Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Part Two of my review of "Must a Jew Believe Anything?"

A while ago, I began my review of Menachem Kellner's Must A Jew Believe Anything? (Read part one at this link). I mentioned how the first six chapters of the book are a superb analysis of the role of dogma in Judaism, showing how Rambam's emphasis on dogma was an aberration from normative Judaism. The seventh and final chapter of the book forms a separate unit; it is Professor Kellner's personal view as to what to do with this information.

Professor Kellner's idea is as follows. Once one realizes that defining "being a Jew in good standing" based on adherence to Maimonidean dogma is an aberrant and problematic definition, then we are left with defining a good Jew based on halachic observance. But nobody keeps absolutely every halachah, and nor is there anyone who does no mitzvos at all. Thus, we have a continuum of observance, extending over Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. While we do not agree with the theology of Conservative and Reform, we can increase our cooperation and unity with them via this insight.

Here is where I must part company with Professor Kellner (notwithstanding my tremendous respect for him and his superb books). My critique is very similar to that raised by Daniel Statman, which Prof. Kellner himself cites and discusses in the afterword to the second edition of his book, but to which he does not, in my opinion, present an adequate response. It seems to me that traditionally, Judaism did not define "being a good Jew" either in terms of adherence to Maimonidean-style dogma or in terms of counting how many mitzvos one performs. Instead, it was based upon commitment and loyalty to the halachic community.

There may well be a continuum of halachic observance amongst all the different flavors of Jews. But there is nevertheless a clear difference between someone who is, in principle, committed to the traditional halachic community (albeit with various lapses) and someone who is not committed to it. (This is not affected by a gray area surrounding the extreme left-wing of Orthodoxy. The gray area simply means that people disagree as to where to draw the line. But all agree that the line itself revolves around commitment to the halachic community.) If a person lapses in his personal observance, he is not undermining the community. But if he supports a rival system (such as the Sadducees and Karaites in ancient times, or Conservative and Reform in modern times), he is undermining the community, and is thus appropriately rejected.

This also applies to the realm of belief. While Judaism as a religion is certainly based upon certain beliefs, and many Torah scholars have discussed what those beliefs should be, we have never cared that much either about the precise parameters of these beliefs, or about what actually goes on inside a given person's head. That is between man and God; we have never grilled people and nor would we ever administer a lie-detector test to people. Instead, what Judaism demands is loyalty to the community and not undermining it. If one expresses beliefs (or lack thereof) in such a way as to undermine the community, he is ostracized. Otherwise, no matter what the person believes privately, he remains a member in good standing.

Kellner sort of acknowledges all this in his discussion of Statman's critique on pp. 136-140, but maintains that there is much to be gained by defining membership in terms of behavior rather than belief, and that excluding people based on their being "public enemies" is untrue to the teachings of Rabbinic Judaism. I disagree - I think that this is how Judaism always operated, either consciously or subconsciously. As for his claim that the new challenges in the modern era require a different sort of response than that given to Sadducees and Karaites, I remain unconvinced.

On a related note, Kellner discusses the critique of Rabbi Dr. David Berger, who insists that Judaism was always defined by dogma. Kellner responds by citing the example of Chabad. He points out that Berger has satisfactorily proved that the extreme strain of Messianism in Chabad is heretical, and yet the rest of Orthodoxy has not excommunicated these people; all members of Chabad are still members of good standing in the community of Israel. Kellner argues that this shows that, at least subconsciously, everyone agrees with him that mitzvah-observance is the true definition of membership in good standing, not theology.

I disagree. The reason why the theological aberrations of the extreme Messianists of Chabad are tolerated is that these people are not still members of good standing in the community of Israel; instead, they are members of good standing in the community of Chabad. Chabad is so isolated from the rest of Orthodoxy that the extreme Messianists can simply be ignored. I guarantee that if Chabad were to start missionary work with the rest of Orthodoxy, they would be banned faster than you can say Slifkin.


All this is not to say that I believe Kellner's efforts in the first six chapters to be wasted. On the contrary; I think that they are extremely useful, and I think that every reader of this website should read Must A Jew Believe Anything?. But in my view, the concepts of the first six chapters are useful in a different way than Kellner proposes. I have briefly mentioned my ideas above, and I plan to discuss them in more detail on a future occasion.

30 comments:

  1. Useful post and valuable book. I understand that there are 3 models for
    "what a Jew must believe" (I'm sure there are more).
    1. Maimonidean based on adherence to 13 principles
    2. Kellner's suggested model based on praxis
    3. Slifkin based on overall loyalty to halachic system and process

    Considering the last several years of your own life and being ostracized from the Haredi community and ostensibly a victim of failure to conform with dogma, which model best describes what happened to your works (I don't think any of them contraverted 13 ikkarei emunah, your personal observance was never an issue, and you were part of that community and not recommending any formal separation)

    I submit that politics and ideological power are much more important than explanatory models and that's where you got in trouble (wrongly so of course). While I really admire and enjoy Prof. Kellner's book, the discussion in my mind remains purely academic with limited practical relevance.

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  2. "3. Slifkin based on overall loyalty to halachic system and process"

    That's not quite what I'm saying.

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  3. See my Hakirah article, "They Could Say It, We Cannot" for my explanation of how my works really were heretical, in a certain way. They did undermine treasured beliefs in the Charedi community. And my reaction to the ban undermined even more treasured beliefs - namely, beliefs vis-a-vis the Gedolim.

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  4. So no eating from chabad hechsherim?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  5. Someone smart once told me: Chabad is too useful to get banned. Ve'hamevin yavin.

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  6. "I guarantee that if Chabad were to start missionary work with the rest of Orthodoxy, they would be banned faster than you can say Slifkin."

    Then how do you explain this:
    http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2010/12/modern-orthodox-jews-and-lubavitch.html

    This kind of missionary work has gone on for years and years. It isn't always clear when it's being led by "extreme Messianists" and when it isn't, but I'm surprised to see you argue otherwise.

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  7. Rav Slifkin-
    If you had exactly 10 men for a minyan, and you knew one of them was a Chabad Messianist, would you throw him out of the minyan?

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  8. The answer isn't black and white but grey.
    Throughout the Torah and Nevi'im there are references to things we MUST believe but in each case there is a reason for that. For example, we must believe the Torah was presented by God Himself to our ancestors at Har Sinai. The reason is that the entire legitimacy of the halachic system and the authority of subsequent rabbinic leaders to demand sacrifices or restrictions on our desires on the basis of their understanding of Torah relies on the original system being Divine. Else, as the Reformatives have decided, if the Torah was written by a man/men, then other men/women can adjust it as need be.
    It would therefore seem to me that we are not dealing with dogma but that these principles have been presented as such in order to save time and effort in explaining them.
    The real problem, however, isn't the limited number of potentially dogmatic statements derived from Scripture but the large number that seem to pop into existence each passing year, like wearing certain clothes, or accepting Daas Torah as this magical divining entity and so on.

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  9. As I understand it, Karaites were the majority fo the Jeiwh community in Cairo when RAMBAM arrived, and by the end of his life, the majority had gone over to our "Rabbanite" Judaism. He did this by advocating peaceful relations with them as long as they did not badmouth our system. This is very interesting as to see how much into dogma he really was!

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  10. The Gemora tells us that because of the fanaticism of certain people, a sacrifice was not offered at the Temple and so the Temple was destroyed because of that insult.

    While it is true that a divided Judaism always worked this way, why is that a valid argument?

    When it comes to achdus and deciding who is or isn't a good Jew in standing, it seems learning from the past is the last thing we want to do!

    I always pray to bring us back to the days of old, but recently I have thought that the prayer needs to be revised.

    I only want the parts of the days of old that did not include the Sikirim(Sicarii) and their ilk. But alas, that aspect of our days of old have returned already so no need to actually change the prayer.

    Once you decide that 'belonging' is based on fuzzy ideas such as commitment and loyalty, then any crazy person can decide what is and isn't being loyal. For example, allowing the general of a stronger army offering a sacrifice is loyal to some but disloyalty to others, and we see where Gd sided on that issue.

    Perhaps behavior based community is better and will help us bring achdus, since like you said there is nobody who does all mitzvot and nobody who does zero mitzvot.

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  11. This post misrepresents Dr. Berger. He did not say Chabad messianists are heretics. He said they are inconsistent with Judaism. More than once he wrote that he is not sure if those who have destroyed the gedarim of a certain belief (mashiach), but affirm the belief itself, are heretics. (Chabad elokists are a different matter).


    As for Prof. Kellner, he is simply wrong. The Mishna in Sanhedrin does not tolerate denial of techiyas hamesim and Torah min hashamayim. Kellner's cartwheels around this issue are academic foolishness.

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  12. "[1]They did undermine treasured beliefs in the Charedi community. And [2] my reaction to the ban undermined even more treasured beliefs - namely, beliefs vis-a-vis the Gedolim."

    The first part of your statement is not true. Your books did not undermine any beliefs, because there was nothing in them that was not already written and said many times before, in hebrew and english.

    The second part of your statement, on the other hand, is partially true. Again you didnt undermine any beliefs in GEDOILIM, b/c few of your readers ever believed in GODOL worship in the first place, and the chareidim who do did not read your books. Also I wouldnt call GODOL worship, which is less than 50 years old, a "treasured belief." But, I do think you were the first to harness the power of the internet to publicize the cause.

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  13. DF,

    Existence of prior writings that expressed beliefs does not exclude a recent work's better ability to undermine "treasured beliefs" - for example some (or many) of Rambam's ideas have direct parallels in the teaching of Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon. Would you say that the Rambam did not undermine the Gaonim's view of Torah because SbH expressed them generations before?

    The fact that R. Slifkin quotes great and recognized Rabbis rather than formulating his own original chiddushim does not take away from his "ability to undermine" conventional Haredi thinking.

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  14. It seems like what you are saying is that heresy is only a problem if it's a threat? Why not just put it another way: it's only heresy if it's a threat.

    This explains why heresy has no real definition; the 13 Ikkarim is an unintentional smokescreen. You can violate the ikkarim sometimes and it isn't heresy, and you can do, say or believe things which have nothing to do with the ikkarim at all, and it can be considered as heresy.

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  15. Eric, I disagree. One doesnt undermine a belief with old and well-known information. Everything R. Slifkin writes has been written many, many times. Naturally his excellent presentation is new and unique to him, but the rationalist viewpoint he espouses is old news. It has been expressed by many Jews, in every generation. The comparison to the Rambam and the Gaon is inapposite.

    The use of the internet, though, is new. It, along with other factors, is helping R. Slifkin succeed to a a degree I dont think we've seen before, even in the golden days of the maskilim newspapers.

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  16. Kellner sort of acknowledges all this in his discussion of Statman's critique on pp. 136-140, but maintains that there is much to be gained by defining membership in terms of behavior rather than belief, and that excluding people based on their being "public enemies" is untrue to the teachings of Rabbinic Judaism. I disagree - I think that this is how Judaism always operated, either consciously or subconsciously.
    While it may be true that this is how the Jewish community operates, that doesn't make it right. If there is no source for such a tenuous idea as "being commited to the halachic process," who are the Chareidim to make it up just because it is useful for cohesiveness?

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  17. "Instead, it was based upon commitment and loyalty to the halachic community."

    This is all well and good but what defines "THE" halachic community? Adherence to mitzvot of course, ahh but ...which mitzvot? Since nobody can claim to adhere to all mitzvot at all times you are exactly back at square one.

    "there is nevertheless a clear difference between someone who is, in principle, committed to the traditional halachic community"

    Really? I'm not sure there is. My guess is that someone who adheres to the Conservative movements version of Halacha (yes they do have it) looks a lot more like any modern orthodox Jew than a Belzer Hassid. The difference is that someone has drawn a red line over a couple of minor issues which is why an OJ is happy to embrace a haredi as his brother while a mostly observant CJ is out of the continuum.

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  18. Chabad may not seem to be that important in Israel but in many places especially Australia they are a very important and major part of the community.
    Although the Meshichistin are upsetting this Chabad does have a line you cannot cross such as when a tiny group put out a video of having a feast on the tenth of Teveth they were put in Cherem.
    Chabad are great at PR and there would be major ramifications and community divisions if any group tried to ban them they are embedded and part of the orthodox community

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  19. What you write is not quite accurate. The extreme Messianists are not members in good standing among large segments of Chabad. (Of course this depends on how you define "extreme." And I know that Israel might be different than America.)

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  20. fairdeswas based upon commitment and loyalty to the halachic community.-------------------------
    isn't it possible that this definition was the galut definition of a good jew? for almost 2000 years jews could only express their judaism halachicly. there was no other way to be a jew.

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  21. " If a person lapses in his personal observance, he is not undermining the community. But if he supports a rival system (such as the Sadducees and Karaites in ancient times, or Conservative and Reform in modern times), he is undermining the community, and is thus appropriately rejected."

    This makes "Judaism" synonomous with "Orthodox Judaism"! As someone brought up in a Reform shul, and currently a member of a Renewal shul, I'm insulted.

    Am I going to be expelled from the community because I don't believe that God gave us the Torah (complete with Oral Law) at Sinai?
    Who will do the expelling?

    I'm not sure that "Judaism" is a "faith community" at all. R. Mordecai Kaplan called it a "civilization", and others have called it a "people". In either case, the test of loyalty is loyalty to the community of Israel (the people, not the state).

    Loyalty to the "halachic system and process" is shared by Orthodox Jews. To say that Conservative, Reform, and others _are not Jews_ because they don't share it is a good way to split the community as we know it.

    Does R. Slifkin believe that all the Israelis who would identify themselves as "secular" should be considered non-Jews? That the child of a secular Jewish mother should not be considered a Jew?

    The Jewish tent doesn't cover everyone, but I _hope_ it covers people who don't have the loyalty to the "mitzvah system" that Orthodox Jews share.

    Charles

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  22. "The reason why the theological aberrations of the extreme Messianists of Chabad are tolerated is that these people are not still members of good standing in the community of Israel; instead, they are members of good standing in the community of Chabad."

    As a member of the Chabad Community currently living in Crown Heights, I beg to differ. Here extreme Messianists are not at all considered "members of good standing", but are normally regarded as a foreign intrusion, to be suffered in silence rather than risk yet another violent outburst on the part of these unpredictable strangers who have decided to camp out in the main "zal" of 770.

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  23. 1. I think you're right about the issue of expressing beliefs that undermine the halachic community. Reforms says all mitzvot are optional, while Conservative says they're mandatory, unless they've somehow decided they're not (perhaps justified by convenience, or in some cases historical or Biblical scholarship authored by non-Orthodox professors with an obvious incentive to publish things that undermine the Orthodox and support the non-Orthodox). Not long ago, I was discussing something with a Conservative rabbi, who said without qualification "I don't hold by the laws of yichud," though I'm sure there's no halachic argument one could make that these laws should somehow be wholly abrogated. I'm sure others would say similar things regarding other categories of mitzvot, and not just the ones related to gender like taharat mispacha and negiah. Judaism has never worked like that. Lacking a strong level of faith in and commitment to mitzvot as holy and mandatory things, you just can convince people to follow them.

    2. Contrary to Professor Kellner, I would say there's always been a big continuum of observance *within* Orthodox (and its predecessor traditional) Judaism. Instead of saying this is a reason to cooperate with the non-Orthodox, I say this is a reason to try to convince the non-Orthodox that they should affiliate Orthodox even if they don't plan on being completely observant or adhering to mainstream Orthodox theology. Why can't we be like the Sephardim, where people of all levels of observance and belief all have the same affiliation? If the non-Orthodox were exposed to such arguments -- which would also point out all the good evidence showing that the American non-Orthodox will have mainly non-Jewish great-grandchildren -- then I think quite a few could be persuaded to join Modern Orthodoxy. As long as they don't attempt to publicly justify or flaunt their lack of conformity to Orthodox observance and theology, it wouldn't be a problem for the Orthodox community.

    3. I'm not sure what kind of cooperation between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Kellner had in mind, but I think on an individual level it's very important for Orthodox Jews to meet, get to know, work with, live near, and befried non-Orthodox Jews, not because non-Orthodox movements are legitimate, but because it can potentially make an important kiddush Hashem. Most American non-Orthodox Jews probably don't know a single Orthodox Jew, and most have strong negative stereotypes -- sexist, anti-science, dishonest in business, ultra-conservative politically, etc.. -- even though there are many modern Orthodox Jews who share much of their liberal worldview.

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  24. This makes "Judaism" synonomous with "Orthodox Judaism"! As someone brought up in a Reform shul, and currently a member of a Renewal shul, I'm insulted.

    I'm sorry, but how can you expect Orthodox Judaism to legitimize Reform Judaism?

    Am I going to be expelled from the community because I don't believe that God gave us the Torah (complete with Oral Law) at Sinai?
    Who will do the expelling?


    From which community? The Orthodox community? Of course the Orthodox community will not consider someone who openly rejects Torah MiSinai to be a member of the Orthodox community! (But if you keep your beliefs private, you can still be part of it.)

    Loyalty to the "halachic system and process" is shared by Orthodox Jews. To say that Conservative, Reform, and others _are not Jews_ because they don't share it is a good way to split the community as we know it.

    Where did I say that they are not Jews? I said that they are not part of the Orthodox Jewish community. That's not "splitting the community as we know it" - it's making an observation.

    Does R. Slifkin believe that all the Israelis who would identify themselves as "secular" should be considered non-Jews? That the child of a secular Jewish mother should not be considered a Jew?

    Where on earth did I write anything that would lead you to think that?

    The Jewish tent doesn't cover everyone, but I _hope_ it covers people who don't have the loyalty to the "mitzvah system" that Orthodox Jews share.

    Everyone born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. But to be a card-carrying member of the Orthodox community, you have to loyal to certain beliefs and practices.
    Isn't there anyone that YOU would exclude from your Jewish community? How about Jews for Jesus?

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  25. The Jews are a people and the Torah is their consitution. A constitution applies to all citizens whether or not they accept it or even if they are even aware of it. Similarly, a citizen who is aware of the constitution and its obligations is bound to all other citizens, even if they don't follow its strictures.
    I know many Haredim, even some who will say they are not anti-Zionists, will not agree with me, but Zionism and the rise of the state of Israel saved the Jews as a people along with their language and culture. If the state had no arisen there would be a bunch of disconnected communities around the world in a state of stagnation and assimilation. In effect Rabbi Meiselman said as much, because he noted how young Orthodox Jews today know very little when they arrive at his yeshiva. Where would Judaism be if we didn't have a 6-million strong body of people speaking Hebrew, the language of the Torah? I know that if I handn't learned to speak Hebrew, traditional Jewish literature would be a closed book for me. Studying in translation is not the same thing. Not at all!
    In addition, the fact that Jews around the world are treated with respect only a few decades after the horrific period when it was a capital crime to be a Jew is due to Zionism and Israel. Even anti-Zionists like the Satmars have benefitted from the new image of the Jew, and I don't care if they deny it from now until next year.

    I would think that in most religious Zionist synagogues in Israel there are veteran members who aren't careful with the mitzvot and have unorthodox beliefs. An elderly gentleman who has since passed away once attended my synagogue. He was obviously not very observant, his children weren't, but he once told me he survived 4 years in a Soviet concentration camp and he was in shul every Shabbat, rain or shine. He was treated with great respect by everyone in the shul including the most observant and by the Chief Rabbi who prayed there.
    I don't think I could have eaten in his house, but he was viewed as full member of the community. This is the model we should follow, and not make ideological qualifications the criteria for allowing people intou our community.
    We are not like Christians who view themselves as a "faith community" and nothing more. We are a PEOPLE.

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  26. Some people may find value in the teaching materials I have prepared under the title "Wars of the Jews", for teaching about the various movements in modern Judaism from an Orthodox perspective. The material can be found here:
    https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/jewish-wars

    There are study-texts and a teacher's guide in Hebrew. The basic framework is inspired the wonderful book "Arguments for the Sake of Heaven" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which also may be very valuable reading for some people.

    There are such vast differences of opinion about what the halakhic framework is, and how it needs to be applied in the current circumstances of Am Yisrael, that I'm not sure Rabbi Slifkin's principle is a very useful one today. I prefer to see things in terms of a question rather than a principle, and the question I try to ask is: "What does the Torah demand of me in the present situation?" There is a certain important commonality among Jews who ask that question.

    Nevertheless, even a Jew who does ask that question may find that quite often his natural partners are other Jews who do not. And he may sometimes even find that other Jews who do ask the very same question he does are impossible as partners for trying to live the Torah and serve God.

    So the bottom line is simply to try to be a menstch and work together with others in mutual respect as you try to live the Torah. That is why I don't think drawing all these boundaries and trying to decide who is "in" and who is "out" is spiritually healthy or serves any positive Torah purpose.

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  27. It seems to me that the need to question here is very Ashkenazik. Among the broad Sephardic community - those that largely lived under Islam for several hundred years - there is a very strong sense that we, as Jews, are a nation apart from the Other. While observance per se among Sephardim is spotty, it is clear that the shul they _don't_ daven in is an orthodox one.

    Perhaps that is the essence - not so much a demand for a professed belief but just the acknowledgement that religion is a) relevant (as opposed to reform) and b) not open to personal adaptations (as opposed to Conservative).

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  28. Y. Ben-David said... Rav Slifkin- If you had exactly 10 men for a minyan, and you knew one of them was a Chabad Messianist, would you throw him out of the minyan?

    -----

    For many years I was a close follower of the Rebbe zt"l. To put it mildly, I detest the Lubavitchers who deify the Rebbe and continue believing and asserting that he was/is/will be the Mosiach.

    I personally refuse to participate in any Minyan that allows Lubavitcher Meshichists – “MeshiChristians” is a more accurate term – to participate in services while wearing their cultic symbols, such as their Yechi yarmulkas and pins. Would you count as part of the Minyan a person wearing a yarmulke bearing a slogan such as “Yushka Saves” and/or a cross? Obviously not.

    Hopefully R' Slifkin and other Orthodox Rabbis understand that it is not possible, al pi halocha and derech eretz, to count Chabad Messianists as part of a Minyan, and hopefully they will have the courage of their convictions to insist on the enforcement of this matter.

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  29. S. wrote: "Why not just put it another way: it's only heresy if it's a threat. This explains why heresy has no real definition; the 13 Ikkarim is an unintentional smokescreen."

    Ironically, your statement is true of the 13 ikkarim themselves! How were those 13 chosen if not by that criteria?

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  30. R'Slifkin - on what do you base your assertion that Chabad are so far removed from the rest of Orthodoxy?

    I also find it suprising that you would even use the term 'the rest of Orthodoxy'...as if to imply that 'the rest' are some homogenous happy family?

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