O sages, be careful with your words;
For you may incur the penalty of exile,
and be banished to a place of evil waters;
The disciples who come after you
will drink of them and die,
and the name of Heaven be profaned.
Take care in studying,
for error in study
is as serious as intentional sin.
Both of these sayings deal with the dangers of false beliefs and heresy. The context of the
first statement is the persecution of the Pharisees which took place under Jewish Kings who sided with
the Saducees, the Pharisee’s rivals in ancient Judea. Avtalion’s predecessor Yehudah ben Tabbai spent
time in exile in Alexandria, which may be the place of ‘evil waters’--heresy--mentioned in the saying.
The first saying also probably reflects the special responsibility of—and danger to—leaders whose words
will have wide consequences.
The second, much later saying is likely from one of the developers and promulgators of the Talmud. The
process of developing Talmud was in discussion with other students and teachers, leading to decisions
which were applied in courts for cases concerning both civil and ritual issues.
That errors in philosophy and law can have grave consequences may be seen in our own time, when the adoption
of Communist philosophy led to death and suffering for millions of people. Ideas have consequences. On the
other side from the need to defend good and true beliefs is the danger of dogmatism and fanaticism: uncritically
accepting and defending beliefs which may be wrong, or using one’s beliefs as license to wrongly harm others.
There are two important developments in modern times relevant to this issue. The first is the doctrine of tolerance,
particularly religious tolerance, which arose in Holland and England. The idea of tolerance was partly a reaction
against religious wars, and partly influenced by the rise of science. The second development is the model within
science of non-dogmatism as an important ingredient in the growth of knowledge. In science, all theories and reports
of experiements are open to criticism, revision and improvement. The result of this openness to criticism and
collaborative effort have been some of the greatest advances in the history of mankind.
Viewed through the lenses of the modern ideas of non-dogmatism and tolerance, Jewish tradition has both strengths and
weaknesses. The Talmud is remarkably non-dogmatic. It records minority opinions, and, as Menachem Fisch has argued
in Rational Rabbis [Indiana U.P.], is actually willing to reverse earlier rulings. This Book of Principles
itself opens with the statement that the whole tradition is sacred, but immediately adds that we should be slow, careful
in judgment—indicating that the truth is hard to ascertain, and error easy, including in religious matters.
However, in the middle ages the main stream tradition became more dogmatic in approach, with Maimonides codifying rulings
and beliefs as set. Current Orthodox tradition follows this tradition.
There is an important element of tolerance in the tradition. According to the Rabbis, anyone who obeys the seven ‘laws of
Noah’ can have a place in the world to come. And with a single historical exception, Jews have not forced their views on
others. However, within Judaism there have been bitter divisions in which there have been many ugly attacks of one side on another.