Shlomo Rechnitz & The 8th Principle Of The Jewish Faith

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

The assumption of R. Navarra is also found in, of all places, Shlomo Rechnitz’s famous (or infamous, depending your perspective) speech on the Lakewood school situation.

In this incredibly courageous speech, delivered, as it were, in the lion’s den itself, Rechnitz strongly attacked the phenomenon whereby, he claims, many children in Lakewood are not allowed into the schools that their parents would like them to attend, as their families are not of the right sort. Since he is a major philanthropist, in general Rechnitz is given some leeway in what he says, but in this speech he went over the line and the powers that be responded very strongly, forcing Rechnitz to issue an apology and declare that he will no longer speak about this matter. It was interesting to see all the comments on the different haredi news sites that reported on the Rechnitz speech. The people were overwhelmingly in favor of what Rechnitz said. However, this creates an enormous problem for haredi society, since laypeople, even important wealthy philanthropists, are not the ones to be making communal policy, and certainly not to be criticizing this policy in public. By the leadership’s strong response, and seeing how quickly Rechnitz folded, it sent a clear signal who the bosses really are.
The entire video is of great interest in terms of the sociology of the American haredi community, but I want to call attention to a tangential point made by Rechnitz. At minute 21 he says that he has a difficulty with a formulation of Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith. He also states that he never saw anyone who discusses this difficulty (which I assume means he never read The Limits of Orthodox Theology).

He begins by saying that Maimonides’ principles of faith are eternal, applying for all time. Thus, the principle that God created the world or that the Messiah will come are things that one must believe in all times. He then says that the eighth principle of faith is difficult since it requires belief that our Torah scrolls are the exact same as the one given to Moses. Rechnitz asks, how can this be a principle of faith? How can there be a guarantee that the text never changed? This is not a question of theology but of historical reality, and how could Maimonides know what would happen in the future? Maybe after recording his principle there would be confusion in the Jewish people, and it would lead to a mistake in the text. Rechnitz quotes the Ani Ma’amin version of the eighth principle and wonders, “How could Chazal [!] possibly make such a statement?” He then says that in the “last few thousand [!] years since that Ani Ma’amin was written” much has happened with the Jewish people, wars, pogroms, ghettoes, etc. So how can we know that there haven’t been any changes in the text? “How can we say with a straight face that the Torah we have in our hands today is letter by letter the exact Torah we received at Har Sinai. And more importantly, how did Chazal know that the Torah would never even slightly deviate ad sof kol ha-doros?” He then says that this is based on a promise from God that the Torah would never be forgotten.[5]

All this is of course incorrect, and I don’t mean to criticize Rechnitz on this account. He is not a scholar and isn’t expected to know these things. Yet what he says is illustrative of the common view of many who have no idea about masoretic matters, and it was precisely this sort of perception that Maimonides created with his formulation of the eighth principle. (In The Limits of Orthodox Theology I offer a suggestion as to why Maimonides put forth a formulation that he knew was inaccurate.)

In response to Rechnitz, and I hope someone shows him this post, let me go over what I wrote here where I cited R. Yosef Reinman who has the same basic misconception as Rechnitz (although unlike Rechnitz, he knows that Yemenite Torah scrolls are not identical to Ashkenazic and Sephardic Torah scrolls).

Reinman writes as follows in One People, Two Worlds, p. 119:

“[A]n examination of Torah scrolls from all over the world, from Ireland to Siberia to isolated Yemen, all handwritten by scribes, yielded just nine instances of one-letter spelling discrepancies. Nine! And none of them affect the meaning of the text. Why is this so? Because every week we take out the scrolls and read them in public. The people follow the reading closely and if something is wrong, they are quick to point it out.”

Unfortunately, Reinman [and Rechnitz] doesn’t realize that it was the invention of printing that unified Torah texts by creating a standard version that soferim could have access to and be guided from (and those who review the parashah each week with Rashi will know that Rashi’s Torah text was not identical to the one we currently have[6]). Printed humashim also enabled people listening to the reading to point out errors. Yet let us not forget that most of the differences in Torah scrolls have concerned male and haser. Contrary to Reinman’s implication in his last sentence, there is no way for the people following the reading to catch such an error.

I must also point out that Reinman’s first sentence is an egregious error, and one doesn’t need to go to Ireland or Siberia to prove this (and contrary to what he states no one has ever performed such an examination). If one simply takes fifty Torah scrolls from Lakewood one will find all sorts of discrepancies. I know this because the people who check sifrei Torah by computer claim that the overwhelming majority of scrolls they check, including those that have been in use for decades, have contained at least one error.[7] In other words, contrary to what Reinman has stated, the truth of Torah does not rise or fall because of scribal errors. If it did, then we would be in big trouble because as I just mentioned, almost every Torah scroll in the world has discrepancies. What Reinman doesn’t seem to get is that while contemporary halakhic authorities are in dispute about only nine letters, this has nothing to do with the quality of actual Torah scrolls, which are obviously subject to human errors by scribes.

MRELD COMMENTS: The blame for the school situation lies both on the schools and the people that are complacent in the way that they are run. And unfortunately they are run like, (and in reality are), the administrator’s (i.e. owner’s) private business and political tool. If you own a school in Lakewood, it gives you immense political power and is a great business to exploit the populace (every school has a simcha hall now that you can rent out!), due to the enormous and ever increasing demand for schools. Thus what you have in Lakewood is essentially a large corrupt oligarchy exploiting the well being of children.

Just think of the absurdity. These schools collect money from people under the guise of charity, when in reality they are collecting for their own private businesses. What needs to be done is for Lakewood to start making schools with a BOARD.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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