The Limits of the Spirit (Ideas #67)

There often seems to be great confusion about what can be considered authentic Judaism and what is outside the pale. Marc Shapiro's recent book challenging the place of Rambam's ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ shows that even Orthodoxy is not completely clear on what beliefs cannot be considered orthodox. While there may well be a consensus on a few of the most very basic principles, Judaism has always assumed the centrality of more than these basic principles. It did so, however, without giving clear exact guidelines about what we need to believe. In other words, an unusual paradox exists where there are definitive limits, but we do not really know what they are.

Recent history shows us that it is not always the most radical positions that end up being unacceptable. In comparing the beginnings of Chassidut and the beginnings of Conservative Judaism, the deviations of the former seem to be much greater than those of the latter. Indeed, this is precisely why the Gaon of Vilna was so opposed to the Chassidic movement and did everything to stop it. Yet, in spite of his best efforts, Chassidut was eventually accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy as something glatt kosher. Conservative Judaism, however, did not fare as well and was permanently excluded as outside the realm of acceptability.

Even today, the deviationism of the messianic branch of Chabad would seem to be antinomian. In this case, it is my teacher, Dr. David Berger, who has taken the place of the Vilna Gaon, with seemingly as much justice as the Gaon's opposition to early Chassidut. Yet, in spite of his justified claims, Chabad remains largely accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy.

The same paradox that exists in the world of creed also exists in the world of halacha. There are certainly many things that are halachically unacceptable, yet it is very hard to draw hard and concrete lines that would clearly demonstrate exactly where the limits lie. The lack of clear definitions in what can and cannot be said in halacha allows for certain problematic decisions to be accepted, even while much more conservative innovations are rejected. For example, it is well known that R. Moshe Feinstein's position that someone married by non-Orthodox clergy should not be considered halachically married is highly debatable and touches upon halachic problems of the first order. In spite of this, his position is commonly viewed as mainstream. By comparison, any discussion of pre-nuptial agreements, which would automatically create a need for a religious divorce to be granted along with any civil divorce, has been viewed with suspicion by the mainstream. Similarly, while very few people seem to have problems selling their chametz, selling Jewish land during the sabbatical year remains extremely controversial. Yet,  the halachic implications of the former are much more serious than the latter.

One could attribute the acceptability of various ideas and currents within Judaism as the result of historical forces i. e. happening or not happening at the right place and the right time. I, however, believe that something more deliberate is the cause of our seemingly arbitrary litmus test.

In previous essays, I have written about an intuitive national spirit – the Jewish people seems to know what's right even if it cannot always explain it. This is precisely what seems to be expressed by the phrase ...Yisrael, Eem Ainam Neveeim, Bnei-Neveeim Hem, Israel, i.e.  If they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets (Pesachim 66a). The choice of the Jewish people has perhaps always been understood as semi-prophetic.*

It would appear that there is one variable more than any that inspires confidence in the Jewish people and brings about intuitive approval of a position – that which we call yirat shamayim. This phrase is difficult to translate, and even harder to explain, but perhaps we can best understand it by analyzing a deceptively simple passage in Tractate Berachot 29b. In attempting to interpret R. Eliezer's statement that one should not make his prayers fixed, the Talmud suggests that this may mean that one always has to include something creative and un-formalized in one's prayer. Although this seems eminently reasonable, the Talmud voices it hesitations about legislating such a requirement, as it will lead people to make mistakes. In other words, even as the Talmud understands the need for a particular innovation, it must be balanced with a concern for the damage that can be done to normative Jewish practice and thought. The weight given to this concern is a visible manifestation of
yirat shamayim.

Likewise, when the historical Jewish people pass judgment on any innovation, it does so wanting to know whether the innovation was decided within a context of fear and trepidation. It wants to be clear that there was serious thought given to not misinterpreting the truth of Torah and thereby leading people astray. It appears that once the Jewish people are convinced of this, it is very liberal in setting its boundaries. When it is not convinced, it is not willing to grant even the smallest of changes.

Those of us who see the desperate need for innovation in our times must remember that the Jewish people has shown that it does know best, Eem Ainam Neveeim, Bnei-Neveeim Hem. It seems that our success, or lack thereof, is critically and appropriately intertwined with our sense of holy trepidation.



This is not to say that whatever the majority, or even its leaders, choose is automatically correct and carries the Divine stamp of approval. (On some level, such would appear to be the position of Solomon Schechter, who coined the phrase catholic Israel to refer to this concept.) Rather, the semi-prophetic decision of the Jewish people can only be seen in hindsight. The Jewish people decide, based on the descendants who stay within the fold. For example, the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel must have been more numerous than the southern kingdom of Judah. Numbers notwithstanding, the decisions of its citizenry took away their staying power as Jews and when the northern kingdom was conquered, its Jews quickly assimilated with their neighbors. Thus, it is only in hindsight that we can see how the Jewish people voted on the various issues that separated the views of the two kingdoms