The Limits of Orthodoxy

I feel a need to chime in about the contretemps about Dr Zev Farber’s essay “Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism” on But first I want to lay out some thoughts about defining heresy, who qualifies as a heretic, and the limits of Orthodoxy, which may not be the same thing.

To be clear, I was informed that Dr. Farber’s role on IRF’s beis din is administrative, and any discussion of whether his article constitutes kefirah has nothing to do with the validity of their beis din or the converts it produces. Besides, I’m not a poseiq!

I – Categories of Belief

One of the problems with discussing the question of whether an idea someone shared is heretical or not is that the word “apiqoreis” is thrown around too readily today. Therefore, a conversation which tries to limit itself to the question of whether a given idea is apiqursus or kefirah inevitably raises the emotional responses of a personal accusation. As it is, it’s hard to avoid taking the words “your belief system is heretical” impersonally, but the climate has made things worse. So, let me open by defining the technical terms.

The Rambam (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:6) speaks of three kinds of heretics:

The min, which the Rambam defines (3:7) giving a list of wrong beliefs about G-d: the atheist, the polytheist, someone who believes in a god that has a body, etc…

The apiqoreis, which includes people with various beliefs about how G-d runs the world. Note the origin of the word; it’s the Aramaization of the name of Epicurus and his followers, who denied that the universe has a Lord. An apiqoreis is described (3:8) as denying prophecy, that no knowledge flows from G-d to the heart of man, denies Moshe’s prophecy in particular, or does not believe that G-d Knows what people do and think.

Last, Rambam discusses (3:8) the kofeir, which has subtypes.

  • The kofeir baTorah is someone who denies the Torah in one of 3 ways:
    • someone who says that one sentence or one word is not from Hashem, such as he claims Moshe wrote that part himself;
    • someone who denies the Oral Torah or contradicts the members the chain of mesorah that transmits it, or
    • someone who says that a single mitzvah was exchanged, or (like the Christians and Moslems) that the Torah was superseded.
  • The kofeir betchiyas hameisim denies the eventual resurrection, and
  • the kofeir bebei’ah hago’el does not await the messiah.

Notice that these categories pretty much cover the same ground the Rambam described in his commentary to the mishnah, the introduction to Chapter “Cheileq” in Sanhedrin — generally known as the Thirteen Iqarei Emunah (Articles of Faith). The difference is that the mishnah discusses a philosophical point. “All of Israel have a portion toward the world to come”. Which the Rambam explains refers only to Jews in good standing, and then he lists which beliefs would be required to secure at least some portion. Here he defines halachic categories in the negative (things the iqarim exclude), which have labels that reappear in a number of places in the code and impact how we are to treat other Jews.

There is a second difference: the criteria here are spelled out in far less detail. They are less specific in what must be believed. Which is also true of accepted halakhah. We don’t so much hold to the standard of the Rambam, we found it overly shaped by his own approach to Jewish Thought. He would exclude schools of Qabbalah, for example, which most contemporary rabbis would consider holy. Instead, we demand that a philosophy explain how it fits in the forms found in Ani Maamin and Yigdal without redefining them. After all, there is a reason why Yigdal found its way into every contemporary traditional liturgy, from Germany to Yemen.

So I think it’s fair to say we do hold of the 13 Articles of Faith on a legal level, for example in discussing questions of which beliefs we demand of a conversion candidate for their geirus to be valid, who may be counted toward a minyan, whether they can handle uncooked kosher wine, etc… But notice my vague phrasing “in discussing questions”, we’ll see in the next section that there is a second piece to the question when we shift from labeling beliefs to classifying people.

Bible criticism is therefore a form of apiqursus about Moshe’s prophecy and presumes kefirah about the revelation of every word of the Torah. After all, if the text were dictated as it is by G-d for the sake of being a seed to start the halachic process, and to be notes that are a small part of a primarily Oral body of wisdom, all the textual questions of the bible critic don’t begin.

II- Beliefs vs.People

But it is not a given that someone today who believes in kefirah would qualify for the label “kofer“. For something like a conversion candidate, or to appoint a Chazan, since intent is part of the mitzvah, answering the question about belief is sufficient. But when deciding whether the person is themselves some form of heretic who must be kept aside from social interaction, and thus his wine is prohibited to me, or whether he cannot be counted toward a minyan, there is an issue of culpability for those beliefs.

The Rambam excludes those who have Qaraite beliefs because they were raised in a Qaraite home from the label (Mamrim 3:3). So it would seem that someone who believes in meenus, apiqursus or kefirah because of upbringing is not in the halachic category of min, apiqoreis or kofer as a person. Rav Yaakov Etlinger (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion Hachadashot 23) applied this ruling to the Reform Jews of his day. And the Chazon Ish (YD 2:16,28) says this applied to all Jews today, as even those of us from Orthodox homes are impacted by being in the minority, we are bucking the zeitgeist and even G-d has been so silent.

Moving from the product of his upbringing to the seeker of the truth, the Raavad (on Teshuvah 3:7) writes that someone who believed in error that G-d had a body because of studying the many verses in Tanakh written in human, body-related idiom, could be holier than the Rambam. He is often taken as ruling that while G-d does not have a body, it’s not heretical to think he does. But it’s also quite likely that the Raavad instead meant that because of the way the person reached this bit of meenus, he is not himself a min. Rav Kook (Shemoneh Kevazim 3:31) and the Piaseczner Rebbe (Benei Machashava Tova, pg 19) hold that’s the Raavad’s intent, and both accepts that position. But more clearly, the Radvaz (responsum 4:187) ruled about a man who said Moshe was Divine that he is not an apiqoreis because his error was the result of an honest search for the Truth. To the Radvaz, heresy is an act of rebellion; these definitions are the measure of how far one must rebel against traditional beliefs before qualifying. And the Iqarim (1:2) considers even such a person, who honestly explored the topic and ended up being convinced of heresy among “the pious and righteous of Israel”, which echoes the Raavad’s description of the rabbis who believed in a G-d that had a body as being “among those greater and better than him” (an earlier manuscript has “among the great and good”).

The Rambam (Hilkhos Eidus 11:10) says that any of these three kinds of heretic would not be a valid witness in beis din, which means he couldn’t serve as a dayan on a beis din either (Nidah 49b). And so the Shulchan Arukh concludes (CM 32:22). Whether this would include those who belief kefirah but do not themselves qualify as koferim is a question I couldn’t find an answer to. It is easier to find the various views followed today with respect to a tinoq shenishba, someone who doesn’t believe because of their upbringing, and whether they can be counted toward a minyan, or if their uncooked wine may be shared. The subject of serving as dayan or the person who was misled by an honest study eluded me.

But I think we can agree that someone who preaches kefirah shouldn’t be given a position of authority to use as a soapbox to spread his teaching.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik permits counting someone who was raised to believe meenus or apiqursus (heretical beliefs about G-d, revelation or His interaction with the world) toward a minyan as long as their beliefs still leave prayer a meaningful concept. I would think there is a parallel issue here. Deciding halakhah is not only a science it is also an art. There is a feel for how the halakhah ought to flow that is only taught through shimush (lit: service), apprenticing under a mentor rebbe. Chazal attribute Yehoshua’s succession after Moshe to the extent of his shimush. (Bamibar Rabbah on 21:14, Temurah 16a) They attribute the explosion of disputes between the students of Hillel and Shammai not to the teachers’ ideology, but because they didn’t commit themselves sufficiently to shimush of their respective rebbes. (Y-mi Chagiga 2:2 vilna 10b, Sotah 47b) Without that feel for the art, a genius with access to the Bar Ilan CD is still not a halachic decisor.

So even without labeling Dr Farber a “kofer” as a person, his belief in kefirah makes it impossible for him to continue to qualify as a rabbi or dayan. Someone who doesn’t share the historical sense of where halakhah flows from from can’t share the same opinion of the development and art of pesaq, regardless of how well he mastered the texts

III – Is He a Shomer Shabbos?

All this talk about the technical definition of kefirah aside, historically we generally didn’t bother questioning people about their beliefs. Instead, we presumed that Shabbos observance testified that they believed all the basics. This could be understood two different ways: We can see this as simply a pragmatic solution, the only way to avoid handing out a test (taken with a lie detector!) to every person we wish to count toward a minyan. If so we do indeed require that he adhere to the Thirteen Articles of Faith, as in the prior section, but we can presume that a Shabbos observant Jew does. But then, someone who writes a paper summarizing his faith would still be judged according to the , despite being meticulous in his observance.

Or, we could consider this an actual halachic criterion of who we are supposed to treat as a Jew in good standing, rather than my argument above that we expect the beliefs listed in Ani Maamin or Yigdal. And it’s hard to prove this point from the literature, because people could be using “believes the 13 Ani Maamins” or “believes the iqarim” as idioms. Much the way we say someone “follows the Shulchan Arukh” when we mean that they follow accepted halakhah even when it differs from the rulings of the Shulchan Arukh and the Rama. I personally do not subscribe to this position, but it’s worth exploring before deciding something drastic.

This appears to be the thesis of The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, by R’ Melech / Dr. Mark Shapiro. This would mean that our exploration of whether Dr. Farber’s beliefs could be accepted as within the Orthodox fold, should focus on whether those beliefs succeed in maintaining enough of the traditional motivation for Shabbos observance. Notice even by this yardstick, we aren’t simply asking if he observes; no one would consider an atheist who observes Shabbos for cultural reasons alone to be a believing Jew.

Which really boils down to the question of whether Dr. Farber’s position actually does succeed at what he set out to do. Can someone subscribe to multiple authorship of the Torah, even under prophetic influence, without undermining the halachic process and consequently the laws of Shabbos? Bringing us to my next post. (Don’t worry, the draft is pretty far along. Shouldn’t be too long of a cliff-hanger.)

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