Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Rationalist Exodus

Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy. Many people ask me how it affected me (to which the brief answer is that it was extremely painful for my wife and I, and had mixed results for my career), but a much more important question is how it affected society at large. Was it Good For The Jews or Bad For The Jews?

The ban certainly had a great impact on many people. I have a folder full of hundreds of letters that I received about it. While a few are from people hurling abuse at me, the vast majority are from people who were greatly distressed and shocked. Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking with someone that I hadn't seen in many years. This person, many years my senior, is a talmid chacham of note, "old school charedi," who is a product of mainstream charedi yeshivos. He told me that the ban on my books was a watershed in his life, causing him to fundamentally re-assess his view of the charedi world.

Not everyone is so honest with themselves. Someone else that I know recently sent me a letter that he received from "an extremely prominent and widely respected Rav" who described me as having become an apikores, but expressed sympathy for me. This Rav described me as having been "lynched and butchered by the kanaim and no one was willing to stick his neck out for him. I am not justifying his having become a mevazeh talmidei chachamim at all, but it’s difficult to not feel for him. He is a victim of some of the most embarrassing aspects of our society and we should not take pleasure in knocking him. The entire parsha is very painful and we should avoid discussing him altogether.”

This Rav would like to pin the entire episode on the kanaim, avoid discussing me, and not think about this painful episode. In reality, of course, you cannot pin all the blame on the low-level kanaim who are now in prison or otherwise disgraced. First of all, the charedi Gedolim were all willing to put their trust in these people, which speaks volumes about them. Second, several of the Gedolim, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro, were at the forefront of the campaign. Third, the fact is that virtually all of the Gedolim were describing the positions of dozens of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. But it's too uncomfortable for this prominent Rav to think about all that, so he would prefer to pin it all on the kanaim, dismiss me as a mevazeh talmidei chachamim, and and not think about the episode any further.

My impression is that as a result of the Gedolim's ban, many hundreds, even thousands, of people moved away from the charedi world to a greater or lesser degree. (I doubt that there were many people who moved in the opposite direction!) For some, it was just an internal feeling of disconnect. Others re-assessed the direction of their charity dollars - I know of one philanthropist in New York who kept a list on his desk of all the rabbonim who banned my works, so that if collectors would come, he would know who to turn away. For still others, there were actual lifestyle changes - taking off the black hat, choosing different schools and yeshivos for their children, and so on.

Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the controversy over my books was "the public issue most damaging to the Torah's honor and to its leaders in recent memory." (Incredibly, he pinned the blame for this on me!) It was certainly a chillul Hashem of historic proportions, but did it really harm rabbinic authority? I would argue that it only harmed it in a beneficial way - it decreased the rabbinic authority of some rabbis, but boosted that of others. In other words, it caused thousands of people to realize that that rabbis whom they had thought were their leaders were not actually suited to being their leaders. Most of these people then moved towards, or solidified their connection with, other rabbinic leaders, generally from the non-charedi world, who were on their hashkafic wavelength and whom they perceived as exercising rabbinic authority appropriately.

This, in turn, is something that would appear to be a very good thing. Not only are all these people now connected to rabbinic leaders who are much more suited to them, but they are also making better lifestyle choices. For example, they are more likely to support serving in the IDF rather than attend chilul Hashem rallies against it, and more likely to follow Chazal's directives about raising their children to be economically independent.

Overall, then, as painful as the ban was for me and for countless other people, I would say that it was Good For The Jews.

39 comments:

  1. Wonderful post Rabbi Slifkin!! I'm so thankful that I found out about you, your books, and your life's work. Although on a personal level I was enraged at the backlash and criticism you received regarding the 'controversy', I admire you even more for having the strength to persevere through it all and continue to thrive. Although I do not consider myself an observant Jewish by orthodox standards due to a childhood of having it forced on me, I at least have now gained a new appreciation and respect for it via the Rationalist approach. Furthermore, it has also helped me reconcile all the deep rooted disdain and frustration I held onto for so long. I'm not perfect, but to now have the desire and drive to speak positively about where I come from is thanks to the tremendous kiddush hashem emanating from you and all that you do. I'm looking forward to your next publication with great anticipation.

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  2. I, for one, am in awe of people like yourself who are willing to accept vilification and threats in order to stand for what they believe in. In the past, this included people like the RAMBAM, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik and today, people like Rav Rabinovich, Rav Riskin and Rav Stav in addition to others involved in the fresh approaches to Torah study such as "New TANACH Studies" from Michlelet Herzog and new Talmud study programs like the Revadim system, which have all come under fire and brimstone from those unable to see outside their own box.
    Keep up the good work!
    Kol Tuv

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  3. First off,let me apologize for being off topi.I'd like to ask Rabbi Slifkin's and the readers' opinion about this guy Asher Meza who has loads of videos on youtube which are extremely anti-mystical.Is he a kosher Yid stating sound opinions or is he somehow off the derech?Many thanks.
    Here's one of his videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlrJLEPv2SA

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    1. If it's any indication about the rest of his lectures--he sounds off against Chabad doctrine all the time, and asserts things like "The Gra's ban against Chassidism was never lifted"--that's very misleading. That's why I come to this blog, where the level of scholarship is better.

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    2. Many thanks for the reply! But some of the things he says are interesting:being against praying to the dead,the refusal of good-luck charms like hamsas because they are idols,etc.

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    3. George -

      None of those statements, including the ones he says in the video you referred to are "off the derech" or illegitimate views. The Rivash for one, wasn't very convinced about the validity of Sefirot.

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    4. Somewhat entertaining to watch his manic presentation at least for a short while, but he lost me 2.5 minutes in when he blames antisemitism on Kabbalah.

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    5. He lost me at about 0:44 when describes the Ten Sefirot as "an attempt to dissect and dismember God" for the purposes of controlling religion.

      This, of course, is ridiculous strawman argument. This Ten Sefirot are not an attempt to dissect anything. According to Kabbalah they're simply different ways the same on and only God runs the universe. And no, Kabbalah isn't needed to control religion. There are plenty of other far more effective ways of doing that without Kabbalah. The classic Cherem works very well.

      There are many (many) better reasons why Kaballah should be rejected or at the very least be severely scrutinized. But this isn't one of them.







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  4. Kudos for the positive outlook! Not to be taken for granted. Gmar chatima Tova!

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  5. The chareidi world is no different than any other cult. I am happy to have left it.

    -- A chushive Brisker

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  6. I was a latecomer, but the archived correspondence online enabled me to "track" with the episode, as if it were live.
    The moment is a continuing moment because there are new baalei teshuva and new individuals and families who reach a point where they start poking around online for the truth. Whereas psak can often be extremely confounding for a neophyte, thus necessitating a bittul of his understanding, an issue such as this is wide open and available to peruse. The animation and digital voices you posted the other day are quite accurate, and for someone who demands truth it can be very disturbing to see so clearly. For this reason I favor the name The Rationalist Stringency, or Return of the Rationalist Stringency--because it IS a stringency to demand that the tradition is reconciled with the world, and those who shy away from it may be the ones taking the easy way out. History will tell...

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  7. I have always known that Chazal's science was often based on the prevailing views of their times. So when the Chareidi leadership dropped the K-bomb (i.e., defining this opinion as kefirah), they were, in effect, throwing me out of their camp. In their eyes, I was no longer a Chareidi. This exclusion has had severe repercussions for myself and my family. Were it not for their nasty and ignorant campaign against Rabbi Slifkin and his books, I would still be a good, card-carrying Chareidi. No more.

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  8. *painful for my wife and ME (typo)

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    1. I agree. It is a grammer-o
      not a typo.

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  9. The things you describe (the, at least for me, ideological exodus) are true. And I'm happy that after your writing, I've opened my eyes to understand more about the the rationalist Judaism. And, I'm not from Israel and not from the US. Your works impact also here, in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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  10. To me, the most important thing that emerged from the Haredi rabbinic establishment's meltdown over your book was to illustrate that "daas Torah" as a socio-religious tool to maintain centralized power is a complete misnomer. It has nothing to do with daas. And, if Torah is defined not as whatever the roshei yeshiva say, but as the mesorah as passed down through the last thousand years of gedolei hador, then it's not that either.

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  11. "for my wife and *me*"
    Great post!

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  12. Unfortunately, the attitude you describe in not endemic to the Chareidi world or even to the religious public. Look at what happened to Naomi Shemer because of her views on Eretz Yisrael. If Hashem has given us a state but not the Bet HaMikdash it is a sign that sinat chinam has only been partially eradicated.

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  13. And whether or not it was good or bad for the Jews, you fought for truth. The consequences are secondary.

    עושה האמת מפני שהוא אמת

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  14. Great post, and you can count me among the people who re-assessed my approach to Daas Torah and Charedi Judaism as a result of the controversy.

    But I was disappointed by the post - the title (click bait?) gave me the impression that you were going to assess the Exodus (from Egypt) from a Rationalist perspective.

    Maybe you could do that in a future post?

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  15. You're being a bit modest when discussing the second rav- one more reason his argument is flawed is because choosing to "just ignore" someone who was attacked as much as you were is simply wrong. I thought Judaism was supposed to care specifically about those at the bottom of the totem pole.

    Anyway- kol hakavod for all of your work. I remember in 2003 or thereabouts, the "Elders of Zion" blog (I think that's what it was called) ran a "contest" of "Book at this year's YU Sefarim Sale most likely to get banned" and chose "Mysterious Creatures." I thought, "What? That's so pareve! My own charedi rav has a copy!" And then the next year an even *more* pareve (but also excellent!) book came out, and all h*** broke loose. It's been a wild ride.

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  16. Found them! Check out the two posts here for a bit of a chuckle:

    http://protocols.blogspot.co.il/search?q=slifkin

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  17. The impact of the episode with your books was negligible, if any at all. To you, understandably, it seems larger, because it involved you personally. But to Jewry and orthodox Jewry, it was nothing we hadn't seen before. I well remember the fight when you were still a teenager over R. Leo Levi's Sharrei Talmud Torah, which was also banned (by R. Shach) but also praised (by R. Kaminetzky.) And there were others before that too, going all the way back to Moreh Nevuchim. Or do you think this is the first generation to have internecine orthodox fighting over books??

    What HAS had an undeniable impact is the Internet. Not because the views expressed in it are new, but because of the reach. No single book has ever had the reach the Internet has. Likewise, because of the anonymity it has, people are able to comment on platforms like this one and express viewpoints that hitherto they could not have. THAT, and that alone, has proven to be a potent combination. People are now being exposed - via this blog, via Dr. Shapiro's posts on Seforim, and too many others to mention - to ideas they simply never would have seen had they remained printed in books. And even if they did, it would not have reached anyone beyond the people who read them, i.e., people who were already intellectually curious to begin with. Today, for the first time, ideas and alternative viewpoints are being forced upon people, whether they like it or not. Every blog, and every one commenting thereupon, contribute to this phenomenon.

    Is this a positive or negative development? Waaay too early to tell.

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    1. I sort of agree - I think the Internet is responsible for the impact that the ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books had on so many people. Obviously we've had internecine battles before, but this was (I think) the first to play out on this public a stage. I do think you're underestimating how disillusioning the lack of good faith on the part of some of Rabbi Slifkin's opponents was.

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  18. Surely its Grammarian rather than Grammarist?

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  19. Great post! Your books and the controversy surrounding them started a process that led to me leaving the haredi BT world. My family is far, far better off for it (as am I) and to say I have gratitude for what you've done on this blog, in your books and elsewhere would be an understatement. Keep up the great work!

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    1. That makes four of us [counting the comments] wonder how many of us are there

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  20. Moshe Dick writes:
    Rabbi Slifkin! first of all, to all those who feel like you but are reluctant to shed the ';chareidi" name, do like me, just make attest that you are not a "chareidi" andyou will not feel the pressure as muvch.
    Second, more importantly, why does anyone continue to call these rabbonim "Gedolim" or "gedolei Yisroel". They are talmidei chachomim but they are not gedolim . So, why call them that? once you strip this veneer , you can then clearly see that they have their own demons and biases.

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    1. It is an interesting historical question along the lines of R. Slifkin's interests, to research exactly how/when the word "gadol" became such a club to clobber with. It seems to me clear that true gedolim--in the sense that they are recognized and accepted by klal yisroel-- for the most part only emerge after their petirah. Until then a talmid chocham is a talmid chocham, and though their influence may grow in proportion to their gadlut they cannot be said to be instantaneously ascendant over all Torah communities. This must be a recent development, with modern communications networks, no?

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  21. R' Natan yasher koach for your brave struggle for truth in the face of near unanimous opposition from Hareidi leaders. Their heartless and unjust behavior in condemning your books without a hearing and without many of them being able to read the English books was only exceeded by the underhanded and vicious way of suddenly publicizing their fatwa erev Yom Kippur in 2004. It must have come as a great shock to you as a self-identified Hareidi to be so attacked. Those of us who were not Hareidim were not so surprised, given prior pronouncements by some of those figures - much less, the previous leader of the Litvish camp. The popularization of JBlogs starting at about that time served to publicize the theological conflict and greatly diminish the stature of your opponents in the eyes of most of the participants. The internet not only allowed you to continue your work, but also appears to have served as the catalyst for the saga. As I recall, the agitation against you was started when your post on the Mabul in a private listserve, Avodah, was distributed to some agitators. They must have rubbed their hands in glee for the opportunity to bully a Hareidi 'renegade' and cow him into submission. Except that their ploy didn't work and actually backfired. Hopefully some Hareidi leaders will have learned a lesson from this episode and not sign on so quickly to fatwas. In any case, much success in your endeavors including the book on Rationalist Judaism.

    Y. Aharon

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  22. i know two who left the Jewishworld altogether

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    1. I assume you mean that they left Judaism due to the exaggerated backlash, not from Rabbi Slifkin's writings.

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    2. Perfectly rational reaction...

      Dave

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    3. The backlash made me aware of issues that i woud never of been aware off.

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  23. Without Rav Slifkin's work in shining light on chareidi sheker, I would find the drastically skewed chareidi presentation of the mesorah to be so oppressive to truth, that I would find it difficult to maintain my emunah.

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  24. "Without Rav Slifkin's work in shining light on chareidi sheker" I woud of still believed in that sheker

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  25. In a generation where thinking is just not done, it's hard to imagine many were/are effected by topics of "Haskafah". Most people pursue pleasures and worldly pursuits, few pursue intelectual pursuits. The test of "Haskalah" is a dead topic in Judaisim. Perhaps what was awakened was the interest of those already considered "thinkers".

    On a seperate note: Rabbi Slifkin - if you still feel resentment and the need to attack those who you feel wronged you.........while I can understand the motivation for this........this does not align the spirit of forgivenes and the love for all that Judaisim espouses...........if it is of any comfort to you - the Ravvad used very strong and unforgiving language in refrence to the Rambam..............BUT..........it stayed a purely intelectual debate - you have turned trhis whole thing into a personal agenda.....while I understand the motivation.......AAD KAN! ENOUGH...........you need to rise above the personal element in it and move on. And just because somone has one fault it does not discredit the whole person.

    The Rabbis who issued the ban - rightr or wrongly so is irrelevent - they remain Rabbis, good people and people to repect. ( be it that they may or may not have this ONE fault of rightly or wrongly banning your books)

    -Chag Sameach!

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  26. Rabbi slifkin is wrong, but rabbi leib trooper and rabbi leib Pinter have authentic daas tora

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