Monday, January 9, 2017
An Uneven Playing Field
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.
Posted by Natan Slifkin