Do I Need Supporters?
Rabbi Gil Student recently published a post entitled "Two New Slifkin Supporters." He noted that Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks published a new book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, in which he supports the compatibility of evolution with Judaism. In addition, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, a prominent authority in the national-religious community, published a work in which he adopts the position that the Sages of the Talmud relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, which was sometimes mistaken. In the words of R. Student, "Years after R. Slifkin was condemned, prominent rabbis continue to publicly adopt his positions, justifying both his and my stand against the unfair and counterproductive ban."
I certainly appreciate R. Student's publicizing such sources. However, I would like to add a slightly different nuance to their significance.
Although Rabbi Sack's writing style is not exactly my cup of tea (milk and two sugars, thanks), it's certainly a wonderful book that R. Student did well to recommend. But in the social battle over the theological legitimacy of evolution, I can't see how it makes a difference. Rambam and Ralbag already legitimized non-literal approaches to Genesis; Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik already observed that evolution poses no theological problems. It seems to me that the people who do not respect the approach of such authorities are not the kind of people who will care that Rabbi Sacks follows suit. Conversely, I would presume that the people who respect Rabbi Sacks are not the kind of people who have a problem with evolution in the first place.
But there is a significant point to be made in publicizing the stance of Rabbi Sacks' book. Many people are of the impression, and not without reason, that the charedi Gedolim are effectively the leaders of all Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Sacks' book demonstrates that reconciling evolution with Judaism continues to be a normative approach in non-charedi circles, even after the ban on my books. The Gedolim dictated the acceptable norms for their own community, which is not the entire Orthodox community.
The matter of the fallibility of the Talmudic sages regarding the natural sciences is very different from evolution. It's not just the novel approach of a few recent respected figures. Rather, it is the normative position of numerous Geonim and Rishonim, based on many explicit statements in the Gemara itself, and further endorsed by dozens of Acharonim, right through to today (link, link). The position of certain charedi Gedolim, that there is no traditional basis for such a position, is simply absurd (albeit entirely defensible as a social policy). There are grounds for concern that to point to a contemporary rabbinic authority endorsing such a view implies that it needs support. I hope that this is not the case! Rather, it shows that charedi social-religious norms, at least in this area, are limited to charedi circles. They have not spread beyond that - not even to charedi-leumi circles.