Wednesday, June 19, 2019


There was something in the news the other day about plans to eventually replace taxi drivers in Israel with self-driving vehicles. If that ever happens, it will remove a unique aspect of the Israel experience.

My taxi driver to the airport just now was secular and somewhat surly. As we left Ramat Beit Shemesh, there was no conversation. But then I noticed a gazelle by the side of the road, and commented upon it. The driver responded by telling me that his favorite animal is a honey-badger. And we were off!

Over the next thirty minutes the conversation turned from one topic to another. The amazing thing was that at each stage it was him advancing the topics, not me. Honey badgers led to Israeli wildlife, which led to discussing various animals including oryx (called re'em in Modern Hebrew), which led him to raise the topic of the re'em of the Midrash, which led to dinosaurs, which led to the antiquity of the universe, which led to Rambam, which led to the controversy over Rambam's work, which led to him mentioning the recent Israeli television series about Rambam, at which point he suddenly realized that he recognized me because he had seen me interviewed in one of the episodes, which led to discussing the ban on my books, which led to discussing charedi society.

Anyway, as we approached the airport, he told me something fascinating, which I'd like to share with you. He mentioned that he had heard an interview with a secular Israeli scientist discussing why religious Jews and especially charedim live longer than secular Jews. Apparently the explanation given was that in secular society, when people get old, they don't have so much to live for. But in religious and especially charedi society, the old are venerated for their wisdom, and they therefore find greater meaning and satisfaction in life, which helps them live longer. 

Would I get such a discussion with a self-driving car? No I would not!

Monday, June 17, 2019

When People Lose Their Minds

In the past I have sometimes found that my posts are misinterpreted. This post is extremely vulnerable to being misinterpreted. Please read it carefully and do not misinterpret it!

This morning I was a little shaken to see my name appear in a horrific news story about an attempted murder. Even worse, it was in a quote from a comment by the would-be murderer on this very blog.

The breaking story, reported by multiple news outlets, is about the arrest of Matthew Karelefsky on one count of arson and two of attempted murder. Last week, Karelefsky set fire to the house and car of Rabbi Yonasan Max from Yeshivas Chaim Berlin. The fire spread to destroy three homes. Thirteen people were hospitalized, including a baby. Karelefsky made no attempt to hide his role in this, and was pictured today grinning during his arraignment.

Who is Matthew Karelefsky? He used to be called Menachem Karelefsky, before he converted to Christianity. Karelefsky issued allegations about Rabbi Max having abused him, but he admitted to someone that these were fabricated. The underlying source of his grudge is unclear. I spoke today with someone who knows him, and they said that it relates to his divorce. Karelefsky is clearly a deeply disturbed individual, and he needs to be locked up, whether in prison or in an asylum.

But aside from his homicidal actions, there are other issues going on with him. One news site quoted the following comment which Karelefsky wrote on this blog back in January:
“I will say this…One of the MAIN reasons why I started exploring the option to leave Judaism is bec ( at first) Chaim Berlin forced my children to go to secular studies… … And now I am the BIGGEST ORTHODOX JEW HATER …And , if my kids weren’t forced to go to secular studies , I would still be frum and love Jewish people…PS, I ALSO ( even then) was a big fan of Rabbi Slifkin and the ban on Rabbi Sklifkin is one of the BIGGEST reasons why I left Judaism.”

This comment was reposted on this blog yesterday, with the preface: "A Comment from the Brooklyn arsonist."

The first part of the comment is very odd. Why would the yeshiva forcing his children to have secular studies cause him to leave Judaism? It makes no sense.

The second part of his comment, on the other hand, about his leaving Judaism because of the ban on my books, is all too resonant.

Many readers here will recall the turbulent times of 2004/2005. When the ban on my books came out, there was widespread distress. This wasn't like the ban on Making Of A Godol, which was directed against only one person. This was an assault on every religious Jew who accepted modern science. As Jonathan Rosenblum put it: "I woke up one day to discover that my rebbe of thirty years rated me as a heretic."

For decades, while there were differences regarding precisely how to reconcile clashes between Torah and science, the common denominator was that the exercise itself was legitimate. You didn't have to reject something as basic as the dinosaur era in order to be accepted as a good Jew. Now, all of a sudden, the community was being told that if you believe that the universe is millions of years old, "dust in your mouths!" And if you challenged that position, you were an even worse heretic, for going against the all-wise Gedolim.

The consequences for many people were cataclysmic. I have a binder full of letters from people who were enraged, confused, devastated. I've lost count of the number of people who have told me that they left the charedi community as a result, and I know of a few that left religion altogether. Personally, I was at a relatively early stage in life, and it was relatively easy to change affiliations and join the Torah u'Madda community. But for those who were more embedded in the charedi community, it was not so easy. In one particularly traumatic case that I know of, a marriage was almost torn apart, as the husband was put in a state of despair by the ban and tore down the posters, while the zealous friends of his wife urged her to divorce her husband for defying Daas Torah. People underwent existential crises.

Unless you've experienced it, you can't imagine what it feels like to be totally delegitimized. You don't know what it's like to have spent years studying Torah, having developed a deep sense of respect for rabbinic authority, a passionate religious commitment, and then to be told - by the embodiment of rabbinic authority, no less - that you're a bad, disrespectful, failure of a Jew. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes about how Amalek's hatred for the Jewish People stemmed from his originally being rejected. When you delegitimize someone, there's no telling what effect that will have on them.

Searching my email just now, I found a single letter that I received from Menachem Karelefsky, back in 2003 - a year before the ban:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,
        My name is Menachem Karelefsky. I am a rebbi in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. This summer I am going to be a rebbi for second grade boys in a bungalow colony. I was very inspired by your book "Nature's Song" and I would like to teach Perek Shira. May I please have your permission to copy some pictures or paragraphs from your book to use in my worksheets ?

        Thank you very much,

A totally normal email, from a totally normal-sounding person. He was not the only person in Chaim Berlin who had reached out to me. I had also been corresponding with someone else, in the kollel. That person had been deeply troubled by various Torah-science issues, and had reached out to me for guidance. He didn't feel comfortable reaching out to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aaron Shechter. And with good reason - after the ban on my books, Rav Shechter gave a fire-and-brimstone speech in which he screamed against me for attempting to reconcile Genesis with modern science. Little did he realize that in his very own yeshivah, there were people who were undergoing crises of faith and who relied on my books for their emotional well-being. Can you imagine how they felt when their Rosh Yeshivah gave such a speech?

I must emphasize again that this does not remotely account for Karelefsky's behavior. I don't even know if his leaving Judaism actually had anything to do with the ban - the fact of his claiming it did does not necessarily mean that it actually was connected. And even total delegitimization does not lead one to try to murder somebody! In any case, as noted above, Karelefsky's grudge against Rabbi Max was related to personal issues, and he clearly suffers from severe mental problems.

Still, all this should give people pause to reflect upon the effect that the ban had on people. It was an act with enormous repercussions. And how much thought and research went into it? The signatories didn't know anything about modern science, they were not familiar with the rabbinic sources that I based my approach on, they didn't meet with either myself or the rabbis who had endorsed my books, they didn't do any research as to the likely consequences of their actions.

As someone's uncle once said, "With great power, comes great responsibility." The problem with charedi society is that its leaders wield tremendous power with very little responsibility.

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Passing of a Gadol

Earlier this week came the tragic news of the passing of Rav Nosson Kamintesky, ztz"l. I thought it would be appropriate to re-post this interview with him by Walla News from several years ago, which was translated for this website by Joshua Skootsky.

It was nine years ago that the book of Rav Nosson Kaminetsky caused a huge storm in the Hareidi community, and it was banned by leading Rabbis. Now, in an interview, he attacks those that banned him and the decision making process within the Hareidi community. "We must remove from our midst those who surround Torah Greats [askanim]."

This week's guest to Walla!'s "Interview the Rabbis" series is Rav Nosson Kaminetsky, who in the last few years has been the target of bans by the Lithuanisn-Haredi Rabbinate, as part of the struggle over his book "The Making of a Gadol," which dealt with the biographies of American Haredi leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rav Kaminetzky, the son of one of the greatest American rabbis, Rav Ya'akov Kaminetsky, was born in 1930 in Lithuania. In 1938 his family immigrated to Canada, and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1945. There, he received his education at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Beit Midrash Elyon, and Beit HaTalmud. In 1968 he made aliya to Israel, and was one of the founders of Yeshivat ITRI in Jerusalem, retiring in 2000.

With his 2002 publication, Rav Kaminetsky stirred up a huge storm among the Hareidim: going against the grain of modern Hareidim, who relate to the greatest Rabbis as holy and pure from birth, referring to them as “Gedolei Yisrael” and “Gedolei HaTorah,” Rav Kaminetsky set out with a preference to tell the historical truth, to describe the life story of the leading [Hareidi] Rabbis after the Holocaust, with their flaws and less glorious sides. For example, he described in his book the letters that Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the great Rabbinic leaders in America after the Holocaust, wrote to his fiancĂ©e, and the negative reaction of his father-in-law to those letters, and also he described the love of his father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, for foreign languages, which from a strict Hareidi point of view is an inappropriate field of interest.

Rav Nosson Kaminetsky believes that for hundreds of years, Lithuanian Hareidim disapproved of descriptions of rabbis as totally holy, in contrast to the tendency within Hasidic circles to view their Rebbe, as well as his successors, as saints of the highest order. These beliefs have caused a series of leading Hareidi Rabbis, including the leading Lithuanian posek, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, to ban his book, and the Hareidi “street” has reacted to the book with similar responses. In 2005, Rav Kaminetsky tried to publish a revised version of the book, but the book was again banned.

What caused you to publish your book, which shattered myths surrounding Hareidi rabbis?

“That was not my intention. I did not set out with the goal of waging war on people’s points of view, or to indoctrinate anyone. I wrote my book because of my desire to describe something unique that the world did not know about, and I had a connection to that uniqueness through my father. I did not want their unique world to be lost to oblivion. That was all that I intended to do with my book. Maybe that was my reaction to the Holocaust, that I wanted something to remain from the world of my uncle.”

Nine years have passed since the publishing and banning of your book. Are you still a little hurt?

“Absolutely. I still feel hurt. Someone died, who everyone called the ‘Tzadik HaDor’ and ‘Gaon HaDor,’ Rav Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rosh Yeshivat Ponevitch L’Tzeirim, who hurt me and called for me to be banned in letters that he wrote. Since he died, I have continued to feel anger towards him, and I certainly am still angry with those still living who issues bans against me.”

Do you agree with the accusation that the “leading Rabbis” who banned you are too old, and practically speaking are controlled by those surrounding them?

“It is a general principle that a person does not see their own faults. Old scholars have extra knowledge, have more life experience, and more wisdom. If they are not functioning, they do not have a duty to step out of the spotlight, it is the public’s duty to remove them. A man does not see himself as old. If there are those that take advantage of this for the worse, and presumably there are those who do so, because there are many crooks in the world - this is not the problem of the Torah giants, this is the public’s problem. The public needs to know when to take exception to them, and when to follow in their path.”

What do you think about the great power that a few central rabbis have in the Hareidi community?

“In the history of the Jewish people, there was the title of “Rabbi of the Entire Diaspora,” he had control over the entire Diaspora. Is it wrong to place such power in the hands of one man? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is a problem with such concentration of greatness in Torah. But, there are people who exploit this, and that is a problem. The public needs to remove from its midst those who surround the great Rabbis.”

Do you think the decision-making process and management of issues by those who are considered the greatest rabbis is proper and correct?

"I feel that they are missing a little of the message of “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly between a man and his brother.” (Devarim 1:16) From this verse we learn not to listen to one side’s story without the other party being present. The approach of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is not to judge people; for example, in my case, as far as I understand, he judged my book, and did not render judgment on me as a person. He has even told his students to honor me in the same way they would have before the ban. But, from my experience, this is not the correct approach. What is a book? A book is an extension of the author. One who insults the book insults the author. In any case, I think that in this case, the rule to not hear one side without the other being present applies, they need to hear the author and his opinions, but the facts are that they have not given me the chance to face those who spoke against me.”

Is there a halachic source for blindly following a rabbi in matters that are not related to Jewish law, such as politics or other matters?

“The Mitnagdim (non-Chassidic Jews) always thought for themselves. If they had a specific question they could not decide, they would come to get advice from a wise and knowledgeable man who had the Torah behind him, but things a person can figure out on his own, it is forbidden to depend on others’ judgment. In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam describes the great power of the human mind to make decisions, a man must use his own mind, do not denigrate your own intelligence. If you have a doubt about something, go ask someone wiser, after you hear what they say, you do not have to follow their advice like a blind man, you have to digest it and decide if it was good or bad. The Mishna asks, ‘Upon whom should one rely?’ And it answers, ‘On God.’ It does not say ‘On Rav Elyashiv,’ or ‘On Rav Shteinman.’ It is obvious that we talk of individual issues, but in issues concerning the entire community, great Torah scholars are the leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel.”

Great Torah scholars are described in the Hareidi community as all-powerful, as if their entire lives are wrapped in holiness and purity. Do you agree with these descriptions?

“No. I do not agree. This is not the truth. No one is born holy, or dies holy, and never once in their life made a mistake, nothing is ever that simple. I don’t know what is going on, but I never had rabbis like that. Also, when I was a teacher of students, I never encouraged this attitude, because it simply is not true.”

From what, in your opinion, comes the adoration and complete obedience that currently permeates the relationship to the rabbis in the Lithuanian world, which is reminiscent of the way Hasidim act?

“You’d be surprised to hear that Hitler, may his name be erased, is responsible for this. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust were from Hasidic areas, and this was their approach. If there is a change in the upbringing of the Lithuanian Jews of today, it is this, that we teach them to be Hasidim of the Lithuanian Rabbis - that is my opinion. I, in any case, was not raised this way. I was raised in the best Lithuanian fashion. Healthy skepticism, respect for wisdom, and having some knowledge of true modesty. But that was my problem –I wrote from that perspective.”

You have written more books, why haven’t you published them?

“I simply do not want anyone to be hurt. But, more will be ready some day, God willing.”

What is your message to those surfing Walla! News?

“Be strong and take heart, and be upright.”

More from the interview:

Who are you, Rav Kaminetsky? Who were your main Rabbis?

“My father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and Rav Leib Malin, zt”l.”

What do you love?

“I like to read.”

A good book you’ve read recently?

“The book ‘The Rebbe” about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, from Professors Shmuel Hylman and Menachem Friedman.”

If you weren’t a Rabbi, what would you be?

“I have no answer to that question.”

If you could make a law, what law would you make?

“I would make Shabbat a day of rest.”

Who is a musician you love?

“Rav Shlomo Carlebach, z”l.”

What do you want them to write on your tombstone?

“I have told my family simply, ‘Rav Nosson Kaminetsky,’ without ‘Gaon.’

What commandment do you love the most?

“Learning Torah.”

What Rabbinic title do you hate the most?

“The holy and the pure.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Perfect Solution for Un-Banning My Books!

In the previous post, I threw out a pretty strong challenge. The charedi gedolei Torah who had banned my books, in particular Rav Moshe Shapira, had claimed that it was heretical to claim that Chazal made mistaken statements about the natural world. Rav Moshe Shapira adopted the approach of Maharal that Chazal were never making statements about the natural word, and were always speaking about "deeper" matters. I pointed out that the crucial passage in the Gemara is where the Sages of Israel state that the sun goes behind the sky at night (and R. Yehudah HaNasi notes that they were mistaken), with which all the Rishonim and plenty of Acharonim state that this is indeed speaking about astronomy, making no mention of "deeper" matters.

Now, when you push people into an intellectual corner, rarely do they respond by acknowledging error, especially not with regard to a revered leader. While I'm still waiting for a response from the various disciples of R. Moshe Shapira that I sent my email to, here on the website there were some interesting responses. Of course, none of them attempted to actually discuss the various sources from the Rishonim and Acharonim that I cited. Instead, they made nebulous claims about how I am deeply mistaken.

But how could I be deeply mistaken, if so many Rishonim and Acharonim indeed explain the Gemara as referring to a mistake about cosmology? The answer that they gave was that of course the Gedolim were in line with these Rishonim and Acharonim. For these Rishonim and Acharonim were only explaining the superficial meaning of the Gemara, but of course they also believed that it has a deeper meaning in which Chazal were not mistaken!

Now, this response is, to put it plainly, ridiculous.

It would be the greatest ever example of ikkar chasser min hasefer - the main point would be missing. If there was a "deeper level" at which the Sages were correct, and it is so heretical to think otherwise, why wouldn't any of these authorities mention that?! Instead, they write about how the Sages were indeed mistaken, and that's fine. Here is a longer citation from Maharam Schick:
Regarding the question concerning what is written in Tosafot, Berachot 2b, s.v. “dilma,” in Rashi, Pesachim 93b, s.v. “mei’alot hashachar,” and in several other places, that the sun enters into the thickness of the firmament [at night]—which contradicts the conclusion of the Gemara on Pesachim 94b, where Rebbi says, “Their view (that the sun travels beneath the earth at night) appears more correct (nir’in) than our own”; and where the word nir’in is used, Tosafot on Eruvin 46b, s.v. “Rabbi Eliezer etc.” writes that we rule accordingly, and the Rosh, in Chapter Kol Sha’ah, and the Tur and Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 455) concur, as they quote from Rabbi Eliezer of Metz that the sun travels beneath the earth at night, and we therefore knead matzah dough only with water that has sat at least one night since being drawn. Even more perplexing (than Rashi and Tosafot’s contradiction to the Gemara’s conclusion) is the statement established in the Shabbat prayers: “He who opens daily the doors of the gates of the east and breaches the windows of the sky; He brings the sun out from its place, and the moon from its resting-place, and illuminates the world”—which implicitly concurs with the view that the sun enters the thickness of the firmament at night.
It seems to me that matters that were not received by the Sages as halachah leMoshe miSinai, but rather which they said according to their own reasoning—and with something that is not received [from Sinai] and has no root in our Torah, but rather comes from investigation and experience, it is difficult to determine [that it is true]. And there are many occasions when the sages determined, according to their own intellects, that a matter was a certain way, and the subsequent generation analyzed the matter further and disputed the earlier view. Any conclusion drawn from experimentation can only be considered probable, [not certain]. Indeed, in the dispute on Pesachim 94b, Rebbi said that the gentile sages’ view appeared more correct, but he did not express certainty; for a matter like this, which is investigated only by finding evidence [of one view or the other], cannot be resolved with certainty. In truth, according to the reading of the Gemara found in The Guide for the Perplexed, the Jewish sages recanted their position; but according to our reading, Rebbi said only that the gentile sages’ view appears more correct...
(He proceeds to explain how according to Ramban, the luminaries were originally suspended in the firmament and only on the Fourth Day of creation were set in motion around the world, and that the texts of the prayers perhaps refer to the pre-Fourth Day state.)
Regarding the fundamental issue: the text of the [Shabbat] prayer quoted above has already been questioned in Sefer HaBrit, ma’amar 4 – Shnei Me’orot, Chap. 20, where he explains that it is the poetic style to describe things based on how they appear to the human observer [as opposed to how they really happen]. Regardless, in our Gemara it is not decided one way or the other, and we must therefore observe the stringencies resultant from each view. Therefore with regard to water passing the night we implement the stringency resulting from the gentile scholars’ view; while Rashi and Tosafot described the sun’s movement according to the Jewish sages of the time of the dispute in the Talmud. Although scientists now agree—and it is apparent to the eye and by experimentation—that the sun travels below the earth at night, the Shabbat prayer describes it based on how it appears to us... (Responsa Maharam Schick, Even ha-Ezer, Responsum #7)
It's nothing less than absurd to claim that Maharam Schick maintains that Chazal were correct at a "deeper level." With Maharam Schick, this is particularly ridiculous, because his whole responsum is addressing the problem of texts which refer to the sun entering the thickness of the firmament. If he believed that this is indeed true on a "deeper level," he could have justified Chazal's statements that way! The same goes for all the other Rishonim and Acharonim.

But let's go along with this absurdity for a moment. That even though Maharam Schick says nothing about there being a "deeper meaning," even though it would have helped answer his question, he really maintained that there was one. And even though he explains at length how they made a mistake in astronomy, how this was not something received at Sinai but was simply based on their own fallible reckoning, he doesn't really mean that it was just a mistake. Okay!

So why not say the same about my own writings?! Just say that even though Slifkin's books explained that Chazal mistakenly believed that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and that salamanders and mice spontaneously generate, and made no mention of there being a deeper level at which they were correct, of course he also believes in that! Why was there any assumption that my books were heretical?!

It's the perfect solution for un-banning my books! And we now have a great license for saying that Chazal were mistaken in science! We can say that it wasn't things that they received at Sinai, that it was based on their own speculation, and that science has proved it wrong. But don't worry, we're not denying (and we don't even need to say anything about) a mysterious nebulous metaphysical level at which it's correct!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Letter to the Disciples of Rav Moshe Shapiro

Here is a letter that I just sent to about thirty people, mostly talmidim of Rav Moshe Shapiro:


Fourteen years ago, during the controversy over my books, I made several mistakes. In this email, I would like to describe two of them.

One was with regard to Rav Moshe Shapiro's characterization of his condemnation of my work, in which he presented himself as following in the footsteps of Maharal's condemnation of Azariah de Rossi. I quoted an (unnamed) rabbi, widely regarded as something of an authority on Maharal, who said that he did not believe that Rav Moshe Shapiro was correct in this. This rabbi claimed that Maharal would not have been opposed to saying that Chazal made statements about the natural world that were inaccurate.

After extensive study, I am now no longer inclined to believe that that this rabbi was correct in his assessment of Maharal. I think that Rav Moshe was indeed perfectly representing the approach of Maharal. While Maharal never addresses the cases of spontaneous generation specifically, it does seem that according to Maharal, Chazal were never making statements about the natural world, such that they could be subject to being disproved. Rather, Chazal were always talking about pnimiyus, deeper metaphysical matters.

The second mistake I made was much more significant. I thought that the topic most basic to the question of Chazal's knowledge of science was that of spontaneous generation - whether Chazal were correct in describing lice as being generated from dust, salamanders from fire, and mice from dirt. And with regard to that question, there were only a small number of relevant sources. There was the letter of Rav Hirsch (who R. Moshe Shapiro dismissed as being "not from our Beis HaMidrash") and the teshuvos of R. Yitzchak Lampronti and R. Herzog with regard to spontaneous generation in particular, as well as the famous letter of R. Avraham ben HaRambam (claimed by R. Moshe to be a forgery) and the statement of Rambam in the Moreh with regard to Chazal's knowledge of science in general.

Now, I do not believe that these are authorities to be lightly dismissed, or to be condemned as engaging in what R. Uri Silver referred to as a "bizayon haTorah." (And at this point I must comment that it is odd that some people condemned me as arrogant for disputing R. Moshe Shapiro, but consider it acceptable to describe the approach of various Rishonim and Acharonim as being a "bizayon haTorah.") However, these Rishonim and Acharonim are nevertheless a small group.

It was only a few years afterwards that I realized that the topic most fundamental to this topic is in fact a different sugya. It is the discussion in Pesachim 94b regarding the sun's path at night. The gentile astronomers stated that the sun travels beneath the world at night, whereas the Sages of Israel claim that the sun travels behind the sky at night; and R. Yehudah HaNasi observes that the Sages of Israel seem to have been mistaken.

R. Moshe Shapiro would have followed the position of Maharal, who emphatically insists that the Sages of Israel did not believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night and that they were in fact not talking about mere astronomy to begin with. Rather, Chazal were speaking about pnimiyus - deeper metaphysical matters, and they were thus not making any kind of scientific mistake. This approach is echoed by various other authorities, such as Ramchal.

However, here's where things become fascinating. It turns out that every single Rishon, bar none, understood this Gemara at face value, explaining that the Sages of Israel indeed believed that the sun goes behind the sky at night. The list includes R. Eliezer of Metz (Sefer Yere’im), Tosafos Rid, Sefer Mitzvos HaGadol, Rosh, Ritva, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Rabbeinu Manoach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, and Radbaz.

Now, R. Ari Bergman told me that he "doesn't like" the approach of the Rishonim, because they were "unaware of the revelations of kabbalah." Personally, I am uncomfortable with claiming that all the Rishonim did not know how to understand Chazal. But in any case, there were numerous Acharonim who likewise explained the Gemara this way. The list includes R. Moshe Cordovero, Lechem Mishneh, Maharsha, Minchas Kohen, R. Yair Chaim Bacharach, Pri Chadash, Maharif, R. Yitzchak Lampronti, R. Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin, Maharam Schick, R. Eliezer Lipman Neusatz, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. David Yehuda Silberstein, R. Yeshua Shimon Chaim Ovadyah, R. Menachem Nachum Friedman of Itcani/Stefanesti, and others, all the way down through to R. Yitzchak Herzog and my own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell.

With all these Acharonim, their discussions of this topic are very clear and there is no way to reinterpret their statements. Maharam Schick in particular elaborates about how there are "matters that were not received by the Sages as halachah leMoshe miSinai, but rather which they said according to their own reasoning," and thus "there are many occasions when the sages determined, according to their own intellects, that a matter was a certain way, and the subsequent generation analyzed the matter further and disputed the earlier view," concluding that in the case of Pesachim 94b "scientists now agree—and it is apparent to the eye and by experimentation—that the sun travels below the earth at night."

It is important, even if painful, to realize that according to all these authorities, Maharal was not revealing the true meaning of Chazal's words in Pesachim. Rather, he was inventing a new meaning.

Of course, there are seventy facets to Torah, and there have long been all kinds of disputes. Maharal was perfectly entitled to dispute all these authorities in explaining the Gemara and to believe that they had a fundamentally flawed understanding of Chazal. Likewise, R. Moshe Shapiro could do the same. (In my writings, I always make it clear that there is such an approach.) And it's tremendously appealing to believe that Chazal were always talking about profound metaphysical matters rather than about the science of astronomy or zoology.

Still, the fact is that Maharal most certainly does not represent the consensus view, or even any classical approach, and he was a great innovator. Those who follow his or similar approaches should rethink their unequivocal statements about it being "kefirah" or a "bizayon haTorah" to say that Chazal made statements about the natural world that are subject to being disproved. They should realize just how many Rishonim and Acharonim they are condemning, and how they are effectively insisting that it is forbidden to explain the Gemara in Pesachim in the way that the majority of Rishonim and Acharonim explained it. R. Moshe Shapiro dismissed Rav Hirsch as being in a different Beis HaMidrash, but it's important to acknowledge that Rav Hirsch is not sitting alone in that Beis HaMidrash.

Attached are two extensive monographs which document all the above in great detail. The shorter one focuses upon the unique nature of Maharal's approach to Chazal, while the longer one is an exhaustive review of all the opinions on Pesachim 94b. They will both be included in my forthcoming book, Rationalism Vs. Mysticism: Schisms In Traditional Jewish Thought. Much as we would like to preserve a naive childhood belief that there is only one Torah-true approach to any given topic, the reality is that Jewish intellectual history is complicated, and there have long been radically different approaches to all kinds of issues. We can disagree with other approaches, but we must honestly and respectfully acknowledge their existence and history.

(Meanwhile, on a completely different note, if you'd like to come visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History, you'll enjoy a tremendously inspirational and educational experience - which doesn't touch at all on the topic of conflicts between Torah/Chazal and science!)

Natan Slifkin

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What is Torah?

What actually is Torah? Rationalist and mystics have fundamentally different views regarding this question.

Rationalists consider the Torah to be the divine instruction book for life—teaching us concepts that improve our minds, character and society.

Mystics, on the other hand, believe the Torah to be the genetic blueprint of creation, possessing all kinds of metaphysical qualities, which only on its most superficial level is an instructional text.

The concept that Torah is the “blueprint” of creation, found in a small number of passages in the Midrash, later became central to mystical thought.[1] It supports the notion that one can derive knowledge about the universe from the Torah, and it supports the notion that studying Torah provides energy to sustain the universe.

Today, the mystical view that Torah is the blueprint of creation is so thoroughly embedded in Judaism that most people consider it axiomatic to Jewish thought. Yet the fact is that some of the greatest Rabbinic scholars did not accept it. The concept that Torah is the blueprint of creation is open to multiple interpretations, and the sense in which it is taken today is certainly not what was understood by many early rabbinic authorities.

The notion that the Torah is the blueprint of the universe presupposes that Torah precedes the universe. Such a statement is found explicitly in some early texts. Midrash Bereishis Rabbah[2] speaks about Torah preceding creation by 2000 years. There is also a list of seven things that existed before the creation of the universe, including Torah:
There were seven things created before the universe: the Torah, Gehinnom, Gan Eden, the Throne of Glory, the Beit HaMikdash, repentance, and the name of the Messiah. (Midrash Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 3; Talmud, Pesachim 54a)
Yet many thinkers, including Rav Saadia Gaon[3] and even R. Yehudah HaLevi,[4] referenced this account but did not take it literally.[5] Some explained such statements to refer to the Ten Commandments preceding creation,[6] or to the Torah being the goal of creation.[7] Rambam consciously rejected the notion that Torah preceded the universe.[8]

Rambam’s rejection of this was due to two reasons. First, Rambam’s view of God’s uniqueness and unity leads him to states that the notion of anything existing before creation, alongside God, is heretical.[9] Second, it did not fit with his view that many of the commandments were issued as a response to historical circumstances, and thus could not have preceded these circumstances. Indeed, Judaism itself, in Rambam’s view, is a consequence of Avraham’s initiative in seeking out his Creator, and thus did not exist before Avraham.

(This is an extract from my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought, which is very nearly complete.)

[1] A series of books that I wrote around two decades ago, “The Torah Universe,” was fundamentally based on the mystical understanding of this concept!
[2] Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 8:2.
[3] Rav Saadiah’s comments are cited by R. Yehudah Barzilay, Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah (Berlin 1885, Halberstam edition) p. 92.
[4] Kuzari 3:73.
[5] See Harry A. Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 85–113.
[6] Mabit, Beis Elokim.
[7] Ibn Ezra, introduction to his commentary to the Torah. See Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations (New York: Continuum Books 2007), chapter 17, for a discussion of further sources that do not take this statement at face value.
[8] For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner, “Rashi and Maimonides on the Relationship Between Torah and the Cosmos,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Thought, Literature and Exegesis, ed. Ephraim Kanarfogel and Moshe Sokolow (Jersey City, NJ, 2010) pp. 23–58; idem, “Kadma Torah Le-Olam? – Iyun BeRambam,” Daat 61 (Summer 5767) pp. 83-96.
[9] See Guide for the Perplexed 1:9 and 2:26, and the extensive discussion in Kellner, ibid.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Which is Greater, Learning Torah or Keeping Torah?

What is the goal and function of studying Torah? There are numerous sources in Chazal which imply that the (primary) function of studying Torah is in order to know how to observe it:
It is not the exposition that is the main point, but rather the actions. (Mishnah, Avot 1:17; similarly in Sifra, Acharei Mot 9)
Rabbi Eleazar said: What was the blessing that Moses first blessed upon the Torah? Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who chose this Torah, and sanctified it, and desired those who fulfill it. He did not say “those who toil in it,” and he did not say “those who contemplate it,” bur rather “those who fulfill it”—those who fulfill the words of the Torah. (Midrash Rabba, Devarim 11:6)
Rava would often comment: The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds—that a person should not read and study and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding” (Tehillim 111:10). It does not say, “those who study it,” but rather “those who practice it”—i.e., those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake. (Berakhot 17a )
One of the most significant discussions relating to this point is in the Talmud’s account of how a group of Sages debated whether studying Torah is greater than fulfilling it:
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were already gathered in the upper chamber of Nitza’s house in Lod, when the following question was raised before them: What is greater, study or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All of them answered, saying: Study is greater, because study leads to practice. (Kiddushin 40b )
This dispute was resolved with the conclusion that study is greater. That would seem to indeed demonstrate that the study of Torah is an end unto itself, and is the highest form of human endeavor.

And yet matters become more complicated when this is considered carefully. The Talmud’s conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It is that study is greater because it leads to practice. But if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is more important! Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his comprehensive and excellent study of this topic, notes that many authorities interpret the Talmud to mean that study is “greater” only in the sense that it takes precedence; you have to study the Torah in order to know how to practice it:
One could thus suggest, as indeed many have, that the assembly’s preference for study is meant only in a chronological sense; it is to be propaedeutic to practice. To be sure, it is indispensable to practice and therefore has to come first, but it serves only as a means to achieve another end, namely, practice, which remains axiologically superior. (Torah Lishmah—Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries, p. 141)
We see that the greatness of studying Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal. This is also seen in a passage discussing the form of praise that was set aside for King Chizkiyah:
“They honored (Chizkiyah) in his death” …- they put a Torah scroll on his bed, and they said, “This one fulfilled all that is written in this.” But surely we do the same today (and thus it is no particular honor)? …We say that the person fulfilled the Torah, but we do not say that he expounded Torah (whereas with Chizkiyah, it was said that he expounded Torah). But did the master not say that learning Torah is great, because it leads to practice (and thus the praise given today of Torah scholars, that they fulfill the Torah, is even greater than that given to Chizkiyah)? This [that the greatness of study is insofar as it leads to practice] refers to one’s own learning, and this [that Chizkiyah was honored with] refers to teaching others. (Bava Kama 17a)
Here we see a clear hierarchy. Fulfilling the Torah is greater than studying it; teaching others is even greater, because it leads many people to fulfill it. Again, we see that the greatness of studying Torah is because of how it leads to the fulfillment of the Torah, which is the ultimate goal.


There was something in the news the other day about plans to eventually replace taxi drivers in Israel with self-driving vehicles. If that...