Monday, March 15, 2004

The Limits of Orthodox Theology

Professor Marc B. Shapiro, of Scranton University, recently published a fascinating book titled The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised which is an expanded version of an article he published 11 years ago in The Torah u-Mada Journal. An excellent article by Steven I. Weiss was published in the Forward newspaper about this book and its controversial nature.

The following are some of my comments after carefully reading the book. I have written a more complete critique and submitted it for publication in a scholarly journal. For now, these short comments will have to suffice.

1. Extreme Interpretations

Shapiro consistently conveys the most extreme interpretations of sources and, while he notes that there are other possible explanations, assumes that these radical interpretations are valid and may therefore enter the discussion. Conservative scholars such as this writer (if you can call me a scholar) do not really care about these extreme interpretations because we believe them to be incorrect. Let Prof. Meir Bar Ilan say what he wants about the scholars of the Talmud, I do not accept as viable the claim that they believed in a corporeal God. The fact that Prof. Bar Ilan makes such a claim does not, in my view, give any validity to the argument that the incorporeality of God was a matter of dispute among the talmudic scholars. Quoting radical positions such as these does not bolster Shapiro's thesis one bit.

2. Lack of Proper Respect

In a number of places Shapiro does not give the proper respect to great Torah scholars. For example, he merely brushes aside R. Moshe Feinstein more than once as if this venerable giant were a schoolchild. His offhand comment about the sexuality of R. Ya'akov Emden is scurrilous, regardless of whatever questions outrageous scholars may ask based on the most tenuous of evidence. Despite Shapiro's public apology to R. Yehuda Parnes (for which he deserves great credit), Shapiro fails to acknowledge that he is debating with giants. Even without deferring to their views one can still show respect.

3. Ignoring Halakhic Issues

Shapiro fails to recognize that the definitions of the fundamental principles of Judaism is an halakhic issue. The status of the shehitah of someone who denies one of these principles is a legal matter that requires clarification and, therefore, a posek needs to determine what the fundamental beliefs are and who is someone who denies them. If we declare that the definition of a heretic is not an halakhic matter then we are functionally declaring halakhah to be paralyzed on this subject. I do not believe that this is a viable position.

4. What is his Position?

Shapiro never fully clarifies his stance. Does he believe that there are no fundamental beliefs at all? I don't think so. Does he believe that they are indefinable or that they are merely widely defined (e.g. any position ever once taken by a legitimate scholar)? Does he believe that there is such a thing as heresy that a beginning student is forbidden to read or not? These are the issues that started Shapiro on his journey that culminated with this book but he never really offers his conclusions.

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