The Correct Approach to Jewish Thought

  1. Disagreements in Jewish Thought?
  2. Free Will and Divine Providence
  3. When the Foundation is Lacking
  4. Differing Opinions – The Wholeness of the Torah

Disagreements in Jewish Thought?

When one studies Jewish thought superficially it sometimes appears as if there are a great many differences of opinion: One school of thought says this, another says something else; one authority holds that God demands of us to behave in one way, while another claims the exact opposite. This predicament can cause one to become very perplexed. “Which,” one asks oneself, “is the true Judaism? Could there be, heaven forbid, more than one Divine law, more than one Torah?”

This confusion results when one does not possess a proper foundation – a “skeleton”, as it were, of Jewish thought. There exists an essential theological infrastructure grounded in the books of Torah luminaries such as the Rambam, the Kuzari, the Maharal, the Ramhal, Nefesh Hahaim, Rabbi A.I. Kook, and others. This edifice is not to be altered. It is possible to add “plaster walls” here and there – to “fill in spaces” – but not to touch the essential framework. And then, once things are clear, nothing more need be changed. Of course, within the framework of this infrastructure, so long as each opinion operates within its own boundaries and does not damage the accepted foundations, there is room for a virtual storehouse of opinions, nuances, and unique ideas. Judaism, as a matter of fact, has been blessed with a wealth of opinions and varying approaches.

An example of the sort of mistake which one is liable to make because he lacks the proper foundations of Jewish thought is the belief that there are conflicting opinions regarding the existence of the Jewish people’s unique inner quality, or Segula. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook would fiercely rebuke those who claimed this to be the case. There was even one Rabbi who was censured by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda for making statements to this effect.

Free Will and Divine Providence

There is a well-known theological inquiry: Is that which transpires in our world up to man or given over to Divine Providence? Though in Jewish thought one finds varying nuances and differing emphases among great Torah scholars, all these approaches remain “within the house”, and do not endanger its basic framework.

The central pillars remain firm: Man, on the one hand, is endowed with freedom of will. Indeed, man’s free will is mentioned explicitly in the Torah many times, and no authority dare take issue with it. Rambam, the celebrated author of the Mishneh Torah, goes out of his way to strengthen this fundamental principle. How, he asks, would it be possible to understand the Torah and Prophets, or even the possibility of God’s commanding man and calling upon him to repent, without first accepting the principle of man’s freedom?

Concerning the existence of Divine Providence, God’s pre-figured plan in the world, there is also no dispute. Accordingly, we sometimes find a person with very strong impulses who is incapable of being good even when he very much desires to be. It cannot be denied, then, that there exists something of determinism as well. There is an element of freedom and an element of Providence, though the interaction between the two is not always easy for the human mind to grasp.

With regard to what, then, do we find disagreement? Let us take, for example, the question of Geula, the final redemption. On the one hand, the Divine plan promises that eventually there will be a final redemption, and concerning this, man has no say; on the other hand, man’s freedom allows him to decide how and in what form the redemption will ultimately come about. Understand, that if a book emphasizes that the redemption depends on man’s actions, it is relating from the point of view of man’s freedom. Another book may emphasize the fact that Israel’s ultimate redemption is guaranteed. Its starting point, then, is Divine preordination. In actuality there is no essential disagreement here.

The same is true concerning repentance, or Teshuva. Does it derive from God, through His Heavenly assistance, or from man? The answer is that, on the one hand, it is impossible to discard the element of man’s choice. One who nullifies this foundation is no longer speaking from within the framework of Judaism. On the other hand, it is clear that Teshuva depends on Divine loving kindness; that God indeed opens up doors for those who wish to return to Him. Man, through the strength of his choice alone, is not capable of attaining complete repentance. As we have said, though, concerning the exact apportionment between these two factors, there is room for different opinions among the authorities.

Lubavitch Hassidism’s Alter Rebbe, in his book Likutei Torah – a book which was ever-present on the desk of Rabbi A.I. Kook – deals at length with the concept of Elokut, Divinity. Clearly, the book is dealing with aspects of Divine revelation, and not, Heaven forbid, with God’s true essence. This point, though, is not so emphasized in the book. Therefore, what is happening today with some of the followers of Lubavitch Hassidism is no coincidence, whether it is their lack of distinction between this world and the next, or between the Tzaddik – a righteous human being – and the Divine. (This confusion, of course, is not found among the true giants of Lubavitch, only fringe elements. If we were to ask these great Rabbi’s for their opinion they would find the way to differentiate between absolute terms and the aspect to which they are relating.) The ideas of Lubavitch are very dear and nice, so long as one first builds up a secure infrastructure.

Let us emphasize, once again, that within the framework of the essential infrastructure there is room for all sorts of original ideas and varying nuances. One must only be careful not to topple the main pillars. There are many wonderful concepts in Hassidism, yet if one does not learn them properly, one is liable to end up greatly confused. The same is true when it comes to the study of Mysticism, philosophy, etc. In-depth study of the Rambam and the Kuzari reveals that there is virtually no disagreement between them. True, there are different emphases, but concerning the essentials, there is no conflict. Once, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of Rabbi A.I. Kook, was asked concerning his father’s opinion of the Musar system, as established by Rabbi Israel Salanter. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda began by explaining that there are no “systems” in Judaism, only varying streams and emphases.

When the Foundation is Lacking

In summary, when the acknowledged principles of the Jewish faith are known, when its infrastructure is clear and well established, there is enough room for all of the varying opinions and streams. One need not view them as contradicting one another. Things are seen as interrelating and standing side by side. Yet, today, one comes across all sorts of essays which view in a distorted and exaggerated manner differing opinions in Judaism. Learned individuals, deficient in the essentials, believe that, because in a particular work an authority emphasizes one side of the coin, his intention is to deny the existence of the other all together.

In our time, the institution at the forefront of this mistaken approach is the university. There, streams in Judaism are presented as different systems altogether, as if, Heaven forbid, there were more than one Divine law, more than one Torah. The state of Jewish studies at the university is terrible, even when the intentions are good. They relate to Judaism in these institutions like they relate to any other religion – like a branch of anthropology – ignoring Judaism’s Divine origins. One who fails to comprehend the Divine fountain of the Torah, sees everything as emanating from humans. “This ones personality was such that it led him to say what he said; so-and-so’s personality, being different, led him to a different conclusion.” Or, “This scholar lived in one place and was influenced by his environment there; he, therefore, disagreed with another scholar who was influenced by other factors.” They don’t understand that, clearly, it is unity and continuity which most typify Judaism, and not the differing emphases. One who misses this point views Judaism as if it was a collection of individual people, and it is only understandable that the disagreements therein appear severe and extreme. One who does not understand what truly nourished each of the giants of Israel, thinks that each one merely wished to give expression to his own individual leanings. Yet one who grows up within the walls of the Beit Midrash, study hall, realizes that this is nonsense.

Differing Opinions – The Wholeness of the Torah

When one learns correctly, when the fundamentals of faith are clear, it is possible to see how disagreements and differing opinions not only do not damage the wholeness and unity of the Torah, but reveal the Torah as being is one – one, which, from it’s very foundation, encourages us to accept differing opinions and to understand how they are all are, in fact, words of the living God. The Maharal’s central purpose in his writings was to demonstrate that differing opinions in Judaism actually express different sides of the same coin, and, in fact, compliment each other. This is one of the reasons that the books of the Maharal are so fundamental. In keeping with this concept, the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud bring the words of Rabbi Yannai who said, “If the Torah had been given in a clear-cut manner, it would have no legs to support it.” Rabbi Yannai continues by bringing a Midrashic discussion between Moses and God: “Master of the Universe,” said Moses, “inform me of the law.” God answered, “Follow the majority: If the majority declare him to be innocent – acquit him; if the majority declare him to be guilty – convict him; this, in order that the Torah be expounded in forty-nine ways.” Revealing the different sides, then, is desirable, and without it the Torah cannot be said to have been wholly revealed. The entire Divine Torah cannot be revealed by one individual.

This, then, is the approach which one should take in the study of Jewish thought, by which each opinion adds harmony and wholeness, not perplexity and confusion.


Glossary:

Torah
Five Books of Moses
Rambam
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, 4895 – 4965 (1135 -1204)
Mishneh Torah
Rambam’s monumental code of Jewish law.
Kuzari
Rabbi Judah HaLevi, 4837 – 4901 (before 1075 – 1141)
Maharal
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, 5286 – 5369 (1525 – 1609)
Ramhal
Rabbi Moshe Haim Lutzatto, 5467 – 5507 (1707 – 1746)
Nefesh HaHaim
Rabbi Haim ben Yitzhak of Volozhin, 5509 – 5581 (1749 – 1821)
Midrash
An exposition of Scripture, or collection of such, by the early Sages

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