Idolatry and Tradition

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The source of idolatry, among the gravest offenses a religious person can commit, lies atop a slippery slope. It comes not from a search for multiple deities and not even from an abandonment of the one true God. It’s origin lies in a deeper, more basic deviation.

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:1) explains the historical origin of idolatry. If Adam and Eve interacted with God, at what point and why did their descendants spread their devotions to idols? Maimonides states that at a certain point, people decided to worship God’s celestial servants as a show of respect to God, and eventually worshipped them exclusively and neglected God entirely. This, however, is a historical recreation of humanity. The personal path may be much different.

The Gemara (Pesachim 116a) instructs us to begin our Pesach seder with an embarrassing, insulting tale from the time of Terach, Avraham’s father. “מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו – Our ancestors were initially idolators.” Rambam (Hilkhos Chametz U-Matzah 7:4) describes them as “כופרים וטועין אחר ההבל ורודפים אחר עבודה זרה – Deniers, mistakenly following nonsense, and idolators.” This triple language is unusual and instructive. It explains the process by which an individual becomes an idolator.

Elsewhere, Rambam (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:7-8) divides non-believers into three categories — מינים (sectarians who deny God’s existence), אפיקורסים (epicureans who deny prophecy), and כופרים (heretics who deny the Torah). In describing the idolators we mention at the seder, Rambam invoked the third category — heretics. What Torah existed in Terach’s time for him to reject? It must be the prophetic tradition from Adam and Noach.

Terach and his predecessors took their first steps to idolatry by rejecting their tradition. Without such a guide to religious behavior, they had to invent their own. Their eventual creation was inevitably wrong — a religion of nonsense, which Rambam tersely describes. And idolatry became a central feature of this mistaken philosophy.

The Rambam’s brief lesson in idolatry teaches us that the first step toward religious tragedy is rejection of tradition. Even when facing new situations, without that trusted guide you risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads you to idolatry. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

105 comments

  1. Maimonides states that at a certain point, people decided to worship God’s celestial servants as a show of respect to God

    Barchune L’Shalom Malachei HaShalom, Malachei Elyon.

    Fortunately our tradition says thats okay.

    Terach and his predecessors took their first steps to idolatry by rejecting their tradition.

    And yet, there is that famous midrash, of Avram rejecting his own traditions in favor of the God he saw in nature.

    Even when facing new situations, without that trusted guide you risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads you to idolatry. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.

    A lovely dvar Torah that “just happens” to be one you can use as a hammer against those you disagree with about any of those pesky changes you’ve disagreed with here.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    This is very forced and tendentious derush. The Rambam in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah never refer to a prophetic tradition before Abraham. On the contrary, only a few isolated individuals knew and worshiped God. Abraham disovered God on his own. In Hilkhot Teshuvah the Rambam never refers to plain kofrim, as you imply. He only refers to kofrim ba-torah. To make a gezerah shavah between the kofrim in Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah and the kofrim be-Torah in Hilkhot Teshuvah is thoroughly unconvincing– and we all know why you made it. Don’t foist your ideas on the Rambam!

  3. if you are going to make a diyuk from the Rambam’s history of idolatry in hilchot avodah zara and his categories of heresy in hilchot teshuva, you should also bring in the passages in Moreh Nevuchim where he actually references the passage in hilchot avodah zara. That is MN 1:36 in which he also writes:

    וכוונתי במלת כפירה, קביעת דעה על דבר הפך מכפי שהוא

    ואיני חושב לכופר מי שלא הוכח לו שלילת הגשמות, אך חושב אני לכופר מי שאינו קובע בדעתו שלילתה, ובפרט עם מציאות תרגום אנקלוס ותרגום יונתן בן עזיאל עליהם השלום, אשר הרחיקו את הגשמות תכלית ההרחקה

    It seems that:

    a) in the context of AZ, the Rambam does not define kefira as “heretics who deny the Torah” but rather as people who have a wrong idea regarding the nature of the divine.

    And his advice is for people who are incapable of philosophic inquiry on their own to rely on the works of the sages and affirm in their heart the correct opinion. Of course, as is clear from the rest of the Rambam’s writings, those of us who are fortunate enough to engage in philosophy, would do better – according to the Rambam – to use our intellect in order to arrive at the correct manner to think about the Divine.

    What this post seems to represent is more of a political drash with a (slightly emotional) plea for people to place tradition above their intellect instead of an actual investigation of the Rambam’s opinion on the nature of idolatry – which would indeed be useful and interesting.

  4. “Jewish monotheism in antiquity is not easily defined. In paradoxical fashion, the very conception that highlighted God’s uniqueness and emphasized his sovereignty almost necessitated the belief in angels and other intermediary forces. Premodern Judaism never fully resolved this tension. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides defined monotheism to be the belief in only one supernatural being. Demons and spirits are mere figments of the imagination; angels, the Logos, and the divine powers are mere ‘attributes’ of God that have no existence whatever independent of the deity. But this radical monotheism of Maimonides was rare even in the Middle Ages, and is unattested in antiquity. Christianity resolved this tension by arguing that the Monad was plural, that the One consisted of Three, one of whom who was both human and divine, was the chief intermediary between God and the world. This was an option that most Jews were not prepared to accept.”

    From p. 81 of “From the Maccabees to the Mishnah” 2nd Ed, by Prof. Shaye Cohen

  5. Wasn’t Rambam himself one of the most innovative figures in Jewish history? He rejected countless traditional beliefs due to his adoption of Greco-Muslim philosophy. If you want to make a case for being conservative about tradition, I don’t see how citing Rambam is going to help matters.

  6. Gil,
    You seem to have seriously lost touch with your readership. We do not think natural theology is meaningful and we do not think that any change from the way things have been done in the past is the first step down the slippery slope to idolatry.

  7. >Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:1) explains the historical origin of idolatry.

    Does anyone know if the Rambam had another source apart from conjecture?

  8. > You seem to have seriously lost touch with your readership. We do not think natural theology is meaningful and we do not think that any change from the way things have been done in the past is the first step down the slippery slope to idolatry

    Gil can speak for himself, however, you could also say he is quite aware of the viewpoints of his readership and is trying to show them another more traditional viewpoint that they otherwise might dismiss.

    One thing is clear, Gil does not write this blog so that he can bask in the agreement of his commenters. He states what he believes to be the truth.

    As far as finding an audience who would agree with his posts, I suspect that the readership of Cross-Currents is actually closer to the hashkafa presented here than the readership of this blog.

  9. >The Rambam’s brief lesson in idolatry teaches us that the first step toward religious tragedy is rejection of tradition. Even when facing new situations, without that trusted guide you risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads you to idolatry. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.

    I presume you understand the logical conclusion of this paragraph is “Therefore, LWMO will lead to idol worship”. If that is the case then I couldn’t agree more, but I am one of the few who read this blog who would probably say that.

  10. “Rambam explains the historical origin of idolatry. If Adam and Eve interacted with God, at what point and why did their descendants spread their devotions to idols?”

    You know, just because the Rambam says something doesn’t mean it makes a lick of historic sense. Drawing further conclusions from it borders on kooky.

  11. ARW,
    I was trying to be nice.

  12. It is interesting to note that according to the Nevi’im, idolatry was normative in pre- Maccabean times, by Jewish/Israelite monarch, priest and masses. It was only the lone prophet on his mission from God that tried to change the ways of the people.

    The Chashmona’im radically changed this course through revolution – i.e. by taking over the monarchy and the priesthood. And even then, we have this fascinating “reality check” in 2 Maccabees Chapter 12 (generally accepted to have been written by an Alexandrian Jew around 124 BCE):

    “39 On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers.40Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden;42 and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection.44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

    This is also, btw, the first explicit reference to tchi’yat ha’maytim of which I am aware prior to the Mishnah.

    It seems to me this demonstrates the opposite of Gil’s thesis. Normative Judaism removed idolatry by overturning tradition.

  13. HAGTBG: While I sympathize with your point (I don’t say that part of Shalom Aleichem), I don’t know that it is particularly relevant to this post. People see it as similar to obtaining a blessing from a tzaddik.

    Dr. Kaplan: “Forced” and “tendentious” are in the eye of the beholder. The meaning of the word “koferim” is unclear and finding it in Rambam’s usage elsewhere is hardly a gezerah shavah.

    Chardal: Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I had not thought of this passage.

    IH: There you go again, quoting from Conservative scholars.

    Natan Slifkin: Wasn’t Rambam himself one of the most innovative figures in Jewish history? He rejected countless traditional beliefs due to his adoption of Greco-Muslim philosophy.

    What? Rambam was certainly an innovative thinker. But he was hardly the first to work within a Greco-Muslim philosophy and was certainly following the tradition of his predecessors, even while disagreeing with them on certain points.

    MDJ: The active commenters represent about 1-2% of this blog’s readership. There are plenty of readers who don’t comment but e-mail me or tell me that they think I’m too far to the left.

  14. Gil: [IH] There you go again, quoting from Conservative scholars.

    You do it too?

  15. I’ve noticed a trend in this blog lately to more and more heavy-handed propaganda instead of real exploration of the issues facing contemporary religious Jews. I think you’d be better off to take a step back from that. We all know you find recent trends disturbing, especially as they relate to women’s participation in Orthodoxy. But if you want to remain relevant, it would be better to stop hammering everyone with your opinions and let them explore the issues alongside you.

  16. “IH: There you go again, quoting from Conservative scholars.”

    Is that the best you can do? Shall I find more quotes from Prof. Schiffman or Prof. Shapiro to be politically correct?

  17. Gil, FWIW, I stumbled on Prof. Cohen as a result of the confluence of: a) learning Perek Chelek; and, b) reading 1 & 2 Maccabees on Channuka.

    When I came across the passage about idolatry and resurrection, I started poking around and found Prof. Cohen’s book — I had not heard of him before.

    As far as I know, his book and Prof. Schiffman’s “From Text to Tradition” which I’ve had for years are the two “go to” resources for this period. Any recommendation for other books that cover this ground?

  18. I’m not sure you got my point.

    Asking for the blessings of the angels is the same as a show of respect to God’s celestial servants. I believe there are midrashim that state that the these celestial servant’s are, in fact, angels. Certainly I can not remember ever being taught that G-d has spiritual servants but for angels in our tradition.

    At the same time our tradition permits saying this verse, your personal preference and the logic behind it notwithstanding.

    You can’t have it both ways in this post. If the first ancient flaw leading to idol worship was a show of respect to G-d’s celestial servant’s, the that remains a flaw today.

    Yet, to bar this practice would be to say that our tradition is flawed for our tradition permits this practice (and clearly does not see it as a gateway to idolatry).

    I will note that people thinking that the blessing of a tsaddik and that of an angel being co-equal should be disconcerting far more then the verse itself, as presumably the will of the tsaddik can alter the will of Hashem and, thus, the reality of our existence.

    I will note, expanding on what was written earlier, that when you start with “מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינ” you are stating that the original tradition of our ancestors was (or included) idol worship – the verse itself is saying the very OPPOSITE of your dvar Torah. This is further exemplified by the midrash of Avram rejecting his father’s practice and tradition of idol worship (regardless of Terach’s tradition, that was Avram’s tradition) and cumulates in the miracle of the kivshan haesh.

    The verse itself and the famous midrash argue precisely the opposite of your point.

  19. Rambam was certainly an innovative thinker. But he was hardly the first to work within a Greco-Muslim philosophy and was certainly following the tradition of his predecessors, even while disagreeing with them on certain points.

    That statement only works if you are defining “tradition” EXTREMELY loosely. And if you’re going to define “traditional” so loosely as to include Rambam, then how exactly does this post make its point, and what point exactly is it making? If it’s okay to dismiss countless beliefs of Chazal and modify halachos as a result – as Rambam did – then I don’t think that this is going to help you in your campaign against LWMO, or “post-Orthodox,” or whatever you’re calling them.

  20. So we should enforce the Cherem that the beis din of Vilna placed on the Chassidim and their rejection of tradition? Or that radical new institution the yeshivah in the style of Volozhin? Or that even more recent innovation kollel?

    Of course you will say that these innovations were very conscious of tradition and innovated within the tradition. And you would be right. But those to your left whom your are criticizing will claim the same with some reason. As to whether you or they are right, only time will tell.

  21. “It is interesting to note that according to the Nevi’im, idolatry was normative in pre- Maccabean times, by Jewish/Israelite monarch, priest and masses. It was only the lone prophet on his mission from God that tried to change the ways of the people.”

    IH, and this is a good thing? Quite the contrary, it argues against the “whatever’s normative is OK” line.

  22. aiwac: the point is that if not for the Chashmona’im overturning tradition (including installing themselves into the kehuna), do we have Judaism as we know it.

    Had the people accepted Gil’s guidance:

    “Even when facing new situations, without that trusted guide you risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads you to idolatry. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.”

    what would have been?

  23. IH,

    Fair enough, but my point was that the attitude of “whatever Jews do is acceptable” is no less fallacious as a normative attitude, precisely because “בתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו”. I know this is not your position, but I’ve seen it thrown around in other contexts, and this seemed like a good time to bring it up.

    To put it in a different light – the “is” of Jews (now and then) is not always the “ought”.

  24. There are plenty of readers who don’t comment but e-mail me or tell me that they think I’m too far to the left.

    And no doubt they would employ the same sort of nebulous polemics that you’ve been using in this series of posts. They would say that you are not sufficiently traditional, etc. Look, if you want to claim that those to your right are wrong in how they delegitimize you, then you aren’t going to help things by using exactly the same approach to delegitimize those to your left!

  25. Maybe it’s none of my business, but did I miss something? Was there a public breakup between Gil and Natan Slifkin that I’m unaware of? Private?

    If I recall correctly, Gil was one of the main supporters of NS but from recent comments, it appears that the warm feelings between the two aren’t quite there. Anyone else notice this? Was this due to a difference in hashkafah?

  26. There was no public or private breakup (that I’m aware of!) I just disagree with R. Gil’s methodology in his series of anti-LWMO posts.

  27. Fair enough – thank you.

  28. >“Therefore, LWMO will lead to idol worship”. If that is the case then I couldn’t agree more

    This is a rediculous statement. Say what you will about the strengths and weaknesses of LWMO, the tendencies towards various sorts of magics, theurgy, and superstitions that border on AZ become much more prevelant in the right. Just look at the ads for chareidi tzeddakas for one peek into this window. Whatever faults one may find in LWMO, then tendency towards AZ does not seem to be one of them.

  29. LWMO will lead to idol worship only if it is modernity that is being worshipped. I hope that is not the case.

  30. In general — sorry but I’ve been very busy lately on many different things and have had trouble keeping up with comments. In fact, this post was put together drowsily on an airplane late last night and posted hastily this morning after learning of R. Ari Enkin’s technical problems. It probably could use a better conclusion.

    ARW: I presume you understand the logical conclusion of this paragraph is “Therefore, LWMO will lead to idol worship”.

    I would say that it will lead to disaster, not necessarily idolatry.

    SQ: You know, just because the Rambam says something doesn’t mean it makes a lick of historic sense.

    That is entirely beside the point. The issue here is what the Rambam thought.

    IH: It is interesting to note that according to the Nevi’im, idolatry was normative in pre- Maccabean times, by Jewish/Israelite monarch, priest and masses.

    Others have argued, quite cogently to my mind, that even during the worst times there was a core observant and scholarly community. Notice that even Bethel, which housed a forbidden bamah, also contained prophets and “bnei nevi’im”, essentially batei midrash of students. It wasn’t an ir ha-nidachas but a city like Tel Aviv, with tamei and tahor alongside each other. The prophets, who chastised the nation, of course focused on the negative.

    Also remember that Ezra started a revival movement after (more or less) the prophets and before the Maccabees.

    This is also, btw, the first explicit reference to tchi’yat ha’maytim of which I am aware prior to the Mishnah.

    Rambam considers Daniel 12:2 to be a clear reference to ressurection of the dead.

    And FYI, Prof. Shaye Cohen tends to undermine tradition while Prof. Lawrence Schiffman tends to uphold it. A quote from the latter will strengthen your case more.

    S: [IH] There you go again, quoting from Conservative scholars.

    You do it too

    I quote them to uphold tradition, not undermine it.

    writersroadmap: I’ve noticed a trend in this blog lately to more and more heavy-handed propaganda instead of real exploration of the issues facing contemporary religious Jews.

    I’ll have to think about it. My gut reaction is that it isn’t true and that this blog has always advocated certain positions. But I’ll take your comment seriously and think about whether to move in a different direction.

    HAGTBG: If you *follow* your tradition, then you aren’t in danger of deviating because you are just continuing an established path. If you *deviate* from your tradition, then you are deciding on your own where to head and your ultimate destination is undetermined.

    Natan Slifkin: That statement only works if you are defining “tradition” EXTREMELY loosely.

    I disagree. I think the Rambam certainly believed that he was following Chazal and Onkelos, not to mention the Geonim. While he deviated on fine points, they are in the realm of chiddushim. Only if you disagree with the Rambam’s view of Jewish history can you even start to think that he was non-traditional. But even if you do, he obviously didn’t.

    There are plenty of readers who don’t comment but e-mail me or tell me that they think I’m too far to the left.

    And no doubt they would employ the same sort of nebulous polemics that you’ve been using in this series of posts.

    And presumably some on the left would argue that any rational Jewish thinker was an outlier and Judaism was always inherently irrational.

    They would say that you are not sufficiently traditional, etc. Look, if you want to claim that those to your right are wrong in how they delegitimize you, then you aren’t going to help things by using exactly the same approach to delegitimize those to your left!

    Do you have any red lines at all? It’s not clear from your arguments here. Are you OK with, for example, Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is the messiah but keep all the mitzvos (i.e. Orthoprax Messianics)? Or are you going to use the same arguments against them that your delegitimizers on the right use against you?

    My argument with those on the right is simply that my path has a Mesorah, their arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Mike S: So we should enforce the Cherem that the beis din of Vilna placed on the Chassidim and their rejection of tradition?

    I’m not sure what good it would do, although R. Yaakov Kamenetsky reportedly believed we should. There are also factual issues that have to be clarified regarding the accusations. But setting aside the cherem, I think many of us would agree that the deviation of Chassidus led to theological disaster (think Messianic Lubavitchers and the [hopefully] few Lubavitchers who deify their rebbe).

    Mark: Maybe it’s none of my business, but did I miss something? Was there a public breakup between Gil and Natan Slifkin that I’m unaware of? Private?

    We’re still BFF’s who just don’t agree on everything. I’m OK with that. I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I say, as long as they don’t advocate ordination of or greater ritual participation for women.

  31. >LWMO will lead to idol worship only if it is modernity that is being worshipped.

    What does this even mean?? Will they erect an idol to honor modernity and sacrifice to it? Will they bow to it?

    Stop spewing invective and try making statements that have actual content. Why don’t we start by defining what you mean by Avodah Zarah and then we can see if LWMO is on a unique vector towards it while the right wing is in no such danger.

  32. It’s more than advocating a position. It seems like you’ve made up your mind on the position a long time ago, and couching that position in drushim. It seems a lot more like partisan politics – as though you’re playing to a crowd of some sort, though I have no idea who that crowd would consist of – than an actual basis for discussion.

  33. hirhurim: “I think the Rambam certainly believed that he was following Chazal and Onkelos, not to mention the Geonim. While he deviated on fine points, they are in the realm of chiddushim.”

    fine points? like what torah moshe received from hashem at sinai? which was counter to geonic mesorah (see ibn daud). like all the great ones he reinterpret the talmud to his view – classical jewish tradition for new and novel ideas. fine points indeed.

    i see you pick and choose among conservative thinkers – if they support your view – wonderful; if counter – hey they are conservatives – it seems the substance of the argument or proofs – data or whatever – is of minor interest to you. facts or logic really don’t matter. only if it upholds your view of what tradition was, is and will be.

    i think being shomer mitzvot and having certain correct beliefs is more fluid than you pretend to be. its not everyone to the left of me is an apikorus (thats how it sounds to this am haretz). it could be they are in the fold just not your view of the fold but dati nevertheless.

  34. Jon_Brooklyn: It’s more than advocating a position. It seems like you’ve made up your mind on the position a long time ago, and couching that position in drushim.

    I fully accept this description. When did that become a bad thing? I have made up my mind and I enjoy derush.

  35. I think the Rambam certainly believed that he was following Chazal and Onkelos, not to mention the Geonim.

    On some things yes, on other things definitely not. He consciously rejected Chazal’s belief in shedim and other superstitions, which often had halachic ramifications. Besides, it’s not a matter of what Rambam believed about himself, it’s what we know about him. And it’s clear that he broke from tradition in many ways – that’s precisely why there was so much opposition to him. So it’s odd to invoke him for the importance of sticking with tradition.

    Do you have any red lines at all? It’s not clear from your arguments here.

    Please don’t start with straw men again. I am not saying that there are no red lines! I am saying that if you are going to argue that LWMO or whoever are wrong, then it’s important to define precisely where, how and why. A vague statement about the importance of tradition, itself based on a Rishon who was extremely untraditional, just doesn’t cut it. It undermines the credibility of your views in other areas. Believing that the world is billions of years old is not traditional, either! So of course you can say, “Well, okay, but at a more basic level, it’s traditional to reconcile Bereishis with science, etc.” And the LWMO will say that it’s traditional to adapt Judaism to changing realities, etc. So this kind of vague, nebulous polemics just doesn’t accomplish anything.

    You seem to assume that I am saying that whatever people do – ordination of women, etc. – is okay. But I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying is that it is counterproductive to argue against something if you don’t have a good argument to use against it – and especially if you use the exact argument that other people legitimately use against you.

    Are you OK with, for example, Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is the messiah but keep all the mitzvos (i.e. Orthoprax Messianics)? Or are you going to use the same arguments against them that your delegitimizers on the right use against you?

    I assume that your suggestion was made for rhetorical purposes, and that you weren’t attempting to create a strawman of my believing that it’s okay to be Messianic Orthoprax. Of course such Messianics are wrong – but NOT because of their being “untraditional” in some vague sense, which would be an objection that my opponents could legitimately say about me. Rather, they are wrong because this belief is clearly fundamentally antithetical to Torah and has never been espoused by any rabbinic authorities. Yes, this is similar to the arguments used by some against me – but they happen to be demonstrably entirely incorrect, since my views have indeed been espoused by a large number of respected rabbinic authorities. This is what I mean about the importance of using precise arguments to show why others are wrong, instead of vague hand-waving and polemics which can legitimately be equally directed against oneself.

  36. hirhurim: “I think the Rambam certainly believed that he was following Chazal and Onkelos, not to mention the Geonim. While he deviated on fine points, they are in the realm of chiddushim.”

    fine points? like what torah moshe received from hashem at sinai? which was counter to geonic mesorah (see ibn daud). like all the great ones he reinterpret the talmud to his view – classical jewish tradition for new and novel ideas. fine points indeed.

    i see you pick and choose among conservative thinkers – if they support your view – wonderful; if counter – hey they are conservatives (apikorsim)- it seems the substance of the argument or proofs – data or whatever – is of minor interest to you. facts or logic really don’t matter. only if it upholds your view of what tradition was, is and will be.

    i think being shomer mitzvot and having certain correct beliefs is more fluid than you pretend it to be. its not everyone to the left of me is an apikorus (thats how it sounds to this am haretz). it could be they are in the fold just not your view of the fold but dati nevertheless.

  37. sorry for the duplicate – traveling overseas doesn’t help.

  38. Anonymous,
    The term avodah zarah can be used quite literally as in true idol worship or more coloquially. In Yeshivish circles the term is used to refer to anytime a person puts a primary focus on something that is not an Avodas Hashem. For example a person who works 18 hours a day to get rich and ignoring their learning can be said to be worshiping the avodah zarah of money. There is no actual avodah zarah involved but an inappropriate focus that can be a very slippery slope. The same is true here. An excessive focus on modernity (that is to say Western values over tradition)can lead to disaster.

  39. “LWMO will lead to idol worship only if it is modernity that is being worshipped. I hope that is not the case.”

    I’ve personally had encounters with secular humanists in which I beg and plead with them not to worship science, and tried to explain to them in terms they could accept why science is not worthy of worship. Unfortunately, I don’t think I had much success.

    “Are you OK with, for example, Messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is the messiah but keep all the mitzvos ”

    I once asked my rav if I could trust the kashrut of a meshichist Lubavicher, and to my surprise the psak was that I could.

  40. I have made up my mind and I enjoy derush.

    Oh, why didn’t you say so in the first place? It would have cleared up a lot of confusion. The rest of your posts are overall very consistent in style, being reasoned and detailed analyses of issues, so if you suddenly switch to derush/ polemics, that is somewhat jarring.

  41. “Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.”

    I think that our history shows that it has been avoided many times. What would be useful would be a detailed analysis of how and why some schisms do lead to disaster (Shabbatai Tzvi, the Reform movement….), and some do not (rise of the Chasidic movement, Zionism, women learning gemara….).

  42. hirhurim: “as long as they don’t advocate ordination of or greater ritual participation for women.”

    why is this your red line? if you advocate women ordination – what category do you put that person in? btw, on a theoretical level RAL wasn’t oppose to this on a halachik level but rather on a potential split in the community level. lo zeh hazeman.

    as r’ slifkin pointed out sheidim we can add angelology dybuks etc – actually any halacha in the talmud based solely on these criteria was not brought down l’halachs by him. really he upheld his mesorah.

  43. hirhurim -“or greater ritual participation for women.”

    in a recent article to be publish in an halachik/yeshiva journal on woman and zimun has the haskama of r’ baruch gigi co- head of har etzion – on the author’s conclusion of allowing women to be counted with men in a zimun under certain circumstances (family related get together/dinners). does this mean that har etzion is out of the realm of orthodoxy according to you? since it is greater ritual participation.

  44. “I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I say, as long as they don’t advocate ordination of or greater ritual participation for women.”

    I’m fair minded: Gil is entitled to his mistaken beliefs in the same way that Chabad are entitles to theirs.

  45. “Others have argued, quite cogently to my mind, that even during the worst times there was a core observant and scholarly community. Notice that even Bethel, which housed a forbidden bamah, also contained prophets and “bnei nevi’im” … Also remember that Ezra started a revival movement after (more or less) the prophets and before the Maccabees.”

    Yes, of course, there was a minority that remained true to the pre-Rabbinic Temple Judaism that existed until churban-Bayit-Rishon. And nonewithstanding the successes of Ezra’s revival movement, it was not long before syncretistic worship was back to the way it had been since chet ha’egel .

    It would help your case, Gil, if you could provide references for “others…cogently”.

    —–

    “Prof. Shaye Cohen tends to undermine tradition while Prof. Lawrence Schiffman tends to uphold it. A quote from the latter will strengthen your case more.”

    Noted. Here’s Prof Schiffman on p.30-31 of “From Text to Tradition”:

    “By the ninth century BCE, in both Judah and Israel, the minor prophets (so-called because of the size of their literary output) were delivering scathing attacks on the two major transgressions of the time, syncretistic worship and the social ills besetting the country. These two issues would occupy the prophets for years to come. They demanded the extirpation of even minimal participation in idolatrous worship, and called for the amelioration of the injustices being perpetrated against the poor, unlanded classes, insisting, loudly and clearly that discharge of cultic duties was of no significance if it was not accompanied by a life of true moral and ethical principles. The earliest of the twelve minor prophets, whose number included such men as Amos and Hosea (eighth century BCE) were the first to leave us written documents of prophetic discourse. They delivered their words in public and apparently recorded them in writing either for their own use or to circulate them more widely”.

    Then, getting to the period just before the Maccabees on p. 76:

    “It was probably at this time that foreign deities were introduced into the Temple, creating further friction. The Jewish Hellenizers, Menelaus and his party, saw these gods as equivalent to the God of Israel, and thus in their view this was not really foreign worship. They regarded the ancestral God of Israel as simply another manifestation of the supreme deity known in Syria as Baal Shamin (Master of Heaven) and in the Greek world as Zeus Olympius. In this way they rationalized their behaviour.”

    —–

    “Rambam considers Daniel 12:2 to be a clear reference to ressurection of the dead.”

    But, the Talmud doesn’t grant it that status. It is only mentioned once in Perek Chelek, Sanhedrin 92a in a list of potential references. And looking the pasuk up in Hyman, nets only one other reference in the Talmud (in R”H).

    In any case Daniel 12 probably dates to the Chashmonai’m period (see Schiffman, p. 123; amongst others).

  46. Gil – are there any positions of rightists regarding women that you would criticize or is it all OK as long as they are adhering to the ruling of a legitimate posek? Is it ever acceptable to have any issue with, say, women not being allowed to learn, or drive or vote, or do we have to accept that since rightists are following legitimate poskim who forbid these things, that’s all there is to it?

  47. >The term avodah zarah can be used quite literally as in true idol worship or more coloquially. In Yeshivish circles the term is used to refer to anytime a person puts a primary focus on something that is not an Avodas Hashem

    Leave it to the yeshivishe velt to redefine avoda zara down to “inappropriate focus.”

  48. lawrence kaplan

    Gil: I enjoy derush as much as the next guy–or gal. But I reiterate my view that this derush both forced and un-Maimonidean in spirit. From Hilkhot Avodah Zarah it is pretty clear that there is NO such prophetic tradition from Adam and Noach re avodah zarah.

    But you are in very good company, for, as I have stated many times both on this blog and others, the Rav’s intepretation of makhish magideha is also forced and tendentious derush and un-Maimonidean in spirit!

  49. Mike S: So we should enforce the Cherem that the beis din of Vilna placed on the Chassidim and their rejection of tradition?

    I’m not sure what good it would do, although R. Yaakov Kamenetsky reportedly believed we should. There are also factual issues that have to be clarified regarding the accusations. But setting aside the cherem, I think many of us would agree that the deviation of Chassidus led to theological disaster (think Messianic Lubavitchers and the [hopefully] few Lubavitchers who deify their rebbe).

    I see that my somewhat snarky way of expressing myself obscured my point. My point was that for those claiming to innovate within the tradition, as opposed to those openly rebelling against the Torah, the true test of whether they are correct in their self-assessment is over the course of time. Does their innovation pave the way for the adaptation of Torah to changed conditions or does it lead falling away from Torah and Mitzvot? Remember the Rav ZT”L’s drasha of Joseph and his Brothers. Sometimes the Hashgacha Pratis decrees a change in practice. We have those who are attempting to innovate within the tradition both on the right, where isolationism and narrowing the range of acceptable understanding of the Torah are being taken to levels unprecedented in our history, and on the left, principally over the role of women. Is either group presenting the vision that will be needed for Torah to adapt to modern conditions? Or will they both prove to be mistaken and lead to dead ends or to Jews abandoning Torah and Mitzvot? God knows, but we mere humans will only know with hindsight. Each talmid chacham is called upon to choose according to his understanding and intuition, but for these matters unlike straight halacha, as the Rav said, the final p’sak rests not with the majority of scholars, but with God Himself.

  50. Natan Slifkin: Besides, it’s not a matter of what Rambam believed about himself, it’s what we know about him. And it’s clear that he broke from tradition in many ways

    That is precisely the issue. If he didn’t believe he was deviating from tradition, that doesn’t provide justification for people to intentionally deviate.

    I am saying that if you are going to argue that LWMO or whoever are wrong, then it’s important to define precisely where, how and why.

    I have written at great length about exactly where and how some people deviate from tradition. I do not have to reiterate all those details every time I say or write something. Nor does this post have to be limited to LWMO. It can be just about anyone who deviates.

    Believing that the world is billions of years old is not traditional, either!

    But there we have justification from Rishonim to deviate based on proven science.

    You seem to assume that I am saying that whatever people do – ordination of women, etc. – is okay. But I’m not saying that at all.

    Good to know.

    Oh, why didn’t you say so in the first place? It would have cleared up a lot of confusion. The rest of your posts are overall very consistent in style, being reasoned and detailed analyses of issues, so if you suddenly switch to derush/ polemics, that is somewhat jarring.

    It’s a vort on the haggadah a week before Pesach!

    Ruvie: fine points? like what torah moshe received from hashem at sinai? which was counter to geonic mesorah (see ibn daud).

    Do you have any reason to believe that the Ra’avad I’s view was dominant and the Rambam’s a deviation?

    i see you pick and choose among conservative thinkers – if they support your view – wonderful

    It’s more of an “even THEY agree with us.”

    hirhurim: “as long as they don’t advocate ordination of or greater ritual participation for women.”

    why is this your red line? if you advocate women ordination – what category do you put that person in? btw, on a theoretical level RAL wasn’t oppose to this on a halachik level but rather on a potential split in the community level. lo zeh hazeman.

    It was a joke! But don’t pretend that RAL advocates for woman’s ordination. You’re starting to sound like a certain advocate for women’s prayer groups who would ask Gedolim and even if they said “no” he would say “see they didn’t say assur so they approve.” That would require a “yes”.

    Charlie Hall: I think that our history shows that it has been avoided many times. What would be useful would be a detailed analysis of how and why some schisms do lead to disaster

    While that would be interesting, I said disaster not schism. I think it can be cogently argued that Chassidus did lead to some theological disasters and even classic Chassidic masters agreed with that judgment.

    IH: It would help your case, Gil, if you could provide references for “others…cogently”.

    I don’t have it in front of me but I seem to recall that this line of argument is presented by R. Aharon Hyman in Toldos Tanna’im Va-Amoraim in the entry for R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi.

    J: are there any positions of rightists regarding women that you would criticize

    Yes, every position you mentioned except for women not be able to learn, which requires qualification. I am OK with the position that women shouldn’t learn Gemara. I may not advocate it but I recognize it to be the majority view among poskim.

    Lawrence Kaplan: From Hilkhot Avodah Zarah it is pretty clear that there is NO such prophetic tradition from Adam and Noach re avodah zarah

    I had Hilkhos Melakhim 9:1 in mind when I wrote about a tradition from Adam and Noach but you intimidated me into silence until I looked it up.

    Mike S: The truth lies with neither the right nor the left but with those who follow the tradition. And when we need to change, we have to ask ourselves how our ancestors would have acted in this situation. See Rav Schachter’s article in the recent Jewish Action.

  51. “While that would be interesting, I said disaster not schism. I think it can be cogently argued that Chassidus did lead to some theological disasters and even classic Chassidic masters agreed with that judgment.”

    I don’t think that Shabbatai Tzvi could be characterized as anything other than a disaster.

  52. >> It can be just about anyone who deviates.

    _Everyone_ deviates from tradition. That’s a big part of the problem with this post.

  53. rejecting nevuah is equivalent to rejecting a mitzvah, not rejecting attitude

  54. hirhurim – sorry i didn’t get it – that women’s ordination line was a joke (especially if you follow RHS of yahareg val yavor analysis). i also didn’t think your post was meant as derush but thought you were serious as some other previous posts as to where the “deviants”, “modernists” or reformers from tradition will lead us. i guess some of us here are just too sensitive if you read many of the other papers or magazines like the current ami – that pillards anyone to the left of themselves(the ami article pillards anyone who has questionable beliefs and shomer mitzvot – see r’ slifkin’s discussion on it – http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/04/ominous-treacherous-infiltrators.html

    on raavad I representing the geonic view of what torah was given at har sinai: it seems that the rambam’s view was novel and there is no previous source prior to him. i would ask prof. lawrence kaplan to chime in. but all the scholarly work indicates it was novel and revolutionary. that is to say the viewpoint that torah mesinai is an accumulation of all torah from each generation(adding and subtracting) based on principles (e.g. follow the majority)rather than halachot of what to do in a machloket. the understanding that the gemerot dealing with halachot forgotten and learning is how we try to find what was lost (students of hillel and shamai) had to be reinterpreted by the rambam. again, there is no evidence that i know of (doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) that the rambam’s shitah is even hinted anywhere in the works of the geonim, talmud, or mishnah (it doesn’t mean the rambam cannot reinterpret mishnah and talmud differently than those that came before him).

    and yes, i do not think RAL advocates women rabbis. i just think he does not caresthat much about the topic – he cares about women learning everything -and that the community isn’t there yet. to him this is an american issue not one that concerns his community (like the women’s tefillah group issue). chag kasher

  55. >The truth lies with neither the right nor the left but with those who follow the tradition.

    what kind of narishkeit is this? Why is tradition the ultimate source of truth?? Tradition has value since it preserves received wisdom which allows us, as you say, to investigate how the sages of the past reacted to the innovations of their day and age. But tradition is not an ultimate source of truth in its own right and needs to be seen in the light of a more holistic world view that includes general thought and science – otherwise, it leads to either stupidity like holy segulah wine or worse, metzitza bePeh, or even worse, the protection of child molestors because “its not technically ביאה”, etc, etc, etc.

    This all becomes more complex when we study history and see just how radical some of our thinkers were. The Rambam’s doctorine of “maase merkava == aristotle’s metaphysics” or “maase bereishit == physics” was was radical – as was his denial of astrology and superstitions. As was his attempt to replace the gemara with his own work. As was his doctorine of taamei hamitzvot. As was his doctorine of olam haBa and techiyat haMeitim.

    Of course he was not the only such radical thinker. Isaac HaIsraeli and his adoption of muslim neo-platonic philosophy was also quite revolutionary.

    As was the Ralbag’s ultra-rationalism.

    And we have not even arrived at the modern era and its reactionary theologies.

    tradition as an abstract value can be used for anything. You must be more specific.

  56. Tradition is supposed to be the source of our Jewish behavior. That is why so much time, effort and methodology was invested in passing on our traditions: using melody (the trop of the Torah; the melodies of learning G’mara); memory cues(Simanim of various types)and other additional methods. That is why idolatry is called most often “Avodah Zara” as it is a “stranger” to out traditions. And that is the point. What is even more important is that Jewish tradition is totally bound up and linked to Eretz Yisrael. That is why the transition from Ovdei Avodah Zara – Terach, is mentioned to show us the transition to Avraham who was told by Hashem to go to Israel.

    To illustrate, take Birkat HaIllanot said in Nissan. Most connect it to it being spring when many fruits blossom, yet in Israel, the almond blossoms in Shevat, not Nissan. In Jewish tradition, when discussing fruit – it is usually a referent to the 7 minim, and it is the trees of the 7 minim specifically that blossom in Nissan.

  57. IH: “It is interesting to note that according to the Nevi’im, idolatry was normative in pre- Maccabean times, by Jewish/Israelite monarch, priest and masses.”

    It was not normative in the generations of Moshe, Yehoshua, Shmuel, David, Shlomo, Ezra, Nehemiah, in the first 300 years of the kingdom of Yehudah, and likely for most of bayit sheni.

    It was normative for most of the period of the Shoftim, in the northern kingdom of Israel, and towards the end of the kingdom of Yehudah.

    The neviim who wrote long books overwhelmingly lived at the end of the kingdom of Yehudah, giving the false impression that idolatry was prevalent throughout the period of Tanach.

    I’m surprised nobody picked up on this.

    “It seems to me this demonstrates the opposite of Gil’s thesis. Normative Judaism removed idolatry by overturning tradition.”

    Even Gil would argue that a tradition which is known to be incorrect should be rejected, just like a minhag taut.

  58. Rabbi Student said: The truth lies with neither the right nor the left but with those who follow the tradition. And when we need to change, we have to ask ourselves how our ancestors would have acted in this situation. See Rav Schachter’s article in the recent Jewish Action.

    I don’t disagree with the idea that we must ask what earlier authorities would have done, but we must remember that the authorities we most revere, from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to Rabbeinu HaKadosh, the Rambam, the Mechaber, the Besh”t and the GR”A to Rav Chaim were all innovators, sometimes in practice, sometimes in thought and study. And they all met strong opposition from other great rabbonim who opposed their innovations in the name of tradition. Even the Chasam Sofer’s slogan of “Chadash Assur min Hatorah” was an innovation to meet the challenges of Torah in his time and place. There were many others who thought they were innovating within the system who led to serious breaches. But I don’t think it is easy even for talmidei chachamim to be sure how great authorities of the past would respond to new conditions they hadn’t faced. The Rav made clear, at least to me, that his view was that one could only be certain with hindsight. (Let me emphasize again that we are talking only about innovation loyal to the halacha. And the social change the Rav was talking about was major: the destruction of Jewish life in Europe.)

    I don’t even necessarily disagree with you about whether we need to change anything. But I do think a little less stridency and certainty and a little more respect for those who disagree are called for.

  59. Gil, I sympathize and side with the polemical intent of this post. But I think it is an incorrect reading of that Rambam in Hilchos A”Z ch.1.

    If anything, that Rambam emphasizes quite strongly that Avraham rejected a tradition that went back to Enosh. The Rambam makes the point that Avraham came to the truth with no benefit of mesora at all.

    The Rambam’s entire take on the dawn of A”Z is that it was the result of a reasonable though faulty concept that went haywire through the process of a warped gradual evolution. If anything, that gives polemical ammunition to all the anti-Chareidi advocates who condemn the Chareidi world for the same perceived fault in other areas.

    The Rambam ends the chapter by making the point that even though the genesis of the anti-AZ movement came about through the innovative intellectual force of Avaraham, the current source for our relationship to A”Z comes from a mesora that began with Avraham but was maintained through a tradition that continued unbroken for generations until Toras Moshe set up the rules. That part of the Rambam’s descriptive history might be a starting point for your argument that mesorah should govern our relationship to foreign ideals. But the Avraham piece alone just hurts it.

    You might have used the Raavad’s point as support for your argument. He argued that Sheim and Eiver might have had a role in objecting to A”Z, and were therefore an inspiration for Avraham’s views, who went the extra steps to apply them publicly. (Obviously, he is not arguing with the Rambam about their presence during Avraham’s lifetime, or their monotheistic views. The Rambam admits as much.) The Raavad’s statement can then be read as arguing against the Rambam’s point that Avraham was all alone.

  60. Raphael Kaufman

    The problem with relying on tradition is the introduction of transcription errors in the chain of tradition. Ever play the kid’s game “telephone”? Small deviations creep into the transmission at almost every retelling and though each error may be very slight, the cumulative effect can result in complete reversal of the original intent. In engineering terms we call this “tolerance stack up”. We have a Sha’as and a Shulchan Arech. Every tradition needs to be tested to see if it conforms to the original statements of the Mechaber and the Rama.
    Another problem is that many currently accepted traditions aren’t traditions at all but modern innovations. Since it is comming on Pesach, not eating gebrochts comes to mind as a recent (200 years) innovation. Heck, Chassidus itself is a modern innovation.

  61. Everything on this thread after Prof. Kaplan of April 12, 2011 at 8:56 am is commentary.

    But I’ll comment that the “drush” is not only tendentious but pedantic and trivializing — not least of the legacy of Avraham Avinu; whom Rambam tells us was an anti-religious crusader of the first order, actively subverting the entrenched tradition that had captured the consciousness of his society.

    Indeed its perpetuators at the time believed their tradition was a loyal extension of the religious legacy that had existed since Adam. Avraham understood that their religious tradition was blocking all hope of progress to a path of truth.

    Once you admit that “The truth lies with neither the right nor the left but with those who follow the tradition”, the “drush” appears nullified — it adds nothing to our understanding and is mainly an effort to invoke Rambam to boost a non sequitur agenda.

  62. I don’t understand the criticism of Avraham Avinu rejecting his idolatrous tradition. Of course he did. Are you suggesting that the proper reaction to Judaism today is the same as to Terach’s idolatry?

  63. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: There is no reason for your being intimidated by me into silence, although I note that the silence did not last for very long. My arguments and interpretations must stand or fall by their own cogency. That said, I agree with yehupitz that Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 1 (=AZ) clearly indicates that for the Rambam Abraham did not possess any prophetic tradition. You introduce Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1 (= Mel). I am, of course, familiar with this text, but I must confess to never having thought of it in connection with the beginning of AZ. For so stimulating me I thank you. In light of AZ, however, I cannot believe that the Rambam in Mel. is affirming that Abraham received the seven mitzvot as a prophetic tradition, nor does he say that. I am rather inclined to say that for the Rambam God revealed the seven mizvot to Abraham and added an eighth, circumcision. But the matter requires further exploration.

  64. Gil, you’ve lost me. Even if one is to make the case that their are analogues to idolatry — which is a big stretch — the analogue would be to the syncretistic beliefs of chet ha’egel and forward. If we’re going to continue this discussion, could you succinctly restate your thesis given the feedback you have received?

  65. Dr. Kaplan: In light of AZ, however, I cannot believe that the Rambam in Mel. is affirming that Abraham received the seven mitzvot as a prophetic tradition, nor does he say that.

    I don’t recall suggesting that Avraham ever received a tradition. My claim was that there existed a tradition from Adam and Noach (regarding the various mitzvos, which included a prohibition on idolatry) and those who chose idolatry deviated from that tradition. I didn’t mention Avraham as an individual in the post at all.

  66. IH: You lost me a long time ago.

  67. I love it when you’re so polite, Gil.

  68. [And for the record, I vote to strike the past 2 remarks (11:38 and 11:40) which add nothing to the discussion]

  69. I don’t understand the criticism of Avraham Avinu rejecting his idolatrous tradition. Of course he did. Are you suggesting that the proper reaction to Judaism today is the same as to Terach’s idolatry?

    Whenever you breach tradition, you are “creating your own” alternative which is the “first step towards tragedy.” Are you saying that tradition is generally nonsense except when discussing traditions of Jews?

  70. I’m saying that Jewish tradition is true. Idolatrous tradition is false. I didn’t realize that require an explicit statement.

  71. Gil,
    That is not at all what you said in the post. You said there that deviating from tradition leads to idolatry. Indeed, your post makes no assumptions or statements as to whether idolatry is true or false. (I’m not saying we don’t all know that you believe it to be false, but only that you could have written the same post, perhaps with a different tone, even if you believed idolatrous tradition to be true.)

  72. Idolatry in a modern world is more insidious because it is anything that preoccupies us to the extent that it diminishes our service to HaShem.

  73. >I’m saying that Jewish tradition is true. Idolatrous tradition is false. I didn’t realize that require an explicit statement.

    But part of Jewish tradition is to sometimes break with … tradition – even a Jewish one. And lets face it, sometimes, sticking with tradition can be just as disastrous as breaking with it. It is not only a slippery slope to be irreverent towards tradition but it is just as slippery to cling to it against all reason and intelligent thought.

    Many of the sages of our tradition, were, as has been pointed out, quite radical and untraditional in their thought. The real question seems to be HOW to break with tradition when necessary.

  74. >Idolatry in a modern world is more insidious because it is anything that preoccupies us to the extent that it diminishes our service to HaShem.

    That is a ridiculously broad definition of idolatry and therefore somewhat useless. It reduces the world into binary states of holiness and impurity without leaving a valid middle ground of the secular – and therefore creates a type of false holiness that keeps people feeling either good about themselves or guilty – but rarely allows a stable psychological foundation for true spiritual growth – one that comes out of an examined life that is balanced and self-aware.

  75. MDJ: That is not at all what you said in the post. You said there that deviating from tradition leads to idolatry. Indeed, your post makes no assumptions or statements as to whether idolatry is true or false.

    I apologize if the post was unclear about my position on Judaism and idolatry. I believe the former is true and the latter is false.

  76. “I apologize if the post was unclear about my position on Judaism and idolatry. I believe the former is true and the latter is false.”

    R. Gil,
    If I may, the issue isn’t that anybody really thought that you believe idolatry to be true. That’s just silly. The issue is that in your little drasha here, you set up the maintenance of tradition as an independent end. Which is not necessarily a ridiculous idea, there are certainly societies which see tradition in that way. But it is clear that you do not believe that, as you have written many times of non-traditional ideas that you are willing to accept. It is also clear that this is not the Rambam’s idea of Abraham, as a number of people in the thread have pointed out. MDJ’s thought experiment about an idolatrous tradition just solidifies the point. Clearly, bad or incorrect traditions must be deviated from. But once we say that, then your drash loses all its teeth. Once tradition needs to rejected when it does not meet some other standard (reason, ethics, canonical texts, etc…, it’s impossible to make the argument that “the first step toward religious tragedy is rejection of tradition.”

  77. Is metzizah b’peh traditional?
    Is not educating girls traditional?
    Is reinterpreting Chazal in light of Greco-Muslim philosophy traditional?
    Is wearing techeles/ not wearing techeles traditional?
    Is adjusting halachic practice to the needs of the day traditional?
    Is mass kollel traditional?

    And a thousand other similar such questions.

    If you haven’t got a good definition of “traditional,” then vaguely condemning those who are not “traditional” is meaningless. Either condemn them based on something more concrete, or don’t say anything.

  78. Jesse A: The question of whether someone born into a religion is obligated to question his religion and investigate others was a popular topic of discussion in Medieval philosophy. I have addressed it elsewhere and did not intend for this post to be a comprehensive philosophical exposition. See this post: https://www.torahmusings.com/2008/01/religious-search/

    Natan Slifkin: Your list is a hodge podge of halakhic and social issues, each different from the other. There are halakhos in Shulchan Arukh regarding minhagim and when and how one may deviate from them.

  79. R. Gil,
    Your responses to me and to R. Slifkin make exactly the point I was trying to make (but apparently didn’t make clearly). The simple fact that something is “traditional” is not enough to make it worth doing. “There are halakhos in Shulchan Arukh regarding minhagin and when and how one may deviate from them.” In some cases the first step away from tradition is NOT “the first step towards religious tragedy” it is the first step towards religious renewal. The halakhos in Shulchan Arukh help us navigate that minefield, and sort out what criteria we need to use to evaluate our traditional practices. But the fact that the halakhos exist tells us that what you said in this post is false.

    Unless what you’re trying to do is make some sort of meta-point, about how following the halakhos which tell us when to keep tradition and when not to IS our tradition. Which would be interesting, and may be true. But it doesn’t seem to be what you said in your post.

  80. >Natan Slifkin: Your list is a hodge podge of halakhic and social issues, each different from the other.

    They are a list of contemporary deviances from tradition, none of which seem to leed to avodah zara. That is the common denominator. But you admit that there are other values that trump tradition since you point out that the shulchan aruch codifies that in certain circumstances one should deviate from tradition. The reasonable thing to do is to then isolate the values or methodology that trump tradition and utilize them in the modern era – but that is not what this post advocated – rather it painted everyone who deviates from tradition (which as you point out, includes the SA) as slipping towards AZ.

  81. Your list is a hodge podge of halakhic and social issues, each different from the other.

    Exactly, that is what I was aiming for. To show how the term “tradition” is far too vague to be useful.

    There are halakhos in Shulchan Arukh regarding minhagim and when and how one may deviate from them.

    And yet there are raging disputes about things such as metzizah b’peh or machine matzah, which focus in part on the very issue of tradition. Which is why any statement condemning others for not following “tradition” needs an enormous amount of explanation and precise definition in order to be at all meaningful and helpful. Otherwise it’s just going to serve to make a very narrow group feel good about themselves, and annoy and alienate everyone else (as it seems to have done, judging by the comments). Which I hope was not your goal!

  82. By the way, R. Gil, my apologies if I am coming across as being at all hostile. I’m just very sensitive about heavy-handed campaigns to delegitimize others that aren’t accompanied with careful analysis and detailed explanations (from personal experience…) You know that I am a huge fan of your work in general; it’s just this series of posts that I see as a change from your usual style.

  83. R’ Gil: “I don’t understand the criticism of Avraham Avinu rejecting his idolatrous tradition. Of course he did. Are you suggesting that the proper reaction to Judaism today is the same as to Terach’s idolatry?”

    Of course not. The point is that Avraham returned to the derech ha’emet through his rejection of tradition.

    And to go through all of Hilchos Avoda Zarah and emerge with the “finding” that the fundamental error underlying avoda zarah was the “rejection of tradition” is to either miss or intentionally misread the entire perek. (Particularly when the 2nd halacha, after laying out the sequence of idolatry’s emergence, ends with the explicit “and this was the root of avoda zara”! Nothing in there about ‘abandoning tradition’.)

    Rambam’s narrative of humanity’s decay into idolatry, and the recovery towards monotheism wrought by Avraham is a story in which ‘abandonment of tradition’ holds at most a secondary or tertiary role as villain — but a primary role as savior!

    Considering that Rambam identifies multiple times the precise foundational errors that led humanity into idol worship — and not once does he claim that “abandoning tradition” was one of them — the attempt to railroad blame onto “abandonment of tradition”, with the bonus goal of drawing a gezerah shavah to contemporary disputes, is badly forced and feels cheap.

  84. A social conservative venerates all traditions of society, lest a change undermine the social fabric and makes any change with great hesitancy. Your argument seemed to flow in that direction and Jesse A. stated more clearly what I was getting at, since evidently you are now saying it is not tradition but the halachic view of a particular tradition that matters.

  85. Gil,
    IH asked you to reformulate your point. Your response was: “I’m saying that Jewish tradition is true. Idolatrous tradition is false.” My point was that this is not at all what you said in your post and in fact doesn’t even follow from your post. The issue of what you believe about idolatry is completely besides the point, and therefore so is your flippant response to me. The issue is the relationship between your post and your reformulation.

  86. In terms of the particular focus of Hilkhot Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, I think there is some measure of cogency to our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student’s approach. He is saying that – prior to Matan Torah – there was a mesorah regarding the Noahide Code from Adam and Noah. Those who deviated from the mesorah (even if it was with noble intentions, like in the case of Enosh) culminated in worshipping idols. According to Rav’s opinion in Pesachim 116a, we must give thanks to HKB”H at the Seder for rescuing our ancestors from this error.

    Whether we can extrapolate from this pre-Matan Torah series of events to the present post-Matan Torah world is evidently a separate question. Talmidei chakhamim have to address this question every day (as R. Slifkin has illustrated), using the Oral Torah tools revealed at Sinai. Some will say ordaining ladies is an excellent project worthy of celebration according to the Oral Torah; others may be more reluctant débutants. The most recent edition of Hakirah journal presents both sides of the debate. The more debate, the better, for debate is intrinsically part of the Oral Torah, and “marbeh torah, marbeh chaim” (Pirkei Avot, ch. 2).

  87. R. Spira,

    For once I find myself in complete agreement with you! 🙂

  88. Thank you, R’ Aiwac. It is much appreciated.
    I should also mention that lending possible credence to our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student’s approach is the statement of Rambam in Hilkhot Shemitah Vi-yovel 10:6
    שהקבלה והמעשה עמודים גדולים בהוראה, ובהן ראוי להיתלות

  89. Re R Gil’s comments and Larry Kaplan’s responses-without having a Rambam in front of me now, I think that the point that Rambam in Hil AZ is making that Avraham Avinu discovered monotheism and a belief in the Ribbono Shel Olam. One can argue whether this discovery took place as a child or as an adult after Avraham Avinu had experienced all of the AZ in the world.

    Ruvie-I would like to see R Gigi’s rationale for mixed gender Mzuman or worse on the basis of a family gathering presenting a basis for a heter.

  90. steve b. – rav gigi didn’t write the 16 page halacha analysis – a student of the yeshiva did – he gave his haskama to its conclusion. send me your email address to [email protected]

    the family gathering is based on the issue of pritzut which would not exist since everyone would agree that a shabbat or yom tov meal is naeh and not pritzut as oppose to lo naeh. its close to midnight where i am so i wil send it in the am. the offer is open to anyone who wants the pdf file.

    as to your comment on when avraham came to believe in hashem based on the machloket in the midrash – at 3 or later as an adult. i always was under the impression that the machloket wasn’t factual but whether it was an innate understanding that he was born with (therefore the opinion of at the age of 3) or through questioning,logic and reasoning as an adult.

  91. Ruvie wrote in part:

    “as to your comment on when avraham came to believe in hashem based on the machloket in the midrash – at 3 or later as an adult. i always was under the impression that the machloket wasn’t factual but whether it was an innate understanding that he was born with (therefore the opinion of at the age of 3) or through questioning,logic and reasoning as an adult”

    I stand corrected. IIRC, RAL stated as much in a shiur quoting Ritva IIRC, on Haggadah.

  92. ruvie wrote:

    “the family gathering is based on the issue of pritzut which would not exist since everyone would agree that a shabbat or yom tov meal is naeh and not pritzut as oppose to lo naeh”

    Ruvie-R Gil has my email address. The above quoted premise assumes that Kol Isha is not operative in the context of the family, which IIRC, is not AFAIK exactly a universally accepted approach.

  93. Steve,
    It is well established that 3 women make a zimmun, even if 2 men are at the table. I have never heard that the men have to leave (indeed, I have heard that they cannot), nor can I imagine why Kol Isha would be an issue, as there is no singing in zimmun. So what exactly was your point in the last post?

  94. “I am OK with the position that women shouldn’t learn Gemara. I may not advocate it but I recognize it to be the majority view among poskim.”

    actually, the majority view is about men teaching women, not about what women do on their own.

  95. Gil
    Go back negaim and ohalot!

  96. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbis Student and Spira: Let’s stick to Terach. Supposedly, the Rambam when he referred to Terach and his predecessors being kofrim means they denied the tradition of the seven mitzvot. Now first, as wa pointed out, the Rambam in the Guide 1:36 deiesn keira as believing something as being the opposite of what it truly is. I d not think, in light of this, it islegitimate to interoret kofrim in Hametz u-Matzah in light of kofrim ba-Torah in Teshuvah. But more. Given the Rambam in Avodah Zarah states that the knowledge of God was completeely lost, with the execption of a few isolted individuals, how in the world can we say that Terach was aware of the seven mitzvot, including the prohibition of idolatry, and rebelled against them?

    That said, I find it difficult to put together Avodah Zarah 1:1-2 and Melakhim 9:1.

  97. lawrence kaplan

    ruvie: Indeed, the Rambam’s view re torah she-be’al peh was novel and revolutionary in the context of his times, but, as Prof. Mordecai Cohen has noted in a recent article (I have a copy, but do not know if he has published it), both Bahya and Yehudah Halevi had begun in very slight ways to break from the Geonic paradigm.

  98. I thank Mori ViRebbi R. Kaplan for his kind response, and I concede to him that the Rambam in Hilkhot AZ appears to be inconsistent with the Rambam in Hilkhot Mel. From the former source it appears that almost nobody knew about the Noahide Code in Terach’s time, and so Terach was a “tinok shenishbah”, whereas from the latter source it sounds as though everyone knew about the Noahide Code in Terach’s time. [The Rambam in Hilkhot Chametz Umatzah speaks about “Terach and those who preceeded him”, which could go either way.] I don’t have a Frankel Rambam with me at the moment; maybe he addresses this apparent inconsistency in the mafte’ach, as is his wont elsewhere in the Rambam.

    Perhaps our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student’s analysis can be rendered more coherent by focusing on Enosh as the individual who mistakenly departed from tradition. [Of course, the problem becomes that Noah and his crew were the sole survivors of the flood, and so Enosh’s mistake should have been corrected by the flood. Could it be that the pernicious canard of Enosh’s mistake was transported from antedeluvian times to post-deluvian times by Og Melekh Habashan, who was also saved by the flood according to the gemara in Zevachim 113b? And then perhaps Nimrod, Terach, and company got their mistaken ideas from Og?] Parenthetically, an insightful exposition of Enosh’s error is presented by the Ta’amei Haminhagim on Sukkot (-in the spirit of the gezeirah shavah between Pesach and Sukkot) at
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14556&st=&pgnum=366&hilite=

  99. Re: a pseudo-“gezeirah shavah” within the language of Rambam himself. It is interesting to note that R. Yehudah Herzl Henkin does this in Shu”t Teshuvot Bnei Vanim 1:1 to validate 10 tefachim as a kosher stature for a synagogue partition (linking the word “yit’arvu” in Hilkhot Lulav 8:12 with the word “bi’irbuv” in Hilkhot Tum’at Tzara’at 10:12). So there is arguably a precedent for our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student’s linguistic effort (although R. Student himself respectfully disagrees with R. Henkin, as one may infer from his book Posts Along the Way).

  100. Lawrence Kaplan

    Rabbi Spira: As noted, the relationhip between AZ 1:1-2 and Melakhim 9:1 is problmatic. Nevertheless, in Melakhim 9:1 the Rambam does not explicitly say there was a mesorah re the seven mitzvot.

    Re Enosh, I wondered about him, but in my recent comment confined myself to Terach since he was mentioned in Hamtetz u-Matzah 7:4. But even re Enosh, in AZ 1:1-2 there is no indication that Enosh ignored the prohibition against idolatry in his mistake reasoning leading him to worship intermediaries. Tzarich Iyyun.

    The one point I believe is clear is that kofrim in Hametz u-Matzah 7:4 refers to non-belief in God and not to disregarding a tradition.

  101. Ruvie-Take a look at the ET article re Zimun. The absence of Pritzus is only one of a number of reasons why men and women do not have a mixed Zimun-one of the many being that women, since only men have the Brisos of Bris Milah, and Karka in EY, have a very different Chiyuv in Birkas HaMazon then women.

  102. The following would seem to be obvious: Defining “tradition” and “idolatry” is for the rabbis to decide. Whether abandoning the first results in the second is a question of fact, for which social scientists are best equipped. Perhaps, as appears, such abandonment often results in acculturation, not idolatry. The two terms are not synonymous. Perhaps, as also appears, defending against the feared slippery slop by exaggerating “traditions” too often results in a pattern unethical behavior toward others. These are factual questions, not answerable by an interpretation of the Rambam or a gemarah.

  103. steve b. – understand that there are many reasons and they are all covered in the article. but, the last one the article surmounts- and not fully- is the prtzut issue which is negated in a family setting of mix company. btw, i do not know r. gill’s email address to send you the article.

  104. 12:25 comment was me

  105. I thank Mori ViRebbi R. Kaplan for his kind response. I will contemplate the topic further…

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