Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Introduction for a New Audience

My book Sacred Monsters is being published in Hebrew by Koren. This is the first of my books to appear in Hebrew, and Koren asked me to write a new preface. They said that this should be an introduction for Israelis to learn about me, the book, and the story surrounding the book and the controversy. I was hesitant to get into the whole story about the ban, but I guess it's better for people to get an accurate picture from me than a distorted version from elsewhere. Here is what I came up with; please let me know if you think I omitted anything important:

The original version of this book, written in English, resulted in a considerable storm amongst the Anglo Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora. It was published with the approbations of great Torah scholars, and was initially warmly received. However, a few years later, the book was the subject of a ban by a long list of prominent rabbanim in the chareidi world, headed by Rav Elyashiv ztz”l. The ensuing controversy raged for over a year, and exploded to such huge proportions that it was even reported in such prestigious non-Jewish newspapers as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (A vast range of documentation relating to the controversy can be found at http://zootorah.com/controversy.)

In order to understand how this developed and why the controversy was so great, some background is in order. I grew up in Manchester, England, in an Orthodox Jewish home. The schools and yeshivot that I attended were charedi, and I was learning Gemara from the age of ten. Simultaneously, however, I received a strong secular education, which was the accepted norm in England even for many charedi schools. Furthermore, my father, ztz”l, was an outstanding scientist, specializing in physics but also dealing with chemistry and mathematics. From an early age, I developed a fascination with zoology, reading everything that I found on the topic and keeping a wide range of exotic creatures for study. When I moved to Israel after high school, studying in charedi yeshivos, I was both fascinated and disturbed when I came across references in the Gemara to bizarre creatures and strange zoological phenomena. The giant leviathan, the phoenix that lives forever, the salamander that is born from fire, mice that are generated from dirt, are just a few of the astonishing creatures that are encountered in the study of Gemara. Were the Sages describing actual creatures? Yet surely no such animals exist?

Like many people who are faced with these questions, I was not able to receive satisfactory answers from my teachers in yeshivah. They themselves had been taught as children that such creatures were all real, and assumed that there is an unequivocal Jewish tradition which likewise understood them all that way. They did not have a strong science education, and it was not difficult for them to believe that all such creatures actually existed. They were instantly uncomfortable with my questions and disparaged me for asking them.

However, I did not give up, and I kept trying to find answers. Fortunately, I came to know Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz”l, a disciple of the famous Rav Eliyahu Dessler and editor of Rav Dessler’s work Michtav Me-Eliyahu, who taught me a rational approach to these issues. In addition, I came across numerous little-known but very significant sources that dealt with these topics, such as the writings of Rambam and his son Rabbeinu Avraham regarding such problems, and some crucial letters from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Eventually, I came to realize that there was an entire school of thought, stretching back many centuries, which took a rationalist approach to Judaism, but which had become virtually unknown in charedi yeshivos. According to the distinguished Rabbinic authorities that espoused this approach, many of the Talmud’s accounts of such creatures were to be understood as metaphors rather than describing actual creatures. Others, they stated, were indeed describing actual creatures, but were relying on ancient beliefs about the natural world rather than presenting a tradition from Sinai.

Eventually, I published a book, called Mysterious Creatures, that dealt with these topics. It presented the full range of approaches, including those that insisted upon the factual accuracy of every statement in the Talmud even according to its literal meaning, but it also presented, and sided with, the rationalist approach. The book received rabbinic approbations from prestigious Torah scholars in the English-speaking Orthodox community, who noted in their approbations that the approach presented in the book was unconventional in the charedi yeshivah world, but pointed out that it was nevertheless firmly rooted in impeccable rabbinic sources. They further observed that this approach was of crucial importance to helping people who are confronted with these issues.

The book was extremely well received, and I was flooded with letters from people who had also been struggling with these issues and were thrilled to discover that there were great rabbinic figures in Jewish history who had legitimized a rationalist approach. It was also extremely popular with younger readers (and their parents), who had previously thought that Talmud study was rather dry in comparison to the magical world of Harry Potter, and for whom this novel topic ignited their interest in further study. I also published two other books which dealt with other topics relating to Torah and science; one discussing the age of the universe and the development of life, and another discussing the Torah’s list of non-kosher animals in light of modern zoology.

But a few years later, a storm erupted. A small team of zealots, with a past history of causing trouble, engineered a ban on these three books. They brought certain parts of the books to the attention of various leading authorities in the charedi world, and (falsely) claimed that some innocent yeshivah students had been led astray from Judaism as a result of the books. While the zealots themselves would later be discredited - one would go to prison for a $43 million fraud, while another would lose his position due to severely immoral behavior – they managed to manipulate the support of many figures.

The result of their efforts was that dozens of leading charedi rabbinic authorities signed a letter declaring the books to be heretical and pronouncing a ban upon them. Some of the signatories insisted that it was absolutely heretical to claim that any statement in the Talmud, even dealing with natural history, is not authoritative; they claimed that my alleged rabbinic sources legitimizing this approach must be forgeries. Other signatories to the ban, such as Rav Elyashiv, acknowledged that there had been great rabbinic scholars in the past who took such an approach (indeed, one of Rav Elyashiv’s own teachers, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, followed the rationalist approach), but ruled that it was a minority view that was forbidden to be taught in the charedi world today.

The ban itself, however, caused a storm. There were many thousands of people in the Orthodox Jewish community, including countless rabbis and educators, who subscribed to the approach presented in my books. For years, they had relied upon the sources that I presented (and many people knew of them even before I wrote about them), and they were greatly dismayed, and often furious, to see that these sources were being declared heretical. Furthermore, while some of the younger and less independent rabbis that had written approbations to my work decided to renounce their support, others stood by their approbations. In particular, Rav Aryeh Carmell wrote a letter reiterating his approval of my books, as well as a lengthy article stressing the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to these topics. A host of websites sprung up protesting the ban, with one website accumulating dozens and dozens of sources from Torah scholars over history stating that statements in the Talmud about the natural world are not necessarily authoritative.

In line with guidance from my own rabbinic mentors, I did not recant my views or withdraw my books. (However, I did withdraw from the charedi community and affiliate instead with the broader Orthodox population, as well as entering academia to study Jewish intellectual history.) Yet while I certainly had no reason to believe that my books were heretical, I did feel that the leaders of the charedi community had a right to determine the parameters of the educational approach that they wanted for their communities. In addition, the rationalist approach is certainly not without its risks. True, it can be immensely beneficial to people with a strong secular education who wrestle with conflicts between Torah and science. But it can be upsetting and destabilizing to those who have never been bothered by such problems. As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whereas other books on these topics were “off the radar,” my books had been perceived as threatening yeshivah students in the charedi world, due to my own training in charedi yeshivos, and due to the prestigious rabbinic endorsements that the books included. And while many of the signatories to the ban declared the books to be “heresy,” what really concerned them was that the books were potentially dangerous.

Consequently, when the books sold out very quickly after the ban and I had to republish them, I did so with various changes. I did not retract any of the claims in the original books; in fact, I added many more sources and further discussion buttressing the rationalist approach. However, I did want to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of those who saw the books as trying to target and destabilize the charedi yeshivah world. Therefore, I did not include the rabbinic endorsements in the new editions of the books, and I made various changes in the style and presentation of the books to make it clear who they were aimed at: people with a strong secular education who struggled with conflicts between Torah and science, and who were willing to adopt the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and others to dealing with these issues.

While the original ban was never retracted, the revised new editions of the books were not met with condemnation. Of course, this may have been because it was felt that the original ban had already sufficiently discredited me, or alternately because the signatories to the ban were shaken by the backlash to their letter. But in many cases, it appears that there was simply no motivation to fight an approach that was grounded in great Torah scholars of the past and was not being presented in such a way as to threaten charedi yeshivah students of today.

For several years, I have received requests to make my books available in Hebrew. I decided to begin with this book, for three reasons. First, it deals with the topics of broadest appeal, whether for teenagers who are enamored with the popular genre of fantasy literature, or for students and scholars who are intrigued by discussions of these creatures in rabbinic literature. Second, my impression is that in Israel, there are many people struggling with conflicts between the Talmud and science, and the existing popular literature on this topic is extremely anti-rationalist in orientation. Third, with regard to dealing with a conflict between Torah and science, this topic clearly demonstrates a great divide between different schools of thought stretching back many centuries. As such, it will hopefully enable people to realize that there is a long history of different approaches to such topics.










35 comments:

  1. Mosh Dick writes:
    Yasher koach,Rabbi Slifkin,on your work and we should all admire your courage in standing up to the pressure of evil zealots!

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  2. Is the letter and article from Rav Carmell freely available?

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  3. >While the original ban was never retracted, the revised new editions of the books were not met with condemnation. Of course, this may have been because it was felt that the original ban had already sufficiently discredited me, or alternately because the signatories to the ban were shaken by the backlash to their letter. But in many cases, it appears that there was simply no motivation to fight an approach that was grounded in great Torah scholars of the past and was not being presented in such a way as to threaten charedi yeshivah students of today.
    Or maybe there was no condemnation because they didn't realize that a second edition had appeared. Or maybe the second edition was similar enough to the first edition that there no reason to think that the ban didn't continue to apply.
    Other that small comment, great introduction. May you be zocheh to have all your books translated into Hebrew.

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  4. Avrohom, everything is at http://zootorah.com/controversy

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  5. Kol HaKavod to you and Koren! Will your other books be translated as well?

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  6. Do you have a rejoinder for Rav Meiselman's claim that the rationalist sources from Rav Avraham ben Harambam and the Geonim are based on corrupted manuscripts and that Rav Hirsh was a 19th century apologist scrambling to save what could be saved?

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    Replies
    1. Does he really need a rejoinder to sacking R' Hirsch and the writings of R' Avrohom...?

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  7. A small team of zealots, with a past history of causing trouble, engineered a ban on these three books. They brought certain parts of the books to the attention of various leading authorities in the charedi world, and (falsely) claimed that some innocent yeshivah students had been led astray from Judaism as a result of the books
    ========================
    I'd be sure to have factual documentation, especially of claims of others' motivations and difficult to prove points(e.g. no one was ever led astray)

    btw given that all of torah is interconnected, is it a disservice to those who have never thought about reality to say they shouldn't read such books?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  8. (indeed, one of Rav Elyashiv’s own teachers, Rav Yitzchak Herzog,

    ........

    I think this has been questioned as going to a shiur of someone does not in itself make one a talmid.

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  9. Your books in specific and your approach in general are clearly and directly responsible for my continued frumness. I would not have the desire I do to remain frum without the rationalist approach. I already have a signed copy of the English book, I will be lining up to get the Hebrew one as well. And since I am a BS resident, I am excited about your other endeavors as well.

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  10. Do you have a rejoinder for Rav Meiselman's claim that the rationalist sources from Rav Avraham ben Harambam and the Geonim are based on corrupted manuscripts and that Rav Hirsh was a 19th century apologist scrambling to save what could be saved?

    His evidence is against the authenticity of the attribution of Rav Avraham Ben HaRambam is chiefly that it disagrees with his thesis, so his reasoning his largely circular, IMO. Besides that, he brings some spurious contradictions to the Rambam that are intended to show that Rav Avraham was unlikely to disagree so much. However, they are actually not contradictions at all and completely in line with the Rambam's shita. This deserves a full post, at the discussion is too large to fit in the margin of this comment.

    The apologist theme is ironic considering that R. Meiselman devotes a chapter to the consideration that Aristotle derived his ideas from Jewish sources and then mixed in some "heretical" elements to disguise their origins. I don't know how much more apologetic than that you can get.

    @Joel Rich. Agreed. I think that if you look at the controversy page, you'll see some discussion of the facts behind that story. I think the assertion is not that "no one was ever led astray" (that would be impossible to know), but that the specific story was referring to two people who were not led astray by the books including one who testifies that the books helped.

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  11. You seem to conceal that your books not just dealt with strange animals or age of the world, but also suggested that there was no real Adam haRishon and even that the day of Shabbat is not a real Shabbat. I wonder what could Rambam say if he knew that such ideas are claimed to be based on his teaching?

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  12. That's under the heading "development of life." And the significant parts of what I wrote about Adam and the Six Days was directly from Rambam!

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  13. I would love to help spread the word and maybe help sell a book or two by sharing this post, but alas, it is not in the language of the intended reader. Then again, it may appeal to the reader who feels holier reading Moreh Nevuchim or Hirsch in Hebrew rather than (an equal or superior) English translation from their respective original vernaculars. Or not. Yea, Hebrew would be good.

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  14. IMO, the republished editions did not receive condemnation because they did not purport to be addressed to Chareidim. You yourself were already outside the Chareidi fold so there was no point. Rabbanim do not condemn and ban every book that they don't agree with even if they think it's heretical.

    Regarding the content, looks pretty comprehensive. Hatzlacha Rabba!

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  15. I think your use of the word "rationalist" in the 3rd 4th and 5th paragraphs will be confusing to your readers, especially without any explanation of the term. I follow your blog regularly and even I am not sure what you mean there ( I mean I can guess what you're getting at since I know your posts and views, but it's confusing without that context and I think it's unclear what exactly is meant).

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  16. David Ohsie, with all the various posts here on R' Meiselman's book, your comment about his apologetics re Aristotle is the most telling. The book is not apologetics; it's farce. If your citation is a fair rendering of that chapter, it tells all you need to know to dismiss this work as foolishness and a waste of time.

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  17. Academic GreaseballApril 2, 2014 at 9:13 PM

    The original hockers behind the ban might be scum - as hockers usually are - but the aftermath of the "ban" led to your ultimate self-identification as a true Apikorus. So, in fact, thanks to the scumsters, you have fanatically discredited yourself with respect to the Orthodox world!

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  18. @Academic Greaseball: a low-down, mean, unsubstantiated comment from someone who feels a need to hide behind a pseudonym. On the contrary, Rabbi Slifkin has established himself as one of the most open-minded, erudite, and staunchly Orthodox searchers for truth in our generation to tackle what Torah really is and says. My advice? Get a life -- and a name.

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  19. "However, a few years later, the book was the subject of a ban by a long list of prominent rabbanim in the chareidi world, headed by Rav Elyashiv ztz”l"

    Did Rav Elyashiv lead the ban or the charedi world? It's not clear from the sentance.

    Maybe clarify who lead the ban and convinced the gedolim. You don't know that they were not gedolim who initially read the books and started banning them.

    Also, could you define rationalism breifly? You use it and people won't know what it is.

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  20. I think it's fairly decent: it summarizes the affair nicely with firmness, but also dignity and restraint. My only quibble is your paragraphs defending the charedi world. I have often thought you bend over backwards a bit too much in defending it.

    But otherwise, like I said, I think this inttroduction is very good.

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  21. Eloquently written; straightforward, with pashtut and humbleness. And only since you asked, I felt obligated to read it with a different eye, and now wonder about two(ish) things.

    1. If you are in fact hesitant to get into the whole controversy, perhaps you need not begin with the storm that raged, followed by the background, and back again to the controversy. Might it be sufficient to begin with the history and lead from there into the resulting events?)

    2. When speaking of the people that subscribe to your approach you speak of thousands including rabbis and leaders. However when you discuss those who were against it, you speak only of the leaders. What about the perception of the hamon am who blanketly dismiss your books as apikorsus, and not only because of the world from which you originate?

    2.5 Each time you discuss the ban you speak of the ‘right of the leaders of the charedi community…’ and ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison.’ I’m curious whether you still believe this in the absolute, and to what degree readers of this version need to hear it. (Could one man’s meat be poisoned? What about the absolutruth of the matter? Is the danger to the charedi community in reading this book as great as the danger in not reading books of this type? Does one need to have a ‘strong science education’ in order for it to be “difficult for them to believe that all such creatures actually existed.”)

    And lastly, curious what reaction, if any, you expect from the Charedi world to the Hebrew edition.

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  22. Actually, following that long rambelation, it occurs to me that the only real bikoret I would have is the facthathe Rabbi chooses to publish as “Natan Slifkin.”
    Why, Rabbi?

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  23. I agree with Yehudah. Your explanation of your approach is a bit apologetic. When my friends starting moving towards the right wing approach to Judaism, I also felt I had my own hashkafa that was based on sources, but sort of apologized for it as if I needed it because i believed in science. Now I feel that's wrong. Why should any text need to be approved by any authority? We, as rationalists, should rather read any text with a critical mind and make conclusions for ourselves.

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  24. A couple of people have already suggested that you define the term "rationalist". I must agree with that suggestion. And with that definition, perhaps a comparison with respect to the "mystical" approach might also be in order.

    Yashar Koach. May you have much success with your new Hebrew endeavour and may it open the eyes of its many readers.

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  25. "Furthermore, while some of the younger and less independent rabbis that had written approbations to my work ..."
    I think "who" should replace "that." (But it's not a must.)
    "...with one website accumulating dozens and dozens of sources from Torah scholars over history stating that statements..."
    Throughout, instead of over?
    "However, I did withdraw from the charedi community"
    I think "withdraw" is the perfect word to use. It's just vague enough.
    "And while many of the signatories to the ban declared the books to be “heresy,” what really concerned them was that the books were potentially dangerous."
    This sentence comes across as merely an assertion, even as I believe you're 100% right.
    "it was felt that the original ban had already sufficiently discredited me, or alternately because the signatories to the ban were shaken by the backlash to their letter."
    The word "alternatively" is preferred.
    Hatzlacha rabba!

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  26. I was only generally familiar with the history you describe, and this was very informative.

    I wonder if it would benefit from a paragraph or two describing not just why your approach is valid, but also why it is valuable. Perhaps you find inspiration in the work of G-d's creation, or you believe the stories are more effective because the creatures were mythical, or you believe that the Truths of Torah and the truth of science must be shown to be compatible. Whatever the explanation, I would like to hear what inspires you and how I can be inspired too.

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  27. "They said that this should be an introduction for Israelis to learn about me, the book, and the story surrounding the book and the controversy."

    Rabbi Slifkin, of the three things you were asked to address, "me, the book ... and the controversy", you definitely tilted toward the latter. I think you'd do better to say more about yourself and the book - the real stars of the show - and less about the controversy. It's time for you and your fine work to to shine without being framed by the unfortunate controversy that once surrounded them. The controversy is still worthy of attention, but as a manifestation of an independant phenomenon that is much larger than the "Slifkin Affair" and that no longer casts its ugly shadow over your work.

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  28. wow. when will blog comments finally get like buttons?

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  29. Saurus, this will all be in Hebrew. :-)

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  30. Reasoned ThoughtApril 3, 2014 at 8:08 PM

    "It seems strange that the public polemicist for Religious Zionist ideology should be me, seeing as I've been a Religious Zionist for less than ten years"

    The phrase "only Nixon could go to China" might help.

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  31. Excellent, except for these minor points:

    "A small team of zealots, with a past history of causing trouble, engineered a ban on these three books." Trouble? What kind of trouble? Either explain or delete.

    "a past history" -- should be "a history". (All history is past.)

    "enamored with" should be "enamored of".

    Thanks.

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  32. R. Meiselman devotes a chapter to the consideration that Aristotle derived his ideas from Jewish sources and then mixed in some "heretical" elements to disguise their origins.

    The remah specifically encurages holding this position despite knowing that it is not factually true in a chapter discussing secular knowledge in toras haoleh he says "vchen roi lekol ben yisroel lehamin shkol chmamsam hi lochoch mayitanu"

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  33. I also think you are being too kind describing your opponents and what they did.

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  34. "Other signatories to the ban, such as Rav Elyashiv, acknowledged that there had been great rabbinic scholars in the past who took such an approach (indeed, one of Rav Elyashiv’s own teachers, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, followed the rationalist approach), but ruled that it was a ***minority*** (emph. added) view that was forbidden to be taught in the charedi world today."

    IIRC the word "minority" is incorrect in the context of Rav Elyashiv's view, except according to Rav Feldman.

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