The Limits of The Limits of Orthodox Theology

Marc Shapiro responds to a recent review of his book The Limits of Orthodox Theology in Jewish Action at Seforim Blog. This has ignited quite the controversy in the comments over there. While it’s been a couple years since I read the book, I confess that at the time it did not strike me as that big a deal. The thesis is that Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith have not been universally accepted, and even where they have, they were not always considered to be essential dogma. While I was impressed with the incredibly broad bikius that Prof. Shapiro brought to the issue, I was not surprised by his conclusion, which really was fairly limited. Yeshaya Leibowitz discusses it in a few places, though nowhere near as thoroughly as Prof. Shapiro. While it was certainly interesting to be exposed to Prof. Shapiro’s erudition, it was hardly shocking to see the extent of the sources he cited. That being said, I understand why it might come as a surprise to people who are used to thinking of Jewish theology as a continuous train of theology from Moses up to the present. At the very least, The Limits of Orthodox Theology will provide some kiruv rav with a lot of material to harmonize.

None of this is what I want to address here, however. One of the main points of debate in the comments thread focuses around a review of Prof. Shapiro’s book by Rabbi Yosef Blau. R. Blau does not seem to be disturbed by the information Prof. Shapiro presents, he praises that aspect of the book. His major critique is that The Limits of Orthodox Theology does not present a viable alternative to the dogmatic structure it questions. In the comments at Seforim the question arose as to whether R. Blau’s critique is a valid one. Should a Jewish Studies professor, writing a book on historical reactions to the RaMBaM be compelled to respond to the theological concerns of Orthodox Jews? Conversely, is that what Prof. Shapiro was doing? Or was the book directed to the modern Orthodox world as an attempt to combat a dogmatic rightwing perspective? If that is the case, then is it Prof. Shapiro’s responsibility to present some sort of alternative to that perspective?

Frankly, I’m not sure that either of these two readings correctly pegs The Limits of Orthodox Theology. One of my undergraduate professors (also a YU musmach) once criticized David Berger’s The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by saying that, “He wrote it wearing his rabbi hat, when he should have been wearing his professor hat.” I think the issue with understanding Prof. Shapiro’s book is that he isn’t sure which hat he’s wearing. On the one hand, the bulk of the book is a scholarly treatment of historical reactions to the principles. It was published by Littman, an academic press. It certainly counted towards tenure. On the other, as R. Blau notes, he specifically puts the work in the context of increased dogmatism in Orthodox Judaism. The tone of the book certainly makes it seem as if he wants to combat that dogmatism. He also makes the point that he believes that Judaism does have some central beliefs. All of this leaves the reader feeling somewhat confused. Is the book an anti-Charaidi polemic, or is it a measured scholarly work? Is it intended to be taken as both?

Prof. Shapiro’s research interests correspond with his personal and religious interests. This is perfectly normal and unsurprising, and I don’t think it taints his work at all. However, this coincidence of the two sometimes leaves us with a somewhat muddled picture of exactly what it is that he is trying to do with a given work. (The same is true, to an extent, of Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox. Is that book a measured evaluation of the relationship between R. Lieberman and Orthodoxy, or is it a polemic directed at the Orthodox rabbinate to admit R. Lieberman into the canons of rabbinic thought? Well, it’s a little of both.) So long as we can recognize this for what it is, he has a lot that is tremendously valuable to offer, but because he does not fully commit either way, he may also fall short of some people’s hopes.


2 Responses to The Limits of The Limits of Orthodox Theology

  1. JB says:

    Nive insights

  2. jessea says:

    If by “nive” you mean “nice,” then thank you very much.

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