Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: 1

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History:
A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom

Introduction


Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom: HaEmunah BeChazal UveDivrehem HaKedoshim
is a newly published book by Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer of Monsey. Its subtitle is: “A selection from the great ones throughout the generations in the matter of the tradition of faith, and the sanctity and truth of all the words of the Sages, and the methods of approach to studying concealed topics in Aggadah and matters relating to science.” Rabbi Schmeltzer was one of the primary figures involved in arranging the ban on my books in 2004/5, and this book is his attempt at providing what he considers to be the Torah-true perspective on these matters.
The book features glowing rabbinic approbations from Rav Michel Lefkowitz (Bnei Brak), Rav Moshe Shapiro (Jerusalem), Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel (South Fallsburg), Rav Elya Weintraub (Bnei Brak), Rav Yaakov Hillel (Jerusalem), Rav Yitzchak Scheiner (Jerusalem), Rav Avraham Levin (Chicago), and Rav Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood), all of whom were signatories to the ban on my works and some of whom were extensively involved in it. In these approbations, Rav Scheiner writes that R. Schmeltzer’s book presents “virtually every possible perspective,” Rav Kotler refers to the “great breadth” (hekef rav) of the discussion, and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel laments that there are those who claim that there are alternate strains of the mesorah to that described in the book. Rav Moshe Shapiro, who describes the topic of this book as one of the “fundamental principles of faith,” is R. Schmeltzer’s principal rebbe and he is quoted at length throughout the book; from my knowledge of numerous people’s conversations with him, it accurately represents his approach.
There are many, many positions in this book that I dispute on theological or empirical grounds. For example, this book takes the position that Chazal’s statements about science all come from Sinai, and are thus all correct; I believe otherwise, based on both theological and empirical grounds. However in this essay, I am not raising such theological and empirical disputes. Instead, I am restricting the critique to something much more basic, fundamental and indisputable: the misquotations of the positions of the Rishonim themselves, which in some cases involves literally distorting their words (i.e. editing them to give them a different meaning), and in other cases involves unacceptable selectivity. In the introduction, on p. 17, R. Schmeltzer claims that “the book is nothing other than a compilation of sources which represent the mesorah.” In a series of posts, I will be investigating that claim.

As usual, people are welcome to respond in the comments section. Comments should be polite and should actually contribute a point. Please use a name, preferably yours. When I have finished with all the posts, I will make the series available for download as a single PDF document.

19 comments:

  1. Hmmm. Is it worthwhile to read a review when the author has such a clear, if understandable, bias? ;)

    I'm more interested in your take on the selective presentation and misrepresentation (such a strong word, how about offrepresentation) of the the opinion of Rishonim in a lecture you carry on your zootorah site and I critique here.

    Seriously, while I understand your desire to take on this project and anticipate you will make some strong points/critiques I think there is something to be said for addressing the problem when it appears in materials you are presenting (even if it isn't as egregious).

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  2. "In a series of posts, I will be investigating that claim."

    For the sake of your blood pressure and your sleep duration and your family life, I will suggest that you not try to investigate each and every claim. I recommend that first you encourage your friends to email you their critiques (they can divvy up the job), and you can post them.

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  3. "For the sake of your blood pressure and your sleep duration and your family life, I will suggest that you not try to investigate each and every claim."

    I suspect your warning comes to late, it sounds as if he has done most if not all the work all ready and was just waiting to get the green light. :)

    I seem to remember him alluding to this a while back.

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  4. I see great potential for this new sefer. If it becomes popular, in a century or two it may become THE authority on what it is permissable to beleive.

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  5. I'm assuming the sefer is written in Hebrew. If that is the case, perhaps citing the key phrases in their original Hebrew that you are focusing on would allow the reader to judge for themselves if they have the connotation you are giving them in your English rendering.
    Also, providing the sentences before and after would allow an independent examination of the contextual meaning.
    For example:

    In context, the term "Virtually every possible perspective" could very well be meant as "virtually every possible ACCEPTABLE perspective". What is acceptable and what is not, is really the core matter under dispute between Rabbi Slifkin and the banners.

    Of course no one will deny there has always been unacceptable perspectives throughout Jewish History-- even amongst the Sages of the Talmud. Those unacceptable perspectives are simply not worthy of consideration in a non-academic book like this.

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  6. There are upward of 5000 sources in the Sefer, you'd have to show a good percentage of then being distorted, before you can make any case of malicious quoting. I'm sure many of his source he got from other seforim that quoted, and might have not realized it wasn't the exact quote, or was an abbreviated quote.

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  7. It is essential for you to compile a list of sources, or rather a book detailing all the sources for Rationalism being an acceptable alternative to Rabbinic Judaism. No matter how much you dispute Rabbinic Judaism, without a clear alternative, there is still only one choice. You need sources, more than intellectual arguments. You and your group, need to put all your muscle together, and work on this with all your energy. Small counter arguments, and tidbits, aren't going to be enough to win the vast unwashed masses. You also need to get the Rabbonim to come out of hide, and proudly proclaim their views. Judaism has never been afraid of bullying. Now is the time, with your coming PDF, to come out and stand strong. While you have done more than one person can, you can't go it alone anymore. The public wants acknowledged Rabbonim, and they have an obligation to deliver. They will pay more for their silence, then the kanoyim will pay for their noise.

    We call on them to stand up, and stand up NOW!

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  8. you are a fool if you think anyone reads every sentence of a book tha give a haskamah on..we all know the maharsham in the teshuva but even without that
    and unless you refute all (or most) of the sources in teh book-what is the point?

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  9. Macabi,

    Did Rabbi Slifkin ever say that he was disputing Rabbinic Judaism?

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  10. Ephraim, I think he just meant to say "non-rationalist Judaism." It's hard to come up with a good name for it. Mystical Judaism?

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  11. "Ephraim, I think he just meant to say "non-rationalist Judaism." It's hard to come up with a good name for it. Mystical Judaism?"

    Mystical Judaism is too limiting of a name, maybe people wont go near anything mystical, yet they follow the same principal ideology. I use the name Rabbinic Judaism, because the of the way they automatically accept what past Rabbonim (tanaim, amaraim, geonim, rishonim, achronim etc.) wrote, without first putting it through the rational process.

    When will the our Rabbonim finally come out??? Orhtodox Homosexuals are more out of the closet, than our own Rabbonim!

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  12. Npt really sure what Macabi is talking about. There are several Rishonim that went with the Rationalistic approach and not just the Rambam. Also, rishonim constantly argue with previous rabbonim. amoraim constantly argue with previous rabbanim. Whatever.

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  13. Eman,
    He is only saying that there are people who base their beliefs entirely on their trust in Rabbanim. Rationalists trust empiricism and other scientific inquiry, and they trust the status of those that say it, hence Rabbinic Judaism. Very cute!
    -yeshivish

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  14. I also don't know if Mystical is the word for what Macabi is trying to get at, but I do know that Rabbinic is a very bad choice, because for a long time it has meant the kind of Judaism which follows (or tries to follow) in the tradition of the Mishna and Talmud, as opposed to the Sadducees, Karaites, etc. I think most of us here believe that Rabbi Slifkin is part of that tradition.

    On the issue of what would constitute a meaningful critique of the book at hand, I personally think that if Rabbi Slifkin would demonstrate that one well-known Rishon (preferably not the Rambam) was consistently misrepresented, that would be very significant. (Of course, the Rambam is also important, but at some point the 'open secret' that the Haredi world doesn't really consider the historical Rambam 'frum' is going to come out, with the standard "we can't say that" answers.)

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  15. If you must give it a label, why not just call it Charedi Judaism?

    Maybe I need to start refering to Mystical Judaism as Metaphyiscal Judaism to exclude all the irrational ideas.

    Or maybe you should call it Irrational Judaism?

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  16. "this book takes the position that Chazal’s statements about science all come from Sinai, and are thus all correct"

    If "correct" refers to correct in the empirical sense, which I think would be the usual understanding, then the statement is empirically testable. Thus the book would be taking the position that Chazal's statements are subject to disproof. I am therefore free to accept the results of science when they appear to contradict statements of Chazal.

    If "correct" refers to something else, then the statement is non-scientific, and I am free to accept the results of science when they appear to contradict statements of Chazal.

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  17. I use the name Rabbinic Judaism, because the of the way they automatically accept what past Rabbonim (tanaim, amaraim, geonim, rishonim, achronim etc.) wrote, without first putting it through the rational process.

    a) Isn't that what Slifkin is doing as well - accepting at face-value something said by rabbis of old and attributing to it "truth" even when there are counter-statements from other authorites of equal status??
    b)what do you call "rational process"? YOUR way of thinking? And those thinking otherwise are what - stupid, non-rational, arational or what? Do you really think they cannot reasonably argue their case? Especially when we deal with revealed religion, and authoritative mesorah, the normative ways of thinking do not necessarily apply. Is revelation rational? Are the miracles of Tnach and Chazal rational? etc. etc. You present a typical case of a circular argument or of begging the question.

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  18. I think Charlie has got it right:
    Either science is irrelevant to religion, or science is irrelevant to religion.
    The only interesting question is "Why do our religious sources have so much stuff in them which looks sort of like science (or an attempt at science)?"
    Addressing the question this way might even bear some fruit.

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  19. Some years ago, a certain sefer with the haskama of R' Malkiel Kotler was the subject of widespread media attention before is was withdrawn from publication. At the time, a spokeman for Rav Kotler commented that the RY has at any one time some 40 seforim awaiting his hasmaka. I highly doubt that Rav Kotler's haskama should sway anyone in one direction or the other.

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