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Rav Elya Ber Dismisses Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim, Gedolim
It's almost exactly nine years since a group of zealots, now out of commission, arranged for the charedi Gedolim to issue a controversial ban on three of my books and on the rationalist approach in general. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, rosh yeshivah of South Fallsburg, leading figure in the American charedi world, and one of the prime forces behind the ban, is now once again on a tirade against rationalist Judaism.
His platform this time is an approbation to a small book published by a disciple of his entitled Sod Liyreyav, which deals with the subject of spontaneous generation and related topics regarding Chazal's statements about the natural world. Rav Elya Ber's approbation, which you can download at this link, is unusually long, stretching nearly three pages. He emphatically states that everything in the Gemara, as well as in the writings of the Rishonim, is factually true in its plain meaning. Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav (even though if one actually researches the usages of that phrase, one sees very clearly that Chazal believed it to have extremely limited application). Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise. And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).
As far as I am concerned, if Rav Elya Ber wants to believe in the existence of mice that grow from dirt and salamanders that grow from fire, along with humanoids that grow from the ground and werewolves, that is his prerogative, and it doesn't bother me. Likewise, if he wants to take a different position than the view of countless Rishonim, Acharonim, and Gedolim (not to mention Chazal themselves), that is fine.
But this is not merely a matter of his personal view. Rav Elya Ber emphatically insists that any other approach is false, evil, and is kefirah, heresy. He further states that his approach is the explicit, well-known and obvious approach throughout the generations. And he adds that alternate views are only presented from sources of dubious authenticity, personal communications to people questioning inappropriately, or long-rejected aberrant views.
When my books were banned, I was under the mistaken impression that to say that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world was the legitimate minority view of Rambam, his son Rabbeinu Avraham, and Rav Hirsch. I was wrong on two counts. One is that it is clearly not legitimate in certain sectors, notwithstanding its pedigree. My other mistake was to think that it was a rare minority view. In the nine years that have elapsed since the ban, with many people researching the topic, I have discovered that this view was absolutely mainstream amongst the Rishonim and also had considerable support amongst the Acharonim. I further discovered that every single Gaon and Rishon, bar none, learned Pesachim 94b in accordance with its straightforward meaning, as saying that Chazal believed that the sun doubles back and passes behind the sky at night. Most also held that Chazal were mistaken in this belief.
Rav Elya Ber is entitled to dispute the position of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, R. Eliezer of Metz, Tosafos Rid, R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Semag, Rosh, Ritva, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Rabbeinu Manoach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, Radbaz, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, R. Moshe Cordovero, Lechem Mishneh, Maharsha, Minchas Kohen, Chavos Ya’ir, Pri Chadash, Maharif, R. Yitzchak Lampronti, Maharam Schick, R. Binyamin Musafia, R. Eliezer Lipman Neusatz, R. Dovid Friedman (Karliner), R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Ben Ish Chai, R. Herzog, R. Dessler, R. Carmell, and, yibadlu lechaim, R. Shlomo Fisher and R. Ephraim Greenblatt, amongst many others. But to condemn their view as false, evil, and heresy, however, seems out of place - to put it mildly. And to dismiss this approach as never having had a legitimate place in Judaism is an outright perversion of the history of Torah scholarship.
Unfortunately, while many people agree with me - even in the charedi world - nobody has the courage to actually call out Rav Elya Ber on this offensive approach to Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and Gedolim. Perhaps someone can ask him to methodically address, for example, all the sources regarding the sun's path at night. In the meanwhile, one cannot help but conclude that Rav Elya Ber has transmitted a clear message about charedi Gedolim and Torah scholarship.
(UPDATE - you can now download the approbation at this link.)