Thursday, October 21, 2010

Anti-Hirschian Hirschians

Over at "On the Main Line," there's a fascinating interview with Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudas Yisrael, by Baruch Pelta. Rabbi Shafran is a very fine person who I personally like very much, even though I dislike the tone and content of much of what he writes.

Amongst other topics, the ban on my books is discussed. Rabbi Shafran claims that the problem with my books was the "tone," that there was condescension towards Chazal. Now, I don't deny that the tone of my book would be problematic to many people in the Charedi world, but this does not make the books objectively kefirah. Furthermore, I'm not quite sure how the non-English-reading Gedolim such as Rav Elyashiv, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Moshe Shapiro would have been able to evaluate the tone. Apparently they were following the testimony of Rabbi Leib Pinter, Rabbi Leib Tropper and Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer, which, in light of revelations about these people since the ban, should surely mean that any verdicts reached on the basis of this testimony are invalid.

More to the point, this is not what the Gedolim hold or said. The idea that the problem was the "tone" is a common refrain heard from those who are uncomfortable with what the Gedolim actually hold. Baruch Pelta points out that the Gedolim were clearly condemning the basic position that Chazal could have erred in their statements about the natural world. Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Moshe Shapiro - they were all explicit about this.

So Rabbi Shafran first tries to claim that this in fact stems from the problem of tone. Now, this doesn't address Baruch's point at all; the Gedolim nevertheless claimed that the resultant position - that Chazal could be mistaken about the natural world - is kefirah, even though this was the position of many dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. Rabbi Shafran then claims that what I said was different from all those Rishonim and Acharonim - that to say (as I did) that Chazal were making a statement about the natural world which is not true on any level, is something that was never said by any Torah authority.

I regret to say that this reflects simple ignorance about the positions of many dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. I urge Rabbi Shafran to read the sources at torahandscience.blogspot.com. When the Rishonim said that Chazal erred in describing the sun passing behind the sky at night, they did not mean that Chazal were nevertheless correct "on some level." The Rishonim did not say that Chazal were talking about "a reality that is not the scientific reality." Maharal does say that, but his approach is an innovation that has no basis in the Rishonim and was not followed by many of those who lived after him.

Rabbi Shafran claims that when Chazal spoke about lice spontaneously generating, they meant that the eggs are too small to see. That's one view, which I discuss in my book, but others are of the view that Chazal were not talking about that (as the Rishonim and Acharonim make clear) and that they were simply wrong. When Rav Hirsch discusses Chazal's statement about spontaneously-generating mice, he does not say that Chazal were nevertheless correct "on some level" (aside from the idea that the halachic discussion is nevertheless valuable, a point that I stressed at great length in my book). Rav Hirsch says that when Chazal spoke about the natural sciences, they simply followed the scientists of their day, and were thus sometimes mistaken.

The irony is that Rabbi Shafran insists that he is a full-blooded Hirschian. I recommend that he reads Rav Hirsch's letters on Chazal and science (available at this link). The letters that the Gedolim condemned as forgeries and kefirah.

35 comments:

  1. " Maharal does say that, but his approach is an innovation that has no basis in the Rishonim and was not followed by many of those who lived after him."

    Is there any source which says that the Maharal is wrong on this point?

    I would take the absence of criticism to be a form of agreement on a topic like this.

    Most mephorshim aren't going to go beyond the format of their perush, but they will when believing that a another previous statement is wrong; such As Ramban and Ibn Ezra often do.

    I have no problem saying that chazal got scientific facts wrong. But I do question the statement that they were wrong on all levels. If their statement was purely an observation about the natural world, and was not there to teach a point, then I would have to wonder why the statement was said at all.

    To attempt to clarify: When the gemorah gives an asmachtah, it is very easy to say that the gemora was mistaken about what that particular verse actually means. However, we don't say that they were wrong, because they arn't trying to tell us the literal/pshat meaning of the verse in that case. So to with scientific statements.... it's missing the point.

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  2. "Is there any source which says that the Maharal is wrong on this point?"

    Nobody really studied Maharal's works until very recently. And there's no reason to take the absence of criticism to be a form of agreement, just as you wouldn't take the absence of criticism on the Rishonim's statements about Chazal being in error, to be a form of agreement.

    "If their statement was purely an observation about the natural world, and was not there to teach a point, then I would have to wonder why the statement was said at all."

    Each case is different. For the mouse, one citation is to discuss halachos that apply to it, and another is to cite it as evidence for Techiyas HaMeisim. For the salamander, it's as an example of Mah Rabu Maasecha. Etc., etc.

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  3. Having read your "kefirah'dik" book, I can't understand Rav Shafran's comment on your tone. No, your book did not read like a typical Chareidi book. You failed to include terms like "in whose light we bask" or "whose Torah is pure" or "to whose toes we do not reach" when mentioning various great rabbonim. Is that the wrong tone?
    If that's his worst criticism then he has no valid argument against his book and is simply opposing it because
    a) he is a bagman for the Agudah and if they come out against fresh air he'll encourage us to start smoking
    b) to backtrack would admit his gedolim were either wrong or misled and that could NEVER happen.

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  4. For the sake of your newer readers, I'd like to present our conversation from the "Tone or Approach" post from a year ago?

    ME: A certain rabbi (Orthodox) came to our shul as a visiting scholar. His talk was about "mistaken customs." Our mora d'asra invited him. I thought the talk was extremely interesting. However, a "Rabbi N" in the community thought his talk was destructive. I guess maybe that talking about ONE mistaken custom, as a SIDE issue, would be okay with Rabbi N, even to a large group of baalebatim. But when the talk is FOCUSED on the one sensitive topic, that could be seen as the speaker WANTING his listeners to have less faith in our mesorah. Rabbi N may have sensed a "tone" of casting aspersions on those rabbis who perpetuated these customs.

    So, maybe when you asked, "Could you give me an example? Point to a specific sentence which has a problematic 'tone,'", it makes sense that no one can give /AN/ example. However, putting all your arguments TOGETHER (whether in one book, or scanning several books) can be seen, perhaps, as causing an overall tone of casting aspersions or overall doubts on some sages and/or rabbis.

    RNS: "Fair enough. But I still think that it's really an objection to the approach rather than merely the tone."

    ME: To tell the truth, I had intended to point out that it could be seen as a combination of the two.

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  5. Well, it's certainly the case that that sort of judgment cannot be made on the basis of a few extracts selected by kanna'im!

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  6. I understand the impulse to "protect" people from the truth if it results in them losing faith with the entire ediface of Judaism. By looking at things with an eye towards science we are in fact rendering simplistic arguments ineffective. There is a large segment of the population who cannot understand anything beyond simplistic arguments so to question them is to remove the prop holding them up. The ethics of that decision are at the core of the debate.

    I would argue that The Seal of God is Truth. Therefore, if you keep people from knowing the Truth, you are in fact creating a false religion (even if that person keeps the Mitzvot). However, if complex arguments keep people from believing and thereby keeping the Mitzvot well that does not work either.

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  7. "Tone" is nonsense. Anyone who has to resort to "tone" obviously cannot deal with the substance. Tho I noticed you yourself wrote you disliked the "tone" of R. Shafran's work [and it didnt appear like an attempt at irony.]

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  8. I did put that in there as a joke, but I was simultaneously serious; and I was referring to the tone of triumphalism.

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  9. If I remember correctly, the tone factor did not become an issue until months into the issue when the "other" side were flailing and looking more and more obscurant on the issues.

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  10. The 'tone' argument was the number one 'issue' people have raised. I think most people just read someone else's statement that the 'tone' was the issue, and were simply parroting that. It's become like a talking point that absolves the person stating it from backing it up with anything.

    I'm surprised that people aren't more upset that R. Slifkin is condescending not towards Chazal, but to the majority of Orthodox Jews. I think this is really the issue. It's not that you're being critical of Chazal, it's that you're telling everyone who believes in Chazal in some fanciful way that they are stupid.

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  11. I let your comment through this time, but in future please use your real name, or at least a pseudonym.

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  12. >The 'tone' argument was the number one 'issue' people have raised.

    Not in priority (ie, in time). It was NOT the first issue raised. It was not raised for many months after the entire episode began. I was there, I followed it closely, I read every word that was written. It became about tone.

    Theoretically it could have always been about tone and knowing how difficult it is to explain to the masses that they don't like the tone, they chose to make it about a sideshow when the real issue was tone. Maybe. But that's speculative. And, as R. Slifkin notes, the Israeli rabbonim relied on unsavory characters telling them their own opinion rather than reading the books themselves. It is very questionable if they managed to convey that it was about the tone and the rabbis who got on board against him agreed and yet all of them decided to present it to the public as if it was a different issue, all the while it was really about tone.

    Now, Phil happens to be right about the difference between someone who exposes one custom as fallacious and someone who exposes a dozen - there is a difference even if it is intangible. But the fact is that the discussion about tone came late in the game, and at the time people noticed that it was a new element introduced into the argument, and suspected that it was because the first issue(s) raised were so easily swatted away.

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  13. > It's not that you're being critical of Chazal, it's that you're telling everyone who believes in Chazal in some fanciful way that they are stupid.

    This is the black and white thinking that I cannot abide.
    Isaac Newton knew nothing about the theory of relativity. Does that mean he was stupid? He was brilliant but limited by the knowledge base of his day. Same thing with Galen and even Stephen Hawking.
    Chazal's brilliance and erudition must be understood in the context of their times. Just because they were unaware of dinosaurs or microwaves, saying so does not mean they were stupid, chas v'shalom. Why is it so hard for people to understand this?

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  14. >Why is it so hard for people to understand this?

    Because they think that comparing Chazal to Newton is not only terrible, but wrong. Newton could not compare favorably with, say, the Shach, his contemporary. How then can you compare him to Chazal?

    He raised the donkey argument: and this is Chazal speaking of their predecessors.

    There is quite literally no common ground.

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  15. First of all, I'm not comparing people but attitudes. I'm saying that a lack of knowledge of facts that only became known much later does not imply any defect in the person with the lack of knowledge.
    What's more, the donkey comment IIRC refers to knowledge of Torah, not science so how is it relevant?

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  16. "Nobody really studied Maharal's works until very recently. And there's no reason to take the absence of criticism to be a form of agreement, just as you wouldn't take the absence of criticism on the Rishonim's statements about Chazal being in error, to be a form of agreement."

    If there was an author who never disagrees anywhere about chazal being in error, I would very much take that to be a form of agreement.

    I've never seen anything that would indicate that an author disagrees with a position held by other famous meforshim and does not comment on it.

    And what do you mean by "recently" regarding Maharal's work? It was a staple of education while I was growing up.

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  17. I think that the tone of some of Rav Hirsch's writings are worse than your tone. 'Moshe ben Maimmon, Moshe ben Mendel - are they in fact Moshe ben Amram?'
    How about his criticism of Yitzchok's chinuch - vayigdellu hane'arim. It isn't even a science issue, yet Rav Hirsch feels entitled to criticize anyone whom with he has an intellectual disagreement. Not bowing to names is called being intellectually honest. And that is an integral part of being a Hirschean.

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  18. i have long felt that the only reason RSRH retains his respectability in charedi circles is because of they generally do not read him. of course it is a joke to hear such as r. shafran self-describe as a hirschian - and perhaps shows his contempt for a readership too ignorant to appreciate the general ridiculousness of it all. or perhaps shows that a professional spinmeister will say anything.

    this is, after all, the same r. shafran who- uncharacteristically - penned a cautiously worded essay in the (happily) late unlamented jewish observer about r. moshe mendelssohn that strayed from the party line (ie RMM was personally frum and not really such a bad guy) and whose feeble attempts to align it with agudist ideology - ie where RMM went wrong was in not consulting his local g'dolim - did not save him from being slapped around in the following issue which issued an apology for letting such a hashqoficly incorrect article slip through their editorial process. i doubt that r. shafran has needed any reminders since then about the relative priority of intellectual integrity and ideology.

    of course it is good to hear that on a personal level he may be "a fine person".

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  19. Ameteur

    >And what do you mean by "recently" regarding Maharal's work? It was a staple of education while I was growing up.

    That's what he means by "recently." You are alive, you grew up "recently."

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  20. Garnel

    >First of all, I'm not comparing people but attitudes. I'm saying that a lack of knowledge of facts that only became known much later does not imply any defect in the person with the lack of knowledge.

    From Shafran's point of view nothing in the Gemara is not true in some reality, and what's more, the Chazal knew it too. So you're saying they did not know the things that could not be known then, and he's saying they didn't mean what you think they meant, because they were so great and if you don't see that then you don't appreciate who they were. Those things that seem to be wrong scientifically? They meant something else, which was true then and is true now "on some level."

    Shafran said it in the interview, Slifkin looks at Chazal like they're scientists, and this is a problem (the problem). Newton's throwaway lines weren't "true on some level" but, in this point of view, Chazal's were - certainly if they're in the Gemara.

    >What's more, the donkey comment IIRC refers to knowledge of Torah, not science so how is it relevant?

    If you look at the Gemara, it says nothing about Torah. I'm not saying that Shafran's reading is correct (eg, he is meduyak that a donkey never can become person, and I don't know if that's the point). I don't know that "the Gemara" had the very same attitude about their rishonim that he does, but whatever it is talking about, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with knowledge of Torah.

    I think his point (and the view it represents) is that the Gemara doesn't contain anything which isn't sublime. If it talks about demons, it's not Persian superstition which crept in either by accident or because Chazal worked with the foolish beliefs of the masses while privately being smart enough not to believe it themselves. It's there because - being sublime - it's true, at least on some level. Whatever that's supposed to mean. Of course as someone else said, why is "you throw a piece of meat in a corner and you see maggots" some sort of high level of truth? But I digress.

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  21. Garnel: >What's more, the donkey comment IIRC refers to knowledge of Torah, not science so how is it relevant?

    Don't play dumb. As a kofer, you're entitled to respect science. That doesn't mean all Orthodox Jews do. Remind me how much science is learned in chareidi schools in Israel. Then go jump off a roof.

    Besides, the donkey line goes: "If they were like angels, we're like donkeys." It doesn't limit the comparison to any sort of fireld of study, and you know that. 's basically an excuse to worship humans and believe in their infallibility. The Catholics have one Pope. We have millions.

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  22. It seems to be the issue is not whether or not Chazal are angels. It's whether or not we're donkeys.

    Talk about an ad hominem to end all ad hominems: "You can't possibly be right. You're a donkey!"

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  23. "Ameteur

    >And what do you mean by "recently" regarding Maharal's work? It was a staple of education while I was growing up.

    That's what he means by "recently." You are alive, you grew up "recently.""

    His writings have been influential at a minimum from the time of the early chasdism... so I'm trying to understand what R. Slifkin meant by "recent" 200 years isn't very "recent" when it comes to Torah and Science outlooks. Science as we understand it today is barely that old.

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  24. Check out R. Chaim Eisen's seminal Hakira article on Maharal.

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  25. Garnel, S: Apologies, I didn't write what I meant well enough. I did not mean to say that R. Slifkin is saying that Chazal are/were stupid (chas v'shalom); what I meant was that by pointing out that Chazal were wrong, R. Slifkin is in some small measure being condescending to people who refuse to abandon an idyllic belief in Chazal's infallibility (I don't think there's anything wrong with this; from the other perspective, there's certainly an abundance of condescension for rational thought).

    That's the point that I've tried to make to people, which is quite in agreement with Garnel's sentiments: I don't hold Chazal in contempt for being wrong in an environment that lacked information, just as I don't think Newton was an idiot for spending so much time trying to make lead into gold. We don't fault someone trapped in a maze that they can't escape; but if they have a bird's eye view of the maze and can see the exit, yet still willfully remain trapped in the maze, that's a different story (it might be a nice maze, that has lots of creature comforts, etc. You might not be able to blame them...I think I've stretched this analogy far enough).

    S: you are right about tone; it did come later. My comment got mangled in the editing; what I meant to say was that the 'tone' argument was the #1 complaint that I received when R. Slifkin came to our shul to speak. It's become a talking point.

    Oh, and sorry for the anonymous comment previously.

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  26. Rabbi Shafran knows where he has to end up and he tries to be a gentleman along the way. Unlike many a charedi blogger, there is no hysteria or name calling. What is news in the content is that he didn’t opt for old earth theories, a position Rabbi Meiselman advocated on the internet. Arguing that it’s not what R. Slifkin said but his tone means that he is not asserting evolution is false. He acknowledges that the decision whether or not to accept evolution will be determined by the evidence and the rules of inference used by scientists. At the end of the day for Shafran/Agudah it is evolution that judges the adequacy of Genesis.

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  27. S and Greg, one thing Rav Sliffkin has noted before, with adequate textual support, is that Chazal themselves were aware of their limitations outside of the area of Torah. They consulted with butchers, non-Jewish philosophers and scientists when they needed to as he has pointed out. They themselves were aware of their limits but we have to pretend they didn't have any?
    Further, when one uses the word "wrong" in a scientific context, one must be careful. It's easy to say nowadays that one cannot turn lead into gold. To believe one could several centuries ago is not wrong because in the context of the times it was believed to be possible. If Isaac Newton had been asked whether or not time was relative, he would have said it wasn't. Living when he did he wasn't wrong. In the context of the knowledge of his day he was correct. Thus Chazal were most likely speaking correctly when they spoke about science in the context of their era. That our understanding of the universe has grown and replaced what their assumptions and understandings are is not a defect on them or their knowledge.

    OTD, the adults are trying to have a discussion. Go play with your little friends, why don't you.

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  28. Ameteur wrote: "Is there any source which says that the Maharal is wrong on this point?"

    He doesn't have to be "wrong," but he was the first to say it and was innovating. So he also doesn't have to be right either.

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  29. "Ameteur wrote: "Is there any source which says that the Maharal is wrong on this point?"

    He doesn't have to be "wrong," but he was the first to say it and was innovating. So he also doesn't have to be right either."

    First to say it, or first to say it in writing?
    Do you understand the difference?

    Many times, somebody will come along and say what everybody was already thinking, but they will be the first to have written the idea in a clear and concise way which makes it possible for others to point and say.. "Yes that is what we meant!"

    So I am asking if in the 200+(400?) years since these ideas became easily accessible, has anyone disagreed and suggested that this is not a correct method of study?

    I would be thoroughly shocked if nobody has decried his methods as incorrect considering the history of Jewish thinkers to label others as mistaken. And I am curious to know which thinkers have done so.

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  30. Rav Moshe Shapiro knows English.

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  31. But he finds it too difficult to read it and he has people translate things for him instead. He told me that personally.

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  32. natan slikfin you are a very sick man who should repent before g-d gets to you !! Rav Feldman says you are the cause of the greatest chillul hashem in this generation i feel bad about your place in hell

    i clearly see from you website that u are a smart am haaretz there is no sence in debating you because you dont know how to learn

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  33. and you have posted a note by a simple minded fool such as orthodox jew, whose grasp on reality seems commensurate with his tenuous grasp of the English language, because?

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  34. I think that it's important for my readers to know what kind of people are out there. Plus, someone recently accused me of being selective in the comments that I allow to be posted, and not revealing how many people are deeply opposed to my approach.

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  35. The piece by R. Hirsch that you link to is only an excerpt from a longer piece; it is not the entire letter.

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