Tag Archives: Haredism

Why the Modern Orthodox Should Suffer the Most

I’m currently in the middle of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ superb book ‘Future Tense’1, where he sets out a “vision for Jews and Judaism in the global Culture”. Of course, though he sets out to solve a practical problem, the Chief can’t do so without discussing Jewish theology and philosophy, which is nothing short of a joy to read.

Anyway, in a section entitled “Lowering the Bar” (page 65) he says the following, after noting that Jewish identity is a matter of a shared faith for all Jews:

“…surely to guarantee continuity, Judaism must be made as easy and undemanding as possible”, since then the most people will keep Judaism, as opposed to quitting because it is too difficult. However, Rabbi Lord Dr. Chief Best-Guy-Ever Rabbi Sacks has a very different conclusion. In fact, the more difficult the better, in his opinion, and the idea that the easier the better is “untrue and misconceived”.

In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most adhered to. Indeed, studies come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

This actually reminds me of something that Yeshayahu Leibovitz was fond of saying: The people of Israel, who felt the hand of God when He took them from Egypt, and heard the voice of God when He spoke at Sinai, soon worshiped the golden calf. So too, the Judeans who heard the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to sin. In contrast, however, the Jews who were tortured throughout history readily sacrificed their lives rather than convert to another religion, which would have made their lives incomparably easier.

Why is this? Obviously a strong commitment to Judaism is greater even than hearing the voice of God.

So what does this mean for us?

Rabbi Sacks points out that the groups in different religions who have the most difficult form of religion are the ones who remain the most committed. Is Modern Orthodoxy this version?

Now, all of this is not to say that we should make our lives as difficult as possible so that we can feel more committed to Judaism. Therefore, we might say, let’s stop using electricity to power our lights at night, and instead have evening prayers by candle light. So let’s be clear, we are Modern Orthodox because we think it is right, and this will not depend on the answer to our question. It is not a mitzvah to suffer by any means, and we want to avoid confusion about this.

But, having asked the question, I still think we might say that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult version of Judaism, if it is understood in a certain sense.

For many, modern Orthodoxy is the Orthodox way of life for those who do not really wish to commit to traditional Orthodoxy. Perhaps because they do not want to give up on movies, or dunkin donuts, or working for a big pay check, they water down our religion -but not too much- so they may ensure that the next generation does not abandon Judaism.

In this sense, modern Orthodoxy is nothing other than a way to make our lives more convenient.

However, the founders of great Modern Orthodox institutions had nothing like this in mind, and there are many among us who still view Modern Orthodoxy as an ideal to be adhered to and striven for. And this is the most difficult form of Judaism in my opinion.

As opposed to saying we will water down Halakha, we affirm our commitment to it 100%. As opposed to denouncing the secular world completely we say we will take a nuanced approach to questions of faith, and philosophy, and art, and emotion. Living a life that questions and affirms while truly living according to our faith is to my mind much more difficult than simply practicing when it is convenient, or avoiding the modern world entirely.

A person who works with non-Jews either in science or fashion or education has to grapple with what someone different has to offer, and has to ask how this changes our view of ourselves and Judaism, of our relationship with God. To pray with the same fervor after asking if God truly answers prayer is more difficult than doing so without acknowledging that the question is valid.

Modern Orthodoxy is the ideal of searching and questioning while affirming 100%. I cannot imagine something that would require more of us than this.

1Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 2009



Filed under Miscellaneous

Must I Wear a Hat?

“When will you wear a hat?” My Chavruta (learning partner) asked.

He was a young Israeli rabbi, and we had become quite friendly over the months that we had been learning together. While the question could be understood as coming from a ‘holier than thou’ perspective, I do not think it was. He was my friend, and he wanted me to wear a hat, because he wanted me to do what he thought was right.

I understood this, so I answered without insult or malice.“When I find out that it’s halakha (Jewish law), I’ll wear one.”

“Really?” His eyes glimmered. He thought he had me.

I have to be clear with you, I was already fairly certain it was not mandated by Jewish law to wear a hat, because while my father wanted me to wear a hat when I turned 13 (it’s a Rav Soloveitchik thing), he never really got into the issue with me, or told me that it was halakha1. Mostly because it’s not. But my friend thought that it was, and he got a Mishna Berura (written by the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) to prove it.

I don’t remember the specific placement anymore (perhaps someone could provide it in a comment), but if my memory serves Rabbi Kagan’s ruling was that while praying (and especially while reciting the blessing after meals) one must wear a hat, since we wear hats in the street. Being that while in public we dress with a certain level of respect for those around us, how can we dress in a less respectable manner before God Himself?

I agreed with this logic. I think we should dress respectably to pray, don’t you?

“But I don’t wear a hat in the street…” I countered. Rabbi Kagan was clear. If wearing a hat is part of dressing in a respectful manner, then we should wear one to pray. But if it is not part of dressing respectably, then it is no longer relevant!

“So what?” my friend countered back. “It’s the halakha!”

“But he made it dependent on the reason!”

“Maybe it was dependent on the reason then; but now, it is halakha.”

I shrugged, and that was that. We had finished our learning for the day, and I went home.

It seems to me that my friend was advocating a position where anything that was ever done as a part of Jewish law or life in the past must be kept even when the reason no longer applies. In his opinion, this would apply not only to laws from the Sages (who themselves argued about this point), but seemingly to every custom or law ever made, like the law of wearing a hat to pray, which was declared based on a reasoning that no longer applies today.

Certainly, this point is not intuitive, and the rabbis I consider my teachers have not advocated this position. I think the onus is not on me, but on my old friend, to prove that Jewish law and custom really do travel through history like fly-paper, so that while we may add, nothing can be taken off.



1-Though if you actually want to know my father’s position on the matter, you will simply have to ask him. I may have wildly misunderstood him, and I cannot take responsibility for representing his opinion on this or any other matter, in fact.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of individuals.vi

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism

Do the Mitzvot Count Outside of Israel?

A friend of mine once taught me a song some campers and counselors used to sing in Camp Moshava of Ennismore, which has the following line in it:

Everybody make Aliyah;

Mitzvot don’t count in Canada!”

Intuitively, we would say that not only is this opinion incorrect, but that it has no place in Orthodox Judaism. How could mitzvot not count somewhere? Is there a source for this assertion? Furthermore, what exactly do they mean when they say the mitzvot “do not count”?

I came across what i assume is the source for this in a book I’m researching for a paper, which is pretty exciting, since now we should be able to answer all of these questions. Of course, for all I know this could be in 35 midrashei halakha (unlikely as that seems to me), since I’m just not familiar with them. Having the opportunity to look at some now, I highly recommend it to everyone.

Anyway, in piska 43 of Sifre on Dvarim, it explains the following quote from Deut. 11:16-18:


הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ 

וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם

16:Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them:

17:and then the Lord’s anger be inflamed against you, and he shut up the heavens, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not its fruit; and you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you.

18: And you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul…1

In the Sifre2, the Sages explain that God is saying the following to the Jewish people:

Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you.”

So basically, according to this source, for someone who lives outside of Israel, the mitzvot are just for practice, so that we know what we’re doing when we live in Israel again.

The Sifre continues:

A parable: A king of flesh and blood grew angry with his wife and sent her back to her father’s house, saying to her, “Be sure to continue wearing your jewelry, so that whenever you return, it will not be new to you.” Thus also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “My children, you must continue to be marked by the commandments, so that when you return, they will not be new to you.”

Well, I think that pretty much confirms our reading that according to this opinion, we are commanded to perform the mitzvot for practice outside of Israel, which I assume is what campers at Ennismore mean when they say (or sing) mitzvot “don’t count in Canada”. Still, I think saying mitzvot don’t “count” is very misleading, and that is not the intention of the Sages here.

Anyway, the opinion of the Sifre here is also famously quoted by Ramban in his commentary on Levitcus 18:25 and he takes it very seriously, and personally I have come across many people in Israel who take this to be the normative opinion.

However, we should not forget that the Sifre lists another opinion just after this, which goes as follows:

Another interpretation: And ye perish quickly from off the good land (11:17): You will be exiled from the good land to a land that is not like it in goodness. R. Judah says: Good refers to Torah, as it is said, For I give you good doctrine-(In the Land of Israel)-forsake ye not my Torah (Prov. 4:2)- outside the Land.

This seems to imply that God is commanding us to keep the mitzvot even though we have been exiled, and implies no connection to their practice in Israel in the way the first opinion does.

While the first opinion assumes the mitzvot are really supposed to be performed in Israel, so that when we are outside of it they are only performed for practice, the second opinion says the verse is a warning/commandment to remember to keep the mitzvot no matter where we are, because it makes no difference; we are always commanded to keep the mitzvot.

This opinion is the simple understanding of the Mishnah in Kiddushin (36b) that “Any commandment that is not dependent on the Land (of Israel) must be performed outside of the Land, and any of them that is dependent on the Land is not performed except for in the Land.”

The gemara takes R. Judah’s opinion (which we listed earlier) as the normative one, so that mitzvot “(incumbent on) the body” apply anywhere in the world, while commandments that can only be performed in Israel due to their dependence on the Land-such as shmittah- do not. Of course, being that so many of the commandments have to do with the Temple, we should not forget how big this number is.

This seems also to be the opinion in Sifre 59, which appears to be cited by the gemara here as well, and of Sifre 613 as well. So, the mitzvot can be categorized into those that only apply in Israel, and the ones that apply everywhere, including every “Lo Taaseh” (prohibitive commandments), and I think this is also the opinion of the Talmud in Sotah 14A, where we are told Moses wanted to enter Israel so that he could practice the mitzvot specific to it.

Keep in mind, if the opinion that mitzvot are just for practice outside of Israel is correct, it seems likely that the entire first generation of Jews given the mitzvot practiced for nothing, or only so that their children would be familiar with the mitzvot when they would go into Israel 40 years later. This interpretation does not seem to be the simple reading of the giving of the Torah to me, but I’m not qualified to make that call.

Going further, my wife pointed out an even stronger question on this opinion to me: If the mitzvot are performed for practice outside of Israel, then we should practice all of the mitzvot- including those that pertain to the land- so that we are familiar with them.

Since we see that only mitzvot “of the body” are performed outside of Israel, while no practice is required for those of the land, we see the halakha presumes that mitzvot are actually commanded upon us no matter where we are, and some only apply to the Land of Israel.

Anyway, it seems from the sources we have just listed that the mitzvot do “count” in Canada, the U.S., etc. This being the case, the song should be edited a bit. Since it encourages children to make aliyah, I will try and leave the spirit of the song intact.

The new lyrics will say “Everybody make aliyah; Mitzvot still count in Canada!”. This will imply that it is a mitzva to make aliyah no matter where you live, which I think the Moshava people will approve of. This is of course despite the fact that Rambam famously does not codify living in Israel as a commandment.

I feel we have righted the wrongs of this song, and I can get back to my paper now.

Shabbat Shalom!

1Tanslation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible.

2I’ve taken the translation from the Yale Judaica Series, Volume XXIV, “Sifre on Deuteronomy”, which is translated, introduced, and annotated with notes by Reuven Hammer. (Yale University Press 1986)

3Both on parshat Re’eh, entitled “These are the laws” and “You should shatter” respectively.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?

With all the talk about “Orthopraxy” lately, I thought I’d just add something interesting I found. For those of you who don’t know, ‘orthodoxy’ refers to believing as everyone else does, in our case the Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and ‘orthopraxy’ refers to acting as everyone else does, which in our case refers to keeping the mitzvot. Orthoprax people have their own reasons for keeping the mitzvot, but oftentimes they do not actually believe in what they are doing.

I found a letter in “I Wanted to Ask You Prof. Leibowitz: Letters to and from Yeshayahu Leibowitz” where he addresses this exact issue, so I thought I would post a translated version of the exchange. The translation will be my own, and I apologize for any errorsi. I also want to note that Leibowitz is not considered a mainstream Orthodox Jewish thinker, which may become obvious from this letter. None the less, I think the exchange is very interesting and worth looking at.


To the honorable Prof’ R’ Yeshayahu Leibowitz,

The revered and distinguished!                                                                                     9 Shvat 5750

For quite some time a question has raged in me in regards to matters of faith that I don’t have an answer to, and although I know that his honor is extraordinarily busy from many things that he deals with, and at his ageii, and that he’s also endlessly busy with people like me who turn to him for some guidance, I haven’t found anyone else who can answer me except for him and I ask forgiveness for the niusance.

My question- it’s a personal one. And I would be very happyiii to receive a personal answer. The environment I grew up and lived in my entire life, the Jezreel Valley, I see where its educational style has led to: the second and third generations of us are already completely cut off from anything that minimally has to do with Judaism- anyone who isn’t in this environment will have a hard time believing how much, it is my feeling, that only the ways of our grandfathers and their forebears will preserve the future of the Jewish peopleiv and not necessarily the Jewish state, etc. But it’s hard for me to believe in Reward and Punishment and (I don’t believe at all)v in the World to Come. For example, I’m convinced that a Mezuza must be on every door in a Jewish home, but I can’t believe in the charms that it brings with it, or God forbid, that terrible things happen in the case where there is not one.

I accept upon myself the obligation to keep the Mitzvot and the prohibitions for the sake of preserving Judaism…in the same way that I have to pay income tax, for example, but how can I convince others, some of whom claim “why all the seclusion and the troubles when there’s no reward for it in this world or the next?” and some of them don’t even know what’s been lost and where the future generations will end up?! And there are some who hold onto the smaller beliefs while they belittle Shabbat and Yom Kippur and every other holy thing, and they think what kind of way is this for a man to choose in our time and place (ie:to keep the mitzvot)? I’ll be boundlessly grateful if his honor would set aside some time for me, the small one, from his time and give me an answer or some guidance for my doubts or direct me to an answer written somewhere that I haven’t found yet.

With wishes for long days and years for his honor and with thanks,




To S’ Shalom U’Brakha

16 Shvat 5750, 11.2.1990

I really valued your letter, which completely reflected the honesty with which you’re thinking about the matter of faith, and the way to faith and observing the commandments. I’m including for you a paper I wrote that deals with this great issue, and possibly you’ll find something of value in it.

I want to note a few things on the main points of your letter. The Torah- in which faith and mitzvot are fastened one to the other- is not a means for the preserving of (the nation of) Israel. For the faithful- one who accepts the yoke of the mitzvot- it is the goal itself and not an aid to something, and the goal the service of God: The acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. From the perspective of religious faith, we should not see religion as a helpful-means to human interests, nor to the national interests of the nation of Israel. Religion as fulfillment of needs and interests has no value at all.

The Mezuza is a commandment from the mitzvot of the Torah, and the Mezuza on the door of a house testifies that the people who live in it recognize the meaning of performing the mitzvot. One who sees the Mezuza as a means for defense of a house and on its inhabitents belittles religion and has been ensnared in idolatry, which is completely rejected from the perspective of faith in God and His Torah. Faith in God is not dependent on the belief in reward and punishment, and a truly faithful person recognizes that faith itself is the reward.

As to the World to Come- I refer you to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, which give expression to the highest form of religious consciousness, the consciousness that is highest on Musaf of Rosh HaShana and the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur- And Behold, there is no mention or hint of the World to Come! Yom Kippur does not deal with matters that pertain to after death, but instead proposes a question: Are you, the man who lives in Olam HaZe (this world), aware of your position before God in your life, and why this status obligates you in your life?

The acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and Mitzvot is the great moral decision for man, and it cannot be rationalized by outside rationales. And know, that this is the rule for any decision in regards to values. If a man will ask: Why should I be fair and upstanding, when I can be despicable and benefit from it?- There is no answer for this other than the proposition that fairness is a value in it of itself. If a man will ask: Why should I cling to my people and its land, if by leaving Israel I can improve my situation?- There too, there is no other answer other than to propose that clinging to the nation and the land is a value, for which a price must be paid. And so there are those who see the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and the Mitzvot as the highest value, even if it is a yoke and not a promise of wellbeing.

With Sincere Wishes,

Yeshayahu Leibowitz


iThe letter to Dr. Leibowitz is very fluidly written in Hebrew, so translating it was very difficult. I added some punctuation to make it readable in English, and as you can see, I skipped a couple of points that I thought might prove distracting due to the particular style of the writer. I hope that doesn’t take anything away from it. The original can be found on page 119 of the book, which is published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1999

ii“Begilo”.I think this is the correct translation, but it doesn’t sit right with me.

iii“esmach”. I think the connotation is “very happy” but that is not literal.

ivAdat Yisrael

v“velo”. It was hard to translate this. Leibowitz undertands the writer to be saying what I presented, so that’ how I wrote it, but it could be interpreted that the author has trouble believing in reward and punishment but then not believing in the world to come.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

Boy have I heard that (rhetorical) question a million times. This is usually how it goes.

Person A advocates a lenient position in Halakha, which some or many Rabbis disagree with.

Person B responds by asking a rhetorical question: “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”.

With this little question, the responder implies that the aforementioned leniency was suggested out of a lack of commitment to Judaism. “Judaism is hard”, Person B tells us, “and you’re not trying hard enough”.

Let’s talk about this question for a moment, and examine whether or not it’s actually a good question that should be taken seriously. We’ll do this by looking at the implications of the statement.

1)“We follow our rabbis”: Now Orthodoxy is predicated on following Jewish law as set down in the Talmud, and interpreted and passed on through the generations. So there are many rabbis from over the generations who will be “our rabbis” to both sides in the aforementioned argument. However, not all rabbis are followed by everyone.

With this in mind, make sure that when a person starts telling you about who your rabbis are that you’re talking about the same people. Otherwise, the statement is already meaningless. For example, if somebody tells a Modern Orthodox person about the Satmar Rebbe’s view’s on Zionism, they are no longer dealing with shared leaders. Another example of this might be when a little girl asked my wife “why are you wearing red if you’re Jewish?”. Presumably, my wife and I do not have the same rabbis as that little girl and her family.

2) “Until it’s inconvenient”: This statement implies that halakha doesn’t take seriously when a person is inconvenienced. While I’m not an expert, I do know enough to say that’s not true. That’s why the Talmud discusses the concept of “istinus” (a particularly sensitive person) numerous times, why we are told God is sensitive to the economic needs of the Jewish people, why Hillel made the Pruzbol, why there is the concept of ‘tirkha d’tzibura’ (inconvenience to the congregation) and many other laws.

This is not to say that “inconvenience” is a valid reason to not follow halakha. But everyone should know that rabbis do care about what’s convenient for their followers, or at least that they should.

3)This statement shifts the conversation away from the actual content being discussed. Instead of saying “your statement is factually incorrect”, or any other statement that actually has substance to it, this statement is a personal attack on the commitment of another person. However, the personal commitment of the person advocating a lenient position is not what is up for discussion, so much as whether or not their statement is correct.

Being that oftentimes (or perhaps usually) the commitment of Person A, who advocates s a lenient position, is no less strong than anyone else’s, this actually turns into an unfair and often vicious accusation, which hurts the reputation of another person or a group of people.

How many halakhot are violated when someone tells you that “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”?

A whole bunch.

So don’t imply you have the same poskim if you don’t, don’t imply that halakha does not take into account the condition of the Jewish people, and don’t attack people personally in what is at best a distraction.

I admit, you may encounter a person who actually argues that we should not follow halakha when it becomes inconvenient. At that time the statement we have just discussed (hopefully for the last time ever) will become perfectly relevant, if perhaps too sarcastic and rude. In that case, rephrase it as a polite question, and go for it.


Filed under Miscellaneous