Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Recently, after receiving a particularly large amount of criticism, I wrote a post titled "Isn't It Lashon Hara? Do I Have Noble Motives? And What Do I Hope To Accomplish?". I described the purpose of my posts, and I also requested readers to write comments explaining why they appreciate this forum. One person sent in a particularly lengthy explanation, and so I decided to reproduce it here. The author has unfortunately but understandably chosen to stay anonymous, and chose the pseudonym "Penfold."
I've followed R. Slifkin's output closely for the last fifteen years or so, such that it is not easy for me to summarize all the benefits that I have derived from this blog. But since he's asked, I can hardly refuse.
If there is one overarching theme to R Slifkin's approach to Judaism, it's taking reality seriously. We've learned a lot about the history of the universe over the past couple of hundred years, and any attempt at intellectual seriousness requires an honest appraisal of these findings.
What is often underappreciated by those in the rejectionist camp is that the scientific endeavor is long past simply positing theories regarding the past; it can in fact reliably make predictions as to what we can expect to discover across a huge range of fields. R. Slifkin stands for an Orthodoxy that can make sense of this without simply positing “Last Thursdayism”, whereas his opponents provide us with few, if any, tools for doing so. To take one small example, the revolution in deciphering ancient DNA over the past decade, led by (among others) R. Avi Weiss's nephew David Reich of Harvard, has been simply breathtaking. We're finally learning when and where different sub-species of human interbred and we are now able to paint an increasingly granular picture of how homo sapiens spread across the globe over the last sixty thousand years. While perhaps not without its difficulties, R. Slifkin's approach allows for an integration of this knowledge into one's outlook. Conversely, from what I've seen, his opponents have almost nothing useful to say about the astonishing mosaic, with all of its predictive value, that these scientific breakthroughs have painted.
In a more minor key, R. Slifkin’s contributions lie not merely in his non-literal approach to the first chapters of Bereishis, but in providing license to view the terms used in the Torah, such as the “rakia”, in the context of the worldview of its recipients, without the need to unconvincingly posit that they in fact refer to features of the universe revealed by recent scientific findings.
Furthermore, I've found R. Slifkin’s work in assembling the justifications for maintaining our halachic system without a need to accept Chazal’s factual assessments to be of immense value: a perusal of the (excellent) Talmudology website shows how closely entwined Chazal’s understanding of metzius (in daf after daf of Shas) was with commonly held notions of the time. Simply insisting that this must all be disregarded in favor of a combination of forced explanations and shoulder shrugging does little to move the discussion forward, whereas R. Slifkin tackles these issues head on.
On a rather different tack, R. Slifkin’s sharp critique of Charedi society is useful precisely for reasons not often appreciated by those outside of it. In terms of internal rhetoric, Charedi instructors, at least in the yeshivos I learned in, have little reticence in harshly criticizing other philosophies and communities, whereas those promoting the spiritual advantages of non-Charedi approaches are often far more circumspect in criticizing those to their right. This frequently leaves inquisitive Charedim in a position where they may, for example, find one aspect or another of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s Torah U’Maddah oeuvre enticing. But when weighing that up against the profound (often substantive) deficiencies of non-Charedi Orthodoxy that they have been conditioned to be immensely sensitive to, they are left with the sense that, when it comes to the advantages of Torah U’Maddah or other virtues of non-Charedi Orthodoxy, the “game’s not worth the candle”. What may often come across as unremitting negativity towards the Charedi world on R. Slifkin’s part is actually a useful counterbalance in illustrating that Charedi approaches have significant societal and spiritual costs as well as benefits, costs that Charedi media and literature are typically rather reticent to discuss.
None of this means that I feel the need to agree with everything R. Slifkin writes, or that I am convinced that he has provided the ultimate resolution to every question he takes on. After all, if rationalist Orthodoxy is to have any pretense of being worthy of its name, it can hardly mandate the belief that one individual has all the answers. But in providing a robust exposition of a coherent and fruitful Orthodox worldview, R. Slifkin does sterling work, day in, day out, and for that I am deeply grateful.