Monday, May 19, 2014

Can We Say It Too?- Addressing the Confusion of Acceptable Beliefs

It has been nearly 10 years since Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books were banned for their supposed heresy. What was perhaps most ironic was that much of what he said came from the Rishonim, and achronim who are very much accepted in the charedi world. When this objection was made, the reply was “They could say it, we can not”. I would like to explore the idea behind this claim.

Recently, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer wrote an article examining a connected idea, “Does Psak Apply to Matters of Hashkafa?”. I will not be addressing it from that perspective however. Rather, I wish to show how this related question connects to much confusion when it come to which beliefs are acceptable according to Jewish tradition.

There are three terms which, although somewhat connected, are used interchangeably with the expected confusion that follows from a lack of precise language; Orthodoxy, Torah and Truth. By examining each of them, I hope to show why the concept of psak is mostly misguided when it comes to hashkafa, and that while there are certain ideas we might not be able to say or teach within particular communities, we are certainly permitted to think them.

Orthodoxy is a social construct. As with all social constructs, it has its own rules and beliefs. Additionally, these rules and beliefs are decided on by the members of the group. While they might be factually correct, the truth of the claims is not what matters. If a person wishes to be part of the group, these are the beliefs which they must embrace. As such, the term Orthodoxy, and all its subdivisions, changes from time to time, and from group to group. As a social construct, it makes no sense to talk of psak. The only question that must be answered is, whether a statement is acceptable to the group. It is here that one can say that certain views of the Rishonim are off limits. If you want to be in their “club” you can not publicly say or teach these ideas. For those who wish to remain in the group, these prohibitions will matter. To everyone else, they could not matter less. Even where these things impact halacha, whether one is a heretic and it is allowed to drink wine they have handled, in a world without a Sanhedrin, this too remains subjective and will vary from group to group.

What counts as an acceptable understanding of the Torah can not easily be defined, and therefore can be debated. It is natural that there would be an attempt to clarify the issue and for traditional Jews, certain ideas are essential. Examples would be the existence of God, His relationship with the world, that the commandments are to be obeyed etc. While the Rambam most famously identified 13 principles, it is far from clear that we must accept them as the essential beliefs. Different groups in Orthodoxy may accept them, but as mentioned above, that is binding on no one, but those who self-identify with the group. I would suggest (while recognizing that this is not a definition) that any idea taught by one of the Rishonim, is a legitimate way to understand Torah. Thus, while Ralbag's view of Divine Providence goes against the commonly understood definition of the term, any Jew is free to believe it.

What however of Truth? By that I mean, how do we know if any idea is objectively true? Either God directly controls every little thing including when we stub our toe, or pull the wrong coin from our pocket, or He controls nothing and allows nature to take its course (as per Ralbag) or there is some third way, which lays somewhere in the middle, how God runs the world. Simply put, we can not know the answer. We can believe one approach to be correct based on understanding of the Torah, personal experience or wishful thinking, but we can not know the ways of God.

We live in interesting times. The internet has brought knowledge and ideas to our fingertips that we might not have had access to before. Biblical scholarship, philosophy and theology, areas that were mostly studied by scholars, are now studied by all and debated on blogs, Facebook and during kiddushes at shul. As these ideas are considered, those of us who seek to figure out where we stand and what we believe run up against those who insist that we must accept certain ideas in order to remain within the fold. If we keep the three concepts of Orthodoxy, Torah and Truth in mind, and recognize the ways they differ, we can have more respectful, nuanced and meaningful conversations and debates.

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