Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is There Wisdom In Bans?

At a meeting of rabbis in Kovno in 1885, the suggestion was raised that the community ostracize anyone who studied Darwinian evolution. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spector and Rabbi Alexander Moshe Lapidus opposed the measure, but only due to the foresight that it would inevitably result in people being more attracted to it and rebelling against rabbinic authority.

I was reminded of this after reading about the Vatican condemning a book by an American nun about sexuality. The day before the Vatican's statement, the book ranked 142,982 on Amazon. The next day, it was number 16.

Of course, the same thing happened with the ban on my own books. While it was an absolutely awful experience that I would not wish on anyone (well, with a few exceptions), it was certainly good for sales and a tremendous boost to my career. Ever since the ban, I have had a long list of speaking invitations.

This doesn't mean that, from the perspective of those banning the books, it is necessarily the wrong decision. It all depends on what their priorities are. It could be that they see it as more important to draw the lines of permissible beliefs, or to prevent certain obedient types of people from reading the books, or to assert authority, regardless of the fact that they will actually cause more people to read the banned books.

But I would imagine that their professed primary goal is to stop the book from being read and thereby harming people. In which case, 21st century rabbis that ban books are out of touch with the results of their actions.

(Inspired by this article. Hat-tip to DES.)

On another note - to the Israeli readers - if anyone can volunteer to translate my museum prospectus into Ivrit (not rabbinic Hebrew!), please be in touch!


  1. Hence the old phrase: there's no such thing as bad publicity.
    I recall reading an article about you on the defunct Jewsweek site a couple of years before the whole scandal broke, about this young, up and coming chareidi rabbi who got his semicha at a ridiculously young age and was all into animals. And then... nothing for a couple of years until the book came out.
    Of course, to really accelerate one's career there's nothing like choking to death after a night of alcohol and drugs. Just ask Jim, Kurt, Whitney...

  2. I believe I heard one rabbi who came to your defense explain that R Moshe Shapiro's position was that even though people won't listen to the tochacha (rebuke) and stop reading your books, the ban was done as an expression of macha'a (protest) in which case the result is irrelevant. a la "When it hurts, you scream."

  3. Actually, a talmid of R. Moshe Shapiro told me that he urged R. Moshe not to condemn my books, due to the backlash it would generate via the Internet, and R. Moshe didn't think that it would happen.

  4. I just wish they would give their opinion rather than flat-out ban something, as if we were naive little children.
    The effect on sales and notoriety might be the same but the reception of the expressed opinion might have a warmer reception, after all the forbidden fruit as oppressed to the frowned upon one, is always luscious.

  5. I agree with you about the ban on your books. But if I was a Catholic I would agree with the Vatican's actions. When you have a religious body with a clear hierarchal structure, where all bodies belonging to that religion are supposed to be completely subordinate to the positions of the clear leader, the clear leader should make clear that a book produced by a member of a popular organization , an organization which does make at least lip service of being committed to the teachings of the religion and its undisputed leader, contains teacings that are totally not acceptable to the religion. Given that the member is committed to the organization, and the organization is committed to the pope, the vatican staying silent would send a message to many that there is room for differing opinions on masturbation and homosexuality within the Catholic Church. The Vatican really had no choice.

    Your situation is more analogous to a ban put out by the Russian Orthodox patriarch on a work put out by some scholar who belongs to the Romanian (or perhaps Ukranian) Orthodox Church. I would agree that that would be a big mistake.

  6. Actually, the Vatican was much more responsible than those who banned R. Slifkin's books. First, the Vatican did not ban the book, but issued a stern notification as to the grave harm to the faithful the book can cause. Second, they actually read the book. Third, the review of the book took years. Fourth, they were in contact with book's author and detailed their objections in an extended correspondence. The author explained her position and refused to retract anything she said. Halevai R. Slifkin had been treated the same way!

  7. At this point banning something is almost lifnei iver as it will almost certainly cause many more people to be exposed to it!

    I'm curious though, if there is a danger of the boy who cried wolf. What are Jewish leaders to do if in fact there is something worthy of banning? What is a practical alternative way for them to handle?

  8. Had the Hareidi rabbinic figures used a more moderate approach to the issue of the 3 books that were banned in 2004(?) they could have avoided much of the negative fall-out. It would have made more sense to claim that the books in question were dangerous and should not be read by Hareidim or seen in a Hareidi house. Such an approach could have been equally effective (or ineffective) in the attempt to isolate the Hareidi world from modern knowledge and ideas. It would not have stopped those outside the Hareidi world from reading the banned material, but neither would calling the works heretical. The damage done to the reputations of all those Hareidi leaders in the non-Hareidi world could, however, been largely avoided. Instead, their efforts were seen to be both unjustified theologically and sullied by highly unethical behavior. Their stature and authority has, consequently, been seriously diminished in the larger Orthodox world. I recognize that these ideas have already been voiced by the protagonist, himself, but it bears repeating.

  9. Do you think the ban on Spinoza helped promote his philosophy?

  10. "the Vatican condemning a book by an American nun about sexuality. The day before the Vatican's statement, the book ranked 142,982 on Amazon. The next day, it was number 16."

    There's a name for that:

  11. I feel it is certainly with-in any person or group's right to recommend to others not to read a book/sefer for some type of disagreement with the material.

    However why should educated Rabbis fear what other philosophies or sciences espouse. If the material has no merit the smart Jewish people will see it and if the material has merit maybe we should embrace it.(of course not avoda zorah)

    Moreover I do not recall the Torah banning new knowledge from the Jewish people.


    Rabbi Simon

  12. Lawrence Kaplan's comment of June 6, 2012 6:48 PM should be posted on every blog and every Judaic website. It would be a crime to keep it buried in this comment thread. I can't think of a more embarrassing, galling, stinging indictment of current widespread rabbinic practice. The Catholic Church learns Pirkei Avos better than "the gedolim." Ouch.

  13. There was a time in history when governments used to ban books on a regular basis, even in free democracies. And authors were known to try to get jurisdictions with small populations to ban their books because there was nothing else quite so guaranteed to increase interest and sales. Boston, MA, USA was particularly famous for its bans, and the term "Banned in Boston" was commonly found on literary promotional material.

  14. What an amazing comment by Lawrence Kaplan (above) about the Vatican and its approach to a book it took issue with. Thank you for that insight.

  15. Pragmatician says it best,in my opinion-people resent being treated like children-everything is too deep for us to understand ,or too dangerous to look at,or something similar. I remember going to some caves in New Hampshire,and after the tour,where the guide told us how old the caves were, I was treated to a chassidish man telling me that this was all kfirishe zachen. I shrugged.

    It`s pretty hard to shut off a natural curiosity,or critical ability at will,and we resent resent being told how to approach emunah.

    Shmulee,The catholic church has its own pekeleh,what with child abuse-sound familiar ? Besides I`m not sure how closely they try to monitor everybody`s reading list,or if it`s a matter of faith for them .

  16. What do the rationalist Rishonim say about Chazal's comment about reading "outside books"?

  17. I want to know who is violating the vatican’s ban/condemnation. Is it their own people or everyone else looking for a sensuous anti-vatican read?

    @Rabbi Simon
    If you are the r simon r who commented here in the past, and who denies authority to all rabbinic writings from even as early as the mishnah all the way to today, there is little to offer as a source to ban against reading much of what orthodoxy considers heresy. For everyone (?) else, the place to begin is the rabbinic interpretation of לא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם. See חינוך there, רמב"ם ה' ע"ז פ"ב ה"ג etc.

  18. How are the sales of Nazi material doing in Germany?

    Bans in and of themselves are neither wise nor foolish. The only question is if you are banning something because it is popular, but you don't like it, or because it is truly dangerous and rejected by the community.

  19. "I just wish they would give their opinion rather than flat-out ban something, as if we were naive little children."

    Couldn't agree more. For my part, the ban (not the books themselves, although I think Challenge of Creation is one of the finest books I've ever read - and yes, I read the forward, and I realize that's not one of the books that was actually banned), forced me to confront the issue of Torah and science, since the language of the bans, particularly that of Rabbi Shapiro, suggests that a belief in modern science is not compatibile with a belief in the Torah - before the ban, I simply felt that there was no real conflict, and that both Torah and science could co-exist, each in their own realm. So I guess I should thank the rabbis that banned your books for provoking me to acquire more than a high-school level of knowledge in science, even though my conclusions so far are the opposite of what they would probably wish.

  20. Interestingly R. Aaron Lichtenstein banned Ayn Rand's books about 25 years ago, and as I recall, his talmidim respected it and refrained from reading her books; at least while in the yeshiva. I think that ban was respected because it was so out of character for R. Aaron to issue it. People must have thought if he has such a profound problem with Rand, that they have to adhere to his ban out of respect, both for him and his learning.

  21. Having known some Catholics with... complicated feelings about the Church I suspect the issue of reading banned books would have been dealt with in other ways than kicking kids who read, or whose parents read, the books in question out of parochial school. I don't think it would have had a major effect on the kids' marriage prospects, either.

  22. @Rabbi Simon
    If you are the r simon r who commented here in the past, and who denies authority to all rabbinic writings from even as early as the mishnah all the way to today, there is little to offer as a source to ban against reading much of what orthodoxy considers heresy.

    I do not believe I framed anything that explicit to deny all rabbinic writings "no matter what". I am sorry if I was possibly unclear somewhere. I do not deny such a thing as general principle.

    I am however still waiting for anyone to point out in unambiguous terms which Torah Commandment tells us to deny the laws of science, logic, nature, as we are privileged to know about them.

    I believe for the most part the Torah is silent on such matters and that was not the purpose of the Torah.

    Moreover I believe as many do it is disingenuous to claim any sage from any era processes total knowledge or total authority of all religious views and that they can not be mistaken or in some way limited.

    My current opinion (subject to change)is no sincere book of scientific research needs to be banned. The books can stand or fall or their own merit.

    Science has served humanity well, including the Haredi.


    R. Simon

  23. Daniel Schwartz,

    Very interesting. I never knew that. I personally found Ayn Rand's books to be some of the best I've ever read. Other than her views on adultery (which she has no problem with under certain conditions), I think much (though certainly not all) of what she writes is on target, and frankly inspiring.

    In other news, I wonder if the Establishment is going to ban the new volume of Rav Hirsch's collected writings that just came out. The volume includes the two letters that Rav Hirsch wrote about the nature of aggadata (the ones Rabbi Slifkin quotes in his books). I saw that The Jewish Press reviewed it.

  24. Prof. Kaplan said... "Fourth, they were in contact with book's AUTHOR and detailed their objections in an extended correspondence. The AUTHOR explained her position and refused to retract anything she said." [emphasis added]

    i am told about one of the group of 4 who issued the first cherem that
    "he was in contact with one of the book's MASKIMIM [a talmid of his] and detailed his objections in an extended correspondence. The MASKIM/talmid explained his position and refused to retract."

    it doesn't seem that the maskim did a thorough enough job, as the machrim went ahead with the cherem anyway. i assume that when the machrim did so he had no idea of how strong [solidly sourced] and popular RNS's position was nor did he anticipate the horrid chillul hashem that would result. i am amazed at the precience of RNS's official response [somewhere at] who realized that immediately, but they didn't see it even after he told them so. they might also have had second thoughts about going ahead after he refused to climb down, but alas, that also didn't happen.

    another thing to consider is the role of precedent. from the little i know about catholicism, i'm under the impession that the pope has plenty of leeway to ignore the decisions of previous popes. ur-ban ;) said copernicus is heresy, benedict says it's ok. [someone please correct me if i'm wrong.] the pope doesn't have to look over his shoulder.
    להבדיל judaism doesn't work that way. if you want to prohibit something you have to make sure it was never permitted at some point in jewish history or you'll have a lot of answering to do [or try to do].

    the pope also is protected by the fundamental catholic doctrtine of 'infallibility' and can say what he pleases, within certain bounds - too bad on the laity. להבדיל the rabbonim have no such fundamental protection and need to exercize more caution.

  25. Yehuda,

    Watch this interview with Ayn Rand and you will see how anti-Torah her views really are. Her hatred of Torah, religious morality and ethics should serve as a warning to us all that her continued popularity and influence do not bode well for the cause of Torah. I do not understand how a growing portion of the frum world is aligning itself with right wing groups and political parties that claim her as their intellectual leader.

  26. Reject: Papal infallibility is strictly limited those very rare occasions when the Pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Actually I think the notion of Daas Torah is analogous to the authority of the magisterium possessed by Papal Encyclicals.

    I would strongly suggest that R. Slifkin link to the official Church condemnation of Sister Farley's book. He might also wish to write a post comparing the careful procedure and investigation followed by the Church to the procedure and investigation (or lack thereof) folllowed by those who banned his books. He should also compare the stern, but very carefully worded Church condemnation with the crude and intemperate langage used by his banners. The entire comparison only makes Church, look very good.

  27. @r simon, it will be difficult for me to continue to respond to you at length, please forgive me. But just a few points.

    On june 6th you wrote that it’s within a person or group’s right to recommend others not to read a book… - but the thread isn’t about recommending, it’s about obligating others to obey a ban.

    You ask why rabbis fear what others’ philosophies espouse if the smart jewish people will reject that which has no merit.
    - Haven’t other philosophies wiped away observance of Judaism from most jews? Where I come from that is considered a stupendous and unresolved tragedy. Rabbis who think so should certainly try to shield jews, including the smart ones, from such philosophies.

    Also on june 6th you write that you don’t recall the torah banning new knowledge from the jewish people. That’s a very sweeping statement, but even if what you call ‘the torah’ says nothing about new knowledge, the volumes of jewish thought such as what I cited certainly do. [I think you later modified that your intention was only in areas off science, logic, nature – see below.]

    In my previous comment I mentioned my impression that you deny ‘authority’ to all rabbinic writings. To clarify, rabbinic statements [or statements made by anyone] range from impossible through possible through likely through obvious. My impression is that you have found many rabbinic statements that are possible, likely, or obvious and even some or many that are profoundly wise. But ultimately, you [and not they] are the final arbiter whether they are correct or not, even in the area of halachah. That is why I understood that you deny the rabbis’ ‘authority’.

    You are still waiting for someone to show a torah commandment that unambiguously tells us to [sometimes] deny science and logic. Again you are looking for a torah commandment, so you in fact won’t find it. But if you look in rabbinic writings you will. [you will also find much more rabbinic writings that hold the opposite, but my understanding of your position is that you don’t believe in the authority of the first writings even as a minority opinion.]

    You end with the observation that science has served humanity and the haredi well. That is too simple. Science has impacted humanity in countless ways, and many or most of the time that has been tremendously beneficial. But historically science has been one of the greatest enemies of religion, [with people like RNS showing why that shouldn’t be so]. People too frequently walk away thinking there is a conflict and abandon religion.


  28. "with people like RNS showing why that shouldn’t be so"

    That's an oversimplification. I agree that science poses great challenges to Judaism.

  29. Prof. Kaplan said... "The entire comparison only makes Church, look very good."

    for whatever it's worth, to the rabbis' defense i would say they had no idea how strong RNSs case was, and i don't recall [and very likely they didn't recall] them getting burned so badly for their ignorance, that should remind them to be cautious. the curch has been in the heat for centuries so they learned their lesson to take it slow and easy. i suspect that if the rabbanim knew before the cherem what they know now they wouldn't have made the cherem the way they did, [but would copy a text from the church ;)]. had RNS been given the time to present an extensive defense before the first cherem, they would have realized they'd better write more balance in their cherem, or write nothing but just orally caution their students about his books, or simply done nothing. what's this business of them giving only one day to recant?! what's this business of them not double checking with some of the illustrious maskimim if RNS had a good case?!
    i suspect that by now the wisened rabbanim will say nothing about the publication of r hirsch'es letters about agadah.

    i was also told that some time after the worms-in-the-water and the sheitel cherems there was going to be a new cherem about uhm... whatever, but the rabbanim saw how poorly the other cherems went and were at loss what to do. IIUC they ended up choosing the lesser evil, to ignore the ongoing violation of halachah, instead of the larger evil, a big chillul hashem.
    we don't know when the rabbanim hush up a cherem in the bud.

    so in the end the church looks better simply because they were burned earlier.

    [i also don't mean that you are disagreeing with me on this and that i am correcting you.]

  30. Natan Slifkin said...
    "with people like RNS showing why that shouldn’t be so"
    "That's an oversimplification. I agree that science poses great challenges to Judaism."

    correction accepted. i see that i also oversimplify.

  31. I'm still surprised that after everyone read the headline, "Is There Wisdom In Bans?", no one even brought up the Talmud's position(s) and the commentators' understanding of those positions.

  32. James,

    I apologize for sugar-coating matters. It's true that Rand was a fanatic atheist among other problems. I still find her writings inspiring, though, in the same way that I find Nietzsche inspiring.

    What I get out of Rand's philosophy is the marine's motto of "Be all you can be" -- and don't worry about what other people think if you are confident that you're right (this confidence, though, should not be an uninformed juvenile one).

    I am also for small government, which is why I like "Atlas Shrugged," but I was already mesmerized by Rand after reading the non-political "The Fountainhead."

    All that said, I consciously do not own Rand's novels because her ideas on marriage simply do not belong on the shelf of an Aorthodox Jew as far as I'm concerned. I can't help, however, finding her writing fascinating.

  33. phil, what are you referring to?

  34. I don't understand why someone with a PhD in English Literature would ban Ayn Rand. Does anyone know the reason for the ban?

  35. "Given that the member is committed to the organization, and the organization is committed to the pope, the vatican staying silent would send a message to many that there is room for differing opinions on masturbation and homosexuality within the Catholic Church."

    I'm not sure your analysis is on point. With few exceptions (certain cults and haredi Judaism, for example) belief in infallible people has plummeted in recent decades. The world is full of different opinions and leaders who can't live with that will be on their way out.

  36. "Interestingly R. Aaron Lichtenstein banned Ayn Rand's books about 25 years ago"

    That's completely bizarre. Can you tell us more about that? Any written/audio verification? Thanks.

  37. "so in the end the church looks better simply because they were burned earlier."

    No. If you are talking about Galileo, the episode took place over decades with actual trials and with abundant input from contemporary astronomers and dialogue with Galileo himself. The church turned out to be wrong and, by contemporary standards, overzealous, but they did not behave like a bunch of fools.

    In contrast, the idea of due process is simply absent from the haredi world, which is a shame considering our ancient commitment to a system of jurisprudence. Can you imagine a real judge ruling on a book he has never read? Refusing to speak with the author? R Moshe Shapiro declared R' Slifkin's books muktza on Shaabos but doesn't actually believe this (from what I understand). Can you imagine a real judge issuing rulings he knows to be false for dramatic effect? It's not true that haredi Judaism has never been burned before, it's been burned plenty, it's simply that there is nothing approaching real leadership in the haredi world.

  38. It`s been a long time since I read Ayn Rand, but she worshipped money and man`s innate ability and belief in himself . That alone would make her anti-religious. Besides which,she didn`t believe in people helping each other out , what we call tzedakah.

    If we`re getting into books that are outside the yeshiva norm, anybody here ever read G-d; A Biography ?

  39. koillel nick said...
    Do you think the ban on Spinoza helped promote his philosophy?

    June 6, 2012 8:20 PM

    according to-
    yes. see there for r wein's take on the efficacy of bans. however, at- there is an example of an effective ban.

  40. "At a meeting of rabbis in Kovno in 1885,..."

    i came across this story in r aron soloveitchick's Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind page 55. are there any other versions of it?

    BTW, a page earlier, r aron cites tiferes yisrael's cosmology approvingly. since i don't think r aron would write anything that his brother the gryd considered kfirah [without at least saying so] this seems to be another nail in the coffin of r meiselman's belief that the gryd considered these things kfirah.

  41. ... or he has his one uncle considering his other uncle a kofer.
    how beautiful....

    "are there any other versions of it?"
    or more properly said, "is this found elsewhere, such as in hareidi literature?"

  42. Thank you, "reject", for inquiring. I was referring to Rabbi Akiva's statement in Sanhedrin 100a: "Even one who reads foreign Seforim (has no share in the world to come)." Rav Yosef adds: "It is also forbidden to read Sefer Ben Sira (due to Bitul Torah, for it contains worthless things)."

    Another source is Rambam's Hilchos Avodah Zara ii 2.

    (Please, Rabbi Slifkin, do not assume I'm trying to equate the books these sages had in mind with yours. I'm just talking about the banning of books in general.)

  43. PS:
    Search under "bans" at

  44. Thanks for "reject" for submitting the link about the da Costa ban. However, it's questionable how effective the ban was, since later generations seemed to view him as a martyr and hero (at least according to the Wikipedia article).

    Also, the ban extended far beyond what the person wrote, into an attack on the author himself.

  45. I am dismayed that readers here view R. Wein as an expert on history, especially on the issue of the influence of Spinoza, which was owing his bold, deep, and very controversial writings (Ethics and TTP), not to the fact that he was banned.

  46. To Lawrence Kaplan:
    No one said R' Wein was an expert. More likely, whoever quotes him favorably probably just thinks he's very good.

  47. @ Rejec et al,

    I was in the process of writing a response to you yesterday and hit the wrong button and it was lost.

    As fate would have it, R. Silfkin posted something from SR Hirsh that was more or less what was in my lost post.

    ....Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws.

    They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine....

    Enough said.


    Rabbi Simon

  48. @r simon

    other authorities clearly disagree with r hirsch. i see you've chosen a side. the banners chose the other side. this summarizes all the information currently available.


  49. @ reject

    ...other authorities clearly disagree with r hirsch...

    The other authorities appear to be making a claim without proof. We need evidence of their achievements.

    I'm not saying they knew nothing, but lets see something we can justify in concrete terms.


    Rabbi Simon


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