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Revisionism and the Rav Strikes Again
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, also known as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or simply "the Rav," was one of the seminal rabbinic figures of the twentieth century. He was also a thorn in the side of Charedim, since he was a Gadol B'Torah by any standard, and yet espoused many views that were at odds with Charedi norms. This problem is particular acute for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who is a nephew of the Rav, but who moved very much to the right and is now staunchly charedi. His solution is to simply convince himself that the Rav was entirely misunderstood and was in fact a true Charedi--and to attempt to convince others of this, asserting that he possesses an "insider's view." But as Professor Lawrence Kaplan, in his famous article "Revisionism and the Rav," points out, this is a grave distortion:
First, R. Meiselman's "insider's view" is, at many points, clearly contradicted by the insider views of other distinguished members of the Rav's family who were also his close disciples... Second, and even more important, wherever it is possible to check R. Meiselman's claims against the Rav's writings, it turns out that those claims are clearly and explicitly contradicted by clear and explicit statements of the Rav.
Professor Kaplan documents R. Meiselman's revisionism in the context of the Rav's positions on the value of philosophy, the nature of Daas Torah, universalism, and Zionism. To this list, I would like to add another item, based upon R. Meiselman's article in Dialogue that I have been critiquing over the last few days: the Rav's position on the age of the universe.
At the conclusion of R. Meiselman's article, he discusses the view of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan that Rav Yitzchok of Acco, a medieval Kabbalist, wrote that the universe is fifteen billion years old. R. Meiselman argues that Rav Yitzchak of Acco does not actually support this view. In this, he is quite correct. In fact, in The Challenge Of Creation, I gave additional reasons as to why Rav Yitzchak does not support such a view - as well as citing a report that Rabbi Kaplan later acknowledged his error and retracted his claim.
But there are two deeply disturbing problems in R. Meiselman's presentation. One is that he claims that when R. Kaplan described this approach as being "very different than that of many frum Jews who see Torah and science at loggerheads with each other," he was "specifically referring" to Rav Soloveitchik and making a "barb" at him. As evidence for this accusation, R. Meiselman notes that Rav Soloveitchik gave a presentation to the rabbinic alumni of Yeshiva University in 1971 in which he spoke about Judaism being "at loggerheads with modern science."
Now, unless there is something that R. Meiselman is not telling us, this seems like an extraordinarily slim reed on which to pin an accusation that R. Kaplan was making a "barb" at Rav Soloveitchik. R. Kaplan uses this phrase after discussing how R. Yisrael Lifschitz (the Tiferes Yisrael) was thrilled about the discovery of dinosaurs and sees it as vindicating the kabbalistic belief in previous worlds. The full paragraph reads as follows (and you can download the entire lecture as a PDF here):
This approach is very different than that of many frum Jews who see Torah and science at loggerheads with each other. Many of us feel that whenever science makes any statement with regard to paleontology or geology, we must get our bristles up and fight it. The Tiferes Yisroel, on the other hand, sees it as a vindication of an important Torah shitah.
The phrase "being at loggerheads" is surely not so unusual that one can assert that R. Kaplan must have been referring to Rav Soloveitchik - especially since Rav Soloveitchik's speech was not published and took place eight years earlier!
Furthermore, there is additional reason to believe that R. Kaplan was not referring to Rav Soloveitchik, which brings us to the second problem with this part of R. Meiselman's article: Rav Soloveitchik was not saying that the scientific view of the age of the universe is at loggerheads with the Torah view! He was talking about the creation of the universe, not the age of the universe. (As noted in the first part of this critique, R. Meiselman has already blurred the two in order to claim that that latter is a fundamental of faith for which the mesorah may not be reinterpreted.) Let us look at Rav Soloveitchik's words:
We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation. We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me’ayin... Science has no right to say anything because it is not a scientific problem; it is a metaphysical problem... But again we are still at loggerheads... We have something which the goyishe world has not understood.
The issue here is briyah yesh me’ayin - creation ex nihilo. Modern science does not in fact deny this - it says nothing about what caused the Big Bang - but there certainly have been those, especially in the past, who denied creation ex nihilo. It is this view which the Rav is placed at loggerheads with Torah, not the idea of the universe being billions of years old! If we look at a more extensive quotation from this lecture by the Rav which I transcribed from an audio recording, as opposed to R. Meiselman's truncated citation, this becomes even clearer:
The foundation on which our emunah rests is Briyat HaOlam... ex nihilo, yesh me’ayin. You see here we are at loggerheads… from antiquity, with Greek philosophy, Greek science. We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict, or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation. Because, science absolutely has no right to make a certain statement about briyah. We believe in creation ex nihilo, which means that there was nothing before, there was only HaKadosh Baruch Hu… We had a lot of trouble with Greek philosophy… We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me’ayin. We are in the same situation and the same condition nowadays. No matter, whatever, it’s completely irrelevant what theory of evolution science accepts – whether the big bang theory, or the instantaneous birth of the universe, or it is the slow piecemeal emergence of the universe, whether it is the emergent evolution or the instantaneous so-called birth of the universe. But science will always say, as far as matter is concerned, particles were always here. Of course, science has no right to say anything, because it is not a scientific problem. It is a metaphysical problem. And in my opinion, it is just as good as the opinion of Einstein about everything. But again we are still at loggerheads... We still have something which the goyishe world has not understood. Yesh me’ayin! Yesh me’ayin is our Jewish heritage... HaKadosh Baruch Hu created everything from nothing.
The Rav makes it absolutely clear that his objection is to those who deny creation ex nihilo. It is creation ex nihilo which Torah demands - but it is irrelevant how the universe developed after that. In fact, in a series of lectures on Genesis that is currently being edited for publication, the Rav explicitly states that one can interpret the six days as referring to long periods of time, or even as stages or sefiros:
Indeed, one of the most annoying scientific facts which the religious man encounters is the problem of evolution and creation. However, this is not the real problem. What actually is irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of a divine image and the idea of man as an intelligent animal in science. Evolution and creation can be reconciled merely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite. However, our conflict is man as a unique being and man as a friend of the animal. (Genesis Notes, Lecture XII)
And the Rav's subsequent resolution of this conflict with evolution is to explain that man is indeed a part of the animal kingdom, but with the power to ascend beyond it. Man’s unique identity as possessing the “image of God” does not refer to a metaphysical, other-worldly entity housed in his body, but rather to the application of his evolved intelligence. This is elaborated upon at great length, and with plentiful use of the word "ontic," in The Emergence of Ethical Man.
It is true that Rav Soloveitchik did not believe that the development of the universe was entirely naturalistic - he did insist on ten points of creative intervention by God, following the Mishnah in Avos which speaks of ten utterances with which the world was created. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not object to this development taking place over billions of years, and he forcefully argued for the Torah authenticity of the view that man was fundamentally created as part of the animal kingdom. In these areas of modern science - precisely those that Rabbi Meiselman is declaring to be at loggerheads with Torah, and invoking the Rav as support - the Rav did not see science as being at loggerheads with Torah at all.
I will conclude with another citation from Professor Kaplan's article, which is equally applicable to this case:
...The fact that a distinguished rabbinic scholar like R. Meiselman, despite his having been a close disciple of the Rav and despite his having been "privileged to be part of his family and household," could write such a flawed article, an article that presents such a narrow, distorted, and almost unrecognizable picture of his uncle, only serves to underscore the dangers of the revisionist drive on the part of the "right" and the impossibility of refashioning the Rav to fit a Haredi mold.