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Striking The Wrong Balance
During the Great Torah-Science Controversy of 2004/5, everyone had a different take on what was going on. Blogger A claimed that the Gedolim were concealing a secret, devious agenda. Apologist B claimed that the Gedolim didn't really mean it, but were being forced by communal pressure. Zealot C claimed that the Gedolim were correct, and that I was an evil denier of God. Blogger D claimed that the Gedolim secretly thought that the Torah-science questions were more powerful than the answers, but had to pretend to fill their role. And so on, and so forth.
Someone, I forget who, made a fascinating observation. All of these people, in declaring the shortcomings of the Charedi Gedolim or me, were subconsciously projecting their own shortcomings. Blogger A had a secret, devious agenda that he never revealed. Apologist B was always being forced by communal pressure to write things that he didn't believe. Zealot C turned out to be someone who was evil and clearly didn't believe in God. Blogger D secretly thought that there were no good answers, but had to pretend to be frum. And so on, and so forth. As Chazal say, Kol haposel, bemumo posel - whoever disqualifies, does so with his own blemish.
I was reminded of this when reading Rabbi Yisroel Miller's take on the ban in his new book "In Search of Torah Wisdom." He's a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Before discussing his take on the ban, I would like to make some general comments about the book. As a book presenting charedi hashkafah, it suffers from the inevitable shortcomings. However, with that in mind, it's vastly better and more nuanced than one would expect. The author is a nephew of Rav Avigdor Miller, and although he quotes him on numerous occasions, the style of his book is certainly light-years ahead of the books of Rav Avigdor Miller. If all books on charedi hashkafah were like this one, the world would be a much better place!
Anyway, back to the topic of the ban on my books. It is mentioned in several chapters, confirming what we all know - that it was a pivotal event. Rabbi Miller agrees that there were Torah authorities who stated that Chazal occasionally erred in science (although he wavers between saying that this was a minority view, that it was the lone view of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and even quoting Rabbi Meiselman's desperate claim that Rabbeinu Avraham is a forgery.) He claims that the real issue behind the ban is one of balance. In the introduction to Mysterious Creatures, I noted that there are a variety of different approaches to conflicts between Chazal and science, which Rabbi Miller approves of. But the problem was in how I applied these approaches in the rest of the book. Instead of presenting the approach of Chazal being infallible as the mainstream approach, with the rationalist approach being a bedi'eved minority view, "the message the book conveys to the reader is that the Sages of the Gemara were wrong - not only as a possible interpretation (which might not even be correct) but as the main approach - again and again and again."
Now, the first observation to be made is that while this is a good approximation of Rav Elyashiv's approach, Rabbi Miller is clearly not representing the views of the Gedolim who were the actual driving force behind the ban. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Elya Weintraub and Rav Moshe Shapiro don't believe that the rationalist approach is a bedi'eved minority view. They believe that it is utter heresy that was never held by any genuine Torah authority!
The second observation to be made is that Rabbi Miller is not representing my book correctly. Contrary to the way he described it, with the majority of creatures described in the book I did not say that Chazal were wrong. I either explained that the words of Chazal had been mistranslated, or that Chazal were speaking metaphorically. Only in three cases did I say that they were wrong.
So, amazingly, Rabbi Miller says that the problem with my books was one of balance; yet in describing the views of the Gedolim, and in describing my book, he suffers from an extreme lack of balance!
I didn't read the entire book, but flipping through it, I noticed other examples of his lack of balance. On p. 142 he talks about the problem of making statements without citing sources, which he says is a particular problem amongst non-Orthodox clergy. He further states that another problem, of selective citation, occurs in Orthodox circles. The examples that he gives in the next three paragraphs - the Hakirah journal, various panel discussions on women's issues and organ donation - are all from non-Charedi circles. Then, noting that this problem occurs on both ends of the spectrum, he gives a single paragraph discussing how selective citation regarding conversion requirements occurs on both ends of the spectrum.
Is this the correct balance? Four and a half paragraphs about non-citation and selective citation amongst non-charedim, and half a paragraph about selective citation amongst charedim? You must be kidding me. Since when do the Gedolim cite detailed sources for their pronouncements? And does anyone really think that selective citation and misrepresentation is more of a problem with Hakirah than in charedi publications?!
Chazal were indeed correct. Kol haposel, bemumo posel.
(Note: If anyone wants to know my own take on the ban, read my essay "In Defense of my Opponents" and the postscript.)