I. The image of Korah
The Biblical Korah is a literary type that needs to be identified. He is the user and abuser of religion who professes faith in order to trick and dominate others. He makes three arguments:
- The entire nation is holy
- God is among them
- Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourself over the Lord’s community? [Numbers 16:3]
By first affirming that “the entire congregation is holy,” Korah is telling Moses, in the earshot of the Israelite masses, what they want to hear, that they are all right. And God is indeed among them, excluding the leader, Moses. Korah then asks the rhetorical question, that biting, telling statement couched in the interrogative voice that tolerates no response, that Moses and Aaron raised themselves and are usurpers of power. Since Korah does not really believe in God, he imputes his unbelief to Moses and Aaron. He nevertheless views the faith and gullibility of the masses as a useful tool of power. Korah speaks in God’s voice but does not believe. R. Soloveitchik’s remarks seem to refer to Conservative Judaism, which to his view presents itself as a pretender to authentic piety:
In down-to-earth logic, the lowliest woodcutter is the equal of Moses. This appeal to populism evokes considerable support because it promises freedom from centralized authority; it flatters the people’s common intelligence and it approves the right of each Jew or group of Jews to follow their own individual judgment…. This judgment is still valid. In our day, we are witnessing a resurgence of strength among those religious groups that are committed to the Oral Law as hokhmah, and who therefore recognize Torah scholars, Gedole Yisrael, as the legitimate teachers of Israel. Common sense can only spread confusion and havoc when applied to the Halakhah, as it does with all specialized disciplines.
R. Soloveitchik seems to be arguing that Torah authority resides in the gavra/person of the religious elite who alone may read, conceptualize, parse and apply the holy book which, when its norms are observed, and makes the people holy. In this paper, we contrast the conventional approach [henceforth CA] to Torah authority to Maimonides’s system recorded in the Introduction to the Mishneh Torah [henceforth MT], as we ask ourselves, which of these two understandings of Torah authority is the canonical alternative to Korah?
II. How is the Oral Torah to be viewed?
The Oral Torah according to CA has been presented eloquently and passionately by R. Michael Rosenweig, “Mesorah as Halachic Source and Sensibility,” Jewish Action (Summer 2011), 71:1, and R. Herschel Schacter, “Preserving Our Mesorah: A Symposium,” Jewish Action (Winter 2011) 71:2. We find that the CA and the MT offer very different Judaisms.
1. What is Tradition?
According to CA, Tradition is and remains oral and is found in the teaching of Masoretic Sages, also known as Chachmei Yisrael and Gedolei Yisrael, and in the mimetic ethos of the living Orthodox community. Most ordained Orthodox rabbis who are not great sages teach both canonical documents, from which values are reviewed, and the teachings of the Great Sages, whose legal rulings are normative and whose personal authority is Torah incarnate. Lesser light rabbis have a right to teach the literary record and the proclaimed Torah of great sages; they do not have a right to an autonomous opinion regarding what that library means or how it may be applied.
For MT, Tradition is adequately documented in the documentary evidence, or heftsa/object of the Oral library. All post-Talmudic rabbis, called bet din shel yahid, have equal jurisdiction and therefore equal authority. For this Judaism, it is the valence of the legal norm and not the charisma of the Great Sage that is religiously normative.
Therefore, for CA, Judaism is found in the sacred, iconic look; for MT, Judaism is found on the page of the sacred Jewish book, the sacred object. Since the authority of the Oral Torah ended with Rabina and Rav Ashi [bBaba Mezia 86a], the rabbi rules according to the view and reading of the canon that makes the most sense and does not defer to the person of the great sage.
In summary, Tradition for MT is object of the sacred text and for CA the charisma of the sacred person.
2. The Nature of Transmission
According to CA, Tradition is transmitted personally, from rebbe/teacher to student. Hierarchically, wisdom flows down, like Plotinus, from God to Moses to master to student. To challenge the teacher is the moral equivalent of rebelling against God. Recall that for CA, like Qumran and the early Church, revelation is continuous after Rabina and Rav Ashi, with their changes and innovations considered to be legitimate [hiddush] while disapproved changes are dismissed as “reforms.” R. Rosensweig sees Torah learning as “mystical,” or exempt from the review of rabbis lower than them on the theological/political chain of being. Following Raabad, “greatness” resides in the stature of the authority person. And since the great sage of the generation is everyone’s teacher, his ruling, or the consensus of the great one’s, is the living Divine Torah. Changes that reinforce the CA ethos, tashlich, upsheren, kapporos, glatt kosher for Ashkenazi Jews, and bar mitsva [for boys] are acceptable; double ring wedding ceremonies are outlawed because they look as if the bride is rejecting the marriage generating gift, [see however MT, Family Law, 5:12], bat mitsva, because it comes from a non-Orthodox [Reconstructionist] source, and women prayer groups, which are dismissed as rebellions against Torah, are all forbidden because they violate the culture ethos as mediated by the Great Sage even though they are not forbidden by the canonically normative text parsed by reason and grammar that reflects the what the canonical library takes to be the will of God.
For CA religion, just because an act is not forbidden does not mean that the act is actually permitted. The Great Sage may rule from intuition and declare that the act, if performed, is what one CA rabbi called axiologically wrong. Another CA rabbi called women prayer groups ziyyuf ha-Torah, falsifying Torah, an idiom that echoes the Islamic charge that the Jews corrupted the allegedly original pro and proto-Islamic Torah text. This invented idiom, unattested in the Oral Torah canon, is invoked in order to outlaw what the canonical statute does not outlaw and by implication permits. If Conservative Judaism would invent a new norm, it would be roundly condemned by CA Judaism. Since CA’s innovations, divinely inspired through continuous revelation to people who are Torah incarnate and therefore not subject review, its innovations are hiddushim and therefore legitimate, exactly like the open canon of the Qumranic Pesher Habakkuk [1QpHab] whose Moreh Tsedeq/Righteous Teacher updates the otherwise unchangeable word of God.
MT Judaism is much less accommodating and much more rigid than CA Judaism regarding changing Torah law:
- MT, Laws of Torah Foundations, 8:3, does not respond with tolerance to contradicting the Mosaic prophecy by inventing a new Torah norm.
- supra., 9:1 argues that the Torah does not change. And behold, ziyyuf ha-Torah appears as a putative 366th negative commandment, “thou shalt not act in a way in which great rabbis feel violates the historical Orthodox ethos.”
- MT, Repentance, 3:8 reiterates the rule recorded Laws of Torah Foundations, 8:3 regarding misrepresenting the Mosaic prophecy recorded in the Pentateuch. By inventing a ziyyuf ha-Torah principle, CA religion elevates is leaders to Oral Torah rabbis, and by adding to the words of Oral Torah rabbis, contradicts the words of those rabbis. See also supra, 3:11.
MT maintains that Tradition is public, the property of all Israel, with the Supreme Court of all Israel transmitting the exoteric—and not esoteric—Oral Torah to all Israel. Unlike the hierarchical teacher/rebbe relationship, MT’s Tradition is horizontal, each generation the master of its faith and fate. [bSanhedrin 38b and bAvoda Zara 5a]
According to MT, if the student believes the teacher errs, he or she is required to confront the teacher. The teacher is not right by dint of hierarchic office, but teacher and student are both equally accountable to God. [MT, Torah Study 5:9]
While CA Judaism sees rabbinic greatness, following Raabad, as charisma incarnate, MT Judaism sees greatness as an honorific honored with protocol but in no way carries the norm creating legislative authority of the Supreme Court of all Israel. The CA sage reads the mind of God hiding between the cracks of Torah concepts and between the lines of the Torah’s words; taking “Revelation” literally. MT parses the words of Torah because while concepts are human formulations, the Torah is not in Heaven, over the sea, or in the intuition of any select elect post-Talmudic rabbi.
For MT Judaism, a legitimate post-Talmudic opinion or ruling is legitimate if it does not violate Talmudic law or a custom accepted as a custom by all Israel. Approval of a ruling by contemporary Great Sages is unnecessary. When not dealing with emergencies, [MT, Dissenters, 2:4] Talmudic law must be obeyed. For example, Jewish law requires female and yeshiva student conscription in defensive wars in Israel. [bSota 44b] The claim that yeshiva students and females are exempt is for MT an illegitimate opinion. For CA Judaism, hiddushim of great sages, themselves Torah incarnate, are by definition legitimate and therefore may indeed overrule Talmudic law. Like Conservative Judaism, CA Judaism ironically does believe that Jewish Law indeed does change with the times; unlike Conservative Judaism, for which change is always socially accommodative to its client community, CA Judaism’s change agenda always maintains Jewish otherness, even as it erects barriers to Judaism that discourage observance on the part of those on the margin of commitment. In this war of religious stars, the needs of the pious elect override the abilities of those on the religious margin. Intuition in the mind of Great Sages thus reveals that God is more concerned with the extra strict uncommanded gestures of the sacred elect than God is concerned with the commandment observance of those willing and able to obey God but who are not able to obey the sacred additions to the Torah of CA Judaism.
3. Holding Leaders to Account
For MT, it is the ruling of the Court and not the great rabbi that is normative. Although Rabbi Judah presided over the Supreme court as an honorific great sage, the Court may, and did indeed, rule against the Great Sage R. Judah. [See mNedarim 3:11, where R. Judah, also known as Rabbi, presents the minority, rejected report. R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus was so great that (1) he was called R. Eliezer the Great, (2) an oracle from God confirmed his sacred intuition, and (3) for making an appeal to charisma, the meta-legal will of God, to an oracle and to intuition, he was excommunicated. [bBaba Mezia 59b]
For CA Judaism, the chain of being/chain of Tradition is ontological. Imputing motives to the Great sages is said to violate the rule regarding contradicting the sages. [machish maggidehah] Recall that Great Sages possess special intuition, divine between the lines of the law, and are everyone’s teacher. While fallible in principle, they are not subject to the review of lesser lights folks, and they demand submission to them as an act of faith, called emunat Hakhamim. [Avot 6:6]
For MT Judaism, Jewish Orthodoxy is defined [limited] by Oral Torah statute and, where the stature ends, Orthodoxy becomes “open” because legal silence is legal right; in the absence of explicit restriction, autonomy is authorized. [Bet Yosef to Yoreh Deah 1:1, m’Eduyyot 2:2] MT Judaism takes this idiom to mean “the faith of the [Oral Torah] sages, and not faith in any unvetted post-Talmudic Great Sage, following the traditional rules of Hebrew grammar. However, for CA Judaism, Hebrew grammar is studied by maskilim, the pernicious, scornful secularists who by dint of their dissent are denied the right to even express an opinion. According to Nahmanides, the letters of the Torah, like the great sage’s learning, may be rearranged to generate sacred meaning. [ See Kitbe Ramban, vol. 1, p.168]. For Nahmanides on the “science of necromancy,” see his commentary to Exodus 20:3] Were the grammarians really religious Jews, they would understand that because elite religion alone deals with thinking and intuiting, claims from grammar cannot be entertained.
According to MT [supra. 5:9] contradicting the sage means that one may not publicly contend with one’s own teacher; the issue is one of protocol and not expertise. The claim that the great sage is everyone’s teacher who may not be questioned is for MT religion a questionable and undocumented doctrine. After all, Abraham, [Genesis 18:25] Moses, [Numbers 16:22] and David [Psalms 22:2] all licitly questioned God. Israel’s God for MT neither claims sovereign immunity nor forbids asking the question. The claim that asking the hard question is forbidden because it reflects little faith is unattested in the canon, contradicted by these three Scriptural precedents, and for MT Orthodoxy violates the rule regarding adding to the Torah. [Deuteronomy 4:2]
Alternatively, CA Orthodoxy might claim that in our secular and chaotic age, the license of the canon may not be appropriately applied. If God and great rabbis are questioned anarchy will obtain. Jewish piety is best expressed by social submission, unconditioned obedience and a consensus driven conformity.
4. In Conclusion
- CA and MT are two irreconcilable, contending, conflicting, and competing versions which both Judaisms view as “Orthodox.” .
- CA regards MT Judaism as Korah Judaism, because it applies common sense grammatical principles to the Divine yet fails to submit to the divinely inspired great sages’ charismatic authority.
- MT regards CA Judaism as Korah Judaism because it contradicts the canon the Oral Torah canon by condemning those who live by the canon’s license; it invents strictures not as human glosses, but claims that it reads the mind of God.
- Following the Rabbinic movement of antique Judaism, MT posits Torah as a closed canon which is shared, open to all who can read, is stable and unchanging, and accessible so that Jewish leaders are subject to review. Following the Essene movement of antique Judaism and Conservative Judaism in modernity, CA Judaism maintains an open canon, Torah is subject to updates, it is the Torah person and not Torah text that is ultimately normative, and while Torah narrative is exoteric, Torah obligation remains esoteric.
- Recalling that Nahmanides believed that Torah at its core is disembodied letters waiting for the intuitionist mystic to reassemble and reconstruct the letters as the clay in the hand of the potter, we consider the idiom “it is not in Heaven.” [Deuteronomy 30:12] For Nahmanides, this “it” refers to repentance because context allows this reading and the open canon theology of CA religion cannot tolerate an exoteric Torah. MT, Torah Foundations 9:1,4, and Torah Study 3:8 believe that it is the Torah that is not in heaven and is exoteric. In Orthodox Jewish religious schools, CA religion dominates in every sense of the word. Conversation concedes to coercion and submission to God is expressed by submitting to those, like Korah, who speak in Heaven’s place. Subjecting the divinely inspired vicar of God on earth to earthly, carnal, logical review is for CA, an affront to God. Nahmanides to Leviticus 18:2 speaks of a legally correct scoundrel, an idiom now contextually coherent. For Nahmanides and CA elite religion Judaism, the legal texts of Torah are not themselves fully normative; the will of God needs to be parsed by the Great Sage, who unlike the rationalist lesser light rabbis, are able to read God’s mystical mind.
- Alternatively, the more “fundamentalist” religion that dogmatically assumes that God ultimately did Author the not-in-Heaven Torah, its actual words command, forbid, and in silence authorize license, freedom, and autonomy, and whose words actually have public meaning. If charismatic leaders are not subject to review, then the holding of God [noted above] to account, the judging of Moses and David when they acted wrongly, all indicate that Judaism is a rule of rules and not a rule of rulers. bBaba Mezia 59b demonstrates that the “it” of “it is not in heaven” is Torah. Therefore, if the Oral Torah library provides the legitimating, validating hermeneutic benchmark for subsequent Written and Oral Torah Judaism, MT Judaism is “Orthodox” and the intuitive faith of CA Judaism has some explaining to do.
Last 10 posts by Rabbi Alan Yuter
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