Why did your book The Limits of Orthodox Theology (which demonstrates that great rabbis throughout the ages often disagreed with some of Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith) raise the ire of some in the Orthodox community?
Because they’ve developed a conception that certain views are to be adopted, and you can’t depart from them. And this applies to views regarding secular studies, Zionism, all sorts of issues, and certainly with regard to what’s come to be regarded as ikkarei emunah [principles of faith]. Therefore, anything that shows that matters have not always been so clear, and that there were disputes about these things, is controversial.
In your writings and speeches, you reveal many little known facts such as: 1) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asked Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman to remove his hat (thus leaving him bareheaded) when visiting him at his school so that the non-Jewish teachers shouldn’t think him disrespectful; 2) The Akeidas Yitzchak (15th century Spanish scholar) maintained that non-Jews need not observe the seven Noachide laws; 3) Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook called Tolstoy a “great man who is full of holiness”; and 4) Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazzan (Sephardi sage, 1808-1862) wrote that one should incorporate church tunes into the davening since they lead to love of God. Why are things like these so unknown?
Because yeshivas today don’t teach Jewish philosophy or theology. They teach hashkafa and emunah, which is fine, but that’s more like indoctrination. And whereas people are very sophisticated when it comes to Talmud study and they’ll look at all the different shittos, when it comes to philosophical study of Judaism – its history, its ideas – they’re not sophisticated and they’re not interested.
This prevents us from being able to respond to ideological challenges. Just as we assume that someone who approaches halachic issues without having a firm grasp of responsa literature, Shas and poskim is not doing his job, the problem here is that many people who approach the non-halachic matters don’t really have any background. It’s a serious discipline, Jewish philosophy and theology – just as serious as halacha, but not taken so.
In one of your recent works you mention that you are writing an article discussing many laws found in the Shulchan Aruch that were not or are not kept by Jews. Can you elaborate? It’s just another misconception people have that the Shulchan Aruch is always the last word in halacha, when there’s plenty of things we do which are not in accordance with it.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, when you lend money to someone, you need to do it in front of witnesses. Despite that ruling, however, nowadays if you lend your friend 50 dollars, you don’t do it in front of witnesses. Already the acharonim want to know why we don’t follow the Shulchan Aruch.
There are loads of examples. Some halachos in the Shulchan Aruch didn’t become accepted because other poskim argued or there was a tradition predating the Shulchan Aruch; others, because they were too difficult to keep, and then later poskim came and found justifications.
I think this sounds more explosive than it is. Everyone who knows halacha knows that there’s plenty of stuff we don’t do according to the Shulchan Aruch; this is not controversial.
Going back to Rabbi Weinberg, you write that he initially supported Hitler when he came to power.Well, it’s a real mussar haskel [lesson] for today – how to relate to Arab leaders who say one thing to diplomats and another to their own people – because Hitler was stating his views on the Jews and there were Jews, Rabbi Weinberg among them, who thought that this was just for the masses, that it wasn’t to be taken seriously. They didn’t think anti-Semitism was central to Nazism. They thought the real threat was communism, and they figured that once Hitler came into power, he’d just be another right-wing dictator like Mussolini. Mussolini was not anti-Semitic.Rabbi Weinberg wrote that “perhaps we [the Jewish people] also bear some guilt” for anti-Semitism. What did he mean by that?Rabbi Weinberg raised the possibility that perhaps the way Jews treat non-Jews contributes to anti-Semitism. He no doubt had in mind things such as how the Jew treated the Polish peasant and wondered if this didn’t have some impact on how the Poles viewed the Jews. Many Orthodox Jews thought it was okay to be less than honest in their business dealing with non-Jews.