Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Rabbi Phillips Responds

It's not the norm to give a guest post to someone responding to a review, but I've decided to do so, since notwithstanding my criticisms of Rabbi Phillips' book, I think that his heart is in the right place. I'm not going to write a response to his response; I stand by what I wrote, which I think that his response somewhat mischaracterizes. I invited people to read both his book and my review and to draw their own conclusions. (I do agree that my review focused on only a small part of his book.)


Firstly, I would like to thank Rabbi Slifkin for taking the time to read and review my book, Judaism Reclaimed, which he received only a few days ago. I am also very grateful for the opportunity that he has given me to write a response to this review on his entertaining and valuable blog.

From the outset, R’ Slifkin seeks to pigeonhole the book as “charedi” or “non-charedi”. Anyone familiar with me would know that this is likely to be an extremely challenging task; while I draw inspiration from both Haredi and Modern-Orthodox thought, I do not subscribe exclusively to either and I think my book reflects that by attempting to rise above the well-trodden, often petty, disputes between these two worlds when analysing fundamental questions of Jewish philosophy and theology. To this end I specifically sought approbations from Rabbinic figures in both worlds with one of them, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, also meeting with me to provide very helpful guidance and advice.

Unfortunately, R’ Slifkin’s preference to see everything in black and white, colours the rest of his review of my book which he seeks to depict (and presumably discredit) as “charedi apologetics”. This leads to some surprising results. A few selected points:

R’ Slifkin categorises my responses as “weak apologetics... comforting for Yeshiva students who have little capacity for critical thought or exposure to contemporary works”.
However, even a cursory glance at the modern sources I draw upon in these chapters will reveal that they are entirely non-Charedi. I suspect that Professor Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University – whose work was strongly recommended to me by Rabbi Sacks – as well as R’ Mordechai Breuer and R’ Amnon Bazak would be most surprised to read R’ Slifkin’s critique and categorisation of their views.

R’ Slifkin appears to have mistaken my analysis of Rambam’s linguistic theory for an endorsement of Rambam’s position against that of his disputants – a matter on which I do not take a stand. I was simply seeking to explain a much-derided and, I think, little understood statement of Rambam and in the process to propose some fascinating parallels (and distinctions) between Rambam’s theory of linguistics and that of George Orwell in 1984. I was very much helped in this chapter by the late Professor Susan Rothstein – a world expert in comparative linguistics and a disciple of Noam Chomsky.

On this subject, which is clearly close to R’ Slifkin’s heart, he appears to have been strongly influenced by my “copious citations” of his old nemesis, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, with whom he attempts to taint me by association. In fact, of the five (exclusively brief footnote) mentions of R’ Meiselman in my chapter on Torah and Science one is to dispute him, three are merely brief citations together with a citation of R’ Slifkin’s counter-argument – and only one is supportive.
More seriously however, R’ Slifkin has fundamentally misrepresented the greater purpose of this chapter: it deliberately seeks to avoid the much-debated specifics over Torah and science (specifics which are typically relegated to footnote references) and instead analyses the philosophy of science. Specifically, it examines the cautious and nuanced approaches taken by Rambam to the apparent clash between Torah and (now defunct) science of his day, and then asks how Rambam would approach such an apparent clash in today’s circumstances. No conclusion is offered because the chapter focuses on theological methodology rather than specific questions. In fact, the chapter concludes with the thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who read and enjoyed the essay. Curiously, in his review, R’ Slifkin emphasised how the opinions of him and R’ Sacks on Torah and Science were “essentially…the same”. 

While I expected R’ Slifkin to leap to the defence of his friend Professor Marc Shapiro, his enthusiastic branding of my analysis “conventionally naive/charedi” misses some important points:
1) My primary argument is based on the work a leading scholar in the field of Jewish thought, Professor Joseph Dan who is not religiously observant, let alone Haredi. Dan writes (among other things) that even medieval Rabbinic statements which appear powerfully to endorse belief in a corporeal deity should not be understood to represent “belief in the literal veracity of these descriptions…they represent the maximum that can be conveyed concerning God’s essence and appearance, and that any further inquiry cannot lead to valid conclusions. God chose to reveal to us in the scriptures whatever is found in them: man should be satisfied with that, and ask no more questions. It is not that Rabbi Moshe Taku believed in an anthropomorphic God; most probably he did not”.
While some may dispute Professor Dan’s conclusions, classifying my development of his hypothesis as naive and charedi is disingenuous, offensive and may reflect an agenda. (I similarly question Shapiro’s omission of Professor Dan’s conclusions – especially as he cites Dan approvingly elsewhere in his book).
2) My critique of Shapiro’s presentation of sources is limited to the first two chapters of his book. I believe that I have shown that the sources in these chapters have systematically been misrepresented and taken out of context and therefore do great damage to his argument there. This response is obviously not the place to regurgitate them; rather, it is for readers to make up their own minds (anyone who is interested but does not want to buy the whole book can contact me privately for a copy of this important chapter).
3) Regarding widespread Rabbinic acceptance of the entirety of Rambam’s 13 principles, I don’t think it’s controversial to maintain that the Rabbinic consensus today allows e.g. prayer to angels (many will be reciting the machnisei rachamim supplication in selichot starting motzei Shabbat – a prayer that, personally, I omit).
4) “Phillips makes the not-uncommon mistake of misinterpreting the book to be saying that anyone is entitled to believe anything.” Does it not? See p117 of Marc Shapiro’s book.

My discussion in this essay is built upon the writings on R’ Jonathan Sacks and Professor Joshua Berman, once again mischaracterised as “charedi/naive apologetics”. The review of my discussion of whether the Torah’s accounts should be rendered literally appears only to have seen half the essay and therefore completely misrepresents my argument (the reviewer appears to have been distracted once again by the menacing presence of R’ Meiselman’s name in a footnote – cited very much as a sidepoint).

In short, Judaism Reclaimed has nothing to do with R’ Slifkin’s depiction of it as an exercise in “Charedi apologetics”. Furthermore, while R’ Slifkin has understandably focused on the particular chapters which coincide with his areas of interest and expertise, these represent only a small proportion of the overall book – perhaps 10 out of 70 essays. Readers of the review should be aware that the book discusses many profound and delicately formulated ideas in Jewish philosophy which were the subject of glowing endorsements from R’ Jonathan Sacks (see www.judaismreclaimed.com) and R’ Gil Student (on his Facebook page last week).
R’ Slifkin has written extensively over the years, providing us with many treasured insights and valuable reviews. I therefore look forward to reading his further considered comments, once he has had time to read and reflect upon the book as a whole, and to digest the full flavour of this unique and curious cholent.


  1. I very much appreciate R Slifkin's willingness to post my response, and echo his recommendation that people make their own mind up about the matters under discussion. I'm looking forward to reading people's thoughts and increasing my understanding of these topics as result. I have already found a number of messages helpful and informative.

    1. I imagine the title of your book, "Judaism Reclaimed" expresses an attempt to reclaim Judaism from narrow thought-leaders who frame Orthodox Judaism in purely binary choices.

      Ironic, but not at all surprising, that your broader view of Judaism was panned by just such a tunnel-visioned, binary thinking writer.

  2. Gil Student liked it...that's not gonna pass muster with a lot of people here....

  3. Dear Rabbi Phillips,

    Second Son has written an entire book to deal with the Kuzari argument. see http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/2019/09/reasonable-doubts-breaking-kuzari.html

  4. The Kuzari argument is probably the most used Jewish apologetic argument. I have given it considerable thought and have tried to engage with Rabbi Gottlieb and with Rabbi Kelemen, but to little avail. It is going to be a long slug but begin with my first post on the Kuzari argument http://altercockerjewishatheist.blogspot.com/2013/07/kuzari-principle-or-argument-part-i_24.html I address the Kuzari argument from multiple angles.

    1. Even the Rationalists believed that we have to have a reason to believe our ancestors' account. The Rambam believed this was enough for the masses of men and for women and children but that those capable of philosophical contemplation should see how their faith matches up with philosophy.

    2. I generally try hard to introduce new perspectives and suggestions rather than rehash well-worn debates. Judaism Reclaimed, chap 28, deliberately side-steps the much-debated point as to whether the Kuzari's argument represents a "proof" for Judaism. In the accompanying footnote I question whether it was ever R Yehuda Halevi's intention to present such a proof (see the basis for his rejection of the 'philosopher'). What I do present in that chapter though are a number of unrelated points - primarily based on the approaches of R Jonathan Sacks and Professor Joshua Berman - which I feel strengthen the claim that the Torah's tradition is authentic.

      I always find it offputting how people in this area (as in others) tend so much to the extremes. It's either incontrovertible proof (Aish) or complete nonsense... Not enough people will take a nuanced approach and consider it a rebuttable argument - that can perhaps be combined with other ideas to produce a stronger overall argument for the Torah's authenticity. That's the greater aim of my chapter. See more discussion of this on my Facebook Group - https://www.facebook.com/groups/JudaismReclaimed/ Thanks, Shmuel

    3. Thanks 'Unknown' who I think is Shmuli Phillips, for response. A common apologetic for a religion: Any one argument is not good enough, BUUUTTTT if we combine a bunch of arguments then we have a good case. However, a chain is as strong as it's weakest link. Or a house built on a weak foundation is not a very good house.

      P.S. My blog also addresses many arguments for the Lord and finds them wanting. Shalom.

    4. The fault may be in your analogy rather than in my analysis (have you read it?).

      Yes - a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Since the numerous links do not support each other but stand independently. But if you imagine a different analogy: in a court room would you expect a judge/jury to reject multiple arguments and proofs - non of which alone were sufficient - because the chain is only as strong as the weakest link? If there were numerous indications in favour of a scientific proposition but none of them independently conclusive, would you similarly reject them all because you are again combining different indications? How do you think historians/archaeologists work - piecing together different clues from the past. Are you similarly opposed to their methodology?

    5. @Unknown - The chain analogy is not always appropriate. That is why I mentioned the second analogy: A house built on a weak foundation is not a very good house. Another analogy is the sum of a bunch of zeroes or small figures is still a small number.

    6. @Alter Cocker Jewish Atheist

      I'm not understanding your point. Calling the Kuzari Principle a "foundation" is to once again make other lines of reasoning contingent upon it. I think Shmuel is correct; it needs to neither serve as incontrovertible proof nor be complete nonsense.

    7. Interesting debate here. It seems as though Rabbi Phillips takes a moderate Kuzari approach while Alter takes a skeptical one. This discussion seems to correspond to G-d in general and the divinity of the Torah in particular. We will discuss both.

      Regarding R. Phillips's approach, I do not think Halevi proved that G-d exist per se. Even Rabbi Phillips admits that this may not have been the Kuzari's intent. Nevertheless, the proofs are problematical. Very few Jews, if any, are convinced that the events as depicted in the Bible actually occurred.[1] Those who do accept the miracles only do so on the bases of their faith, because the Torah records them. Thus, how is Judaism different than other religions?

      In her book 6 Arguments for the Existence of G-d, Rebecca N. Goldstein exposes each argument and refute them. Saying this should not be mistaken for a declaration that G-d does not exist. G-d does exist, though we cannot prove.

      To be clear, I am not an atheist. I am an Orthodox Jew. Nevertheless, atheism can purify much in religion according to Rabbi Kook. Kook wrote that, ”atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental."[2] Atheism, Rabbi Kook wrote, comes to purify the embarrassments of religion. Though atheism can be a good path to G-d (rational religion), it is not the only one. Thus, Alter's approach is also problematical.

      I take a third approach, and this will bother many people, including atheists. I am convinced that the Torah is, as in the words of Rabbi Micha Goodman, "a great human achievement, but only a human achievement." Which is to say that Moshe copied the governance of the laws of nature, which is a divine creation of G-d, and produced the Torah, or to put it differently, revelation was a natural event.

      In short, Jews do not have to believe that the Torah was miraculously revealed by G-d to Moses. G-d, being all-powerful and transcendent, does not communicate or interfere with natural law (G-d did not personally intervene, writing every word of the Torah anthropomorphically, like a scribe). Saying that should not be mistaken as embracing biblical criticism outright. The Torah is a unique document that was divinely inspired by G-d's magnificent creation. Thus, the Torah is certainly holy.

      [1] Most biblical stories are parables yet they are still true, in a sense, by the lessons they teach.

      [2] Religious Zionism of Rav Kook by Dr. Pinchas Polonsky

  5. Can one purchase this book in Israel?
    Amazon won't send it here.


      Distributed by Pomeranz Booksellers,
      5 Be'eri Street, Jerusalem.

      Contact on: 02- 623-5559
      to order a copy.

  6. I had a teacher in the Yeshiva, who when asked what is יצר הרע replied that he never really had these type of questions because Judaism was always just so beautiful to him. I feel the same way. It's interesting to read this blog and appreciate various approaches but at the end of the day it all doesn't matter. Judaism is beautiful and what does it really matter what anyone says or thinks? The אבות prayed weather they were answered or not. There is Torah learning, mitzvos, sacrifices, which we should all have been bringing by now. החקר אלוקה תמצא?

    Incidentally, 'Reclaiming Judaism' is a subversive title, not that it doesn't need to be reclaimed, but the implication..., but you get my point.

    1. For those who find it beautiful, kol hakavod. I'm glad they have a life they enjoy. The problem arises when people are told they're going to hell if they don't follow the laws, when people feel constrained by it, when people don't find it beautiful and forced by social and religious convention to keep on following those laws. Or, when people want to know *why* we do things, and how these traditions came to be. If "feeling it" is a good enough reason to stay, then "not feeling it" is a good enough reason to leave. N'est-ce pas?

  7. is your website up and running? i could not locate it...

    1. Yes - the site says I'm logged in but still calls me unknown. my site (www.judaismreclaimed.com) is up and running.

  8. Cherry picking one academic to push a crank theory, that medieval Ashkenazi Rishonim really didn't believe in corporeality, is what what disingenuous dogmatist charedim do all the time.


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