Background on Judaism
I will first describe the nature of traditional Judaism here only in a factual and descriptive sense – without addressing ideological issues at all. Afterwards, I will address the rise of contemporary ideological movements in Judaism – conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist, reform as well as the rise of secular Judaism.
The term Hebrew Bible – Torah, Prophets and Writings
I am consciously using the term Hebrew Bible, and avoiding use of the term Old Testament, as the term Old Testament is a Christian term necessarily implying a New Testament of Christianity. The term testament is a translation of a central Hebrew word in the Bible (ברית), meaning covenant. The term New Testament implies that the new covenant of Jesus and Christianity has replaced the old covenants of Judaism of Abraham and Moses.
While the term Old Testament reflects Christian religious ideology, the term Hebrew Bible does not, by contrast, reflect Jewish religious ideology. Rather, the term Hebrew Bible merely describes the nature of the Hebrew Bible from a factual point of view in two senses. First, the Hebrew Bible is written for the most part in the language of ancient Hebrew, except for a few passages or words in several different books that are written in ancient Aramaic. Second, the Hebrew Bible is a product of an ancient Hebrew culture – at least indirectly. The Hebrew Bible is more accurately a product in a direct sense of an ancient Israelite and Jewish culture. However, the Jewish people, the people Israel (the Biblical name of the Jewish people), were according to the Biblical account descendants of Hebrews – of the families of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Hebrew Bible, as canonized in the Jewish tradition by the Talmudic rabbis, is actually a collection of 24 books (although one book, called “the 12 Prophets”, is a collection of 12 minor books of prophecy, which are minor not in stature but only in terms of the lengths of the books, and were thus grouped together into one book). The 24 books are divided, according to the Jewish tradition, into 3 parts: the Torah, which consists of the 5 Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); the Prophets, consisting of 8 books (the historical prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings; and the literary prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 Prophets – Hoshea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Obadiah, Micah, Nachum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Chaggai, Zechariah, and Malachi); and the Writings, consisting of 11 books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles). Such books as Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the single book of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were divided into separate books by Christian scholars (Samuel 1 & 2, Kings 1 & 2, Chronicles 1 & 2, and separate books of Ezra and Nehemiah) simply because of their length, are each considered as one book by the ancient Jewish rabbinic tradition and canonization. The material contained in the Hebrew Bible, produced (according to academic scholarship) over a period of about 800 years (950 – 150 BCE), covers a historical time period of about 1500 years (1900 – 400 BCE), from the period of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) until the destruction of the first Temple (the central religious institution of the Biblical period) in Jerusalem by the Babylonians (586 BCE) and return from exile (Babylonian) under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah (and the rebuilding of the second Temple).
The term traditional Judaism – the Talmud (Gemarah) and the term rabbi
In speaking about Judaism I am speaking about traditional Judaism – the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible. The foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition is the Talmud. The terms Talmud and Gemarah are today interchangeable, and refer to commentaries upon the Mishnah, a short legal work based upon the Bible that is the foundation of the Jewish tradition from a legal point of view. Actually there are two Talmuds (the Jerusalem and the Babylonian), and both are commentaries upon the Mishnah. The Jerusalem Talmud is a product of the Yeshivot (study academies) in the land of Israel (from about 100 BCE to about 500-600 CE); and the Babylonian Talmud is a product of the Yeshivot in the land of Babylonia (also from about 100 BCE to about 500-600 CE).
For a variety of reasons the Babylonian Talmud is the authoritative Talmud, and when the term Talmud is used without referring specifically to the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud is intended. The term rabbi means a teacher, and the term rabbi does not appear in the Bible at all but is a Talmudic term originating in the Talmudic period and literature. However, the term rabbi is used today in a more specific sense of an authoritative interpreter of the Jewish law or as a Jewish community, spiritual and religious leader.
The nature of traditional Judaism as a religion
Traditional Judaism is a religion in a completely different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the orthodox (correct belief) sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah (savior). There are in Christianity different streams (orthodox, catholic and protestant) and many different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Christian is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers, and one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular, non-believing Christian.
By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but in the orthoprax (correct practice) sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people – not faith in God nor any other faith commitment defines one as a Jew, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. There are in Judaism different streams (orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist, reform and secular) and different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Jew is being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or way of life (and in speaking of Judaism as a culture I am speaking not only of a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but also secular Jewish culture, such as Israeli folk dancing, which is not a part of traditional Jewish law or ritual but is an expression of a larger Jewish culture).
The term Torah
The modern term religion and the term Judaism are not found in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In speaking about Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis use the term Torah (תורה) – a term from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible, to wisdom of a universal nature.
The Talmudic rabbis distinguished between the Written Torah (תורה שבכתב) and the Oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה). The Written Torah refers to Scripture – the Bible. The Oral Torah refers to the Jewish rabbinic tradition that was originally material (legal material as well as moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) that was not written down but was of an oral nature passed on by word of mouth until eventually written down in the two Talmuds (in part because of the vast amount of the material), but is still to this day referred to as the Oral Torah. When the Talmudic rabbis speak of what we call Judaism they speak of Torah in the sense of the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible (the Written Torah together with the Oral Torah).
The covenants of Abraham and Moses
There are two fundamental elements of traditional Judaism – peoplehood (or nationhood) and religion. The element of nationhood is based upon the covenant of Abraham who is considered the spiritual father of the Jewish people. The covenant of Abraham also includes the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as a nation cannot generally exist without a national homeland (the survival of the Jewish people for over two thousand years without our national homeland is an exception to the laws of history). The sign of the covenant of Abraham is circumcision – “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your seed after you…every male child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17, 7-11).
The element of Torah as a way of life (Judaism as a religion) is based upon the covenant of Moses, as the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded in the Jewish tradition as the Divinely revealed word of God given to the Jewish people through Moses. To be accurate, the Five Books of Moses do not describe the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as being given on Mount Sinai. Rather, according to the Torah, the tablets containing the so called ten commandments (the Torah and the Talmudic rabbis use the term ten statements) and other mitzvot (commandments) were given on Mount Sinai. Yet, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is it written explicitly that the entire Torah as a written document came from Sinai. However, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded as given on Sinai; and is the legal constitution, and a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of the Jewish people. The main sign of the covenant of Moses is the Sabbath – “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the children of Israel saying, you shall surely keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31, 12-13).
The Jewish people is not a race but a nation. From the beginning of Jewish history, Jewish blood was not pure, and people of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds joined the Jewish people. In the Bible, Joseph takes the daughter of an Egyptian priest as his wife who is the mother of Ephraim and Menasha the ancestors of two of the Biblical tribes of the Jewish people. Moses, in the Bible, has two wives – a Midianite and a Cushite (Numbers 12, 1), a black woman from Cush (in modern Hebrew the term Cushite is a derogatory term, but this is not so in the Bible where it is merely a descriptive term identifying an unknown area in Africa). The Bible records that a “mixed multitude” (people of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds) joined the Hebrews in escaping from slavery in Egypt, the birth of the Jewish people (Exodus 12, 38). In addition, anyone no matter racial or ethnic background can convert and become a member of the Jewish people.
The term Hebrew
Abraham was actually not a Jew having lived prior to the exodus from Egypt and birth of the Israelite (Jewish) people. The Bible describes Abraham as a Hebrew, and the patriarchs of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – were Hebrews, and not Jews. One explanation of the term Hebrew among historians is that the term is not a noun referring to a specific ethnic, national or racial group, but an adjective describing a type of people – wanderers who did not belong to any particular society, in the main shepherds raising sheep and cattle, as the Bible describes the patriarchs and their families. They were not tied to any particular land, but wandered from area to area depending upon the availability of grazing land for their herds. According to this explanation, there were Hebrews from earliest times throughout the ancient near east – Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt. The Bible describes Abraham as coming originally from Mesopotamia, wandering with his family to the land of Canaan and spending time in Egypt as well. Furthermore, according to this explanation, not all Hebrews became members of the people Israel (the Jewish people). Rather, it was Hebrews who were of the families and clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became enslaved in Egypt, and escaped from slavery, joined by the “mixed multitude”, marking the birth of the Jewish people.
The terms Jew and Judaism
The term Jew, developing from the name Judah, one of the ancient tribes of Israel, began to be used following the split of the Jewish kingdom of David and Solomon into a northern kingdom of Ephraim and a southern kingdom of Judah and after the destruction of the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, with only the kingdom of Judah remaining. The name Judah (יהודה), from which the terms Jews and Judaism are derived, comes from a root (הודיה) meaning thankfulness, and a positive and optimistic psychological attitude of appreciation and thankfulness (rather than complaint and despair) is an essential element of a religious life in the Bible and Jewish tradition.
The term Israel
The term Israel (ישראל) is the name given in the Bible by God to the Jewish people, and also the name of the land of Canaan that the people Israel are to inherit. The name Israel, according to the Bible, means to “wrestle with God” (Genesis 32, 29), and is the name given to Jacob, the patriarch (Genesis 32, 29 & 35, 10). The name Israel contains within it the terms meaning righteous (ישר) and God (אל), and thus if divided in the middle literally means “righteous of God” (ישר אל). The name Jacob (יעקוב) literally means “to deceive”, as Esau says, after Jacob takes the birthright and blessing from him: “He is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived (יעקבני) me these two times” (Genesis 27, 36). Isaac likewise says to Esau that Jacob deceived him – “your brother came in deception and has taken away your blessing”. The story of Jacob then is a story of Jacob transforming himself (Genesis 32, 28-31) in “wrestling with God” (which I understand in a metaphoric sense that he wrestled with his own conscience, constituting the Divine image of the human being) – transforming himself from Jacob, one who deceives (not only his brother but his father as well), into Israel, one is who righteous before God.
The Jewish people are the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, who are to be devoted to righteousness. Likewise regarding Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, God declares – “for I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). The Jewish religion (culture) is characterized above all by a preoccupation with moral values such as righteousness, justice, love, compassion, equality, freedom and peace, which are the ultimate values of the Bible and Jewish tradition – especially in distinction to the ancient, Greek culture that was characterized above all by the development of reason and intellect. The Divine image of the human being (the human being created in the image of God) in the Bible and Jewish tradition includes reason and intellect, but also, and even more importantly, moral conscience. Although the Jewish people are known as the people of the Book, and although intellectual study is a central feature of a traditional, Jewish life – nevertheless, the Book (the Hebrew Bible) that is the foundation of Judaism is not a work of systematic philosophy celebrating the development of the human intellect but a collection of books devoted to moral and spiritual values. The Jewish people are above all else to be a people devoted to righteousness, morality and right living – as implied in its name Israel (righteous of God).
The orthoprax nature of religion in the Jewish tradition
Thus, it follows from the fact that Judaism is a way of life of the Jewish people that in principle there can be such a thing as a secular Jew – who is not only a member of the Jewish people either by birth or by conversion, but who is loyal to the Jewish people and identifies with the larger Jewish culture. Even more, such a secular Jew who is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and may not believe in the existence of God at all, may nonetheless be defined as religious. The term religious does not appear one time in the ancient Jewish tradition – not in the Bible and not in the Talmudic literature (the foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition). The modern Hebrew term religion (דת) appears in several books of the Bible, but it is used in the sense of law and not in the modern sense of religion.
Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are regarded as the two greatest of the Talmudic rabbis, and when they formulated the essence of Judaism Hillel argued that the essence of Judaism is the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva pointed to the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”. It is simply astounding to me that people whether of a religious or secular background do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations are not only orthoprax but completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. This is even more striking in the case of Rabbi Akiva because the continuation of the Biblical verse that he cites as the essence of Judaism is “I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva quotes only the beginning of the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”.
Regarding a secular Jew who is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and may not believe in the existence of God at all – if such a secular Jew lives a moral life he or she may be defined as religious in fulfilling the essence of a Jewish religious life according to the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva. By contrast, according to the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, a Jew, who believes in the existence of God, and is observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice, but does not live a moral life, is not truly religious in missing the essence of a religious life. Such a secular, anti-theological conception of religion of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva cannot be contemplated within Christianity because the essence of Christianity as a religion is not a way of life but a faith commitment – and without faith in God as well as faith in Jesus as the messiah one cannot be a true Christian and a truly religious person.
As an influence of Christianity in the western world, there is a tendency to think of the essence of religion as faith and ritual (flowing from a faith commitment). Unfortunately (in my eyes), this influence of Christianity is widespread within Judaism as well. Judaism (though having introduced the world to monotheism, and though there is a tremendous emphasis upon ritual practice within a traditional Jewish life) is not a religion in an orthodox (correct belief) sense of a faith commitment but in an orthoprax (correct practice) sense of a way of life of the Jewish people; and, according to Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest rabbis of the Jewish tradition, the essence of Judaism and of religion is not faith or ritual but moral decency faithful to the Biblical conception of religion – “You shall do that which is right (righteous) and good in the eyes of the Lord”(Deuteronomy 6, 18).
The terms Halacha and Aggadah
According to the Jewish tradition there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Such material establishes permissible and forbidden behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
In traditional rabbinic Judaism we live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition
The modern Jewish movements today – orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist and reform as well as secular Judaism – have all grown out of the ancient Jewish, rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud. In the Talmudic and medieval periods there were Jewish sects outside of the Jewish rabbinic tradition – like the Sadducees in the Talmudic period and the Karaites in the medieval period.
The terms Pharisees and Sadducees took on a negative connotation due to Christianity, but both the Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects during the Talmudic period. The Sadducees were a priestly sect, and most of the ancient, hereditary priesthood in Judaism were Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah (rabbinic tradition) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible (the Written Torah). The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – the Temple being the institutional center of the priestly cult. The Karaites were a medieval sect who like the ancient Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in the Bible. There were Karaite Jews in large numbers during the medieval period, but they too have largely disappeared.
The Pharisees were a sect that was in the main led by scribes and teachers. The Pharisees evidently were willing to interpret Scripture beyond the plain or literal meaning. The Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants of the Pharisees. Thus, in traditional Judaism we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmud.
I will give an example from the realm of Jewish law to illustrate that we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition. In the Bible it is written – “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23, 19). The verse is understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition to prohibit the cooking and eating of milk and meat together. But, this is not the plain, simple meaning of the Biblical verse. The Biblical verse speaks only about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. For example, it is possible to roast a kid on an open fire, which would not constitute cooking according to the Jewish tradition, and to roast and eat the kid with milk from a cow that is not the mother of the kid, which would not violate what is written in the Biblical verse. Moreover, the Hebrew word (חלב) that is translated as milk may not actually mean milk, as the word can also mean fat. It is even highly likely that the original meaning of the Biblical verse was that it is forbidden to cook a kid in the fat of the mother (which may have been an ancient Canaanite practice), as in the Bible and in the Biblical world it was the meat and fat of animals that were sacrificed as a part of sacrificial worship.
I will also give an example from the realm of Aggadah (non-legal material) that we as traditional Jews live by the Written Torah as interpreted by the Jewish tradition. The concept of an afterlife, and spiritual reward after death, is a central concept in the Jewish tradition – “the world to come” (עולם הבא). However, the concept of the world to come does not appear explicitly one time in the Hebrew Bible – a vague term (שאול) referring to a place where souls go after death appears though not often, and is not elaborated upon at any great length. The emphasis in the Bible is upon life in this world – the rewards given by God for obedience are of this world, such as abundance of crops. Redemption is of this world, such as redemption of land, of houses, of slaves, of animals, of the first born and of tithes and vows (Leviticus 25 & 27).
The rabbinic concept of the world to come, of spiritual reward after death, is a central concept in traditional Judaism, even though it does not appear in the Bible – and, in all likelihood the concept developed as a philosophic response to the question of the suffering of the righteous. From a historical point of view, it is clear that the almost complete silence of the Hebrew Bible regarding life after death is a reaction to the religion and culture of ancient Egypt, from where the Israelites escaped from slavery marking the birth of the Jewish people. The ancient Egyptian religion and civilization were preoccupied with death. Rabbi Hertz, in his commentary to the Torah (Hertz commentary, P. 397), points out that “a characteristic element in the religious life of Egypt was worship of the dead”, and that the pyramids were monuments to the dead that “testify that the Egyptians devoted greater zeal than any nation on earth to the abodes of their dead”. Thus, the preoccupation of Egyptian culture with death, to such an extent that the Egyptians were willing to enslave and oppress people (and not just Hebrews) here in this world in order to build monuments to the dead, leads to a preoccupation in the Bible with life in this world. The great unpronounceable name of God in the Bible – YHVH (the Hebrew letters constituting the unpronounceable name of God) – comes from a root meaning to be or to exist (להיות), the opposite of death. Rabbi Hertz points out that in contrast to ancient, Egyptian culture, “Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the one God” (P. 397). Notice that according to Rabbi Hertz the true service or worship (“adoration”) of God in the Biblical conception is morality (“man’s humanity to man”).
It is the Jewish rabbinic tradition that establishes which Jewish books of the ancient Biblical period were accepted as sacred books and were included in the rabbinic canonization of the Bible. For example, there were ancient Jewish books that were not included in the rabbinic canonization of the Bible (like the Book of Maccabees or the Book of Ben Sira) that were included in the Christian canonization of the Bible and are known as apocryphal literature. The Jewish rabbinic tradition also establishes how words in Biblical verses are to be read such as the verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” – reading the Hebrew word for milk as milk and not as fat. The Jewish rabbinic tradition determines the meaning of Biblical verses from a legal point of view as well, such as the verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” – prohibiting the cooking and eating of milk and meat together even though this is not what the Biblical verse explicitly states.
The term midrash
Traditional Jews are not bound by the literal meaning of Biblical texts, not bound by what is written explicitly in Biblical texts and not bound by the plain, simple meaning of Biblical texts – and, this is true of the Halacha (legal material), and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish tradition. Most of the material of the Jewish rabbinic tradition, whether legal material or moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings, is not the plain meaning of Scripture – and is considered midrash (midrash Halacha or midrash Aggadah). Midrash, originally, was a method of Biblical commentary (interpretation) of the Talmudic rabbis, according to which they elaborated beyond the plain meaning of Scripture – and also included stories or parables that were told as an elaboration upon Biblical texts. Most Halachic (legal) material of the Jewish tradition is midrash Halacha such as the prohibition of cooking and eating milk and meat together – as this is not what is written in the plain meaning of the verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. Most Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual) teachings of the Jewish tradition are midrash Aggadah such as the concept “the world to come”. The midrashic method of Biblical interpretation was rejected by the Sadducees and Karaites in attempting to live as much as possible according to what is written in Scripture.
The implications here are enormous – we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition, and therefore in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts is what allowed Judaism to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
The term midrash has several different usages today – the method of Biblical commentary of the Talmudic rabbis, the midrashic interpretations of Biblical texts that resulted from the midrashic method of study (as well as stories or parables that were told as an elaboration upon Biblical texts) and the Midrashic literature (compilations of midrashic interpretations and stories or parables that resulted from the midrashic method). Oftentimes the very same Halachic (legal) material and Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual) teachings of the rabbinic tradition are found both in the Talmudic and Midrashic literatures – the Talmudic literature (the commentaries of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds upon the Mishnah) being very loosely organized by subject matter, and the Midrashic literature being organized by Biblical verses and books.
I want to add an important point relating to the holiness of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Hebrew Bible within the Jewish tradition – especially in light of the concept of midrash, and given that we as traditional Jews live not according to the Torah and Bible but according to the Torah and Bible as understood by the rabbinic tradition. The Torah (as a legal constitution of the Jewish people) and the Bible are holy not because they are the last word (infallible) but because they are the first word of traditional Judaism (subject to interpretation). From a practical point of view, we as traditional Jews live not according to the plain meaning of the Torah and the Bible as the Divinely revealed word of God, but according to the interpretations and explanations of the rabbinic tradition (often far removed from the plain meaning of Biblical texts) – from a spiritual point of view, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Bible as the first word of traditional Judaism are the historical, moral, spiritual and inspirational foundation of the Jewish tradition revealing the moral and spiritual direction and orientation of traditional Judaism.
The term mitzvah
The term mitzvah (מצווה), which literally means commandment or obligation, is a central term in the Bible and the Jewish rabbinic tradition. The term can have both a narrow Halachic (legal) meaning as a legal commandment (“do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”), or a broad Aggadic (non-legal) meaning as any good deed that is a moral or spiritual obligation (“you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”). The Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people contains mitzvot (commandments), upon which the Halacha (Jewish law) is based – and, in general, though there are exceptions, the law is learned only from the 5 Books of Moses (having a special status as a legal constitution of the Jewish people) and not from other books of the Bible. According to the Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) regulating all areas of life ethically and ritually – but, this notion of 613 commandments is merely a tradition and not binding (and there is debate within the Jewish tradition in enumerating the 613 commandments). The term ten commandments is a misnomer; and, the literal term in the Bible, and the term used by the Talmudic rabbis, is ten statements, which according to the Jewish tradition contain merely several commandments of the 613 commandments (there is debate how many and which commandments are contained in the ten statements just there is debate in enumerating the 613 commandments).
The Halacha (law) of the Jewish tradition is based, and an elaboration, upon the 613 commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) constituting a complex legal system regulating all areas of life (including even private matters such as sexuality) incumbent upon a traditional Jew. Halacha (law) includes laws not only that are regarded as requirements of the Torah itself that are based upon the commandments of the 5 Books of Moses (such as the prohibition of mixing milk and meat based upon the commandment “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”) but also rabbinic edicts and decrees (such as separating between milk and meat dishes so as not to violate the law of the Torah prohibiting the mixing of milk and meat) and customs of the Jewish people (such as how long we wait after eating meat before we eat milk products, which is a matter of custom among the Jewish people with some Jews waiting as little as an hour, some as many as 6 hours, and various customs in between).
The Talmudic concept of seven commandments of the children of Noah
There is also a Talmudic concept of seven commandments (mitzvot) of the children of Noah that represents a standard by which non-Jews are considered righteous of the nations and worthy of salvation, without converting to Judaism. The phrase children of Noah is the rabbinic term for non-Jews, as all of humanity is descended from Noah (after the flood) according to the Biblical account. The seven commandments of the children of Noah are basic laws of humanity (such as prohibitions of murder, blasphemy, idolatry, incest, eating flesh from a living animal and robbery, together with the establishment of a system of courts of law and administration of justice), and express the philosophic idea that what we as Jews demand of non-Jews is far less than what we demand of ourselves. What is demanded of the Jewish people according to rabbinic tradition is 613 commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) regulating all areas of life ethically and ritually, and observance of the Halacha (an elaborate legal system) based upon the 613 commandments. By contrast, what is demanded of non-Jews, in order to be considered as righteous of the nations and worthy of salvation, is the bare minimum of seven basic laws of humanity serving in effect to distinguish the human being from animals.
All of these basic laws of humanity, except one, are prohibitions, formulated in the negative, contributing to the feeling and idea that these seven commandments of the children of Noah constitute a minimum standard of civilized behavior. The only positive commandment is to establish a system of courts of law and administration of justice, which likewise represents a minimum demand that disputes between people be resolved in a civilized way, worthy of being human beings, and not like animals.
I want to add two important points in relation to the Talmudic concept of seven commandments of the children of Noah. First, according to the Talmud (as the basis of the Jewish law), a potential candidate for conversion is to be discouraged from converting to the Jewish people, and is allowed to convert only if he or she persists in his or her desire to convert after being discouraged. The potential candidate is to be warned that by converting such a person is becoming a member of a small persecuted and oppressed nation. Such a warning, in my opinion, is intended to reflect sensitivity to the non-Jew. What stands behind such a warning, in my view, is the philosophic idea that, if a non-Jew is worthy of spiritual salvation by merely observing seven basic laws of humanity (and need not convert to Judaism in order to be worthy of salvation), then why should one convert to Judaism obligating oneself in the observance of an elaborate legal system regulating all areas of life besides subjecting oneself to persecution and oppression by becoming a member of the Jewish people!
The second point regarding the concept of seven commandments of the children of Noah is that it is ironic that Christianity, which portrayed itself as a universal religion of love for all human beings (without any nationalistic element of nationhood as in Judaism), proclaimed that there is no salvation outside the Christian Church for one who does not accept Jesus as the savior – what I think can be fairly described as a form of religious and theological imperialism (and it is ironic that Christianity that proclaimed itself as a religion of love spoke so harshly of eternal damnation for one who does not believe in Jesus). This conception of Christianity that there is no salvation for one who does not accept Jesus as the messiah reflects the orthodox and theological nature of Christianity as a religion – and, Christianity in essence is a religion in the orthodox sense of acceptance of a doctrine that Jesus is the messiah so that one who denies thus fundamental belief is then seen as a heretic and unworthy of salvation.
Traditional Judaism, by contrast, which is a religion of a particular nation and was portrayed according to the Christian polemic as tribal or chauvinistic, considered non-Jews to be worthy of salvation simply on the basis of righteous behavior (by observing seven basic laws of humanity), and not by adopting Jewish theological teachings, or ritual practices – reflecting the orthoprax and pragmatic nature of Judaism as a religion. The orthoprax emphasis of the Bible upon morality as the essence of religion, rather than faith or ritual, allows for theological tolerance toward those who hold differing conceptions – and, the formulation and codification by the Talmudic rabbis of the seven commandments of the children of Noah is faithful to the Biblical spirit.
There is one commandment among the seven commandments of the children of Noah that might be (mistakenly in my eyes) understood as theological in nature – the prohibition of idolatry. However, this is a mistake, in my opinion, and in both the Bible and in the Talmudic conception, idolatry is not a theological but behavioral concept. In the Biblical conception, idolatry expresses itself primarily in acts of barbarism, cruelty and abomination, such as child sacrifice or sexual orgy. The Bible actually gives legitimization to the worship of forces of nature by non-Jews, in prohibiting them as objects of worship for the Israelites – “Take therefore good heed to yourselves … lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you should be misled to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord, your God, has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4, 15-19). In light of this source, it is clear that idolatry, in the Biblical conception, is worship that expresses itself, or degenerates into, abominable behavior (as worship of forces of nature by non-Jews is permitted so long as such worship does not lead to abominable behavior). Here is a clear Biblical precedent for religious and theological tolerance toward non-Jews.
Regarding the prohibition of idolatry as one of the seven commandments of the children of Noah, there was debate in the medieval period within the Jewish tradition among Halachic (legal) authorities as to whether Christianity is truly a monotheistic religion, or is to be considered from a theological perspective as idolatry (in light of the Christian concept of the trinity). Regarding Islam no such debate exists in the Jewish tradition, as all authorities are in agreement that Islam is a monotheistic religion, and does not constitute a form of idolatry from a theological perspective.
There were Jewish authorities in the medieval period who were of the opinion that Christianity is a form of idolatry from a theological point of view. However, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (a legal scholar who lived in the 13th century) argued that Christianity is not to be considered as idolatry, and his justification for his opinion is truly remarkable. He argued that Christians are civilized people, and not barbarians, who live according to law and have systems of administration of justice – and he considered the Talmudic concept of idolatry to be behavioral applying to barbaric behavior. Rabbi Meiri certainly was aware of persecution of Jews, including violence and bloodshed, by Christians. He apparently regarded such violence and atrocities committed against Jews as exceptional and not reflective of Christians in general or of Christianity as a religion (but, rather, a distortion of Christianity as a religion). But, what is important is that Rabbi Meiri defines the concept of idolatry in an orthoprax and anti-theological sense relating to behavior and not belief; and, he is, in my opinion, faithful to the Biblical and Talmudic conception of idolatry.
The fundamental difference between Halacha and Aggadah
There is a fundamental difference between Halacha (legal material) and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. Halacha is authoritative while Aggadah is not authoritative. Halacha relates to issues of what is permissible and forbidden – and the material is authoritative in establishing acceptable or unacceptable behavior, and in demanding obedience to its authority. It is also the authority of rabbis alone to teach such material and to establish what is permissible and forbidden (to render decisions of law). Aggadah relates to issues of truth and falsehood, and good and bad (right and wrong) – and the material is not authoritative at all but is based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and the heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach such material, and there is no obligation or requirement to agree with such material even if it is taught by rabbis. One accepts or rejects such material simply on the basis of one’s own mind and heart.
Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid (who lived in the 11th century) in his work An Introduction to the Talmud makes clear the fundamental distinction between Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings):
Aggadah is any interpretation found in the Talmud relating to any issue in which there is no commandment – this is Aggadah, and you may learn from it only what is reasonable. And, you should know – all that rabbis have established as Halacha (law), on the basis of a commandment which is from the mouth of Moses who received it from the mouth of the Almighty, you shall not add to it nor detract from it. However, what they (rabbis) have interpreted regarding Biblical verses – each one according to what occurs to him, and what appears to him on the basis of his reason, and according to what is reasonable, from these interpretations we learn from them; and the rest, we do not rely upon them.
Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid points out that in relation to Halacha (law) only rabbis have authority to establish law on the basis of the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and thus in the Jewish rabbinic tradition we actually live (in the realm of law) not according to what is written explicitly in the Bible but by the interpretations of the Bible of rabbis – “all that rabbis have established as Halacha (law), on the basis of a commandment which is from the mouth of Moses who received it from the mouth of the Almighty”. Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid also points out that Halacha is authoritative in that it demands obedience to its authority – “you shall not add to it nor detract from it”. By contrast, according to Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid, Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings) is not authoritative, and reason alone determines what we accept in relation to matters of Aggadah – “you may learn from it only what is reasonable”. Also, Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid makes clear that (in distinction to Halacha in which only rabbis have the authority to establish law) in relation to Aggadah no rabbinic authority is required – “each one according to what occurs to him, and what appears to him on the basis of his reason, and according to what is reasonable”.
In a democratic society, there are of course authoritative lawmakers and authoritative interpreters of law. Democracy is not anarchy, and we do not make or interpret law for ourselves – and this is no different in the case of traditional Judaism. Rabbis are authoritative legislators who have power to legislate beyond the commands and laws of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people – for example, the rabbis legislated that on Hanukah and Purim we light Hanukah lights and read the Book of Esther, and in both cases we bless that God so commanded even though no such commandments are found in the Torah. Rabbis also have the power to legislate rabbinic decrees and enactments.
The main function, though, of rabbis is as authoritative interpreters of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people in establishing law. In demanding obedience to its authority, the Jewish legal system externally regulates behavior of a traditional Jew by imposing upon a Jew duties and obligations, and prohibiting certain actions. By contrast, in the realm of Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) one determines for oneself on the basis of one’s own subjective reason and conscience one’s moral values and ideals, and also determines for oneself on the basis of one’s own subjective reason those philosophic ideas that are accepted as true – and, one interprets for oneself what sources are teaching (and is not bound by rabbinic authority) as long as one is only interpreting what a source is teaching morally, philosophically or spiritually (and not legally).
There is a teaching of the Talmudic rabbis that in the realm of Aggadah (non-legal material), and not in the realm of Halacha (law), we as Jews and human beings encounter God. In the realm of Halacha, rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Jewish law serve as intermediaries between God and the Jewish people in interpreting Scripture (as the word of God according to the Jewish tradition) and in establishing what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior from a legal point of view for the Jewish people – and only rabbis directly encounter God in the realm of law. In the realm of Aggadah, rabbis have no authority, and any human being, and not just Jews, may interpret Scripture and encounter God in attempting to understand what Scripture (as the word of God according to the Jewish tradition) is teaching us morally, philosophically or spiritually.
Great medieval thinkers who distinguish between Halacha and Aggadah
There is a principle of the Jewish law that rabbis of a later time period in establishing law cannot openly reject rulings of rabbis of an earlier time period, as the Halacha (law) is based upon authoritative precedent (although rabbis of a later time period can interpret earlier precedent as no longer applying in a later time period, or as applying to a different situation). Rabbis of the modern period in establishing law cannot openly reject rulings of rabbis of the medieval period, and those of the medieval period cannot openly reject rulings of those of the Talmudic period. Thus, according to Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid’s definition of Aggadah, such a principle of authoritative precedent applies only in the realm of Halacha (law), and not in the realm of Aggadah – as Halacha is based upon authority, while Aggadah is based entirely upon reason.
As far as I am aware, virtually every great thinker in the Jewish tradition in the medieval period accepts this fundamental distinction that Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid has drawn between Halacha and Aggadah, and limit rabbinical authority to the realm of Halacha – such as Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, Nachmanides, and Maimonides. I want to cite an example from each of these thinkers illustrating that in matters of Aggadah they were willing to think in an independent way and were not bound by the Jewish tradition in determining their views.
Regarding the verse (Genesis 2, 17) in which God commands Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil warning him, “for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”, Ibn Ezra (a great Biblical commentator of the 12th century) speaks (Genesis 3, 6) of an interpretation according to which Adam was immortal until the eating of the tree of knowledge. God then was warning Adam that on the day that he eats of the tree he “shall surely die” – meaning that he will lose his immortality. This is not necessarily the plain meaning of the verse. The verse may be teaching merely that the direct (though not necessarily immediate) result of eating of the tree is that he will die – not that until this point he was immortal, but merely that he will die shortly, or before his time, as a result of eating of the tree. The interpretation cited by Ibn Ezra according to which Adam was immortal prior to the eating of the tree is, in any case (whether the plain meaning or midrash), an Aggadic interpretation of Talmudic rabbis. Ibn Ezra describes the interpretation as “words of foolishness” (דברי הבל), and he says that it has been demonstrated scientifically by a Greek physician that it is impossible for a human being to be immortal. Strikingly, Ibn Ezra rejects an interpretation of Talmudic rabbis in the realm of Aggadah on the basis of contrary scientific evidence external to the Jewish tradition (provided by a Greek physician).
Nachmanides (a great Biblical commentator of the 13th century), without mentioning Ibn Ezra by name, though clearly referring to him, says (see Genesis 2, 17) that one who holds that it would have been an impossibility for Adam to be immortal is lacking in faith. What stands out in Nachmanides attack on Ibn Ezra as lacking in faith is that his attack is purely from a philosophic point of view. In attacking Ibn Ezra from a philosophic point of view as lacking in faith, Nachmanides implicitly acknowledges the right of Ibn Ezra to reject an Aggadic interpretation of Talmudic rabbis (meaning that Nachmanides, like Ibn Ezra, accepts the fundamental distinction between Halacha and Aggadah as explicated by Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid).
Rashi, who lived in the 11th century and is regarded as the greatest of the Biblical commentators of the Jewish tradition, offers two interpretations to the verse “this month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12, 2). The first interpretation that Rashi gives is a Halachic and midrashic interpretation that is not the plain meaning of the text. According to this explanation, God shows Moses the moon in the stage of its renewal, and tells him that the time when the moon renews itself in this way is to be the beginning of the month. The Hebrew calendar is in part a lunar calendar with the months determined according to the cycles of the moon. The verse then from a Halachic, legal point of view is understood to require the establishing of the Hebrew calendar, even though this is not the plain meaning of the verse – just as I pointed out that the verse “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is understood from a legal point of view to prohibit the mixing of milk and meat, even though this is not the plain meaning of the verse.
Rashi offers a second interpretation that he indicates is the plain meaning of the verse in which the verse is understood to mean that the month of Nissan (when the Exodus from Egypt occurred according to the Jewish tradition) shall be the first month of the year in the order of the months of the Hebrew calendar. Rashi quotes a Talmudic saying that “no verse loses its plain meaning” (אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו) in indicating that this is the plain meaning of the verse. That is, Rashi first cites a Halachic and midrashic interpretation of the verse, and afterwards cites the plain meaning of the verse explaining that “no verse loses its plain meaning”. The Talmudic saying then (as cited by Rashi) indirectly implies that midrashic interpretation, characteristic of the Pharisaic world view of the Talmudic rabbis, is considered to be legitimate.
The source of the disputes between the Pharisees and the Saducees concerned the methodology of midrashic interpretation. The Pharisees and the Talmudic rabbis in accepting the Oral Torah, and in living according to sacred literature as understood and interpreted by the Jewish tradition, used midrashic interpretation in a systematic way in elaborating and expanding upon the Written Torah. The Saducees, by contrast, rejected the Oral Torah of the Pharisees and Talmudic rabbis in attempting to live according to what is written explicitly in Scripture, and objected to the methodology of midrashic interpretation. The Talmudic saying implicitly gives legitimacy to midrashic interpretation, and elaboration upon the sacred literature; but, the saying warns that in elaborating upon Biblical texts one must not forget that a verse always has a plain meaning – “no verse loses its plain meaning”.
The distinction drawn by Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid between Halacha (as material that is authoritative) and Aggadah (as material that is not authoritative and based upon reason) is implied in Rashi’s commentary that I have cited here. The first interpretation that Rashi offers is a Halachic interpretation that is authoritative in establishing the meaning and requirement of the verse from a legal point of view, even though the interpretation is not the plain meaning of the verse. The second interpretation is suggested by Rashi simply on the basis of his own reason and understanding of the verse. The second interpretation is intended not to explain the meaning of the verse from a legal point of view; rather, it is intended to explain the idea that the verse itself is teaching in its plain meaning, which is an issue of Aggadah (teaching ideas and values) and not Halacha (teaching law).
The Rashbam (a great Biblical commentator of the 12th century), who was the grandson of Rashi, understands the verse “it shall be for you a sign upon your hand and for a memorial between your eyes” (Exodus 13, 9) in a metaphorical sense. The Halachic interpretation of the verse requires the wearing of tefillin, leather containers containing parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah inside, usually worn during daily morning prayers, on the upper arm and between the eyes above the forehead. The Rashbam understands the verse in a metaphorical sense as not requiring the wearing of actual containers (tefillin) on the arm and head.
Whereas in the example that I cited previously in which Rashi on the basis of his own independent analysis brings an interpretation of a verse that he considers to be the plain meaning of the text in addition to the Halachic interpretation; the Rashbam here gives an interpretation of the plain meaning of a verse that apparently contradicts the traditional, Halachic interpretation. As I pointed out, the realm of Halacha is based upon prior precedent and authority. Here, too, the distinction drawn by Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid between Halacha and Aggadah is implied. There is no question that the Rashbam himself wore tefillin in obedience to the Halachic interpretation. He clearly does not intend to deny the authority of the Halachic interpretation of the verse. Rather, he is not functioning in the realm of Halacha at all, but in the realm of Aggadah as a Biblical commentator in explaining the idea that the verse is teaching in its plain meaning on the basis of his own reason and understanding of the verse.
Finally, I want to cite two examples from Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century). The first is one in which Maimonides, like the Rashbam, is willing to interpret a verse in apparent contradiction to the Halachic interpretation. Regarding the verse “And if a man maim his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him” (Leviticus 24, 19), the continuation of which is “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20), Maimonides (the Guide of the Perplexed 3, 41) interprets the verse as literally requiring actual bodily retaliation. This is seemingly in direct contradiction to the Jewish tradition – the Oral Torah – which understands the verse not in a literal but metaphorical sense, as requiring monetary compensation rather than actual bodily retaliation. Maimonides was attacked by traditional Jewish commentators who pointed out that, according to Maimonides’ own codification in his law code, one who denies the Oral Torah ( by denying interpretations of Oral Torah) is subject to the death penalty. This attack upon Maimonides is based upon a fundamental misconception and blurring of the line between the separate and distinct realms of Halacha and Aggadah.
In the passage in the Guide (3, 41), Maimonides himself warns against raising such an objection – “You must not raise an objection from our practice (according to the Oral Torah) of imposing a fine in such cases”. He explains: “For we have proposed to ourselves to give here the reason for the commandments in the Torah, and not for that which is stated in the Talmud“. Maimonides assumes the sharp distinction drawn by Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid between Halacha and Aggadah. He is not functioning in the Guide of the Perplexed as a teacher of Halacha (law) in interpreting the verse from the Torah; and, thus, he is not contradicting the Oral Torah, which is authoritative in establishing the Halachic, legal meaning of the verse. Maimonides explains that he is not relating to the Halachic meaning of the verse in saying that he is not giving the reason “for that which is stated in the Talmud“. Rather, in the Guide Maimonides is functioning as a commentator and theologian in giving reasons “for the commandments of the Torah”; and he is dealing in the realm of Aggadah in attempting to explain the reason for the commandments of the Written Torah in their plain meaning. Maimonides’ codification in his law code that one who denies the Oral Torah (by denying interpretations of Oral Torah) is subject to the death penalty applies only in the authoritative realm of Halacha, and not Aggadah.
The second example is one in which Maimonides explicitly limits the authority of the Talmudic rabbis to matters of Halacha (law) in arguing that reason determines truth in matters of philosophy, science and speculation (the Guide 2, 8):
It is one of the ancient beliefs, both among the philosophers and other people, that the motions of the spheres produced mighty and fearful sounds…This belief is also widespread in our nation (among the Jewish people). Thus, our Rabbis describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its orbit…Aristotle, however, rejects this, and holds that they produce no sounds…You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Rabbis…our Rabbis have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favor of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, “the wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel”. It is quite right that our Rabbis have abandoned their own theory; for speculative matters everyone treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof.
Here, Maimonides states that the Talmudic rabbis changed their view regarding a certain matter of speculation and astronomy in favor of a view held by others (non-Jews). He quotes a Talmudic saying “the wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel” as a support for his view that in matters of speculation and science non-Jews may have greater knowledge than Jews. He concludes by saying that in matters of speculation we are to accept as true what appears to us as true on the basis of reason and proof – just as Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid argued regarding Aggadah. In another chapter of the Guide (3, 14) Maimonides explicitly states that the Talmudic rabbis may err in matters of speculation, which assumes the sharp distinction of Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid between Halacha and Aggadah – “You must, however, not expect that everything our rabbis say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science”. Maimonides reveals here that he is aware that scientific knowledge, on the basis of human reason, advances and develops as we learn more and more about the world.
Thus, on the basis of Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid’s definition of the term Aggadah, which was widely accepted by great medieval Jewish thinkers, there is a fundamental distinction between Halacha and Aggadah such that rabbinic authority is limited to the realm of Halacha (law), and does not extend to the realm of Aggadah based upon reason. Furthermore, Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid is not attempting to give his own definition of the concepts of Aggadah and, by way of contrast, Halacha. Rather, he is attempting to explain the intention of the Talmudic rabbis themselves in using the concepts; and this means that according to Rabbi Shmuel Hanaggid the view that rabbinical authority is limited to the realm of Halacha (law) was the view not just of the great medieval thinkers who I have cited, but also of the Talmudic rabbis.
The limits of Halachic authority
Halacha (law) demands obedience in terms of behavior, and does not demand agreement or understanding. I will give two examples. First, regarding the prohibition of cooking and eating milk and meat together, suppose that I do not agree that such a practice should be prohibited, and further suppose that I believe and argue that such a practice is not to be found in the plain meaning of Scripture. By the way, such a practice is regarded in the Jewish tradition as being a requirement of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) – even though the practice is not the plain meaning of the verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. So, let’s suppose that I cannot understand why the Torah would command such a matter, and I believe and argue that the practice is not the plain meaning of Scripture. However, in spite of my disagreement or failure to understand such a matter, and even though I do not consider the practice to be the plain meaning of Scripture, I am in any case obedient of the Halacha (law), and refrain from cooking and eating milk and meat together. In such a case, I cannot be accused of violating the law as long as my intent is to fulfill the requirement of the Halacha (law), or the command of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). That is, were I to refrain from cooking and eating milk and meat together simply because I think such a practice is healthy (and not as a commandment of the Halacha or Torah), then I could not be considered to be obedient of the law. The Halacha (law) then demands obedience in terms of behavior but not agreement or understanding – and, agreement and understanding regarding commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) or requirements of the Halacha (as well as questions of interpretation regarding the plain meaning of texts), is a philosophic issue of Aggadah, and not a matter of Halacha (law).
Second, suppose I turn to a rabbi with a question of Jewish law, of whether I am permitted to do a certain action, and the rabbi renders a Halachic (legal) decision that it is forbidden to do the particular action. The decision of the rabbi will be based upon interpretation of relevant Biblical and rabbinic sources, since the Jewish law is based upon authoritative precedent. Let’s further suppose that I do not agree with or understand the decision of the rabbi who has rendered the Halachic decision that it is forbidden to do a certain action. Such a decision will in any case obligate me to be obedient in terms of my behavior, unless there is another contrary decision upon which I can rely ruling that it is permissible to do the particular action – however, the decision will not obligate me to agree with or understand the decision. Suppose now that I sit together with the rabbi who has rendered the decision, and I voice my lack of agreement or understanding regarding the decision. The rabbi, as a teacher, ideally should explain to me the decision, and the interpretation of the sources upon which the decision is based.
Such a process in which I voice my lack of agreement or understanding regarding the Halachic (legal) decision, and the rabbi explains the interpretation of the sources upon which the decision is based, is a process that is taking place in the realm of Aggadah – as my lack of agreement or understanding regarding the decision is a philosophic issue even though related to a Halachic (legal) decision. In the event that I am not convinced by the explanation of the rabbi, I am obligated to remain loyal to my own subjective judgment and conviction that the decision of the rabbi is wrong or does not make sense. I am so obligated because I cannot be expected to lie (and say that I agree or understand when I do not agree or understand), as the Torah itself teaches “from a false matter keep far away” (Exodus 23, 7) – that we are forbidden to lie (except in exceptional cases). The Halachic (legal) decision of the rabbi would demand of me obedience only in terms of behavior (unless there were a contrary rabbinic opinion upon which to rely) – even though I may not agree with the decision, or even though I may not understand the decision.
If I were to choose only one word to describe the Jewish rabbinic tradition, it would be the Hebrew word (מחלוקת) meaning argument or debate. The Talmudic and Midrashic literatures record intellectual arguments and debates that were held in the Yeshivot (study academies) during the Talmudic period in a systematic way between the Talmudic rabbis and their students regarding a wide variety of issues – Halachic (legal) and Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual issues as well as issues of commentary and interpretation of texts). Therefore, virtually every issue in the Jewish tradition (Halachic or Aggadic) is a matter of argument and debate in which there is a plurality of viewpoints. There is a well-known joke illustrating the nature of the Jewish tradition that when there are two Jews together there are at least three different opinions. The Jewish tradition from a factual point of view is characterized by pluralism – by a plurality of viewpoints regarding virtually every issue. This means that even regarding Halacha (law), which is authoritative material demanding obedience and determined by rabbinic interpretation, there is room for a traditional Jew to choose (a matter of Aggadah) from conflicting rabbinic opinions.
The obvious problem that arises in the face of such pluralism is how one decides among conflicting viewpoints and how one decides how to act. There is a midrash that raises the problem and responds (Chagiga 3b):
Rabbis are…studying Torah – these say impure and these say pure, these say forbidden and these say permissible, these say invalid and these say valid. Perhaps you will say…how do I then learn Torah? It is taught: From one Shepherd they (words of Torah) are given – one God gave them…so now make your ears like a funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom), and acquire for yourself a hearing heart in hearing the words of those who say impure and those who say pure, the words of those who say forbidden and those who say permissible, and the words of those who say invalid and those who say valid.
The midrash raises a fundamental problem in relation to pluralism. The danger of fragmentation or the even graver danger of violence that may result from pluralism are not necessary results of pluralism but only possible dangers that may result when intellectual arguments are not conducted or resolved in a fair and democratic way. The midrash, though, raises a necessary problem inherent in the very nature of pluralism – how can one decide between conflicting viewpoints and interpretations?
The meaning of the image of the funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom) by which we are to sift and funnel conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is that we are to be open to hearing differing viewpoints and interpretations. This also follows from the view of the midrash that words of Torah come from One Divine source – for, if so, then we must be not only open to hearing but at least tolerant (if not respectful) of differing viewpoints and interpretations. According to the midrash, the sifting and funneling of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is by hearing through “a hearing heart” – that we are to be loyal to ourselves and to our own heart in deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations which of them to ultimately accept. In such a debate of scholars we cannot decide among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations on the basis of reason – as we do not have the knowledge and background of such scholars to be able to decide on the basis of reason. Thus, according to the midrash, the basis for deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is not reason or obedience to external authority, but our own heart.
The midrash teaches that we are to be open to hearing many different viewpoints and interpretations, and that we are to be loyal to our own hearts in deciding between conflicting viewpoints and interpretations (even though we may be lacking in knowledge and background regarding the issue under discussion). Most significantly, according to the midrash, we are not merely to be obedient to Halacha (law) as an external system of authority; rather, we are to decide and choose among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations within the legal system (a matter of Aggadah) on the basis of our own heart and then to be obedient to the law.
By the way, there is a democratic principle of the Jewish tradition according to which a Halachic (legal) debate is decided by the will of the majority of rabbis. The principle applies only in a social reality in which there is a Sanhedrin (high court) so that rabbis have an opportunity to discuss an issue face to face, to persuade each other and to vote on the matter. There has not been a Sanhedrin since the early part of the Talmudic period, and thus without a Sanhedrin as a centralized legal authority there is actually an even greater degree of democracy – as one may rely upon the opinion of a rabbi as law even though that opinion is a minority viewpoint and one is not in violation of the law with no centralized authority to establish uniform law. This means that there is even a greater degree of democracy in traditional Judaism (in which there is no uniform law and one is free to choose from among a wide variety of opinions) than in modern nation states (in which uniform law is established).
The fundamental difference between behavior and abstract thought
There is a fundamental difference between behavior and abstract philosophic thought such that disputes regarding behavior must be resolved, while disputes of a purely abstract and intellectual nature may be left unresolved. Regarding behavior, when there is a dispute between two rabbinic authorities, in which there are two contradictory opinions, the dispute must be resolved in order to know how we are to act – for we cannot accept both opinions (in terms of behavior) and act in two contradictory ways. However, regarding abstract intellectual thought (not touching upon behavior), when there is a dispute between two authorities (or between two people), in which there are two contradictory opinions, there is no necessary reason to resolve the dispute of an abstract intellectual nature, since we may accept, and even appreciate and encourage (in broadening horizons), contradictory opinions.
The Talmudic rabbis did not render Halachic (legal) decisions regarding issues of abstract intellectual thought that do not directly touch upon behavior, which means that Halacha (law) in the rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud is orthoprax regulating only behavior, and not abstract philosophic thought. For example, the question as to whether chicken should be considered as meat regarding the prohibition of the Jewish tradition of cooking and eating milk and meat together is a practical, intellectual question directly touching upon the behavior of traditional Jews – whether they will cook and eat chicken together with milk. If there is a dispute among rabbinic authorities concerning this question, the dispute must be resolved by the rendering of a Halachic (legal) decision as to whether chicken is considered meat in order to know how we are to act. However, concerning abstract, philosophic questions, as reflected in Maimonides’ codification of a binding dogma (whether God exists, whether God is provident, whether the Torah is the Divinely revealed word of God, whether there is such a thing as a messiah who will bring peace and justice to the world) – such questions do not directly touch upon behavior at all. The question of whether God exists need not be resolved in order to know how to act morally or according to Jewish law. One may believe that God exists, and yet live an immoral life or live a life not observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice – conversely, one may deny the existence of God and yet live a righteous life or live a life observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice (as an expression of Jewish identity and culture).
The Talmudic rabbis did not render Halachic (legal) decisions regarding abstract philosophic issues – and, thus, the Talmudic rabbis codified no binding dogma from a Halachic (legal) point of view requiring philosophic beliefs that must be accepted as a matter of authority. This means that in the rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud regarding abstract, philosophic thought there is freedom of thought within a legal framework regulating behavior.
The Talmudic rabbis in not codifying any formal dogma from a Halachic (legal) point of view were faithful to the Bible, as nowhere in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and nowhere in the Bible, in the plain meaning of Scripture, is there any commandment or requirement to believe in any philosophic belief or principle. Maimonides in the beginning of his law code codifies the verse “I am the Lord your God” as a commandment to know that God exists – however, the verse in its plain meaning is a declaration and not a commandment. The commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people are of a positive (requirements) and negative (prohibitions) nature, and the rabbinic term is positive and negative commandments of action (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh). In the plain meaning of Scripture, the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the constitution of the Jewish people regulate only behavior, and not abstract, philosophic thought.
There are in the plain meaning of Scripture commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) regulating feelings (such as “love your neighbor as yourself”, “love God with all your heart” or “you shall not covet”). The regulating of feelings is problematic from a philosophic point of view. It is only behavior (and not feeling) that can be regulated as a matter of external authority. Regarding feelings, we do not choose our feelings as a matter of conscious will, and so we cannot be obligated by external authority to feel some feeling that we do not feel. When the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) commands feelings the concern is actually with our moral character traits necessarily connected to behavior. Regarding commandments regulating feeling in the Torah, the Talmudic rabbis interpreted such commandments in a behavioral sense as requiring certain behaviors or the refraining of certain behaviors in order to fulfill such commandments (the refraining from stealing in fulfilling the command not to covet, or moral behavior in expressing love of God). But, in the plain meaning of the Torah there are no commandments (mitzvot) whatsoever regulating abstract philosophic belief divorced from behavior, and the commandments regulate only behavior and feelings (that are actually moral character traits necessarily connected to our behavior).
The implications here are enormous – Halacha (law) in the ancient, rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud regulates behavior (and not abstract philosophic thought) and requires no formal, binding dogma. This means that the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud is not orthodox (correct doctrine) in nature according to the literal meaning of the term. When applied to Judaism, the term orthodox implies that Judaism requires not only right behavior (ethically and ritually) but correct thinking (philosophic beliefs or principles that must be accepted). Such an orthodox conception implied in the literal meaning of the term is a distortion of the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Talmud, which is orthoprax (correct practice) and anti-theological in nature. The term orthoprax when applied to the Jewish tradition implies that the Jewish tradition requires right behavior (ethically and ritually) but does not require any formal dogma or philosophic beliefs that must be accepted.
The rise of contemporary ideological movements in Judaism
Up until this point I have described the nature of Judaism (the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible) from a factual and historical point of view. I will now address the rise of contemporary ideological movements in Judaism – conservative, orthodox, reconstructionist, reform as well as the rise of secular Judaism.
It is a widespread misconception that orthodoxy is authentic Judaism, and that the Jewish rabbinic tradition was always orthodox in nature – and that the modern non-orthodox movements (reform, reconstructionist, conservative as well as secular Judaism) broke away from orthodoxy. This is simply not accurate from a historical point of view, and traditional Judaism (the Jewish rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud) was not orthodox in nature but orthoprax in nature – and thus orthodoxy is not only not authentic but is a distortion of the orthoprax nature of the rabbinic tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud. The orthodox movement as a social movement began in 19th century Europe together with the rise of the reform and conservative movements as well as the rise of secularization among traditional Jews (the reconstructionist movement began in the United States in the 20th century).
From an ideological point of view, the origins of an orthodox conception of Judaism began in the medieval period with the formulation and legal codification by Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) of his “13 Principles of Faith” as a binding, legal dogma. This transformation of traditional Judaism from orthoprax to orthodox in nature by Maimonides (in creating an orthodox Judaism which he intended only for the unlearned masses) did not occur in a vacuum. The roots of such a transformation are reflected in the attempt to reconcile systematic philosophy with the Jewish tradition by Rabbi Sa’adya Gaon (who lived in the 10th century, several hundred years after the Talmudic period), and in the writing of his monumental work of Jewish philosophy, Beliefs and Opinions (אמונות ודעות). Prior to Rabbi Sa’adya Gaon, there was no attempt within the Jewish rabbinic tradition to reconcile Judaism with systematic philosophy or theology. The Talmudic and Midrashic literatures, orthoprax in nature, are absent of any systematic philosophic or theological analysis or arguments – faithful to the orthoprax nature of the Biblical literature that is absent of philosophic or theological analysis and arguments.
Maimonides’ “13 Principles of Faith” became so widely accepted in the medieval period that a concise version summarizing the principles by an anonymous author even entered into the traditional Jewish prayer book. I will briefly summarize the subject of each of the principles according to this version:
- The Existence of God as the Creator of the universe
- Unity of God
- Incorporeality of God
- Eternity of God
- Worship of God
- Mosaic Prophecy
- Divine Revelation of the Torah
- Immutability of the Torah
- Reward and Punishment
- The Coming of the Messiah
- Revival of the Dead
The philosophic conception that is reflected in the codification of a binding dogma by Maimonides that Judaism demands philosophic principles of belief that one must accept characterizes the orthodox world (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) perhaps more than anything else – even though not necessarily all of the principles that Maimonides codified are accepted by all in the orthodox world or even though there may be additional principles that are accepted as binding dogma by many in addition to those codified by Maimonides (such as belief in free will and the notion of chosen people).
Maimonides’ codification of his “13 principles” represents the creation for the first and only time in Jewish history of an orthodox (correct belief) version of Judaism in that Judaism demands from a legal point of view, according to such a conception, not just right behavior (ethically and ritually) but correct abstract philosophic belief. In my view, Maimonides was aware that a codification of a binding dogma is a distortion of Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are commandments of doing and not doing, and not of faith or belief – and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief).
Maimonides is thus the first in the Jewish tradition to create an orthodox conception of Judaism, according to the literal meaning of the term. Not only is the term orthodox as a Latin term (and an influence of Christianity) foreign to the Jewish tradition – but, the philosophic conception reflected in the term (that there are principles of belief that one must accept) is also foreign to the Jewish tradition. Such an orthodox conception is compatible with Christianity, which is a religion in the orthodox sense of a faith commitment (faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah) but is foreign to the pragmatic spirit of traditional Talmudic Judaism, which is a religion in the orthoprax sense of a way of life of the Jewish people.
The non-orthodox movements (reform, reconstructionist, conservative and secular Judaism) did not cause Jews to abandon traditional rabbinic Judaism. This is a misconception in that it “puts the cart before the horse” in confusing cause and effect. The social process of secularization and emancipation (emancipation of traditional Jews from their closed, segregated communities) emerged within the Jewish world in 19th century Europe, and as a result traditional Jews began to abandon traditional rabbinic Judaism in large numbers leading to the rise of the reform movement as a response to (and not cause of) such a process. The contemporary movements (reform, conservative, orthodox and reconstructionist), as well as secular Judaism, are all social and ideological movements that began as a result of, and in response to, the social process of secularization and emancipation from traditional Jewish communities of the medieval period.
In medieval Jewish communities the observance of a traditional lifestyle was not a matter of free choice, or a personal philosophic decision. Aside from the fact that rabbinic and community leaders had powers of enforcement to compel Jews to observe Halacha (law), the social pressure of conformity was usually enough to compel Jews to act in accordance with accepted patterns of behavior, so that it was, far more often than not, unnecessary for the community leaders to use powers of enforcement. How would family and friends look at one who flagrantly violated the Sabbath, and where was one to go to eat a non-Kosher meal? Secular, non-observant Jewish communities did not exist as an alternative. In medieval Jewish communities there were those stricter and those less strict in their observance, but such diversity existed within a pattern and framework of uniformity. The traditional lifestyle was a matter of tradition and conformity to accepted patterns of behavior, and accepted beliefs as well, of the community. Jews did not live in such closed, segregated communities in the earlier Talmudic period, during which time there was a greater degree of pluralism of both thought and practice than in the medieval period.
Today, following the breakdown of the closed, segregated Jewish communities of the medieval period, in which we now live in open, integrated communities, not only do rabbinic and community leaders lack powers of enforcement, but an observant lifestyle of Halacha (law) and ritual practice is no longer a matter of social conformity. To the contrary – the social pressure today is towards living a secular, non-observant lifestyle, as a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice is widely seen as old-fashioned, primitive and backward. The decision then to live a traditional lifestyle today is a conscious, philosophic choice in the face of contrary social pressure. This is the fundamental difference between a traditional Jew of the medieval period and an orthodox Jew of the modern period – the decision of the contemporary orthodox Jew to live a traditional lifestyle is not a matter of tradition and social conformity to the norms of the wider society (as in the medieval period) but a conscious, philosophic decision in the face of contrary social pressure (from the wider society). Even though Maimonides had created an orthodox conception of Judaism from an ideological point of view that became widely accepted in the medieval period, nevertheless traditional, medieval Jews were observant of a traditional lifestyle and held traditional beliefs simply as a matter of tradition and social conformity.
The position of reform thinkers in response to the process of secularization and emancipation was that it is possible to be a “good Jew” even without observance of Halacha (law) and ritual practice since the essence of Judaism is Jewish belief and moral teachings of the Jewish tradition. The reform movement rejects Halacha as binding – but, there is a fundamental difference between the reform movement and Sadducees or Karaites. The Sadducees and Karaites in attempting to live according to what is written explicitly in Scripture rejected the entire rabbinic tradition (Oral Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). By contrast, the reform movement does not reject the entire rabbinic tradition but only Halacha as binding upon us in the modern world. Moreover, the reform movement does not attempt to live according to what is written explicitly in Scripture as did the Sadducees and Karaites. The reform movement, even though it rejects Halacha as binding, does not necessarily reject traditional rabbinic interpretations in the realm of Jewish law as did the Sadducees and Karaites – for example, the reform movement accepts the traditional rabbinic interpretation of the verse “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23, 19) prohibiting the cooking and eating of milk and meat together (even though rejecting the law as binding). Incidentally, in its origins the reform movement was anti-ritual – however, this is no longer true today, and there are reform rabbis and scholars who are encouraging of the observance of ritual such as dietary laws not as a matter of obedience to law but as a cultural or spiritual matter (expressing Jewish identity and Jewish values).
The conservative and reconstructionist movements arose in an effort to find various middle ground positions between reform and orthodoxy. The reform movement rejected Halacha (law) not only as not binding but as no longer relevant in the modern, secular world. The reconstructionist movement does not necessarily accept Halacha (law) as binding, but views Halachic (legal) sources as a relevant and important source of moral and spiritual guidance. The conservative movement, like orthodoxy, accepts Halacha (law) as binding upon a traditional Jew even in the modern secular world. However, conservative rabbinic authorities are more liberal than orthodox rabbinic authorities in their interpretations of Jewish law, and thus more open to introducing changes within a framework of law.
The orthodox movement (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) developed in response to the rise of the reform movement, and is characterized by a traditional lifestyle of Halacha (law) and ritual practice in the modern, secular world as well as adherence to Maimonides’ Principles of Faith – according to which the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses together with the Halachic, legal interpretations of the Jewish tradition based upon the 5 Books of Moses as distinct from rabbinic enactments or customs of the Jewish people) is regarded as the Divinely revealed word of God from Sinai and as being unchanging. The adherence to Maimonides’ Principles of Faith as a binding theological dogma distinguishes orthodoxy from all other movements – as all other movements do not accept Maimonides’ Principles of Faith as a binding theological dogma.