Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rav Feldman Writes Back

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

Thank you for your e-mail. I do not recall any “factual errors or serious flaws” in my article, “The Slifkin Affair,” which were brought to my attention; otherwise I would certainly have corrected them.

I do not recall having received a letter from you, and I apologize for not answering it. However, I do recall receiving a list of 38 sources which you said supported R.Avraham’s position. However, when I reviewed them I did not find more than several which were substantive (most of them repeated identical sources) and which would convert R. Avraham’s view into a majority view. I have always planned to point this out to you, but because I thought my response would not make a difference, and because I am overwhelmed with my duties, I never did.

I have not tried to “re-ignite” this issue; it is you who have kept the flames of disrespect towards gedoley torah burning. I simply thought (vainly perhaps) that my article deserved wider dissemination.

I apologize for having misspelled your name several times in my book, in the text and in the running heads. I went to large expense to replace the plates so that these errors will not appear in future printings.

Finally, I mailed a letter two weeks ago addressed to your Beit Shemesh address in which I asked you to remove a posting on your website in which literally every sentence has factual errors. Your posting states that I visited Rav Eliashiv together with Rav Berel Weisbord who asked him whether your books could be used for kiruv purposes and that Rav Eliashiv agreed that they could be used for such purposes. Rav Weisbord has, to the best of my knowledge, never in his lifetime visited Rav Eliashiv, certainly not with me, nor was this question posed by anyone at any meeting I had with Rav Eliashiv. On the contrary, Rabbi Moshe Frances of the Chicago Kollel told me that he posed this question to Rav Eliashiv and was told that it was forbidden. Finally, the statement that Rav Eliashiv forbade the books only for “his” community is totally false. I should hope that you keep your website free of such serious flaws in the future.

Very truly yours,
Aharon Feldman

* * * * * * *

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dear Rav Feldman, shlita,

Thank you for responding to my email. I did not receive the letter that you mailed me, but my mailing address has changed: it is now 2/1 Nachal Raziel, Ramat Bet Shemesh 99632.

I will certainly remove from my website the account about Rav Elyashiv telling you that the approach of the Rishonim in my books is legitimate for outreach purposes. I apologize for this error; I thought that my information was reliable, since it came from a senior member of the Ner Israel faculty who claimed at the time that he heard it from you directly.

I likewise will accept your understanding of Rav Elyashiv's statement that the books are "forbidden from entering the community," that he meant the entire Jewish world rather than only the charedi community. I admit that I find it difficult to believe that Rav Elyashiv really did rule that an approach which his own rebbe, Rav Herzog, proclaimed to be the entirely normative approach from the Rishonim, is in fact a heretical aberrant view that is forbidden for everyone, even though countless talmidei chachamim and Roshei Yeshivah in Jerusalem and the US consider it perfectly legitimate.

With regard to your claim that it is I who have tried to keep the flames of disrespect to Gedolei Torah burning - as you yourself told me, five years ago, I have a right to defend myself. You are claiming that your article deserves wider dissemination than that which it has already received. Surely I deserve the right to defend myself before that wider audience? And what about the flames of disrespect towards those Rishonim, Acharonim, recent Gedolim and contemporary talmidei chachamim whose approach is being deemed unacceptable? Could it not justly be seen as disrespectful to claim that their understanding of Chazal is critically flawed and can be deemed heretical? Do they not have a right to have someone speak up on their behalf?

I am pleased to hear that it is certainly your intent to correct factual errors and serious flaws. But along with countless other people, I am at a loss to understand how you did not notice any at all in the point-by-point rebuttal of your article.

For example, you yourself admit that in the list of forty sources that I sent to you, all of which say that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not always correct, you found several that were substantive. Why did you not add them to your article, in your list of such views?

Furthermore, I do not understand your dismissal of the rest of these authorities on the grounds that they were simply repeating identical points. In repeating identical points, they were endorsing their legitimacy! By your logic, there is only one Gadol who opposed my books, since all the others signed on to the same statement!

My latest response included a list of over forty gedolei Rishonim and Acharonim, from the Geonim through to recent Gedolim, all of whom opposed the claim that Chazal were correct in all their statements about the natural world. I simply do not understand how you can maintain that this is an aberrant "minority viewpoint" that has "fallen by the wayside over the centuries" and may therefore not be followed by anyone at all. It is not a minority viewpoint, and it has not fallen by the wayside. When you learn the Gemara in Pesachim 94b that Chazal believed the sun to travel behind the sky at night, is there even a single Rishon that you can name whose approach to this sugya you consider viable? You are certainly dismissing the approach of the overwhelming majority of Rishonim. I do not deny that in recent centuries, many have rejected this approach, but there have nevertheless been significant Acharonim, recent Gedolim and contemporary Roshei Yeshivah who have acknowledged it as a legitimate normative view from the Rishonim. I am still at a loss to understand how anyone can claim that no Jew in the world is entitled to follow such a mesorah.

Respectfully,
Natan Slifkin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Theological Significance of Geocentrism


Tomorrow's live internet class continues with the topic of astronomy. Last week, we discussed how Chazal came to accept the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model of the universe, and how the Rishonim viewed that acceptance. Tomorrow, we will be discussing how the Rishonim utilized the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model, in which the earth is at the center of the concentric spheres of the universe, as part of their theological worldview. Next week, we will move on the topic of the Copernican revolution. To register for the class, click here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two Reasons

Many years ago, a friend of mine in yeshivah made an observation. He claimed that whenever somebody gives two reasons for something, the second reason is always the real driving reason, and the first reason is secondary, but placed in the first position in order to make it more palatable and sound better. Over the years, I have seen this confirmed endlessly, in a variety of ways.

Here's a mundane example. "How are you? I called for two reasons. Number one, I wanted to see how you are doing. Number two, I was wondering if you could do me a favor..."

And here's an example that relates to the topic of rationalism. Why do/don't we believe in the Theory of Evolution? Over at Toriah.org, they give a list of reasons for not believing in evolution. The first six are scientific, and the last four are religious. It's interesting that they put the scientific reasons first!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Re-igniting the Storm

-----Original Message-----
From: Zoo Torah [mailto:zoorabbi@zootorah.com]
Sent: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 5:44 PM
To: 'Rav Feldman'
Subject: "The Eye of the Storm"

Dear Rav Feldman, shlita,

Shalom u'vrachah, I hope you are well.

I recently acquired your newly published book, "The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues." It was with great surprise that I saw that it includes the essay of several years ago, "The Slifkin Affair: Issues and Perspectives," entirely unchanged from its original form. This was even though a number of rabbis and academic scholars publicly pointed out the many, many factual errors and serious flaws that this essay contained. Especially disturbing was that in describing the "discarded minority view" that Chazal occasionally erred in their statements about the natural world, you omitted any mention of the more than three dozen further sources which I sent to you a few years ago, in a letter to which you never responded. Attached is the letter, along with the most comprehensive of the critiques of your essay that were circulated.

I was also surprised that you chose to re-ignite this controversy at a new level, by introducing it to the domain of English published works, when even you yourself acknowledge that it is probably the public issue most damaging to the honor of Torah and to its leaders in recent memory. But since you chose to do so, I have decided to respond in kind, and I will publish a complete book about the controversy. This is something that I refrained from doing until now, but the publication of your book, along with the publication of the appalling sefer Chaim B'Emunasam, has helped me decide that it is the appropriate course of action. Actually, I think it will be of great help in helping people make informed decisions about where in the Orthodox world they should align themselves.

Sincerely,
Natan Slifkin

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Black and White

I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine in the Mir. He suggested that in the charedi world, there are several qualities that are seen as necessarily connected - meaning, that if somebody possesses one of them, they are seen as automatically possessing all the others. They are:
  • Great Torah scholarship
  • Righteousness
  • Spiritual powers (e.g. berachos)
  • and I forget the fourth.
In other words, anyone who is a great Torah scholar is automatically also considered to be a tzaddik, and so on.

I have an elaboration of this concept which relates to the comments in the previous discussion about yeridas hadoros. Intelligence and wisdom themselves have several components. There are analytical skills and there is retention of knowledge. There are different types of wisdom and intellectual acument - Talmudic expertise and philosophical expertise are very different. And there are many other divisions that could be mentioned. But my impression is that many people assume that anyone who excels in any one of these, also excels in all of them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yeridas HaDoros

The comments on the previous post have made me realize something that I've been chewing over for a while. If there's one single issue that really strikes at the core of the rationalist/non-rationalist divide, it's yeridas hadoros.

The notion of yeridas hadoros is rarely defined, but certainly most people take it mean that Rishonim, and all the more so Chazal, were more intelligent than us. With this understanding, yeridas hadoros conflicts with two aspects of rationalism.

One, which is more the Rishonic aspect of rationalism, is that rationalism maintains that there is a basically constant order of nature over history. Mankind doesn't change in its level of intelligence. Menachem Kellner, in his book Maimonides on the Decline of Generations, uses this argument and others to show that Rambam did not subscribe to the notion of yeridas hadoros.

The second way in which yeridas hadoros conflicts with rationalism is that rationalism mandates that claims require evidence proportionate to the degree that they are far-fetched. Until a few centuries ago, all mankind believed that the ancients were more intelligent than us. That's why it was virtually unthinkable to dispute Aristotle. Today, outside of traditionalists, people do not accept that the ancients were more intelligent than us. There is no evidence for it, a lot of evidence against it, and understandable reasons as to why people used to believe it to be the case.

Within the Torah world, aside from Rambam, it's hard to find those that oppose this understanding of yeridas hadoros. There is a discussion by R. Shlomo Fisher that approaches it, based on Kesef Mishnah, which I discussed in Sacred Monsters. Also, as noted, I heard a prominent Rosh Yeshivah from YU say, "Who says there's such a thing as yeridas hadoros?" But, understandably, this is something that most people would be wary of voicing their opinion on - it is dangerous in many ways.

There are many people who are rationalist vis-a-vis evolution, or Chazal's knowledge of science, but whose views on yeridas hadoros mean that they cannot be considered as full-blooded rationalists. (Of course, my own views on certain topics would probably also disqualify me from being considered a full-blooded rationalist by others.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Man's Maverick is Another Man's Bore

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a certain Rav. This Rav is a tremendous talmid chacham with tremendous breadth of thought, but he is basically in the charedi world. He didn't object to any specific view of mine, but he criticized me for the totality of them. He said to me, "Look, it's okay for a person to have one or two radical views, but why do you have to have so many?" The world being billions of years old, evolution, no global flood, Chazal being wrong about spontaneous generation, Moshe not being ten cubits tall, Rashi being a corporealist, etc., etc., etc. Why do I have to always be a radical?

My response was that in the intellectual circles into which I was (at that time) moving towards - frum academics and frum people who subscribe to their rationalist approach - nothing that I say is remotely radical. All the aforementioned views are completely normative. In fact, in these circles, I am considered as a person who has not contributed any original or interesting ideas.

It was interesting to see how taken aback he was.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chazal's Belief in a Flat Earth

This Wednesday will be the second part of my live Internet class about Chazal's belief in a flat earth and the sun moving behind the sky at night. In this part, I will be reviewing how various authorities over the ages dealt with it. You can download the audio/ video for the first part (which will be necessary for understanding the second part) here. To register for the classes, click here. Next week, I will be moving on to the topic of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism.

By the way, there is a change of schedule for the zoology classes - they are starting next Sunday instead of this Sunday.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yet Another Ban - UPDATED



(UPDATE: I apologize for assuming that everyone is fluent in Hebrew. People, this poster is a joke; it's an advertisement put out by the manufacturer.)

The Challenge Of Ptolemy

A quick reminder that today at 2pm EST is my first live shiur via Torah In Motion. The topic tonight is (probably) The Challenge Of Ptolemy. Did the Sages of the Talmud believe the world to be flat? In the Talmudic era, the rabbis faced a challenge from Ptolemy in astronomy. The way that they coped with it is remarkably different from how it is commonly portrayed. To watch/listen to the shiur, you have to register with Torah In Motion. For a list of all my classes, many of which will appear as part of this series, click here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rabbi Leib Tropper and EJF


Rabbi Leib Tropper is known to many readers of this blog as one of the team of people involved in engineering the ban on my books. He told the story about two students in his yeshivah, "malachai hashareis, "who read my books, and promptly dropped out of yeshivah and went off the derech. When I investigated it, I found out the one of them, who had said, "if the rabbis can make mistakes then why am I learning Bava Kamma" (a direct quote from R. Tropper), dropped out of the yeshivah and left observance before my book on Chazal was published. The other one, who read my books, dropped out of the yeshivah and went to YU - which I would not exactly describe as "going off the derech." When I discovered the identity of the other student and wrote to ask him if it was true that my books caused him to drop out, he wrote this reply.

I honestly don't really care much about all that. But there is something else about Rabbi Tropper's activities which I find very, very disturbing. First, some background. For the last few years, Rabbi Tropper has been running an organization known as EJF - Eternal Jewish Family, whose mantra is that they are seeking a "universally accepted standard for conversion," which sounds wonderful. Exceptionally well funded by Tom Kaplan, EJF flies out rabbonim to conferences in hotels.

There are, however, some very serious accusations against EJF. I will briefly review these, after which I will get to the problem that I personally find particularly worrying.

One problem, which unites such disparate forces as the Badatz of Jerusalem and the Roshei Yeshivah of YU against EJF, is the charge that EJF encourages proselytization. This has been discussed at great length by R. Daniel Eidensohn on his blog Daas Torah.

Another problem, also discussed at the aforementioned blog and elsewhere, is that the rabbis who endorse EJF have also received exceptionally large donations to their yeshivos - in one case, millions of dollars. כי השחד יעור עיני חכמים ויסלף דברי צדיקם.

The third area of controversy was recently made very public. Guma Aguiar, the nephew of Tom Kaplan, has filed a Din Torah against Rabbi Tropper for allegedly misappropriating millions of dollars that he gave him for charity. This story, which you can read in great detail here, includes this report:
For example, when Aguiar's daughter was born at the end of 2007, he wanted to express his and his wife's thanks to G-d by donating $36,000 to each of 36 rabbis. He says he turned to his uncle's close confidante Rabbi Leib Tropper to formulate a list of 36 beneficiaries.

The list, which you can find on the website, is basically a who's who of the rabbis that consented to sign on to the ban on my books. It pays to play along with Rabbi Tropper's zealotry! But apparently Aguiar wanted the list to include rabbis from a broader spectrum of Judaism than that represented by Rabbi Tropper's narrow perspective. After the list was expanded and agreed upon, the money was sent, but according to Aguiar, the money didn't reach all the rabbis. While the article does not specify which rabbis are alleged not to have received the money, my impression is that it is those who were not part of Rabbi Tropper's suggested list.

But the problem with EJF that is of greatest concern to me is the serious effort by Rabbi Tropper and his partner in Israel, Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein, to delegitimize those who do not share their narrow hashkafic viewpoint - both rabbis and converts.
There is a deeply troubling report as follows:
Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein said words to the following effect, from the podium, during the Tuesday, November 6, 2007 afternoon session of the EJF conference:
"Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur, and as such, is pasul l’dayanus. Therefore, a ger who underwent conversion through a beis din on which such a person served as a dayan remains non-Jewish. The conversion is invalid even b’dieved."
Let me repeat that these words were made before a large audience of rabbis and gedolei Torah. Stunned, I privately asked Rabbi Eisenstein if he realized that this psak would, in effect, exclude the modern orthodox rabbinate from the conversion process. He answered affirmatively, adding that Rav Elyashiv held this psak to be “pashut.”
Similarly, the previous day (Monday), Rabbi Leib Tropper mentioned, also from the podium, that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was asked if it is mutar to convert a person who is mikabel ol malchus shamayim but is unwilling to believe that the world is only 5768 years old. Rav Kanievsky answered that it is in fact assur to convert such a person. Rabbi Tropper also made seemingly hateful remarks, saying: how ridiculous would it be for a person wearing non-Yeshivish clothes and/or wearing cologne to serve as a dayan!?
More troubling yet, during the same speech, Rabbi Tropper made remarks to the following effect: "EJF’s goal is to connect a would-be ger to a universally accepted beis din. A universally accepted beis din could not, by definition, include dayanim who believe the world to be older than 5768 years."
I would be remiss not to mention that these remarks were said boldly, publicly and to an audience of over one hundred chashuvim. There was no visible protest amongst the assembled.

We thus have Rabbi Tropper's well-funded organization working to delegitimize the entire non-charedi rabbinate. We also have a nightmare scenario for sincere converts. I noticed the following report in the comments to this post:
I know about a case where a Jewish boy was dating a non Jewish girl and the local Chabbad was mekrev them for Orthodox conversion with kabalas mitzvos. Someone told the EJF about them and they got involved, they scared the girl with their tactics and the couple left orthodox Judaism and got married in Reform temple. As it turned out the girl was a scientist and the EJF freaked her out with their insistence that she will believe in 6000 years old universe.

Nor should one think that this witch-hunt will be limited to those who accept that there was an age of dinosaurs. In opening pages of the appalling work Chaim B'Emunasam, which claims that every Jew is obligated to believe that every single word in the Gemara is from Sinai or else he is a heretic and should be killed, there is enthusiastic praise for Rabbi Tropper and EJF for his assistance to the author. On his own blog, Rabbi Tropper recently made the following announcement regarding the forthcoming EJF conference:
Some of the new issues to be discussed will be the importance of true Torah Hashkafa and Midos as an ability to measure a candidates seriousness to convert properly... Someone who does not believe in “Emunas Chachachim” though he knows Halacha, should a Beit din proceed with the conversion?

We know from another post on his blog that Rabbi Tropper believes that every Jew is obligated to listen to the "Gadol HaDor." (As I noted in a previous post, he claims to base this on a Teshuvos Yaavetz, but Yaavetz says no such thing, and even if he would, there are clearly others who argue.) We thus have a real risk of a situation whereby converts who do not accept whatever pashkevil has Rav Elyashiv's signature to it are going to have their conversions declared invalid by EJF. Read this post to gain an insight into the terror being experienced by many sincere converts.

The latest EJF conference begins today, in the Sheraton Meadowlands, NJ. Something has to be done.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Live Internet Classes - Free!



I am thrilled to announce the launch of several series of live online Torah classes! One will be on "Zoology and Torah," the other will be on "Science and Torah." These will be interactive classes running with the latest videoconferencing software. The classes are free; you just need to register. For details, including information on several other fascinating courses that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog, see http://torahinmotion.org/virtproglib/e-tim/index.htm. It's a unique opportunity for in-depth learning on these topics, so register now, and tell your friends!

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah . Many news outlets this week were reporti...