Saturday, March 3, 2007

Dissent and Daas Torah

Intellectual freedom, the right to dissent from the consensus has always been a cornerstone in Jewish thought. Our prophets served as gadflies to our Kings and wealthy ruling class, and recording minority opinion in the Talmud was an accepted practice reflecting the concept of Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Hayim. Another indicator of the right to dissent was that a Zaken Mamre had the right to teach opinions not accepted by the Sanhedrin, only rendered guilty if he were to instruct others to be defiant.

Israel Supreme Court Justice, Menachem Elon expressed this view in Piskei Din Shel Beit Hamishpat Haelyon Keyisrael, vol.39, sect.2, p.291-304. It stands in stark contrast to the position held by the gedolim who seem to believe as Rabbi Sherer stated “…the torah provide’s history’s agenda, past, present and future, and encompass the worlds every secret. Those who have merited to acquire Torah thus possess the best credentials for effectively addressing the worlds problems, and those who doubt the torah leaders ability to ‘understand politics’, thereby redefine the meaning of Judaism”.

There are many such rabbis who believe that only through religious and spiritual tyranny can they effect and impact on the Jewish community. The Debrucziner Rav in the sefer, Beer Moshe believed it was forbidden to study books authored by rabbis who are Zionists or study Torah from graduates of modern yeshivot because they have “dangerous ideas”. Rabbi Moshe Hagiz in his essay Emunat Hachamim suggested that to challenge rabbinic authority by questioning the validity of the opinion of the sages was forbidden. He believed that dissent could lead to the rejection of rabbinic authority and undermine religious observance and belief. Maintaining and assuring control over the community by centralizing power in the hands of Rabbis was clearly his concern.

Challenging authority however, is grounded in Jewish Law. The Rama’s opinion in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 242:2) believes that dissenting from your rabbi’s teachings is permissible if his position can be substantiated. Rabbi Yaakov Emden in his sefer Sheelot Yaavetz ruled that students can question their teachers, because only in this way can truth be ascertained. Rabbi Chayim Palachi believed that every person has a right to express their opinion according to their understanding. Accordingly, a rabbi ought not withhold his opinion in deference to rabbis who preceded him. Palachi underscores his conviction when he says that one should not withhold his words, but give his analysis as he has been guided by heaven.

While there are many rabbis who would agree with Rabbi Palachi, the poignant question is what are the limits of dissent. In other words at what point has one crossed the line of normative Jewish thinking and rendered an apikores. Most of those subscribing to diversity or dissenting opinions limit that freedom and draw the line with the dogma established by the Rambam. Essentially, the thirteen Ikarim of the Rambam have become the red line over which one should not cross.

The position of the Rambam, although commonly accepted today wasn’t always the case. Rabbi Palachi noted that many great sages of the Rambam’s generation attacked and criticized his work. The Rambam’s attempt to anchor Judaism in theology had limited impact, because he linked belief to the mitzvoth. Rabbi Hasdai Crescas and others rejected the Rambam’s system of linking commandments to belief. Crescas argued that it make no sense to command someone to believe. How then can we be commanded to know that god exists, is one and is incorporeal?

As a side bar, Rambam believed in Aristotelian science. Accepting the postulates of Aristotelian science led directly to the proof positive of god. Rambam doesn’t tell us to accept the thirteen principles because the Torah teaches them, but because they were universally held as truths, based upon Aristotelian science.

Even if we were to accept the position of the Rambam as defended by the Abarbanel, there remains the problem of the shogeg and mezid. According to the Rambam, regarding the Ikarim there is no difference between shogeg or mazid. If one who unknowingly doesn’t believe in one of the Ikarim and is considered a shogeg, is he to be treated as a Mazid? Does a shogeg loose his place in the world to come? According to the Rambam there is no distinction between the two and they would not have a “chelek B’olam Haba”. Halachic Judaism does however recognize the valid category of Shogeg. Persons who are B’shogeg must do penance, but aren’t considered in the same category as one who does something b’mezid.

Principles of faith aren’t commandments, and shegagah which Rabbi karelitz (The Chazon Ish) differentiates from conscious heretics is treated differently than a Mazid. It appears then that there is no clear cut theological litmus test for orthodoxy. There are no mind police, and thus Rambam’s principles of faith can only be a means by which widely held teachings are summarized.

While the limits of dissent may differ between Halacha and Aggadah, applying the Rambam’s Ikarim as a redline could be a trap. How can we attempt to control thoughts when our tradition encourages inquiry? Challenging authority and respecting dissenting opinions is a part of our system of intellectual and spiritual design, nurtured in our tradition, regardless of the Rambam’s Ikarim. But, critical thinking and intellectual honesty promulgated and honored in our tradition has been rejected by right wing orthodoxy espousing Daas Torah, seeking to undervalue individual rights and independent thinking, perhaps reflecting the sentiments of Rabbi Moshe Hagiz. Interestingly Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, in commenting on dissent in Aggadic interpretation wrote that it is “intellectually unsound to accept blindly the teachings of our Rabbis in matters of medicine, natural sciences and astronomy: we and every intelligent and wise person, are obligated to evaluate each idea and each statement…to prove the truth and establish that which is worthy of being established….” These words and the ideas behind them bring honor to Torah and those that teach it. Unfortunately, Rabbi Sherer isn’t with us to respond. Perhaps some other representative of Daas Torah would do me the honor.