Faith in the Modern World

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by Netanel Wiederblank

In recent decades debate has proliferated about the degree to which a Jew must believe. Does the Torah merely demand actions, the 613 mitzvot as well as moral and ethical behavior, or does it demand belief? The question has been considered from an academic perspective,[1] as well as from a popular/sociological perspective, as people have observed the preponderance of orthopraxy in our community, whereby a person remains observant while failing to believe in the divinity of the Torah or other principles of faith.

This essay seeks to address the question of the degree to which a Jew must believe, with an emphasis on faith in the modern world. In particular, it considers what exactly God asks of us in terms of faith. A pivotal principle of the Jewish faith is divine justice. If nothing else, God is fair: “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are just. A God of faithfulness without injustice; just and straight is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The notion of justice poses a major problem that has troubled Jewish thinkers for centuries: how can God expect us to believe, and hold us accountable if we don’t, if, presumably, belief is not in our control. A person can will himself to act; but can he will himself to believe. And even if he could, if he doesn’t believe why would he.[2]

Even more troubling is the position of Rambam (Maimonides). Rambam, and he is not alone, posits that belief in God is insufficient; one must believe in all of the basic Jewish principles of faith in order to experience eternity (i.e., gain admittance into the afterlife). One of these beliefs, divine incorporeality, is sufficiently unintuitive that large swaths of the Jewish people, in Rambam’s time, didn’t fully accept it. The masses of Jewish corporealists throughout history were not malicious, they simply didn’t know better or were misled by the biblical and rabbinic texts that superficially understood suggest divine materiality. Why, then, were they culpable? How is Rambam’s position compatible with divine justice?

In this essay I hope to consider the question of faith (emunah) in the modern world. We begin by considering Rambam’s position on accidental heresy. We attempt to figure out why Rambam deemed the corporealist a heretic. We then consider how his view impacts emunah in the contemporary landscape. Next we examine the relevance of halachic rulings on theological matters. Finally, we conclude by considering different approaches to addressing challenges to emunah.[3]

Rambam on Heresy Resulting from Misunderstanding Scripture

After listing the thirteen principles of faith in his Introduction to Perek Chelek, the 10th chapter of tractate Sanhedrin, Rambam writes:

And when a person believes all these fundamentals and his faith in them will be genuine, he enters into the nation of Israel, and it is a mitzvah to love him, have mercy upon him, and act towards him according to all the ways God commanded us regarding love and brotherliness. And even if he did all of the sins in the Torah due to desire of the emotions and from his evil inclination conquering him, he will be punished for his sins, but he still has a share in the world to come and is among the sinners of Israel. If, however, he doubts one of these fundamentals, he has left the nation and has denied the fundamentals and is called a heretic, a denier, etc., and it is a mitzvah to hate him and to destroy him. And regarding him it is said, “Behold, will not the enemy of God be my enemy?” (Psalms 139:21).

Rambam seems to conclude that anyone who does not believe in these thirteen principles is excluded from the Jewish people and loses their portion in the World to Come (olam ha-ba), no matter what the cause for his disbelief.[4]

But what about if it’s not his fault? What if he has been misled by his faulty understanding of Scripture? When considering this question, we focus on incorporeality. While this may not be a pressing issue in the modern context—today, most people who believe in God don’t think He has a body—in Rambam’s time the belief seems to have been quite common. Accordingly, if we are to understand Rambam’s perspective on contemporary heresy, we must analyze his view on corporeality.

There are numerous approaches to addressing these questions; we will consider two. One of the classical understandings of Rambam, attributed in part to R. Chaim Soloveitchik, is that with respect to basic tenets of belief, it does not matter whether someone’s error is innocent. True, a person may be blameless; however, when it comes to false conceptions of God (or perhaps all thirteen principles of faith), an innocent heretic also is deemed a heretic, with all that the term implies.

Why consider the accidental heretic a heretic? The likely rationale for this thesis is that in Rambam’s view belief in a corporeal God does not constitute belief in God whatsoever, because such a god does not exist. Thus, like the idolater, the corporealist prays to and worships a figment of his own imagination. Rambam deems such a person an accidental heretic insofar as he thinks that he believes in God while, in fact, he does not. In fact, the deity he believes in has nothing to do with God due to the centrality of incorporeality in defining God.

Still, we may object, it is not his fault. Why should he be punished? The answer, according to this view, is that Rambam maintains that the soul achieves immortality through knowledge of non-physical beings garnered in this world. As such, a correct conception of God is a natural and necessary prerequisite to achieving olam ha-ba. Thus, loss of olam ha-ba is not a punishment, which would be unfair, but rather a natural consequence.[5] Two texts that support this notion are Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:8-9 and Hilchot Teshuvah 8:2-3. Abarbanel, Rosh Amana Ch. 12 appears to adopt this first approach to understanding Rambam’s view. He explains with an analogy. Just as someone who swallows poison thinking that it is food inevitably will be harmed despite not deserving it, so too the natural consequence of disbelief is to not partake of immortality.

One problem with this first position emerges from another innovative ruling of Rambam. The Talmud (Shabbat 68b) introduces the concept of tinok she-nishba bein ha-nochrim (an infant who was captured and consequently raised among gentiles) regarding the number of sacrifices the individual would bring for violating the Sabbath since he didn’t know any better. Rambam (Hilchot Mamerim 3:3 and elsewhere) extends the tinok she-nishba principle to matters that relate to the thirteen principles of faith. For example, Rambam maintains that a person who does not acknowledge the validity of the oral law is deemed a heretic and punished accordingly. However, this is true only if he “denied the oral law consciously, according to his perception of things,” such as the first generation of Karaites. The “children of these errant people and their grandchildren whose parents led them away and those who were born among these Karaites and raised according to their conception are considered as children captured and raised by them.” Since they are not responsible for their false beliefs, the legal consequences of heresy are not applied to them.

Thus, even though the second-generation Karaite denies one of the thirteen principles by rejecting the authority of the Oral Law, he is not treated as a heretic because he is not held responsible for his false beliefs; he simply was falsely educated from youth. This seems to contradict the assumption of the first approach that we classify a person as a heretic even if it is not his fault. Put differently, Rambam cannot be claiming that all heretics are by definition excluded from the Jewish people since he explicitly excuses certain types of heretics when they are not responsible for their error.

Why then does Rambam hold the corporealist responsible? Why don’t we apply the tinok she-nishba principle to the poor bloke who misinterpreted scripture and concluded that God has a body. This brings us to the second approach to understanding Rambam’s view on accidental heresy. Rambam actually addresses the question of why we don’t excuse the corporealist in I:36 of The Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh ha-Nevuchim) writing that if we were to excuse those who believe in a corporeal god, we ought to excuse idolaters as well since, in both cases, the error emerges from faulty comprehension or faulty education.

If you think that there is an excuse for those who believe in the corporeality of God on the ground of their training, their ignorance, or their defective comprehension, you must make the same concession to the worshippers of idols. Their worship is due to ignorance or to childhood training; “They continue in the custom of their fathers” (Chullin 13a).

If, however, you should say that the literal interpretation of Scripture causes men to corporealize God, you ought to know that an idolater is similarly impelled to his idolatry by imaginings and defective representations. Accordingly, there is no excuse for one who does not accept the experts (the true philosophers) if he himself is incapable of engaging in such speculation. I do not consider those men as heretics who are unable to prove incorporeality, but I hold those to be so who do not believe it, especially when they see that Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan avoid [in reference to God] expressions implying corporeality as much as possible.

Rambam argues that the reason these heretics have no excuse is that they should have accepted the position of the experts (the true philosophers) if they were unable to independently ascertain the truth. Rambam forcefully implies that the person is responsible insofar as he fails to utilize the tools available to him. Rambam assumes that a person is capable of being aware of his own limitations. However, if these tools are not available, then to some degree, the errors are excusable.

Rambam’s answer does not seem to correspond to the assumption made in the first approach that such a person’s exclusion from the next world is a natural consequence. If the first approach was correct Rambam should have responded that olam ha-ba is by definition impossible for someone with an incorrect conception of God. Instead, Rambam answers that the person is in fact to blame for his erroneous beliefs. The implication is that he is considered a heretic because of his negligence. Thus, Rambam appears to distinguish between the second-generation Karaite who is blameless, and therefore excused, and the corporealist who is negligent and therefore culpable.

Applying Rambam to contemporary heresy

If the above theory is correct, then applying Rambam to contemporary heresies would mean determining whether someone today who denies one of Rambam’s thirteen principles is blameless or negligent.[6]

R. Elchanan Wasserman addresses this very question with respect to belief in God.

I have heard in the name of R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk regarding the view of Rambam that all heresy is not considered shogeg (accidental) because in the final analysis, he does not have emunah, and it is impossible to be part of the Jewish people without emunah… Seemingly, his view is compelling, because all heretics and idolaters err only unintentionally. There is no greater mistake than someone who offers his son to molech, and yet he is liable for execution (i.e., we don’t treat him as shogeg even though his sin does not seem like a willful rejection of the truth but a misunderstanding of the truth). [Rather, it must be the case that lacking faith automatically excludes a person from the Jewish people.]

But we cannot conclude that someone without faith automatically is excluded from the Jewish people, because a baby also does not have faith, yet he certainly is part of the Jewish people. Likewise, a baby taken captive by idolaters brings a sacrifice for his sins (i.e., he is considered a shogeg), and he is not treated as an apostate. From here we see that we apply the principle that “God excuses all those coerced” even to matters of faith. (This seems to contradict R. Chaim.)

The answer is in accordance with what we explained earlier, namely, that the principles of faith are in and of themselves simple and compelling. It is only a person’s desire to throw off God’s yoke that causes his intellect to err and deny that which is obvious. Accordingly, such errors are considered intentional violations. But someone who [believes in God and Torah, but] says that it is permissible to serve idolatry is considered shogeg and exempt from execution, since he thinks that his acts are in accordance with the Torah (i.e., he is not denying Torah).[7]

R. Elchanan Wasserman agrees that conceivably, a truly innocent heretic, someone who arrived at his conclusions after a genuine search, certainly would not be culpable even according to Rambam.[8] However, no such person exists. The truly honest search always will lead to God; how else would it be fair to command belief in God?

R. Elchanan arrives at this far-reaching conclusion after considering a number of basic questions concerning the mitzvah of emunah. R. Elchanan wonders how the Torah could legislate belief in God if such belief is not really in a person’s control. Moreover, knowledge of God’s existence clearly is not achieved so simply; after all, someone as wise as Aristotle did not maintain correct beliefs in this regard. How can the Torah demand that every Jewish thirteen-year-old have this belief? The answer, R. Elchanan asserts, is that anyone who considers the matter honestly will arrive at the truth of God’s existence. Likewise, Rambam holds the “innocent” heretic responsible for his negligence because he is not really innocent; he could have known better. How does a person turn to heresy; what causes man to err? His desires and passions:

The fundamentals of faith in and of themselves are simple and compelling for any person who is not a fool. It is impossible to doubt their truth. This holds, though, only provided that a person is not bribed, that is, that he is free of this-worldly lusts and desires. Thus, heresy is not rooted in a breakdown of reason in and of itself, but rather in a person’s desire to satisfy his lusts, which distorts and blinds his reason. We now understand the Torah’s admonition (Numbers 15:39): “And you shall not stray after your heart” – this refers to heresy (Berachot 12b). This means that a person is admonished to suppress and control his desires in order that his reason be free from the distortions they cause, so that he may recognize the truth… Heresy has no place in man’s reason, but rather in his desires and lusts.

Of course, R. Elchanan does not believe that idolaters or heretics are conscious of this motivation. Rather, as the Talmud (Sanhederin 63b) tells us concerning idolatry – which people served with devotion and sacrifice – subconscious forces often produce skewed decisions. Nevertheless, even if a person is unaware of his motivation, he is held accountable to the degree that he had the ability, through contemplation and introspection, to arrive at the truth.

Indeed, Rambam (Moreh ha-Nevuchim 1:5) warns that temptation can unknowingly cause error. Only when a person’s singular desire is the quest for truth will he be largely protected from error. As long as a person simultaneously craves other things, such as lust or honor, these desires may cloud his judgment and lead him to justify the false beliefs necessary to achieve his yearning. Rambam emphasizes that, left unchecked, desires pervert our intellectual reasoning. A person may think they are seeking the truth, but, in fact, they are only justifying their agenda. Thus, to correctly apprehend the truth, one must first rid themselves of this sort of desire. To seek truth for the sake of truth. While difficult, Rambam maintains that with hard work a human being is capable of reaching this state.

Is R. Elchanan’s Theory Still Relevant Today?

R. Yehuda Amital objects to R. Elchanan’s general approach, at least in the modern context:

I believe that Rabbi Wasserman’s explanations do not suffice. Many people come to a secular outlook not in order to satisfy their desires, but rather because of their dedication to ideals that may, at times, even demand great sacrifice. It is difficult to pin all disbelief on following after one’s desires.[9]

What would R. Elchanan respond? Would he say that times are different and it no longer is true that an honest search automatically yields belief in God? Or would he say that even today, the honest seeker would conclude that God exists? Since his argument rests upon the eternal mitzvah of emunah, he presumably would contend that even today, an honest search will yield belief in God.[10]

What about R. Amital’s challenge? In a New York Times interview, Dr. Alvin Plantinga[11] was asked why so many presumably intelligent philosophers are atheists in light of the powerful arguments that can be mounted against atheism. Essentially, this is R. Elchanan’s question as to how someone as brilliant as Aristotle could deny God. Remarkably, he gives the same answer:

I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have any special knowledge here. Still, there are some possible explanations. Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.

Basically, these come down to the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism. This desire for autonomy can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.[12]

Of course, for this response to be valid one would need to demonstrate that arguments in favor of belief are compelling even in the modern context. We attempt to do this in Illuminating Jewish Thought (pp. 497-511 and 553-561).

Is R. Elchanan’s Theory Relevant for All 13 Principles?

Another question one might ask is to what extent R. Elchanan’s theory applies to all thirteen principles. Firstly, why should desires trigger denial of incorporeality? A person who believes in a physical God may still punctiliously observe the Torah. Moreover, even if we accept that the honest searcher always concludes that God exists, will he always conclude that there will be a resurrection or that every word in the Torah comes from God? Belief in God can, to some extent, be shown logically. Not so concerning the resurrection.

To this, R. Elchanan responds that the honest search concludes not just in the necessity of God’s existence, but in the veracity of the Torah. This second component demands belief in all thirteen principles. However, even R. Elchanan concedes that concerning certain beliefs, we allow for tinok she-nishba when it comes to reasonable errors.[13] The question then remains: to which principles are we willing to apply this exception? Perhaps as the world becomes more secular, the list expands.

Earlier Thinkers Who Disagree with R. Elchanan’s Theory

Despite the cogency of R. Elchanan’s argument, other great thinkers disagree. In Ramban’s Introduction to his commentary on Job, he notes that the primary reason why people deny God’s existence or His providence is suffering and the problem of evil. Witnessing or experiencing agony is not only painful, but the central cause of heresy:

There is a matter that pains the hearts and distresses the mind. In every generation people were drawn to absolute heresy from it alone. And it is seeing injustice, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper… This is the root of all remissness from every nation and every language.

Ramban implies that it is both witnessing as well as the philosophical problem of evil, and not the desire for pleasure, that leads to heresy.[14]

Along similar lines, R. Sa’adya Gaon considers the various causes for heresy, outlining eight triggers. Like R. Elchanan, many stem from intellectual laziness, justification of a life free of obligation, and arrogance. However, R. Sa’adya Gaon also considers the possibility that a person’s rejection stems from the lousy arguments sometimes offered by believers and incoherent defenses of religion. R. Sa’adya Gaon appears open to the possibility that the root of heresy is sometimes intellectual. Accordingly, in his work the Gaon seeks to correct these errors.

The above two sources do not address the question of whether the denier should be blamed, they simply observe the complexity of disbelief. Another earlier commentator who appears to have a radically different position than R. Elchanan is R. Abba Mari ha-Yarchi, in Minchat Kena’ot Ch. 14 (Mossad ha-Rav Kook ed. Teshuvot ha-Rashba Vol. 1, p. 257). In discussing the heresies of Aristotle, he writes that Aristotle himself was not at fault for his heretical beliefs because he could not have known better.

Rambam’s View on Pesak on Theological Matters

Thus far we have focused on an interesting, though somewhat theoretical question: Is someone excluded from the afterlife if he denies one of the thirteen principles of faith? While theologically important, insofar as it relates to basic questions of divine justice, it is not a practical question—God will decide at the appropriate time. However, there are also practical ramifications to this question insofar as the halacha distinguishes between someone deemed a heretic and someone who is not. To better appreciate this let us consider the question of pesak (halachic rulings) in seemingly non-halachic matters.[15]

Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishna (Sotah 3:3) writes that we do not follow the halachic process in aggadic disputes that lack practical applications:

I already have told you numerous times that if the Sages disagree about a religious matter (a matter of hashkafah) that does not have a practical application, one should not say that the Halacha follows so-and-so.

Rambam writes there is no need to rule decisively in matters of hashkafah since there is no practical halachic relevance to such disputes. This does not mean that Rambam feels that both opinions are equally correct. Rather, aggadic statements such as these, still differ from halachic disputes, which are normative and therefore require a final ruling.

Interestingly, there are a number of places where Rambam rejects certain philosophical positions in Chazal, arguing that they reflect minority views.[16] At first glance, this formulation indicates that Rambam maintained that we follow the halachic procedure of following the majority view even in non-halachic contexts. This would contradict his comments above, that there is no pesak concerning aggadic matters. However, as we argue in section 6.4 (pp. 360-7) of Illuminating Jewish Thought, Rambam does not necessarily believe that the majority view is legally binding because it is the majority, as would be the case regarding the majority view in a halachic matter. Support for this assertion can be garnered from the fact that Rambam does not actually show that a majority of Sages follow one opinion or another. Rather, he simply shows that the position that he is claiming to be the majority view makes more sense.

This might explain why, occasionally, we find statements such as nimnu ve-gamru (they voted and concluded) concerning non-halachic matters. For example, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) records a debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel whether it would have been better for man had the world not been created. The Gemara concludes that nimnu ve-gamru, that it would have been better for man not to have been created, but now that man exists, he should scrutinize his ways or analyze his deeds. At first glance, this statement contradicts Rambam’s principle that there is no pesak in aggadic matters. Some, like R. Yehuda b. Eliezer ha-Levi Mintz (c. 1405–1508), have deflected this proof, arguing that there may be practical ramifications from this debate.[17] Others, like Maharsha, understand that nimnu does not refer to an actual vote.

In light of our theory above, however, we can suggest that there is a difference between looking to the majority to determine that which seems most logical and following the majority in the formal halachic sense such that the majority view becomes binding.[18] In fact, this gemara may be the source for Rambam’s tendency to reject certain philosophical views found in Chazal based on the assertion that they do not reflect the majority view.

Theological Discussions Where Pesak Is Necessary

We should note, however, that Rambam explains that pesak is inappropriate only when the theological discussion does not have practical ramifications. In the event that a theological discussion affects practice, pesak is necessary. Although the theology itself is not subject to pesak, whether or not a person has certain beliefs does have practical implications. Certain beliefs (most famously, Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith) must be held by a person if he wants to be considered a Jew for practical halachic purposes. A person who rejects those principles of faith is a heretic. According to Halacha, a heretic is not considered a Jew for many ritual purposes, such as writing tefillin, kosher slaughter, and many instances where Halacha differentiates between Jews and non-Jews. Thus, while the question of God’s oneness, for example, is surely not subject to pesak, the question of whether or not a person who disbelieves in God’s oneness is or is not a heretic would be subject to pesak. Evidence of this is Rambam’s ruling (in his commentary on the Mishna[19] and Hilchot Teshuvah[20]) that certain beliefs are mandatory in order to be considered part of the Jewish people and that someone who lacks these beliefs is halachically labeled a heretic, with all that this categorization entails.[21]

An important corollary to this discussion is the question of whether that which characterizes heresy remains fixed or changes based on the consensus view. Some, like Chatam Sofer (Y.D. 2:356), maintain that just as in the halachic process there are views that are acceptable before a consensus is reached but become unacceptable subsequently, so too with respect to hashkafic matters that pertain to fundamental beliefs (ikkarei emunah). However, unlike the simple reading of Rambam, according to Chatam Sofer, pesak might theoretically be relevant for a broader array of hashkafic matters, and not just principles of faith.[22] However, in explaining Rambam one can accept the basic approach of Chatam Sofer, that there may be an evolving definition of heresy, without going as far as Chatam Sofer in suggesting that there is nothing inherently significant about the thirteen principles of faith. Thus, one might argue that pesak is only relevant for hashkafic matters that for some reason are particularly fundamental. On the other hand, regarding non-fundamental matters pesak is irrelevant. Accordingly, someone who maintains a false belief in these matters would not be excluded from the afterlife even if he rejects a consensus view.[23]

The question of whether tenets of faith can evolve, may hinge on the two approaches discussed earlier about Rambam’s approach to the innocent heretic. The first approach presumed that one who denies one of the principles of faith is naturally excluded from the afterlife. The second approach argued that the heretic’s exclusion stems from malfeasance and is not the naturalistic consequence of a false belief.

Chatam Sofer’s understanding, that there can be a halachic consensus on hashkafic matters, is in line with the second approach we considered, that loss of the afterlife is justified since the individual should have known better. Since the the second approach presumes it is not the false belief, in and of itself, that triggers the loss of olam ha-ba, rather the negligence of the believer, it seems reasonable that we would only hold him accountable if he rejects the consensus opinion.

Indeed, the second approach allows us to defend Rambam from a troubling question. Radvaz (4:187) wonders how Rambam could have ruled that R. Hillel was a heretic for denying the twelfth principle—how could Rambam classify a Talmudic sage as a heretic? If, however, we adopt the second approach, the solution is simple. R. Hillel’s error did not stem from negligence. Clearly, R. Hillel was unaware of a tradition concerning the meaning of the prophecies in the Prophets about a personal messiah and a consensus had not yet been reached. As such, he was excused.

On the other hand, if one adopts the first approach that the reason why Rambam maintains that anyone who does not believe in the thirteen principles is naturally and automatically excluded from the Jewish people and loses olam ha-ba no matter what the cause for his disbelief, then there is no basis for an evolving definition of heresy. The reason for this is that this school of thought maintains that the basis for this seemingly harsh conclusion emerges from Rambam’s understanding that immortality is only possible for someone whose conception of God and fundamental beliefs are correct. Loss of olam ha-ba is not a punishment, but rather a natural consequence of such fundamental distortions of the truth. This perspective, it would seem, does not allow for any sort of evolution with respect to what constitutes a fundamental belief. Since the loss of olam ha-ba is a natural consequence of the false belief, the individual will lose olam ha-ba even if a consensus has not been reached that the belief is false, since, at the end of the day, he maintains the false belief.[24]

Willingness to Work

All this notwithstanding, what if a person still has nagging questions. Rambam, Moreh ha-Nevuchim 1:34, writes of people who are troubled by vexing theological questions, but are unwilling to invest in the very hard work necessary to find answers. In discussing why so few people arrive at the correct understanding of religion, Rambam writes that sometimes we so much want to reach the goal (the answers to our most pressing questions) we have no patience for the process, which is often long and tedious.

The preparatory studies[25] are of long duration, and man, in his natural desire to reach the goal, finds them frequently too wearisome, and does not wish to be troubled by them…. Suppose you awaken any person, even the most simple, as if from sleep, and you say to him, Do you not desire to know what the heavens are, what is their number and their form; what beings are contained in them; what the angels are; how the creation of the whole world took place; what is its purpose, and what is the relation of its various parts to each other; what is the nature of the soul; how it enters the body; whether it has an independent existence, and if so, how it can exist independently of the body; by what means and to what purpose, and similar problems. He would undoubtedly say “Yes,” and show a natural desire for the true knowledge of these things; but he will wish to satisfy that desire and to attain to that knowledge by listening to a few words from you. Ask him to interrupt his usual pursuits for a week, till he learns all this, he would not do it, and would be satisfied and contented with imaginary and misleading notions; he would refuse to believe that there is anything which requires preparatory studies and persevering research.

People think that the need for short answers, soundbites, to the most challenging problems is a modern problem, precipitated by the internet, smartphones, and our ever-decreasing attention spans. But, Rambam tells us, the problem is not new. In his day too, people wished to know the answers to basic questions like the problem of evil. But, tell them that understanding takes time and investment, and they lose all interest.

Rambam continues that there are a few people, “the remnant whom the Lord calls” (Joel 3:5), they only attain the perfection (השלמות) at which they aim after due preparatory labor. The necessity of such a preparation and the need of such a training for the acquisition of real knowledge, has been plainly stated by King Shlomo in the following words: “Hearken to advice and accept discipline, in order that you may be wise in your end” (Proverbs 19:20). In other words, it takes a long time.

However, can we confidently tell someone that after an extensive investigation they will find the answers to their questions? I don’t know if we can even do that. But, hopefully the experience of studying Torah will at the very least help them learn to live with their questions.

To better appreciate this, consider the following idea. R. Yisroel Eliyahu Weintraub[26] cites R. Shlomo Elyashiv (the Leshem)[27] who cites R. Yisrael Salanter as saying that from the year 5600 (1840) the gates of wisdom were opened to the public.[28] The reason for this is to counteract the dominance of heresy that will prevail at that time.

How has the source of wisdom developed since 1840 combat heresy? R. Aaron Lopiansky noted that one can address heresy in one of two ways. Rambam, for example, fought heresy by showing that it is wrong and by answering the questions that it raises. However, there is another way. Sometimes simply observing the incredible wisdom and profundity in Torah causes heretical beliefs to dissipate, even if all of one’s questions are not answered.

The development of Chassidut and Machshavah over the last two centuries opens up our eyes to the Torah’s wisdom, they explicate passages in Torah that were hitherto mysterious, they illuminate some of the vagaries of life and the secrets of history, and, most importantly, they give meaning and direction to our lives.

Ultimately both paths are needed. For those of us with questions we must seek answers. However, if we open ourselves up to the light of Torah, we may find that it inspires us to remain firm in our faith even if we don’t yet have the answers to all of our questions.

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank is a Magid Shiur at RIETS where he teaches college and semicha students Gemara, Halacha, and Machshava. Rabbi Wiederblank recently published Illuminating Jewish Thought: Faith, Philosophy and Knowledge of God published by YU Press and Maggid Books.

The prior entry in this symposium is here: link

The next entry in this symposium is here: link


[1] Two books stand out in particular. Professor Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford, 2004) argues that many if not all of Rambam’s principles of faith have been the subject of debate. Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything? (London, 1999) argues that Rambam’s ruling that demands that a Jew believe in certain beliefs, the 13 principles of faith, was novel and has little or no basis in Scripture or Chazal.

Both of these works have been challenged. Two reviews that stand out are “Crossroads: Where Theology Meets Halacha – A Review Essay on The Limits of Orthodox Theology” by R. Gil Student, published in Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004), pp. 272–295, and a review essay on Must a Jew Believe Anything? by Dr. David Berger published in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer 1999), pp. 81-89.

[2] This question is valid whether or not one formally counts emunah (faith) as a mitzvah because the Torah undoubtedly expects us to believe.

[3] Many of these topics are addressed more extensively in my book Illuminating Jewish Though: Faith, Philosophy and Knowledge of God (Maggid/YU Press, 2020); however, the structure, style, and conclusion of this essay are original.

[4] It is worth emphasizing that Rambam is not alone in this belief. Ramban (Nahmanides), frequently emphasizes the need for correct beliefs in matters of faith. For example, Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on Job, maintains that denial of providence not only constitutes heresy, but that someone who denies providence has no share in the World to Come and the mitzvot that they do are of little value.

It is known that belief in God’s knowledge of the lower creatures and His providence upon their generalities and their particulars is among the foundations of Torah, for someone who denies this has denied Torah entirely. Likewise, someone who denies providence and says that God does not intervene when people do right or wrong, such that anything that happens to them is entirely happenstance, not reflecting the will of God, such a person has no portion in the World to Come and no merit in the mitzvot or their rewards, for he will not believe in them [mitzvot] nor will he believe in prophecy, since prophecy is a form of providence.

The Rishonim (Medieval commentators) did not make this up. While a full analysis is beyond the scope of this article, it worthwhile to consider that Rambam is commenting on the mishnah in Sanhedrin which rules that someone who denies the resurrection (or even simply claims that it is not in the Torah) has no portion in the World to Come. The mishnah appears to take for granted that the denial of certain principles, in and of themselves, warrants loss of olam ha-ba. While the mishnah only mentions the resurrection, it seems obvious that denial of equally fundamental principles would warrant the identical consequence. There is no reason why denial of the resurrection would be more egregious than denial of God or the divinity of the Torah. In fact, the idea that the Torah promises resurrection takes for granted God’s existence and the divinity of both the written and oral Law.

[5] This approach is easier to understand with respect to the first four or five principles of faith that relate to a correct conception of God. As such, we can readily understand their fundamentality if we adopt a naturalistic

approach to the afterlife. However, the latter principles, and especially ideas such as the messiah or resurrection, do not appear particularly salvific. Their inclusion implies that the importance of these principles of faith lies not in their naturalistic fundamentality, but in their religious significance. A person who denies the resurrection loses olam ha-ba not because olam ha-ba is definitionally impossible for such a person, but because the Torah teaches that there will be a resurrection, and its rejection implies either denial of God’s ability to perform miracles (Rambam emphasizes this point in his letter on the resurrection) or denial of our tradition that promises the resurrection. Either one of these possibilities justifies exclusion from the Jewish people and the afterlife.

[6] An additional question, which we address extensively in Ch. 11 of Illuminating Jewish Though: Faith, Philosophy and Knowledge of God is whether one should distinguish between principles of faith. Perhaps we should discriminate between innocently denying a personal messiah, like R. Hillel (the Amora known as Hillel II), cited in Sanhedrin 99a, and denying God’s existence or the divinity of the Torah. Regarding the former one can claim that the innocent mistake does not imply heresy. Regarding the latter, which are fundamental principles upon which the whole Torah stands, no such exemption is possible. Nevertheless, in Rambam’s writings he does not make such distinctions.

[7] Dugma’ot le-Bei’urei Aggadot al Derech ha-Peshat No. 1. Translation adapted from David Strauss. Bei’urei Aggadot al Derech ha-Peshat is printed at the end of some editions of R. Elchanan’s Kovetz He’arot on Yevamot.

[8] Thus, according to R. Wasserman, R. Chaim Soloveitchik adopts the second, and not the first, approach outlined above.

[9] Jewish Values in a Changing World, Ktav, 2005. p. 178.

[10] Indeed, R. Amital’s description of the great sacrifice made for heretical ideals was even more apt during R. Elchanan’s time than our own, and yet he still maintained his position.

[11] Plantinga is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and former president of the American Philosophical Association.


[13] R. Elchanan presumes that a person is expected to recognize, on his own, that God must have left instructions for His creatures and to seek out the bearers of that divine tradition. Unfortunately, such a person may be fooled by some other religion’s leaders into believing the wrong beliefs (tinok she-nishba).

[14] On one hand, Ramban writes that it is the question of evil, not the desire for pleasure, that leads to heresy. At the same time, one wonders whether Ramban is referring to the intellectual problem of suffering or the emotional pain (מכאיב הלבבות ומדאיב המחשבות) that witnessing suffering triggers.

[15] In section 5.7 of Illuminating Jewish Thought (pp. 304-310) I address the question of pesak in aggadic matters. Here we focus on Rambam’s view.

[16] For example, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states that the world will be destroyed. Rambam, Moreh ha-Nevuchim 2:29, rejects this view, claiming it is a minority opinion. Likewise, the Talmud (Berachot 33b) states that the purpose of sending away the mother bird when taking her young (Deuteronomy 22:6–7) has nothing to do with preventing cruelty to animals. Rambam, Moreh ha-Nevuchim 3:48, rejects this view as a minority opinion. We consider these and other examples in section 6.4 (pp. 360-7) of Illuminating Jewish Thought.

[17] He explains that this is the reason for the formulations of the second through fourth berachot of birchot ha-shachar in the negative (his view is cited in Anaf Yosef).

[18] Maharal (Derech Chaim 2:9) arrives at a similar conclusion.

[19] Introduction to Chapter 10 of Sanhedrin.

[20] Chapter 3

[21] This point undermines a central thesis of Prof. Marc Shapiro’s book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology. R. Gil Student already noted this in “Crossroads: Where Theology Meets Halacha – A Review Essay on The Limits of Orthodox Theology” published in Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004) 272–295:

My disagreement with Shapiro revolves around this specific passage in Maimonides and its parallels. He analyzes this section but, according to my understanding, employs an imprecise reading of Maimonides’ words that leads to his incorrect conclusions. It is not true, as Shapiro seems to claim, that Maimonides demands a limited pluralism in all theological matters. Maimonides, with his precise and masterly usage of language, specifically writes that there is no need to decide among opinions – to invoke the “halachic process” – when the issue does not affect practice. He carefully uses similar wording in all five places in which he discusses this. Never does Maimonides say that there are decisions between views in Halacha and not in Aggada; he always formulates this principle in terms of affecting practice and not affecting practice. According to Maimonides, the question of whether the decision-making process applies to a topic is not a Halacha versus Aggada issue but, rather, a practice versus theory one. Even an aggadic topic is subject to the halachic process if and when it affects practice. Therefore, there are certain areas where Halacha and Aggada – practical and theological Judaism – intersect, and in those cases, where there is a need for practical aggadic conclusions, the halachic process is imposed on Aggada. Shapiro’s magnificent edifice rests on this single, crucial issue, and, unfortunately, I believe his foundation to be in error. A careful reading of Maimonides’ words yields a conclusion 180 degrees opposite Shapiro’s.

[22] Chatam Sofer, in the above piece, addresses a basic question: what is so fundamental about the thirteen principles of faith, such that their denial warrants exclusion from olam ha-ba? He answers that it is not the denial of the idea, in and of itself, which is so problematic. Rather, because the thirteen principles have all been accepted, denying them indicates a denial of Torah and its method of interpretation.

Take the example of R. Hillel’s understanding that the redemption will come without a personal messiah. When he made this claim, it was understandable. However, after the majority of the Torah scholars concluded that he was wrong, such a position is no longer tenable. To follow such a view indicates a rejection of the principle that Torah matters are decided by the majority position, which is effectively a rejection of Torah. It is the rejection of Torah which warrants exclusion from olam ha-ba. We should note that Chatam Sofer’s formulation implies that non-halachic matters are in and of themselves subject to rov (the majority). In contrast, we deduced from Rambam’s statements in his commentary on the Mishna, that Rambam maintains that there is no need to rule decisively (and therefore no place for rov) in matters of hashkafah, since there is no practical halachic relevance to such disputes. To summarize, we have considered two perspectives of how to understand Rambam’s view on pesak/rov in non-halachic matters:

  1. According to Chatam Sofer we follow rov in all matters, even hashkafic. The thirteen principles were accepted by rov. The reason why denial of one of the thirteen principles constitutes heresy is not because of the inherent significance of these principles, but because denial of the principle is, in effect, a denial of Torah since it is a denial of rov.
  2. We suggested that Rambam opines that there is generally no need to rule decisively (and therefore no place for rov) in matters of hashkafah, since there is no practical halachic relevance to such disputes. Principles of faith are different. Because they are so fundamental, their denial constitutes heresy, and as such has practical implications and is subject to the halachic process. (While Rambam offers no clear explanation of his methodology in composing this list, he describes how he expended much time to compose the list: “I have not composed it in random fashion, but after reflection and conviction and the attentive examination of incorrect views; and after getting to know what things out of all of them it is incumbent upon us to believe, and bringing to my assistance arguments and proofs for every individual section of the subject.”)

R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson suggested an even more far-reaching application of Chatam Sofer’s principle (see Likutei Sichot Vol. 35 p. 27) writing failure to accept the Besht’s conception of God’s unity (that in reality nothing else exists besides God) constitutes subtle heresy. However, he notes that prior to the Besht many Torah luminaries indeed presumed that our world exists, though it was created by God. How can he claim that all of those thinkers were heretics? R. Schneerson answers that before the Besht revealed the true nature of God’s oneness belief in the true (though dependent) existence of matter was reasonable and non-heretical. Only after the Besht revealed the truth does such belief constitute heresy. [The debate concerning the nature of the Besht’s view on pantheism and tzimtzum she-lo ke-peshuto need not concern us at present. What we seek from this citation is a radical understanding of the evolving definition of heresy.] [23] Of course, the difficulty with this position is that it presumes there is some type of standard to determine what qualifies as a fundamental belief, and we don’t know what that might be. (The same problem exists for the first approach.) However, as noted, Rambam implies that he had some type of definition, though he does not share what it is. Accordingly, when explaining Rambam, this seems to be a much more straightforward reading than that of Chatam Sofer.

[24] In Chapter 11 of Illuminating Jewish Thought we consider two additional possibilities that would allow one to both accept the naturalistic understanding of the loss of the afterlife while maintaining Chatam Sofer’s position on an evolving definition of heresy. One might distinguish between salvific and non-salvific principles. Thus, a false conception of God (or denial of the first five principles) automatically excludes a person from the Jewish people and olam ha-ba (even if the person is blameless). However, blameless denial of the other eight principles does not exclude a person from the Jewish people and olam ha-ba. (He would be categorized as a tinok she-nishba.) Likewise, with respect to non-salvific beliefs we would apply Chatam Sofer’s position on an evolving definition of heresy. Thus, R. Hillel’s position on the messiah would not have rendered him a heretic, even though corporealism would definitely exclude a person from the afterlife.

Alternatively, one might distinguish between repercussions: A denial of any of the thirteen principles automatically excludes a person from olam ha-ba, which is naturalistic as Rambam indicates in Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:8-9 and Hilchot Teshuvah 8:2-3, but blameless denial of any of the thirteen principles does not exclude a person from the Jewish people because he would be categorized as a tinok she-nishba. Tinok she-nishba is a status that determines how we relate to the person; it has no bearing on his afterlife.

[25] For the study of metaphysics.

[26] Shiurim be-Sefer Mevo She’arim (5778) p. 4.

[27] R. Weintraub (1932–2010) and R. Elyashiv (1841-1926) were both among the leading Ashkenazi Kabbalists of their day with widespread acceptance among the broader Litvish community. R. Elyashiv was known as the Leshem after his major work entitled Leshem Shevo V’Achlamah.

[28] The significance of this year is found in the Zohar (part I, 117a):

In the 600th year of the 6th millennium [5600] the upper gates of wisdom will be opened and also the wellsprings of wisdom below. This will prepare the world for the 7th millennium like a person prepares himself on Friday for Shabbat, as the sun begins to wane. Likewise, here. There is a hint about this in the verse “In the six hundredth year of Noach’s life… all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Genesis 7:11).

About Netanel Wiederblank

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank is a Magid Shiur at RIETS where he teaches college and semicha students Gemara, Halacha, and Machshava. Rabbi Wiederblank recently published Illuminating Jewish Thought: Faith, Philosophy and Knowledge of God published by YU Press and Maggid Books.

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