Rabbinical Tyranny and Freedom of Thought
by Nathan Lopez Cardozo
(posted with permission)
The primary concern of Judaism is the art of living. To accomplish this, it is committed to a strong sense of tradition and a determination to realize certain optimal goals. It is this that has made Judaism unique, standing out among the community of religions. This direct path--from a historical past to a messianic future, from the mysterious revelation at Mount Sinai to the categorical demand for justice for the orphan, widow and stranger--has saved Judaism from death by fire and ice, from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition, and from evaporating into a utopian reverie.
What we Jews have always looked for in the Torah is not just a way of living, nor is it the discovery of truth alone, but rather everything. And this is scarcely an exaggeration. Our love for the Torah was not just molded by particular teachings, but by our conviction that really everything can be found within its pages. God is no doubt central to Judaism, but because we never lost our intimate awareness of the multifarious colors of the Torah and its tradition, no dogma could ever gain authority. Even after Maimonides attempted, under the influence of Islamic theology, to lay down definite formulations of Jewish belief, Judaism refused to accept them as sacrosanct and did not allow such attempts to come between it and the inexhaustible Torah text. It is for this reason that tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism. No sacrifice of the intellect is demanded.
One look into the Talmud proves this point beyond doubt. The flow of thoughts and opposing ideas are abundant, as are the formulation and rejection of opinions and insights. The interaction between legality, prose, narrative, illusion and hard reality is astonishing and earns the Talmud its reputation as the richest ever literary creation. Not even Greek philosophy was able to produce such a symphony of ideas in which the waves of the human intellect interweave with those of divinity, moving forward and backward. There is an absolute lack of systematization and it is clear that any such attempt was nipped in the bud. From a modern point of view, one might argue that the search for truth in the Torah was not directed toward proportional truth because such a notion was lacking by definition. The most persistent intellectual energy and analytic efforts were devoted to the continual contrivance of beautiful and profound interpretation to discover the totality of life.
Since the Torah was considered God-given, it might have been logical that fundamentalism would ultimately triumph and lead to conflict with science and other disciplines. But this inference is founded on a major misconception. Precisely because the text is seen as the word of God, its essential ambiguity was granted implicitly, and every verse by definition has many levels of interpretation, both poetic and legal. There is even the compatibility of playfulness with seriousness, since the former is a most important component of human existence as created by God.
The attempt to streamline and straightjacket the Jewish Tradition and create a final Jewish theology--which took place long after the Talmud was completed, and in our days has nearly become an article of faith--is a major mistake and a complete misreading of its very character. While for practical reasons there is a need to put halachic living into pragmatic context, which requires conformity in action, this should never be the goal when focusing on Judaism's beliefs. It is the task of the rabbis to do everything in their power to rescue Judaism from dogmatism. While it can't be denied that Judaism incorporates certain definite beliefs, they were always kept to a minimum and were constantly a source of fierce debate. Most important, one must remember that such dogmas never led to conclusions of reductio ad absurdum. Freedom in doctrine and conformity in action was the overall policy to which the Talmudic rabbis were committed, even when convinced of certain fundamental truths. This is evident when one studies the relationship between the biblical text and the Oral Torah: minimum words and maximum interpretation.
It is detrimental to Jewish Tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and store up definite theories. The idea is not to become the owner of masses of information entrusted firmly to one's memory and carefully transmitted into notes. Once one does so, one becomes scared and disturbed by new ideas, since the new puts into question the fixed information that one has stored in one's mind. As such, ideas that cannot easily be pinned down are frightening, like everything else that grows and is flexible.
Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, the ideal is to hear and, most important, to receive and respond in an active, productive way. It should stimulate a thinking process, which ultimately leads to the transformation of the student.
To halacha-ize and legalize Jewish thought is to miss the whole message of the Talmudic way of thinking. Doing so will undermine the Halacha since it will kill its underlying spirit. There is little doubt that due to the pan-halachic attitudes that we now experience in certain rabbinical circles, we see negative symptoms in the form of Halacha becoming suffocated and often rejected by intelligent, broad-minded people. A plant may continue to stay alive, even in apparent health, after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.
If the rabbinical censorship that we have lately encountered concerning certain books and ideas on Orthodox Judaism were to be applied to the Talmudic text, it would mean that the best part of this great compendium on Jewish thought and law would be censored and burned.
Freedom of thought must be guaranteed if we want the Jewish Tradition to have a future. This applies in particular to teaching and writing. A man or woman who holds a teaching post should not be forced to repress his or her opinions for the sake of upholding popular, simplistic notions or even more sophisticated ones. As long as his or her opinions are rooted in the authentic Jewish Tradition and expressed with the awe of Heaven, they must be encouraged, no matter how much they are disliked by some rabbinic authorities.
Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers should not be sought, and if possible, should even be avoided since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No religious Jewish student can pass as educated if he has heard only one side of the debates that divided the earlier and later sages. One of the most important skills to teach is the power of weighing arguments, and this is the foundation of all Talmudic debate. To prevent the teacher from doing so or to deny him the opportunity to bring this to the attention of his students is misplaced rabbinic tyranny, which has no place in the Jewish Tradition. It is the Christianization of Judaism by rabbis.
As soon as censorship is imposed on the opinions voiced by teachers, Jewish education ceases to serve its purpose and, instead of producing a nation of men, runs the risk of creating a herd of fanatical bigots.
Today's Talmudists must realize that they can easily become imprisoned by their own knowledge and drowned by it. They may have tremendous Talmudic expertise, but they have perhaps forgotten that one needs to know more than just all the intricacies of text. One needs to hear the distinctiveness of its content, the spirit it breathes, and the many often opposing ideological foundations on which it stands. To know the Talmud is to know more than its sum total.
Techniques for dealing with people whose opinions are disliked have been well perfected, especially when the condemners are men of power. In the case of those more experienced, public hostility is stirred by means of misrepresentation and character assassination. Since most teachers do not care to expose themselves to these risks, they will avoid giving public expression to their less-mainstream-Orthodox opinions. This is a most dangerous state of affairs and must be stopped. These methods are used to quash genuine and important knowledge and to deny people insight. But above all, it allows obscurantism to triumph. Everything must be done to allow and encourage these teachers, who are in love with Judaism as few people are, and who are creative thinkers, to say what they have on their minds without fear, and to build a great future for Judaism. It is the obligation of the religious community to create an environment where these thinkers can flourish without unpleasant repercussions.
Certain religious leaders, including rabbis, may believe that these tactics of repression and character assassination work. They should know, however, that they may be able to burn books, but the ideas expressed in them will not die. In fact, the more they condemn these books the more they will be read by intelligent students. No man or force can put thoughts in a concentration camp. Trying to do so is similar to somebody who is so afraid of being murdered, that he decides to commit suicide.