Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Marc B. Shapiro -- Response to Rabbi Zev Leff

Response to Rabbi Zev Leff
by Marc B. Shapiro

Rabbi Zev Leff (of Moshav Matityahu) reviewed my book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised, in the most recent issue of Jewish Action [see review]. I don’t feel that he gave the readers a correct sense of what the book is about. To rectify that, I can only ask people to read for themselves and determine if his portrayal is accurate. For now, I would like to challenge him on the specific points he makes.

1. He writes “The Chatam Sofer in his responsa (Yoreh Deah 356) cites a source even older than Rambam who refers to Thirteen Principles of Faith.” As I noted in the book (p. 36 n. 176) the Hatam Sofer was mistaken about this. The source he refers to was actually composed by R. Yom Tov Lipmann Muelhausen (14th-15th cent.) and has recently been published. (I also point out that in another responsum, Even ha-Ezer II, no. 148, Hatam Sofer himself realizes that the source we are talking about has nothing to do with the Thirteen Principles which, he acknowledges, originate with Rambam.) The fact that R. Leff could include such a sentence, even though I showed it to be incorrect, leaves me with some doubts as to how closely he read my book.

2. He writes: “Today the [Thirteen] Principles are universally accepted.” I do not believe this to be the case, and whenever I hear prayers or selihot directed towards angels (a violation of the fifth principle), I am reassured of the correctness of my belief. If one is simply using the Thirteen Principles as a loose term to define traditional Jewish belief, then yes, R. Leff is correct. The purpose of my book was to show that, despite the widespread acceptance, there has nevertheless been a great deal of dispute regarding the Principles throughout Jewish history.

3. He writes: “One who denies any of them is outside the pale of the faith community of Torah Judaism.” Yet this sentence is followed by another sentence which contradicts it: “The Sages [1] do not agree whether to deem one a heretic for harboring this belief.” Which is it? Is one who believes in a corporeal God a heretic or simply an ignorant person who must be enlightened? As I discuss in my book, our sages have disputed this very point, with no less a figure than R. Arele Roth rejecting the Rambam’s view that such a belief turns a person into a heretic.

4. R. Leff then says that I misunderstand “so many Torah sources.” The first one he refers to Rashbam to Numbers 22:1. I referred to Rashbam as an example of one who believed that certain small parts of the Torah are post-Mosaic. Rabbi Leff writes that Rashbam “does not even intimate when this section was written. Rather, Rashbam simply explains that ‘beyond the Jordan’ was written to reflect what would be in the future.” Here are Rashbam’s exact words, as found in Martin Lockshin’s translation:
“The phrase ‘across the Jordan’ is appropriately written after they [i.e. the Israelites] had crossed [to the west side of] the Jordan. From their point of view the plains of Moab [on the east side of the Jordan] are called ‘across the Jordan’”

I assume that R. Leff’s understanding of Rashbam is based on David Rosin’s text (or one of the other editions or CD-Roms that use this text). Rosin’s edition removes anything radical from Rashbam. But as Lockshin has written, Rosin’s “reading is based on a conjectural emendation... I am convinced that Rosin’s emendation is based on his desire to make Rashbam’s comment here seem less heterodox.”

In my book, I also noted that according to a medieval Tosafist collection of Torah commentaries, Rashbam also identified Gen. 36:31-39 as post-Mosaic; yet R. Leff does not mention this.

5. I quoted sources that indicate that the notion of tikkun soferim is to be taken literally. Among these sources are Midrash Tanhuma and Yalkut ha-Makhiri (as well as the Arukh and a number of other texts which R. Leff does not mention, leaving the reader with the wrong impression).

He writes: “What Dr. Shapiro fails to mention is that those portions of the Tanchuma and Yalkut are not found in most early editions.” Let’s assume that this is correct (although to prove this one would need to actually examine the manuscripts, not simply refer to two apologetic comments found in the standard rabbinic commentary to Tanhuma). This would make perfect sense, as later copyists would be inclined to leave out that which they regarded as controversial or even heretical. What then does this prove?

Furthermore, the sources R. Leff mentions are only referring to Tanhuma. Neither of them mention anything about Yalkut ha-Makhiri. Of course, I am sure that he will also assert that this text is a forgery, or was written by a “mistaken student,” and will do the same with any other text that presents an alternate understanding of tikkun soferim.

6. The next section of his review concerns how to understand a passage in R. Nissim and the Midrash. In presenting this, I wrote that it was hard to see how the approach of these sources can be brought into line with Rambam’s understanding of revelation of the entire 5 books of Moses. Nothing that R. Leff writes has changed my mind in this respect. The reader should note, however, that before discussing this I stated that these views “seem to contradict Maimonides’ Principle” (emphasis added). I was well aware that the matter was not completely certain, for exactly the reasons that Rabbi Leff sets out.

7. R. Leff completely misunderstands my view about Principles of Faith and halakhah, so let me try to clear it up. I have said, and I repeat now, that no rishonim that I am aware of, and certainly not Rambam, believed that Principles of Faith can be decided in a halakhic fashion. Hatam Sofer says that they can. According to the Hatam Sofer, Principles of Faith can change in accordance with the halakhic decisions of the times; what used to be an obligatory belief can cease being so, and what is now an obligatory belief need not have been so in the past.

Yet nothing could be more at odds with the Rambam’s understanding. According to the Rambam, Principles of Faith are eternal truths. They define the essence of what Judaism was, is, and forever will be. If the majority of poskim determine that God has a body, this will not change the fact that it is still a basic principle of the Jewish faith to assert the opposite. For the Rambam, Principles of Faith don’t depend on the majority, be they right or wrong, for they are part of the essence of Torah. Principles of Faith have not, and indeed can never, change. Unlike the Hatam Sofer's pan-halakhic approach, in the Rambam’s conception, one doesn’t need a halakhic decision for the Principles to be binding. As Menachem Kellner has put it, “Dogmas, it must be recalled, are beliefs taught as true by the Torah; is the truth taught by the Torah historically conditioned?”[2]

We can see that the rishonim held this view by how they dispute with the Rambam. When they want to show that one of his Principles is mistaken, they cite a talmudic passage to show that one of the tannaim or amoraim disagreed with him. Thus, to give an example which I only saw after my book was completed, R. Isaiah ben Elijah of Trani’s proof that belief in God’s incorporeality is not a Principle, denial of which is heresy, is that there were sages of the Talmud who held this belief![3]
אבל אם יחשוב אדם שהקדוש ברוך הוא בעל תמונה, לא הקפידה תורה בכך, וכמה היו מחכמי התלמוד הקדושים, שמהם תצא תורה לישראל, שלא נתנו לבם להתבונן בענין האלהות, אלא הבינו המקראות כפשוטם, ולפי תומם חשבו כי הקדוש ברוך הוא בעל גוף והתמונה, וחלילה שנקראו מינים לאשר נאמר עליהם לקדושים אשר בארץ המה

R. Isaiah doesn’t assume, or even raise as a possibility, that it used to be permitted to believe this, but now, since the halakhah has been decided, it is forbidden. On the contrary, he asserts, based on the fact that some talmudic sages believed in a physical God and they are not, Heaven forbid, to be regarded as heretics, that God’s incorporeality cannot be a Principle. This, to him, is the greatest proof that the Rambam is wrong in declaring that all who deny his third Principle are heretics. In other words, R. Isaiah also believes that for something to be a Principle of Faith, it has to be eternally true.

Thus, R. Leff is incorrect (with regard to the Rambam and other rishonim) when he writes that “faith and belief are mitzvot like all other mitzvot. Hence, the halakhic decision-making process applies to matters of faith in the way it does to other mitzvot.” In my book I acknowledge that this was the Hatam Sofer’s opinion, but it was not the Rambam’s view. In fact, the Rambam could not be more opposed to Rabbi Leff’s statement, as it means that his own Principles of Faith can be “voted out.” I can only wonder, after explaining my position, why Rabbi Leff sees this as “yet another example of Dr. Shapiro’s misunderstanding of Torah sources.”

Incidentally, R. Leff quotes from my book (p. 142 n. 15) that R. Abraham Isaac Kook also held the Hatam Sofer’s opinion. But in that note, I also call attention to other sources from R. Kook that have a different approach. Why does Rabbi Leff ignore them?

6. Finally, R. Leff claims that I “make a brazen attack on Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.” I am not sure why a valid criticism of R. Moshe qualifies as a brazen attack, but let’s move onto substance. (Anyone who has heard my lectures on R. Moshe at, can have no doubt as to my great esteem for him.)

R. Moshe stated that the Rambam believed in the protective power of holy names and the names of angels, as used in amulets. R. Leff, in his criticism of me, states that in Hilkhot Mezuzah 5:4 “Rambam rules that God’s name ‘Shakai’ should be placed on the outside of the mezuzah, indicating his belief that the Shem does have protective powers.”

Yet the Rambam never says that the name of God “should be placed” there; rather, he permits people, in accordance with the widespread custom, to do so if they want to, as this action has no relevance to the mitzvah per se and does not violate any halakhic prohibition. But to say, as R. Leff does, that the Rambam believes that a name of God can protect you (and R. Moshe even says this about names of angels) is a complete distortion of Rambam’s philosophy. Relevant in this regard are R. Kafih’s short remarks in his commentary to Mezuzah 5:4, which could also be seen as a reply to R. Leff.
והדברים תמוהים מי זוטר תפקידה של המזוזה דתנטריה לבעל הבית בצאתו לרה"ר מלשגות בהרהורים, מי זוטר מה שמזכירה לאדם בצאתו למרחב את יחוד ה' ואהבתו ולא יבוא לידי חטא אפילו במחשבה

In his commentary to Mezuzah 6:13 he writes:
ואין כוונת חז"ל לדעת רבנו שהמזוזה מהנה בעניני העולם הזה, אלא שבזהירות במזוזה ישווה ה' לנגדו תמיד, ובכך תהיה השגחת ה' עליו גדולה

Two hundred years ago, the great R. Wolf Boskowitz wrote:[4]
אלא ודאי מוכח מזה דרבינו ז"ל סובר דמצות מזוזה אין בו תועלת השמירה כלל בטבעה ובסגולתה, רק כי היא כמו אחת מכל מצוות ה' אשר צוה אשר אין בהם תועלת לעניני עולם הזה רק לעשות רצון קונו יתברך אשר צוה על כך וקבלת פרס בעולם הבא, שתי אלה הם תכלית כל המצוות, ותכלית תכליתן היא קרבת אלקים כי זה חפצו יתברך וזה הוא גם כן תכלית מצות המזוזה ואפס זולתו

In his Commentary to Sotah 7:4, the Rambam speaks strongly against those who write amulets. These people put various holy names and names of angels in the amulets. In fact, this is the definition of a Jewish amulet. When R. Moshe speaks of holy names he is referring to the names of God that are mentioned in medieval works (such as כוזו במוכסז כוזו ). Yet according to the Rambam, this is all nonsense.

The Vilna Gaon recognized this.[5] Although he notes that the Talmud has stories of special powers associated with holy names, he also states that according to the Rambam .הכל הוא שקר R. Joseph Ergas wrote:[6]
הרמב"ם ז"ל, כיחש בזה, ולגלג הרבה על המאמין שיש כח בשמות לעשות שום פעולה
In my book, I assumed that R. Moshe’s position could be explained by the fact that he, like so many other poskim, did not immerse himself in philosophy. The fact that R. Leff could also assert this leaves me speechless. What is at issue is not the meaning of a citation of the Rambam from here or there, but a proper understanding of his entire philosophical worldview.

[1] According to the scholarly convention, the word “sages” is only capitalized when referring to the Sages of the Talmud.
[2] See his review of my book ("Returning the Crown to its Ancient Glory: Marc Shapiro's The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised") in The Edah Journal 4:1 (2004): 6.
[3] Sanhedrei Gedolah le-Masekhet Sanhedrin (Jerusalem, 1972), volume 5, section 2, p. 118. On the previous page, in direct contradiction to Rambam, he writes:
מי שיטעה בכך ולא ירד לעמקו של דבר, ומבין המקראות כפשוטן וסבור שהקדוש ברוך הוא בעל תמונה, לא נקרא מין, שאם כן הוא הדבר, איך לא פרסמה תורה על דבר זה ולא גילו חכמי התלמוד להודיע דבר זה בגלוי, ולהזהיר נשים ועמי הארץ שלא יהוא מינים ויאבדו עולמן. הלא כמה איסורים קלים כגון איסור מוקצה וכיוצא בו, חיברו חכמים כמה הלכות והרבו כמה דקדוקין להעמיד כל דבר על מכונו, ועל דבר זה שכל האמונה תלויה בו ויש בו כרת בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, איך לא הורו חכמים על דבר זה בגלוי. אלא ודאי לא הקפידו לכך, אלא יאמין אדם [את] הייחוד כפי שכלו, ואפילו הנשים כפי מיעוט שכלן . . . שלא צותה תורה להורות על אלה הדברים
[4] Seder Mishneh, ad loc. (p. 197).
[5] See Beur ha-Gra, Yoreh Deah 179:13.
[6] Shomer Emunim 1:13.

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