Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do I Need Supporters?

Rabbi Gil Student recently published a post entitled "Two New Slifkin Supporters." He noted that Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks published a new book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, in which he supports the compatibility of evolution with Judaism. In addition, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, a prominent authority in the national-religious community, published a work in which he adopts the position that the Sages of the Talmud relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, which was sometimes mistaken. In the words of R. Student, "Years after R. Slifkin was condemned, prominent rabbis continue to publicly adopt his positions, justifying both his and my stand against the unfair and counterproductive ban."

I certainly appreciate R. Student's publicizing such sources. However, I would like to add a slightly different nuance to their significance.

Although Rabbi Sack's writing style is not exactly my cup of tea (milk and two sugars, thanks), it's certainly a wonderful book that R. Student did well to recommend. But in the social battle over the theological legitimacy of evolution, I can't see how it makes a difference. Rambam and Ralbag already legitimized non-literal approaches to Genesis; Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik already observed that evolution poses no theological problems. It seems to me that the people who do not respect the approach of such authorities are not the kind of people who will care that Rabbi Sacks follows suit. Conversely, I would presume that the people who respect Rabbi Sacks are not the kind of people who have a problem with evolution in the first place.

But there is a significant point to be made in publicizing the stance of Rabbi Sacks' book. Many people are of the impression, and not without reason, that the charedi Gedolim are effectively the leaders of all Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Sacks' book demonstrates that reconciling evolution with Judaism continues to be a normative approach in non-charedi circles, even after the ban on my books. The Gedolim dictated the acceptable norms for their own community, which is not the entire Orthodox community.

The matter of the fallibility of the Talmudic sages regarding the natural sciences is very different from evolution. It's not just the novel approach of a few recent respected figures. Rather, it is the normative position of numerous Geonim and Rishonim, based on many explicit statements in the Gemara itself, and further endorsed by dozens of Acharonim, right through to today (link, link). The position of certain charedi Gedolim, that there is no traditional basis for such a position, is simply absurd (albeit entirely defensible as a social policy). There are grounds for concern that to point to a contemporary rabbinic authority endorsing such a view implies that it needs support. I hope that this is not the case! Rather, it shows that charedi social-religious norms, at least in this area, are limited to charedi circles. They have not spread beyond that - not even to charedi-leumi circles.

18 comments:

  1. As I commented there:
    I wonder sometimes if the effort was to frame the terms of the debate – if I can force you to spend your time and energy defending something that is patently within the scope of traditional Jewish thought, we never get to discussing things that might actually be real distinctions?

    KT

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  2. Sadly, this is untrue. To the best of my knowledge, a large portion of Dati'im Leumi'im in Israel believe evolution to be a lie, a theory soon to be proven wrong, etc. Many of them even consider evolution to be a form of Kfira.
    In my yeshiva, and from what I gather, in many others, one who believes in "such things" is usually either told he is weak of faith, or politely ignored whenever the topic is breached, although there are some exceptions (wonderful people). The discussion itself is mostly ignored, as a rule.
    Honestly though, I do not know how you can say that this phenomenon is limited to Charedim. I have friends who studied biology as their Megama and are "still having trouble with the concept of evolution".
    In modern Judaism, your views do need support. While this reflects mostly upon the ignorance of some contemporary rabbis, and not the legitimacy of the aforementioned views, or the lack of it, it is still the reality in which many Dati'im live today (at least in Israel).
    Then again, for all I know it might be very different in your social circles, mine being the exception to the general trend. I truly hope that this is the case.

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  3. You're mixing evolution with the science of Chazal. Dati Leumi in Israel don't know or care about what Rabbi Sacks writes.

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  4. Where I live, these questions are considered to be connected. The same Talmidim bring them up, and they both trigger the inner fear that many Orthodox Jews in Israel have, that perhaps what they have been taught is not absolute (and therefore, as our primitive minds tend to deal in absolutes, the Torah is not absolute).
    And although no one here has heard of Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Ariel is practically our yeshiva's rebbe; he comes here quite frequently, and his teachings are well respected, as are Rav Hirsch's, and Rav Soloveitchik's.
    Despite all this, evolution and the science of Chazal are rarely discussed at all, and when they are, ambiguously or negatively.
    People here also know and care about what Rambam and Ralbag had to say but the said topics are still, for the most part, purposefully avoided. In the absence of guidance from their rabbis on such subjects, people do what rabbis in general (and some of the rabbis in the yeshiva) tell them to do. And so they believe in all sorts of bizarre notions, about the world being mere thousands of years old, about how we "could not possibly be descended from monkeys", and about how Chazal had accurate scientific knowledge rivaling that of scientists today, albeit only in certain fields (usually those they lack sufficient understanding in). These beliefs are "safe", because at worst one can only be found idiots, and not a Kofrim.
    The "charedi social-religious norms" that you speak of are not just charedi, have not been for years. This is a serious problem, not one to be so casually dismissed as "Charedi".
    My point in all this is, that although what you say about Rambam, Ralbag and so forth, legitimizing your views, the
    fact remains, that such support is most definitely helpful to your cause, allowing you to rise above being "another crazy who writes shtuyes and calls himself Rabbi" in the eyes of the masses. This is very important, and it legitimizes you on a much shallower level, and one that perhaps less intelligent or more primitive people can relate to.

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  5. "The position of certain charedi Gedolim, that there is no traditional basis for such a position, is simply absurd"

    It isn't just absurd. It is a falsification of Torah! It isn't only the heterodox movements that distort our mesorah.

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  6. Rabbi Sacks' book demonstrates that reconciling evolution with Judaism continues to be a normative approach in non-charedi circles, even after the ban on my books. The Gedolim dictated the acceptable norms for their own community, which is not the entire Orthodox community.

    If only things where this simple, however, there are halachic consequences to being accused of heretical beliefs, namely recognition of people who believe in evolution as eidim and their conversions.

    By decreeing that certain beliefs are heresy, the Chareidm have created a schism in the Orthodox community.

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  7. "I would presume that the people who respect Rabbi Sacks are not the kind of people who have a problem with evolution in the first place."

    Maybe I'm an exception. Though I don't outright reject evolution, I do have problems with it. Not so much theological, but I have problems with a decent number of the arguments that contribute to the theory. And I highly respect Rabbi Sacks.

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  8. Over the years I have picked up on interesting quirks of the dati leumi population. On one hand, they are a very modern and moderate religious group. However, when it comes to their view on religion, they are extremely haredi on most theological issues, aside from Israel. They are often compared to Modern Orthodox, but theologically they simply never developed the modern approaches to theological positions that institutions like YU or even the OU have brought to the table. In that regard, why wouldn't they deny evolution? Science was accepted by the Modern Orthodox sector, not the Dati leumim.

    The fact is that their entire religion was created by very open figures who were often charedi at their core who have simply opened their theology to include the state of Israel. So too, any modernized facet of those charedi leaders has been ignored or whitewashed to make them more Charedi, or at least kowtowing to the modern charedi mentality, than they really were.

    The proof is in the pudding. It's just like Tommer says. It's not just charedim who deny evolution and run to crazy kabbalists for mystical cures, but the branch of charedim whose belief centers on the state of Israel.

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  9. I have to agree with most of the commenters here. The problem is not unique to the Charedi world at all.

    I would just add that in my opinion, the divide between those who are open to modern science and those who aren't runs along the same fault line that exists between those who are still closely tied to the traditional yeshiva world (Charedi or non-Charedi) and those who aren't. Other than issues relating to the State of Israel, there are no real ideological differences between the Charedi and non-Charedi yeshiva world. The difference is that whereas in the Charedi world, everyone remains in the Yeshiva- world to some degree or other, in the Dati Leumi world, most (many? some?) people mature somewhat from an intellectual standpoint and stop thinking like close-minded yeshiva-guys. This is not true of everyone in the Dati Leumi world but it's true of many in that world. But insofar as those in traditional yeshivas, the differences between Charedim and non-Charedim are negligible.

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  10. I wish you wouldn't call it 'entirely defensible' from a social policy perspective. encouraging people to maintain a flawed approach to the world is far from defensible. it is to encourage ignorance (and ultimately poverty, I suppose). It is far from defensible.

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  11. if I had a million dollars, I would translate the great partnership and future tense into ivrit and give it away for free at israeli universities

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  12. I was very interested to read the comments on the approach of the dati-leumi/hardal community to modernity. I've lived in Israel only for a few years but have also been struck by the difference between the modern-orthodox world of the West and the dati-leumi community here. In particular, conversations with young people from the latter group have surprised me by the "haredi-like" approach to the non-Jewish world, and certainly noticeable in their attitude to science. I'd be interested to hear more from others on this - what is being taught in the dati-leumi institutions?

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  13. > Many people are of the impression, and not without reason, that the charedi Gedolim are effectively the leaders of all Klal Yisrael

    Perhaps because the handles of those "Gedolim" never miss an opportunity to state that claim?

    It is important to remember that "Dati Leumi" is a very incomplete philosophy. It means believing that God has chosen to begin the final ingathering of the exiles and that the modern state of Israel is part of that process. Done.

    One can be an ultra-left Orthodox Jews, one can be Chareidi-Leumi, all that is required to be in the club is that belief.

    As a result, there is no ONE dati leumi approach to things like evolution because that part of things isn't really address by the core philosophy. Whether or not evolution happened is irrelevant to what is happening in history now.

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  14. "they simply never developed the modern approaches to theological positions that institutions like YU or even the OU have brought to the table."

    This is one of the reasons why relatively few MO Americans make aliyah.

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  15. Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach held that Chazal came from the science of their times and can err (or at least he held it's a valid viewpoint) see מבוא לספר שמירת הגוף והנפש, and the Ketzos Hachoshen in his Hakdamah says Chazal can err but it would still be considered Torah.
    So what does this have to do with Chareidi?

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  16. R' CH,
    It may be a reason, but I'd say it's a low order one
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  17. I'm confused, you state your books are not for the Hareidi public, then you state the Israeli Dati Leumi are similar to Hareidim in Torah science issues and seemingly use that as an argument to publish your book for that public.

    ! אין זה אלא אומר דרשוני

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  18. I was a guest of a very prominent dati leumi (not chardal) rosh yeshiva in Jerusalem for shabbat bereishit and in discussion of the parsha he clearly had no problem with an ancient universe or even humans evolving from lower primates.

    I did not ask him specifically about the rishonim/science issue, but I suspect he would fall in line with our host's thinking.

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