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.


  1. After reading your letter (which as everything you write was beautifully articulate), 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 judiasm 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 Hirchian, 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 strereotypes.

    Kol tov

  2. You wrote, "While I personally subscribe to Rambam's approach, I cannot think of any objective method by which one can determine which is correct and authentic."

    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.

  3. You raise the question whether the use of the term Torah uMadda is advisable. I would advise against use of this term. As Dr Alan Brill points out in one of his lectures on Modern Orthodoxy, this term is associated with Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm's enunciation of the ideology in his eponymous book. This enunciation was, for better or worse, controversial at the time and now "carries baggage" which you could do without. I think the adjective Rationalist is the most accurate and elegant way of describing the stream of Orthodoxy you (and I) espouse, because it carries no institutional or particularly expressed ideologically connotations. You are absolutely right that this is Maimondean Controversy all over again.

    While you evenhandedness is admirable, you cannot deny that your recognition of two legitimate streams in Orthodoxy is not shared by your anti-Rationalist correligionists. They do not see you as legitimate. Perhaps paradoxically, I think this raises questions about their own legitimacy, no matter how white their beards. We need to avoid the trap of championing pluralism within Orthodoxy as our central tenet, as this carries the danger of forgetting that this is nothing less than a conflict. Chazak v'tischazak.

  4. It's one thing to say I can't explain certain things and I don't accept your explanation. It's another to put your hands over your ears and scream so you can not hear any explanation (right or wrong) other then then one you already believe.

    It is very difficult for me to accept the defense of your detractors along the lines you have presented. They appear to be almost as if they are a 'Flat Earth' society that has been taken into orbit and because they can only see one side of the globe at a time, still 'believe'.

    The rationalist and non-rationalist
    terms of reference are very different and so even when they use the same words, and both say they agree, they could be meaning very different things; communications becomes almost impossible.

  5. You state clearly that freedom of religious expression is not allowed in the Haredi community. Yet at the same time, you ask for a little tolerance from the Haredi crowd to tolerate the Torah U'Madda crowd, and hope that the two can co-exist, while not infringing on each other's territory. I respect that, but I think since the Haredi crowd is so opposed to freedom of religious expression, a) it will be extremely difficult to achieve such a compromise, and b)shouldn't they be taken to task for such a hypocritical attitude? Almost all the benefits they get in their society is from demanding their freedom of religion from the government, yet they rule their own communities with an iron fist, and essentially deny freedom of thought to most of their memebers.

  6. 2 points:

    A) 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 medeival 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.

    B) 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.

    My point is you sound too wishy washy. I understand your motivations in asking for tolerance and agree with them to some extent. But I don't think you think this is a matter of preference. Despite being unable to mathematically prove the rationalist approach to Judaism, you and I both believe it to be true and not simply a preference. I think you should make this clear.

  7. I am still slightly unsure as to whether the distinction between rationalist and non-rationalist trends in Judaism is one of degree or a fundamental divide. On the one hand, the 'rationalist' approach tends to see nature as usually acting in a uniform fashion and tends to downplay the significance of miracles - however, to the extent that this approach believes in Orthodox principles, it must still believe in the possibility of miracles and indeed in the veracity of the many miraculous stories told in Tanach. As the non-religious philosopher Julian Baggini argues (, a miracle is by definition a violation of the natural order. Furthermore, any religious approach is in conflict with a solely rationalist approach, as the scientist Jerry Coyne argues in this (anti-religious) article in the New Republic:
    I am not bringing these arguments to argue against Judaism (chas veshalom), rather to point out that it is not so simple to categorise any religious approach, which asserts the existence of a Deity who violates the rules of the natural order and on an epistemology which does not relyon falsification and testing to verify its claims as 'rationalist'. As the famed Conservative Jewish 'Rabbi' Louis Jacobs pointed out, there is a hypocrisy in claiming oneself to be open to rational enquiry about some things (he was referring to the modern orthdodox approach of Torah u'Madda) and not to others (by this he meant the authorship of the Torah). There is no simple way to resolve this - although there are some who are happy to reject the uniformity of the natural order and all the findings of science whilst adopting a completely non-rationalist approach, the problems with doing this are manifold and obvious. On the other hand, once one claims to be following a 'rationalist' approach, where does one draw the line?

  8. supporter/unsupporterMarch 26, 2009 at 9:22 PM

    Rabbi Slifkin,

    You say that virtually none of the rabbis read the books, but if I recall correctly, there were many pages from your books excerpted and sent to the rabbis who banned the books. I admit that one or two instances could be taken out of context, but don't you think that the rabbis were able to make a valid assessment?

    You say that virtually none of the rabbis knew the sources. Do you have any data to back up this claim?

    You say that they were given false information about the retraction of the Haskomos. While this may be true, isn't also true that many of those who gave Haskomos did retract?

    As for not giving paramaters, I believe that the original banners were very clear. Rabbi Scheiner wrote that believing that the world was older than 6000 years was heretical.

    You then seem to equate Rav Elyashiv and Rav Kanievsky with the leadership of Yeshiva University. I don't understand then, why you don't go the next step and argue that YCT is on par with the Charedi Gedolim, that the Reform and Conservative are on par, etc. The Torah is wherein we get our sustenance. I would argue that those who study the Torah all day should be the ones best equipped to understand its true meaning.

    The Torah has withstood the test of time, and all those who have tampered with it have disappeared into oblivion. I am sure that you hear many MO Jews complaining about laws that they don't like. Killing Amalek, homosexuality, etc.
    Without the Charedi leaders holding down the fort, Torah would unfortunately be watered down.

    As the Chazon Ish allegedly told Ben Gurion - "We, the charedim who have been carrying the Mesorah for millenia - you will have to back down to let us pass".

  9. Along the lines of what Joseph just said, there really isn't any way to makes Orthodox Judaism a Rationalist Judaism. Where does one draw the line? There are certain beliefs required for Orthodoxy that are just not compatible with a rational approach. Take this line from your essay, demonstrating a rationalist take:
    "spontaneously generating creatures must either still exist in the Australian outback or have gone extinct, coincidentally around the time that the microscope was invented."

    It's a good, sharp line, but to be consistent the inevitable next step is to note that miracles went extinct coincidentally around the time that the camcorder was invented.

    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. The tools and techniques used at first in baby steps to reconcile maaseh bereishit with history are not containable and work equally when applied to thing you don't want them to. There's no way to selectively apply them without special pleading, an intellectual dishonestly that undercuts the rationalist in Rationalist Judaism.

  10. I don't understand tzelofchad at all. A rationalistic approach can explain an orthodox approach to Judaism. Rambam explains miracles through natural order. Was the Rambam then unorthodox? Maybe you would say yes, but I would disagree.

    A rationalistic approach to Judaism tries to explain things in the Torah through science. That does not mean every aspect of Judaism is explainable through science, but anything that we know to be a scientific truth should be congruent with the Torah. When chazal say that a bug spontaneously generates, are they coming to tell us a scientific fact, or just that the creature does not have a status of a real creature that is forbidden to kill on shabbos? A rationalistic approach would say that since we know that these creatures hatch from eggs, but it was impossible to know this until the creation of the microscope, it stands to reason that chazal did not mean they had scientific fact, but rather that the bug is insignificant. This is similar to microscopic bugs. We don't have to worry about these bugs because they are so small so killing them on shabbos is ok, like dust mites or so on.

    I just don't understand how you could say a rationalistic approach doesn't work with orthodox Judaism. You are basically throwing the Rambam, Ralbag and anyone who is not a hardcore kabbalist approach out the window.

  11. Just to add an comparatively "unphilosophical" but interesting note to your postscript. It seems that R' Moshe Shternbuch would have to answer to not only the Rambam, but the Baal Shem Tov as well (interesting how when it comes to daas torah, it is relatively easy to disregard the view of a greater authority such as a rishon, whereas a later achron must always be made to conform).
    I found this story in a small sefer published for Pesach called "Ma Yafu Pa'amayich" and one reads on page 417 the following Besh"t story: A fellow was coming to the Besh"t to inform him that according to his recent study of science, the splitting of the Yam Suf was a natural and not a supernatural occurence. The Besh't requested that the shhul be made available immediately and that the whole town come to hear his public response to this question. He there explained that the name Elokim is b'gmatria "teva" - nature and Hashem created the nature of the world so that the sea would split at the instant klal yisrael would be in the need of salvation. This, continued the Besh't, is a greater miracle than a spontaneous suspension of the laws of nature.
    Sounds like shitas HaRambam to me! Will the Toras HaBesh"t be suggested reading for Rationalist Judaism anytime soon? ;+)

  12. Your very fine article “In Defense of my Opponents, Postscript” contains the following:

    “Consider the following contrast between the approach of Rambam and, yibadel lechaim, that of Rav Moshe Sternbuch, to the topic of nature and miracles. Rambam writes as follows…(skip) … Rav Moshe Sternbuch, on the other hand, presents the following viewpoint:
    “(Some people) are trying to make our holy Torah compatible with the views of scientists that everything that occurs is the result of mechanical natural processes… to minimize the role of miracle and maximize the role of nature. This is to minimize the acknowledgement of God’s power and move instead in the direction of heresy.”

    I propose that Rambam might /agree/ with these words of Rav Sternbuch, if we interpret his words as I have done below, using added words in the brackets, and capitalizing one word for emphasis:

    “(Some people) are trying to make our holy Torah compatible with the views of scientists that EVERYTHING that occurs is the result of mechanical natural processes… to minimize the role of miracle and maximize the role of nature, [i.e. 0% miracle and 100% nature.] This, [i.e. going to this extreme,] is to minimize the acknowledgement of God’s power and move instead in the direction of heresy.”

    Given that, I agree with you with the general argument of Rav Sternbuch’s five-page essay, along with many of its points, would not be met with Rambam’s agreement. Be that as it may, I feel it could be argued that the segment of R’ Sternbuch’s you /did/ post doesn’t reveal the contradiction between R’ Sternbuch and Rambam to the extent the rest of R’ Sternbuch’s essay does.

    Keep up the great writing!


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