Monday, January 9, 2017

An Uneven Playing Field

Back in 2004/5, many people marveled at how, at the tender age of 29, I was standing against three dozen Gedolei Torah aged 70-100. Some saw it as demonstrating amazing self-confidence; others, understandably, saw it as appalling arrogance. "It's like a first-year medical student disputing all the world's top doctors!" said many. It appeared to be a ridiculously uneven playing field. How could I possibly dare to presume that I was right?

In truth, those who know me personally are well aware that I am greatly lacking in self-confidence. During the year and a half over which the controversy over my books unfolded, I was in a state of extreme anxiety. Every day I would ask myself: perhaps the Gedolim are right and I am wrong? And I would have to work through the entire topic in my head, and speak to others, before I was reassured. When I heard over the grapevine about various books that were going to be written against me, I was terrified. What would they say? What if they showed me to have indeed written lies and heresy?

So how did I dare to hold my ground? One of the reasons was that it gradually dawned on me that it was indeed a highly uneven playing field, but it was one which sloped sharply down away from me. The analogy to the first-year medical student and the world's top doctors was deeply flawed in several ways, and I had an immensely powerful advantage.

It became clear that the fact of my distinguished opponents being thoroughly dedicated Torah scholars with many decades of learning was not at all something that counted against me. For they were not dispassionate academic scholars of intellectual Jewish history, who were objectively evaluating whether my books were grounded in traditional rabbinic writings. Rather, they were people who had been exclusively educated in, and become passionate lifelong devotees of, a particular approach to Torah - specifically, the anti-rationalist approach. They had received virtually no exposure to the writings of those who espoused the rationalist approach, and what little exposure they had was through a strictly anti-rationalist lens. Furthermore, they had virtually no experience in dealing with conflicts between Torah and science.

Thus, my opponents' greater religiosity and added decades of study did not at all give them an advantage from a scholarly perspective. Rather, it simply explained why they were so utterly closed to, and even unaware of, the rationalist approach. It's an approach that went deeply against their education and their treasured religious beliefs, and so it wasn't at all surprising that they claimed that it never existed. It's not comparable to a first-year medical student disputing all the world's top doctors. Rather, it was like a first-year medical student from a university of Western medicine insisting to a group of Chinese practitioners of Eastern medicine that Western medicine is indeed legitimate.

But not only did my opponents not have an advantage over me; they were actually handicapped by a severe disadvantage.

Rationalists (with certain exceptions) have always been perfectly willing to accept that there were those who insisted on learning Genesis literally and who insisted that the Sages were infallible in scientific matters. We merely insist that there were also those who allowed for non-literal interpretations of Genesis and who stated that the Sages were indeed fallible in their statements about the natural world. My opponents, on the other hand, were not just claiming that their own approach to these topics had a traditional basis; they were claiming that my approach had no basis.

It's always much harder to prove a negative than to prove a positive. And given that Jewish history is rife with disputes and differences in Torah thought, in particular with regard to the rationalist versus mystical approaches, it's extremely difficult to claim that a rationalist approach does not have a traditional basis. My opponents not only had to argue that Chazal's statements about the natural world were correct (itself very difficult to argue for, because it's so obviously not true), but also that nobody had ever claimed differently! You'd have to claim that my sources did not actually exist or were for some reason irrelevant. Certain people indeed tried such claims - accusing my sources of being forgeries, or "paskened" false - but clearly such claims were exceedingly weak. The ultimate litmus test became the topic of the sun's path at night, where my opponents had to insist that the Maharal's approach (or a variant thereof) was the only authentic approach, whereas it was clear that Maharal himself was a radical revolutionary, and that there was a long list of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim who took the rationalist approach.

This is also why I wasn't afraid when I wrote a letter to Tradition to challenge Rabbi J. David Bleich, an exceedingly brilliant but decidedly non-rationalist Torah scholar. This was after he published a supposedly comprehensive discussion of halachic literature relating to spontaneous generation, yet neglected to mention the [eminently reasonable] view of the rabbinic authorities who stated that Chazal believed in spontaneous generation and were mistaken. A colleague of mine warned me that Rabbi Bleich would react very strongly, and indeed he did; he wrote a fifteen-page response which was laced with nasty put-downs. But I knew that there was no way that he was going to be able to wish the rationalist sources out of existence, and indeed he couldn't. Instead, he made himself look rather foolish, insisting that spontaneous generation has not been discredited (!), and/or that Chazal never believed in it anyway and all the rishonim and acharonim who explained Chazal that way were mistaken (!!). Even all this did not explain why he neglected to mention the view of those who take the rationalist approach, and eventually he was forced to concede that such a view does indeed exist. (See the extensive discussion in this PDF).

I'm not a genius, I'm not a brilliant Torah scholar, and I'm not self-confident (or at least, I wasn't back then; going through that crucible worked wonders for me). It's just that I had every advantage.

57 comments:

  1. I think everyone realizes that there are other approaches, now and in the past, but they don't want anyone in their own philosophical/religious camp to start rooting for the other team. If your ideas hadn't been making any headway in that regard, your opponents might not have have bothered with their campaign.

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    1. "I think everyone realizes that there are other approaches". Most certainly incorrect. For example, the Hassidim in general. As alluded to in the above article.

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  2. You showed many of us that the emperors were, at best, scantily clad. You have our eternal gratitude for that.

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  3. Can you please post a link to Rabbi Bleich's concession?

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    1. It's buried at the end of his long rejoinder to me in Tradition.

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    2. It's also on page 8 in the PDF that Rabbi Slifkin linked near the end of this post.

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  4. I find this post to be in EXTREMELY poor taste, given the recent petira of Rav Moshe Shapiro zt"l.

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    1. I find your comment to be in extremely poor taste. Vehamayven yavin.

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    2. I don't mean to be flippant, but considering the ages of many of those involved, the way of the world is that it will thus never be the right time.

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    3. That's the only thing you find in poor taste?

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    4. Nowhere does Rav Shapiro's name get mentioned... I think you're reading too much into this, Sass

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    5. Nachum: "considering the ages of many of those involved, the way of the world is that it will thus never be the right time"

      Sorry but that's absurd. Two days after the petira of one of those leading gedolei torah is in poor taste.

      Noam: Whatever was the intention of this post, it doesn't change the fact that it is in extremely poor taste. As if Slifkin doesn't know that Rav Moshe Shapiro, one of the leaders of the ban, just died? Come on.

      This post is a bush league cheap shot.

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    6. Could you explain how this post is a cheap shot? For one thing, who was shot?

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    7. Considering what Rav Moshe Shapiro and the other gedolim did to R. Slifkin, most people would see him as very restrained.

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    8. I'm pretty sure that a certain old woman who was beaten half to death thought that the effusive hespedim were in bad taste.

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    9. Sass, you anyway disagree with this post. Only your pain excuses you from reminding people about הגר"מ's role in the cherem. If they will throw mud at him right after his passing it will be to your credit. Where's the Sechel?
      BTW, I found out about his petira on Monday.

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  5. I think your advantage relates to disproving theorem - all you have to do is find one counter example and you're done. In your case you just had to show another approach existed to win on logic points (not necessarily convincing anyone since that is not always based on logic)
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  6. ...Rather, it simply explained why they were so utterly closed to, and even unaware of, the rationalist approach.

    In other words, you are saying that the Gedolim (along with Maharal) are unaware of the writings of Rishonim, Acharonim, Rambam and all those who you are claiming supporting your position?



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    1. It's not as though there are a lot of writings on this topic. We are talking about scattered comments. Considering that there are about a hundred thousand seforim in the average Otzar, even someone who learns 18 hours a day for 90 years is only going to cover a fraction of what's out there, and is not going to be proficient in the statements of Rishonim/Acharonim on this topic. The only really dedicated work on this topic is the Moreh, and that's something that most people today (even Gedolim) have never learned, or who learn with a particular anti-rationalist lens (e.g. claiming that Rambam was a closet kabbalist).
      Maharal himself was presumably aware that his approach to topics such as the sun's path at night was different from all the Rishonim, and felt comfortable doing so.

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    2. Over at the Daas Torah blog, Rabbi Eidensohn says that R. Moshe Shapiro held that Rambam didn't really deny the existence of magic.

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    3. DF, Rav Hirsch in his letter to R Wechsler disagress. He says

      וקרוב לענינים האלה השאלה על מהות הכישוף והאצטגנינות והשדים וכיוצא בזה, אשר נגע מכתנ"י במכתבו היקר. מי יכניס ראשו בין ההרים הגדולים הרמב"ם והרמב"ן, אשר על פי דבריהם נחלק מחנה ישראל על ענינים כאלה לשתי מחנות? דהא במחילת כבודו הרמה נ"י, כשיסתכל בדברי הרמב"ם ז"ל על אשר כתב בסוף הל' ע"ז(פי"א הט"ז), יודה לענ"ד שאיננו כמו שכתב מכ"ת נ"י, שלא כתב דברים אלה אלא לקצרי יד בתלמודי חכז"ל, ובעיקר סברתו מסכים עם הרמב"ן ז"ל, זה אינו לענ"ד, דהא בפירוש חושב לפתיות ומגונה מאד כל מי שאינו חושב ממעשי כישוף וכו' להבל וריק, ואם היה מפריז בזה על המדה מ"מ ניכר מאין ספק שזהו דעתו וסברתו בדברים האלה באמת. ואם כן הרשות נתונה לכל משכיל לפנות בדעותיו בענינים אלה או לדרך זה או לזה באין מכלים אלה את אלה, או—וזה לענ"ד הדרך היותר נכון—להודות שאינו יודע דבר ברור בענינם אלה

      Rav Hirsch'es following is probably larger than Rav Shapiro's, so reading Rambam like RH is certainly legitimate.

      By the Way, Rav Hirsch'es letter to R Wechsler was publisher in Hamaayan 5736.2 but unfortunately is missing at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/home.aspx כותר:המעין. It would be nice if someone could upload it.

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    4. In which case among scattered comments and hundred thousand seforim there could be plenty comments supporting the opposite view.
      Since Hashem promised in the Torah that the Torah will never be forgotten, He assures that the leaders of the generations will correctly interpret it, although for different generations different interpretation nuances may be proper.

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    5. There are indeed plenty of comments supporting the opposite view. I stated as such in the post.
      If you want to claim that the Gedolim must be right because they are the Gedolim, then there's no point engaging in any discussion of the issue.

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    6. Since Hashem promised in the Torah that the Torah will never be forgotten...

      Do you have a source for that?

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  7. The dirty secret about "taking Genesis literally" is that the literal for the Charedim and others is the King James Bible and/or similar Christian interpretations from centuries ago. A careful reading of the biblical Hebrew, done by many scholars and others,shows that, for example:
    The text does not say G_D created "the heavens and earth". It says the sky and the dry land. Furthermore, the sky was felt to be water (this is even in the Gemara). Adam is referred to as ha Adam most of the time. There is no place else in the Torah where a persons name is preceded by the definite article. Even in English, it is never used in this way (except for "the Donald"). The consensus is that ha Adam means a generic human being, not a specific person. This supports Rambam's view that the story is allegorical. It has nothing whatsoever to do with science so there is no conflict with science.Even the first word is incorrectly translated as "In THE beginning, implying a unique point in time, when it more accurately translated as "In beginning". This is just the tip of the iceberg of mis-translation. The bottom line is that Charedim are defending and have adopted the King James Bible viewpoint, not what we see in the text. I have great respect for Rabbi Slifkin. However, even he appears to be understandably afraid to point out the real problems - Christian interpretations adopted by his opponents.Sorry, but Christianity, neoplatonism, and Islam have had significant effects on Judaism. Rabbi Slifkin has chosen to answer his critics with TOSTOS- this one said, that one said.The problem is that you can always find someone to support your viewpoint- or the opposite- with this method.I look forward to Rabbi Slifkin tackling the translation issues with his usual rational approach.

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    1. I wouldn't know how to tell that absolutely none of these "ha__" names means "the ___": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_biblical_names_starting_with_H

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    2. Larry, your knowledge of the subject appears to be limited. The traditional translation of the first verse is not simply copied from the King James translation, but is a proper translation of the Hebrew verse. Your demurrals have little substance. The Hebrew 'shamayim' is a more general term than sky. The latter is more properly designated as 'rakia'. Nor is the sky considered to be 'water'. Rather, it was interpreted as 'containing water' (sah mayim). Nor is the Hebrew 'eretz' dry land. The latter is termed 'yabasha' in the creation narrative. The problem with your would-be translation of the Hebrew 'Bereishit' as 'In beginning' is the next word 'bara' meaning 'created'. 'In beginning created' is ungrammatical, if not meaningless. Rather, the traditional translation "In the beginning (of time), GOD created.. (the parenthetic addition is mine) is perfectly reasonable even if the modification of the unexpressed noun (time) is unusual. Parenthetically as well, you keep referring to the commentary on Talmud with its dialectic style as TOSTOS. That betrays an ignorance of that basic commentary of the TOSAFOT (the word means 'additions', i.e., additions to Rashi's commentary.

      Y. Aharon

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    3. Larry, if you have other sources that Christianity et al influenced Judaism good for you. But anyone who knows the language can write a simplistic easy-to-read translation without outside help.

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    4. The consensus is that ha Adam means a generic human being, not a specific person.

      The consensus, really? G-d created human being without human's mates, who was given to them later, right? Feminists would be very upset by your interpretation.

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    5. 1.HaNibal: Sorry, but the Wiki list does not include Adam. The names you For point to (like your own!) have the “ha” as an intrinsic part of the name. With Adam, we see HaAdam and later Adam, making it clear that the “ha” is a definite article attached to the name. A definite article implies that Adam is a common noun, not a proper noun. Most scholars, and even some recent translations, translate HaAdam as the Human being. The work “ish” is not used to describe Adam until after his “operation”.
      2.For Anonymous. Your lack of knowledge of the subject is evidenced by your use of ad hominems. I don’t know where to start. Let’s go to the real issues.
      a.Do you think the world (and the universe) are 5777 years old-yes or no?
      b.Do you think that dinosaur bones were put out there to “test us” – yes or no?
      c.Do think people in biblical times understood that earth was a planet? I am unable to dialogue with you until you come clean on these issues.
      d.Hagiga: “What is meant by the heavens? said Rabbi Jose ben Hanina. It means the place where there is water”
      e.The Raqua is a vault or membrane keeping the water from deluging the earth.
      f.TOSTOS is my tongue in cheek term for arguing scientific or factual questions in terms of quotes by sages. It has nothing to do with Tosfos.
      3.For Queen Anne: I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the history of English translations of the Torah. It is not a simple matter to translate one language into another. All sorts of biases etc. can be introduced. I have found that too many observant English speaking Jews read the Torah through the King James filter and it is almost impossible to change this. The first orthodox English translation was by Areyh Kaplan in the 1980s. Like all translations, it leans heavily on those that preceded it.
      4.For Lazar: Bereshis 5:2 - both Chava and Adam are called Adam meaning human

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    6. Y Aharon, you made just one error, I think. Larry wrote what TOSTOS means. It's an acronym for "this one said, that one said"

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    7. For Anonymous. Your lack of knowledge of the subject is evidenced by your use of ad hominems. I don’t know where to start. Let’s go to the real issues.
      a.Do you think the world (and the universe) are 5777 years old-yes or no?


      Larry, that comment was signed by Y Aharon. He is certainly no young earth creationist. He is not arguing for a literal interpretation. But that doesn't mean that your claim of mistranslation is valid. It needs to stand on its own.

      The plain meaning of the text implies that there is a layer of water over the skyshell (Rakia). Presumably this is where rain comes from and where the water for the flood came from. It is not clear how this supports your contention that a proper translation would solve all the issues. The Rambam interprets this allegorically, but again, I don't see what this has to do with mistranslation.

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    8. Larry, you had written "There is no place else in the Torah where a persons name is preceded by the definite article." I was questioning that claim, but let me do better this time. In Numbers 13:22, you will find "ha'anak."

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    9. Ramban explains the first word of Breisheis as, "In the beginning". I'm pretty sure he precedes the King James version. He also precedes the chareidim.

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    10. I find some of these comments quite interesting. It appears that many do not realize that the study of biblical Hebrew and its grammar has advanced tremendously since the days of Rashi and Ramban. To even quote them to explain grammar is not much different than quoting the sages of the Gemara to explain scientific problems. Modern scholars now have access to ancient documents and cognate ancient Middle Eastern languages that our sages of the early Middle Ages could only have dreamed of. They were also limited by their scientific knowledge, with Ramban basing some of his interpretation on the four “elements” of fire, air, earth, and water. That being said, even Rashi and Ramban had serious questions about the translation of the first few words of Beresheis (see the ArtScroll Beresheis commentary, for example). It may be shocking to you, but most modern scholars do not think that Beresheis is referring to creation ex nihilo. In fact, we even have a paper trail to show how this idea arose out of a conflict in early Christianity. In addition, a growing number of scholars feel that the verb “bara” ,as it appears here, refers to separation (see the work of Van Wolde), not creation. In general, to try to determine what the Torah meant to people in biblical times can destroy the deeper meaning (see James Kugel’s writings). However, when whole new interpretations leading to absurdities such as Young Earth Creationism become so popular, this becomes a necessary exercise. Beresheis has many important moral and religious messages. To take it as some sort of scientific document is to ignore these meanings (one might even say it is a deliberate attempt to ignore those meanings). I would suggest you research all this on your own- the literature is too vast for me to quote. However, if you use Rashi, Ramban, etc. for anything other than spiritual guidance, you will never understand this stuff.
      For David Oshie: the view of the ancients was simple. The sky is blue, just like the ocean, water pours down from it when it rains, and we are saved by the rakia which opens only a little for rain. Implicit in your answer is that shamayim (hint.. “mayim”) is water, not the cosmos. I would think your own conclusion makes my point. With respect to Anonymous, aka “ Y Aharon” he cannot get out of the TOSTOS mode of reasoning and is either a closet Young Earth Creationist or afraid to categorically state that he is not. I would also add that scientific theories change all the time. Einstein thought the universe was eternal until later data proved him wrong. The Big Bang may not be the last theory. Conclusion: interpretation of Torah as science is not productive.
      For HaNibal: You just made my point. Anak, per Jewish translations to English, is translated as “giants”, not a proper name. Look for yourself in the Metsudah translation or in the ArtScroll Stone. Guess where anak is translated as a name? You got it. The King James Bible!


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  8. R' Natan was hardly the first to question the prevalent Hareidi/yeshivish approach to torah and science issues, but he was one of the first from their world to do so openly. What was more galling to these men sitting at the top of their world was that he was already established as an 'acceptable' author. He thus represented an unusual danger in their eyes of someone who could persuade significant numbers in the Hareidi camp to question the world view of their leaders. We are in debt to R' Natan, not so much for voicing an articulate and rational view of the subject - there are many who held such views, but for his courage in maintaining his position despite ugly personal attack. Indeed, it was the vehemence of such attack and its patent unfairness that made R' Natan into a heroic figure when he stood his ground. It also exposed the weakness of the traditional position and the unethical behavior of its would-be proponents who felt the need to resort to such methods.

    Yasher koach to R' Natan for fighting the good fight and remaining steadfast in the pursuit of truth.

    Y. Aharon

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  9. These posts have been our 'pay no attention to the man behind the curtain' moments.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyCCJ6B2WE

    Keep up your great work.

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  10. R' Natan, did the fact that the "gedolim" judged in an obviously grievously unjust manner - i.e. not given an opportunity to defend yourself, judges did not/could not actually read your book, etc- contribution to your confidence in your position?

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  11. Unless you remember that Rav Eliashiv anticipated all your objections by saying "they could say it, we can't". Brilliant move. He simply decided that any position that disagrees with his is no longer usable, leaving you with nothing.
    How does one argue rationally with that?

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    1. Garnel, Rav Eliashiv may have felt constrained by the adamant stance of his grandfather, the author of the 'Leshem', on the alleged truth of all aggadic statements of the sages, but we need not accept either that view or that of the grandson. Those views are, in fact, irrational, and need not trouble us.

      Y. Aharon

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    2. @Y. Aharon: I don't think that that is it. It is that he is saying that he has a right to pasken non-halachic questions. That is what "they could say it, we cannot" means. It is the same reason that all non-charedi rabbis can be discredited; their outlook has been paskened false.

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    3. David, I checked my recollection with the original listing of sources on the controversy in Zootorah and found the following statement by Rav Aharon Feldman who had visited Rav Elyshiv about the 'Slifkin affair'.
      "Rav Eliashiv felt that the hashkofos of the books regarding Chazal and the age of the universe are forbidden to be taught, and this despite the fact that others, even great people (such as R.Avraham ben HaRambam, Pachad Yitzchok and, in our times, Rav Dessler and R.Shimon Schwab) may have said similar things. "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not," he said. In other words, the halacha is not like them."
      There is no need to reinterpret the words of Rav Elyashiv. He meant what he said. The statement added by Rav Feldman about the ability to pasken non-halachic matters is a side issue that confounds policy statements with halacha.

      Y. Aharon

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    4. Y. Aharon, when R Elyashiv says "we may not", isn't he saying that it is no longer permitted to believe/discuss the Rabbeinu Avraham position. And if so, doesn't this imply (as R Feldman points out) that he is paskening a non-halachic issue?

      Also, isn't that the Daas Torah position that Rav Elyashiv and other Chareidi authorities relied on and rely on?

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  12. You also had the great leveling field of the Internet. In prior generations, once your work was banned, finding an avenue to publish your rejoinders would have been very difficult. With the ability to self publish, and call out those who would suppress your opportunity to defend yourself(to protect their own self interest) to a fairly large following, gave you another advantage people in your position never had before.

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  13. Wonderful post, though I would question it's accuracy. Your belief that your opponents are unaware of your position is belied by Rav Elyashiv's terse statements.
    I would elaborate, but in the past any posts explaining the other side, unless easily refutable, have been erased and I have no interest in wasting my time.

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    1. Rav Elyashiv is in a different category than the others. He didn't claim that my sources were forgeries or anything like that, just that "it's forbidden to take that approach."
      No posts have been erased from this blog.

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    2. Well, I have tried to explain what Rav Elyashiv meant with his statement "the mesoira is against this" and why he did not owe you the courtesy of an opportunity to answer before the issuance of a ban and my comment was not approved.

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    3. Very unlikely, I almost never reject comments. Maybe you didn't submit it properly, or maybe it went to the spam folder.

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    4. The ban happened in stages. Many of the early signers likely had no idea of the sources supporting R Slifkin. (Even R Slifkin wasn't yet aware how many authorities throughout history supported him.) Later R Eliashev signed and they fell in line behind him even if they actually regretted signing. (Had he come out in support of R Slifkin most of them would have retracted in some form.) When he signed, R Eliashev was understood as saying that R Slifkin has no support. Only a long time later when R Feldman spoke to him did he agree that there were those who could say it. Till then many didn't realize that.

      The other thing that they didn't realize was that thousands in their own communities held like R Slifkin and would react terribly to a ban. Occasionally we have a minority opinion in the sources which is somehow accepted by the later poskim. Thousands in their own communities thought that it's acceptable to understand Genesis non literally and that Chazal weren't infallible in science and never thought to tally how many authorities were pro and how many were con. Therefore even *if* the signers were correct that R Slifkin's views were a minority opinion they still misjudged what many of their own held.

      and why he did not owe you the courtesy of an opportunity to answer before the issuance of a ban
      This is incomplete. It sounds like a one on one. Probably you tried to explain why thousands of his own followers (in the general sense) weren't owed the courtesy of an opportunity to have R Slifkin represent them before the issuance of a ban.

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  14. I don't understand why you do oppose rational and mystical point of view, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto is a clear example that the two views don't conflict if you apply them in their own context and don't mix them, see his introduction to Eyn Yakov.

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  15. "I'm not a genius"

    not even close.? your iq must be at least 145 ? you admitted your head is so big that you find it hard to find hats to measure. qed.

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  16. I have kept the same doctor for many years, even though I have to now travel 45 minutes to her office, because I think she is a great doctor. I trust her advice, even when, from what I (think I) know of medicine, I am not sure she is on the most solid ground. She has, over time, proven that knows her stuff. In short, I trust her with my life. I recently had some car trouble. I took the car to my mechanic and he fixed it up in a jiffy. It never occurred to me to ask my doctor her opinion on the matter, even though I respect and trust her knowledge and opinion on other matters. Would anyone say that, since my doctor knows so much about her chosen field, and has excellent experience, that I should also consider her authoritative or credible on all other matters and I should have asked her to fix my car, especially since she is so good at fixing me?

    Now, I am being completely sincere here and I would like to hear some answers and explanations: I really don't understand and would like to know why we consider Chazal to have expertise and credibility on matters clearly outside of their area of knowledge and practice. Can anyone explain to me where this notion comes from that we have to consider Chazal's opinions on non-Torah matters as credible and authoritative as on matters of Torah? Indeed, would a Charedi Godol tell me that I should have taken my car to my doctor? Yet, it seems he would tell me to learn my science from someone with little or no knowledge of science -- which is not disrespectful to Chazal because nobody in their day knew much more than they did -- they did the best they could. Don't the see the contradiction here?

    Also bothersome to me is when they say that Chazal are always right, that they are infallible. Is that how we are supposed to hold? Now, I think that is assigning an attribute of perfection to them. But I thought only Hashem could be perfect, He is perfect in everything, and men can never be perfect in anything. I think this is an axiomatic definition for Hashem. So, Chazal, by their definition, become like G-d, in at least one way indistinguishable from G-d, and since this is not supposed to be possible, then Chazal must be able to be mistaken and are must be imperfect, which casts them from the Heavens and brings them back to Earth where I think they should belong.

    I don't dare even mention a word of these thoughts and ideas in my shule. I did once and they all ganged up on me, screaming "Apikorus" in my face. I was thinking I was close to finding out if my two years of Karate would be enough to fend off the entire minyan. You'd think I insulted their mother or something. Sheesh!

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    1. "Now, I am being completely sincere here and I would like to hear some answers and explanations: I really don't understand and would like to know why we consider Chazal to have expertise and credibility on matters clearly outside of their area of knowledge and practice. Can anyone explain to me where this notion comes from that we have to consider Chazal's opinions on non-Torah matters as credible and authoritative as on matters of Torah?"

      Bereishis Rabbah 1:1, 20:8 T.B. Bechoros 8b-9a and Teshuvos HaRashba I:98
      This is limited to the definitive statements of Chazal arrived at through the methodology of Torah Sheba'al Peh.)

      "Also bothersome to me is when they say that Chazal are always right, that they are infallible. Is that how we are supposed to hold? Now, I think that is assigning an attribute of perfection to them. But I thought only Hashem could be perfect, He is perfect in everything, and men can never be perfect in anything."

      I agree.
      No one seriously suggested every single member of Chazal were infallible. There are many examples are in the gemara itself where individual statements of certain sages are definitively refuted.
      Rather, what is meant is that the conclusions of the Talmud, whether in the realm halacha or in the realm physical reality, reflect the infallible wisdom of the Creator. Because those conclusions are arrived at by applying the tools given by the Creator Himself (Torah Sheba'al Peh) to correctly analyse His law and His world.

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    2. Wrt Teshuvos HaRashba 1:98, it turns out that the Rashba was completely mistaken, as pointed out by Rav Moshe. See When The Winds Blow. So that's more of a disproof than a proof.

      But the Rashba does explain one of the reasons that he is worried about imagining Chazal making errors: he was worried that if Chazal did made scientific errors, then the halacha could be constantly changing as more knowledge is gained. As it turns out, while it is generally true that for matters related human health, the halachah does change, we can hold the line on other matters using a variety of justifications (Rav Moshe, the Chazon Ish and the Dor Revii all give different justifications).

      Bereishis Rabba says that God looked into the Torah to create it just a like a human would look at his plans. Interpreted literally, this would be considered heretical, but setting that aside, we know that the methods of derivation from the Torah are loose enough to leave any conclusion subject to dispute. So the "definitive statements" are imagined. More importantly, those rules of derivation are halachic rules; they have no known alignment with any kind of reasoning used in science. Finally, no one can actually show a single instance of this supposed method actually working, let alone show that it is infallible.

      In fact T.B. Bechoros 8b-9a is one of those examples: the gestation period of a snake is thought to be 7 years based on one derivation from the pesukim (although the Gemara offers others that will give other numbers). But this is not the correct number, so again, this is evidence against, not evidence for.

      Rather, what is meant is that the conclusions of the Talmud, whether in the realm halacha or in the realm physical reality, reflect the infallible wisdom of the Creator.

      This goes up against the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai which indicates that the consensus of the Rabbis is followed even when it is at odd with the "original intent" of the law (and therefore, the Rabbis are infallible because they are final, not final because they are infallible).

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    3. "Wrt Teshuvos HaRashba 1:98, it turns out that the Rashba was completely mistaken, as pointed out by Rav Moshe."

      Many people have misread Rav Moshe to think he is completely rejecting the Rashba's view. That simply isn't the case. Rabbi Sllifkin quoted him completely out of context.
      With regard to the simple question of whether Chazal made a mistake about the reality that was before them, Rav Moshe says the Rashba and the Rambam agree-- there was no mistake and there could not have been a mistake. (The issue Rav Moshe rejects re. Rashba in favor of the Rambam is only regarding if we are allowed to say our current reality differs from Chazal's reality.)

      And as Rabbi David J. Bleich pointed out, you cannot lump the Dor Revii together with Rav Moshe and the Chazon Ish. The Dor Revii is an outlier. Everyone else interprets the Rambam to hold nishtaneh hatevah; Chazal were not mistaken about treifos for their time.

      we know that the methods of derivation from the Torah are loose enough to leave any conclusion subject to dispute. So the "definitive statements" are imagined.

      This doesn't follow logically. Just because I could dispute something doesn't mean I ought to dispute it against my better judgment. If there is a consensus of Sages not to dispute it because of their collective judgment, that makes it definitive.

      "Finally, no one can actually show a single instance of this supposed method actually working, let alone show that it is infallible."

      That depends on who you ask.
      But its irrelevant to the question at hand. The question was where the notion comes from (in our sources). I supplied the answer to that question.

      "This goes up against the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai which indicates that the consensus of the Rabbis is followed even when it is at odd with the "original intent" of the law (and therefore, the Rabbis are infallible because they are final, not final because they are infallible).

      Again I refer you to Rabbi Bleich's salient article in Tradition. There is a trenchant distinction to be made between a mistake in legal argumentation and a mistake about the facts of reality.
      Any law based originally on a demonstrable mistake in reality at the time is a "taus b'dvar mishna" and has no validity and no binding authority from the beginning.

      BTW, let me ask you David, how did you find out that I posted here yesterday?

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  17. Yes it is crazy to think a doctor is a car mechanic. It's also equally crazy to think the Sages of old knew all biology, chemistry, physics and math, all of it, supremely well. Nothing could be further from the truth, your nutty, angry shul mates notwithstanding.
    But this is what divides the rational and irrational today: the "infallibility" of our Talmudic sages. Glad you're in our camp.

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