Monday, November 7, 2011

With Respect, You're A Kofer

"Lula demistafina (Were I not afraid), I would say that we need to posit a completely novel interpretation."

"Lefi aniyos da'ati (In my lowly opinion), this way of looking at the topic is completely wrong."

"With all due respect, you're an am ha'aretz."

Such prefatory comments often strike me as completely dishonest in light of what follows. If you are genuinely afraid to posit a new interpretation, then don't! If you genuinely consider your opinion to be lowly, then don't denounce others! If you genuinely respect someone, don't insult them!

The truth is that it is very, very difficult to balance respect for others with strong disagreement. I find it to be especially challenging, as a parent, to teach it to my children. But there is one figure in Jewish history who stands out as striking an incredible balance between the two.

Ramban, a.k.a. Nachmanides, had strong and well-earned opinions. He viewed many of Rambam's views as being tremendous perversions of Judaism (not without reason). At the beginning of parashas Vayera, he discusses Rambam's radical view that all stories in the Torah concerning angels took place in visions rather than in real life. Ramban concludes that "this view contradicts Scripture; it is forbidden to listen to such things, and all the more so to believe them."

Strong words indeed. Ramban has effectively just deemed Rambam's view as heresy. And there are other places, too, where he uses strong language in denouncing Rambam's radical opinions. Yet this was the same Ramban who wrote an important letter defending Rambam in the Maimonidean controversy!

Nor was it only with Rambam that Ramban was able to find respect even while considering his opinions to be near, or actual, heresy. When writing to the rabbis of Northern France, whom he had heard to view God as being corporeal, Ramban addresses them with great respect, as he politely informs them of the error of their ways.

It's not easy to respect those with whom one disagrees so strongly. We would do well to learn from Ramban.

(See too Bernard Septimus, "Open Rebuke and Concealed Love: Nahmanides and the Andalusian Tradition," in Isadore Twersky, ed., Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 11-34)

(On another note: If you live in London, and you are free on Monday November 28, please contact me!)

39 comments:

  1. It is indeed important that different Torah views not be expressed in a hostile manner. Rancor must be avoided.

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  2. But Ramban DID express dissent in a fairly hostile manner! The point is that he nevertheless respected his opponents and managed to convey that!

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  3. It is important to point out that Ramban agrees with Rambam in most cases regarding visions of angels - that they were only visions, not something that actually happened. He only disputes cases in which angels took earthly clothes (ie as in our Parsha) - here he argues with Rambam and says that these stories actually happened and were not simply prophetic visions.

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  4. The Ramban didn't just write a letter defending the Rambam. His message to the Baalei HaTosefos is written in really cool rhyming verse (bursting with psukim, of course!),which makes its impact much more powerful. You can find the poems (he wrote two) in Kisvei HaRamban.

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  5. "But Ramban DID express dissent in a fairly hostile manner!"

    I think that is overstating the case. We view this words as scathing attacks, but if you look at the actual words they are not so harsh.

    Ramban never says "With respect, you are a kofer".. he writes, "With respect, I believe that these ideas are something similiar to that which a kofer states, and should not be believed."

    You might translate that to mean that Ramban views such and such as a kofer, but that isn't what his words actually say.

    It seems to me that people today not only prefer soundbites, but translate lengthly comments into soundbites into their own minds as well.

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  6. " If you are genuinely afraid to posit a new interpretation, then don't! "

    Why are we cowards?
    True bravery is when you are afraid but do it anyway.

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  7. Ramban never says "With respect, you are a kofer".. he writes, "With respect, I believe that these ideas are something similiar to that which a kofer states, and should not be believed.

    It's a bit more than that. It's "these ideas are kefirah." And there's no "With respect."

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  8. Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas?

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  9. Indeed, a good question. So why did Ramban respect Rambam?

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  10. > Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas?

    Because for nearly every idea there are people who disagree; it follows that there are people out there who think that your ideas are horribly wrong, and wouldn’t you would like them to treat you with respect while disagreeing with you?

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  11. Lefi aniyos da'ati is Hebrew equivalent of IMHO. IMHO is an idiom, just like "I beg your pardon" or "truly yours", and one is never supposed to read them literally.

    Or do you wonder how can you ever take the Chasam Sofer seriously, when he signed his letters (like so many others) HaKatan Moshe?

    Lets not spend our time fighting illogical idioms.

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  12. How about respecting the person who put a lot of effort into understanding a problem but at the same time rejecting his conclusion? I see no contradiction between the two. Respect is not dependent on across-the-board agreement.

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  13. I would suspect that the Ramban had respect for the Rambam because he felt he did great good for Judaism and also was a great and holy rabbi, all this despite reservations as to ideas. Didn't Rav Moshe Feinstein raise some eyebrows as to some Psakim? How many denounce him personally?

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  14. The RambaN's work "milchamat hashem" was dedicated to opposing the ba'al hama'or's commentary on the Talmud. It was quite acerbic at times.

    Why the difference in approach?

    bli neder - I'll try to dig up some examples, unless someone else here does it first.

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  15. Here is a great example where a great Rav and Hacham in our generation disagrees with another in a particular case and even stats that the other "has led many astray", yett respects him and even refers to that other Rav with Shalitta (in other places).
    http://machonshilo.org/en/images/stories/files/Blog--2011-11-07-Shalit%2002.pdf

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  16. Yehuda

    "Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas? "

    At least with respect to religion, there is a very simple answer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Inquisition

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jihad

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Goldstein#Massacre

    and so forth.

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  17. There really is no reason that ‘respect’ and ‘disagreement’ need to be discussed together. Why?...because ‘disagreement’ is something you do; ‘respect’ is how you do it. A genuine Jew is a mensch, period. Look at Reish Lakish and Rebbe Yochanan.

    Reish Lakish used to tear Rebbe Yochanan apart every which way, but when Reish Lakish left this world before Rebbe Yochanan, Rebbe Yochanan couldn’t take Reish Lakish’s not being here, and left the world not long after. What was going on?

    Reish Lakish tore Rebbe Yochanan’s arguments apart but...but...he DIDN’T TEAR Rebbe Yochanan apart! Moreover, Rebbe Yochanan knew that whatever he achieved in Torah was because Reish Lakish decimated him if wasn’t saying ‘emes’. That’s a chavursa!

    But we all know that lack of respect occurs not because we disagree about ‘what is right’. Lack of respect occurs because we disagree about ‘who is right’.

    This leads to some of the reasoning why genuine learners of Torah use the expression, “Lefi aniyos da’ati.” First, as confident as a person may be, learning Torah IS a search for truth, and we may genuinely have overlooked something. Secondly, “Lefi aniyos da’ati” expresses to whom I am addressing, ‘what my motivation is’, i.e. a search for truth. The disagreement is ‘objective’; not ‘subjective’. One of the greatest difficulties we have in life is recognizing [and admitting] that “we see things as ‘we are’; not as they are.” This neither makes us right nor wrong. It simply makes us ‘us’.

    Today IMHO (and, all too often, “Lefi aniyos da’ati.”) mostly have nothing to do with [genuine] Torah. It’s mostly a person’s way of saying, “I know what you don’t know.” Sometimes this is true, and even modest, and other times it's merely a socially acceptable method of oneupmanship and putdown, and, at the least, it gives one an out if his IMHO is wrong.

    Probably, though, the Alter Rebbe of Gur said it best. “You don’t want everyone to look like you. Why do you want everyone to think like you?”

    Daniel Eliezer ben Eitan
    Beit El

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  18. Hashem's Holy Worker's UnionNovember 7, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    Who is the "genius" who put this as Kefira? Have to love the education of the day .

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  19. I see this as an example of "yeridat hadorot". In the not so distant past, people appear to have been more dignified and less personally sensitive. Two people could spar/duel vigorously, even uncompromisingly, and still do so with a tip of the hat to the other.

    I don't think we're typically built of the same stock today.

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  20. S.,

    Not every religious war is a bad one. I can think of one very famous religious war that we celebrate to the present day. It's called Chanukah.

    And the Cold War was also at least partly ideological.

    Besdies, lack of respect for someone else's opinion doesn't mean one kills the other person. I have very little respect for certain charedi leaders. That doesn't mean I would God forbid harm them physically.

    I think it is simply false to believe that anyone who is fundementalist about his ideology will automatically kill those who disagree.

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  21. Yehuda,
    It is a virtue to respect an opinion you see as damaging because the enterprise of Torah is developed through machloket, the tension of two or more opposing viewpoints can describe reality much better than a one dimensional keyhole view. No one actually thinks their view is objective truth but rather part of a heuristic process slowly converging on Truth as history progresses. If we are all in the same boat, shooting someone out if the water is not going to help you too much …

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  22. G*3 said...
    > Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas?

    Because for nearly every idea there are people who disagree; it follows that there are people out there who think that your ideas are horribly wrong, and wouldn’t you would like them to treat you with respect while disagreeing with you?

    That sounds like a really terrible reason to respect the ideas of others! According to that logic we should respect ideologically driven baby-killers and rapists! Wouldn't WE wish to be respected (if only that were us), regardless of our perverted ideology?

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  23. Daniel Eliezer: Resh Lakish did NOT tear R. Yohanan's arguments apart. R. Yohanan said "Resh Lakish always posed 24 questions to me and I gave twenty four answers, and as a result the issue was clarified." Not quite what you are saying. Indeed, the one time that Resh Lakish dared to actually disagree with R.
    Yohanan, he did NOT respond very kindly, to say the least. See the chilling sugya in Bava Metzia.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  24. Great post and very apropos to today's issues.

    One of the reasons I was taught by my Rebbe as to why people are afraid to posit a new approach or opinion is basically the onslaught of negative attacks. Sometimes the attack are direct and sometimes they are disguised in manor similar to the Ramban's. Never the less they are not done in a manor of Ahavat Israel and put pressure on people to conform to the ideas that is more common even when the new idea is valid.

    You see this all the time in the Haredi world and the Talmud, with a Zakain Mamrei.

    I really believe if all Jews learned to respect each other and accepted a wider spectrum of normative Jewish halachot and traditions we would be in great shape, and maybe Mashiach would come.

    Stiff necked people are often their own worst enemy.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  25. >"Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas? "

    You are aware that the top Nazis genuninely believed we Jews were causing harm to their country?

    You responded to S that a lack of respect for someone does not imply murder. I think you miss the point. You, personally, may not ever be reduced to murder, at least you think as much. But you by yourself are not significant. All of human history shows us that many people, many who are not truly capable of such independent thinking, can easily be brought to this level. You need a culture of resepct to prevent these people from murder, not the Yehuda's of the world.

    One neat thing about the law practice is the use of the term "respecfully disagree". It was even better when one lawyer would refer to his opponents as "my learned friend" [which I still do on occasion in briefs just to fool around but i digress]. That type of moderation is one of the reasons the instiution has thrived. If attorneys practiced like pashkevillin, the system would have fallen apart a long time ago.

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  26. ..... Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas?....

    A different idea is not alway "horribly wrong" but let us agree one party is 100% wrong, if you do not treat them with love and respect (ahavat Israel) why would they listen to your opinion and change their mind?

    All they will think is you are a horrible person.

    There are so many reasons to treat people correctly, and that is why we have a Torah madate to do so.


    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  27. >> On another note: If you live in London, and you are free on Monday November 28, please contact me!

    Which London? The one in Ontario, Canada or the other one?

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  28. I think everything depends on the time, place and issue. Sometimes pristine civilized discourse is called for and sometimes, sarcasm-laden articles are appropriate (think of Maureen Dowd on the Left and Mark Steyn on the Right).

    And, Mordechai Gordon, I would bet you a lot of money that most charedim do in fact believe that their view is the objective truth. I would say the same thing for people like the Rambam etc. (Ever notice the words he uses in describing people whom he disagrees with?)

    Your Heleglian thesis regarding truth may sound good, but I very much doubt it reflects what most people think about their own views.

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  29. Duh! said...
    > That sounds like a really terrible reason to respect the ideas of others!

    Really? It’s an application of the Golden Rule. Incidentally, I didn’t say that you should respect the idea, but that you should treat the person with respect.

    > According to that logic we should respect ideologically driven baby-killers and rapists! Wouldn't WE wish to be respected (if only that were us), regardless of our perverted ideology?

    If we knew who Amalek was, we would obligated to kill them – babies and all. Is fulfilling that mitzvah worthy of respect?

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  30. "G*3 said...
    > Why is it a virtue to respect people whom one believes is causing much harm by espousing horribly wrong ideas?

    Because for nearly every idea there are people who disagree; it follows that there are people out there who think that your ideas are horribly wrong, and wouldn’t you would like them to treat you with respect while disagreeing with you?"

    Ethics based on selfishness is not binding to me or very worthy of my respect. How about respecting the person because he or she deserves respect? How about the idea that there is something important in having someone be respected? The Golden Rule is not based on if I want you to leave me alone I should leave you alone but rather that it is in and of itself important to treat people as you would yourself. It is rather that what is right or wrong for you should be for others and that it is important to be sensitive to others as you are to yourself. No need for selfishness as the basis. It is not a mechanical rule but one to remind you to not judge for selfish reasons.

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  31. As I recall, in both the Parliament of the UK and the US Congress, members refer to each other as "the Honorable member from ..." before they tear into each other. This keeps the debate in bounds no matter how heated he go. Winston Churchill could be scathing about other MP's during his debates in parliaments yet he was able to maintain friendly personal relations with EVERYBODY, no matter what his opinions were

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  32. Prof. Kaplan, surely R' Shimon ben Lakish disagreed often with R' Yochanan - not only about what constitutes the finishing touch in knife making. It's just that R' Yochanan's flippant concession to his erstwhile student's greater knowledge of the subject precipitated a tragic outcome.

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  33. " G*3 said...
    Really? It’s an application of the Golden Rule. Incidentally, I didn’t say that you should respect the idea, but that you should treat the person with respect."

    That's a non-sequitur. We would find it no more acceptable to show respect to baby-killers and rapists than it would be to show respect for their ideals. Oh, and obviously appealing to the "Golden Rule" proves nothing.

    "If we knew who Amalek was, we would obligated to kill them – babies and all. Is fulfilling that mitzvah worthy of respect?"

    That response it even less logical!
    Since some killing of babies is justified (by the commandment of G-d) therefore we should respect all who apply such a concept wherever they choose!?
    (Please don't respond "the Arabs think G-d commanded them to kill our babies etc." because that is also irrelevant. Simply because one mistaken belief can mimic another true belief in all superficial points except the one that matters [i.e. being true] is a useless comparison!)

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  34. "Ramban has effectively just deemed Rambam's view as heresy. "

    Why do you say that? It sounds like he is saying that you may not believe this because it contradicts the verse - not because it is heretical. It is - according to the Ramban- an incorrect pshat.

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  35. Duh, my point is lost in your certainty that you have the “truth.” Try to imagine that you might be wrong, that Torah and Judaism is no more certainly the truth than the Koran and Islam (or any other belief system).

    When one group thinks it has a monopoly on truth, it leads to atrocities, as S. pointed out. Wiping out Amalek is an atrocity, but one you think is okay because you know that it’s “true” that God commanded it. Your truth can’t be proven (or disproven) any more than a Muslim’s or a Catholic’s. Given that no one can prove their truth, let’s all have a little humility, grant that there’s at least a possibility that the other person is sincere in his convictions (and might even be right), and agree to treat each other as we would like to be treated.

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  36. Y. Aharon: I am, of course, aware that R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish disagree many times in rabbinic literature. The story in Bava Metzia, however, represents their disagreement there as their very first. Its point seems to be that as long as Resh Lakish only questioned R. Yohanan's views all was fine, but as soon as he actually disagreed with him R. Yohanan reacted very sharply. I do not believe we should try to harmonize the story with the picture that emerges from the halakhic literature. There is an insightful analysis of this story by Yonah Frankel in Olamo ha-Ruhani shel Hazal.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  37. Lawrence:
    I am no scholar but almost every page of the Talmud has them arguing (not just RL questioning).
    There is even the rule that the Halacha follows RY.

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  38. G*3 said...
    Despite your obvious "emunah issues" I assume you are aware that many of the people who frequent this blog and indeed Slifkin himself, all believe that they have some form of evidence at least to suggest they are right to the exclusion of other religions. (Let's disregard fools who act without any form of evidence at all.)
    Although you may not agree (actually it is clear you do not) with what I consider "evidence" that in no way impinges on the veracity of said evidence. Now, obviously it concerns not the holder of said evidence if others have their OWN misguided evidence! Imagination is a wonderful exercise but does not pertain at all to our discussion, I will still be convinced firmly enough by my evidence regardless of lovely daydreaming about "could haves" and "might haves".
    Is it really so difficult for you to understand that someone might be convinced that they have the truth!? Why should I disregard that, because others, (mistakenly in my view) believe that they have it?!
    From your profile it sounds like your wife at least is a believer, is SHE a fool who acts without evidence or is she convinced by some form of evidence?
    It's a big world out there, please don't be so parochial!

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  39. R.D. Kaplan, I fail to see that the story in T.B. Bava Metziah 84a represents the first dispute between R' Yochanan and Resh Lakish. In fact, the story tells of the sickness and death of Resh Lakish which is attributed to R' Yochanan's anger at his erstwhile talmid for his response to his rebbe's disparaging admission that Resh Lakish had greater knowledge about knife and sword making. T.B. Ta'anit 9a continues the story when it relates discussions between R' Yochanan and Resh Lakish' young son after the father's death.

    I'm certain that none of this is new to you. I just don't understand your assumption.

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