Crossroads: When Theology Meets Halakhah - DRAFT

Gil Student

                It has become conventional wisdom in certain circles that the area of Jewish thought is a field in which there are no binding conclusions.  One scholar’s theology can never be required belief.  This is not the once-but-no-longer dominant claim that Judaism requires only action and not belief.  Therefore, according to this theory, any and even no belief is acceptable in Judaism.  Rather, the claim is that whenever sacred beliefs have once been disputed there is no way to officially close the debate and make one side doctrinally binding.  For example, there is a debate in the Talmud whether G-d rewards and punishes in this world or only in the world-to-come[1].  Since this disagreement is theological rather than practical there is no binding method of resolution.

                This theory is not entirely without merit.  Rabbinic literature in general can be broadly divided into two categories ­– halakhah and aggadah.  The former deals with issues of practice and commandments; how must we act?  The latter discusses theology.  Regarding aggadah, Rambam has famously written that “when there is any division of opinion among the Sages which does not affect any rule of practice, but is concerned exclusively with establishing an understanding of a point of doctrine, there is no need to decide in accordance with any one of them.”[2]  Any opinion that has ever been offered by a legitimate authority remains a valid option.  This is different from halakhah where minority opinions become obsolete and unviable.  With halakhah, there is an evolutionary process through which disputes are analyzed, positions become normative, and minority views can be pushed into the realm of theory[3].  In aggadah there is no need for practical conclusions so this entire process is unnecessary.  Therefore, minority opinions are never pushed aside and remain viable forever.

                However, it is our contention that this theory has limitations.  One would be overly liberal to allow complete theological heterodoxy in Judaism.  Rather, there are certain areas where halakhah and aggadah intersect and in those cases, where there is a need for practical aggadic conclusions, the halakhic process applies to aggadah as well. 

Lest one think that the idea of mandatory beliefs is solely a Maimonidean concept, it should be pointed out that other important scholars agreed with him.  While the commandment to believe in (or know) G-d is somewhat controversial, both the Hinukh and the Semag count the belief in the unity of G-d as a positive commandment[4].  Furthermore, one of the earliest complete philosophical works in the Jewish tradition is R. Bahya Ibn Pakuda’s Hovot ha-Levavot whose very name means “Obligations of the Intellect”[5].  Among these obligations he includes knowing that the world has a Creator and that He created the world ex nihilo, affirming the unity of G-d “with all our heart,” and accepting His service in our hearts[6].  The idea of mandatory beliefs neither began with the Rambam nor was it limited to strict Maimonideans.  Indeed, it should come as no surprise that kabbalists also accept that there are certain beliefs that are commanded[7].  These beliefs whose acceptance is a commandment are part of the intersection of halakhah and aggadah and, as such, are subject to the halakhic process of decision-making.

Fundamental Beliefs

                The crossroads of aggadah and halakhah is the definition of a heretic.  The Talmud contains many discussions of different types of heretics whose precise definition is unclear.  What, exactly, is the difference between an epicurean, a sectarian, and a rejecter (epikorus, min, and kofer)[8]?  However one defines them, these categories of deviants bear practical ramifications.  For example, the shehitah of an epicurean is not kosher[9].  Similarly, a Torah scroll that is written by a sectarian must be burned[10].  We are not even permitted to to answer amen to a blessing  said by a sectarian[11].  Most importantly, and most difficult to comprehend in today’s world, is the obligation to lower a rejecter into a pit[12]  But who is a heretic?  The precise delineation of which beliefs place someone in the different categories of heretic is relevant to practice and is therefore an halakhic issue.  Does someone who believes that angels, and not G-d, created the world fall into the category of sectarian and therefore recites an unanswerable blessing?  This is a question that needs to be determined via halakhic methodology.

                Rambam was the first to clearly and neatly define these categories of deviants and his definitions were so compelling that they were largely accepted by subsequent halakhic authorities.  We say largely because there were certainly disputes over various points.  However, overall, Rambam’s definitions as laid out in his Thirteen Principles[13] and later codified in his Mishneh Torah[14] were accepted as halakhically authoritative, even by those who were not philosophical Maimonideans[15].  While Rambam’s Thirteen Principles are not the last word in Jewish theology, regarding the halakhic definition of acceptable beliefs they are the firm basis of later authoritative consensus.

                As an example, let us examine the belief in the incorporeality of G-d.  Rambam lists belief in the incorporeality of G-d not only as the second positive commandment[16] but also as the third of his Thirteen Principles[17].  Someone who believes that G-d can assume a physical form has, according to Rambam, a mistaken understanding of G-d and is therefore a sectarian (min)[18].  Indeed, Rambam writes that maintaining this belief is worse than idolatry[19].  Of course, Rambam did not invent the concept of the incorporeality of G-d.  It can be traced back to earlier Rishonim, Geonim, and even the Tanna Onkelos who, in his translation of the Torah, consistently avoided anthropomorphic terms[20].

                However, in Rambam’s time there were at least some prominent scholars who took the many anthropomorphic phrases in the Bible literally and believed that G-d could appear in a physical form if He chooses to do so.  Perhaps most famous among the was R. Daniel the Babylonian who corresponded with Rambam’s son[21].  Clearly, at that time, the halakhic definition of a sectarian was a matter of debate.

                Since this is a matter of theology do we apply Rambam’s principle that we do not decide among opinions?  Absolutely not.  Rambam’s precise language is that this principle only applies when it “does not affect any rule of practice”[22].  He utilizes similar terminology in all five places that he discusses the topic, emphasizing that this is not an halakhah vs. aggadah issue but a practice vs. theory one.  The definition of sectarian does affect rule of practice, as we demonstrated above, and therefore can be determined using halakhic methodologies.  In our specific case of belief in the incorporeality of G-d, this definition has been universally accepted for centuries and falls into the category of sugya di-shma’ata[23] that cannot be abrogated[24].  While at the time Rambam’s principle was a matter of debate and was not conclusive, it has since been ratified by the force of centuries of halakhic consensus.

Two Examples: Creation Ex Nihilo and Intermediaries

                As further illustration, let us take the case of belief in creation ex nihilo.  Many assume that there is an obligation to believe that G-d created the world from nothing (yesh me-ayin)[25].  Others even include it in their fundamental principles of Judaism, thus making it part of the definition of a heretic[26].  However, when Rambam initially wrote his Thirteen Principles he did not include belief in creation from nothing among them[27].  Furthermore, in his later Moreh Nevukhim[28] Rambam states that, while belief in the eternity of the world undermines religion, there is nothing theologically wrong with the belief in creation from pre-existing matter.  While Rambam is convinced that creation ex nihilo is correct, he does not consider the Platonic notion of creation out of something to be heresy[29].  Later in life, however, Rambam evidently changed his view.  In his Letter on Astrology he wrote, “It is the root of the Torah that G-d alone is primordial and that He has created the whole out of nothing.  Whoever does not acknowledge this is guilty of radical disbelief and of heresy.”[30]  He made a similar comment in his Treatise on Resurrection[31].  Most significantly, towards the end of his life Rambam revised his Thirteen Principles to include creation from nothing[32].

                Within the framework presented here, the two apparent views of Rambam can be understood.  Originally Rambam held that belief in creation from nothing is not a definition of an halakhic category.  Since it is totally divorced from practice, and a rabbinic view affirming creation from something can be detected[33], Rambam could not require belief in creation ex nihilo even though he personally considered it to be true.  However, later in his life he changed his mind and determined that creation from nothing is part of the defining characteristics of a heretic and, therefore, other beliefs are halakhically unacceptable.

This is in stark contrast to many other beliefs that are totally divorced from practice.  For example, the concept of gilgul, the transmigration of souls, has been hotly debated since the Geonic Era.  While it is a fundamental kabbalistic concept, some philosophers disputed its truth[34].  However, since lack of belief in gilgul does not make one a heretic both points of view remain valid today.  There is no onus to believing or not believing in gilgul.  However, a belief that has practical ramifications, such as belief in G-d and His unity, does not necessarily remain open to all rabbinic opinions.  If and when a consensus emerges around a particular belief it becomes accepted into halakah[35].  Those who fail to maintain such obligated beliefs would fall into the much-discussed category of the inadvertent heretic and would be obligated to continue studying the matter and being distressed by their lack of belief[36].

                This dichotomy between beliefs that are subject to halakhic decision and those that are not is not an innovation.  Indeed, the Rambam’s language in his Commentary to the Mishnah suggests the need for such a distinction.  Immediately after Rambam finishes listing the required doctrinec for all Jews – on the very same page – Rambam writes that there is no need to decide among theological views[37].  Marvin Fox wrote the following regarding these two types of aggadah.

We have here a balanced tension between necessary beliefs that are to be imposed from above, if need be, and the whole range of beliefs that Maimonides treats as open to a variety of views.  The major task is to determine which beliefs are necessary and to establish criteria for that necessity.  This is a project in which he was engaged in one form or another, throughout his life.  From his early work in the Mishnah until some of his last writings, he never turned away completely from concern with the formulation of a balanced tension between officially prescribed doctrines and freedom of thought.[38]

                Some beliefs are binding doctrines and others are open to free debate.  It is our contention that even those doctrines that were once open to debate can be closed if they are subject to the halakhic process and that process so dictates.

Let us now look at a case in which Rambam’s ruling is not normative.  Rambam’s fifth principle is that only G-d is worthy of worship; we may only pray to him and not to anyone or anything else.  In this case, Rambam is clearly taking sides in a talmudic debate[39] and ruling in an halakhic manner.  However, Rambam’s strict pesak halakhah in this theological matter was never fully accepted.  Despite its approval in many theological[40] and halakhic[41] works, there were always those who, while agreeing to the main principle, objected to the breadth of its application.  There are Geonim[42], Rishonim[43], and Aharonim[44] who permit requesting angels to intercede with G-d on one’s behalf.  Because there was never a consensus on this issue Rambam’s word was not final.  However, the remainder of this principle, that belief in the inefficacy of prayer to a being other than G-d so that this being will assist (rather than petition G-d on one’s behalf) remains intact.  Such a belief has universal agreement and is therefore codified into a binding doctrine.


                Judaism has always fostered inquisitiveness and the challenging of assumptions.  One can hardly study Talmud without seeing that anything and everything was subject to challenge and debate.  However, despite this culture of free and open debate, without a defined theology Judaism is not a true religion.  There must be some outline of what constitutes Jewish belief and what does not.  Otherwise, other religions and even atheism can lay claim to being faithful to traditional Jewish beliefs.  While some may prefer a broader definition of Judaism and some more specific, the need to delineate boundaries should be self-evident[45].

                It is our contention that this theological definition is also a matter of practical halakha.  A heretic is both a theological and halakhic outcast.  Therefore, the boundaries of Judaism must be determined through halakhic means, utilizing concepts such as pesak and unanimous consensus.  During the time of the Temple, the Sanhedrin defined the limits of acceptable beliefs.  However, in the post-Sanhedrin era rulings that are similarly binding are only possible through unanimous agreement[46].  The defining beliefs that have received such broad acceptance have become the universal principles that are doctrinally binding on all Jews.

[1] Kiddushin 39b

[2] Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3.  Cf. ibid., Sotah 3:3 and Shevuot 1:4; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, prohibition 133; Ma’amar Tehiyat ha-Metim, ch. 4, ed. Kafih, p. 82.

[3] And for reliance upon in the case of emergency.

[4] Sefer ha-Hinukh, no. 25; Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, aseh 25.  Regarding whether the mitzvah is belief or knowledge, see R. Yosef Kafih’s edition of Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah ch. 1 n. 4.

[5] Despite its common translation as “Obligations of the Heart.”  R. J. David Bleich writes “In medieval usage the heart is frequently spoken of as the seat of knowledge and the word lev used as a synonym for ‘intellect’” (R. J. David Bleich, With Perfect Faith, p. 2 n. 2).

[6] Introduction, Kafih tr., ed. Feldheim p.3.

[7] E.g. R. Pinhas ha-Levy Horowitz, Shene Luhot ha-Berit, Sha’ar ha-Otiyot, aleph.

[8] That the Talmud does not clearly define these categories does not mean that there are none.  David Berger writes:

Now it may well be that the Rabbis were impelled to single out these doctrines in the wake of attacks by the Sadducees and other sectarians, but this position does little to salvage Kellner’s overall argument.  It means that the Rabbis did believe that membership in good standing in the community of Israel rested on certain articles of faith.  Since they were indeed not interested in systematic theology, they did not articulate these principles until they were challenged, but once challenged, they fleshed out a position that they had always taken for granted.

(David Berger, “Book Review of Must a Jew Believe Anything? By Menachem Kellner,” Tradition 33:4 (1999) p. 83)

[9] Ba'er Hetev, Yoreh Deah 2:16; Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh Deah 2:1; Darkhei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 2:77

[10] Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 281:1; Pit’hei Teshuvah, ad loc. 2.  Cf. R. Yosef Kafih’s edition of Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah ch. 6 n. 18.

[11] R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayim vol. 2 nos. 50-51, vol. 3 no. 22.

[12] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze’ah 4:10; Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 425:5, Yoreh Deah 158:2.

[13] Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1

[14] Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:7-8 and other places.

[15] See infra note 7.

[16] Sefer ha-Mitzvot, aseh 2

[17] It is also implicit in the second principle.

[18] Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:7

[19] Moreh Nevukhim 1:36

[20] Cf. R. Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar ha-Yihud ch. 10; R. Saadia Gaon, Emunot ve-De’ot, 2:9; Otzar ha-Geonim, Berakhot 59a p. 131; R. Menahem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 16 addenda ch. 32.

[21] Cf. R. Avraham Ben ha-Rambam, Milhemot Hashem, ed. Margoliyot pp. 20-29.

[22] See infra note 2 .

[23] Or: di-alma.

[24] Cf. Sanhedrin 6a, 33a; Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 25:2; Shakh ad loc. 9.

[25] E.g. R. Bahya Ibn Pakuda cited above in note 6.

[26] See the lists in Menahem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, ch. 10.

[27] For the sake of illustration I am assuming that creation ex nihilo was not implied  in the original formulation of the fourth principle.  However, many scholars believe it was.  See Kellner, Dogma, p. 57 for a list and add to it Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 253.

[28] 2:25

[29] Cf. Fox, Interpreting, ch. 10.

[30] Cited in Fox, Interpreting, p. 253.

[31] ed. Kafih, p. 95

[32] Commentary on the Mishnah, ed. Kafih, Nezikin p. 212.  Regarding the manuscript of this change, see Kellner, Dogma, p. 240 n. 211.

[33] Cf. Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer ch. 3 cited in Moreh Nevukhim 2:26.

[34] Cf. Yitzchak Blau, “Boday and Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy” in The Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 10 pp. 1-19.

[35] We have remained intentionally vague about the halakhic process because the topic deserves treatment in itself.  For a clear and simple presentation, see R. Aryeh Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, vol. 1 ch. 12.

[36] Cf. R. Hisdai Crescas, Or Hashem, ; R. Nahum David Rabinovitch, Yad Peshutah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah 1:1 sv ve-leda, 1:3 sv vi-yediat.

[37] Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3, ed. Kafih, Nezikin p. 145.

[38] Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, pp. 45-46.  Cf. R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Ateret Tzvi, Ma’amar Tiferet le-Moshe, ch. 4 in Kol Sifre Maharatz Chajes, vol. 1 p. 419 ff.

[39] Cf. Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:1; Bavli Berakhot 60b, Sanhedrin 42b.

[40] R. Yosef Albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:3; Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Avodah ch. 12.

[41] R. Moshe Sofer, Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayim no. 168.

[42] Otzar ha-Geonim, Shabbat 4-6

[43] Shibbolei ha-Leket, 282; R. Yisrael Brunna, Responsa Mahari Brunna, no. 275.

[44] R. Hayim Elazar Shapira, Minhat Elazar, vol. 1 no. 68; idem., Nimuke Orah Hayim, 559:3; R. Shlomo Zalman Braun, She’arim Metzuyanim ba-Halakhah, 128:7 and kuntres aharon ad loc.

[45] Even Menachem Kellner, in his book arguing for a broad definition of Judaism, writes “[T]here are limits to what one can affirm or deny and still remain within the Jewish community” (Kellner, Must A Jew Believe Anything?, p. 125).  Cf. David Berger, ibid., pp. 82-83.

[46] See infra note 24.

© 2002 Gil Student