Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Orthodoxy and Heresy

Over the last few weeks, there have been a variety of different controversies regarding who is In and Out of Orthodoxy. I don't want to get into specific discussions regarding any of these cases. Instead, I would just like to share some general thoughts, extrapolated from my own experiences, about Judaism, Orthodoxy, heresy, and how it relates to cricket.

When several of my books were notoriously banned for being heretical, this was obviously extremely upsetting, to put it mildly. Many people, with the best of intentions, attempted to console me by saying things like, "Well, I haven't read your books, but if they were banned, then they must be good! After all, Rambam's books were banned also!" Well, yes, they banned Rambam. But they also banned Spinoza! To quote Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” 

A similarly mistaken argument put forth in my defense was that banning books is by definition wrong. But I couldn't agree with that either. Yes, banning books may be strategically unwise. However, you can't claim that Judaism is against banning ideas that are deemed harmful. The Torah is full of messages about how paganism must be eradicated and idols destroyed. Classical Judaism has always maintained that if ideologies are genuinely wrong and dangerous, then they should indeed be fought (in a strategically wise way). Like it or not, Judaism is not a pluralistic religion. 

My defense against the ban was not that it is wrong to ban books. Rather, it was that there was nothing in my books that was heretical. The central points that were deemed problematic - my saying that the account of Creation need not be interpreted literally, and that the Sages of the Talmud were not correct in all their statements about the natural world - had all been said by great Rishonim and Acharonim that were universally accepted, even in charedi circles. And I had been taught in yeshivah that Rishonim K'Malachim - the early Torah scholars are like angels, and it is unthinkable to declare their views of Torah to be treife.

However, as events progressed, I saw that my defense was problematic. It became clear that for charedi society (at least, the vocal parts), the overriding value was that one does not evaluate Torah "in light of" modern science, and certainly not to say that Chazal were incorrect in any of their statements. And so even though charedi society claimed that Rishonim k'Malachim, this was evidently mere lip-service; in practice, if any Rishonim said that Chazal were incorrect, it meant that the Rishonim were espousing a warped view of Chazal a.k.a. heresy.

And so while it was understandable that I had thought that my books would be acceptable in charedi circles, due to Rishonim k'Malachim, I was mistaken. The infallibility of Chazal, the unthinkability of the rationalist approach, was much more important in charedi circles than Rishonim k'Malachim.

Once I reached that realization, it was clear that I could no longer attempt to claim that my books should be acceptable in charedi circles. I could (and still do) argue that they were being inconsistent about the reverence that they claimed to have for Rishonim. And I could argue that the way that they treated me was disgraceful. But I could not argue that the rationalist approach should be permissible in charedi society. Every society has the right to define for itself which values and beliefs they treasure, and charedi society had made it clear that the rationalist approach to Torah/science issues was unacceptable to them.

Every group has the right to define its own boundaries. You can't go to England, insist that cricket should be played according to the rules that make sense to you, and expect to be accepted into the game. Of course, there will always be tension between those who seek to define the boundaries narrowly, and those who seek to define them broadly. And there will always be people who are just motivated by tribalism, lusts for power, and evil intentions (and these people should be denounced just as strongly as alleged "heretics"). But just as there are mistakes on the right, by people who attempt to define Judaism or Orthodoxy in such a way as to exclude its greatest figures, likewise there are mistakes on the left, by people who, to all intents and purposes, seem to believe that Judaism or Orthodoxy should have no boundaries.

There can be debate about what exactly the boundaries of Orthodoxy and Judaism are. But if you're going to claim that everything is acceptable, then you don't understand what Judaism and Orthodoxy is.

(Reminder: All the materials relating to the ban on my books can be found at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy)

56 comments:

  1. Wahey! Keaton Jennings in a Rationalist Judaism blog post! :-) But your central point is wrong IMO. We cannot defend book banning because we can no longer defend suppression of free speech and knowledge. The fact that Ancient Judaism does is what's problematic, as a belief system which cannot stand up to challenge is not a belief system worth adhering to. You cannot force anybody to see things a certain way. Once we have a universal definition of Judaism, then we can start examining what's in and what's out. Until then, who's to say what I should or shouldn't believe if I call myself Jewish?

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    1. Adam from ManchesterJuly 19, 2017 at 11:39 AM

      and Keaton Jennings ain't no gadol - that's for sure!

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  2. nobody said that the rishonim you quote were heretical. that is a distortion and u know it. the issue was, WHICH rishonim we paskan like, in the sense of publicizing their views widely. distortion isn't a very "rationalist approach"...

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    1. They didn't dare say it explicitly, but they effectively said it. They said "it is kefirah to say that Chazal erred in science." Several Rishonim said that Chazal erred in science. Hence, they said that several Rishonim espoused kefirah.

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    2. John and R'Natan, my recollection is that the leading Hareidi figure during the height of the controversy said that 'they could say it (that the sages had some erroneous beliefs about the physical world), but we can't'. He was, apparently relying on the view of his grandfather, the Leshem - as if the latter was the final authority on the matter. A rationalist Orthodox would not accept either the grandfather's authority nor the grandson's where it conflicts with hard physical evidence.

      As to the torah's viewpoint - that is debatable. The torah doesn't address the issue of what is permissible to read - only certain matters of belief. Even the latter appears to have some latitude. We have, on the one hand, clear statements in Deuteronomy, "You were shown (the wonders of the Exodus and the theophany at Sinai) in order to know that Hashem is THE GOD, there is none besides Him" (4:35), and "..for Hashem is the GOD in heaven above and on the earth below, there is no other" (4:39). On the other, we have statements in Tanach that ostensibly refer to Hashem as the 'lord' of the gods. Even the sages who were prone to censor 'outside books' exempted those who had a reason for knowing such material. The Rambam clearly studied such heretical beliefs which forms much of the subject matter of his Guide.

      I would argue that it is better for impressionable minds to focus on traditional religious works and on less problematic secular material before tackling more controversial subjects - much less clearly heretical argumentation. Of course, in this era of easy access to all types of subjects and viewpoints, my cautionary words are unlikely to be heeded.

      Y. Aharon

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    3. Nice points (YA/Anon: which is it?)! But surely "impressionable minds" (interesting who you consider immune!) in an "era of easy access", especially in circles where these are combined with reasonable levels of Jewish & scientific knowledge, is a strong argument for structured & widespread learning of Morei Nvuhim in our times, even though it wasn't the Rambam's position in his time.

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  3. The problem is that too many of the Chareidi want to define not only what Chareidi Judaism is, not only what Orthodox Judaism is, but also define what Judaism itself is. Texans don't get to say you aren't a real American if you don't wear a 10 gallon hat. Californian's can't claim that anyone who roots for a New York based sports team is a traitor.

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  4. My experience has been that as much as I learned about the natural world and how it seems in many instances that the rabbis were mistaken, I still have this deep deep desire to be a part of that world in that safety net in that place where I'm connected to God in that deep passionate certain way as I was brought up. As hard as it is to stay in Orthodox Judaism with its problems in science I find it harder to leave Orthodox Judaism and join the science world without and leave the orthodox world. I guess this is a prime example of how powerful our upbringing from child it is. This would also explain how hard it is as well for some rabbis to acknowledge and admit that some of their beliefs from their upbringing may be false. It all makes sense and adds up.

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    1. Perhaps it is more than your upbringing. It may be a "feeling" that even though Orthodox Judaism is provably wrong, it is in a unique fashion around something that is True, and that something you rightfully don't want to let go.

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  5. > Well, yes, they banned Rambam. But they also banned Spinoza!

    Perhaps not the best example for the point you were trying to make. Spinoza was heretical, sure, but he also revolutionized philosophy. He *was* a genius.

    > My defense against the ban was … that the Sages of the Talmud were not correct in all their statements about the natural world - had all been said by great Rishonim and Acharonim that were universally accepted

    But what has that to do with anything? If they're wrong, then they're wrong. Calling reality apikorsus is ridiculous.

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    1. You don't seem to be arguing from within the framework of Judaism. Whether Spinoza was a genius philosopher is not relevant to whether his views can be said to be acceptable within the framework of Torah. Ditto for statements about Chazal.

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    2. "If they're wrong, then they're wrong. Calling reality apikorsus is ridiculous."

      The reality is that Jesus was not divine and did not rise from the dead. It would be ridiculous to infer that therefore it isn't heretical for a Christian to believe so. Religions have beliefs that define them, they stake their truth on certain claims and the rejection of those beliefs are a rejection of the religion (in favor of creating another). In the same way as pre-modern religions didn't get the memo that they weren't supposed to comment on topics that belong to science, they didn't get the memo that they should structure their beliefs in such a way as to avoid falsification.

      On the other hand the rules to cricket or so forth are conventions, fundamentals are not (or at least not supposed to be insofar as the belief system is legitimately revealed).

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    3. Yes, but no one simultaneously espouses an orthodoxy and that the orthodox position is false. Instead you say that since X is true it must not be agains lt my orthodoxy. BTW, your example is a good proof. There are Christians who do not claim that Jesus was divine and instead either of divine origin or just a prophet or great man. Thomas Jefferson was in that latter category.

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  6. "Every society has the right to define for itself which values and beliefs they treasure, and charedi society had made it clear that the rationalist approach...was unacceptable to them."
    But what about internal contradictions? They don't get to define themselves out of that...

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    1. Mms, it's worse than that.

      According to this logic, ISIS have a right to teach jihad, cults the right to teach child sacrifice and Haredim to not teach children math, crippling them for life. R Slifkin, I posit that yours is an irrational claim.

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    2. Where on earth do you get that from??!

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    3. "Haredim to not teach children math"; that's part of their belief system, what don't you understand NS?

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    4. I never said that they have a right to do that.

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    5. You stated above "Every group has the right to define its own boundaries".

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    6. You wrote: Every society has the right to define for itself which values and beliefs they treasure.

      They believe children should not learn science and maths. And act accordingly. You sun to say they have a right to this belief, whereas I respectfully disagree.

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    7. You write "Every group has the RIGHT to define its own boundaries"...

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    8. They have a right to define their beliefs and boundaries, and they also have responsibilities. Sometimes these two will clash.

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    9. "and they also have responsibilities. Sometimes these two will clash."

      Fascinating. That deserves its own post please.

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    10. I agree. Saying they have these rights but also that there are limits needs to be defined; otherwise it is too vague to avoid being disingenuous.
      (In other words: where is the line? )

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    11. But they are applicable to different people. Their responsibilities apply to them. Their rights apply to outsiders who are wondering why they are not being accepted.

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    12. I am not so certain that they have unconditional "rights apply(ing) to outsiders"; perhaps "wishes" would be a more helpful term. But I agree with Chaim: "That deserves its own post please."

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  7. "Classical Judaism has always maintained that if ideologies are genuinely wrong and dangerous, then they should indeed be fought (in a strategically wise way)."

    Agreed(related: "Defining Rationalism" and "Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?" on the right side of this website). What could be examined further is:

    1) The the Rambam on this topic in Hilchos Avodah Zarah. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz asks on the Shivisi website(”The Six Constant Mitzvos: Mitzvah #6 Lo Sasuru”, linked below ) about the above Rambam:

    ” There’s a general sheilah altogether. What’s wrong with entertaining a possibility? What are we so afraid of? If it’s so true, if we’ve got the emes why are we so insecure? According to the Rambam you’re supposed to stay away from reading questionable materials... There’s a heter if you need it l’hislameid, you have to go and counter those who believe in it, but otherwise you’re not supposed to read it. Doesn't that sound like insecurity, like we’re afraid? ”

    R. Berkowitz's approach can be seen in the link below and in "Headlines in Halacha", "How are we Mechanech our children in Emunah & Bitachon",10/8/16, 19:20 in MP3(perhaps the answer is also implicit in the same Rambam who wrote ואינו יודע המידות שידון בהן עד שיידע האמת על בורייו, implying that there are answers as well. This is why the Rambam, himself, wrote the Moreh).

    http://shivisi.org/PDF/RYB_Transcript_Mitzvah_6.pdf

    2) Kiruv implies not banning ideas. R. Adlerstein wrote in his Jewish Action review of "One People, Two Worlds":

    "The second charge leveled against us was that we refuse debate because we are fundamentally insecure. Neither our content nor our thinking could stand up to the scrutiny of enlightened critics; our only recourse was to ban the prodding and poking from outsiders. Again, Rabbi Reinman’s effort stood this argument on its head. He showed Orthodoxy unafraid to debate, self-assured in its beliefs and fully conversant with the arguments of the competition..."

    At least regarding the banning of your books, R. Berel Wein wrote, "Orthodox leaders have to finally make up their minds as to whether they really are committed to outreach and spiritual help to other Jews..."

    Also see "Excelling in Faith" in the current Jewish Action by R. Avraham Edelstein regarding contemporary kiruv and use of logic.

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    1. Regarding the Rav Berkovitz essay, it is I'm afraid so full of nonsense that it won't persuade anybody who isn't already presuaded.

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    2. > There’s a heter if you need it l’hislameid, you have
      > to go and counter those who believe in it, but
      > otherwise you’re not supposed to read it. Doesn't
      > that sound like insecurity, like we’re afraid? ”

      Depends on how you define "we".

      Judaism has no problem standing up to foreign ideas. But you can't make that claim for every individual Jew. Not everybody is a Torah scholar. Not everybody is good at logical and rational thought.

      For every person who can read another religion's holy book and come away with their personal faith wholly intact, there's another who will be swayed. Since it would be very hard to define a halacha capable of protecting those who need protection while allowing freedom to those who can handle it, Rambam's decision makes a lot of sense to me.

      The story of Elisha Ben Abuya is an important cautionary tale. If a rabbi of his stature could be swayed by Greek philosophy, then how can we state with certainty that our faith could not be shaken by some other foreign dogma?

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    3. On the Headlines in Halacha audio clip I referenced(available online) Rabbi Berkowitz says that even Rishonim who advocate chakirah rely on Mesorah; perhaps the basis of such faith is an experiential understanding of Mesorah from Gemorah buttressed by the likes of the Doros Harishonim. Such a previous basis can lead a person to avoid heretical materials; the Rambam himself might be referring to the Moreh, as I suggested, even as he forbids for others the study of heresy.

      What I took out from R. Berkowitz's essay(which is a transcript from a video on the same website) is that he asks and validates essentially the same question as 2 anti-religious organizations. I call it a "Tale of Two Roshei Kollel" because R. Berkowitz's anti-religious counterpart was a former baal teshuvah and Rosh Kolell in Israel.

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  8. I've been thinking a lot about the "Slifkin Affair" lately (partially due to a long discussion on a different blog).

    The underlying point seems to be that the Cahredi view of the past 20 years or so is that "Daas Torah" trumps all, and that "Daas Torah" is based on the opinion of a single individual - i.e., if the "Gadol Hador" makes a ruling, not only can we not question it, we can't even ask for the reasoning behind it, all we can do is sign on in support.
    If anyone questions it in any way (even by asking for the logic behind the Psak or asking for a clarification), by definition that person has violated the concept of "Daas Torah" and is no longer Charedi

    As far as I can tell, this is an extremely new phenomena, for example, 30-40 years ago it was common for the "Gedolim" to publicly respectfully disagree with each other, Rav Ovadia, Rav Moshe, Shav Shlomo Zalman, Rav Mordechai Eliahu, Rav Solavachic, the Tzitz Eliezer, and other recent achronim regularly disagreed with each other, or reinterpreted a psuk halacha so that it changed the meaning.
    Is this impossible today?
    When and How did Charedi society change?

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    1. michael, where did you get that idea from? there is plenty to be said about the "slifkin affair" but daas torah had almost nothing to do with it. those who opposed NS spelled out their reasons coherently, and those that supported him did likewise. it was not a charedi vs non charedi disagreement, rather it was an inter charedi disagreement. and although the majority of important scholars eventually came down against NS, there are still important roshie yeshiva who support some or all of what NS wrote (not that they feel that what he wrote is necessarily correct, but they defend his right to say it).

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    2. @Anonymous: This is completely untrue. R Aharaon Feldman initially did not understand the ban, and had to ask for clarification. Then he had to put his own interpretation for that clarification. Others offered completely different justifications. What was agreed to by those who supported the ban is that they had to submit themselves to the Daas Torah decision process.

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    3. @david oshie. you are completely mistaken. at the time that the controversy was going on, i personally discussed it with some of the most prominent rabonim on both sides of the issue. various reasons where put forth for supporting or opposing the ban, but nobody on either side suggested that blind adherence to "daas torah" was an argument one way or the other.
      r' aharon feldman is a case in point. he initially felt one way, then discussed it with people he considered wiser than himself (r' elyashiv and those around him), and became convinced that they were correct, so he changed his position. would you have him stubbornly stick to his original position even after he became convinced that it was an error?
      you are free to feel any which way that you please, after you understand the arguments made by both sides. if you don't understand them, it is best not to form an opinion, and in any case you should not misrepresent them.

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    4. @anonymous, did you speak to the sides very early in the controversy. IIRC it took a while until it became clear that the ban stood on a thin reed. After that happened the ban could only be supported by "Daas Torah".

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    5. @Anonymous: The process that you describe is precisely what a conformance to Daas Torah looks like. Rabbi Feldman and the other Rabbis you spoke to are intelligent and knowledgeable Talmidei Chachamim. And of course it would be nonsensical and circular if the reason behind the ban were itself Daas Torah. The characteristic of Daas Torah is that everyone submits to the judgement of the Charedi leader of that time whatever their own opinion is or was and each can give his own justification (which can contradict the justification of his fellow Rabbi) or no justification at all as long as the result is the same. You can see part of that in a footnote of R Feldman: "Since we are not permitted to follow Slifkin’s views, R. Eliashiv believes that they can be rightfully categorized as heresy (apikorsus) as the ban’s wording had it. I believe this is because they diminish the honor and the acceptability of the words of the Sages, which has the status of apikorsus." Here he is merely guessing at Rav Eliashiv's reasoning, but still he won't argue with it.

      Here is another symptom of the Daas Torah approach: if anyone doesn't agree, then he walks on eggshells and takes a Shev V'Al Taaseh approach. See for example R Adlerstein's "defense" of R Slifkin: L’affaire Slifkin. See also this one, were R Adlserstein had to do a whole dance to show that it is not a violation of Daas Torah to support vaccination! Why I Love Rav Shmuel – And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless

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  9. "Once I reached that realization, it was clear that I could no longer attempt to claim that my books should be acceptable in charedi circles"

    Why not? Its perfectly reasonable to strongly disagree with other viewpoints, but in justifying a book ban you are essentially granting tacit approval to those elements in Haredi society which refuse mutual respect. Just because I disagree with certain Haredi views does not mean I would approve of a ban on Artscroll, and I think we should insist that both sides grant the other equal legitimacy.

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    1. Rabbi Slifkin is consistent. He is against Charedi intrusions into non-Charedi life, and he believes that he shouldn't dictate to Charedim. If Charedim choose to find his books objectionable, why would it be OK to try and convince, or even force, them to believe otherwise?

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    2. Its perfectly reasonable to find his material objectionable. What I don't think is OK is that Rav Slifkin's books should be unacceptable in Haredi circles. You can reject someone's viewpoint while still treating it with respect

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    3. Wasn't he a part of said community at the start of the affair, though?

      -Menach

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  10. Yes, but if you define heresy to require belief in things that are demonstrably wrong (like Jews and Gentiles having different numbers of teeth) you really have a major problem.

    To go with your analogy if you tried to make a rule of cricket that the ball and bat have different accelerations due to gravity, you'll find you can't play cricket at all.

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  11. Scratching my headJuly 19, 2017 at 2:25 PM

    >>"And I had been taught in yeshivah that Rishonim K'Malachim - the early Torah scholars are like angels, and it is unthinkable to declare their views of Torah to be treife."

    So for you it is unthinkable for Rav Moshe Taku's views to ever be declared heretical?
    There can't be a psak in hashkafa deciding among "Rishonim k'Malachim" regarding what is heretical and what isn't?

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    1. See http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%209%20Slifkin.pdf

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  12. As some of the comments have pointed out, it may be going too far to say that "every group has the right to define its own boundaries" - for not all boundaries are defensible. But Rabbi Slifkin is correct, I think, if he means that every group that wants to survive must have boundaries and must therefore exclude those who do not respect those boundaries. Modern liberal society is no exception: for all of our vaunted pluralism and tolerance, we do not really tolerate all opinions; we have our orthodoxies which it is forbidden to contradict in public. The phenomenon of "political correctness" is one indication of this fact. It seems that there are in every society "necessary" beliefs which may or many not be true beliefs (Rambam, Guide, III.28, see also Leo Strauss, "Persecution and the Art of Writing").

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  13. R' Natan, I thought you would talk about Kerry Packer - when the cricketers in his rebel world series were banned, all that happened is that because they were the best players in the world, the officially sanctioned matches were rubbish because the players were not as good as the rebels. It would have been better to ignore Packer - then the top cricketers could have played in official matches too. Or perhaps more aptly - given how you conclude - Dennis Lillee's attempt to use an aluminium bat - an the refusal of the umpires to allow it!
    Best
    Steven

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  14. Just like you can't force your perspective onto the chareidi community, why is it they can do that to others?
    It seems to be that Rabbonim from the chareidi community can make sweeping statements that must be accepted by all communities without even considering that there may be other legitimate viewpionts.
    The age of the earth is a good example. Rabbonim such as Rav Shlomo Miller shlita have decided that the torah tells us that the universe is less than 6000 years old. Anyone who would say otherwise is called a heretic and therefore should not be listened to. There is no recognition of any possible legitimacy to conflicting opinions.

    This leads to a second question. Do we have the right to choose which opinion in daas torah to follow? It becomes very confusing when the derech you decide to follow is in contradiction with great rabbonim who have so much more knowledge and experience in torah who would call you a kofer for the way you chose.

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    1. "It becomes very confusing when the derech you decide to follow is in contradiction with great rabbonim who have so much more knowledge and experience in torah who would call you a kofer for the way you chose."

      A way out of the confusion that worked for me was to think of the position of the previous gedolim from the SAME BASIC CAMP as the banners and arguably had so much more knowledge and experience in torah than them. Follow the link at the end of this post to find that out. Rabbis Malinowitz, Carmel, Gifter, Kamentsky, maybe R Sternbuch in a previous case were all familiar with the position of the gedolim of THIS CAMP and stayed away from the ban. That R Feldman initially opposed the ban is also very instructive. His whole life till then he thought R Slifkin's ideas were okay. Doesn't that say something?



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    2. There is also Rabbis Dessler, Schwab, Hirsch and others that I forgot who were accepted as prominent ideologues in that basic camp who would certainly oppose the ban. Except in certain special circumstances whatever any one of them held was considered kosher, and certainly if they all said it together.

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  15. "It became clear that for charedi society (at least, the vocal parts)"

    Thanks for the caveat. It is greatly appeciated.

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  16. Am I a kofer if I maintain that Jews and Gentiles have the same number of teeth? Or the dozens of other scientific problems? Is it kfira to acknowledge reality? If so, I'm out of here.

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    1. See http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%209%20Slifkin.pdf

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  17. I applaud this fair and balanced discussion of a subject painful to the writer. For R Natan Slifkin to state that declaring a position heresy is legitimate shows praiseworthy intellectual honesty and moral courage

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  18. Interesting that you mentioned Carl Sagan, who himself conducted a witch hunt against anyone who supported Immanuel Velikovsky's admittedly bizarre theories (which intrigued Albert Einstein, no less!) in "Worlds In Collision" regarding astronomical/scientific explanations for the miracles of Yetziat Mitzraim. Instead of allowing the free market place of ideas to deal with it, he organized a boycott of anyone who would even dare to publish Velikovsky's works.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I'm afraid that you are the victim of a conspiracy theory. Sagan published scientific refutations of Velikovsky which is the very opposite of suppression, since the refutations themselves include descriptions of his theories. In fact, "In Cosmos, Sagan also criticizes the scientific community for their attitude toward Velikovsky, stating that while science is a process in which all ideas are subject to a process of extensive scrutiny before any idea can be accepted as fact, the attempt by some scientists to suppress outright Velikovsky's ideas was 'the worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair.'" (from wikipedia).

      If you doubt wikipedia, you can see him saying it on his TV show at the 4 minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MlN7iVIuhk

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  19. R' Natan, while I basically agree with your sentiments, there is line that propagates a misuse of a talmudic/midrashic phrase. The line about 'Rishonim kemalachim' must be placed in context. It was said by the Amora, R' Zeira concerning the earlier sages, the Tana'im. It is not a blanket statement of later sages about their predecessors. In fsct, R' Zeira's sentiment was an expression of self-criticism resulting from an incident where he and his disciples inadvertently ate tevel (produce that had not had t'ruma removed). R' Yirmiya had donated the food relying on his colleague to take the t'ruma before eating it, while the latter ate the food relying on R' Yirmiya to have already taken the t'ruma. When R' Yirmiya subsequently asked about the matter and their misconduct was revealed they both castigated themselves. R' Zeira exclaimed, "If our predecessors were angels, then we're but human; if they were human, then we're donkeys - and not even comparable to the donkey of R' Pinchas ben Yair who refused to eat demai (possibly tevel)". I don't know that the earlier decisors (those labeled Rishonim) were comparable to angels, but the more recent ones are certainly no more than fallible humans.

    Y. Aharon

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