Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Book Of Answers?

Over the years, I heard of certain people who set out to write books that definitively answer difficult questions in the Torah/science field. Their goal was to research all the issues and present answers that would be satisfactory from both a Torah perspective and a scientific perspective. These particular people all gave up, and I think that the reason was that they ultimately realized that they were faced with a difficult choice: either present answers that will be unsatisfactory to the scientifically educated, or present answers that risk getting the writer "Slifskinned alive." (For a while, Wikipedia defined Slifkin as a verb, meaning "to attempt to utterly destroy someone's reputation and career"!) More fundamentally, such an enterprise gets into the difficult question of how to define the limits of Orthodox theology, and a full investigation of this topic would in any case be beyond the scope of such a book.

Last year I met someone who had a different idea as to how to do it. His idea was to present a range of different answers that have been proposed to each question; essentially a list of people who have responded and a description of their response. The idea was that he would not be identifying with, or legitimizing, any particular approach; just documenting their existence. (Unfortunately he never followed up on it.) I think that his idea was a good one, but it needs modification in order to minimize the aforementioned risks. The problem is that the writer would still be held accountable for the most liberal answer on the list by right-wingers, and may be ridiculed for the most conservative answer on the list by left-wingers.

The solution to this may be as follows: The list should be extend so far at both ends of the scale that the extremes would clearly be positions that the writer does not endorse - ranging from a full denial of science to a full denial of religion. It would therefore obviously merely be a list of all responses that exist, to facilitate further research by the questioner, and not an endorsement (either religiously or scientifically) of any given approach. Of course, some people would still object to the very mention of approaches that are unacceptable, but I think that an explicit disclaimer would minimize this problem. On the other hand, such a list could make it a slippery slope that leads people away from Orthodoxy. What do you think?


  1. Such an approach would, as you say, be problematic by bringing down the wrath of both sides of the scale but without a doubt the resulting book would be both an invaluable reference text and completely non-practical. It is possible though that, in the Hegelian spirit, presenting all angles of the issue in question and then in a separate section at the end try to unify the approaches as much as possible for the practical application. In so doing the problem of the "slippery slope" could be diminished, and as to those who would omit various responses, which are valid to some and helpful to more, these factions as you wrote in your letter "In Defense of my Opponents" can essentially exclude themselves from the benefits of this book as, if nothing else a comprehensive reference, and will, hopefully, in the future see fit to ease the dismissal through face-saving necessity if it proves invaluable enough to enough people

  2. What would such a list of all positions accomplish?

    If you want to include the most extreme positions, it seems that the range is from "Scientists are just wrong (and probably evil)" to "The Torah is just a man-made document based largely on ANE views."

    Further, wouldn't there be a significant imbalance in the supporting evidence? To explain one side you would have copious amounts of information from geology, history, linguistics and so on. On the other side, "nature has changed ... we have a mesorah ... there is a deeper meaning ... chazal were infallible ... etc."

    And in between, the one would have to explain various attempts to reconcile/intrepret Torah narrative with scientific obdervations (e.g., time dilation).

    I would hope that anyone with the passionate interest in the subject, the depth of knowledge required and the intelligence to discuss the issues would also share his or her views on the issues--not just provide a compendium of positions that include clearly "extreme" ones.

  3. The hard part of this would be that if the author writes his own presentation of the different views, s/he will undoubtedly (albeit probably subtly) color the presentation. The best way would be to present the views in the very words of those who espouse them. I mean, take articles, speeches, clips from books, etc. from the original authors, and then present them. Anything else will leave open the charge of manipulation of the ideas to suit the author's (unspoken) agenda.

  4. Rav Eidensohn's Daat Torah attempts this approach on a wide range of topics. Although it is a useful reference tool, ultimately I feel that such a book is only useful as source material for a shiur in which some of the disparate ideas can be understood in context.
    Furthermore, in the field of hashkafa such a book is almost sure to be put in cherem, because for some people the claim that there is more than one view is itself heresy. I believe that Rav Dessler was the first to suggest that there is no machlokes in hashkafa, and Rav Friedlander follows in his footsteps. I assume that those who put your other books in Cherem would be equally disturbed by a book showing that there is machlokes in hashkafa.

  5. A wonderful idea & if the author would remain anonymous we the people would benefit greatly with no backlash for the author.

  6. An additional approach that is used within academic research that may be of use here is to use the format of an edited collection of articles. This both allows such a broad topic as Science and Religion to be divided into sub-topics (e.g. physics, zoology, psychology, etc.) and at the same time presenting a number of authors thus making it harder to target and isolate one person and his views as being heretical.

  7. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Without trying to flatter you, it has always been my impression that your books almost do precisely this. No Modern Orthodox or academic book that I have ever seen takes the charedi perspective as seriously as you do. You ultimately disagree with it, explaining why "Hashem created the world with ancient bones" etc. etc. doesn't seem to make sense, but unlike other authors, you actually seriously discuss charedi arguments like this one.

    In short, you already have written a work that is similar to your description!

    (And I agree with the other coments that publishing an objective, non-judgemental book offering all views would never, ever be acceptable in the charedi world.)

  8. I don't like this approach.
    When you include the extremes, people assume you have included everything.

    However, it would be impossible to list all possible positions "in the middle". Unless perhaps you had google working on the issue.

    Even if we you were able to find every single published opinion on the topic, I do not know how you would be able to fit it inside a single book. Therefore you would have to make choices, and at that point including the extremes because very problematic.

  9. In my neighborhood in Rehovot I attend a Shabbat Shiur which is given in a manner that you propose. Controversial topics are discussed, such as the halachic status of chilonim, and the like.

    He brings a printout with a long list of sources with exerpts from the original makor. In the shiur he then goes through each item, accompanied by commentary and lively discussion. Sources are brought from Tanach, talmud, rishonim and achronim covering the full spectrum of opinions.

    He will never claim to make a psak halacha. His purpose is to make people aware of the range of opinions and to stimulate thought.

    Of course he never shys away from controversial opinions, or from the idea that halacha evolved over time.

  10. I believe that Rav Dessler was the first to suggest that there is no machlokes in hashkafa, and Rav Friedlander follows in his footsteps.
    Is there a source where Rav Dessler says this. I have seen this brought from the Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna, but IMHO the Rambam does not seem to be saying that, rather that there is no need to pasken in hashkafa, not that there is no machlokes.

  11. You forget one thing: the extremists on both sides are not interested in discussion or compromise under any circumstances.
    The skeptics/atheists will reject anything less than "Science is 100% right, Chazal are 100% wrong" and the black-hat side will put anything less than "Chazal are 110% right and science is 200% wrong" in cherem.
    Rav Kook, ztk"l, and the Rav, ztk"l, both wrote about the concept of confrontation in Jewish life as I'm sure you're well aware (probably far better than me). The idea that there is an easy answer that resolves all problems is antithetical to that concept of conflict which is probably why such an answer doesn't exist.

  12. Dlz, there seems to be psak in hashkafa (the following is from a teacher I sometimes consult with):
    Moshiach comes or not - Rambam paskens bec it is ikar of emuna. And he paskens in peirush hamishnayos. So nafka mina l'maaseh includes belief [But see end of 13 ikarim - also nafka mina in how we treat him.]; Was the tana who said no moshiach a kofer? No - prior to psak there is not such guilt - Reb Chaim [though he was objectively wrong]. See Abarbenal Rosh Amana chap 14 - it is not a machlokes at all - he meant something else; Megaleh panim she lo k'halacha - ain lo chelek but not in defintion of kofer. So responsibility of belief goes beyond def of kofer. Nafka mina of kofer is being member of klal Yisroel [see end of 13 ikarim in peirush to San chap 10] - the ikarim define kofer, but does not exhaust responsibilities of belief; Megaleh panim - def: San 99b - hagada shel dofi [Mishna]; Hil teshuva - 3 all emuna cases of no chelek violate one ofthe 13 ikarim. Peirush hamishna Avos [megaleh panim] 3:11 - Rambam - azus in action davka. But others take it as hagadah shel dofi [she lo k'halacha means "improperly" - not "against the halacha" [Rashba - hagada shel dofi includes allegorizing wrongly - implication that the peshat is trivial or wrong: that IS the attitude of contempt] - attitude of contempt can cost olam haba. Compare hil talmud Torah, tushava 9, and ultimately Guide III:51; hilchasa l'meshicha is a reason in the Gemora not to paskan, but Rambam does pasken them in M.T. He is writing halacha for the times of mashiach. The Gemora seems to be objecting that if there is no need for a psak - no nafka mina l'maaseh - why pasken? But in m.t since he is writing for yemos hamoshiach, there is a nfka mina l'maaseh for that time, so he paskens; kidushin 71a Ramban, Raavad, Ritva; Kid. 36a "banim atem" the Rashba paskens halacha k'rebbi Meir. And see Har Tzvi and Torah Temima in Shas Lublin; derashos haran 5; tos yom tov sota 3:5; chovos halevevos intro; meshech chochma emor "raui"; note many cases where tanaim dispute "hashkafa" questions e.g. Sota symbolism; Peirush hamishna Sota 2:5 - when mayim bodek - machlokes R Meir, R Akiva [so they definitely did pasken] and Rambam says Hashem knows; 3:3 - hashkafa v'dea without maaseh, ain lomar halacha k'ploni. See Mishna Torah 3:16, 3:20 - he does pasken!; Shavuos 1:4 - kaparas hamusafim - it is Divine management, and since it is not l'maaseh we will not pasken. Hil Shavuous 11:9 he does pasken; Sefer Hamitzvos lo saaseh 133 zar she achal teruma misa bidei shamayim: limitation only not to pasken when there is no nafka mina l'maaseh - is that his limitation? - the Gemora clearly is paskening. But in Mishna Torah he does pasken: Terumos perek 6:6; San 10:3 - dor hamidbar techias hameisim - no psak; Moreh II:29 - we do not accept the age of the world 6000 because it is a daas yachid. III:17 Also paskens yesh yisurim bli avon....i.e. He paskens against yisurim shel ahava - he says "a few of the chachamim" - presumably the authority for rejecting is that they are a minority. Also see his letter on astrology: It is appropriate to believe only three types of things: something proved by man's intellect, like calculation, geometry or astronomical periods; something perceived by the senses directly and immediately; something received from the prophets and the tzadikim!! Notice that there is no room here for theoretical science at all, certainly not "historical" sciences. (If you want the quote from his letter, email me.)

  13. Didn't Dr. Cyril Domb's and R. Aryeh Carmell's Challenge seek to do exactly that? I haven't read it for a while, I recall that it quoted from both the Lubavitcher Rebbe and R. Kook.

  14. It should be pointed out that this is what Galileo tried to do with the question of heliocentrism. Look at how well that turned out for him.

  15. Another aspect re this topic is :-
    I know you want to discuss the different opinions objectively but you can't really write with passion unless you really believe in what you are writing.
    Probably why I like listening to your mp3 tapes

  16. > "Last year I met someone who had a different idea as to how to do it. His idea was to present a range of different answers that have been proposed to each question;... The idea was that he would not be identifying with, or legitimizing, any particular approach; just documenting their existence."

    Though I know it's not, this companion of yours sounds like it could be this rabbi, Rabbi Eli Kerzner, who seems to have the same idea. His talk on science and Torah appears here:

    "When Conflict is Unavoidable"

    Click here for a follow-up Q&A:

  17. Aren't there other Jewish books that say hashkafos similar to those your books were banned for? But those books were either YU, Modern Orthodox, or academic and non-denominational, so the Chareidi rabbis didn't bother banning them. Didn't you also mention in one of your lectures that had you not had haskamos in your books from prominent Chareidi rabbonim, they would likely not have bothered "Slifskinning" you alive? And if that is the case, then as long as the compiler of this type of book (that you mentioned above) does not seek out haskamos from Chareidi rabbis, the Chareidi "gedolim" will probably not pay it much attention because without haskamos from prominent Chareidi rabbis, every Chareidi knows that the book must then be "questionable" or "problematic". They wont create another "Slifskinning" as you already are the poster-boy for Chareidi apikorsus in matters of science and Torah. It will have to be another 80+ years before there is another.

    And anyway, being that your books have already been banned - why not just publish such a book under your name - what further harm could it do? All good Chareidim already know your books are banned.

    In terms of the slippery slope, in pre-WWII Europe, there were millions of Jews who were not religious. There was not much written for them which seeked to give them a scope of various views, and allow them to choose a path that they felt worked for them. It was pretty much all or nothing in those days. And lots of Jews who grew up frum, chose nothing. Nowadays people will eventually choose a path that works for them. I don't think you would be presenting them with anything that they would not otherwise find on their own. Everyone knows that today's science does not believe in G-d, or have any space for studying G-d. There is nothing new in presenting that view, extreme as it may be to a Chareidi reader.

  18. trl: I didnt look up all the references you cite, but a general point: not all times that the rambam follows one opinion is he "paskening," IMO and I think this is fairly clear. for example, the rambam writes in MT that avraham was not 3 but around 40 when he recognized hkb"h and rabenharambam explains this also - yet is someone who believes avraham was 3 violating a psak?? rambam has his reasons acc to his son, but surely its not kefira to follow the other opinion, and not just because others differ - the rambam's conclusion about avraham's age is simply a matter of weighing what seems likely to him in his understanding of how avraham recognized god intellectually (following his son's explanation for why he thought this way) - but it strains imagination that rambam intended to say that those who think avraham was younger are in violation of a psak!! and similarly yisurim bli avon, etc etc - these just arent ikarei emunah and psakim lehalacha such that those who think otherwise are sinners, perhaps simply rambam thought they were wrong or philosophically on the wrong track or whatever.

  19. Meme -

    As a total aside, because I know it wasn't your main point, the Rambam does say that Avraham was around 3 (when he was weaned) when he started to question the validity of the religion of idolatry.

  20. Have you read Persecution and the Art of Writing, by Leo Strauss? If no, check that out. Obviously, everything he says is 100% completely wrong, but it's worth the read, if nothing more than to get a good picture of his obviously completely wrong view of how Rambam wrote.

    Once again, let me state unequivocally and for the record that Strauss' book, while interesting and compelling, is totally wrong for very obvious reasons that need not be stated.


  21. I believe that Rav Dessler was the first to suggest that there is no machlokes in hashkafa, and Rav Friedlander follows in his footsteps.

    Rav Friedlander is quoted in the introduction to his (posthumously published) "Sifsei Chaim" as having said often that there were other valid approaches to be found besides the one he chose to present (that of the Ramchal, usually.)

  22. yes true this is what he says in hil a"z 1 -

    [ג] כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּגְמַל אֵיתָן זֶה, הִתְחִיל לְשׁוֹטֵט בְּדַעְתּוֹ וְהוּא קָטָן, וְלַחְשֹׁב בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה, וְהָיָה תָּמֵהַּ: הֵיאַךְ אִפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הַגַּלְגַּל הַזֶּה נוֹהֵג תָּמִיד, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה לוֹ מַנְהִיג; וּמִי יְסַבַּב אוֹתוֹ, לְפִי שְׁאֵי אִפְשָׁר שֶׁיְּסַבַּב אֶת עַצְמוֹ. וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ לֹא מְלַמֵּד וְלֹא מוֹדִיעַ דָּבָר, אֵלָא מֻשְׁקָע בְּאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים בֵּין עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הַטִּפְּשִׁים.

    י וְאָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְכָל הָעָם עוֹבְדִים עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, וְהוּא הָיָה עוֹבֵד עִמָּהֶן. וְלִבּוֹ מְשׁוֹטֵט וּמֵבִין, עַד שֶׁהִשִּׂיג דֶּרֶךְ הָאֱמֶת, וְהֵבִין קַו הַצֶּדֶק, מִדַּעְתּוֹ הַנְּכוֹנָה; וְיָדַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם אֱלוֹהַּ אֶחָד, וְהוּא מַנְהִיג הַגַּלְגַּל, וְהוּא בָּרָא הַכֹּל, וְאֵין בְּכָל הַנִּמְצָא אֱלוֹהַּ חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ.

    יא וְיָדַע שֶׁכָּל הָעָם טוֹעִים, וְדָבָר שֶׁגָּרַם לָהֶם לִטְעוֹת, זֶה שֶׁעוֹבְדִים אֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים וְאֶת הַצּוּרוֹת, עַד שֶׁאָבַד הָאֱמֶת מִדַּעְתָּם; וּבֶן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, הִכִּיר אַבְרָהָם אֶת בּוֹרְאוֹ

    however, r avraham ben harambam writes that he rejected the opinion that he recognized his creator at the younger age - perhaps he is trying to resolve the two opinions by placing the younger age as the time he began exploring, though maybe he just thinks that's a reasonable age to begin thinking for example, this is around the age that sarah says to send away yishmael and hagar (maybe that's not a good proof, just an evocative association)

  23. Dear Rabbi Slifkin, such a book does is called 'the limits of orthodox theology' by marc shapiro. It's a great and fascinating read about how broad orthodox theology really is in relation to the rambams 13 principles and how every principle bar the 1st has numerous rishonim who disagree with it,...

  24. >. His idea was to present a range of different answers that have been proposed to each question...The idea was that he would not be identifying with, or legitimizing, any particular approach; just documenting their existence.

    Was this person named Aish Hatorah? this is something of a technique they have used to rely on the credibility of voices on issues they couldn't have a direct voice regarding - either for political reasons or not considering themselves strong enough in knowledge. They present "news stories" about the 'unfair' war against Intelligent Design so as to suggest its kashrut without stating it, as with many other science and history issues relating to Torah particularly archaeology. There will be 'drash' in other sections of the virtual site - much like they did in actual site at Aish Jerusalem, with the "Essentials" room just off from the beit midrash, which is to lend suggestively transition from one to the other.

  25. I think the bit about Galileo was a low blow. But I wouldn't go so far as to compare it certain Torah & science works that paint questionable accounts of the Church's relationship to science. I suggest Guy Consolmagno's "Brother Astronomer".


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