Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Baruch Pelta's Response

Reply to Rabbi Slifkin
By Baruch Pelta


Rabbi Natan Slifkin recently penned a postscript to his “In Defense of My Opponents.” At the end, he raises two issues.

1) Can those who share his approach truly be considered haredim from a theological perspective? After all, virtually no haredim who share Rabbi Slifkin’s approach have publicly said so and all of the figureheads of that community have denounced his approach at some point. In relation to this question, Rabbi Slifkin brings up those haredim who reject the call of the gedolim to vote for haredi political parties and instead vote for other parties. Rabbi Slifkin comes to the (tentative?) conclusion that these people, while haredi by sociological standards, are not haredi in ideology.

2) Should Rabbi Slifkin label those who share his approach as members of the Torah Umadda camp?


If I may be so bold, I would like to opine on both issues. I should note that later this year I will be beginning an in depth sociological study of Orthodoxy, so I may change my perspectives down the line.

With regards to Issue 1, Rabbi Slifkin asks whether or not people who share his approach may be considered haredi. To better clarify my answer I will focus on a specific example. For instance, if we are going to discuss whether somebody may maintain Rabbi Slifkin’s approach towards the age of the universe and still be called haredi, then I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.

Daniel Eidensohn has confirmed that Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, for example, believes it is permissible to believe the world is older than 6000 years old. Whether he believes it himself or not may be a different story, but he believes it is permissible.

A person living in any haredi society who openly believes the world is over 6000 years old will probably feel very uncomfortable. It may be difficult for him to get his kids into school. He may lose friends. He may find his acquaintances often trying to “mekarve” him.

Yet I believe he still may be classified as haredi. To explain this, I must explain what, in my humble opinion, separates a haredi Jew from a non-haredi Jew. It is not whether or not he feels comfortable in his society or not. It is whether he believes in a certain notion of Daas Torah. Because I believe that this notion of Daas Torah is what defines haredi society against their non-haredi Orthodox brethren.

Daas Torah has been espoused by many, but it is often defined differently by different spokespeople. In its softest forms, it can even be accepted by the Modern Orthodox (e.g. guidance in non-halachic matters). In its hardest form (e.g. everybody, even Sephardic gedolim, must defer their judgment in certain important matters to R’ Eliashiv), it is unacceptable to some of even the most hardcore haredim. We must examine what the softest form of Daas Torah is which is considered acceptable to a significant subset of the haredim as well as some of their gedolim, while not considered acceptable by non-haredi Orthodox Jews. I believe that definition is roughly as follows: the living gedolim are the ones who decide what perspectives in hashkafa are acceptable; [1] as long as you believe a belief which “your gadol[2]” believes to be permissible, you are not a Zionist, and you do not believe that secular studies should be studied b’iyun and lishmah bizman hazeh, you are haredi.

But some of the beliefs of Rabbi Slifkin are regarded as permissible by at least one gadol. Therefore a person could believe many of these beliefs held by Rabbi Slifkin and still live in haredi society. The question is, why would he want to? Why would he want in a society which largely regards his ideas as treif? The answer – and whether it is a good answer or not would go beyond the scope of this paper – is because of perceived problems (real or imagined, sociological or theological) that the individual would have with a non-haredi society.[3]

With regards to Issue 2, now that I have noted that I believe haredim may share some of Rabbi Slifkin’s approaches, I do not believe that his approach should be called Torah Umadda. In Rabbi Lamm’s book, he notes that he cannot identify his approach with Torah im Derech Eretz because of that approach’s close identification with anti-Zionism and Austritt. Similarly, as Torah Umadda is closely associated with Yeshiva University, I do not believe that it can be identified with Rabbi Slifkin’s approach. That is not to say that Rabbi Slifkin does not identify with Yeshiva University, but that there are those who may adopt Rabbi Slifkin’s approach who perceive themselves as following haredi rabbinical authorities.


[1] The exception is Rav Hirsch. Although Rav Hirsch is long niftar, his approach is still considered valid by haredim (albeit that there is a significant amount of revisionism as regards exactly what his approach was).

[2] How the word “gadol” is defined is a different story. Also, “his gadol” may be a general consensus of a subset of gedolim that he perceives himself to be following.

[3] I hope Rabbi Slifkin will explore this issue is his forthcoming book. Whether he does or not, I eagerly await the volume!

Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?

In a comment to an earlier post, Tzelophchad raised an important issue:
...There really isn't any way to makes Orthodox Judaism a Rationalist Judaism. Where does one draw the line? ...It's not that a rationalist Judaism isn't a smashing idea, it's just that it's never going to be compatible with Orthodoxy
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Tzelopchad's argument is one that I have heard from several people (on both sides of the divide) - it was all very well to be rationalist in the 12th century, but rationalism today is simply incompatible with Judaism, so one shouldn't attempt to go on the path of rationalism to any degree. I have three responses to that.
1. Many people believe that acceptance of the tenets of Judaism is rational.
There is heated debate as to whether it is rational to believe in the Divinity of Torah, as well as debate as to what the parameters of this belief actually are. Many people believe that it is indeed rational to possess such belief. This topic is discussed ad infinitum and ad nauseum in other forums. It will not be discussed on this website, because that is not the goal of this website. My goal here is to explore what rationalism meant in the times of the Rishonim, and how those positions are understood today.
2. Many of those who feel that faith is irrational still possess it but feel that the rest of Judaism should be as rational as possible.
Even if one’s attachments to the fundamentals of faith are not rational but rather a conscious leap of faith, a strong case can still be made for saying that one should implement a rationalist approach for the rest of Judaism to the extent possible.
3. Even for those who lack faith, it is beneficial to show that Torah is rational to the extent possible.
There are some people who have tragically lost faith in the Divinity of Torah altogether, but are still members of the Orthodox community, either because it is too difficult for them to leave or because they appreciate the lifestyle. For such people, it is valuable to show how so much of Torah and Judaism makes sense and is beneficial from a purely rational perspective.

I do agree, however, that rationalism has its dangers; I have made that clear on many occasions. However, so does the non-rationalist approach - it leads to obscurantism, and alienates many intelligent people. It's a case of different strokes for different folks.

It's probably a good idea for a post defining rationalism.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Response to Meir and Yehuda

Here are some response to other comments, with which I have changed the order.
Yehuda wrote:

It sounds as if you are saying there is no rational reason for you to take the rationalist approach but that is your choice. However, I also get the sense from your well reasoned arguments - especially in the "Challenge of Creation" - that your beliefs go beyond a chocolate/vanilla dichotomy. Could you clarify? Isn't the choice between Charedi and CO or MO more than just a predilection for a certain kind of community? You say that you can not think of an objective method to determine which way is correct. However, in you other writings you argue convincingly that that there is such a method: the responsible use of one's sense and intellect. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you.

The sentence in my essay to which you referred was one that I didn't write it precisely enough, but what I meant was specifically in reference to whether we should view God as using miracles or not, I can't see how to objectively determine this.

Meir said:
You write that you prefer the rationalist approach. Isn't more than "prefer"? Don't you really believe it to be true and the other approach untrue? I know it can't be proven. Many things can't be proven, including G-d. But you and I still believe G-d exists. We don't simply prefer the claims that He exists.

Yes, I believe it to be true. I think that many aspects of it can even be proven (at least to my own satisfaction!)

You write that the non-rationalist approach is good for many people. I understand where you're coming from, but can a society based on untruths really be okay in your mind? Believing that maggots grow spontaneously may result in a wonderful mode of life, but it is untrue. Do you feel comfortable saying that a society based on untruth is perfectly fine (however great the society is)?
I know some of the medieval rabbis (and Plato etc.) believed the masses can and should believe untruths. Is that your position as well? I understand this position, but I am slightly uncomfortable with it. You, on the other hand, seem to be sanguine about it.

I really am fine with the masses believing untruths. The question of whether an entire community should be this way is slightly more complicated; I am a little bothered by whether those individuals who are truth-seekers have a way to find the right niche for themselves, and by the fact that spiritual leaders may be insufficiently educated in theology etc. But every society has its problems and drawbacks; in light of this, overall I am still basically comfortable with the existence of such societies.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Response to Shimi

Shimi wrote:
After reading your letter (which as everything you write was beautifully articulated), I had the following thoughts which I hope you could comment on at some point. Not that I'm trying to justify a ban. But isn't there something to each section of Judaism needing to present itself with a certain conviction and fire that this is the only way. Otherwise if each side is rationally discussed it kind of dilutes the other, if I'm making sense.
As far as the Torah Umaddah issue, I consider myself a Hirschian, and far from what I believe Torah Umaddah represents. It seems to me that all these classifications are more cultural than substantial, (how many people classified as one or the other have put 1/1000th of the amount of thought you did) and if your message is one of rationality than it would be best to do away w/ these stereotypes.

With regard to your first point, it is essentially correct; charedi Judaism, by its very nature, is not able to tolerate the existence of other groups laying claim to legitimacy. I think that everyone else therefore has to tolerate a certain amount of intolerance. However, the question is how much the charedi world needs to fight other approaches, especially when it is possible for them to tolerate it as "kiruv" or whatever.
Your second point may well also be legitimate. To be sure, most people in all communities have not given serious thought to any of these issues. Because this issue is so important to me, I may well be blowing it out of proportion. Still, I find that there are many, many differences between Charedim and non-charedim which relate to this issue.

Comment Business

The comments on the previous post were excellent (at least, the ones that made it to being posted). Just a reminder: A name, even a pseudonym, must be posted; no anonymous comments will be posted. Also, only comments made in the spirit of this website will be posted. I want there to be constructive discussion, not pointless arguments, trolling and flaming. So if you want to advertise your belief in spontaneous generation, or your disbelief in Judaism, or to vent against me or rationalism, this website is not for you!
I hope to be able to respond to all of the comments on the previous post; I might post my responses as separate postings.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Defense of My Opponents, plus Postscript

Several weeks back, I published an essay entitled "In Defense of My Opponents." It generated a lot of interesting feedback, and so I just released a postscript which further discusses many of the issues that were raised. Interesting feedback will be posted here. If you are submitting a comment, please include a name, even a pseudonym; anonymous comments will not be posted.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

William Smith and the Principle of Faunal Succession


Medieval rationalists believed in the constancy of the natural order; that the natural order governs in more-or-less the same way at all times and in all places. They believed this as part of the Aristotelian philosophical framework, which has since been abandoned. This was modified by the Biblical belief, shared by Jews and Christians alike, that Creation and the Deluge caused radical upheavals in the natural world.

In modern times, rationalists also believe in the constancy of the natural order, but for a different reason: Because it has been empirically demonstrated. William Smith is the subject of a terrific new book, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, and he discovered the Principle of Faunal Succession (oddly, the book does not mention the principle by this name). Like other creationists of his day and today, Smith originally believed that making sense of ancient history was impossible; Creation and the Deluge were assumed to have played havoc with nature and even the laws of nature themselves. But in the course of his surveying work to find coal, it dawned on Smith that there was a very precise order to be found in geological strata across the country. This made him an extremely successful surveyor, but more importantly, it made the science of geology possible.

My Miracle Story

There was the time that I was reading this book about leopards in the Torah, and a leopard suddenly appeared! In the last post, Rav Cha...