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The Rationalist Exodus
Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy. Many people ask me how it affected me (to which the brief answer is that it was extremely painful for my wife and I, and had mixed results for my career), but a much more important question is how it affected society at large. Was it Good For The Jews or Bad For The Jews?
The ban certainly had a great impact on many people. I have a folder full of hundreds of letters that I received about it. While a few are from people hurling abuse at me, the vast majority are from people who were greatly distressed and shocked. Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking with someone that I hadn't seen in many years. This person, many years my senior, is a talmid chacham of note, "old school charedi," who is a product of mainstream charedi yeshivos. He told me that the ban on my books was a watershed in his life, causing him to fundamentally re-assess his view of the charedi world.
Not everyone is so honest with themselves. Someone else that I know recently sent me a letter that he received from "an extremely prominent and widely respected Rav" who described me as having become an apikores, but expressed sympathy for me. This Rav described me as having been "lynched and butchered by the kanaim and no one was willing to stick his neck out for him. I am not justifying his having become a mevazeh talmidei chachamim at all, but it’s difficult to not feel for him. He is a victim of some of the most embarrassing aspects of our society and we should not take pleasure in knocking him. The entire parsha is very painful and we should avoid discussing him altogether.”
This Rav would like to pin the entire episode on the kanaim, avoid discussing me, and not think about this painful episode. In reality, of course, you cannot pin all the blame on the low-level kanaim who are now in prison or otherwise disgraced. First of all, the charedi Gedolim were all willing to put their trust in these people, which speaks volumes about them. Second, several of the Gedolim, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro, were at the forefront of the campaign. Third, the fact is that virtually all of the Gedolim were describing the positions of dozens of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. But it's too uncomfortable for this prominent Rav to think about all that, so he would prefer to pin it all on the kanaim, dismiss me as a mevazeh talmidei chachamim, and and not think about the episode any further.
My impression is that as a result of the Gedolim's ban, many hundreds, even thousands, of people moved away from the charedi world to a greater or lesser degree. (I doubt that there were many people who moved in the opposite direction!) For some, it was just an internal feeling of disconnect. Others re-assessed the direction of their charity dollars - I know of one philanthropist in New York who kept a list on his desk of all the rabbonim who banned my works, so that if collectors would come, he would know who to turn away. For still others, there were actual lifestyle changes - taking off the black hat, choosing different schools and yeshivos for their children, and so on.
Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the controversy over my books was "the public issue most damaging to the Torah's honor and to its leaders in recent memory." (Incredibly, he pinned the blame for this on me!) It was certainly a chillul Hashem of historic proportions, but did it really harm rabbinic authority? I would argue that it only harmed it in a beneficial way - it decreased the rabbinic authority of some rabbis, but boosted that of others. In other words, it caused thousands of people to realize that that rabbis whom they had thought were their leaders were not actually suited to being their leaders. Most of these people then moved towards, or solidified their connection with, other rabbinic leaders, generally from the non-charedi world, who were on their hashkafic wavelength and whom they perceived as exercising rabbinic authority appropriately.
This, in turn, is something that would appear to be a very good thing. Not only are all these people now connected to rabbinic leaders who are much more suited to them, but they are also making better lifestyle choices. For example, they are more likely to support serving in the IDF rather than attend chilul Hashem rallies against it, and more likely to follow Chazal's directives about raising their children to be economically independent.
Overall, then, as painful as the ban was for me and for countless other people, I would say that it was Good For The Jews.