Author Challenges Rambam’s Principles

By Steven I. Weiss

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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A religious debate over intellectual freedom is brewing in the Orthodox world, following the recent publication of a book challenging the widespread view within Orthodoxy that Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith represents a binding articulation of Jewish theological dogma.

In his book, “The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised,” Marc Shapiro, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Scranton, argues against the contemporary Orthodox world’s treatment of the principles as unimpeachable dogma, insisting that they have been the source of much dispute since Maimonides first articulated them in the 12th century. A medieval Sephardic Jewish thinker whose works ignited a wave of excommunications and book-bannings among religious Jews, Maimonides is now perhaps the most commonly cited Jewish theologian in Orthodoxy, especially among the Modern Orthodox. His principles — including the belief that the Torah was written entirely by Moses and that an incorporeal God created the world from nothing — have come to represent the cornerstones of Jewish faith for the Orthodox.

Shapiro, however, contends in his book that Maimonides’s principles were never universally accepted among traditional Jews until recently. Even today, Shapiro says, some of the principles are explicitly contradicted by contemporary Orthodox practice — a point, he adds, that is rarely acknowledged among Orthodox religious leaders.

The ideological ramifications of Shapiro’s disputation are manifold, but perhaps most importantly, a widespread rejection of the principles would significantly narrow the theological gap between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism: Orthodox rabbis for decades have rejected Conservative rulings and practices on the grounds that the movement runs afoul of Maimonides’s articulation of Jewish doctrine by not believing in Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah. In addition, a number of Orthodox theologians have found themselves cast into Conservativism after expressing disagreement with the principles.

Shapiro and several observers, meanwhile, see the fight over his book primarily as the latest battle in an internal struggle within Orthodoxy over the limits of intellectual inquiry.

While many Orthodox scholars have yet to read the new book, it has already generated much interest. Last month at Yeshiva University’s student-run book sale, the largest annual Jewish book event in the United States, Shapiro’s book was the best-selling volume. A representative of the book’s publisher, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, reports that it has been selling briskly at the Eichler’s bookstore in Flatbush, but was deemed too controversial for a separately owned Eichler’s bookstore in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn, which returned all but one of its copies to Littman with the explanation: “Due to our neighborhood complaints we can’t keep this book on our shelves.”

Shapiro’s book was based on an earlier article that he wrote on the topic in response to a 1989 essay by Rabbi Yehuda Parnes, a longtime Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University who recently left for the more right-wing Lander College for Men at Touro College in Manhattan. In his 1989 essay, published in the inaugural issue of Yeshiva University’s Torah U-Madda Journal, Parnes defined as a heretical act the study of anything that conflicts with Maimonides’s principles. An exchange of letters in response to the essay led Shapiro to write an article for the fourth edition of the Torah U-Madda Journal that eventually served as the basis for his new book. Shapiro argued that the principles had not traditionally been considered the boundaries for Jewish belief or study. At the time, Shapiro’s article sparked controversy in the yeshiva world, where students passed it around at ultra-Orthodox institutions, including the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

Shapiro’s initial article raised some ire with his biting description of Parnes’s arguments. Shapiro has similarly been criticized this time around for dismissing Parnes’s essay as “ridiculous.” Parnes’s students and other rabbis have expressed dismay at this characterization.

“If I had to write it again, I wouldn’t have used this word, because it is a bit harsh,” Shapiro told the Forward. “If the book is reprinted, that word will be removed.” Shapiro also has sent public letters of apology to Parnes.

Still, Shapiro said, his strong disagreement with Parnes reflects the core of the argument over the principles. “What he said is that it is forbidden to study anything that disagrees with the principles,” Shapiro said. “It is this view that is without basis, for it means that you can’t even learn Rashi every week, which is an obligation,” Shapiro added, referring to the renowned French rabbinical commentator.

According to Shapiro, Rashi assumed that the biblical figure Joshua, Moses’ successor as Israelite leader, wrote the last eight verses in the Torah — a view that would seem to contradict Maimonides’s eighth principle, which states: “The entire Torah as we currently have it is that which was delivered to Moses.”

While the precise meaning of Maimonides’s statement has been subject to much interpretation for centuries, it is clear that talmudic figures — and perhaps even Maimonides himself — believed that certain words in the Torah had been changed or added after Moses’s death. Nevertheless, unquestioned belief in complete Mosaic authorship has become standard in many Orthodox communities.

Rabbi J. David Bleich, a leading Orthodox authority on rabbinic law, who has not read Shapiro’s book, argued that alternative positions from the past are not relevant if they have been rejected by contemporary Orthodox rabbis. “Once dogmas are presented, there is no room for rejected opinions,” even if they were articulated by great rabbis, Bleich told the Forward. “The attempt to revive such rejected opinions would now be regarded as heresy by normative Judaism.”

In other words, Bleich said, even if one observes all of the religious commandments, failure to accept Maimonides’s principles is a rejection of Orthodox theology. “You could call yourself Orthodox all you want,” Bleich said. “But you’re really Orthoprax.”

Such arguments, Shapiro said, inspired him to write the book. “It used to be OK to believe something, but now it is heretical because today’s rabbis believe it to be,” Shapiro said. Such an approach “is politics, not theology,” he added.

“I would argue,” Shapiro said, “that there is little need for such policy statements and that traditional Jewish theology should be about including people, not about seeing how many people can be excluded.”

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