A Smattering of Heresy

The best part about being on vacation is that I can take a break from all the reading I have to do and focus instead on the books I want to read. Astute observers of my library account and Kindle will notice that, despite no longer writing a paper on either the neuroscience of narrative or Jewish philosophers, a fair amount of “the stuff” cluttering up every available surface is either about how the mind/brain works or about Judaism. Yes, there’s the occasional novel thrown in there (and, given the quality of the most recent novel I finished, thrown is most definitely the operative term), but overall, it’s both reassuring and a bit disturbing to note the similarities between that which I should be reading and that which I wish to be reading.

It is the latter of the two topics I’m in the mood to think about (or perhaps around) this morning, which at least makes a nice change from inchoate shouting at people misrepresenting either literature or neuroaesthetics or both.

So I’ve been reading some articles about Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s philosophy, ostensibly in preparation to actually read some of Leibowitz’s own writings, but also out of a simple desire to understand what in heaven’s name the man is talking about. I’m still uncomfortable in the realm of philosophical writing (primarily because I think of getting-words-on-a-page as a sort of craft and have found many philosophers to be so aggravatingly inscrutable that my inevitable response is, well, screw it. By reading articles about someone’s philosophy, much of the jargon fades, though one is left with the inevitable problem of interpretation. Still, I find I prefer to have a baseline understanding, even if that understanding is less than perfect, than wander through the avalanche of discourse without signpost to point the way or Saint Bernards to provide much-needed refreshment, armed only with the reassurance that I don’t have any preconceived notions to be disabused of) so this method of reading about and then reading works for me.

I’ve also been reading Yoel Finkelman’s new book about popular literature in Haredi circles, and here’s where the fun begins. He spends a fair amount of time discussing how Haredi literature pushes, but also reinforces the line between “us” and “them” (yes, simplistic, I know, read the book if you want to actually know what it’s about) and, along the way, discusses a number of ideas that are crucial to Haredi thought and its religious structure.

Interestingly enough, many of the ideas that he mentions as being critical to forming Haredi Jewish identity and culture appear in Modern Orthodoxy as well, especially in the day schools. For example, יורדי דורות, which refers to the idea that subsequent generations are less great than the previous and cannot compete with them in terms of intellectual prowess. This is the important part – because of this, no rabbi can overturn decisions made by his predecessor, because said predecessor is greater than him (and there’s a principle derived from the laws of courts that a Jewish court can only overturn the decision of a previous court if it is equal to that court in size and greatness. The idea of יורדי דורות pretty much guarantees that can never happen).

So, does Modern Orthodoxy believe this? It’s certainly an idea I’ve encountered throughout my education (and, I’m pretty sure, in all three major Jewish institutions I attended). It’s also an idea that plenty of, though I would doubt most, people recognize as a profoundly Hellenistic one (hey, look, thematic relevance to the current holiday!) and probably relates to the Greek idea that there was a Golden Age (“In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.” ~ Douglas Adams) and we’ve fallen from it. Once again, the surrounding culture has its inevitable influence on Jewish culture, which is not problematic (unless one chooses to make it so), but it does raise the question of whether this particular idea is one that we (and here I’m using we because I’m not entirely sure who is in this group along with me) must believe in. Does it matter if we don’t?

I mean, realistically, Modern Orthodoxy has far more practical reasons to preserve the decisions made in the past–whether out of its respect for and its understanding of the importance of tradition or the recognition that Judaism (well, Modern Orthodox Judaism, which, by definition, is what most of its practitioners would view as the Judaism) as a religion rests on the power and primacy of the Halachic system–so the question of whether and to what degree יורדי דורות influences its behavior is less relevant.

On the other hand, there are certain ideas that are considered indispensable to Haredi theology that Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to care about at all. For example, how old is the universe? While not everyone in Modern Orthodoxy agrees that the Universe is ~13.7 billion years old, and there are probably some people who believe the Universe was created 5762 years ago, belief in the latter is not a tenet (or tenant) of Modern Orthodox theology. Oh, there are countless ways to reconcile the two (God was counting days from OUTSIDE of the timeline is one of my favorites because it illustrates the inroads that science fiction has made into all aspects of culture), but, and here’s the important part, the fact is that the shoulder shrug and offhand “it’s a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally” response is a theologically acceptable position. In contrast, of course, we have a Haredi community that banned the works of R’ Slifkin on the grounds that they suggested there was an alternative to the world being ~5700 years old. Which is not to say that people in the Haredi community don’t believe that (one could poll them, I suppose) but that the community, as a whole, completely refuses to adopt that as a possible position.

These ideas, when looked at in tandem, suggest something interesting: The line between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi is not individually ideological. A Modern Orthodox Jew can believe the world is 5762 years old and no one is going to stop her, though they may argue with her. Conversely, a Haredi Jew who believes the world is ~13.7 billion years old, as long as he does not believe it aloud, does not lose his status as a Haredi. It doesn’t matter what the individual believes, but what the community uses to define itself and whether you are willing to allow the community’s voice to speak instead of your own.

Lest you think this is a Haredi phenomenon, I think this explains the backlash against Rav Yosef Kanefsky when he posted about not saying the blessing that thanks God for not having made man a woman. The blog post has since been taken down, so I can’t quote it or look it up, but the gist as I recall was that he felt the blessing to be a problem in this day and age in both the message it sends and the way it portrays Judaism. Fine, there was a whole brou-haha and several demands to kick him out of the fold, etc. But the problem, I think, is not what he thought but that he, speaking as someone with Halachic authority, voiced it in a way that suggested it was a binding Halachic decision. I think that if, at a conference of rabbis, he mentioned in passing that this was what he did, he may have garnered some disagreement, but the response would have been minimal overall. But because it sounded like a Halachic decision, the rabbinic response came out in full force.

So the analogy isn’t perfect because this example is practical. There were actual behavioral ramifications hinging on whether one agreed with Rav Kanefsky (who got to be today’s example of about 20 more or less similar cases). There is no difference in how one practices Halacha that hinges on how old the world is. Which leads me to wonder whether there are analogous elements in Modern Orthodox Judaism; things so far beyond the pale that one cannot believe them and still call oneself Orthodox, but that have absolutely no practical ramifications in Halachic terms (yes, that means we won’t be discussing women’s place in Judaism). I’m also leaving out the question of the Orthoprax Jew, one who believes nothing and does everything, because it’s a stance taken by an individual. One can be Orthoprax, but there is no movement that claims to be.

Here’s a fun one – can one, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, believe that there are multiple authors to the Torah and that the Torah was likely redacted during the first Temple era?

You don’t think I’m actually going to answer that, do you?

So there are (broadly) three options and they correspond (again, broadly) to the three attitudes that Rav Finkelman (I have a very difficult time thinking of my former educators without their honorifics) notices the Haredi community adopting towards elements of their culture that seem to be coming in from the outside. Denial, Acknowledgement, Concession

1) Denial. No, you cannot believe etc. While traditionally reassuring, it does run up against the problem that Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t like telling science to go and take a hike without different science on its side to back it up. Thus, most of the denial is couched in terms of attacking the methodology used by those who came to the conclusions in the first place or their impartiality. If you argue that your opponents are biased against you, then their results are automatically discredited because they obviously were unable to view the data impartially and could not come to the more right (i.e. your) conclusion. Everyone does this and academics can be the worst of the lot (“You don’t actually think that, you just think you think that because of your upbringing and background.” Thank you, Captain Obvious. Praytell, why do you think what you think?)

2) Acknowledgement. In this case, acknowledging the data (particularly regarding assertions of authorship), but reinterpreting it so that it fits into an Orthodox milieu. In this case, taking a leaf out of the Rishonim’s book and, instead of asking, “Are their multiple authors to this section of Tanakh?” asking “What can we learn from the fact that this portion of the Torah switches authorial tone for these verses?” This is the same impulse behind Rav Soleveitchik’s writings. He doesn’t ask what the two creation stories mean in terms of authorship, but what they mean in terms of drash and our understanding of our place in the world. This answer keeps the evidence and science intact, but reframes it in terms more palatable to the average believer.

3) Concession. Admitting that, in this case, secular researchers have better evidence than traditional rabbinic sources for the origins of the Torah and then asking “So what?” Basically, you argue that it is possible to believe simultaneously in the idea that the Torah is from God and that the Pentateuch was redacted by multiple authors.

For those of you with long memories, you’ll remember I mentioned Yeshayu Leibowitz about 1700 words ago. His theology is fascinating. One of the things he points out is that Tanakh (i.e. the Old Testament) relies on the Oral Law (that is tradition) for its legitimacy/sacredness. Human hands chose the 24 books of the canon and decided that these books were sacred based on oral tradition (which, in turn, gets its legitimacy from Tanakh. Yes. it’s circular). So would it be stretching his point too far to say that material human involvement even in the text’s genesis does not preclude it from being Godly?

Another Leibowitz point – the Torah is not a history book (raise your hand if you’ve heard that one before), so much so that any similarity between historical events and the events in the Torah are incidental and more or less irrelevant. The Torah exists to allow for the practice of Halachic Judaism and the stories and laws within are important as guides towards being a Halachic Jew, but may not be true in the sense that they reflect things that actually happened. (One could imagine a warning at the beginning of Genesis. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.) Leibowitz is more or less driven to this conclusion because he views God as being radically transcendent–God is not a part of this world, because that would make the things of this world sacred and worthy of worship. The only thing sacred is God, therefore this world and even the events of history cannot be Godly, else we would have to worship them and we know we cannot. (Remember, earlier, when I said his theology is fascinating? I’m also including disturbing).

So we are talking about a philosopher who is willing to push the envelope on traditional interpretations of Judaism, whose theology makes just about everyone with whom I discuss it uncomfortable and yet whose work neatly absolves us of having to resolve contradictions between history and the Torah. He’s not the only scholar to think about such things, though he make be the most radical.

So where does this leave person three? Arguably, believing that the Torah comes from God (and there are many different ways to interpret that) is a tenet of Modern Orthodoxy (if you don’t believe me, here’s a gedanken experiment for you – go into any school under the seminary umbrella at Yeshiva University and ask if one can be Orthodox without believing in “Torah MiSinai”). But that still doesn’t answer my earlier question – is it possible to believe simultaneously in the idea that the Torah is from God and that the Pentateuch was redacted by multiple authors?

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations-in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” ~ Neal Stephenson.


I'm a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My interests lie in the field known very broadly as the Digital Humanities and I focus on reading digital books (what happens to books as they become not merely digitized, but digital) and reading books digitally (how can we use computers to learn new things about literature). In what spare time I have, I read speculative fiction, transform long strings of yarn into apparel and decor and play with my friends' dogs while eagerly awaiting the day when we move to an apartment complex that will allow us to have one.

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3 comments on “A Smattering of Heresy
  1. “Thank you, Captain Obvious. Praytell, why do you think what you think?”

    Thanks. That made me laugh.

    “But that still doesn’t answer my earlier question – is it possible to believe simultaneously in the idea that the Torah is from God and that the Pentateuch was redacted by multiple authors?”

    I know several people who believe exactly that. If one is willing to say that God created all the extant species through an eons-long process of mutation and natural selection, where’s the logical leap in seeing the Torah as God’s intended result of a few centuries of authorship and redaction?

  2. Yael Shayne says:

    Noticeable dearth of responses. I admit, I tried to read it quickly, and then decided I had to go back and read it at a more leasurely pace. Makes perfect sense to me, even if I don’t know what gedanken means.

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