Tuesday, July 23, 2013

RYA enters the fray, and I respond

The Cross Currents team confronts R. Farber
My, but Cross Currents is certainly serious about heresy. In a new article, RYA explains why we must be forever vigilant against this insidious threat.  Unfortunately, he doesn't provide a single actual anti-heresy argument nor, from where I sit, does he do an especially good job of explaining why any of this matters. So Zev Farber meets some narrow, arbitrary definition of heresy. And therefore?

Here's his attempt to tell us why all of this is important, with my fisk.

Time does not permit anything but the briefest of responses.

Wait. This is a matter of earth-shattering importance, and you don't have time to elaborate? A fire is burning in Judaism, but it takes too long to get to the hydrant? Mixed message, much?

Readers might want to review the introduction of Chovos Halevavos, who makes the argument that if Hashem legislated the way we act for the purpose of instructing and elevating us, He would certainly structure the way our thoughts and beliefs ought to progress.

Certainly? Why certainly? We can just as easily argue that God cares about how we act, but not about how we think. Also, RYA's use of the word "certainly" here is lazy. If A "certainly" follows B he should be able to show us why this is true. Instead he asserts,  provides no justification, and expects us to take it as an article of faith. No good.

Anyway, as Larry Yudelson says: "Don't you think that if God wanted there to be a mitzvah to believe that the Torah was written by Him, He could have included one?" Exactly.

Readers should look once more at mori ve-rabiRav J David Bleich’s introduction to his With Perfect Faith, examining the different conceptions of principles of faith. They should also remind themselves that categories like “apikorus,” “min” and “kofer” are halachic constructs that carry with them several halachic consequences, among them validity of their ritual performance, e.g shechitah, writing mezuzos, etc.; validity of their testimony; inclusion in a minyan. Waving a PC wand at these constructs will not make them disappear. 

This is an appeal to consequences. It is true that heresy creates a new set of halachic circumstances, but this is no raya that heresy is false.

They have to be understood, and dealt with.

May I propose we deal with them in the same way that we deal with the welfare cheats, the ponzi scheme machars and the rest of the sinners we, as a community, continue to tolerate and accept. If there is room in the Orthodox  Jewish heart for perpetrators of segulah scams, and the fake Rebbes who endorse them, surely we can make some allowances for Zev Farber.

Memo to R' Farber: If you want Cross Currents to lay off, may I suggest you grow a long beard and start dressing like a 17th century polish aristocrat? RYA and his teammates always have a surfeit of warmth and tolerance for those types. For example, just this week Yad L'Achim and R. Yechiel Abuchatzeira ensnared countless Jews in a heresy trap -  they ran ads denying the eleventh ikkur emuna - but Cross Currents didn't care.

My friend Prof. Menachem Kellner argued in his Must a Jew Believe Anything? that if “belief is a matter of trust in G-d expressed in obedience to the Torah, my answer is that a Jew must believe everything. If ‘belief’ is the intellectual acquiescence in carefully defined statements of dogma, the answer is that there is nothing a Jew must believe.” This is a formulation very differents from what frum Jews more typically believe. Many responded to the book, and he in turn has addressed their critiques.
Yet even Dr. Kellner had to concede that believing what others believe and have believed can be important in Jewish life. “There are limits to what one can affirm or deny and still remain within the Jewish community. Denying the unity of G-d, for example, or that the Torah is of divine origin in some significant sense, or affirming that the Messiah has already come, are claims which place one outside the historical community of Israel.” 

A) Also an appeal to consequence
B) To the best of my knowledge Rabbi Farber, the subject of this anti-heresy witch hunt, has never denied that the Torah is of divine origin in some significant sense (That's a very low bar. Reform Rabbis can get over it)

Dr. Kellner’s argument against systematic theology is not something I believe or can accept. Even if we were to accept it, however, he argues that some beliefs place a person outside of the religious experience shared by his coreligionists. If we were interviewing a prospective leader of a community, or teacher of our children, most of us would want to know if his views stood outside the historical community of Israel. We might wish that we did not have to “check intellectual tzitzis,” but we do not always have that option. We can hide from the harsh sound of the heresy word, but we still need to decide as a community dividing lines between what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale.

Why? Because if there are no limits, we have nothing but teflon to offer our children

Please note the slight of hand. The issue isn't that Farber et al think there should be "no limits" It is that they disagree with the limits RYA is arbitrarily attempting to impose. 

Anyway, plenty of bold name rabbis had views that "stood outside the historical community of Israel." What do you do with them? Speaking facetiously, my own LOR once admitted that he wouldn't let the Ibn Ezra daven in our shul, but how can such an approach make any sense? Do we really want to admit that our great Rabbis though treif thoughts? Do we want to write men like the Ibn Ezra "out of our mesorah?" Yet that is  what RYA is insisting we must do.

Immanuel Kant called Spinoza “that G-d intoxicated man.” Should we look more kindly upon Spinoza, go back to calling him Baruch rather than Benedict, and decide that pantheism is a legitimate form of belief in the G-d of Abraham? Why should we buy into the reading of the Amsterdam elders who banned Spinoza, rather than Kant’s? What about a person who announces that he is a fervent monotheist, but believes that this One G-d has three persons: a father, son and holy spirit? Will we accept him as Orthodox if he is otherwise mitzvah observant? If the belief system that Cross-Currents readers have been examining in the last few days is somehow seen as legitimate under a big tent of inclusion, will we posthumously welcome back Mordechai Kaplan and Louis Jacobs?

These are all appeals to emotion, and not solid arguments in favor of setting lines, let alone any sort of argument about what those lines must be. To be clear, I think RYA's line are impossibly narrow - they crowd out great Rabbis, we admire. But I am not sure any sort of lines must be set at all. What happens in your head is your own business, and arguments should never be banned. They have to be defeated or accepted. By calling for a ban -- and what are these "limits" if not a ban? -- RYW is conceding that he can't defeat Farber's arguments. And if he can't defeat them, isn't it fair to ask why?

Why is it important to describe limits of acceptable belief? Because what we believe is important to how we function as Jews. It is simply not true that Christianity concerns itself with belief but not actions, while Judaism concerns itself with actions but not belief. We know that this is not true; our actions have to be embedded in some sort of intellectual axiology for them to connect us to our Creator. We need to determine, to borrow Dr Marc Shapiro’s phrase, the limits of Orthodox theology. 

Has RYA read "The Limits of Orthodox Theology?" If nothing else its an eloquent argument against the idea of setting limits, as it shows how those limits developed historically and contingently. So how can they be any sort of "intellectual axiology" that "connect us to our creator." They are historical solutions to historical problems. Moreover, some of our great Rabbis disagreed with the Rambam's limits. Is RYA inviting us to say that those great Rabbis didn't connect with their creator? 

Otherwise, we are left with a stale and sterile Orthopraxy, rather than Orthodoxy

Another appeal to consequence; anyway, Orthopraxy is neither stale nor sterile. Also, it might have the merit of being true.

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