The publication of Torat Hamelech and the ensuing controversy were sources of significant discomfort for the Orthodox community (link). Every group has extremists in its midst but here we are dealing with crucial texts and theological concepts that were very publicly painted as extremist. While rebuttals came quickly, they were all brief and necessarily partial. One scholar, Ariel Finkelstein, has published a comprehensive and impressive response — Derech Hamelech — that thoroughly and convincingly refutes the contentions of Torat Hamelech (the entire book Derech Hamelech is available for free download here: link).*
The story is told that after the publication of R. David Rapaport’s Mikdash David, R. Elchanan Wasserman was so impressed that he hired the author to teach the highest class in his yeshiva without ever meeting him. He was quite surprised when R. Rapaport arrived at the school unmarried and with a speech impediment (in the mid-1990’s, I asked a former student of R. Rapaport about this story and he confirmed that the rabbi arrived unmarried but was unaware of a speech impediment, although he added that few students understood their teacher’s complex ideas). Based on the impressive style and scholarship of his book, Derech Hamelech, if I had a school I would hire Ariel Finkelstein sight unseen to teach a class.
The task of refuting a book is easily botched. By merely disagreeing with point after point, you risk the appearance of nitpicking and offering responses that appear implausible in comparison with the book’s broad approach. Instead, a comprehensive refutation must present an alternative approach, reframing the discussion within a new point of reference. In this way, you show the issue from an entirely different perspective that readers can judge in totality rather than on a point by point basis.
The book is divided into three sections that not only refute both the specific arguments and general approach of Torat Hamelech, but also presents an alternate halakhic framework within which to understand all the issues raised. The first section of the book addresses metahalakhic issues: what do the Noahide commandments represent in relation to the Sinaitic commandments and what role do moral assumptions play in halakhic arguments? Finkelstein argues that the seven Noahide commandments are basic moral concepts that underly the Sinaitic commandments. The terminology of the Noahide commandments is different from the Sinaitic but that does not detract from the overriding obligations they present to all people. Unlike the media which sought to separate ethical considerations from halakhic arguments, Finkelstein shows that they are inherently intertwined.
The second section sets a formidable goal, to present a comprehensive halakhic attitude toward Gentiles. Building mainly on the concept of reciprocity, Finkelstein plausibly explains law after controversial law within a rational framework. When addressing details of various laws, Finkelstein digs further and utilizes additional concepts. He explains that the Noahide commandments are pragmatic rules of basic morality intended to allow for societal stability. In contrast, the Sinaitic commandments are a religious covenant expressing spiritual obligations and relationships. The baseline of morality is universal but Jews constitute a nation and must treat their coreligionists with additional care (this is the general approach I take here: link).
The third and final section is a point by point refutation of arguments in Torat Hamelech. Addressing issues of when one may kill rather than be killed, whose lives are more important, the status of innocent civilians caught in a crossfire and much more, Finkelstein tears apart the arguments of Torat Hamelech and reveals their logical flaws and lack of basis in Torah sources.
In my review of Torat Hamelech, I mentioned the uneven nature of the books argumentation. Derech Hamelech does it right. The book is overflowing with references to ancient and recent texts. Every argument is supplemented with a plethora of supporting citations and even the overall worldview is demonstrated from both Religious Zionist (e.g. Rav Kook and R. Yehuda Amital) and Charedi (e.g. R. Shimon Shkop and the Rogatchover Gaon) authorities. Finkelstein’s breadth is impressive, demonstrating total control over the textual and conceptual (lomdus) issues. He is meticulous and honest, acknowledging dissenting views but not allowing them to prevent him from advocating a comprehensive and convincing approach that allows for a rationalist and universalist Torah approach. Not every interpretation is unquestionable but the edifice Finkelstein has built is sufficiently strong to withstand minor critiques.
My only two complaints are minor and overlapping. The book was written for an Israeli audience and therefore in modern, rather than rabbinic, Hebrew and replete with academic references. I don’t begrudge the author’s decision but only hope that he will write a follow-up to his marvelous work in traditional rabbinic style that will take a respected place in rabbinic literature. More about this tomorrow night.
* Note that I deviate from my standard transliteration scheme for the purpose of this post. Please accept my apologies.