Sunday, December 07, 2008

Heresy Policy

I. The Problems

I'd like to discuss this blog's policy on introducing readers, at least those who are not already familiar with it, to ideas that are heretical or from a worldview that their community considers unacceptable. We are fortunate that this blog has readers from a wide spectrum of geographical and communal locations. That means that some readers have been taught a way of life that is different in significant ways from the way of life taught by others. For example, some people have been taught that there is only one Jewish way of thinking. Anything else is, if not heretical, at least profoundly unkosher.

If this blog presents a different way of thinking as being legitimately Jewish then we run the risk of having people question their raising and their teachers, which can lead to their rejecting not only a particular teaching but everything they were taught. I believe that this is a bad thing. If so, should we be discussing ideas that can introduce readers to ideas that pose those kinds of religious danger?

Click here to read moreII. Censorship

Taking this approach, which I think is valid, leads to some absurd conclusions. It essentially means that the most extreme views always control the dialogue. Once someone declares a view to be invalid, we are no longer able to discuss it and have to change the conversation to a less controversial topic. This is not only unfair, it is stifling. It means that, for example, Modern Orthodox Jews are not allowed to discuss significant aspects of their worldviews in public because of the danger it might pose to those from a more Traditionalist community. It means that we must censor the legitimate, even famous, views of Jewish sages because some contemporary rabbis find those views uncomfortable. That seems to me to be disrespectful to those sages.

III. Resolving the Dilemma

But what about the religious danger? There is a Gemara (Bava Basra 89b) that I think is relevant. R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai had a similar dilemma while teaching the laws of cheating in business. He wanted to teach those laws in detail, describe exactly what is forbidden. However, he found himself in a difficult position -- "Oy li im omar, oy li im lo omar -- Woe unto me if I say it and woe unto me if I do not say it." If he taught the details, people listening might get ideas on how to cheat their customers. He certainly didn't want to cause that. But if he didn't teach the details, he ran the risk of criminals thinking that they have free reign in cheating because the rabbis are naive and don't know what is really going on.

This specific case is different from ours because R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai was worried about encouraging deviants while we are worried about damaging innocent people. However, the conclusion to his dilemma is relevant. What did he end up doing? The Gemara says that he taught the details because of the verse (from this past week's Haftarah -- Hosea 14:10), "For the ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the wicked stumble in them." In other words, it's Torah. Teach it and let people do what they will with it.

IV. Modern Examples

The Darkhei Teshuvah has a notice from the author in the beginning of the first volume. The author wanted readers to know that while he quotes the opinions of the book Da'as Torah Ve-Giluy Da'as, this does not mean that he considers the book valid. He does not. However, if he did not quote from the book, people would think that he was not aware of it and had he read it, he might have ruled leniently. To avoid this, he quotes the book and disagrees with it. In other words, because of his concern that people will think that the rabbis are unaware, like R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he quotes a view that he considers invalid.

In a similar way, the She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah writes in his introduction that he often quotes views that are overly lenient despite his concern that people might see them and follow them. This is R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai's concern also, that people might do what he says not to do. The She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah writes that there is value in quoting these overly lenient views and he quotes them despite the danger because of the verse in the Gemara above.

Dr. Daniel Eidensohn wrote a book titled Da'as Torah that contains translations of passages from sages throughout the ages on various theological subjects. In a recent blog post (link), Dr. Eidensohn described his discussions with various leading rabbis about the publication of this book, in particular about the multiple theological views and the confusion this might cause some readers. Notably, R. Yosef Shalom Eliashiv responded that these confused readers should ask their rabbis and roshei yeshiva. This danger should not prevent the publication and publicizing of multiple views. In his paraphrase: "You don't avoid teaching Torah because it raises questions."

V. Heresy and Responses to It

This might apply to multiple Torah-based views, but can we utilize it in regard to heresy? While we might we be refuting heresy through teaching Torah-based responses, there is a prohibition to even think heretical thoughts. Can we refute heresy if it might cause someone to think through the theory that we are disputing? There are many examples of this throughout the Talmud and associated literature. We even find it in the Bible itself. The Torah says (Gen. 1:26) "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness...'" This could be taken to imply that God is a plurality (us, our). How could the Torah be written in such a way as to suggest heretical ideas to people? Granted, as R. Yochanan points out (Sanhedrin 38b), each time this occurs a counterproof is quickly offered ("And God created man in His own image" - Gen. 1:27). But the Torah itself is suggesting a heretical idea and then refuting it. That seems to be exactly what we are discussing.

This is also the approach of the medieval Jewish philosophers, like R. Sa'adia Ga'on and R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda, who would raise a heretical idea and then refute it in various ways. Note, though, that the quality of a refutation is always debatable and not just subsequent philosophy but even their contemporaries have sometimes disputed the refutations of those sages. But that possibility did not stop them. (This might be a matter of dispute between the Rambam and the Ra'avad in Hilkhos Teshuvah 5:5.)

As discussed above, I think it is important to be able to discuss Modern Orthodox theology. That includes ideas that are contrary to the standard view in certain communities and also includes responses to heresy. If we fail to discuss this in an accessible place, such as just limiting it to academic journals, then we will lose many people who think we are not aware of these issues and/or simply accept whatever is discussed in public, which is either a non-Orthodox or an Ultra-Orthodox worldview. The good thing about a blog is that since I am not an expert on these subjects, any mistakes I make or ideas I overlook can be suggested to me, both via comments and e-mail, and can be corrected in multiple ways.

VI. Conclusion

The general guidelines I follow are as follows:

  1. Responses to heretical ideas make up only a small portion of this blog, as part of a larger framework of Jewish thought and practice.
  2. Whenever a heretical idea is presented, a response is always quick to follow.

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