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The Rav, Cosmology, and Evolution
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 also raises difficulties for Charedim (at least, those who are aware of him), since he was a Gadol B'Torah by any standard, and yet espoused many views that were at odds with Charedi norms. As a result, he has been expunged from charedi history. For example, in the recent book The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler, a photograph of Rav Kotler sitting next to Rav Soloveitchik at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner has been carefully cropped to remove Rav Soloveitchik (even though Rav Soloveitchik was the guest of honor at the behest of Rav Aharon, who asked him to give the keynote address!). Apparently, the Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler is to be so frum that you distort Rav Aharon's own worldview.
The "problem" of Rav Soloveitchik is particularly acute for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. He was a nephew and disciple of the Rav, but later moved very far to the right, even sitting on the dais of the notorious Satmar anti-Israel rally in Manhattan where they denounced Israel as an "evil regime." Rabbi Meiselman's 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 points out in his famous article "Revisionism and the Rav," 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. (You can read Prof. Kaplan's article at this link, and his response to Rabbi Meiselman's rejoinder at this link.) In this forum, I have been documenting R. Meiselman's revisionism with regard to the Rav's positions on Torah and science, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science.
For example, in my post "Metzitzah and the Rav," I noted that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, claiming to be presenting the views of his rebbi Rav Soloveitchik, says that whenever Chazal make a statement about realia, and do not indicate that they are speaking tentatively, then they are correct, and to doubt them is genuine heresy. Rabbi Meiselman thus states, with regard to metzitzah (pp. 239-40), that "Chazal's assessment overrides that of modern medicine," because "Chazal understood the situation better than the physicians." He stresses that "we rely upon their judgment unswervingly, even if medical opinion says otherwise." Following from this, Rabbi Meiselman states that "the mohel must suction the wound in a traditionally prescribed manner," i.e. metzitzah b'peh.
However, as I noted in that post and in a follow-up post, there are several disciples and family members of Rav Soloveitchik who attest that at brisim which he attended, Rav Solovetichik did not only not require metzitzah b'peh, he actually actively opposed it, and did not even require metzitzah at all, whether orally or otherwise! Thus, Rabbi Meiselman demonstrates that his approach to Torah and science is fundamentally at odds with that of his alleged rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik.
In this post, I would like to discuss another instance of Rabbi Meiselman distorting the position of Rav Soloveitchik. Chapter 65 of Rabbi Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science is dedicated to discussing the views of Rav Soloveitchik on cosmology. R. Meiselman begins by noting that "Mori veRebbi, ztz"l, was unequivocally opposed to any accommodation, however minor, to the cosmological theories of the day... One of the more outrageous distortions you will find in contemporary Jewish literature is the suggestion that his philosophical writings are based on an evolutionary conception of man." As support for this very strong charge, he cites an address of Rav Soloveitchik as follows:
"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 has absolutely no right to make a certain statement about briyah... Of course, science has no right to say anything because it is not a scientific problem."
At first glance, that statement certainly seems to back up R. Meiselman's claims. But if we look at the full quotation from this lecture by the Rav, which is relegated to an appendix in R. Meiselman's book (and still omits a crucial sentence, which I have inserted in bold), we see what Rav Soloveitchik is actually saying:
"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 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. (Modern science does not in fact deny creation ex nihilo - 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 anything to do with the subsequent development of the universe!
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:
"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." (Genesis Notes, Lecture XII)
Thus, it is simply false to claim that the Rav "was unequivocally opposed to any accommodation, however minor, to the cosmological theories of the day." He was perfectly open to accommodating the discoveries of science regarding the antiquity of the universe (in contrast to Rabbi Meiselman, who claims (p. 493) that it is forbidden to believe that the world is more than a few thousand years old, and further insists that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging the Biblical account of creation). Rav Soloveitchik is even open to reconciling the evolutionary development of the animal kingdom with Torah - he writes elsewhere that there is no difficulty regarding "divine creation and mechanistic evolution... We could find a solution of some kind to this controversy." It is only with regard to the issue of creation ex nihilo that the Rav saw any problem.
(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. 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.)
What about with regard to human evolution? The Rav delivered lectures and wrote manuscripts on the topic, which were recently published as The Emergence of Ethical Man. Outside of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, everyone sees this book as demonstrating that the Rav saw no problem with the theory that man evolved from animals; his point of departure from secular evolutionists was in presenting man as having the ability to transcend his animal origins (just like, on an individual level, we transcend our origins as a tipah serucha).
In a lengthy footnote, Rabbi Meiselman claims that it is very problematic to take The Emergence of Ethical Man as being representative of Rav Soloveitchik's thought. R. Meiselman claims that it was wrong to publish these manuscripts, because they (allegedly) reflect the Rav's early thoughts and not his final thinking. He says that the Rav didn't mean these ideas for publication, that he subsequently changed his mind, that there are interpolations by other people, etc., etc. This is similar to the same line of argument that R. Meiselman uses for another text that conflicts with his worldview, the ma'amar of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and is indeed a time-honored tradition for those who are uncomfortable with rabbinic texts that are at odds with their own worldview.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Meiselman does not outrightly reject the entire book. He proceeds to quote from The Emergence of Ethical Man in order to prove that "Mori veRebbi totally rejected the conception of man implicit with evolution... a hairless anthropoid descended from animal ancestors could never be the bearer of the tzelem Elokim.... Mori veRebbi distinguished between the conception of man found in Torah thought, and to a certain extent in Greek and Christian thought, and the very different conception that emerges from modern empirico-scientific thinking." The quote that Rabbi Meiselman provides as evidence for this claim is as follows:
"What, in fact, is theoretically irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of the Divine image with the equaling of man and animal-plant existences. In other words, the ontic autonomy of man or heteronomy of man is the problem. The Bible and Greek philosophical thought separated man from the flora and fauna; science brought him back to his organic co-beings." (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 5)
That certainly seems to back up R. Meiselman's claim that the Rav, siding with the Torah and Greek thought, "totally rejected" the notion that human bodies evolved from animals. However, once again, R. Meiselman has been selective in his citations - this time, absurdly so. For the Rav presents the above notion as being a widespread but mistaken belief, that he immediately proceeds to forcefully refute at length:
"However (emphasis added), I wish to emphasize that the widespread opinion that within the perspective of anthropological naturalism there is no place for the religious act, for the relatedness of man to eternity and infinity, is wrong. Perhaps more than man-as-a-divine-person, man-as-an-animal needs religious faith and commitment to a higher authority..."
The Rav proceeds to argue that that which he mentioned above as being presented as the "Torah position" (and which R. Meiselman presents as "the Torah position" of the Rav) is not in fact the Torah position at all!
"Our task now is to investigate the cogency of the almost dogmatic assertion that the Bible proclaimed the separateness of man from nature and his otherness. It is certain that the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars believed that the Bible preached this doctrine... Yet the consensus of many, however great and distinguished, does not prove the truth or the falseness of a particular belief... The sooner Biblical texts are placed in their proper setting—namely, the Oral Tradition with its almost endless religious awareness—the clearer and more certain I am that Judaism does not accent unreservedly the theory of man’s isolationism and separatism within the natural order of things... We come across a duel concept of man in the Bible. His element of transcendence was well-known to the Biblical Jew. Yet transcendence was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man’s immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors. It was more a modifying than a basic attribute of man."
The Rav continues in this vein at great length, vociferously rejecting the notion that Rabbi Meiselman quoted as representing the Rav's view. 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.
Rabbi Meiselman claims that it was wrong to publish the manuscripts of The Emergence of Ethical Man, because these manuscripts (allegedly) reflect his early thoughts and not his final thinking. But, in an astonishing demonstration of outright hypocrisy, he proceeds to quote part of it as presenting the Rav's view, while not revealing that this quote is actually just a hava amina that the Rav immediately proceeds to firmly reject! This is revisionism and intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.
Click here for an index to the critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science.