Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Must a Jew Believe Anything?

A review of Menachem Kellner's Must A Jew Believe Anything? Second edition, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization 2006

Over the last few years, an increasing number of people have been approaching me with crises of faith. One of the resources to which I direct them is Menachem Kellner's book Must a Jew Believe Anything?. It is, I believe, an outstanding work, and an absolutely essential read for anyone who is interested in the topics discussed in this blog, but I do have certain reservations about it.

The book can be divided into two parts. The first six chapters, along with the appendix (freely available at this link), explore the role of faith in classical Judaism and compare it to the role of faith in Maimonidean thought, and is the part which I cannot recommend highly enough. The final chapter contains Professor Kellner's own view of how the previous discussion can be used to change the way that Orthodox Jews relate to non-Orthodox Jews, and is the part about which I have severe reservations.

In the first chapters, Kellner begins by discussing the role of faith in the Torah and Talmud. He demonstrates that the Torah is more concerned with faith in God rather than in faith that particular propositions are true. With regard to the Talmud, Kellner makes several fascinating arguments to demonstrate that the Sages of the Talmud were far more concerned with people's actions than with their beliefs (which does not mean that they did not care at all about what people believed). There are tractates on every topic from berachos to uktzin (the impurity of vegetable stems), and yet, amazingly, there is no tractate dedicated to the topic of required beliefs. The only Mishnah which deals at all with beliefs is in the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, and yet it is clearly not presenting a systematic theology - it makes no mention of beliefs regarding God, mentions only beliefs that are not acceptable (and only two of those), and is very unclear with regard to the halachic consequences of incorrect beliefs. Kellner argues that this Mishnah is best understood as aiming to prevent people aligning themselves with the Sadducees.

Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).

The most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism emerges from comparing the Talmud's discussion of conversion to Judaism with that of Rambam. Here is what the Gemara has to say about conversion:
The Rabbis taught: If someone comes to convert, we say to him: “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. We inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot… we do not overwhelm him, and we are not exacting with him… (Yevamos 47a)
And here is how Rambam paraphrases it:
How do we accept righteous converts? When a gentile comes to convert, and investigation shows no ulterior motive, we say to him, “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. And we inform him of the fundamentals of religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we dwell upon this at length. And we inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot, but we do not dwell upon this at length… (Hilchos Issurei Biyah 14:1-2)
Look at the sentence that Rambam inserted! One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them (although, of course, there are nevertheless some people who do deny it).

Kellner explains why Rambam's list of dogmas, despite being a foreign aberration that initially made little impact, eventually won widespread support centuries later. It was not the conceptual foundation for these required beliefs that won support; rather, it was the fact that this list of dogmas became a useful tool to distinguish between loyal Jews and those who were breaking away from tradition, and to fight against the watering-down of Judaism.

This is just a taste of the first six chapters of Must a Jew Believe Anything? In the next post, I will continue my review with a critique of the second and very different part of the book - the seventh chapter.

17 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to read this for a while now. After you reviews I just might have to find a copy.

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  2. "Kellner argues that this Mishnah is best understood as aiming to prevent people aligning themselves with the Sadducees."
    And what's wrong with that, if the mishnah doesn't care what you believe? Does Tanakh also not care about beliefs? What about avodah zarah, which if I recall correctly, also is the name of a tractate in the mishnah? Also, this "one mishnah" in Sanhedrin excludes those who do not believe from olam haba, something that I assume the mishnah does not do in the case of vegetable peel impurities.

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  3. And what's wrong with that, if the mishnah doesn't care what you believe?

    Who said that the Mishnah doesn't care what someone believes?

    Does Tanakh also not care about beliefs?

    "Also"? as well as what?

    What about avodah zarah, which if I recall correctly, also is the name of a tractate in the mishnah?
    Not such a good example - that is an example of a disloyal ACTION.

    Also, this "one mishnah" in Sanhedrin excludes those who do not believe from olam haba, something that I assume the mishnah does not do in the case of vegetable peel impurities.

    And what does that mean? Can they be part of a minyan? Can they perform shechitah?
    And did you know that Chazal also excluded the Dor HaMidbar from Olam HaBa? Also doctors.

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  4. Even that mishnah is about actions, not necessarily beliefs. It uses the word ‘האומר’—one who says/declares. One could reasonably argue that this refers to stating these beliefs publicly. This interpretation would explain why monotheism isn’t listed, while one who denies that the resurrection is mentioned in the Torah (not one who denies the resurrection!) is treated so harshly: Jews who deny God would have made little impact in that culture, but those who denied the statements listed in the mishnah in public were giving ammunition to the opponents of the Pharisees—Sadducees, Essenes, early Christians, etc. It’s all about polemics, not halakhah. And that is why the “punishment” is losing one’s allotment in the Æon to Come, rather than a typical legal consequences: the goal is to scare people into falling in line with the Pharisaic agenda against the other sects.

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  5. I would be interested to hear a little about what some of your reservations were concerning the last chapter of this book.

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  6. Might you also review The Limits of Orthodox Theology also?

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  7. Not such a good example - that is an example of a disloyal ACTION.

    Actually, its an excellent example. One does not incur the death penalty for PERFORMING idolatry if he does it out of intimidation without sincere belief.
    The Talmud is explicit that the idolator has to BELIEVE in the divinity of the deity he is worshiping in order to be guilty of idol worship. That sounds like beliefs are THE issue with idolatry acc. to the Talmud.

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  8. Look, it's not that belief is irrelevant. Of course someone is not going to be punished for being coerced into an action.

    But if a person says he believes, would we ever run him through a lie detector? No way.

    Also - and this is Kellner's main point - the specifics of belief are never discussed by Chazal. Nothing at all about what a person must believe about the nature of God, for example. Or about the halachic consequences of ANY false beliefs.

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  9. Or about the halachic consequences of ANY false beliefs.

    Chazal typically talk about concrete halachic consequences for religious offenses--what Beis din or a community can and must do to a person who violates halacha.
    But the Torah is clear that beliefs are not punishable by a beis din--only actions (and sometimes speech) are. So there is a practical limitation as to what you would expect to find Chazal discussing.

    Another point that Kellner seems to overlook (based on this review) is the Book of Job. Much of the book is dedicated to discussing theology and what is permissible and impermissible to ascribe to G-d.

    So in short, Kellner is simply looking in the wrong places to find out what Judaism has to say about obligatory and forbidden beliefs.

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  10. "But if a person says he believes, would we ever run him through a lie detector? No way."
    Why is this relevant? Where does the Rambam ever say that we grill people about their religious beliefs?

    "Or about the halachic consequences of ANY false beliefs."
    Actually, the gemara says that heretics have the status of moridin vain maalin - a person is essentially allowed to kill them. In fact, this goes beyond a regular halachic punishment, since it can be carried out by any individual without recourse to a beis din. It seems that heretics are, not innocent and harmless, but so dangerous that they must be immediately "removed" from the community without the delay of moving through the court system.

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  11. the gemara says that heretics have the status of moridin vain maalin - a person is essentially allowed to kill them

    Where does it say such a thing about a person who has only incorrect personal beliefs?

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  12. > the gemara says that heretics have the status of moridin vain maalin - a person is essentially allowed to kill them

    Reminds me pf this post:
    http://www.unpious.com/2011/08/jihad/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Unpious+%28Unpious.com%29

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  13. What happened to the link to the first 6 chapters?

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  14. It was a link to the appendix, not to the first 6 chapters. Due to a misunderstanding with the publisher, I had to remove it, but it was cleared up, and the link is now restored.

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  15. The focus on belief rather than action took on increasing importance as Christianity influenced the world. Because Christianity requires proper belief, heresiology became an important dynamic. This undoubtedly influenced Jewish thought. Hence we don't see as much discussion on "proper belief" prior to the Geonim. Afterward, we see increasing discussion and debate about belief within the system of halacha.

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  16. My faith is stronger than ever. For me, the only "crisis" is my faith in "the system" which I prefer to call "frum shtick."

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  17. Wouldn't an ideal community fully permit questioning its core assumptions? Why are we comfortable with a community playing defence with its central assumptions?
    Allowing a community (as well an individual) to stagnate with assumptions that are confirmed and re-confirmed by those around them is the opposite of intellectual integrity, it's comfortable pandering.

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