Intellectual Freedom

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by R. Gil Student

I. Limits

Freedom is the cornerstone of democracy and its absence is symptomatic of a dangerously coercive society. Yet too much liberty is damaging to that very freedom. Any country that wishes to thrive must place limits on individuals’ freedoms when it infringes on those of others, such as protecting one person’s property rights from his neighbor and preventing someone from falsely and dangerously shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Does this need for boundaries also apply to intellectual freedom, the right to think what you want? While the very question raises the specter of Big Brother, when transferred from the political realm to that of voluntary religious affiliation it can be seen as an issue not of mind control but of the level of desired conformity within a single community.

R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook explored the limits of intellectual freedom in a number of letters, recently translated and analyzed by R. Bezalel Naor in The Limit of Intellectual Freedom: The Letters of Rav Kook. Must a Jew believe anything? May he believe anything? This is not a discussion about how to acquire “proper” beliefs or what to do if you cannot. Nor is it about policing for “improper” beliefs, an understandably disturbing prospect that R. Kook did not propose. It is about whether such a concept of “proper” beliefs exists and, if so, how they are determined.

II. Freedom Within Limits

On the one hand, R. Kook felt that no Jew may accept a belief that undermines the Jewish religion: “If there were to be found in the world a nation whose very existence as a nation depends on a certain opinion, then in regard to that opinion it is not only permissible but even obligatory for society to maintain that there be no freedom of opinion” (Iggeros Ra’ayah, vol. 1 pp. 19-20; Naor, p. vi). This is similar to how one historian explained to me Rambam’s choice of the Thirteen Principles. According to this historian, who will remain unnamed because he only reluctantly discussed this controversial matter with me in a private conversation, Rambam was responding to contemporary heresies that undermined Judaism. Regardless of your opinion of those specific principles, this historian continued, Rambam would certainly oppose contemporary Biblical Criticism because its conclusions, if accepted, undermine Judaism.

However, other than this limitation, R. Kook described a historical debate over philosophical openness. According to the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 87a), theological debates can never be conclusively decided. However, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 11:3), rabbis can rule according to one view and declare the other unacceptable (Iggeros Ra’ayah, vol. 1 pp. 123-124, 341, vol. 3 pp. 67-68; Naor, pp. 45-53). This is seen in their differing statements regarding the biblical passage of the Sanhedrin’s authoritative rulings (Deut. 17:7-13). According to the Yerushalmi, this passage also applies to “aggadah,” Jewish thought. R. Kook explained that in the land of Israel, the home of prophecy, the atmosphere of divine inspiration allows for reaching conclusions on theological matters, as opposed to Babylonia and other places of exile.

III. Historical Debate

R. Kook traces this debate through Medieval history, asserting that certain Geonim and Rishonim (most notably the Rambam) sided with the liberal Bavli while others (such as R. Hai Gaon) followed the restrictive Yerushalmi. R. Naor extends R. Kook’s historical study beyond the Medieval period, positioning the Vilna Gaon alongside the Yerushalmi and R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, with the Bavli.

R. Naor supplements R. Kook’s letters with explanations, elaborations, appendices and stunning — in terms of number and content — endnotes. R. Naor’s creative brilliance shines in this work, with his breadth of knowledge — rabbinic texts, Kabbalah and academic studies — supplementing his inquisitive depth. His unrestrained, and perhaps underdisciplined, genius overwhelms the reader with interesting but often tangential studies. The book is a tour-de-force of both copious research and serious religious seeking.

IV. Freedom Within Existing Limits

However, much to my surprise, I could not find a discussion of what I consider a key question: Does R. Kook, at least according to the Bavli, allow only for intellectual freedom in choosing among traditional views or even rejection of all rabbinic precedents for a new alternative? In Rambam’s numerous comments on this subject in his commentary to the Mishnah (e.g. Sotah 3:3), he opts for the former, stating that we do not rule between existing rabbinic views. However, R. Shmuel ben Chofni (quoted in Radak’s commentary to 1 Samuel 28:24) rejects a traditional view based on reason. It is possible to argue, though, that despite Rambam’s limited wording in his commentary to the Mishnah, in practice he rejected traditional views such as the existence of demons. Which of these approaches is R. Kook discussing under the rubric of the Bavli view? His wording seems to imply the former but his inclusion of R. Shmuel Ben Chofni suggests the latter.

I am similarly uncertain whether R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda belongs in this dichotomy. On the one hand, he states clearly in his introduction to Chovos Ha-Levavos that a Sanhedrin cannot rule on matters of faith. However, he also states that we must defer to tradition: “After having accepted these things by way of tradition, which means all the religious commandments, foundations and details (כל מצות הדת ויסודיו ופרטיו – Kafach), you must continue to speculate upon them with your mind, your understanding and with well-measured logic, until truth is evident and falsehood is driven out.” While R. Bachya removes faith from the realm of rabbinic decision-making, he still requires complete deference to tradition rather than intellectual freedom. Intellect is expected to conform to the truths of tradition.

V. Intellectual Freedom According to Rambam

On the seeming contradiction between Rambam’s assertion of Thirteen Principles of faith (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1) and his immediately succeeding statement that we do not rule on matters of faith (Ibid. 10:3), R. Kook seems to resolve it by distinguishing between views whose rejection undermines religion and those that are less damaging. However, R. Naor (endnote 69) offers a very different resolution. Pointing out that Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim and Sefer Madda represent precisely the taking of sides Rambam had earlier stated was unnecessary, R. Naor suggests that Rambam was only saying that he, in his commentary to the Mishnah, would refrain from ruling between different views. It was a statement about the nature of Rambam’s book, not of Judaism in general. This is an intriguing explanation that merits consideration.

I have, in the past, offered a different resolution. My suggestion is that Rambam allows for reaching decisions on fundamental principles, of which the rejection has practical religious implications such as qualification to serve as a shochet. When beliefs do not affect religious practice, intellectual freedom reigns.

VI. Rav Kook’s Conclusion

Which approach did Rav Kook favor, that of the Bavli or Yerushalmi? R. Naor quotes R. Kook’s son, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who seems to say that his father favored the Yerushalmi approach of ruling on theological matters. In my limited understanding, I take this to mean that, living in Israel, he favored reviving the Israeli approach that is based on the prophetic spirit of the land. I have previously noted that R. Eliyahu Zini also adopts this Yerushalmi approach (link). However, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook’s student, R. Shlomo Aviner, seems to lean toward the Bavli’s approach (Responsa She’eilas Shlomo, vol. 2 no. 258).

R. Naor disagrees with both sides. If I understand him correctly, R. Naor argues that R. Kook adopted both approaches. For some people, the Yerushalmi approach is correct and for others, the Bavli approach is better. As with many aspects of R. Kook’s thought, I cannot put these pieces together into a coherent whole.

R. Naor’s book contains much more than addressed here. His detailed discussions and tangents raise fascinating issues that deserve greater discussion (for example, his suggested connection between R. Kook and Moses Mendlessohn that I think misunderstands the latter). Nevertheless, this book’s main theme — the tension between theological conformity and freedom — is one with which we continue to grapple nearly a century after R. Kook wrote his letters. A religious community cannot pray together or study together without mutually agreed upon premises. Where those boundaries lie and the amount of freedom within them remain issues of primary concern which ironically continue to evade resolution.

(reposted from May ’11)

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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

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