Playing with fire?

The story of the two sons of Aaron, who played with fire, but followed their own mode of worship is one of the best-known tragedies.

Recently, I chanced upon a piece by Shneur Zalman Reti Waks, current Rabbi of the Ark Centre, here in Melbourne. Reti Waks has also been outspoken about conversions outside the aegis of the Melbourne Beth Din and for strange practices as part of services at the Ark Centre. He wrote:

He wrote in regards the well-known view of the Ibn Ezra on the verses describing the death of Moshe:

The ‘secret of the twelve’ is a reference to his opinion that the last twelve verses of the Torah were not written by Moshe but by Joshua, because they speak about Moshe’s death and the mourning of the Israelites. What we can understand from Ibn Ezra here is that the last twelve verses of the Torah are an example of a broader phenomenon of later editorial comments in the Torah.

I’ve often referred to certain Eureka moments I experienced along the way during different aspects of my education. Well, this Ibn Ezra is a Eureka as good as any other.

Let me explain why this is so. Growing up I was taught, consistent with ultra-orthodox philosophy, that that every word, every syllable, and every letter in the Torah is the word of God, verbatim, as dictated to Moshe.

What we can understand the Ibn Ezra to be is saying is that there is another view. The belief that the Torah is from God, a basic tenet of Judaism, is not at all at odds with the idea that the Torah as we have it contains many passages which were only recorded much after the death of Moshe.

This is perhaps very unsettling to some which is precisely why the Ibn Ezra speaks about it in the most coded fashion.

I believe this teaching to be truly liberating and magnificent. Liberating, because it allows us to divest ourselves of the intellectual straight-jacket imposed by some of the more narrow views of the divine authorship. And magnificent because it has the potential to answer so many seeming inconsistencies in the Torah which hitherto have often been answered inadequately. This idea of a third-party narrator has the promise to explain so much of that away, and it predates modern biblical scholarship, which arrives at a similar conclusion, by 800 years or so!

The Ibn Ezra is most certainly not “another view” which questions “that the Torah is from God”. חס ושלום! To say I was flabbergasted reading Reti Waks’s “discovery” is an understatement. This transcends the Ibn Ezra! It is an open Gemara in Baba Basra (15b) where two Tannaim argue concerning who wrote the verses describing Moshe’s death, as dictated by God Almighty!

It seems Reti Waks, through the Ibn Ezra, has discovered the view of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud. This opinion is part and parcel of every “ultra orthodox” curriculum! I am not sure where Reti Waks discovered the “intellectual straight jacket” that he describes, and why it is an affliction.

It would be remiss of me, in context, if I didn’t mention that the Ibn Ezra’s view is not universally held. That is part and parcel of almost every verse in the Torah vis a vis the different views of Rishonim. It would also be remiss of me to fail to note that Reti Waks’s later statements are not those of the Ibn Ezra, or indeed any Orthodox commentator that I can find. When Reti Waks describes a third-party narrator akin to the later “modern biblical scholarship” and attempts to line this up with R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Reti Waks is not describing an Orthodox view held by either opponents of Ibn Ezra or the Ibn Ezra himself. Indeed, it could also be considered insulting to the so-called “modern biblical scholars!” Does Reti Waks imagine that these (mostly heretical) scholars were ignorant of the discussions in the Talmud and various commentators?  [ Eight of the twelve verses are also the subject of a disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad about whether they require a minyan (see Menachos 30). ]

What is clear, however, is that Reti Waks is treading along the exact path which the Or HaChaim Hakadosh warned us against, in the precise context of the Or HaChaim’s comments on these verses and the Ohr HaChaim’s own disagreement with the Ibn Ezra. The Ohr Hachaim states

It is not appropriate to write these thoughts (i.e the view of the Ibn Ezra) because I (the Ohr HaChaim) have heard people discussing these verses and becoming entangled in them, to the extent that they end up expressing views which can only be described as heresy.

Rabbinic scholars wondered why the Ohr HaChaim used such strong language. After all, it is the view of Rabbi Yehuda in Baba Basra (ibid). Having read the piece from Reti Waks, I see (once more) that the Ohr HaChaim certainly deserves the honoured prophetic appellation of “HaKadosh”.

Shule to court controversy

It is difficult for mainstream Shules to survive in their earlier form.  A powerful method of attracting people back to Shule membership is to court iconoclasts and embellish them with a podium. A Melbourne Shule is seizing the moment, so to speak, as I understand they are sponsoring a visit from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

Rabbi Boteach is a controversial figure. Ostracised by Chabad, I haven’t  noticed him gaining traction with Modern Orthodox organisations. let alone right wing or ultra orthodox. He is visible amongst non-Jews and those outside the pale of traditional orthodoxy. I expect he is also motivated by a wish to influence Jews to become more devout as well as inspiring non-Jews to commit to the seven noachide laws. Is he the best man to do so? Boteach did himself no favours when he poorly debated Christopher Hitchens. That debate was embarrassing, to put it mildly.

Boteach described himself thus:

… then the Rebbe died and I had a major falling-out with the Chabad leadership because of my outreach to non-Jews. Ever since then, I have reconciled myself to the somewhat lonely status of being a Lubavitcher without a community. I compensated for my sense of isolation by becoming integrated into the mainstream Jewish community

It came then as little surprise when a senior figure in Chabad, Rabbi Dr Immanuel J. Schochet branded Boteach’s most recent book as heresy. R’ Schochet forbids the provision of a platform for Boteach to promote this book. R’ Schochet’s words are chosen in the context of the book. R’ Boteach, in his response to R’ Schochet, sought to popularise being banned by stating

We Jews are the people of the book, not the people who ban books.

This statement is shallow. There are Halachos about heresy. Books have been banned because they are deemed heretical. He can argue that his book is not heresy, but this “people of the book” line is something that might appeal more to Madonna and Michael Jackson. We are the people of the book even without including books that are deemed heretical. To be sure, R’ Schochet’s statement is an Halachic one. I do not see the category of “people of the book” influencing Halacha. Schochet chooses not to elaborate on his reasons, but I surmise that they be based on Rambam Hilchos Tshuva, 3:6-8

המורדים, ומחטיאי הרבים, והפורשין מדרכי צבור

Shmuley Boteach and Michael Jackson

Boteach expresses the view that he does not understand how Schochet could argue against missionary activity and at the same time choose not to discuss Boteach’s book in any detail.

Rabbi Schochet seems to have significantly changed his approach to Judaism and Christianity since his lectures under my auspices. Back then he orated openly on Jesus and the New Testament, rebutting missionary claims and engaging missionaries in public dialogue and exchange. There are hundreds of his tapes that attest to this fact.

R’ Schochet undoubtably considers it more difficult to engage in dialogue with missionaries and/or those who are ensnared by them precisely because of Boteach’s new book. Boteach admits as much himself quoting this review  [light editing from me]:

“Kosher J” is, after all, a book which Publisher’s Weekly — the platinum standard in book reviews — called an “informed and cogent primer on J. … a brave stab at re-evaluating J through an intensive look at the Xtian Testament and historical documents … and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.”

R’ Schochet may or may not agree that it is “well-researched” but he too clearly feels that it will reopen intra and interfaith dialogue. Does Boteach expect us to be convinced that his book can’t be heretical because of the review by Publisher’s Weekly?

R’ Schochet’s son, R’ Yitzchak Schochet, is also a prominent Rabbi in the UK and has been considered a possible future Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. He had this to say about R’ Boteach

I question whether Rabbi Boteach has brought even one Jew involved in Christianity back to their roots through his debates, and suggest that it is little more than image and soundbite.

R’ Boteach reacted with:

Indeed, his father [R’ Schochet], who wrote this bizarre attack on me out of the blue calling me a heretic,

I don’t see anything in the letter that calls Boteach a heretic. Rather, R’ Schochet carefully crafted his words to refer to Boteach’s book as problematic.

Boteach has a liberal view of Apikorsus/Heresy in general. In the September 2000 issue of Nishma, Boteach stated in response to R’ Avi Weiss (who is considered a paragon of left wing modern orthodoxy, and who ordained the first female rabba)

I know that for Rabbi Weiss, even the willingness to be open to talking to apikorsim is a risk. But when the goal of the discussion is already a foregone conclusion, the conversation isn’t very risky.

Rabbi Boteach might not think it’s risky; others clearly do, and they do not feel an obligation to elaborate and give Boteach more airtime, as this would simply provide fuel for the fire.

Let’s be under absolutely no illusions here. R’ Boteach is not a Rabbi Slifkin. Rabbi Slifkin’s books were banned by people who couldn’t read English, let alone who had read Slifkin’s books. R’ Slifkin is an author of erudite and learned Jewish books based on Rishonim and Acharonim. Time will show that Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to documenting an orthodox perspective on Evolution eminently sound and commendable. I’m a fan of Rabbi Slifkin and his essays.

Boteach isn’t a Rabbi Kamenetsky either. Kamanetsky’s book “the Making of a Gadol” was unfairly banned and later modified because it was seen to embarrass R’ Aron Kotler ז’ל and other Lithuanian Rabbis look “too human”.

The audience for Boteach’s book, however, is mainly the non-Jewish world and perplexed Jewish fringe dwellers. Is the correct approach to attempt to re-educate our co-religionists that they should see themselves as derivatives of Judaism? They worship J, and see him as “above Judaism”. What will Boteach achieve through this passively aggressive attack on their well-seated belief system?  Will the world become happier and a pluralistic paragon of peace? Does Boteach think that he’s the first who realised that Saul of Tarsus was the man who fashioned what that religion is today?

I have a religious colleague at work who likes to regale me daily with his “inspiration”. I’m quite tired of it, to be honest. In the last week I asked him to come back to me with the historical record of when Shabbos became Sunday, who initiated this, and why. It has quieted him. I don’t see any value whatsoever in challenging his belief system (he thinks he can speak in tongues) and I don’t expect him to challenge mine.

The Rav, in his famous 1964 essay “Confrontation” was firmly opposed to theological disputation or cooperation with the Church, except when dialogue was limited to shared societal values such as feeding the poor, helping the sick etc and where Jews needed to be partners with all people in advancing such activities. His grandson, R’ Meir Soloveitchik put it thus:

The Rav’s opposition to communal, and organizational interfaith dialogue was partly predicated upon the prediction that in our search for common ground — a shared theological language — Jews and Christians might each sacrifice our insistence on the absolute and exclusive truth of our respective faiths, blurring the deep divide between our respective dogmas. In an essay titled “Confrontation,” Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that a community’s faith is an intimate, and often incommunicable affair. Furthermore, a faith by definition insists “that its system of dogmas, doctrines and values is best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good.” In his essay, the Rav warned that sacrificing the exclusive nature of religious truth in the name of dialogue would help neither Jews nor Christians. Any “equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and waiving of eschatological claims, spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experiences of any religious community,” he wrote.

A left-wing organisation known as YCT—Yeshivat Chovevei Tora—a brainchild of R’ Avi Weiss, has over the years promoted a stance which sees Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ruling as no longer binding in our time. YCT planned to join the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) but withdrew those plans when they realised they would not be acceptable to the RCA.  In a learned panel discussion on this topic, Rabbi Dr David Berger, one of the outstanding academics in this field, said:

Rabbi Soloveitchik worried that theological dialogue would create pressure to “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, to reconcile ‘some’ differences.”  He argued against any Jewish interference in the faith of Christians both on grounds of principle and out of concern that this would create the framework for reciprocal expectations.  Now, the changes in Catholic attitudes detailed by Dr. Korn are real, welcome, and significant, but they do not undermine these concerns.  Quite the contrary.  The trajectory of dialogue to our own day has confirmed the validity of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis to an almost stunning degree.

With this background clearly in mind, perhaps the Melbourne Shule that has now invited R’ Boteach to speak has also broken ranks with the Rav and the RCA and embraced the views of YCT. As noted above, R’ Boteach’s views are seen to be even more left-wing than YCT. It should make for a controversy that will occupy the Jewish News and further seek to redefine the relevance of Shules and methods for attracting and retaining membership.