Attack of the Nazi Midgets
One of the most bizarre stories I've ever heard of came to light via the research of Dr. Jan Bondeson, whose fascinating and scholarly books on unnatural history, medical oddities and premature burial have been exceedingly useful in my research. His latest book documents how the Nazis had a program for training dogs to be Nazis - in terms of their actually espousing Nazi ideology! The Nazis believed that dogs were intelligent enough to be trained to talk, and claimed that they had successfully trained one dog to refer to Hitler, yemach shemo, as "mein Fuhrer"! Other dogs allegedly expressed their dislike of the French, which has led some modern commentators to note that the program was not a complete waste of time.
This strange Nazi story reminded me of something amusing that happened back in 2005. Immediately following the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Gardens, a friend of mine told that Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, mashgiach ruchani of Lakewood, had condemned me in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people as being a "Nazi midget." I quickly investigated, and it turned out that my friend was embellishing events - but not by much! Rav Mattisyahu did not call me a "Nazi midget." He just described me as a midget who was undermining that which the victims of the Nazis died for.
In his address, Rav Mattisyahu spoke about the connection between the Holocaust and conflicts between Chazal and science. I didn't know that there were any connections, but apparently I was mistaken. According to Rav Mattisyahu, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust died for their faith that every word in the Gemara is true. And, he said, those who provide "makeshift answers" to questions are making a grave mistake:
Shas is faith-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out. We would rather wait for Eliyahu to come! Why settle for a makeshift answer, if we will be handed the reliable solution at a later date? Teyku is the answer! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation. (From a transcript in Mishpachah)
Now, much earlier, I had heard from a colleague of Rav Mattisyahu that he would not be signing the ban against my work. Eventually, however, he did sign. Still, Rav Mattisyahu was sufficiently unhappy with the way that the whole ban went down that in February 2005, following Rav Aharon Feldman's visit to Rav Elyashiv in which he clarified that my books were not actually kefirah, Rav Feldman recruited him to add his signature to a letter clarifying this. (Of course, that was before various pressures were exerted and Rav Feldman ended up changing his mind and endorsing the charge of kefirah.) Yet in this speech, given shortly after the ban was publicized, Rav Mattisyahu was going out of his way to condemn my approach.
But this was a slap in the face to Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, one of the Gedolei HaDor of America, who had written a haskamah to Mysterious Creatures - and who was the ultimate target of the entire Kalmanovitch/Tropper/Pinter/Wachtfogel-orchestrated campaign in the first place. And Rav Mattisyahu found out that in Philadelphia, they were Not Happy with his speech. So he rushed over to Philly to explain that in fact he had not been referring to my books at all, but rather to Rav Moshe Tendler, due to the latter's stance regarding metzitzah b'peh. (Apparently it's okay to refer to Rav Tendler as a midget who attempts to repudiate the irrefutable truths of Avaya and Rava.) Nobody believed him.
As it happens, I was more amused than offended by Rav Mattisyahu's condemnation of me in front of twenty thousand people. And with regard to the general idea of accepting to remain with questions - currently being discussed over at Torah Musings - I happen to think that approach has a very valuable place in Torah study, as I discussed at length in Sacred Monsters (where I also happily cited Rav Mattisyahu!) We should not expect, with our limited knowledge and experience, to be able to resolve all difficulties in the Talmud. I myself still have many questions and difficulties. Often, the most honest, accurate and suitable response is to simply admit and accept that one does not have the solution. No matter who we are, we never have all our questions answered. At such times, there is an important Yiddish expression to bear in mind: Fun a kashya shtarbt mon nisht — “From a question, a person doesn’t die.” It conveys the advice that we should not be overly distressed when we do not find answers for all our questions.
Nevertheless, this approach is widely misused and abused. It is legitimate to adopt this approach for oneself whenever one wants. It is unreasonable, however, to always expect other people to accept it. All too often, this approach is used to brush off important questions that should be answered and for which great authorities have already provided answers.
Telling someone that “you don’t die from a question” carries serious risks and should be avoided wherever possible. The great Torah scholars of history did not generally use this approach with people who were struggling with faith-challenging issues. When Rambam encountered people who were grappling with the questions raised by Aristotelian philosophy, he did not simply say, “You don’t die from a question.” Instead, he worked hard to write his Guide for the Perplexed, and provided answers wherever possible – even though these answers were not popular with many segments of Jewry.
Avoiding the risks involved in less-than-ideal answers carries its own risks. All too often, telling someone “You don’t die from a question” is accompanied by the implicit message that the questioner should not be asking such questions. But the unwillingness to seriously deal with questions can itself lead to a crisis of faith, as Maharal explains:
A person should not reject something which is against his own views… especially if it is not presented as an attack on religion but is simply an honest expression of the other person’s beliefs. Even if it is against his own religious beliefs and faith, he should not say, “Be quiet and shut your mouth,” because there will not be a clarification of that person’s religious understanding. In fact, in such cases we should tell a person to speak his mind freely and fully express how he feels, such that he should not feel that he has not been able to fully speak his mind. If sincere questions are silenced, this is indicative that the religion is weak, as discussed earlier. This attitude is the opposite of what some people think. They mistakenly think that forbidding people from discussing religion strengthens religious faith, but this is not the case. Suppression of dissent and prohibiting people from speaking is a weakening of religion. (Maharal, Be’er HaGolah 7)
Maharal himself strongly attacked Azariah de Rossi for responding to difficulties in the Talmud with answers that Maharal deemed unacceptable. But — and this is a point that some people miss — Maharal provided alternate solutions! He did not simply dismiss the questions and leave the questioner with no answers.
Of course, the importance of giving answers does not justify giving any kind of answer; we cannot be dishonest, and we cannot compromise the integrity of Torah. And even legitimate answers sometimes require difficult adjustments and can involve certain risks. In some cases, they should be presented only to those who are sincerely bothered by the questions. But where answers have been given by authoritative Torah scholars - as is the case with the questions discussed in my books - we should not insist that the questioner remain with his questions. You don't die from a question, but you can get very sick!