Deciding Jewish Thought

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imageOver the years, we have returned many times to the question whether there is a decision-making process to belief (hashkafah) like there is for law (halakhah). One objection is the existence of multiple views among classical Jewish thinkers on many subjects. However, rather than proving the exclusion of belief from a halakhic-like process, it actually demonstrates the opposite.

I. Theological Responsa

R. Yaakov Ariel (Halakhah Be-Yameinu, ch. 1) argues for a decision-making process in belief by noting how many responsa have been written on the subject of belief. Clearly, throughout the centuries, Jews have asked their religious leaders for guidance on issues of belief. Yet, one could counter that we need to distinguish between teaching and deciding. Guidance does not imply binding response. Of course Jews looked to their rabbis to explain the complexities of Jewish belief, and the rabbis in turn offered the best answer they could based on their own understandings. But that does not mean that either the questioner or the responder considered the answer to be any more than a teaching.

I kept this in mind when recently reading Prof. Louis Jacobs’ 1975 Theology in the Responsa. Jacobs attempted to study the responsa throughout the centuries that deal with theological issues. The book is magnificent but ultimately over-ambitious. Proceeding through each century, from the Geonim through the twentieth century, Jacobs examines the main works of responsa and their theological sections. His “attempt at a fair degree of comprehensiveness” is more successful in the early centuries. As he proceeds, he misses more and more until his method nearly completely breaks down in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for which his selections are very haphazard and incomplete. Additionally, his definition of “theology” includes much that seems like plain halakhah (e.g. can a poor starving man steal food?). Be that as it may, the work as it stands is still an incredible review of centuries of theological (and other) responsa.

I’d like to consider here the responsa of R. Shlomo ben Shimon Duran (Rashbash of Algiers, d. 1467, discussed in Jacobs, pp. 95-101). Today, it is easy to find the theological responsa from among the 635 in the collection of Responsa Rashbash because the Machon Yerushalayim edition lists them separately in the index. [1]Under הלכות וחידושים ומליצות ופירוש מלות. Glaringly missing from Jacobs’ survey is responsum 195: Does fleeing a city engulfed in plague succeed in avoiding the decree? [2]Discussed here: link and cited by Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 116:8). However, his discussion of two responsa raises the issue we are addressing here.

II. The End of the World

In responsum 436, Rashbash answers the question whether the world will have an end. Rashbash states that belief in Creation is mandatory (“וכל בר ישראל חייב להאמין זה, every Jew is obligated to believe this”). However, whether the world will be destroyed is unimportant as long as you concede that God has the power to do so and depends on His will. Rashbash quotes the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:28) as saying that the world will not end and Ramban (Toras Hashem Temimah in Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 1 pp. 159-160) as saying that it will. Rashbash argues that the Bible (Ps. 102:26-28) unambiguously states that the world will have an end. [3]Rashbash says that all other interpretations of this passage are forced. He concludes:

על כן הנגלה מהפסוק הוא אמת כפי דעתי ואתה האמין במה שתרצה בזה.

Therefore, what is revealed by this verse is in my opinion the truth. But you believe whatever you want about this.

This is a stunning conclusion. Regarding a fundamental principle of belief–Creation–Rashbash declares a specific belief mandatory. Note that standard editions of Rambam’s thirteen principles do not include Creation as a fundamental principle, although R. Yosef Kafach includes it in his edition from Rambam’s handwritten manuscript. Rashbash effectively rules that Creation is a fundamental and therefore mandatory belief. This is a halakhic decision on a belief.

On the other hand, regarding the end of the world, Rashbash tells his respondent to believe whatever he wants. Since Rambam says one way and Ramban says the other, you are free to choose. Even though Rashbash believes that he can prove that the Ramban is correct, he does not (or cannot?) rule conclusively on the matter.

III. Angels in the Torah

In response (no. 44) to the question of whether certain biblical events–Ya’akov fighting an angel, three heavenly guests appearing to Avraham, Bilam’s donkey speaking–happened in a prophetic dream or while awake, Rashbash answers differently. While he does not state that Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:43) says that they happened in a dream, he quotes Ramban (Gen. 18:2) who quotes Rambam disapprovingly. While we see here also a dispute between Rambam and Ramban on an issue of belief that is not a fundamental principle, Rashbash does not tell his respondent to choose whichever view he wants. Rather Rashbash states his view, notes that Ramban agrees, and instructs his respondent to accept it:

דע שהכל היה בהקיץ, וכן דעת הרמב״ן, וזו היא הדעת הראוי להאמין בו וללכת בנתיבה.

Know that everything occurred while awake, and such was the view of the Ramban. This is the view one should believe and follow.

Why does the Rashbash here assert one view as valid while above he allows for either? My initial thought was that here the Rashbash implies that there is an issue of practice (וללכת בנתיבה). If so, this would fit neatly into my theory that the Rambam distinguished between beliefs that have no practical impact, for which there is no decision-making process, and beliefs with a practical impact for which we must decide. However, I cannot think of a practical application of the belief that the biblical events actually happened and were not just visions.

Alternatively, perhaps Rashbash considered this a matter of fundamental principle. Maybe he believed that we are obligated to read the Pentateuch literally. However, if so, that would mean that he considers Rambam’s own views to be contrary to a fundamental principle. I find this highly implausible, although not impossible. I consider it more likely that Rashbash was of the view that all matters of belief are subject to the decision-making process. He felt that he could rule on any issue of belief. In the case of the biblical narratives, he ruled like Ramban. In the case of the end of the world, he chose not to rule and instead merely stated his own opinion.

IV. Belief and the Halakhic Process

The variety of theological views among authorities does not undermine the idea that a decision-making process exists. After all, there are also a variety of halakhic positions. Indeed, we find support from a surprising source. In his conclusions to this volume, Louis Jacobs, who had been previously rejected by the Orthodox community for his own theological views, writes (pp. 343-344):

The result of our survey, it is hoped, has been to demonstrate that the great Respondents took their theology seriously, giving the same care and attention to questions of belief that they gave to their legal decisions… Although it had long been recognized that the Talmud uses the term ‘Halakhah’ only in the sense of a final decision of legal questions, yet, in the Responsa, the Halakhic methods of reasoning are employed even when theological questions are considered. One might almost speak of a theological Halakhah.

Jacobs concludes by stating that the variety of beliefs implies a freedom for each individual. On this, I disagree. As he pointed out, that is hardly borne out by the methodology and language of the responsa literature.


1Under הלכות וחידושים ומליצות ופירוש מלות.
2Discussed here: link and cited by Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 116:8).
3Rashbash says that all other interpretations of this passage are forced.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, 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.


  1. Seth Avi Kadish

    Hi Rav Gil, you mention some interesting sources. I plan to be writing about this topic at length in the coming months God willing.

    The positions of the רשב”ש are actually quite standard and quite clear. His position on creation is standard for a great many of the later rishonim (after Rambam) who disagreed with Rambam’s principles and offered alternatives to them. Creation was absolutely crucial for them not because it was “halakhah”, but rather because creation means that the cosmos exist as an act of *will* by a God who cares. For them, denying creation was the same as saying that God doesn’t know us or care about us, nor does He act in the world, and thus neither could He have chosen to give us His Torah.

    The fact that Rambam didn’t list creation in the recieved list was therefore highly disturbing to them: For some of them (like רשב”ש’s father) this meant that the fourth principle was highly misleading and dangerous, and thus that the 13 principles needed to be reformulated. But for others the formulation of the fourth principle lead to grave doubts about whether Rambam himself may have secretly believed in a naturalistic universe, and in a God without personality who doesn’t really care.

    However, when pressed, they admitted that the Torah can make sense for someone who the thinks the world is eternal, but through God’s will (and that such a person can be a perfectly good Jew).

    The same thing is true of angels in the Torah (which is a very famous example). What those protesting Rambam’s position find so upsetting is not the exegetical issue or the “principle” itself, but rather the uneasy feeling that Rambam’s reading is fueled by rationistic assumptions that lead him to distort the Torah. They furthermore felt that metaphorical interpretation of the Torah was opening a pandora’s box, because such interpretation has no limits in principle. But even so, none of the mainstream rishonim disqualified the Rambam himself based on his interpretation of angels, nor those who accepted it. They disagreed vehemently, but the Rambam’s interpretation (often through the Ramban!) still continued to be studied by all and accepted by some.

  2. R. Gil – I would like to point you to the Rashbash’s father – the great medieval philosopher/halakhacist – the Rashbatz also known as the Tashbetz – R. Shimon ben Zemach Duran (d.1444) author of many responsa but also 2 books on dogma – ohev mishpat and magen avot (where he analyses the basic beliefs of Judaism).

    He believed that both the Rambam (interpretation of billam story – an ex.) and Ralbag (world create from pre-existing matter) had hetrodox views. But both believe in the principles of torah and did not contradict them – and were not heretics since it’s OK to come to wrong conclusions as long as intention was good via the intellect and not like Elisha ben Avuyah – to rebel. Heresy does not depend upon affirmation or denial of specific beliefs; it depends upon intent with which one affirms or denies specific beliefs (see Ohev Mishpat). He was unique among the rishonim on shogeg in beliefs – I suspect his son followed him. Not that there is a halacha to believe in x but if you don’t believe in x you are still not a heretic and you get your olam haba (its more nuanced than this but lack of space and time).
    In the end you only had to believe in 3 things – I don’t think his son disagreed with his concepts of belief.

  3. Ruvie: You raise important points. Thank you for bringing to my attention Rashbatz’s comments in Ohev Mishpat. They are available in English translation in Menachem Kellner’s Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, p. 89. Rashbatz does, indeed, say that Rambam adopted an “alien opinion” in saying that the episode of Bilam’s donkey was in a vision. And Rashbatz defends Rambam by saying that his heresy was inadvertent. Although I’m not sure why you say Rashbatz was unique among Rishonim in holding this view, since he quotes the Ra’avad as precedent. Throughout his book, Kellner quotes others who hold of this view.
    Turning to our question, this answers it nicely. Rashbash only paskened on matters of fundamental principles but on other issues let the questioner choose between legitimate views.

  4. R. Student, you theory seems to be similar to that of R. Meiselman in his book (although he imputes his theory to the Rambam which appears to contradict the Rambam’s own words).
    I think that there is a possible semantic confusion here:
    1) Even the Rambam who explicitly excludes P’sak in Hashkafa has some very strong opinions and considers these matters very important. And one would be foolish to go out on a limb based on uninformed opinion. So there is no question that all authorities will have opinions, sometimes strong ones, and recommend their own with different degrees of confidence.
    2) The other question is whether the methods and rules of P’sak can be used to “decide” a hashkafic issue. Can a majority decide that a minority opinion is heresy? Or can a known “mistaken” or “outmoded” belief still be required or allowed to be maintained based on precedent? In Halacha, this is sometimes true (e.g. pushing off the Bris of a “yellow” baby who is in no danger whatsoever, eating horseradish for Maror based on the practice in Europe, killing lice on Shabbos, fixed laws of Treifos, etc.). I don’t think that this can be true in Hashkafah, because this leaves us with the possibility of mandating a false belief.
    To show that these are two different things, one only need to consider medicine. It is clear that issues in medicine are very grave, should only be decided by experts, and each expert may push vociferously for his preferred theory to be put into practice. This is treated exactly as the Rishonim you describe above treat theological truths.
    However, we all understand that “legally binding” decisions in medicine are nonsensical as is majority rule and adherence to precedent. The only thing that matters in medicine is the evidence and the underlying truth.
    So we see that these two concepts are actually distinct. Since theological beliefs eventually relate to an underlying truth, it must be that the rules of P’sak, as in medicine, are not applicable to deciding them. As in medicine this doesn’t imply that poor decision making can’t lead you down a bad path, or that the uninformed should opine.
    A couple of other points:
    The language of Rashbash sounds to me like a strong recommendation (as in medicine above) and not a P’sak. “To follow in its path” sounds like “follow it’s implications” or “follow this methodology” not implying anything “practical”.
    The Rambam himself actually maintained that while the world will not end, it does is not “harmful” to take the pesukim literally and to believe that it will.

    • 1) I don’t believe that the Rambam excludes psak from hashkafah. He consistently excludes psak from issues that have no practical implications. I contend (and I have since seen that the Maharatz Chajes does as well), then when hashkafah has practical implications, the Rambam agrees that psak applies.
      2) I am not sure we need to apply all methods of psak to hashkafah. Even within halakhah, not all methods apply to all subjects. So no, I don’t think we need to maintain a mistaken belief unnecessarily. But I do believe that a posek (even a minority) may pasken that another belief is heretical and forbidden. This may even be subject to a debate among poskim.

      • I am not sure we need to apply all methods of psak to hashkafah. Even within halakhah, not all methods apply to all subjects. So no, I don’t think we need to maintain a mistaken belief unnecessarily. But I do believe that a posek (even a minority) may pasken that another belief is heretical and forbidden. This may even be subject to a debate among poskim. But I do believe that a posek (even a minority) may pasken that another belief is heretical and forbidden. This may even be subject to a debate among poskim.

        R. Student, thank you for your response. I wonder, then about the following:

        1) You mention that even a minority posek may pasken a belief and that there may even be a debate. But if that is so, then one or the other side (or both) is wrong. Which means at least one side is mandating a false belief which you agree is not a reasonable result.

        2) What rules of p’sak do apply? If I usually follow a given Posek in halacha, am I required to follow his paskened beliefs in Hashkafah? Does a majority decide the truth? When you consider that P’sak reach a practical result, without guaranteeing “accuracy”, then it appears to have no relevance at all. But if it does, then what is the relevance?

        3) If there is P’sak, what does it mean? In halacha, we study all Shitos (and give “Lomdus” to them) even those that the Gemara paskens against because they are valuable and Divrei Elokim Chaim. So if there is a p’sak in a belief argument, am I permitted to study and give the “Lomdus” of the “refuted” Shita and say that it is Divrei Elokim Chaim?

        As far as the Rambam, I have no doubt that he agreed that there are mandated beliefs (at least 13 or so). But do you have any evidence that he felt that P’sak could be used to decide what these are? I’m biased by the fact that I don’t see how P’sak has any relevance here, but it would help we had actual cases where the Rambam felt that this was relevant. The Rambam seems to make use of logical argument and appeals to tradition in these areas, but never halachic decision making.

        (Of course I am not demanding answers to these questions. They are food for further thought :).

  5. R. Gil – see chapter 8 in ohev mishpat on rambam and creation. Chapter 9-11 on shogeg. Yes, Rashbatz based his unique position on quoting the Ravad but it was not explicit in the Ravad. No other rishon was explicit and many vehemently disagree – Bibago and Abravenal.

    I could be remembering incorrectly – it was awhile ago preparing a yarzheit shiur on the famous Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 10. See footnote 152 on p. 261 in kellner’s book as well as p.101-103, 105-107 and p.210-213… He states the Ravad view is a possibility in understanding that way.

    I do think that the rashbetz is an interesting template that may resonate as possible solution in today’s world with our issues like modern biblical scholarship – just a thought.

    • I think the Ra’avad was explicit. So was R. Yosef Albo, although he was clearly influenced by the Rashbatz. Regardless, I find two reasons why inadvertent heresy will not find much traction today:
      1) I suspect that the people who find the concept “tinok she-nishbah” condescending will equally find “inadvertent heretic” offensive.
      2) Even if we do not label individuals as heretics, we still label their teachings as heresy. For example, Rashbatz would presumably object vigorously if a leader in his community would teach children that Bilam’s donkey never really spoke. Even if the teacher was an inadvertent heretic, that doesn’t mean we want our children learning his inadvertent heresy.

      • R. Gil – I think you misunderstand the Rashbatz (Tashbetz) in that they are not inadvertent heretics and heresy does not apply unless an intent to rebel (I would qualify that if you do not believe in Hashem’s existence and Torah Min Hashamayim then you are probably a heretic even according to him).

        I do not know if the Ravad was a philosopher with any systematic approach. I think Rashbatz built on the Ravad’s defense in those who believe in corporeality of Hashem (those greater than the Rambam) as non sectarians or non heretics even though they are wrong is not the same as adopting a l’chatchila philosophy of shogeg is ok. In other words, can you have heterodox views and still be part of orthodoxy and in good standing for olam haba – it would seem the answer is yes from the Rashbatz.

        Rashbatz is outspoken/explicit and as Kellner points out the Ravad, Crescas, Albo (contradicts himself on this in many places) possibly would agree. See p.212 last 4 lines (you can debate whether he is correct).

        Lastly, it is interesting to note that R. Albo borrowed the idea of 3 ikarim directly from Rashbatz with no attribution.

        On point 2 I would agree but that would be true even if it wasn’t heresy. Do I want my children being taught by a rebbe that thought all midrashim have to be taken literally (like I was in my youth) – no. Same with more liberal/strict views than oneself.

        • Ruvie,

          I think you’re taking us off on a tangent. Yes, the Tashbeitz, like the Radvaz, and probably the Raavad too, holds that a person isn’t in one of the categories of apiqoreis, min or kofer unless he believes his heresy out of rebellion.

          But our original discussion wasn’t about which people to treat differently because they are heretics, but whether there are halachic bounderies to permissable belief. The topic was the beliefs themselves, regardless of whether reclassifying the believer requires other criteria in addition.

          Besides, it is a matter of debate whether a tinoq shenishba who believes heresy through no fault of his own can indeed be treated like any other Jew. He might not be one of the kinds of heretic, but can you share uncooked wine with him? If a conversion applicant didn’t believe in creation, is a beis din permitted to convert him? (And after the fact, is the conversion valid?) Can we count a man with such beliefs — even if not technically an apiqoreis — toward a minyan?

          No matter what one rules on each of these and similar questions, I would think that the bottom line is that beliefs themselves are being categorized halachically. Then, there may be other factors when you go from belief to believes.

          • But our original discussion wasn’t about which people to treat differently because they are heretics, but whether there are halachic bounderies to permissable belief. The topic was the beliefs themselves, regardless of whether reclassifying the believer requires other criteria in addition.

            Micha, I agree with most of what you say, but I think that the boundary between questions is being blurred inadvertantly, IMO. It would be hard to say that belief in the existence of God is not a mandated belief. But that doesn’t meant that the tools or rules of P’sak are in any way relevant to deciding these issues. These are two different things, IMO.

            • In the past, RGS has argued (and I agree) that they are not.

              I would say that the reason why we can apply rules of pesaq to prohibit people from being atheists is because there are halakhos that tell us that we treat Jews in good standing one way, heretics a second, and those who disbelieve through no fault of their own sometimes one way, sometimes the other. But I am saying (and I believe this is at least part of RGS’s position, based on his “Crossroads” essay) that one area where halachic ruling itself does define the limits of belief is where beliefs become the basis of halachic decisions.

              Personally, I would say that outside of those beliefs that impact halakhah there would be no such authority. After all, halachic authority comes from the power G-d gave the rabbinate to work his process. They aren’t deciding that one ruling is accurate and the other one false, their decision defines which one becomes legally binding.

              When we move from the plain of interpreting law to finding truth, we are told by Eikhah Rabba to “accept the truth from whomever says it”. There is no meaning to the concept of rabbinic authority. It makes sense to garner expert input, but there can’t be anything binding about their answer. Truth answers to evidence and reason, not fiat.

              So personally, I think that pesaq itself is what is under discussion here and (and I’m not saying R’ Student goes this far) ONLY halachic pesaq.

              • In the past, RGS has argued (and I agree) that they are not.

                You may be right, but I don’t still haven’t seen a clear explanation on how this can work or what it means. Yes, if a community decision needs to be made (throw this person out of shul or whatnot), then you can have some kind of P’sak. That is practical, but not a required belief. I’m allowed to believe the P’sak is wrong and if I am big enough to disagree, I might be even required to disregard it. And the person’s “Olam Habah” of course depends on God and not the P’sak.

                So there is still not concrete example where P’sak on belief is found.
                Which again makes sense, because p’sak can make a decision, but it can’t guarantee correctness.

                R. Student’s examples themselves demonstrate my point. He says that a Posek for a school might prohibit something from being taught in the school. OK, but that doesn’t mean anyone is required to believe he made the right decision. Presumably, he can decide all kinds of things educationally like whether or not to teach about Zionism in a positive or negative light or at all, but he can’t Pasken that Zionism Kosher or not.

          • Micha – my apologies for going off tangent. I think/believe the point is that those rishonim – Tashbetz in particular – do not think of halakhic obligatory via psak of mandatory beliefs except torah min ha-shamayim (plus belief in hashem whether thru creation or simply). The proof from the Tashbetz is is R. Hillel who says there is no future messiah since he came already. All are Jews in good standing. That is why I posted about the Tashbetz which I thinks rejects R. Gil’s notion.

  6. In the first case, the Rahsbash discusses two examples. He first states that belief in creation is mandatory. So then, when he discusses the end of the world, it makes sense that the Rashbach makes it clear that he is giving his own conclusion and NOT a a mandatory belief.

    In other contexts, without that first part, there is less motive to mention that a belief in mandatory. So, it is unclear to me whether “זו היא הדעת הראוי להאמין בו וללכת בנתיבה — this is the view one should believe and follow” is actually a statement of obligation. It could equally as well be advocacy for one position above other permissible ones. That he omits the mentioning Rambam’s understanding of stories with angels because he feels the logic is weak, and thus he steers people away from it. But nothing to so with duty. “Ra’ui — appropriate / should” could be a halachic term, but we expect an obligation to be described as “chayav”.

    • Very interesting theory. You are suggesting that the Rashbah only paskened on fundamental principles and that the issue of Bilam’s donkey (etc.) was not a matter of a fundamental principle and therefore the Rashbash did not rule on it.

      • Yes, but I think what you said is largely tautological. It looks like you are using the phrase “fundamental principle” to mean “a hashkafic idea that is halachically mandatory to buy into”. So of course those and only those are the ones the Rashbash rules on.

        And we know from the first shu”t (436) that the Rashbash believed in both categories.

        All I added was that even among the class of non-mandatory beliefs, it would still make sense to ask a more informed rav his opinion. Not because the answer would be in any way binding, but because having input from someone with more data to work with can help clear up confusion. And therefore we cannot classify his statement about angels one way or the other. It could be halachic, it could be sharing his own philosophical speculation; it depends on what is meant by “ra’ui”.

  7. So help me understand how these differences in hashkafa (let’s use corporeality for a moment) developed. Were we taught incorporeality at Sinai and then some forgot it? Was it never addressed and then logically great rabbis came to different conclusions? is the law of the excluded middle not applicable?

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