In a previous post, I discussed the mistakes commonly made when defining who is an expert in science. In this post, I would like to address the question of who is an expert in Torah. The confusion surrounding this issue is probably the most significant factor involved with those people who, with little or no knowledge of the issues involved, decided that in STARC the Gedolim had to be correct. After all, between a 29-year-old average yeshivah graduate, and two dozen Gedolei Torah, isn't it obvious who's correct? It's like matching a high-school student against two dozen Nobel-prize winning scientists!
In defining "experts in Torah," (or "Gedolim",) there are two misconceptions that are commonly found. The first is the assumption that anyone with expertise in one area of Torah automatically possesses expertise in all areas of Torah. This is something that I discussed in an earlier post (perhaps someone can find the link). There is a common assumption that anyone who is, say, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah, and/or is known as a great Lamdan (i.e. possesses great expertise in applying the Brisker Derech to certain parts of Shas), is also proficient in all areas of Torah, as well as automatically being a tzaddik.
I don't know why this assumption exists, but there is no basis for it. First of all, a good Seforim library will contain many thousands of volumes, and it is impossible for anyone to be proficient in anything beyond a small fraction of these. Second, there are different areas of Torah study that people choose to specialize in, so there is simply no basis for assuming that specialists in one area are knowledgeable about other areas. Third of all, the particular field of Torah relevant to my books is a very arcane area, so there is no reason to expect people to be proficient in it if they do not have a prior interest in it; I doubt that the Gedolim who opposed my books ever researched the views of the Rishonim on the critical passage in Pesachim 94b about the sun's path at night. Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, some of the most important texts in this field are deliberately avoided in yeshivos. The Moreh Nevuchim is a case in point - I have been told, and I believe it to be true, that most of the Gedolim who signed against my books have never studied the Moreh.
The second and more fundamental point in judging who is an expert in Torah relates (as with expertise in science) to epistemology and worldview. The Gedolim who opposed my books all come from a particular school of thought: the anti-rationalist movement of the last few hundred years. Rav Moshe Shapiro has studied the Moreh Nevuchim, but has done so through the lens of Maharal, not Rambam. My books, on the other hand, are based on the worldview of the rationalist Rishonim of Sefard (and a few later figures).
But don't the Gedolim know about the other worldview? Not adequately. Some, such as Rav Elyashiv, probably do, to some extent; and that is why he says that the books are not technically kefirah, just forbidden for the charedi world. But most, although they are aware that Rambam and some other aberrant figures had some "strange" views, are entirely unaware of how prominent and mainstream was the view that Chazal were not infallible in science. Any sources that they are shown, to that effect, are immediately interpreted from a non-rationalist perspective. "It's a forgery, it was just for kiruv, it is supposed to be interpreted according to a deeper meaning," etc., etc. The haskamos on the notorious work Chaim B'Emunasam make this very clear. I also have a letter from Rav Scheinberg in which he states that any source from the Rishonim saying that Chazal erred in science must be a forgery.
Thus, the analogy of a high-school student to a group of Nobel-prizewinners is wrong, because in that example, both are operating within the same general approach. A better example would be - and please forgive the analogy, but it illuminates the point well, so insert plenty of "lehavdils" - an average rabbi against all the leading scholars of the Vatican regarding whether the New Testament reflects Divine inspiration. The Vatican scholars are clearly far more learned regarding the New Testament text and surrounding literature and history. Nevertheless, since they are coming from a radically different worldview, there is no reason to give them greater weight than the rabbi regarding the question of whether the New Testament reflects Divine inspiration.
Finally, it is with regard to this point of worldview that the advantage of the academic approach comes into play. The passionate religious authority, especially in the charedi world, is ideologically and emotionally committed to a particular approach to Judaism. The problem is that the traditionalist, anti-rationalist worldview, by its very nature, precludes the acknowledgment of any legitimate alternative. To admit to the existence of radically different approaches would undermine this religious worldview. Indeed, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky writes in Emes LeYaakov, the goal of the charedi/ yeshivah approach is to minimize any apparent theological differences between the Rishonim, even if one needs to engage in creative intellectual gymnastics to do so. But the academic scholar usually does not need to say that all great Torah scholars of the past subscribed to the approach that he deems correct. He is freely able to acknowledge the existence of very different schools of thought.
For these reasons and more, it's wrong to look at STARC and other such disputes as "young whippersnapper versus a multitude of great Torah authorities." Rather, it's "the rationalist approach of the Sefardic Rishonim and others, versus the anti-rationalist approach of later authorities." Or, more precisely: "the rationalist approach of the Sefardic Rishonim and others, versus the anti-rationalist approach of later authorities who cannot in principle acknowledge the existence of other approaches."
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