Dear Rabbi Weiman:
Hi! I read your article “Hell No” on the Aish Website, and that led me to your website, kabbalahmadeeasy.com. Although I am FFB and was fortunate to have a typical Bais Yaakov education, my views on what Hashem is and wants is somewhat unique in my community. Your perspectives were like a breath of fresh air and reaffirmed what I have always believed. I will be a frequent visitor to your site. Thank you!
I have a question that has been bothering me for some time and hope that you will be able to answer it for me. The short version of the question is: what commentaries and aspects of the Oral Torah must one believe to be considered a true Torah Jew?
I will explain: obviously, I know that the Oral Torah is an integral part of our religion. Many mitzvos cannot be performed properly without guidance from oral traditions. However, I also understand, that not every commentary is necessarily accurate. For example, there are various opinions regarding Rivka’s age at the time of her marriage. Clearly, they can’t all be correct.
Also, I remember learning a pshat in school that why did Avraham tell Sarah that he knows that she is beautiful (before entering Egypt and hiding her)? Rashi provides various explanations, including one that according to the Midrash, they were very modest and now, when he saw her reflection in the river, it was the first time that he saw her beauty.
To be frank, this explanation made me somewhat uncomfortable. Is it okay not to accept it? Does that make one a heretic? So back to the short version of my question: is there a clear distinction regarding oral traditions that must and may be accepted?
If you can provide some guidance, I would be immensely grateful.
Thanks for your email. Since you have a background I’ll tell you that my material on the basics come from The Way of God, Path of the Just, Duties of the Heart, and the Sefer HaChinuch.
These sefarim have deep ideas that many people gloss over. Luckily I had Rebbeim that brought out the jewels that others miss. Many FFB’s would say similar things when they would go to Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s classes. “Nobody told me the Almighty loves me. They just taught me to do mitzvos or I’ll go to gehennom.”
You didn’t mention which specific perspectives you feel at odds with your community on, but please consider bolstering yourself with some sources and spreading the truth somehow. Teach, share, set out print outs of my articles and others that support your views. Maybe together we can change the world.
On to your question. The short answer is no, it’s not clear. This is a very complicated question filled with aspects that I don’t feel qualified to deal with, and email is an awkward medium for. But lets clarify a few things.
There are three relevant commandments:
1. Know there is a God. #25 in Sefer HaChinuch
2. To Listen to the prophet speaking in His name. # 516
3. Act in accordance with the Great Sanhedrin. # 495 (#496 would also be relevant)
I’m not sure what you mean be “considered a Torah true Jew”. Considered by God? Considered by the frum velt? Rambam’s books were burned. Ramchal’s seforim were buried. Many gedolim held beliefs that were considered wrong or even dangerous, or even sometimes heretical. Recently a rabbi wrote some books that had viewpoints that the present gedolim didn’t like and his books were banned. Yet every one of his statements could be backed up by Rishonim. He’s branded a heritic but based in Chazal. “Considered a Torah true Jew” to other Jews leaves too much open to debate. So I’m going to assume what you mean is “What beliefs does the Torah obligate me to have?”
Our tradition is based on the truth of the Torah, so it would seem that without belief that the Torah is true we can’t have the religion at all. The Torah commands belief in God, but not specifically the Torah. Yet if you don’t already believe in the Torah, then you aren’t commanded to believe in anything. Therefore while not a specific commandment to believe in the Torah, belief in the Torah is a prerequisite. You can’t command it, yet it is a prerequisite. That the Torah is still in tact is also a prerequisite, not a commandment. Yet there is a commandment to listen to the Prophets which may include all of the written law. The Oral tradition seems to follow the same line. That the Mishna and the Talmud are the definition of the Oral law and without adherence to them we don’t have Judaism. Since the Oral tradition is partly in the hands of the sages, it also falls under the commandment to listen to the sages.
The main question seems to be what are the parameters of the commandment to listen to the sages. Is it only the Sandhedrin? Is it the sages in each generation? And if there is a debate amongst the sages how far to take the commandment whose opinion do you follow? We have an obligation to follow the psak of our “Rabbi” but does that include his psak on hashkafah? Can you poskin hashkafah? You sent me a sheilah, are you obligated to listen to my answer? These questions involve the area of psak halacha and are also the subject of debate. We can’t deal with Psak Halacha in one email.
Hashkafot in general that come from the Torah are sometimes debated and therefore we are at a loss to decide which hashkafot we are obligated in. Maimonides wrote up a list of 13 principles of Jewish thought. Are we obligated to accept them? They are in the Artscroll Siddur. Does that imply a psak? Duties of the Heart lists commandments of belief and attitude. Are they psak? This area of Judaism is not clear and if you find a Rav who has clarity on it, do you have to listen to him? I am leaving these questions open.
One thing is for sure, Medrash in general is homiletic and therefore open to interpretation. You can’t be bound to something that is not always taken literally. Therefore what age Rivkah was can’t be obligated as a belief. What Rashi means or the Medrash means by Avraham’s not seeing Sarah is open to interpretation. He loved her, was married to her, and presumably complimented her on her looks, her dress etc. But he may not have looked at her through the eyes of inappropriate pagans. Once he looked at her through their eyes he realized that they would be very attracted to her. This brings out another point, which is that when dealing with Medrash on the Torah, by not accepting the simple explanation, you may actually be giving the Torah more respect and your questions may lead to a deeper understanding. Isn’t that what study is all about? We encourage our children to ask questions at the Seder hoping they’ll never stop. If you accept something blindly your understanding stops there.
We seem to be bound by the halachic aspects of the Talmud, but there are homiletic parts called aggadta that are in the same category as Medrash. You can’t be bound by them either. Unless all the commentaries are in agreement as to how to interpret a passage or a Medrash, you are free to say, “I’m not sure I understand this correctly. It seems that a frog the size of Manhattan jumping through Egypt might be a metaphor, and not literal.”
In short the Torah obligates us to follow the Torah shebicsav and the Torah shebalpeh. (Unless the issue is clearly avodah zarah, even if it is potentially heretical it is between you and God. Duties of the heart says most frum Jews are unwitting pantheists.) We are encouraged to have emunas chachamim, and trust that the gedolim are honest, and the mesorah was in tact up until the time of the Rishonim. Therefore if all the Rishonim agree on an explanation of the Talmud or Medrash we should accept their interpretation. For halacha it is clear that we follow their opinion. For hashkafah there is often debate and it isn’t clear whose opinion to follow. Most of the time it there are no practical consequences. You have every right to side with a particular opinion who is a recognized sage. (However, you might be put in cherem if you print it in a book.)
Regarding your feeling of being uncomfortable with something. You never have to accept something that makes you uncomfortable in the way you mean it. Always try to articulate what is bothering you. That’s part of Machkim es Rabo, one of the 48 Things from the 6th Chapter, 6th Mishna of Pirkey Avot. You may have an obligation to say, “I’m not clear on what this means.” “I find this hard to understand.” And you should badger teachers and Rabbis until someone can explain it to you in a way that sits right with you. However, many great sages had questions that made them “uncomfortable” for years. We don’t always get an answer, but we go to the grave trying.
Thanks again for your question.
Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc.