thinking. Doing so will undermine the Halacha since it will kill its underlying spirit. There is little doubt that due to the pan-halachic attitudes that we now experience in certain rabbinical circles, we see negative symptoms in the form of Halacha becoming suffocated and often rejected by intelligent, broad-minded people. A plant may continue to stay alive, even in apparent health, after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.
If the rabbinical censorship that we have lately encountered concerning certain books and ideas on Orthodox Judaism were to be applied to the Talmudic text, it would mean that the best part of this great compendium on Jewish thought and law would be censored and burned.
Freedom of thought must be guaranteed if we want the Jewish Tradition to have a future. This applies in particular to teaching and writing. A man or woman who holds a teaching post should not be forced to repress his or her opinions for the sake of upholding popular, simplistic notions or even more sophisticated ones. As long as his or her opinions are rooted in the authentic Jewish Tradition and expressed with the awe of Heaven, they must be encouraged, no matter how much they are disliked by some rabbinic authorities.
Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers should not be sought, and if possible, should even be avoided since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No religious Jewish student can pass as educated if he has heard only one side of the debates that divided the earlier and later sages. One of the most important skills to teach is the power of weighing arguments, and this is the foundation of all Talmudic debate. To prevent the teacher from doing so or to deny him the opportunity to bring this to the attention of his students is misplaced rabbinic tyranny, which has no place in the Jewish Tradition. It is the Christianization of Judaism by rabbis.
As soon as censorship is imposed on the opinions voiced by teachers, Jewish education ceases to serve its purpose and, instead of producing a nation of men, runs the risk of creating a herd of fanatical bigots.
Today’s Talmudists must realize that they can easily become imprisoned by their own knowledge and drowned by it. They may have tremendous Talmudic expertise, but they have perhaps forgotten that one needs to know more than just all the intricacies of text. One needs to hear the distinctiveness of its content, the spirit it breathes, and the many often opposing ideological foundations on which it stands. To know the Talmud is to know more than its sum total.
Techniques for dealing with people whose opinions are disliked have been well perfected, especially when the condemners are men of power. In the case of those more experienced, public hostility is stirred by means of misrepresentation and character assassination. Since most teachers do not care to expose themselves to these risks, they will avoid giving public expression to their less-mainstream-Orthodox opinions. This is a most dangerous state of affairs and must be stopped. These methods are used to quash genuine and important knowledge and to deny people insight. But above all, it allows obscurantism to triumph. Everything must be done to allow and encourage these teachers, who are in love with Judaism as few people are, and who are creative thinkers, to say what they have on their minds without fear, and to build a great future for Judaism. It is the obligation of the religious community to create an environment where these thinkers can flourish without unpleasant repercussions.
Certain religious leaders, including rabbis, may believe that these tactics of repression and character assassination work. They should know, however, that they may be able to burn books, but the ideas expressed in them will not die. In fact, the more they condemn these books the more they will be read by intelligent students. No man or force can put thoughts in a concentration camp. Trying to do so is similar to somebody who is so afraid of being murdered, that he decides to commit suicide.
Yakov Rabkin says
Indeed, it is important to cherish the diversity of opinions. However, censorship and character assassination have been used to silence dissident opinions and stifle the badly needed diversity among Jews. This is done not only to protect the dominant variety of orthodoxy but also the dominant version of Zionism. I have seen this happen after I published a book on the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism titled “A Threat from Within”. Quite a few denounced the book while even refusing to open it. (They also condemned the author as “a traitor”.) These totalitarian attitudes have permeated many quarters of Jewish life and ought to be resisted. Bravo, Rabbi Cardozo!
Nechama Sarah says
Wow, that was powerful and distinct. I’ve never heard anyone express such a clear rebuttal of what the Jewish world is experiencing now. It may be why there is religious cognitive dissonance among our people. The intolerant just leave. The tolerant compassionate ones grapple with their thoughts in private while pretending on the outside. A little spiritual schizophrenia. While those who are very learned can decide for themselves, it is the vast majority (of shepselas) of us who are insecure in venturing outside the proscribed. Safety in numbers, right? Where do we go from here? Once the ailment is diagnosed, a prescription is neded to restore health. You have given us a diagnosis…
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Dear Nechama Sarah,
Indeed it is most troubling that those who are in doubt do not dare to express themselves. We need to encourage them to do so. This the reason why I wrote the essay. We need to let these people know that it is fine to express themselves and this is very much what the Jewish Tradition wants them to do.
The solution, among other suggestions, is to build schools, programs and yeshivoth where all these matters are openly discussed. It needs a different kind of curriculum which I think is not so difficult to do. What it needs is courage. And obviously great teachers with broad attitudes.
Kol tuv, nathan cardozo
Amiel4messiah:Most of the time the best commentaries are wreittn by people you would call liberal. Over time, perhaps you will find, as I have, that conservative and liberal are less than helpful terms.There are some fine commentaries by observant Jews and evangelical Protestants (the Catholic commentators I have read tend to be less traditional, so I cannot comment on conservative Catholic commentators). I am reading Daniel Block on Ezekiel and so far I think it is going to be great. John Walton on Genesis, great. Umberto Cassuto on Genesis, amazing. Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus, the finest commentary on any book of the Bible period (but he believes in the JEDP and H theory of the Pentateuch).For people who are non-specialists, it is best to get a recommendation on commentaries. They are expensive and time-consuming. No point in wasting limited time for study on a less than helpful commentary.As for the JPS commentaries: I do not own any of them. But they bring some superstars to the table. Adele Berlin on Esther? Wow. Michael Fishbane on the Haftarot. I would love to own that. Michael Fox on Ecclesiastes. A must read. I have read some of Jacob Milgrom on Numbers. Milgrom is one of my favorite scholars, a brilliant man of immense learning. If I could afford them, I would own them all.
Michael Schneider says
Thank you rabbi, for the well thought out article which puts my own thoughts into words but must lead others like myself to ask again, if so, “Why do we need rabbis when we can come to our own conclusions about what the Talmud has to tell us?”
I’m not trying to put rabbis out of work altogether but would be happier if you all had a different ones.
Best wishes for a brighter future,
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks. I believe that we need our rabbis to guide us and show us the different opinions and tell us the pros and the contras of each one of them. But not to decide for us. Without rabbis we would not be able to decide. One needs a great amount of knowledge to be able to decide.
Kol tuv, nathan cardozo
Fred Komarow says
I was privileged to attend your classes a number of years ago while attending Ohr Somayach, and the innovative thinking you imparted then has only grown in stature and ambiance.
This is an important and courageous statement, and one that needs to be amplified if Judaism is going to avoid falling off the precipice into a dark void of fanaticism and extremism. The condemnations of written works by various scholars by sundry Rabbinic leaders (some of well known public stature) has brought enormous public embarrassment to all of orthodoxy. Face it; news today travels at the speed of light, and once a clarion is issued against a certain book or author (such as Rabbi Slifkin) and it later reaches the pages of the New York Times, the game is over as far as I’m concerned.
Unfortunately, there is more than only banning written works. Recall the ban on the so-called “BIG EVENT” : a benefit concert that was to take place at Madison Square Garden featuring Lipa Schmeltzer, among others several years ago. A takannah was issued against the gathering that was signed by numerous prominent Rabbis in the USA and Israel. Moreover, the language employed in the ban itself was reminiscent of of a sermon against converting to Christianity, and the damage to one’s soul that would result by attending it. All this despite enormous efforts by the promoters to maintain proper decorum befitting an audience composed of Orthodox Jews of the Yeshivish persuasion. The concert was cancelled, the promoters lost almost $700,000, the story was reported in the New York times, and the Rabbinic leaders who supported this travesty remained unaccountable for the embarrassment and public humiliation they caused both themselves and the orthodox community as a whole. Oh yes, and the Israeli charity that was to benefit from this concert received nothing.
I cannot determine if Rabbinic tyranny is fueled by the desire for power, for control, or is merely a manifestation of the virtual apotheosis that many spiritual leaders have undergone at the behest of their followers. But I do know that any public ban or prohibition, be it against a book, an author, a concert, the internet, or merely an iPhone causes irreparable damage to the Jewish people, simply because it provides yet another reason for people to simple opt out of being observant. This is commonly known as the law of unintended circumstances. In my mind, Rabbi’s should know better.
Anyway, thank you for the thought provoking essay. I hope it will not be the final word on this subject.
“The attempt to …create a final Jewish theology…is a major mistake”
Isn’t that precisely what the Rambam tried to do? To the point that if you didn’t subscribe to those principles, you were considered a heretic.
“To halacha-ize and legalize Jewish thought is to miss the whole message of the Talmudic way of thinking.”
Perhaps the Rambam thought that it was more important that the people have correct beliefs than for the “Talmudic way of thinking” be preserved in the realm of emunot vedeot.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
There are several issues with the Rambam .
1.He was responding to a need of his time when Jews were in need of clear cut beliefs since that was also the case in the Christian and Islam world.
2. It is indeed a surprise that Rambam used such strong language and said that if people would not buy into the principles they were heretics. But it is unclear why he did so. There is little support for this in the Talmud where these opinions belong to individuals but were never accepted by the Talmud as absolute doctrines. Have a look in the great work by Marc Shapiro: The Limits of orthodox Beliefs. (Littman) Also Menachem Kellner: Must a Jew believe everything? (Littman). If as Rambam believed he had the truth, ever other view was false . With his systematic mind, and with the best intentions, he put many people on the wrong side, instead of keeping them in.
“ For this Hebrew of Hebrews had in many respects a Greek mind and through his sense of logic and his passion for precision, he brought Judaism into a doctrinal crisis the echoes of which are with us yet” Prof Leon Roth: Judaism, a portrait, p. 122
Kol tuv, nathan cardozo
Thank you for your response. If I may follow up:
“He was responding to a need of his time when Jews were in need of clear cut beliefs since that was also the case in the Christian and Islam world.”
While I don’t doubt that presenting clear cut beliefs was helpful to the needs of his time, as you write, it appears to be intellectually dishonest to claim that the Rambam didn’t in fact believe what he wrote in such a “clear cut” fashion, but only needed to present it that way because of the needs of his times. It would be the equivalent to commentators on a blog in 200 years from now claiming that Rabbi Lopes Cardozo didn’t really believe in the ideals of freedom of thought that he eloquently and passionately wrote about, rather one has to keep in mind that he was responding to the need of his time since the Western world had adopted post-modern values.
“It is indeed a surprise that Rambam used such strong language and said that if people would not buy into the principles they were heretics. But it is unclear why he did so.”
I understand this to mean that you prefer alternative approaches to this issue, and don’t find the Rambam compelling. You cite Shapiro and Kellner’s works to demonstrate that many other rabbinic figures in the past have similarly disagreed with the Rambam, either completely, or in specific emunot vedeot. However, many many rabbinic figures and members of the Jewish people over the ages have followed in the footsteps of the Rambam, and to categorically state that “Judaism refused to accept them as sacrosanct and did not allow such attempts to come between it and the inexhaustible Torah text” seems to present the matter in a rather one sided way (“Judaism” can’t just be those who agree with us). Consequently claiming that the disagreement with your approach as merely being “the pan-halachic attitudes that we now experience in certain rabbinical circles” seems again to be an unfair presentation of the matter.