Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mortal Difficulties

Here is a letter that I received today:

While I have not thoroughly read all of your books, as it seems to be harder and harder to acquire, I have read your website, blogs, and various essays. I also read all of the material under the “controversy” link and while I agree with how you go about repudiating your opponents, one element has bothered me, acting as the impetus for my need to pen down my misgivings and forward them to you.

While Gedolim do not hold Papal sway and are prone to error, we (at least in the chareidi community) are directed to take their every move as sacred. We are taught not to question, nor disagree as we are not capable of seeing the “whole picture” as they are.

As I grew older this has bothered me as I consider myself to be “more worldly” than 80% (just a rough estimate) of the Gedolim printed in Yated; yet I have never considered questioning them in line with the teachings of my youth.

After reading your blog and controversy link I feel compelled to change my views and it has become harder and harder for me to swallow what they say at face value. Am I to listen to someone who from a Torah perspective is more knowledgeable than I am, yet in the area under discussion they are my equal?

I have always had trouble understanding the Gemara “hafach bu hafach d’kula bu” as we see that it is not true, as you have shown in your books that Talmudic figures used modern day science.

In light of what I have written I have to tell you that while you may be 100% correct and those who called you heretical are wrong and they will pay for it, I still consider the path you have taken to be equally damaging to a large number of Yeshiva students.

Am I required to understand every statement the Gedolim make? While I don’t understand them am I to ignore my instincts and my knowledge for the “bigger picture?” Or shall I take what they say as sacred and while they are not infallible, to my relatively small brain I should ignore my premonition? In light of your website I now choose the former; so while my decisions may be more informed, nevertheless, life is more difficult viewing the Gedolim as mere mortals and not giving them the Papal clout they have had in my eyes for the past twenty years of my life.

Here is what I wrote back:

First of all, if you have not yet read http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/authority.html, you should do so.
It is certainly challenging to change one's approach to the topic of rabbinic authority. But you should find a Rav whom you personally respect and can forge a connection with.
Incidentally, you can buy expanded editions of the banned books (entitled The Challenge Of Creation and Sacred Monsters) at www.yasharbooks.com
Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing that meaningful letter.
    For clarification, he might want to change just one word: "... as you have shown in your books that Talmudic figures used modern day science."
    The word "modern" should probably say "then-current."

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  2. There is clearly a lot of thought that went into that letter and I don't think I can do it justice in the short time I have, but there is one issue the author touched on I want to address.

    "Am I to listen to someone who from a Torah perspective is more knowledgeable than I am, yet in the area under discussion they are my equal?"

    In ages past there were renaissance men who could claim to be experts in just about everything (DaVinci comes quickly to mind, as does Aristotle). In today's world, there is simply too much to know, and too much specialization. It takes years of study before you can reach the upper echelons of ANY field, yet alone many of them. Specialization is now simply the rule. My rabbi knows more about halakha than I likely ever will, and he occasionally asks me for help when he has computer problems. I have a masters degree in engineering yet I still hired an electrician to fix some problems with my house. I have years of experience in the IT field, yet this morning I sat down in a training session taught by someone many years my younger about a new product we're going to start using at work. All of these are simple example and they all show how specialization is now the norm. You have to expect that any given person will know more than you about some things, and less about other things. Rabbis are no exception. The fact that a rabbi might not know as much about a given topic as you does not detract in any way from his mastery of halakha. On the flip side of course, his mastery of halakha does not automatically make him an expert in all other fields. This basic fact should not bother you.

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  3. It is beneficial to all when we praise and extol gedolim [and other people] for their achievements. However, it is harmful to both the gadol and the entire community to strip him of his basic humanity by overgeneralizing his greatness.

    We admire both the gadol and the ba'al habayit who, for instance, treats his wife well. We must honor both men equally for maintaining and modeling this good character trait. We cheat the gadol and his public when we say that he didn't have to go through a process of development to reach this exemplary level just as the ba'al habayit had to do.

    We should not take the mundane achievements in middos from a gadol for granted. Similarly, we should not take for granted that the gadol [being a gadol] has attained a sufficient madrega in all his middos.

    This is one way that we support each other...person to person.

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  4. Bachrach44, nice post. There's a statement in the Talmud that might interest you. In Sotah 49b, one of the signs of the times of Moshiach is "Truth will fail." I could imagine how R' Slifkin understands this statement, but there's an interpretation I read somewhere that says it refers to specialization in Torah matters. I wish I knew where I found that interpretation.

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  5. This person is really hurting.He needs someone to tune in to his feelings.Hopefully an appropriate Rav who can empathize with his dilemma.Answers will come later.

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  6. There is another Gamara about the pre-Mashiach generation having "the face of a dog" and the Chafetz Chaim's famous explanation that it will be one that lacks leadership.

    Having spent a lot of time in many Jewish communities around the country, including both religious and non-religious, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest challenge of our generation is not intermarriage nor Shabbos nor Israel nor any of the topics that constitute 99% of all outreach discussions, nor Torah knowledge, which constitutes most "in-reach" discussions.

    Rather, in my humble opinion, our greatest shortcoming, regardless of which sector of the Jewish People you look at, is kavod ha-rabbanim.

    True Torah is mesorah. If Chazal told us that they weren't sure about all the details of physics or nature, that doesn't bother me. But if the tenor of our discussions decrease kavod ha-chachamim, then we are in trouble.

    We were all trained to say, "I don't understand Rashi" rather than, "I disagree with Rashi."

    In these discussions of Torah and science, is anything lost by pointing out a stira between science and a maamer chazal with those humble words, "I don't understand this Gamara"?

    To do so doesn't sacrifice one iota of critical thinking - nor does it sacrifice kavod.

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  7. What is lost is intellectual honesty, in cases where all evidence indicates that they were making a scientific statement, and that that statement is in error. In such a case there is every reason to follow in the footsteps of the multitude of Rishonim and Acharonim who said that Chazal made statements about the natural world simply based on their own assessments, not ruach hakodesh or Sinaitic tradition.

    See this post and, more importantly, the comments to it:
    http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2009/06/dealing-with-conflicts-between-science.html

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  8. This is the key problem in your comment:

    "But if the tenor of our discussions decrease kavod ha-chachamim, then we are in trouble."

    According to you, it decreases kavod chachomim to say that they made a mistaken statement about the natural world. But according to a plethora of Rishonim and Acharonim, it doesn't.

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  9. Umm... that's my point. That's the difference between Gadolim - be they Rishonim or Achronim - and you and me. The GR"A can say "there's a mistake in the Midrash" - you and I can't. Well, of course we can. And then there goes the kavod.

    But I think we may be talking apples and oranges here, or else you misunderstood my comment. You write:

    What is lost is intellectual honesty, in cases where all evidence indicates that they were making a scientific statement, and that that statement is in error. In such a case there is every reason to follow in the footsteps of the multitude of Rishonim and Acharonim who said that Chazal made statements about the natural world simply based on their own assessments, not ruach hakodesh or Sinaitic tradition.

    I did not say not to point out the stira between either common sense or science, and a statement of Chazal. What I am talking about is tone. The letter you received that we are commenting on states, "Am I to listen to someone who from a Torah perspective is more knowledgeable than I am, yet in the area under discussion they are my equal?

    That statement is bereft of humility. He could have asked the question like this:

    "How do I reconcile the contradiction between his vast Torah erudition and his disregard for the evidence of science?"

    You asked me to review the Divrei Chaim post. I did so (wasn't the first time I'd read it). It states:

    There can be only three possible solutions:

    1) Accept the contradiction as legitimate and conclude that Chazal were wrong.
    2) Accept the contradiction as legitimate and conclude that common sense or science is wrong.
    3) Explain that Chazal and science are speaking of different aspects of reality and no contradiction exists


    Well, actually, the premise is false, therefore the ensuing discussion is based on a false premise. It is not true that there can be only 3 solutions.

    Solution 4: Accept the contradiction as a challenging puzzle and conclude that either we don't understand Chazal or we don't understand the science well enough, and hope that Eliyahu will come soon and resolve this and all of our other questions.

    Solution 5: Accept the contradiction as legitimate and conclude that we have an error in transmission of that Chazal.

    Nope, no sacrifice of intellectual honesty. No denying of science necessary. But no need to add fuel to the fire of delegitimizing our very precious and very fragile mesorah.

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  10. You say "The Rishon/Acharon can say it, we cannot." Saying "it" involves two things:

    1) Establishing that Chazal were making a statement about science
    2) Establishing that we have understood what they were saying
    3) Establishing that it is scientifically incorrect.

    The cases where I employ the principles are when (1) and (2) are the way that the Rishonim and Acharonim learn whatever sugya is under discussion, and (3) is clear.

    Which part exactly do you object to and say that we cannot do?

    I did not say not to point out the stira between either common sense or science, and a statement of Chazal. What I am talking about is tone.

    No. What you are talking about is it being inappropriate to conclude that CHazal were making a mistaken statement. Or is there some tone in which this can be legitimately said?

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  11. Have you ever noticed how the Ramban tells us that he disagrees with a Midrash?

    As much as I respect your work, it is this failure to understand tone that, as far as I understand, has gotten you into hot water.

    I'm sorry you don't get this, but there is no point in going in circles.

    I will maybe make one last attempt to show you, and if not you, at least someone else reading this.

    Let's put aside Chazal and read the Chumash. It states that the world was created in 6 days some 5769 years ago. Now, you could impose your same science on the Chumash and say the Chumash is wrong. Of course, you can't say that the empirical evidence of Science is wrong. (Although it is not an intellectual sacrifice to say so, as I've pointed out to you in the past.)

    Alternatively, you can say "we don't understand the Chumash, what does 'day' mean after all, when the first several happen before there is a sun?" This reasoning is a little harder to sustain when it comes to the age of the earth, but it works.

    Or you could say, "I think I understand the Chumash and I think I understand Science, and there is a contradiction here that I don't understand. May the Almighty open my eyes and help me understand it."

    I suggest that anyone reading this post think long and hard about the ethical and philosophical difference between the above conclusion and R. Slifkin's readiness to declare the Chumash or Chazal wrong, out of hand.

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  12. It just occurred to me - and this is only a theory - that there may be an altogether different difference between the Gadolim of the past who argued on Chazal and us.

    During the time of the Rishonim, and until the 19th Century, arguing against Chazal did not dishonor nor threaten the legitimacy of Chazal.

    Today, the opposite is true.

    Those Gedolim of today who have banned your book may be doing so for the sake of a greater exigency, nothing to do with the truth of your claims, rather the fact that our times require more caution in the area of kavod hachachamim than before.

    You may disagree with their assessment of the needs of the times. But if I'm correct about the background to their intent, then it is indeed, sir, a matter of tone.

    Are you wise enough to decide for yourself the big-picture relevance of tone in a published book? I'm not. That's the difference between Gadolim and you and me.

    This may be the background to a statement that a certain very, very prominent rosh yeshiva z'l told my chevrusa (who had a degree in physics and was concerned about all these contradictions), back in the 90s: "Between you and me, I think that the pshat in the flood is that it happened only in the Middle East, but I'd never say that in public."

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  13. "Have you ever noticed how the Ramban tells us that he disagrees with a Midrash?"

    Yes... I'll give some examples in a future post. By the way, have you every noticed how Rambam tells us that Chazal made a mistaken statement about science? Meanwhile, I'll devote the next post to the rest of your comments.

    "if I'm correct about the background to their intent, then it is indeed, sir, a matter of tone."

    IF you are correct, then it is indeed nothing to do with TONE, but rather to do with the propriety of being public with such an APPROACH.

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  14. Rabbi Seinfeld-
    I find this following statement of yours puzzling:
    --------------------------------
    During the time of the Rishonim, and until the 19th Century, arguing against Chazal did not dishonor nor threaten the legitimacy of Chazal.

    Today, the opposite is true.
    ------------------------------

    Do you recall the Karaites? They were a major threat to our Rabbinic Judaism for centuries. They really argued against HAZAL and their authority more than anyone here does. They completely rejected them. This threat was way back in the Middle Ages. The RAMBAM successfully battled them in Egypt. As I understand it, they were the majority of Jews at the time he arrived there, yet by the time he died most of the Jews had gone over to our traditional Rabbanite Judaism (and he did it with "darchei shalom"). Yet you yourself point out that the RAMBAM would disagree with Midrashim. So the threat was just as palpable then as it is today. Also, Greek philosophy was making inroads in intellectual circles in the Middle Ages. So there was a lot of intellectual ferment and questioning of basic religious assumptions at that time, unlike what you seem to indicate in the above quote.
    In addition, the GR'A confronted major challenges to traditional ways of looking at things with the rise of Hasidut. While it is true that they accepted the Torah Sh-b'al Peh, they did turn over other traditional assumptions about limud Torah and the such, and so one could also say there was great danger in questioning traditional views of CHAZAL in his time as well.

    We call the Torah, "Torat Emet", and I think that in educating the young it is important to teach them to respect the Emet (Truth). I think this will do more in the long run to strengthen the religious community than saying it is better to "shade reality and the truth" simply in order to maintain communal norms, an attitude which I firmly believe will eventually blow up in the faces of those who think it is an appropriate form of education.
    If in the Middle Ages it was not possible to prevent people from being exposed to different, possibly "heretical" ideas, then all the more so today.

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  15. Shalom, Cherry HillJune 26, 2009 at 5:59 PM

    To Y Ben-David,

    You make a very good point--in fact, having read a number of posts on a blog about frum Jews who went 'Off the Derech', it seems that part of the issue for many is the 'group think' that is pushed in Hareidi circles.

    In my own life, my wife was brought up entirely non- Religious and always wanted to become observant. When we started seeing each other, she began keeping Kosher and Shabbat, and so on. For a time we had chevrusas in Lakewood, and she went to women's classes, and the way that many people would misrepresent their particular minhagim as if it was Torat Moshe MiSinai, and the only way to do things, was a big turn off for her.

    Personally, I find much that speaks to me from both the Rationalist and mystical/Kabbalistic approaches, but it's very important for all of us to be intellectually honest, and discuss and grapple with issues.

    Yashar Koach Rabbi Slifkin, and I hope that you go from strength to strength.

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  16. Of course there were EXTERNAL intellectual threats to what we call Masoradic Judaism or "Rabbinic" Judaism, including philosophy, karaism, Christianity, etc.

    However, I have not seen any evidence that prior to the 19th Century there was ever a comparable threat to the kavod chachamim AMONG JEWS.

    Have you ever noticed how Sefardi Jews, and particularly Persians, even the most secular ones, are so utterly kavodic towards rabbis? It seems to me because their historic communities were not penetrated by the haskala.

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  17. Shalom, Cherry HillJune 28, 2009 at 6:49 AM

    To Rabbi Seinfeld,

    Could it be that the Sefardim are more 'kavodic' to their Rabbis because the Rabbis aren't as extremist as many Ashkenazi rabbis? That when they dress 'Chiloni' style or break Shabbat they aren't made to feel as if the more religious Jews are looking down upon them?

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  18. Rabbi Seinfeld-
    I am not sure what you mean by the following which you stated:
    --------------------------------
    Of course there were EXTERNAL intellectual threats to what we call Masoradic Judaism or "Rabbinic" Judaism, including philosophy, karaism, Christianity, etc.

    However, I have not seen any evidence that prior to the 19th Century there was ever a comparable threat to the kavod chachamim AMONG JEWS
    ---------------------------------

    Since Karaites were and are Jews, I presume you mean what we call "religious Jews". But mainline religious Jews have always had arguments over these same matters....such as the supporters and opponents of the RAMBAM. Many Ashkenazic Rabbis in the period following the Gerush Sefarad (Expulsion from Spain) blamed exposure to philosophy for the fact that something like half the Jews in Spain were willing to convert to Christianity rather than leave the country, even though by and large, the Spanish Jews had been observant and were not "external" to the observant world. These arguments, very similar to the ones occurring here at this blog were happening then within the traditional religious community (perhaps not on as large a scale , but happening none the less) as well and yet the traditional community was strong enough to stand up to them in spite of the some times heated nature of the discussion.
    The point is , is that there is nothing new here, so, again, I don't see why it was permitted to say certain things in the Middle Ages but not today.

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  19. To Shalom:

    In my opinion, no.

    To Y. Ben-David:

    You're talking about intellectual arguments, I'm talking about tone and kavod.

    See this article and many other resources.

    Again, it's the difference between saying "This Rashi is in error" versus "I don't understand this Rashi". The latter is the kavodic way of pointing out a stira in Rashi. The fact that some readers of this list seem oblivious to this distinction, or understand the distinction and find it insignificant, underscores in my mind the great chasm into which we have sunk below previous generations in this mida.

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