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Where fundamentalism fails

Adherence to the letter of the law makes it harder to hear the voice of God.

Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Chaim Steinmetz

Is the entirety of rabbinic law actually a violation of the Torah? Two passages in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) seemingly prohibit any additional laws beyond those found in the Torah. Moshe declares, “You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it” (4:2) and “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (13:1). These passages indicate that the Torah is complete, and it is forbidden to add laws to it. Thus, every rabbinic law should be a violation of this prohibition.

These two verses played a critical role in the Karaite schism, which took place in the 8th century. The Karaites rejected the Talmud and rabbinic law in favor of a simple reading of the biblical text, and their polemics brandish these two verses as proof that the Talmudic tradition is wrong, because it adds a large number of rabbinic commandments.

Multiple commentaries grapple with this very claim and wonder how one can justify rabbinic law. Some, like Rashi, reject the very premise of the question. They argue that these verses don’t refer to adding commandments to the Torah. What they prohibit is adding an element to existing commandments, such as a fifth species to the four species of lulav, a fifth fringe to the four corners of tzitzit or a fifth section to the four sections of the tefillin. Rashi’s interpretation says the claim posed by the Karaites isn’t a claim at all because what these verses prohibit is modifying an existing commandment.

The Rambam offered a different answer. Unlike Rashi, the Rambam accepted that there is a prohibition against adding rules to the Torah. However, these additions are only prohibited if the additional laws are treated as “something that is from the Torah.” The Rambam claimed that rabbinic law never pretends to be the same as Torah law, and rabbinic commandments were always presented as having a lower status. Rabbinic law, he said, is generally implemented in order to prevent people from mistakenly violating biblical commandments.

On the surface, these two approaches reconcile the rabbinic tradition with the text—one by saying the Torah says nothing about adding commandments, and the other by saying that rabbinic law is clearly labeled as such, and therefore is not considered an addition to the Torah. But these two answers actually represent dramatically different ways of looking at rabbinic authority.

Why should one accept rabbinic laws? One possibility, suggested by the Rambam, is that the rabbis are the authorized guardians and interpreters of the Torah, and the Torah explicitly commands that one should listen to the rulings and interpretations of the judges (Deuteronomy 17:11). The rabbis make no claim to divine insights, and are merely legal experts whose role is to safeguard the tradition.

Other authors take a very different approach. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi offered a lengthy response to Karaite polemics in The Kuzari. In it, he explained that the rule “you shall not add” applies only to the layman. Rabbis, by contrast, are a continuation of the prophetic tradition whose additions to the Torah are divinely inspired. And this may very well have been the rabbis’ own perspective. The Raavad pointed out that (unlike the Rambam’s assertion) the Talmud often presents rabbinic laws as being based on a verse from the Torah, and calls this an “asmachta,” “a support” for the commandment. This implies that the rabbis of the Talmud saw their own decrees as part of the divine plan. Indeed, the Ritva offered the following explanation of asmachta: “Every rule that has an asmachta from a biblical verse is one that God testifies that it was worthy to legislate … and was given over to the rabbis to decide if they choose to implement this rule … and therefore the rabbis always offer an asmachta from the Torah, as if to say that they have not innovated this matter from their own hearts.”

In other words, from the very time the Torah was given, God intended the rabbinic laws to be discovered at a future time by the rabbis. Even long after the Torah was given, divine inspiration will be available to those who search for it. Both The Kuzari and the Ritva see rabbinic authority as self-evident, because the rabbis are charismatic, divinely inspired heirs to Moshe’s authority, able to intuit new divine insights.

The Karaites rejected these claims of rabbinic authority and saw the Talmud as a foreign addition to Judaism. Early Karaites refused to vest authority in teachers or customs. Anan ben David, the 8th-century teacher who is often referred to as the founder of Karaism, urged his students to “search scriptures well and do not rely on my opinion.” Divine guidance could be found only in the words of the Torah.

Because they rejected the rabbinic tradition, Karaite practices diverged in significant ways. They were more lenient than rabbinic Judaism in some cases: no tefillin, no prohibition on mixing milk and meat, no shofar, no mikvah. But in many ways their practices were far more extreme. They did not use any fire on Shabbat, did not have sexual relations on Shabbat, didn’t eat anything fermented, including wine and yogurt, on Pesach and early Karaites did not eat meat in mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Most significantly, the Karaites rejected the precalculated calendar of the rabbinic community. Instead, new moons were declared by visual observation, and early Karaites declared leap years based on observing whether the barley crop had nearly reached maturity before the month of Nissan. This meant that Karaites often observed holidays on different days than Rabbanites.

It is easy to imagine the Karaites as anti-establishment rebels, determined to overthrow the rabbinic leadership. But there is another element at play as well. To borrow a term from the contemporary study of religion, the Karaites were fundamentalists. They were returning to the biblical text in search of “authentic” religion.

Like other fundamentalisms, the Karaite focus on the biblical text reflected an anxiety that the larger community had lost its way. Thus, the Karaites turned to the Tanakh to recover what was lost. Many early Karaites were focused on bringing about an immediate return to Zion and saw improper interpretation of the Torah as the cause of the exile. Yefet Ben Ali, the influential Karaite author, wrote the following in the introduction to his commentary on Exodus:

Exile is like darkness and the shadow of death, and men walk in it like the blind. … This is the state of the scholars of exile. … At the end of exile, however, there awakened a people who fixed their intention upon the Lord of the Universe, and they did not seek knowledge for the purpose of political leadership in this world. Rather their quest was to attain the truths of scripture and to comply with them in all their might.

Exile is a darkness of the mind and the spirit. Redemption will occur once scholars can read the Torah properly again.

One can see the attraction of Karaism: It claims the Jewish people have lost their way, even though the truth is right there before their eyes. And if only the Jews read the Torah more carefully, they would find the road to redemption.

It is difficult to disagree with fundamentalists. They don the mantle of authenticity and claim to have all the answers. And in times when there are worries about the direction of a religious community, fundamentalism offers the clearest solution.

Ultimately, the Karaites dwindled in size, and today are a community of about 35,000 people. Yet the spirit of Karaism lives on in a most unlikely place: the Orthodox Jewish community.

In a published lecture, Rav Yehuda Amital decried the fixation on halacha in the religious community. He said, “Just as Judaism fights against the Karaite relationship to the written Torah. … So too it needs to fight against the Karaism of halacha. Halacha without an interpretation of reality is a form of Karaism.”

Rabbi Amital saw this “Karaite-like” approach as a reason for disaffection in the Orthodox community: “This Karaite approach has brought us to the point that halacha has turned into, in the eyes of the younger members of our community, an (absurdly detached method) that has no connection to reality. … This is why we hear today from young religious people that: ‘The Torah doesn’t connect to us,’ is ‘not something realistic’ and ‘not my thing.’”

This is a dramatic assertion. But the phenomenon Rabbi Amital complained of very self-evident. One need only look to the collection of “humras jokes” in the Orthodox community, which mock absurd stringencies, to recognize how perceptive Rabbi Amital’s words are.

Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, in his essay “Rupture and Reconstruction,” offered a similar observation. He argued that in the last century and a half the Orthodox community has become a “text culture,” deciding practice on the basis of books alone. This new focus on halachic texts leads to increasing stringency. Each book has its own view, and when these views are collected together, it becomes natural to adopt every stringency, or what he called “maximum position compliance.”

When the book becomes the focus, then one scrambles to ensure that the book is properly obeyed. When there are many authoritative books, each with multiple possibilities of practice, then compliance becomes a halachic treadmill, a constant pursuit of the perfect way to do a mitzvah. In this new halachic Karaism, keeping every chumra is the pathway to redemption.

But fundamentalism fails because it is fundamentally disconnected. Rav Amital pointed out the disconnection from reality. Professor Soloveitchik pointed out the disconnection from parental and communal practice. And ultimately, fundamentalism is disconnected from God.

Fundamentalism doesn’t fail because it’s extreme. It fails because it is soulless. While fixating on reading every word of the text correctly, it forgets to listen for the voice of God. The Torah is essential to our relationship with God, but when the Torah is detached from love, compassion and community, it ceases to be a remedy.

Ultimately, the text cannot come first. In a famous responsa from July 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grappled with the difficult case of a woman whose husband was presumed dead, but there was a dearth of clear evidence to permit her to remarry (Chut Hameshulash 1:8). All of the local rabbis issued a stringent opinion, but then they turned to Rav Chaim, who was acknowledged to be the foremost halachic authority of his time. In page after page of careful legal reasoning, Rav Chaim disputed many halachic precedents, and allowed the woman to remarry. At the very outset of the responsa, Rav Chaim explained his process. He said that he issued a lenient ruling because “I have deliberated together with my Creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot; may God save me from mistakes.”

Rav Chaim recognized that to truly follow halacha one must first look to serve God. Therefore, he had to look for every possible way to alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow. To simply offer a response without offering love for the crying widow would be a failure. A halachic ruling without heart and soul is flawed.

Fundamentalism might be loyal to the text, but the goal of Judaism is to serve God. And that is precisely where fundamentalism fails.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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