Beyond the pale

“That yeshiva ordains heretics.”

“This group rejects the fundamentals of Jewish faith. It is not Orthodox.”

“The author’s views on the Bible are beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism.”

Such accusations have been appearing in the Jewish media recently with increasing frequency and desperation.  The accusers — a cast of Orthodox rabbis, academics, and bloggers — come from a variety of backgrounds and institutions.  If there is one thing they have in common, however, it is a passion for heresy hunting.

A new self-appointed role — the Theological Gatekeeper — seems to have emerged in the Orthodox community.  The pretenders to this dubious position lack no self-esteem.  They appear to consider themselves entitled, even obligated, to publicly denounce fellow Jews as religious deviants (one rabbi has a weekly blog dedicated to shaming writers he considers non-Orthodox).  While no honest religious person would deny ever having a moment of doubt, the heresy hunters are not ones for thoughtful introspection — they seem more interested in subjecting an opponent to a good pummeling.

The Theological Gatekeepers use Maimonides’ Principles of Faith as the ultimate test of ideological kashrut.  Accept them, and you are a card-carrying Orthodox Jew; express doubt in a single principle, and you are outside the camp of the faithful, damned in this world and the next.

But Jewish dogma is not “Torah from Sinai” — it has a history.  The gatekeepers may be surprised to learn that the Maimonidean concept of systematic religious dogma is a medieval invention borrowed from Greco-Islamic philosophy.  The notion that the affirmation of a creed is a necessary and sufficient condition for salvation is completely foreign to the biblical and Talmudic traditions (see Menachem Kellner’s outstanding Must a Jew Believe Anything?).

This is not to say that every idea is compatible with Judaism.  The divinity of Jesus, for example, is irreconcilable with historical Jewish belief.  In practice, however, beyond a few assumptions at the very core of Jewish identity, theology has hardly ever been — and should not be today — the shibboleth for membership in the Jewish community, including the Orthodox community.  Neither Judaism nor Jewish peoplehood are functions of dogma.

If a religion can tolerate some doctrinal pluralism, the pursuit of heretics loses its meaning.

But isn’t “religious tolerance” an oxymoron?  Religion deals in absolutes — not just truth, but the One Truth.  How could a religious community tolerate heresy?  Must a religion not adhere to some sort of orthodoxy at all costs, even if that means shunning skeptics?  How can the followers of an immutable creed leave room for nuanced beliefs without compromising a measure of commitment to their sacred ideals?

To answer these questions, I suggest two complementary approaches.  First, we have an ancient tradition of theological tolerance.  Take the canonization of the Bible, for example.  As Sid Z. Leiman noted (and as cited by Kellner), books like Jubilees — with its alternative, non-halakhic calendar — were left out of the Bible.  But Kohelet was included in the cannon despite its questionable theology.

The second approach is related to humanity’s progressive maturity with respect to religion.  One of the great achievements of modernity, which includes Modern Orthodoxy, is that it has enabled the coexistence of religious passion with religious tolerance.  No doubt, a traditional faith community must maintain and occasionally fight for its identity against external pressures.  But a modern Western society, by definition, is a religiously inclusive society.  The sordid history of religious wars in Europe demonstrated how banning an idea is a few short steps away from persecuting, if not annihilating, its adherents.  In the wake of such atrocities, Western states, with varying degrees of success, gradually embraced religious tolerance as a remedy for man’s natural inclination to rid his neighborhood of dissent.  The United States, the most successful experiment in religious tolerance, was founded on this principle.

Despite some recent lapses, our community may yet recover its theological tolerance.  Jewish tradition itself provides the moral resources to disarm the intolerant.

As a cardinal value of Jewish ethics, humility may be the best antidote to heresy hunting. “Heretics” have often been proved right.  If the heresy hunter argues a point of disputed fact — say, regarding the authorship of a particular biblical text — he or she may ultimately be wrong.  No amount of intimidation can change what is true to false.  On the other hand, of course, the “heretic” may be wrong.  For that reason, even the most ungenerous among us should consider such a person mistaken, rather than disloyal to his community.

But let’s assume that a writer has indeed breached some critical theological boundary.  Even then, should we grant the Theological Gatekeeper a moral license to engage in McCarthyist bullying and slander?  For the religious person, heresy is a grave crime.  A charge of heresy is seldom made from love.  It is a curse, akin to branding the recipient an egregious sinner, a blasphemer, a traitor, an outcast rejected by God and man.  To libel someone that way violates the biblical prohibitions, among the 613 commandments, of halbanat panim (humiliation) and ona’at devarim (verbal harassment).  Would our gatekeepers dare to suggest their victims deserve to be shamed “for the sake of Heaven”?

“Do not go about as a talebearer among your people, and you shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16).  Abraham ibn Ezra links this verse’s two clauses — slander often leads to murder, he says.  If it does not result in the literal spilling of blood, the unrelenting slander of an individual or a community is character assassination, behavior any decent person would call beyond the pale.  We cannot stand idly by.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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