Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"How Can You Cite Him?!" Plus, publishing woes


Here is an interesting anonymous objection that I received recently, regarding my book "The Challenge Of Creation":
"You quote certain people in your books that I do not usually see quoted. What are your requirements for someone to be considered a Jewish authority? To be more specific, I am most bothered by your quotation from Elijah Benamozegh who (it is attested in Wikipedia at least) "even considered the Gospels to be a highly valuable Jewish Midrash, comparable to the Talmudic Aggadah". Does this not make him suspect regarding anything he says? Why should you pay attention to him at all?"
The anonymous letter-writer is, I think, under two misconceptions - one regarding the nature of my book, and another regarding people such as Benamozegh.

Although my book The Challenge Of Creation certainly has an ideological slant rather than being merely an academic history of views, it is also intended to provide a history of views. One of my goals in this book was to cite everything of relevance to Judaism and evolution, no matter who said it. At the same time, I try, within the confines of available space, to put the person in context, to explain what larger approach he represents and how he is viewed by others. I make no claim that every person cited is a religious authority to be relied upon.

Thus, for example, I quote non-Jewish atheists on various points - not to claim that they themselves reflect the overall approach of the book, or that they are not atheists, but only insofar as the specific point that they are making. I cite the approach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that God created fossils, not that I agree with it (in fact I explain at length why I don't agree with it), but because it should be discussed. I briefly describe how leading rabbis in the Reform movement, such as Abraham Geiger and Isaac Mayer Wise, were hostile to evolution, and how this subsequently reversed itself in the Reform movement - not because I am Reform, but because I am documenting Jewish approaches to evolution. And I describe how certain 19th century religious Jews such as Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, Naftali Levy and Yosef Yehudah Leib Sossnitz, accommodated evolution. But at the same time I noted that some of these figures were associated with the haskalah and that the overall attitude to evolution from the Orthodox Jewish community was hostile.

With regard to Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh specifically, I had never heard of his view about the Gospels. However, in my experience, it is often possible to find views amongst accepted Torah scholars that sound very strange to us - especially with rabbis from Italy.

While on the topic of "The Challenge of Creation," I should mention that it is currently out of print, and has been the subject of publishing woes beyond that of the overall disastrous situation these days with publishing in general and Jewish publishing in particular. My nine years of publishing and distributing with Targum/ Feldheim were wonderful, but came to an end with the ban on my books. Rabbi Gil Student rescued me with Yashar Books, but as a tiny Jewish publishing operation it was doomed and he had to close down. I then took up with another distributor, which was a very poor choice and worked out badly, and so now I have to republish "The Challenge Of Creation" yet again - this time distributing with Gefen Books. (There are a few very minor changes from the third edition.) It's ready to go to press, but I still have to raise about half the funds for publication. If you value the Rationalist Judaism enterprise, and are interested in sponsoring this project, please write to me.

26 comments:

  1. R' Slifkin, is there a way for those of us who cannot afford to sponsor the project completely to contribute smaller amounts?

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  2. "especially with rabbis from Italy."

    like the Helige RAMCHAL who the GRA called holy despite all the wild behavior in his life

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  3. Why not self publish?

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/seller-account/mm-summary-page.html?topic=200260520

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  4. I would also be interested in contributing the the publication cost, but I'm sure I can't pay for anywhere near the entire cost.

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  5. Scott - small donations can be sent via Paypal to my email address. Larger ones are best mailed by check. I have a charity fund that they can be sent to for tax deduction purposes. Please email me for more details.

    Worf - POD is not a good idea in this case, for various reasons.

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  6. The anonymous commentor wrote: "To be more specific, I am most bothered by your quotation from Elijah Benamozegh who (it is attested in Wikipedia at least) "even considered the Gospels to be a highly valuable Jewish Midrash, comparable to the Talmudic Aggadah". "
    I recall buying a book around 20 years ago, that took quotations from the Greek scriptures (the so-called New Testament) and put it next to a parallel quote in Chazal. (I gave the book to a devout Christian friend of mine, so I can't recall the name or the author.)
    Also, the Friedlander translation of Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer often cites the Greek scriptures in the footnotes.

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  7. is there a way for those of us who cannot afford to sponsor the project completely to contribute smaller amounts?

    www.kickstarter.com, if that's not too tacky.

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  8. Regarding your second point:
    Your claim that “in my experience, it is often possible to find views amongst accepted Torah scholars that sound very strange to us - especially with rabbis from Italy,” is obviously a non sequitur. Do you mean to suggest that we simply throw up our hands and accept every viewpoint that walks our way, simply because many views that, “sound very strange” are held by “accepted Torah scholars”?!

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  9. Sounds like whomever wrote you that email forgot he wasn't reading Artscroll "history" book that's trying to be more comprehensive.

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  10. Since I am the "anonymous letter-writer" I think it would be prudent of R' Slifkin to allow me an opportunity to defend myself.
    Let us deal with each supposed misconception individually:
    Firstly, I am under no illusions about the purpose of your book. But, instead of presenting my views in my own words, allow me to cull appropriate descriptions from the much touted haskamahs of Rabbis Carmell and Malinowitz. I presume their haskamahs, which were printed in your books without correction or alterations, and their reiterations, displayed prominently online on www.zootorah.com also without qualifying comments, would fairly represent what you believe, or at least what you consider acceptable interpretations of your book.
    R’ Carmell writes that, “The author shows convincingly that it is possible to debate these questions within the framework of modern science, while remaining completely loyal to the fundamentals of emunah.” R’ Carmell obviously believes that the “Orthodox Jewish scientists [who] should be in the forefront of these debates,” will do so presenting a genuine “Orthodox” outlook. Indeed, R’ Carmell seems to sum up the most important parts of your book (parts 1 and 2, excluding part 3 which is “speculative…and highly tentative”) as “a useful introduction, from the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint, to the scientific questions that are the book’s main theme.” I know we can debate and marginalize the definition of “Orthodox” into oblivion, but Rabbi Carmell was obviously using a term he expected the reader to recognize, otherwise what purpose would it serve? Thus, he was clearly using it in the colloquial sense.
    Rabbi Malinowitz for his part was certainly convinced that the young “G-d fearing man,” was presenting in his books, a view that is “well within the Torah Hashkafah, and in fact draws upon mekoros ne’emanim in both rishonim and gedolei acharonim”.
    (As a relevant aside I would also like to point out that what Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union wrote in a review of your book, “Seekers, whether new to the Jewish observance or born into the Orthodox fold, will find in this work a model of honest confrontation with serious challenges. The Challenge of Creation spells out these challenges articulately, analyzes them keenly, and refers to impeccable and authoritative traditional sources to address them... Rabbi Slifkin is to be commended for his contribution to our abiding faith as well as for his courageous intellectual honesty”. While I certainly do not hold R’ Slifkin accountable for the reviews and opinions of others, I do believe them to be illustrative.)
    These views clearly represent a book (or series of books) with more than a simple “ideological slant”! These express the authors’ belief that the books were written lesheim shamayim not seeking simply to record all views of any prominent Jew regardless of his religious allegiance. Obviously it is understood that not all views presented in your book are those of the “Orthodox world”. No one reading the Challenge of Creation thinks (hopefully) that Geiger or Wise represent anything but a foil. I also concede that atheists will be quoted for illustration. But when the author seeks to make a religious claim (e.g. an acceptable reading of G-d’s word) and quotes an Italian Rabbi and a “noted Kabbalist”, it is reasonable to assume that the author considered him to be a reliable source, included in Rabbi Malinowitz’s category of “gedolei acharonim”. If this assumption is incorrect then how is a reader supposed to go about the task of understanding which source the author considers authoritative (at least to a degree)? A book that requires the reader research each name mentioned without any guidance offered is not a very instructive book!

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  11. Do you mean to suggest that we simply throw up our hands and accept every viewpoint that walks our way, simply because many views that, “sound very strange” are held by “accepted Torah scholars”?!

    Of course not! Read my article "They Could Say It, We Cannot." I certainly don't think that it's acceptable to accept R. Moshe Taku's theology!

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  12. But when the author seeks to make a religious claim (e.g. an acceptable reading of G-d’s word) and quotes an Italian Rabbi and a “noted Kabbalist”, it is reasonable to assume that the author considered him to be a reliable source

    No. I think that the book makes it clear that the acceptability of evolution is presented based on the innate religious arguments and bolstered by the authority of more mainstream figures such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, whose views I quote and discuss at length. I only refer to R. Benamozegh in a single sentence.

    (Some minor corrections to your post: I never described Benamozegh as a "noted" kabbalist. Also, the haskamos of Rav Malinowitz and Rav Carmell were not to this book, but rather to an earlier book.)

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  13. Honestly, I don't understand the problem or R' Slifkin's defense. Who cares what Rabbi So and So said about something else? The item was not necessarily being brought in the book to assert a truth or orthodox perspective. It was brought to show a particular perspective on a particular manner.

    It should not matter what the nature of the book was.

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  14. Anyone who is interested in learning more about R. Elijah Benamozegh, can listen to Marc Shapiro at torahinmotion.com where he recently dedicated a few lectures about him (costs money).

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  15. Also, see Nehama Leibowitz's letter regarding citing people that are not orthodox/Jewish: https://sites.google.com/site/masliah/nehama_leibowitz_accept_truth.pdf?attredirects=0

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  16. "Natan Slifkin said...

    Worf - POD is not a good idea in this case, for various reasons."

    Ok, but what about self-publishing as an ebook and distributing via the Kindle and iBooks Stores? It is 2012...

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  17. R' Benamozegh is an interesting fellow to be brought up in this forum. While he has a very universalist theology with interesting things to say about Jews vis-a-vis Noahides, he thinks through a very Mystical/ Kabbalistic lens.

    In any case, I found the English translation of his "Israel and Humanity" to be fascinating reading and I highly recommend it. Anyone who likes the writings of Chief Rabbi Sacks will probably really like it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Elijah-Benamozegh-Humanity-Classics-Spirituality/dp/0809135418

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  18. Rabbi Eliyahu Zvi Soloveitchik (the grandson of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin and the uncle of Rabbi Yosef Baer Soloveitchik, the Beit Halevi) wrote a volume entitled Kol Kore (Paris, 1875), a commentary on the book of Matthew (it’s not a polemic).

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  19. I would like to second Worf's proposal for Kindle versions of your books. For those of us on the go, keeping our library with us wherever we are is not only convenient, but a necessity.

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  20. This makes no sense!
    PA said, "Do you mean to suggest that we simply throw up our hands and accept every viewpoint that walks our way, simply because many views that, “sound very strange” are held by “accepted Torah scholars”?!
    To which R' Slifkin repsonded,
    "Of course not! Read my article "They Could Say It, We Cannot." I certainly don't think that it's acceptable to accept R. Moshe Taku's theology!"
    That did not answer the question! PA clearly was asking you to cite PRECEDENTS for the specific claim, not to rely on your experiences. To which you responded something I cannot figure out the relevance.

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  21. Hi Rabbi Slifkin -

    I'm surprised that you are surprised. In segments of the Orthodox world, issues of believability and reliability are tightly bound to issues of religious conduct. Any source cited by a non-Orthodox study, or even any traditional Jewish source that hasn't become normative, is almost always suspect. It's not about interpreting evidence; it's about the person and their background. Seems quite "anti-rationalist" to me.

    Best,
    MS

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  22. R. Benamozegh and the Gospels

    I don't know if this is the citation your correspondent has in mind. But in אם למקרא שמות on ויגדל משה he cites the Acts of the Apostles as a source that Moshe studied all of the wisdom of Egypt (and gives also the parallel from Hazal along with those of Philo and Josephus.
    Best
    Bill Siemers

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin, how do you respond to the criticism that you not only cite but fully endorse the approach to Genesis which views it as an anti-pagan polemical myth? You cite Non-Orthodox scholars such a Kass, Strauss and Sarna to this effect and incorporate their ideas seamlessly into your preferred approach to Genesis making no mention of their non-Orthodox perspective which underlies their approach to the Torah-as-ancient myth.

    This is not a passing reference for the sake of thoroughness as with Benamozegh.

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  24. I am curious as to the economics of publishing Jewish books. My impression was that most of the time when printing a book the retail price was enough to cover the cost of the book, plus salaries, overhead, and a profit for the publisher. Especially with a reprint when there are minimal costs associated with actually writing the book, I figured this would be easy. Why do you have to come up with half the funds to publish the book? They're supposed to be paying you, not the other way around.

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  25. @Jewish Observer
    R. Benamozegh's comment should not be read as "passing reference": he is citing non-traditional sources to show that Moshe's education also included "outside" materials. אם למקרא is permeated with the argument that the Egyptology of the 19th century enhances our comprehension of Torah.
    all best
    Bill Siemers

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  26. while Benamozegh was apparently somewhat controversial in his day, he is hardly a "unquotable" figure: R. David Zvi Hoffmann and R. Mendel Kasher quote him in their work repeatedly, his work בשבילי המוסר was published by mossad harav kook and he is included in R. Avraham Bick-Shauli's anthology of Jewish thought, R. Yoel Schwartz (of Meah Shearim) quotes him in many of his seforim, he is the father of the modern Noahide movement, and he was one of the most original Jewish thinkers of the past 200 yrs.
    In other words, just b/c some of his his works were put into cherem by some extremist rabbis in Israel, I don't know if Slifkin has to do על חטא for quoting him. Also, wikipedia might not be the most thorough way to do research on someone.

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