Saturday 15 May 2021



In reading rabbinic responsa literature (She’elot uTeshuvot), Halacha, and other writings, one sometimes notices a certain ambiguity. The subject matter is weighed up from all angles and then a final verdict is provided. Before reaching the final conclusion, however, one is presented with a number of options. What is the purpose of those options if the field of choice is narrowed down to only one ruling at the end?

Is it just a style of writing or,  depending on the personality of the writer, is another dynamic perhaps at play?

Some examples follow:


In Pressburg, Hungary, on June 26, 1824, R. Moshe Schriber, known as the Chatam Sofer (1763-1839) wrote a responsum concerning the case of a mentally retarded orphan child. The question was whether the child could be placed in the care of a non-Jewish sanitorium which, as to be expected, did not provide kosher food nor observe any Jewish customs. Could the child be raised in such an environment where no other viable alternative was available?

The Chatam Sofer goes through a number of options in his rather complicated presentation all, pointing to the principle that Jewish law can be waived in the interests of healing. This is a well-known principle and shows the concern for life and well-being and many examples abound of the permissibility to break Shabbat, for example, in order to save a life. In our case, the child would be well-cared for in the sanitorium and one expects the ruling to be in the affirmative.

However, that is not the case. Right at the end, the Chatam Sofer rules:

 “It is better for the child to remain mentally retarded all of his life than to sin even for a moment.”[1]

That one last sentence undoes the entire pervious Halachic discussion and renders it as of no real consequence.



Our second example is from the responsa of R. Moshe Schick, known as Maharam Schick (1807-1879). In this case the question is whether or not one may use a Hebrew Bible which was printed by Christian missionaries who had the intention of converting Jews.

Once again, we are taken through a lengthy discussion which results in the view that the modern printing process, because it is so mechanical and impersonal, no longer represents or carries the original kavanah or intention of the missionary clients. 

And again, in the concluding remarks we read that notwithstanding all the previous arguments, no Jew should use such Bibles.[2]



Although not a responsa, the third example is from the writings of R. Abraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, simply known as Rav Kook (1865-1935).

Rav Kook expanded upon a fundamental concept of Maimonides (1135-1204) who divided Jewish religious belief into two categories. Maimonides spoke of the difference between “necessary beliefs” and “true beliefs”. On this view, the simple masses of the Jewish people had to believe in things like angels and sacrifices and adopt a fundamentalist approach to concepts like the revival of the dead and messianism. These, said Maimonides were the “necessary beliefs” that sustained the unsophisticated believer. In contradistinction were the “true beliefs” which were more rational and which were held by a smaller group of the more enlightened and intellectual segment of the religious population.[3]

Based on Maimonides, Rav Kook wrote:

“All beliefs can be divided into the two systems that Maimonides identified: true beliefs and necessary beliefs. The true beliefs are the foundation that sustains the principles of faith, and the necessary beliefs are like a peel protecting the fruit.”[4]

At this stage Rav Kook seems to take a milder stance than Maimonides, and explains the “necessary beliefs” as a type of protective layer. But then Rav Kook takes this matter further and he goes on to say that sometimes the “necessary beliefs” may become superfluous if not counterproductive to the person in pursuit of the “true beliefs”:

“Sometimes it becomes imperative to banish one of the “necessary” beliefs from the sphere of faith, because the collective has already arrived at a level at which it no longer needs to be supported by this “necessary” part of the belief system. Then a kind of turbulence begins: from one angle, it looks like a breach of the foundation of the faith, while from the other it looks like a light appearing on the horizon of faith and a reinforcement of its foundations. And in fact, there is truth to both perspectives.”[5]

A careful reading of Rav Kook would reveal a paradox if not a contradiction. On the one hand, the necessary beliefs have a crucial and critical role to play in protecting the faith. On the other hand, when the “collective” has reached a level where they no longer need the support from the “necessary” segments of the belief system, it may be shed. That is a very radical statement for an orthodox rabbi to make yet Rav Kook had no qualms about making it.

But then Rav Kook, perhaps afraid to leave it there, added the ‘disclaimer’ that both the “peel” of the “necessary beliefs” and the “light” of the “true beliefs” are equally important (and no one can argue with that).



The pattern we have just seen in our three examples is typical of this genre of rabbinic writing.

Some would simply say that that the writers were expressing various views on the subject prior to delivering their final verdict, and we have to go by the conclusion of the argument.

Others may find indications that the rabbis were writing for two different audiences simultaneously. Maimonides, incidentally, was the grandmaster of this style of writing. So much so that his readers today sometimes have no idea of the complexities of his writing style. 

Marc Shapiro points to this little-known fact:

"[R]abbinic scholars...were, almost without exception, oblivious to the radical possibilities inherent in Maimonidean philosophy as expressed in the Guide [of the Perplexed]."[7]

They think that what he wrote in his Mishneh Torah, for example, was his view. Only a study of the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed) would reveal another side, one hundred and eighty degrees removed from his Mishneh Torah. This is because Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah for the masses and intended it as a summary of the Talmud. A summary reveals the views of the primary work more than the view of summariser. Although people do, it not always accurate to quote Mishneh Torah as the view of Maimonides. 

R. Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) writes:

"He [Maimonides] postulated the Principles for the masses, and for beginners  in the study of Mishnah, but not for those individuals who plumbed the knowledge of truth, for whom he wrote the Guide [of the Perplexed]."[6]

When reading Maimonides, one must ask oneself which audiences was he writing for.


Another example is the Mishna Berura where although perceived as a stricter version of Halachic code - which it is - it nevertheless contains a spectrum of views and then often concludes that it is better to follow the stricter opinion. Some scholars take the Mishna Berura as another example of an author writing for different audiences.


Of course, the cynical response would be that it no longer depends on who one asks, but on which part of the answer one chooses to focus. But there is much to be said for peeling away the layers of rabbinic writing to see whether they were not perhaps also meant for different audiences at the same time.



[1] Shut Chatam Sofer, I, Orach Chaim, no. 83.

[2] Shut Maharam Schick,1, Orach Chaim, no. 66.

[3] Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, 3:28.

[4] Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, Orot haEmunah (Jerusalem, 1998), 48.

[5] Orot ha-Emunah, 48.

[6] Rosh Amanah, ch. 23.

[7] Shapiro, M., 2004, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 15.

1 comment:

  1. When the Rambam wrote, most people where simple believers. And for them was the level of "necessary beliefs." But it our time most people are simple unbelievers, Chilonim, of kinds. They are being turned off by the "necessary beliefs." So, by logic, it is time for the “true beliefs” to come out. The truth, and not the talking around it, not speaking about it. State the truth by itself. If it is not stated, the conclusion is clear: there are no “true beliefs,” and there is "no truth."