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Embracing Wisdom and Folly

Should we continue to revere the works of Jewish leaders who act wrongfully?

May 29, 2015

Over Shavuot last weekend, and in the wake of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s sentencing for recording women in a mikveh, I studied Maimonides. Soon enough, I found myself at an existential crossroads of cognitive dissonance. I wondered: Is it possible to embrace the scholarship and ideas of a revered Jewish leader whose words or actions are disreputable, immoral, or even illegal?

Take, for example Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish minds, whose works populate my various bookshelves despite his, shall we say, “interesting” views on race, as illustrated in The Guide for the Perplexed:

Those who are incapable of attaining to supreme religious values include the black colored people and those who resemble them in their climates. Their nature is like the mute animals. Their level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a monkey.

Is this line problematic? Yes. Very. Yet I’ve been largely unfazed by that statement’s presence in the larger picture of Maimonides’ ideologies. After all, much like the crows in Dumbo or the blackface segments in Marx Brothers movies, I simply accept Maimonides as a product of his time.

Despite Maimonides’ clear bigotry, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the wealth of knowledge and elucidation on many aspects of Jewish thought and life that exists because of his scholarship. But one would be hard-pressed to find deep discussion on the topic that is not either apologetic of Maimonides’ less admirable traits, or does not outright consider all of Maimonides’ views to be worthless, and poisoned by the ugly specter of racism. (In fact, Maimonides’ level of scholarliness demands that inflammatory ideologies such as the one espoused in the above quote, be taken to task.)

The same goes for Joseph, Moses, and David—all indisputably among the spiritual giants of the Jewish people.

We acknowledge that Joseph brought stories about his other brothers to their father Jacob, committing the sins of lashon hara (disparaging speech) and rechilut (talebearing); offenses so serious that in certain cases they are considered tantamount to murder. We criticize Moses for getting angry at the Jewish people and hitting the rock to bring forth water, rather than speaking to it, disobeying G-d and berating the Jewish people in the process. And we castigate David for his impropriety with Bathsheba. We pull no punches. We rake them across the coals for their shortcomings, yet we continue to revere them.

And take for example the Talmudic instance recounted in Sanhedrin. Therein, the great rabbis of the time, were it not for the intervention of a heavenly voice, would have listed Solomon—a figure noted to be the wisest man to have ever lived, the king responsible for the building of the First Temple, and the composer of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs—among those who have lost their right to a share in the World to Come due to his violation of the law that a Jewish king may not marry an excessive amount of wives.

Inversely, but still to the same effect, Balaam, the notoriously evil sorcerer hired to curse the Jewish nation in Numbers, is one of the few figures decreed to burn eternally in hell—a rare instance in Judaism, as the Jewish conception of hell does not punish sinners for more than 12 months in the afterlife (hence the reason why one says kaddish for a deceased parent for the majority of a year after their passing: the merit of the Kaddish spares the parent from punishment). To add a sense of the severity of the punishment of eternal hell, Gittin recounts that Balaam spends that time boiling in semen. Yet in the face of all this there is also the admission that, despite himself, Balaam bestowed upon the Children of Israel blessings so beautiful that they form part of the daily morning prayers. However, such inclusion does not mitigate even a little bit of Balaam’s evil, nor do his beneficial acts give him a “pass” or reprieve from eternal castigation.

So should the same treatment be applied to Freundel, a once widely-revered leader—a rabbi—in the Jewish community?

As reprehensible as Freundel’s crimes are, he, as one of Orthodoxy’s vanguard voices, has argued that homosexuality is not a mental illness, and advocated for rape victims to be allowed halakhic access to abortions. He also remains one of the few rabbinical figures who is not only supportive of human cloning, but also believes the product would be considered a human being under Jewish law.

To be clear, I understand that the reaction to Freundel’s flagrant hypocrisy might naturally be to shun his works as empty window dressing, with no fidelity being accorded to the principles behind them. But Freundel’s works should be able to stand independent of their creator, much like Balaam’s blessings stand independent from Balaam himself, and Maimonides’ works on Judaism stand removed from his views on race.

Still, I know that I can’t separate this Freundel from his Jewish scholarship. I couldn’t fathom allowing a work he penned to ever grace my shelves.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.