Tuesday, June 7, 2016
House of Cards
The answer is that there is much, much more at stake here than an argument about Pi.
The ban on my books was more than just a ban on some books by young Nosson Slifkin. It was an attack on the rationalist approach in general, and an attempt to write it out of Judaism. The Gedolim declared that it is forbidden to state that Chazal were deficient in their knowledge of the natural world. When people protested the ban, the situation took on the added dimension of also becoming about the fallibility of the Gedolim. But there was never an opportunity to openly discuss this with the other side. The Gedolim refused to meet with me or to give any explanation of the ban. Strategically, this was very wise. For to enter into discussion, to give an explanation, would render them vulnerable to being rebutted. The topics were not up for discussion. It was all about the authority of the Gedolim, and that’s that.
Since all this was creating an unparalleled crisis in charedi rabbinic authority, Rav Aharon Feldman published an essay which attempted to justify the ban. However, this made astonishing and easily disprovable claims about rabbinic interpretation and authority, and a number of people wrote devastating rebuttals of it. Rav Feldman did not attempt to respond to these rebuttals. Again, this was strategically very wise, because he would have lost the arguments.
Then Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who had previously issued the most vicious and personal attacks against me of all my opponents, and who also wanted a piece of the anti-rationalist pie, published his own 700+ page book about why the rationalist approach is heretical. While I responded with an extensive critique, there was no way that he was going to get into a discussion with me. Besides, his anti-rationalist stance was in any case very different from the anti-rationalist stance of the Gedolim – they would consider some of his own views and statements, which are very dismissive of the Rishonim, to be heretical.
But then, after all these years, something new happened. Rabbi Yaakov Menken published a glowing review of Rabbi Meiselman’s book. And he published it in Dialogue, at the request of Rav Aharon Feldman, who is on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and who probably saw Rabbi Meiselman’s book as the pie-in-the-sky demonstration of why the rationalist approach is heresy. The rabbinic board of Dialogue includes Rav Shlomo Miller, who is likewise regarded in the charedi world as one of the Gedolim of North America. Furthermore, Rabbi Menken presented Rabbi Meiselman’s book as THE proper explanation of why the rationalist approach is heretical. Rabbi Menken was thereby placed in the position of Official Representative of the Gedolim vis-à-vis the ban.
Now, it’s very dangerous to be in that position. If you get drawn into debate, and you lose, then you have not only compromised your own honor – you have compromised that of the Gedolim. And so when I published my blog post detailing all the problems with Rabbi Menken’s review, the strategically smart thing for him to do would have been to entirely ignore it.
And ignore it he did, for the most part. Yet he couldn’t resist addressing just one point in my critique of his review, regarding his claim about Pi demonstrating Chazal’s advanced knowledge. He cherry-picked a criticism that he thought would be as easy as pie to rebut and defend his claim. And he used that as an example of why he doesn’t need to respond to the rest of my critique.
But it turned out that his claim was indeed problematic. And as the back-and-forth went on, more and more people got to see the absurdity of Rabbis Meiselman and Menken’s insistence that you can start with a statement from the Gemara that pi is three, add Rambam’s unsurprising statements about Pi being irrational and reading of that into the Gemara, and come up with evidence that Chazal possessed advanced knowledge.
At this point, Rabbi Menken became truly stuck. He couldn’t concede that what he wrote in Dialogue was in any way wrong. For if he did, then the obvious next stage is for him to issue a correction in the next issue of Dialogue and to address the rest of my critique. For example, he has to address why he claimed that Chazal were far ahead of their time in their knowledge of the natural world, and that there is none amongst the Rishonim who said that any of Chazal could err in things about the natural world that they knew from the Torah, despite my pointing out that all the Rishonim state that [many of] Chazal believed that the sun goes behind the sky at night, which they inferred from pesukim. Likewise, Rabbi Menken would have to address why he presents Rabbi Meiselman as an honest scholar who reflects the true position of Rav Soloveitchik, when I demonstrated that Rabbi Meiselman utterly misquotes Rav Soloveitchik on a crucial issue.
But if Rabbi Menken does enter into discussion regarding the rest of my critique, and I prove it (or significant parts of it) to be likewise correct, then it’s not just Rabbi Menken who ends up with egg on his face. It’s Rabbi Meiselman, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, and by implication the entire Gedolim/ Daas Torah enterprise. It would severely set back the crusade against the rationalist approach. That was why I kept hammering away at this point, and not allow Rabbi Menken to distort, sidetrack or ignore the issue.
So what was he to do? He had to drag out the argument until he could find an excuse to pull out and blame it on me. And that is exactly what he did. When I got into a Facebook debate with him, he constantly evaded answering my points, and then claimed that I was “spamming him,” deleted my quotations from Rabbi Meiselman which revealed his mistakes, and blocked me from further discussion. He also claimed that my writing style was disrespectful, despite his being at least as bad (if not worse) in the way that he wrote about me and with his insults to others who agreed with me.
Sure, Rabbi Menken ends up looking foolish and intellectually dishonest for repeatedly insisting that Rambam’s statements about Pi demonstrate Chazal’s advanced knowledge, despite my pointing out that the irrationality of Pi was widely known in the medieval period and that there is no evidence whatsoever that Rambam actually derived it from Chazal. But, from Rabbi Menken’s point of view, it’s better to have egg on your face than to eat humble pie and bring down the whole Daas Torah house of cards.
Posted by Natan Slifkin