In the current issue of Havruta,Professor Moshe Idel defines Orthodoxy and gives his view of the principles of Judaism. For Idel, the Talmud has theological points but focuses mainly on practice. Idel points to three subsequent approaches to the principles of faith. The first is that of medieval philosophers and kabbalists who created an intellectual religion subject to debate within and without Judaism. His is lumping together with Maimondies everyone from Gersonides, Abulafia, Ibn Ezra, Gikkitila, and Alemano.
The second is that of modern liberal Judaism who rest everything on the single principle of ethical monotheism and to be a light to the nations.
The third approach is that of Orthodoxy, then and now, which denies the ability to make evaluative judgments or create hierarchies. Even thing is holy and required , so nothing can be justified internally or to the outside world. He assumes that the first group won.
So is Idel insightful or missing the mark?
I ask because Moshe Idel is not catching on with the popular psyche of American Jews. It is not just because his books are difficult and filled with unexplained quotes, rather there are theological reasons. Scholem’s counter history of myth and symbol was loved by everyone. Kabbalah became Scholem’s theory of symbols. Idel’s enchanted chains, absorbed perfections, hieroglyphics, and magical rabbis does not strike the same cord.
To return to this case at hand the principles of Judaism. We understand when Arthur Green says the principles are passé and Danny Landes defends them. We understand when Orthodox Jews define the principles with ahistoric presentism and ignore the historic variety of interpretations and the response.
But do we recognize Idel’s conception of Orthodoxy defined as action-centered with a lack of the ability to make distinctions and evaluations as the community of Orthodoxy? And if we do, is this an original insight or old hat?
In the classical Judaism of the Bible and of the rabbis there is no such concept as ikkarim.
Starting with Maimonides in the Middle Ages, we encounter the enumeration of ikkarim as the main precepts of Judaism,..
This move marks a large leap from a performative approach – whereby religious life is defined by the way we practice it – to a new, more theoretical approach whereby faith is defined by the way we think about it Maimonides did not take this leap alone: he was part of an elite that sought to transcend halacha centered Judaism in a manner that confers a much greater role to intellectual processes than previously allowed. In attempting to formulate principles for a religion that was originally based only on practice, this elite tried to establish propositions that can be explained and debated both within and outside the Jewish faith.
A representative of both the rabbinical and mystical approaches is Rabbi David ben Shlomo ibn Zimra, known as Radbaz (1479- 1573). An important halachist, leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, and a learned mystic who probably initiated the famous Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria) to the secrets of Kabbalah, Radbaz dismissed the whole idea of ikkarim, which, in his view, ran counter to the Torah, the bedrock of Jewish faith:
I cannot agree with [a move to] impose upon our perfect Torah any ikkar or other, for it is all an ikkar [emanating] from the mouth of God … each and every mitzvah is an ikkar and cornerstone [of our faith] and you may find a mitzvah that seems marginal, when in fact the reason it was commanded and the secrets it contains are beyond our comprehension (She’elot ve-Teshuvot HaRadbaz, Responsum 344).
Radbaz makes two strong claims. First, the Torah is a perfect whole, and its perfection is tainted by the attempt to focus on some of its teachings while marginalizing others. Second, there is no way for us to discern any hierarchy in the divine commandments, because we can grasp neither the “external” justification for their practice, nor their “internal” mystical essence. Therefore, according to him, we must perform all of the commandments with equal devotion and refrain from taking liberties in assigning different degrees of importance to them. This approach of the Radbaz remains normative in Orthodoxy.
But there are also traditions within Judaism that take a somewhat more universalistic approach and regard religious speculation as a higher value than religious performance The most radical manifestation of this development is the assumption that Judaism can be summarized as ethical monotheism, and that Jews were the people chosen to disseminate this one important religious insight to the whole of humanity.
There is more than one irony here. In seeking to shed all the religious obligations of Judaism… with one big thing that may be harder to live up to than all the 613 commandments combined.
In the end, the winner is Maimonides, whose thirteen ikkarim, distilled into the Yigdal hymn, are sung every Shabbat by Jews all over the world, Orthodox and liberal alike, who may or may not be aware of the ultimate significance of the ikkarim.