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This past Shabbos, I was "off-duty." At the shul in California where I davenned, the guest speaker was a certain Rabbi B. from Lawrence. Now, I had heard in the past that he is a loyal disciple of Rav Moshe Shapiro - one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of mine during the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-5. According to my notes, when I was trying to arrange speaking engagements in Lawrence shortly after that time, Rabbi B.'s name had often been mentioned by people as opposing my being invited. I mentioned this to the president of the shul (a family friend), and he suggested that I have a debate with Rabbi B. I readily agreed, but when he approached Rabbi B., he said that he doesn't like controversy and claimed not to have ever opposed me. So, at seudah shelishis, I decided to simply introduce myself.
Rabbi B. was extremely friendly. He was seemingly happy to meet me, and told me that he had read and enjoyed my book on Perek Shirah and other writings. Naturally, the discussion turned to Torah and science. I first mentioned the notorious book Chaim B'Emunasam, and he responded that he had seen part of my critique on it and fully agreed with me. At this, I began to think that perhaps I had been misinformed about Rabbi B., and perhaps he was actually on the same page as me. I noted that the discussion of the Gemara in Pesachim, regarding the sun's path at night, is really fundamental to the entire issue, especially vis-a-vis Rav Moshe Shapiro. All the Rishonim, without exception, say that when Chazal said that the sun passes behind the sky at night, that's what they actually meant. Maharal, on the other hand, says that Chazal were most definitely not talking about any such thing, and were instead talking about metaphysics - the approach that Rav Moshe Shapiro follows, and claims to be the only legitimate approach.
Rabbi B. agreed that Maharal was innovative, and said that one has to look at the time period in which this took place. Perhaps naively, I thought for a moment that he was going to be agreeing with my assessment of why the 16th century caused great insecurity about Chazal's lack of knowledge regarding astronomy. In fact, Rabbi B. clarified that his point was that it was the revelations of the Arizal's kabbalah, in Maharal's era, which revealed the true metaphysical meaning of Chazal's words.
It was at this point that I realized that Rabbi B. was not in fact on the same page as me.
Rabbi B. proceeded, with several patronizing references to secular scholars, to get into the topic of how to read texts. He argued that instead of looking towards the original intent of texts, we should be employing charitable interpretation. In this case, this means rejecting the explanation of the Rishonim (that Chazal mistakenly believed the sun to go behind the sky at night) and adopting that of Maharal.
"Fine," I replied. "So let Rav Moshe Shapiro say that I am presenting an explanation of what Chazal actually meant, whereas he is presenting what he would like Chazal to mean!"
Rabbi B. claimed that it's impossible for anyone to know what Chazal actually meant. (Apparently, this does not apply to Maharal or Rav Moshe Shapiro.)
"But what about all the Rishonim, who interpret the Gemara according to its plain meaning?" I asked. Rabbi B. responded that he doesn't like the approach of the Rishonim.
I pointed out that while people are free to adopt whatever approach they want, it is somewhat bizarre to insist that the only acceptable approach is to reject the entire body of Rishonim (not to mention to condemn me without admitting that I am representing the approach of the Rishonim).
At this point Rabbi B. said that he did not mean that the Rishonim are to be rejected; instead, he meant that they cannot be learned superficially.
Astounded, I asked him if he meant that all the Rishonim should be read as actually presenting the approach of Maharal. He appeared to claim that this was the case! (I did not ask him how he reconciled this with his claim that it was only due to the revelations of the Arizal that Chazal's true metaphysical meaning was revealed.)
"How on earth can you claim that the Rishonim are actually presenting Maharal's view?!" I asked, dumbfounded. "Let's go through their words, and see!"
"I've been through all the Rishonim," said Rabbi B. dismissively. He did not explain how this answered me, and did not appear willing to actually discuss what the Rishonim write.
Rabbi B. repeatedly told me, in a friendly tone, that it's very important for me to realize that when I get up to Heaven, I am going to have to defend myself to Chazal. Having heard these kinds of warnings/ threats several times before, it did not intimidate me in the slightest, and I responded that I am perfectly ready to do so. I added that aside from defending my approach in the next world, I am also ready to defend my approach in this world - unlike my opponents, who steadfastly refuse to meet me, to engage in discussion, or to explain their position in light of the views of the Rishonim and many Acharonim.
Rabbi B. explained that it's ludicrous for me to think that Rav Moshe Shapiro would engage me in discussion, since he is a Gadol B'Torah and therefore on a completely different level from me. He said that he would like to arrange for me to meet Rav Moshe Shapiro, but only if I do so with the express condition that I am not out to present any arguments at all, just to listen and accept whatever Rav Shapiro says, as a talmid from a rebbe.
"Rav Moshe Shapiro is not my rebbe!" I retorted. "I received my approach from Rav Aryeh Carmell!"
"And is Rav Carmell alive?" asked Rabbi B.
"No," I replied, somewhat puzzled at the question.
"Well, there you have it!" responded Rabbi B. triumphantly!
The argument went on this vein for some time. Rabbi B. claimed that just as a leading scientist will not agree to engage in debate with a layman, Rav Moshe Shapiro need not agree to engage in discussion with me. I pointed out the weaknesses of the analogy. In science, conclusions are only accepted when backed up with arguments, whereas Rav Moshe Shapiro and others are arguing only from their authority, and refusing to ever explain themselves or to deal with the numerous sources that I cite. It is not a case of "Slifkin vs. Rav Moshe Shapiro and other Gedolim" - it is "An entire school of thought, from Rishonim through Acharonim through numerous rabbis and roshei yeshivah of our own era vs. several Acharonim, Rav Moshe Shapiro and many other Charedi Gedolim." But my words fell on deaf ears.
Rabbi B. made numerous condescending statements about how "anyone who knows anything" about how academia works will realize the shortcomings of my approach. He didn't seem to believe me when I said that academics would certainly agree that Maharal was presenting an innovative approach that was not the true meaning of Chazal's words, and which was certainly not the approach of the Rishonim. Eventually, I pointed out to him that I myself am in academia. Somewhat deflated, he asked where. I told him that I am in Bar-Ilan, to which he rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively!
Eventually, the discussion had to stop because Rabbi B. was schedule to deliver his guest lecture. Much to my surprise, he spoke about how Torah is not monolithic, about how there are and must be diversity of views within Judaism, about how Torah is like Wikipedia in that it is a community project, about how great people must lower themselves to listen to Torah from lesser people, and about the importance of eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chaim. The modern Orthodox audience loved it.
After he finished, I asked him if Eilu v'eilu also applies to the debate about Chazal's knowledge of science. "You have to be an 'eilu'!" he replied. "You have to be on a par with the Gedolim in order to have an opinion that counts!"
Which wasn't exactly the message that he conveyed in his speech.
I wanted to ask him if Rav Hirsch and all the other Rishonim and Acharonim that I quote, and all the various roshei yeshivah and rabbonim who agree with my approach, all of whom Rav Moshe Shapiro dismisses in various ways, are an 'eilu,' but I had to leave.
(See too these posts:
"Who Is An Expert in Torah?"
"Rebellion in the Ranks of Rav Moshe")