The Limits Of Orthodox Theology

What I find most interesting in the Orthodox discussions of Dr. Marc B. Shapiro’s book is the widespread belief that readership of the book should be restricted. Not because there are significant mistakes in the book, but because the book will shake people’s faith and lead them off the derech.

Truth, it seems, is not a major value in Orthodoxy. Or is it that truth is such a precious commodity, it should only be shared with the elite who can handle it? If you reduce your religious observance because of the book — which, frankly, is the logical conclusion of it — then you’re not part of the chosen.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin (probably the best Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles — along with Yitzhok Adlerstein — to talk to if you have a modern philosophical question about Judaism, he’s one of the few I’ve met who’ll want to shake your hand after a vigorous argument on these matters, he understands modernity’s challenge — and yes, he wears a black hat) from the Orthodox Union’s West Coast branch and Kehillath Yaven writes to Jewish Action (the magazine of the Orthodox Union):

In his essay (summer 2007), Rabbi Leff cleverly wove together two book reviews about the Rambam’s Ikarim (principles of faith), contrasting Rabbi Bechhofer’s new book [Even Shisiya on the Thirteen Principles of the Rambam] with Dr. Shapiro’s [The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides Thirteen Principles Reappraised]. In this context, Rabbi Leff cited Rabbi Bechhofer’s knowledge of the Ikarim as a refutation of Dr. Shapiro’s claim that “since the sources of Jewish theology are not part of the curriculum in yeshivot, the students know nothing about them.” Rabbi Leff further expressed amazement that Dr. Shapiro could even make such a claim, for “is there a serious yeshivah student who is ignorant of Rabbi Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkarim or Rabbi Moshe de Trani’s Beit Elokim?”

I, for one, am incredulous at his incredulity. My experience—both while in yeshivot during my younger years, and currently, as a communal rabbi who interacts regularly with bnei yeshivah—is completely the opposite. I know many fine, extremely learned, and yes, “serious” bnei Torah, and the vast majority of them are completely ignorant of these aforementioned works, as well as many other works of this genre. In discussing this issue with friends and colleagues, their observation is the same. I can only conclude that Rabbi Leff’s yeshivah experience was from an extraordinary place and time, because his is definitely not that of the norm.

My observation is not in any way meant pejoratively. To the contrary, there is a long and proud tradition for yeshivot to steer students away from this genre, known, alternatively, as “sifrei chakirah” (books of investigation), or “tiyul b’pardes” (strolling through the garden), which refers to those works that systematically analyze and prove issues of faith and theology, especially the Ikarim.

Surely, Rabbi Leff is aware of the famous ruling of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (SA, Yoreh Deah 246:4):

A person should study nothing other than Scripture, Mishnah and Gemara and their halachic commentators. By doing so, he will acquire both this world and the next. A person should not study other areas of wisdom. However, it is permitted to study, on a casual basis, other areas of wisdom, provided that they are not heretical works. This type of literature is what our sages called “tiyul b’pardes.” But a person should not “stroll through the garden” until after he has filled his belly with meat and wine, and by that I mean mastery over that which is permitted and forbidden and the laws of the mitzvot.

True, there is controversy as to how far the Shulchan Aruch seeks to limit such study, and it is also unclear exactly which works fall into this category. But other authorities (such as Rivash, Chavot Ya’ir, the Vilna Gaon and most of the Chassidic masters) go even farther than the Shulchan Aruch in discouraging the study of theology texts. Included in these discouraged texts are Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, Gersonides’ Milchamot Hashem, Crescas’ Ohr Hashem, Rabbi Albo’s Sefer HaIkarim and many more. It is quite apparent that as a general rule our yeshivot have adhered to the policy of dissuading this kind of study.

Rabbi Leff weakened his own argument by stating that “mussar and hashkafah va’adim … take place in every yeshivah.” Grouping “mussar” and “hashkafah” together demonstrates that when addressing “hashkafah,” Rabbi Leff is talking about a very different kind of theological study than that required when critically analyzing doctrines of faith. In many respects, the latter is the polar opposite of mussar study. The “hashkafah” that Rabbi Leff refers to, on the other hand, includes works like Chovot HaLevavot (except for the Sha’ar HaYichud), Derech Hashem and Michtav MeEliyahu, all of which are meant to inspire and prod, but not to either prove or disprove theological dogma.

Like Rabbi Bechhofer, I studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College during the tenure of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. Rabbi Leff tries to prove that theology study takes place in yeshivot by citing Rabbi Weinberg and his students, but this is, once again, a mischaracterization of the reality. While Rabbi Weinberg lectured extensively in the yeshivah, he limited his public shiurim to the topics advocated by the aforementioned Shulchan Aruch: Gemara, mussar, et cetera. Only in private, small chaburot did he teach theological issues. This would explain why the majority of his students, myself included, were not privy to this side of the rosh yeshivah until after we had left the yeshivah.

Furthermore, Rabbi Weinberg was not exactly a paragon of conventionality. For his talmidim, his unconventional accessibility and down-to-earth common sense and rationality were what endeared him to us. His openness to theological topics was one more example of his breaking stride from the pack.

I agree with Rabbi Leff that the readership of Dr. Shapiro’s book should be limited, but not because of a small minority of errors or controversial statements that are made (which I thought were unfairly highlighted in the book review, while so much of the correct statements were overlooked). It is rather because most bnei Torah—due to the hashkafic policy decision of limiting theological study to talmidim—are simply not equipped to handle the advanced topics undertaken in his book.

Furthermore, one should consider that this policy decision was made centuries ago for a reason. In the twelfth century, when asked to expound on theology using the analytical method that was in vogue at the time, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi responded: faith based on tradition is always superior to faith based on logical proofs (Kuzari 5:1). It is far better, according to a long tradition of rabbis, to accept doctrinal issues without subjecting them to analytical rigor, because in the end, one may very well end up in a more confused state than when he started. Granted, Rambam did not agree with this outlook, but it seems that he was in the minority on this point. Accordingly, only someone who has a gnawing need to delve into these topics should do so.

Dismissing or de-legitimizing Dr. Shapiro’s work is a disservice to that significant minority of our bnei and bnot Torah who are true theology seekers. A serious yeshivah student who finds one of Maimonides’ Ikarim unsettling or problematic may be relieved to discover that a great Rishon also had trouble with that very same issue. The fact that at some point a “pesak” may have been issued requiring everyone to accept the Rambam’s Ikarim as absolute dogma will not assuage the person who is struggling with his own personal beliefs. On the other hand, books like Dr. Shapiro’s can offer the necessary soothing balm for the troubled soul who seeks to be frum and part of the Orthodox community, even though he has trouble with Maimonidean dogma.

At the end of the day, we are a religion more of deed than creed, and Dr. Shapiro’s book—filled with multiple positions on Jewish dogma—beautifully underscores that point.

Dr. Marc Shapiro writes to Jewish Action:

In Rabbi Zev Leff’s review of my book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, I feel that he didn’t give readers a correct sense of what the book is about. To rectify that, I can only ask people to read the book for themselves and determine if his portrayal is accurate. I would, however, like to challenge Rabbi Leff on some specific points.

1. Rabbi Leff writes: “The Chatam Sofer in his responsa (Yoreh Deah 356) cites a source even older than Rambam who refers to Thirteen Principles of Faith.” As I noted in the book (p. 36, n. 176) the Chatam Sofer was mistaken about this. The source he refers to was actually written by Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Muelhausen (fourteenth-fifteenth century) and has recently been published. (I also point out that in another responsum, Even haEzer 2, no. 148, the Chatam Sofer himself realized that the source under discussion has nothing to do with the Thirteen Principles which, he acknowledges, originate with Rambam.) The fact that Rabbi Leff could include such a sentence in his review, even though I showed it to be incorrect, leaves me with some doubt as to how closely he read my book.

2. Rabbi Leff writes: “Today the [Thirteen] Principles are universally accepted.” I do not believe this to be the case, and whenever I hear prayers or selichot directed towards angels (a violation of the Fifth Principle), I am reassured of the correctness of my belief. If one is simply using the Thirteen Principles as a loose term to define traditional Jewish belief, then yes, Rabbi Leff is correct. The purpose of my book was to show that, despite widespread assertions to the contrary, there has been a great deal of dispute regarding the Principles throughout Jewish history.

3. Rabbi Leff writes: “One who denies any of the [the Thirteen Principles] is outside the pale of the faith community of Torah Judaism.” Yet this sentence is followed by another one that contradicts it: “The Sages do not agree whether to deem one a heretic for harboring this belief.” Which is it? Is one who believes in a corporeal God (a violation of the Third Principle) a heretic, outside the faith community or simply an ignorant person who must be enlightened? As I discuss in my book, our Sages have disputed this very point, with no less a figure than Rabbi Arele Roth rejecting the Rambam’s view that such a belief turns a person into a heretic. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook also disagreed with the Rambam, and instead adopted the Ra’avad’s more tolerant approach. Rabbi Kook (Shemonah Kevatzim, 1:30-31) specifically rejects Rabbi Leff’s statement quoted at the beginning of this paragraph.

4. Rabbi Leff then says that I misunderstand “so many Torah sources.” The first one he refers to is Rashbam to Bamidbar 22:1. I referred to Rashbam as an example of one who believed that certain small parts of the Torah were post-Mosaic. Rabbi Leff writes that Rashbam “does not even intimate when this section was written. Rather, Rashbam simply explains that ‘beyond the Jordan’ was written to reflect what would be in the future.” Here are Rashbam’s exact words, as found in Martin Lockshin’s translation.

The phrase “across the Jordan” is appropriately written after they [i.e., the Israelites] had crossed [to the west side of] the Jordan. From their point of view the plains of Moab [on the east side of the Jordan] are called “across the Jordan.”

I assume that Rabbi Leff’s understanding of Rashbam is based on David Rosin’s text (or one of the other editions or CD-ROMs that use this text). Rosin’s edition removes anything radical from Rashbam (although in his note he gives the reader the actual mansuscript text). But as Lockshin has written, Rosin’s “reading is based on a conjectural emendation….I am convinced that Rosin’s emendation is based on his desire to make Rashbam’s comment here seem less heterodox.”

In my book, I further noted that according to a medieval Tosafist collection of Torah commentaries, Rashbam also identified Bereishit 36:31-39 as post-Mosaic; yet Rabbi Leff does not mention this.

5. I quoted sources that indicate the notion of tikkun soferim is to be taken literally. Among these sources are Midrash Tanchuma and Yalkut haMachiri (as well as the Aruch and a number of other texts that Rabbi Leff does not mention, leaving the reader with the wrong impression).

Rabbi Leff writes: “What Dr. Shapiro fails to mention is that those portions of the Tanchuma and Yalkut are not found in most early editions.” Let’s assume that this is correct (although to prove this one would need to actually examine the manuscripts, not simply refer to two apologetic comments found in the standard rabbinic commentary to Tanchuma). This would make perfect sense, as later copyists would be inclined to leave out that which they regarded as controversial or even heretical. What then does this prove?

Furthermore, the sources Rabbi Leff mentions only refer to Tanchuma. Neither of them mentions anything about Yalkut haMachiri. Of course, I am sure that he will also assert that this text is a forgery, or was written by a “mistaken student,” and will do the same with any other text that presents an alternate understanding of tikkun soferim.

6. The next section of his review concerns how to understand a passage in Rabbeinu Nissim and the Midrash. In presenting this, I wrote that it was hard to see how the approach of these sources can be brought into line with Rambam’s understanding of revelation of the entire Five Books of Moses. Nothing that Rabbi Leff writes has changed my mind in this respect. The reader should note, however, that before discussing this approach I stated that these views “seem to contradict Maimonides’ Principle” (emphasis added). I was well aware that the matter was not completely certain, for exactly the reasons that Rabbi Leff sets forth.

7. Rabbi Leff completely misunderstands my view about halachah and Principles of Faith. I have said, and I repeat now, that no Rishonim that I am aware of, and certainly not Rambam, believed that Principles of Faith can be decided in a halachic fashion. The Chatam Sofer says that they can. According to the Chatam Sofer, Principles of Faith can change in accordance with the halachic decisions of the times; what used to be an obligatory belief can cease being so, and what is now an obligatory belief need not have been so in the past.

Yet nothing could be more at odds with the Rambam’s understanding. According to the Rambam, Principles of Faith are eternal truths. They define the essence of what Judaism was, is and forever will be. If the majority of posekim determine that God has a body, this will not change the fact that it is still a basic principle of the Jewish faith to assert the opposite. For the Rambam, Principles of Faith don’t depend on the majority, be they right or wrong, for they are part of the essence of Torah. Principles of Faith have not, and indeed can never, change. Unlike the Chatam Sofer’s pan-halachic approach, in the Rambam’s conception, one doesn’t need a halachic decision for the Principles to be binding. As Menachem Kellner has put it, “Dogmas, it must be recalled, are beliefs taught as true by the Torah; is the truth taught by the Torah historically conditioned?”

We can see that the Rishonim held this view by how they dispute with the Rambam. When they want to show that one of his Principles is mistaken, they cite a Talmudic passage to show that one of the Tannaim or Amoraim disagreed with him. Thus, to give an example I only saw after my book was completed, Rabbi Isaiah ben Elijah of Trani’s proof that belief in God’s incorporeality is not a Principle, denial of which is heresy, is that there were Sages of the Talmud who held this belief (Sanhedrei Gedolah leMasechet Sanhedrin 5:2 [Jerusalem, 1972], p. 118).

Rabbi Isaiah doesn’t assume, or even raise as a possibility, that it used to be permitted to believe this, but now, since the halachah has been decided, it is forbidden. On the contrary, he asserts, based on the fact that some Talmudic Sages believed in a physical God and they are not, Heaven forbid, to be regarded as heretics, that God’s incorporeality cannot be a Principle. This, to him, is the greatest proof that the Rambam is wrong in declaring that all who deny his Third Principle are heretics. In other words, Rabbi Isaiah also believes that for something to be a Principle of Faith, it has to be eternally true.

Thus, Rabbi Leff is incorrect (with regard to the Rambam and other Rishonim) when he writes that “faith and belief are mitzvot like all other mitzvot. Hence, the halachic decision-making process applies to matters of faith in the way it does to other mitzvot.” In my book I acknowledge that this was the Chatam Sofer’s opinion, but it was not the Rambam’s view. In fact, the Rambam could not be more opposed to Rabbi Leff’s statement, as it means that his own Principles of Faith can be “voted out.” I can only wonder, after explaining my position, why Rabbi Leff sees this as “yet another example of Dr. Shapiro’s misunderstanding of Torah sources.”

Incidentally, Rabbi Leff quotes from my book (p. 142, n. 15) that Rabbi Kook also held the Chatam Sofer’s opinion. But in that note, I also call attention to other sources from Rabbi Kook that have a different approach. Why does Rabbi Leff ignore them?

8. Finally, Rabbi Leff claims that I “make a brazen attack on Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.” I am not sure why a valid criticism of Rav Moshe qualifies as a brazen attack, but let’s move onto substance. (Anyone who has heard my lectures on Rav Moshe can have no doubt as to my great esteem for him.)

Rav Moshe stated that Rambam believed in the protective power of holy names and the names of angels, as used in amulets. Rabbi Leff, in his criticism of my book, states that in Hilchot Mezuzah 5:4“Rambam rules that God’s name ‘Shakkai’ should be placed on the outside of the mezuzah, indicating his belief that the Shem does have protective powers.”

Yet Rambam never says that the name of God “should be placed” there; rather, he permits people, in accordance with the widespread custom, to do so if they want to, as this action has no relevance to the mitzvah per se and does not violate any halachic prohibition. But to say, as Rabbi Leff does, that Rambam believes that a name of God can protect you (and Rav Moshe even says this about names of angels) is a complete perversion of Rambam’s philosophy. Rabbi Wolf Boskowitz and Rabbi Joseph Kafih, in their commentaries on Hilchot Mezuzah, are explicit that according to Rambam the mezuzah has no protective powers. It is a mitzvah that helps us remember God and his Torah each time we come in and out of a room—hardly a small matter.

In his commentary to Sotah 7:4, Rambam speaks strongly against those who write amulets. What did these people put in the amulets? Various holy names and names of angels. This is the definition of a Jewish amulet, and when Rav Moshe speaks of holy names he is referring to the names of God that are mentioned in medieval works. Yet according to Rambam, this is all nonsense.

The Vilna Gaon recognized this (Beur haGra, Yoreh Deah 179:13). Although he notes that the Talmud has stories of special powers associated with holy names, he also states that according to Rambam “this is all falsehood.” Rabbi Joseph Ergas writes similarly (Shomrei Emunim 1:13). (Readers interested in seeing the Hebrew texts I refer to can consult for July 11, 2007.)

In my book, I assumed that Rav Moshe could say this, because he, like many other posekim, did not immerse himself in philosophy. The fact that Rabbi Leff could also assert this leaves me speechless. What is at issue is not the meaning of a citation of Rambam from here or there, but a proper understanding of his entire philosophical worldview.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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