Monday, May 30, 2011

Attack of the Nazi Midgets

One of the most bizarre stories I've ever heard of came to light via the research of Dr. Jan Bondeson, whose fascinating and scholarly books on unnatural history, medical oddities and premature burial have been exceedingly useful in my research. His latest book documents how the Nazis had a program for training dogs to be Nazis - in terms of their actually espousing Nazi ideology! The Nazis believed that dogs were intelligent enough to be trained to talk, and claimed that they had successfully trained one dog to refer to Hitler, yemach shemo, as "mein Fuhrer"! Other dogs allegedly expressed their dislike of the French, which has led some modern commentators to note that the program was not a complete waste of time.

This strange Nazi story reminded me of something amusing that happened back in 2005. Immediately following the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Gardens, a friend of mine told that Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, mashgiach ruchani of Lakewood, had condemned me in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people as being a "Nazi midget." I quickly investigated, and it turned out that my friend was embellishing events - but not by much! Rav Mattisyahu did not call me a "Nazi midget." He just described me as a midget who was undermining that which the victims of the Nazis died for.

In his address, Rav Mattisyahu spoke about the connection between the Holocaust and conflicts between Chazal and science. I didn't know that there were any connections, but apparently I was mistaken. According to Rav Mattisyahu, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust died for their faith that every word in the Gemara is true. And, he said, those who provide "makeshift answers" to questions are making a grave mistake:

Shas is faith-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out. We would rather wait for Eliyahu to come! Why settle for a makeshift answer, if we will be handed the reliable solution at a later date? Teyku is the answer! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation. (From a transcript in Mishpachah)

Now, much earlier, I had heard from a colleague of Rav Mattisyahu that he would not be signing the ban against my work. Eventually, however, he did sign. Still, Rav Mattisyahu was sufficiently unhappy with the way that the whole ban went down that in February 2005, following Rav Aharon Feldman's visit to Rav Elyashiv in which he clarified that my books were not actually kefirah, Rav Feldman recruited him to add his signature to a letter clarifying this. (Of course, that was before various pressures were exerted and Rav Feldman ended up changing his mind and endorsing the charge of kefirah.) Yet in this speech, given shortly after the ban was publicized, Rav Mattisyahu was going out of his way to condemn my approach.

But this was a slap in the face to Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, one of the Gedolei HaDor of America, who had written a haskamah to Mysterious Creatures - and who was the ultimate target of the entire Kalmanovitch/Tropper/Pinter/Wachtfogel-orchestrated campaign in the first place. And Rav Mattisyahu found out that in Philadelphia, they were Not Happy with his speech. So he rushed over to Philly to explain that in fact he had not been referring to my books at all, but rather to Rav Moshe Tendler, due to the latter's stance regarding metzitzah b'peh. (Apparently it's okay to refer to Rav Tendler as a midget who attempts to repudiate the irrefutable truths of Avaya and Rava.) Nobody believed him.

As it happens, I was more amused than offended by Rav Mattisyahu's condemnation of me in front of twenty thousand people. And with regard to the general idea of accepting to remain with questions - currently being discussed over at Torah Musings - I happen to think that approach has a very valuable place in Torah study, as I discussed at length in Sacred Monsters (where I also happily cited Rav Mattisyahu!) We should not expect, with our limited knowledge and experience, to be able to resolve all difficulties in the Talmud. I myself still have many questions and difficulties. Often, the most honest, accurate and suitable response is to simply admit and accept that one does not have the solution. No matter who we are, we never have all our questions answered. At such times, there is an important Yiddish expression to bear in mind: Fun a kashya shtarbt mon nisht — “From a question, a person doesn’t die.” It conveys the advice that we should not be overly distressed when we do not find answers for all our questions.

Nevertheless, this approach is widely misused and abused. It is legitimate to adopt this approach for oneself whenever one wants. It is unreasonable, however, to always expect other people to accept it. All too often, this approach is used to brush off important questions that should be answered and for which great authorities have already provided answers.

Telling someone that “you don’t die from a question” carries serious risks and should be avoided wherever possible. The great Torah scholars of history did not generally use this approach with people who were struggling with faith-challenging issues. When Rambam encountered people who were grappling with the questions raised by Aristotelian philosophy, he did not simply say, “You don’t die from a question.” Instead, he worked hard to write his Guide for the Perplexed, and provided answers wherever possible – even though these answers were not popular with many segments of Jewry.

Avoiding the risks involved in less-than-ideal answers carries its own risks. All too often, telling someone “You don’t die from a question” is accompanied by the implicit message that the questioner should not be asking such questions. But the unwillingness to seriously deal with questions can itself lead to a crisis of faith, as Maharal explains:
A person should not reject something which is against his own views… especially if it is not presented as an attack on religion but is simply an honest expression of the other person’s beliefs. Even if it is against his own religious beliefs and faith, he should not say, “Be quiet and shut your mouth,” because there will not be a clarification of that person’s religious understanding. In fact, in such cases we should tell a person to speak his mind freely and fully express how he feels, such that he should not feel that he has not been able to fully speak his mind. If sincere questions are silenced, this is indicative that the religion is weak, as discussed earlier. This attitude is the opposite of what some people think. They mistakenly think that forbidding people from discussing religion strengthens religious faith, but this is not the case. Suppression of dissent and prohibiting people from speaking is a weakening of religion. (Maharal, Be’er HaGolah 7)

Maharal himself strongly attacked Azariah de Rossi for responding to difficulties in the Talmud with answers that Maharal deemed unacceptable. But — and this is a point that some people miss — Maharal provided alternate solutions! He did not simply dismiss the questions and leave the questioner with no answers.

Of course, the importance of giving answers does not justify giving any kind of answer; we cannot be dishonest, and we cannot compromise the integrity of Torah. And even legitimate answers sometimes require difficult adjustments and can involve certain risks. In some cases, they should be presented only to those who are sincerely bothered by the questions. But where answers have been given by authoritative Torah scholars - as is the case with the questions discussed in my books - we should not insist that the questioner remain with his questions. You don't die from a question, but you can get very sick!

30 comments:

  1. Yisrael GottesmanMay 30, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    "Shas is faith-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out. We would rather wait for Eliyahu to come! Why settle for a makeshift answer, if we will be handed the reliable solution at a later date? Teyku is the answer! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation. (From a transcript in Mishpachah)"

    "He just described me as a midget who was undermining that which the victims of the Nazis died for."

    I see no reference in Rav Rav Matisyahu Salomon's quoted comment that refers to the victims of the Shoah.

    Yisrael Gottesman

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  2. That was in the preceding part. Unfortunately I don't have the transcript. Maybe someone can provide it - or better, the audio or video recording.

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  3. That dogs can be trained or modified to speak intelligently is clearly possible as demonstrated in the recent animated documentary: "Up!"
    That humans can be trained or modified in a similar fashion is still up for debate.

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  4. Even within the US yeshivish scene R.Salomon is only really popular or respected amongst a certain segment. The talmidei chachamim and poskim are very wary of him. He is considered a real Torah lightweight, good at giving vaadim on Shaarei Teshuva and inspiring 'the masses' at events like the Siyum HaShas but who can't learn.

    His ascent to Gedula since he came to the US is seen as the paradigm of the (self) created Gadol. Having dealth with him, I can tell you that he certainly believes he is Daas Torah, but even in Lakewood many others would disagree.
    The same opinion is true to an even greater extent in Israel.

    Personally I disagree with much of what you write, but I (even as a 'charedi') definitely wouldn't associate myself with R.Salomon's words or approach.

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  5. I'm not sure if the Nazi dog intro was that relevant to this post.

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  6. "I can tell you that he certainly believes he is Daas Torah"

    That was gratuitous, state-of-mind. Keep to facts that are verifiable.

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  7. "From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation."

    Except that the midgets of our generation have been known to overrule the likes of Abaye and Rava, forbidding the permitted.

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  8. Yisrael GottesmanMay 30, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    I did find this:

    [The Holocaust victims] died with emunah in their hearts, with as much Torah as they could salvage for themselves and their children. Throughout the camps, a song of emunah was passed around, Zeidim helitzuni. miTorascha lo natasi [Wicked ones have scoffed at me, from Your Torah I have not swerved].

    Rabbosai, Gemara is not a relic of ancient texts. Shas is emunah-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out. We would rather wait for Eliyahu to come! Why settle for a makeshift answer, if we will be handed the reliable solution at a later date? Teiku is an answer! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation.

    Without Torah sheBa'al Peh, there can be no Written Torah. This is what our kedoshim expect from us.

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  9. Phil,
    This is the comments section of a blog, not a courtroom! I think that my opinions and impressions of personal interactions are far from gratuitous. In any case, I wanted to avoid specifics, and I still do, but the situation left no doubt as to his opinion. In any case he has said much to others.
    My point really is that yeshivish society is not monolithic and we don't all go along with everything a rabbi with a white beard (or who is pictured in the frum press) says.

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  10. When I saw the title of this post I thought you were referring to this :)

    The world famous Roswell 'incident' was no UFO but rather a Russian spacecraft with 'grotesque, child-size aviators' developed in human experiments by Nazi doctor and war criminal Josef Mengele, according to a theory floated by investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen.

    Her book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base, is about the secretive Nevada base called Area 51. One chapter offers the new Roswell theory, citing an anonymous source who says Joseph Stalin recruited Mengele and sent the craft into US air space in 1947 to spark public hysteria.

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  11. state of mind

    >This is the comments section of a blog, not a courtroom! I think that my opinions and impressions of personal interactions are far from gratuitous. In any case, I wanted to avoid specifics, and I still do, but the situation left no doubt as to his opinion. In any case he has said much to others.
    My point really is that yeshivish society is not monolithic and we don't all go along with everything a rabbi with a white beard (or who is pictured in the frum press) says.

    You're right about R. Salomon, but would you really argue that mainstream yeshivish hashkafah doesn't say teyku rather than זיל חקור for questions which necessarily have no answers within yeshivishe hashkafah? And even if there is some kind of covert policy which indeed permits this for yechidim, we can't deal with that which we can't see. ;-)

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  12. "From a question, a person doesn't die."

    Or to put it more accurately, "From your question, I won't die." Much of those on the "right" of this contemporary controversy have simply dismissed the question and have yet to provide any alternative solution. (How many years has it been?) There has been a complete lack of sympathy for those with such questions. So what do we get? The stridency of R' Aharon Schechter. Much as I agreed with his basic message, I recognize his approach as being utterly irrelevant (and perhaps counter-productive) to those who struggle with the whole science/Torah issue.

    אמר רבי עקיבא: תמהני אם יש בדור הזה שיודע להוכיח

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  13. It seems that very often, "answers" to these questions are indeed offerred - in the form of R. Avigdor Miller's books, or some book I saw recently called something like "The Obvious Proof", or similar things. When one points out the logical fallacies, innaccurate factual assumptions, or other inadequacies of these "answers", the discussion too often ends with "you don't have kushyos, you only have teirutzim".

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  14. "When Rambam encountered people who were grappling with the questions raised by Aristotelian philosophy, he did not simply say, “You don’t die from a question.” Instead, he worked hard to write his Guide for the Perplexed, and provided answers wherever possible – even though these answers were not popular with many segments of Jewry."

    So this is where you come in right? lol. I like your writings.

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  15. "Shas is faith-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out.

    Funny, because that is not the approach taken by many Rabbanim when it comes to evolution. They take the easy way out and delegitimize the sciences. I don’t see these individuals encountering any resistance or bans.

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  16. While proper study of the talmud does require an element of belief in the reliability of the halachic tradition,i.e., that the sages didn't simply just invent derashot and halachot, it is primarily an intellectual pursuit. As such, it implies that the propositions and arguments are to be logical and based on reality. If the sages made mathematical errors, that needs to be pointed out (as do the Tosafot in Eruvin). If they made errors in understanding nature, then that, too, must be recognized - even if the resulting halacha may not change (e.g. the origin of lice). It is a question of intellectual integrity and a desire for truth vs. a simple acceptance of statements on blind faith. When talmud study becomes an exercise in faith, it loses depth and intellectual involvement. It becomes a form of davening rather than serious study.

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  17. state of mind said...
    Even within the US yeshivish scene R.Salomon is only really popular or respected amongst a certain segment

    As someone who lives in and has friends in various “segments” of the U.S. Yeshivish world, I can tell you that the hamon am (the greater masses) consider HaRav Matisyahu Salomon to be “Daas Torah” and that what he says is considered to have the weight of the word of “The Gedolim” (which should not be questioned if one accepts “Daas Torah” which every card-carrying, self-respecting member of the Yeshivish velt does).

    Rav Matisyahu Salomon’s esteemed position as Mashgiach of THE largest yeshiva in the USA, together with his being one of the very few, select speakers given the honor of speaking at the Agudah’s Siyum HaShas (which takes place only once every 7 years) are indicative of the esteem with which he is held by the general masses of Yeshivish Jewery in the USA.

    Is it possible that several of those “in the know” don’t take him very seriously? Sure. But for the hamon am, his word is “Daas Torah”. I know several people (each living in different Yeshivish neighborhoods and belonging to different “segments” in the USA), who after having gone to him with questions for which they wanted “Daas Torah” guidance, were not happy with his answers, but worked very hard at accepting what he told them because it was the word of “Daas Torah”. None of these are “stupid” people who don’t know how to think for themselves; they are all people who were taught and who sincerely believe that this is part of what it means to live as a “Torah True Jew.”

    I disagree with your statement. What R. Salomon says is considered to be “Daas Torah” and he is held in great esteem by the hamon am of the Yeshivish world in the USA.

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  18. RNS -

    Was R. Mattisyahau Solomon referring specifically to you in his speech before tens of thousands? Did he mention your name explicitly? Or did he mention you, or your books, in a covert fashion?

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  19. Yes this is the comment section of blog but PLEASE
    stop the lashon harah and motze shem rah

    Thank you.

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  20. >Was R. Mattisyahau Solomon referring specifically to you in his speech before tens of thousands? Did he mention your name explicitly? Or did he mention you, or your books, in a covert fashion?

    He did not mention RNS by name, but as someone who was there and heard it, that he was referring to him is pshat pashut.

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  21. Michapeset,
    Daas Torah is obviously a very hard thing to pin down. But for want of an exact definition I think most people can agree that at the very least it involves something along the lines that when a person's thought processes and personality are so aligned with those of the Torah and its logic, structure, values and reasoning we can have at least a reasonable expectation that they will be capable of providing guidance in a specific personal or communal situation that reflects that.
    Now the minimal prerequisite for this will be an extensive and deep knowledge of the Torah SheBaal Peh (lets use Shas as a proxy).
    I can't think of any examples of (non-chasidic)Gedolim who people in previous generations went to for Daas Torah that were not famous for their knowledge of Shas, the Rishonim and at least the main Poskim.
    R.Salomon may give inspiring Shmuessen and speeches (and thus be an excellent candidate to speak at the Siyum HaShas) but absolutely no one with any connection to serious learning considers him part of that world. And incidentally you see he is not part of Agudah's Moetzes HaGedolim.

    I do agree with you that what you call the 'Hamon Am' do not make this distinction, but the interesting question is for those people you know who you consider to be thoughtful who have struggled with his answers, why did they go to him in the first place? Might it be because he is a 'celebrity' in our culture? Or maybe it is because of the creeping chasidification of yeshivish society...

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  22. Maybe he's a wise person with a lot of life experience?

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  23. I have no doubt that the Dalai Lama is a wise man with life experience but he is not Daas Torah!

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  24. I'm not explaining why Rav Mattisyahu *is* Daas Torah (according to the charedi view of Daas Torah). I'm explaining why it's understandable that he is perceived that way.

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  25. State of mind - There is no doubt as to the “chasidification” of Yeshivish society. (It’s not even “creeping” anymore, it’s part of the culture already. People line up for hours to receive brachos from Roshei Yeshiva as though they were Chassidishe Rebbes.) But can you really blame the yeshivish masses or the individuals therein for holding in high esteem, and considering as “Daas Torah” the mashgiach of the largest yeshiva in the USA?

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  26. It takes a person of honesty and integrity to admit a question has no answer.

    And in some cases, as when the answer conflicts with your preconceived notions, it takes a person of even greater honesty and integrity to admit that a question DOES have an answer.

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  27. Did R' Shmuel Kaminetsky retract his haskama?

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  28. Eventually he wrote a letter to disassociate from me.

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  29. With all the petty politics and manipulations by those in power, or by those who wiggle their way into positions of power with their charisma and charm, together with the sociological realities of the masses generally going along with the most popular regardless of who or what is the most correct - it makes me wonder how many other internal conflicts we Jews have had over the past 2,000 years which have shaped what is now considered accepted halachah in our day and age. Ditto for hashkafa. The winners write history. It makes me wonder about all that never made it into print, and all that was erased by those in power with less than noble aspirations.

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  30. "Faith-based knowledge"

    There is no such thing. There is faith, which is belief without or in spite of contrary evidence. There is knowledge which is based on evidence of some sort.

    I'm not discounting the philosophical or religious value of faith. "I know because I believe" is so gross an error as to not even require refutation.

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