Wednesday, April 28, 2010

more on "Maimonides, Spinoza and Us"

Further observations on Rabbi Angel’s book:

There is no guarantee that the modern reader will be satisfied with the balance between faith and rationalism that the Rambam arrived at. Allowing that the “human mind must be given freedom to find its own way” (p. 4), there seems no way for Rabbi Angel to ensure or demand commitment to any dogma without being guilty of the same authoritarian tactics he condemns. Indeed, perhaps for this very reason Rabbi Angel is clearly not comfortable with the whole notion of cardinal principles of faith, echoing Prof. Menachem Kellner’s observation that the idea of dogma creates “serious problems regarding who is and who is not a true believer… Believers could separate themselves from non-believers, and even pursue heretics, with some degree of self-righteousness.” (p. 50) Yet, the Rambam himself was an authoritarian to some degree, having set out 13 inviolable ikkarim. What is one to do when ikkarim and reason collide?

The solution for Rabbi Angel is to blur the line between faith and apostasy, between what halacha demands and what is merely suggested but not required, and thereby create room for reason to extend its reach. To that end Rabbi Angel calls upon textual interpretation that I have no doubt would be met with incredulity had they been voiced by his opponents. For example, although the Rambam very clearly states that the entire Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai, Rabbi Angel gives credence to Dr. Marc Shapiro’s view that the Rambam said this because “it was necessary for the masses to affirm what, in reality, was not true.” (p. 44) This is like saying that the Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was just a means to get people to buy into the revolution but has no real bearing on our national identity. Once words no longer are taken to mean what they say, there are no limits to what one may claim -- perhaps the Rambam was a secret anti-rationalist kabbalist and meant his entire corpus as a smoke screen for the misguided masses?

Rabbi Angel similarly takes issue with the Chazon Ish’s “maximalist” view that all the details of the Talmud were revealed at Sinai and tries again to muddle the waters so as to minimize the demands of dogma. One of his proofs comes from the story (Menachos 29) of Moshe Rabeinu hearing a lecture of Rabbi Akiva and not understanding its logic – surely if Moshe knew the law he would not have been baffled! Yet this "proof" can be answered quite simply by distinguishing between form and content; Moshe Rabeinu may have known the conclusions (content) of Talmudic law but not the process by which those laws were derived by later generations (form). It was the methodology of Rabbi Akiva that baffled Moshe Rabeinu. Th question raised by Rabbi Angel is coincidentally asked by the Ohr haChaim in Parshas Tazri'a (VaYikra 13:37), which we recently read. The question caught my eye at the time, and when I posed the problem at my Shabbos table, it took less than two minutes for someone to intuit the entirely reasonable answer. Surely dismissing the view of one of the leading Rabbinic minds of the past generation (which is rooted in the views of Rishonim and earlier Achronim) warrants better proof than a question so easily resolvable!

Rabbi Angel does not limit himself to the realm of philosophy, but applies his same approach to halacha. An example: the Rambam’s codifies the halacha prohibiting women from studying Talmud, which sits at odds with our modern notion of equality. Rabbi Angels explains, “The Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership has essentially set aside Rambam’s statements on women and education, placing them into the category of outdated “advice” rather than accepting them as authoritative halakhic rulings.” (p. 172) Since there is no footnote, I have no clue who tese "rabbinic leaders" are; I am not aware that Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, Rav M. Willig, Rav Hershel Shachter, for example, would agree with this statement. I don't understand how it differs from the attemtps of Conservative or Reform “rabbis” who also relegate traditional laws to the category of mere “advice” that can be dispensed with at will.

Unlike Rav Soloveitchik, who advocated building a philosophy on the foundations of halakha (e.g. see Halakhic Mind, section 4), Rabbi Angel seemingly advocates molding halakha to meet secular philosophical, social, and ethical standards. Thus he frowns on the fact that “the prohibition against hearing a woman’s singing voice has been applied to synagogues and to Shabbat tables” (p. 170) but does not see fit to offer any explanation of how and why these domains should be excluded from from the issur of kol isha. It is reason, not halakhic analysis, that dictates what the proper conclusion is; the technical details of law can somehow be massaged into place after the fact, or perhaps the entire law can again be relegated to the bin of “advice” no longer needed. Rabbi Angel thus never faces the challenge of surrendering his reason to the higher dictates of halakhic authority, as halakhic conclusions can simply be adjusted and made to fit the desired reasoanble outcome. If one subscribes to the view, which Rabbi Angel himself espouses, that Torah has an eternal message, shouldn't it be halakha that molds our social and ethical sensibilities rather than the other way around?

Even in analyzing basic practices (and his chapter on conversion is worthy of discussion in its own right, but not for now), Rabbi Angel insists on foisting on halakha a very narrow interpretation that meets his agenda but which may not be true to the sources. For example, he dispenses entirely with the notion of ruah ra’ah as a reason for netilas yadayim, for what reasonable person believes in “supernatural evil spirits that cling to our hands when we sleep?” (p. 103) True, the Rambam does not give this reason for the law, but are we to simply overlook the vast body of literature of Rishonim, Achronim, and poskim who do treat this reason seriously? Are we to overlook or write off all that appears to be irrational and mystical in Jewish law? To do so is to strip halacha of views and practices that have centuries of precedent on their side. The very fact that page after page of the Shulchan Aruch gives weight to that which we cannot easily explain rationally suggests in fact that tradition has not accepted Rabbi Angel's approach as decisive.

This criticism cuts to the very heart of the weakness in Rabbi Angel’s argument. While the historical influence of rationalism certainly makes for interesting study, the approach of the Rambam is but one among many, and has waned in influence over time. It is not ignorance, obscurantism, authoritarianism, or fanaticism that leads so many down a different path than Rabbi Angel. It is a healthy respect for the wider array of tradition that our halakha and hashkafa embraces.


  1. Limited anaylsis of subjects to fit one's agenda is an error both sides of the Orthodox spectrum make. Rav Sliffkin recently reviewed a book out of the Chareidi community which similarly twisted, omitted and adjusted history and Torah to reach a pre-determined point based on the author's personal agenda. I would therefore suggest that what Rav Angel is doing is not something unique or special but just part of a trend, albeit from a different side of the spectrum.

    There is always a balance between faith and reason that a person must sustain and this balance is unique to each individual. Rav Dessler, zt"l, famously talks about the nekudas habechira which is unique in each person depending on his level of spiritual achievement. The balance between faith and reason would be similar. Some people need rational explanations for everything, absolutely everything. Others can accept any statement, however outlandish to others, as fact based on faith. Listen, at some point Avraham Avinu was telling people about an invisible all-powerful God who was the real power in the universe as opposed to the idols they were worshipping and for decades he had only his faith to sustain his belief, no actual proof. On the other hand, there is a reason most important teshuvos run several pages in length, because there must be a rational way the law is determined in various situations.

    For folks on the left fringe of Orthodoxy, there is a danger that those things which are not rational to their minds will be jettisoned from Judaism. Tell them the entire Torah was given at Har Sinai and they'll find ways around it. On the other hand, those on the right fringe will scoff at valid scientific facts if it contradicts their beliefs, like spontaneously generating lice or the sun revolving around the Earth. Neither approach is satisfactory in that they deny reality which demands a combination of both reason and faith.

  2. Well reasoned, I agree that the methodology Rabbi Angel employs is often subjective and not convincing to those of us who don't already share his views.

  3. "On the other hand, those on the right fringe will scoff at valid scientific facts if it contradicts their beliefs, like spontaneously generating lice or the sun revolving around the Earth."

    Really? Marc Angel's credentials certainly do not seem to be of the lunatic fringe:

    Rabbi Angel has a long career of service to his congregation and community. He has served as President of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Rabbinic Alumni of RIETS, Sephardic House, and various other organizations. He has served as an officer and board member of UJA-Federation of New York, the HealthCare Chaplaincy, American Sephardi Federation, Cancer Care and other agencies. He has won national rabbinic awards from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the United Jewish Communities, and the Finkle Award of the New York Board of Rabbis.

    (That's from his website,

    Is there any Charedi authority of similar marks of mainstream reverence - viz., RCA and OU honors - that makes such statements as you purport?

  4. Garnel Ironheart11:06 AM

    YGB, I may have been unclear and I apologize for the confusion. I did not mean the imply that Rabbi Angel believes in spontaneously generating lice. I certainly would not question his knowledge, piety and dedication to the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, chas v'shalom.
    However, one thing the Sliffkin controversy brought to light is that there are a number of authorities in the Chareidi world, or so we are told by their representatives, who hold that every statement on nature or science in the Gemara must be accepted as fact because Chazal "knew all". It is those folks I was referring to as being on the right fringe.
    For those on the left, the Torah must sometimes be molded to fit in with reality as science understands it. For those on the right, science has to be molded to fit in with their understanding of Torah. I prefer the middle approach myself.

  5. GI, I was obviously unclear myself. I meant to challenge your assertion that there are Charedi authorities - of such mainstream credentials in their world as March Angel has in his world - that assert that the Sun revolves around the Earth, etc.

    In other words, I am taking issue with the "moral equivalence" you draw when you assert:

    I would therefore suggest that what Rav Angel is doing is not something unique or special but just part of a trend, albeit from a different side of the spectrum.

  6. Garnel Ironheart12:16 PM

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z"l, firmly held that science was wrong and that we live in a geocentric universe. A recent conversation I had with the local shaliach confirmed that they treat this as dogma not to be questioned. He was a bit more evasive on the flat earth query mind you.
    As for others, I draw that from logical inference. One of the "outrageous" states in "The Challenge of Creation" was that Chazal had scientific knowledge as was current in their time and therefore did not know about atoms, dinosaurs, etc. Therefore any scientific statements they made had to be understood in that way. If they claims a mouse evolved from mud or that lice generated from sweat, well it's not that they were stupid, chas v'shalom but they were stating scientific knowledge of the day.
    For saying this, Rav Sliffkin was convicted of heresy. I therefore conclude that according to the proponents of the ban I must believe all the science Chazal stated without question. Some of those proponents are quite mainstream.

  7. To the best of my knowledge, the LR only said that based on the theory of relativity, since everything is moving, it is all a matter of perspective, and we see things from our perspective. I don't think shluchim are good resources in this regard.

    That statement was not what got RNS "convicted of heresy." If you want to discuss that, however, we would have to do it offline.

  8. Rabbi Angel makes reference (p. 162) to an "important 20th century rabbinic figure" who held that accepting the heliocentric model is kefira, but he neglects to tell us who this figure is. He claims the Chazon Ish also held that the heliocentric model is incorrect because it runs contrary to Chazal, but is not kefira. Little problem: his footnote is not from the C.I.'s seforim, but rather from a secondary source, so I at least have no way to check it (I am under-impressed with people who cull stuff from a kli sheni).

    But G.I., let's not confuse two different issues. There is a difference between not knowing scientific fact and therefore taking the default position that Chazal are right until proven otherwise vs. holding to a literal interpretation of Chazal even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence (which is why I would like to see the Chazon Ish). The C.I. may simply have not known all the facts and would indeed change his mind if convinced otherwise. After all, this is the same Chazon Ish who readily accepts that treifos no longer die within a year, despite what the gemara tells us! To assert that he clings to text and ignores reality is flat out wrong.

    It is hard to argue lack of sufficient proof with respect to geocentrism, but such a position seems at least possible with respect to the issue of evolution, one of Rabbi Angel's other examples. Remember that you and most of us still cling to the belief that the 5 books of Moses were given by G-d through Revelation despite the fact that 99% of the academic community thinks such an idea is nuts and lacking in historical or scientific evidence. The "gedolim" may simply be happy to fight that 99% on the evolution issue.

  9. Garnel Ironheart5:54 PM

    Here`s another current authority who questions which revolves around which:

  10. Do you believe every report on the internet about what RCK holds?

    But more importantly, what exactly is the point you are trying to make? As I wrote above, the issue here may simply be lack of knowledge, not denial of reality. Isaac Newton held of some pretty bizarre stuff even for his time - are you going to tell me that this proves he is not a scientist and we should throw out his contribution to physics?

  11. I believe RCK's assertion as to his own beliefs:

  12. Chaim, it depends on the blog. Parshablog does not just publish rumours and heresay. If he makes an assertion he has the documentation to back it up.

    The comparison with Newton is also very relevant. Newton, as a scientist, was working with the understanding and knowledge base of his day but he also expanded it when he discovered that previous "facts" about gravity were incorrect. He didn't simply say "Well, this is how I heard it from my elders". That's how science works.

    The point I'm trying to make is the same one I started with: on either end of the spectrum you will find views that exclude the opinions of the other end. Neither is ideal. Somewhere in the middle is much, much better.