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Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004) 272-295
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Where Theology Meets Halacha—A Review Essay
Sometimes, important ideas are voiced largely in response to a challenge. For example, the Rabbinic responses to Karaite objections regarding the oral tradition that stand as some of the most significant Jewish works of the medieval period were composed only as a reaction to opposition.1 Similarly, the rabbis of the Mishnah formulated their important definitions of heresy only after being confronted by the Sadducees and other deviant sects.2 Confrontation forces scholars to grapple with texts and ideas, formalize previously incomplete or private deliberations on a topic, and present them to public scrutiny. Such a process began approximately fifteen years ago when, in the inaugural issue of The Torah u-Madda Journal, R. Yehuda Parnes, at the time a popular lecturer in Talmud at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, presented a concise and thoughtful halachic argument that attacked the academic study of Judaism.3 According to Maimonides, R. Parnes argued, any area of study that requires analysis of views contrary to the traditional tenets of Judaism is forbidden. Thus, presumably, the study of philosophy and the Bible on the university level is prohibited, as are the pursuits of archaeology and ancient history. The argument was not new but had never been presented in such a forum. This clear challenge to "Torah u-Madda" in the journal dedicated to its study, a testament to the courage of the journal's editor, was answered by three important articles.4 The first response, written by two prominent Orthodox academic scholars, Professors Lawrence Kaplan and David Berger, was a moving combination of halachic analysis and public soul-searching.5 The second, by Professor Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva College, expanded upon the first, adding many important practical and philosophical considerations.6
The third response came four years after the original article and focused not on the prohibition of pursuing forbidden subjects but, rather, on the delineation of certain views as permitted and others as [End Page 272] prohibited. Marc Shapiro, then a graduate student at Harvard, took issue with R. Parnes's use of Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith to define acceptable beliefs.7 As Shapiro demonstrated with clear arguments and documented with encyclopedic endnotes, respected rabbis throughout the ages have denied that Maimonides' thirteen principles are normative. R. Parnes's attempt to limit study to opinions that correspond narrowly to the thirteen principles was, according to Shapiro, an ahistorical exercise that ran counter to centuries of traditional Jewish thought. How, Shapiro asked, can we push aside views that were once fully acceptable?
Shapiro's article generated shock waves in the Modern Orthodox community, as it eloquently and thoroughly articulated a view espoused privately by many scholars. Armed with Shapiro's article, rabbis and lecturers felt justified in preaching a more theologically open Orthodoxy. A few years after the publication of Shapiro's important article, Professor Menachem Kellner of Haifa University published a book arguing that articles of faith are neither an authentic nor a normative part of traditional Judaism.8 This popular work was similar to Shapiro's in its clarity and thoroughness but also in promoting a more theologically unbound Orthodox Judaism. The impact of these two works has been enormous. Indeed, their general ideas have been adopted by what can only be called "the New Left" of Orthodoxy.
Now, eleven years after the publication of his article, Shapiro has published a much anticipated book-long treatment of the thesis underlying his essay. The book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised, is masterly in its clarity of expression and thoroughness (as was his first book, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg).9 Shapiro addresses his topics so completely that the book can truly serve, as the publisher's blurb on the book flap advertises, as an encyclopedic reference for these subjects. Additionally, the Littman...