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Torah & Dogmatism
"Torah & Rationalism" (Feldheim 2020) is the title of a new book consisting of collected writings of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Chaim Zimmerman z"l, compiled by his student Michael Landy. Given its title, it naturally would seem to be of interested to readers of this forum, and several people have asked for my opinion of it. According to the book's blurb, "for the Torah Jew, this book will intellectually secure his mind by demonstrating the structure of Torah and Halachah in a rational way." I was given a copy to review and I was intrigued to read it.
Rav Zimmerman was renowned as an extraordinary prodigy, fluent in the entire Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim and Acharonim, in the Brisker tradition. He served as Rosh Yeshivah at HTC in Chicago, as well as at other yeshivos in New York and Jerusalem. At the same time, he was a highly unusual rosh yeshiva. At one point during his illustrious career, he was clean-shaven, wore plaid shirts and drove a convertible! Great geniuses are often eccentric. Alas, in this case, the eccentricities carry forward into a deeply flawed work.
The book's various chapters discuss topics such as the nature of Torah She-ba'al Peh, Kabbalah, Rambam and Moreh Nevuchim, and "the falsity of academic Jewish scholarship." The fundamental problems in this book are ones that I have seen with certain other great geniuses and their devotees, notably Rav Moshe Shapira. Many people naively believe that if a great genius, and especially a great Talmudist, says something, then it must be true. But this is not the case. Genius has nothing to do with being correct; it just means that one is better able to devise arguments in support of rationalizing one's approach.
The first problem is the author's belief in an extreme (and very non-rationalist) interpretation of yeridat hadorot. He insists that as one goes back in the generations, people were actually more intelligent, and that as the generations continue to advance, people are intellectually regressing - not only with Jews, but also with non-Jews (pp. 27-28). One can only wonder what the world will look like in a few centuries - will our descendants be cavemen? But his claim that the genius of Aristotle's was never matched in a later generation, and nor that of Newton or Einstein, is simply wrong. After all, Einstein was as great a genius as Aristotle!
Following from this errant belief is the conviction that expounding extraordinary expositions on a text means that the text's author put those meanings into it, as opposed to the meaning being created by the reader. People such as R. Moshe Shapira and R. Zimmerman believe that the depth is being discovered, whereas in fact it is being created. Thus, R. Zimmerman claims that R. Chaim Brisker's intricate resolutions of contradictions in the Mishneh Torah bring to light Rambam's incredible genius. Whereas the fact is that there is nothing remotely resembling Reb Chaim's types of arguments in any of Rambam's writings (or, for that matter, in the writings of pretty much anyone preceding Reb Chaim.) Furthermore, when Rambam himself was asked about such contradictions, he didn't employ Brisker-style distinctions; instead he simply said that he erred, or changed his mind, etc. Finally, no less than the Chazon Ish states regarding some of R. Chaim Brisker's ingenious expositions that they are simply entirely baseless.
Another flaw which runs throughout R. Zimmerman's work is the religious conviction that no great Torah scholar was ever subject to any influence other than pure Torah. "It is impossible for them to define any aspect of Halachah according to public opinion, political outlook, social environment, or any other influence." Astonishingly, he even makes this claim about Rambam. R. Zimmerman states (pp. 98, 103. 110) that Rambam was not in the slightest way influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy and that he gave it no significance whatsoever; instead, he merely incorporated such ideas in his work as parables to convey classical ideas from Sinai and the Sages in a form that would appeal to his readership. I could argue at length why this is utterly mistaken, but instead I will just point out that none other than the Vilna Gaon explicitly acknowledged that Rambam was influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy in developing some of his views that were contrary to Chazal.
Yet another problem with R. Zimmerman's book, repeatedly illustrated, is the attitude that if a great Talmudist (such as himself) makes a very forceful claim, simultaneously disparaging those who disagree as being ignorant fools, then it carries great weight. This is something that crops up in the book again and again, to an almost unbelievable degree. On p. 25 he describes academic Judaic scholars as "lazy," "narrow-minded," with an "intent to disparage," and who only impress the "ignorant." Such statements carry on throughout the work, and vastly exceed any substantive arguments to back up these claims.
In general, the book is rife with extreme claims, forcefully stated, that are not only not backed up, but are actually contradicted by factual evidence. For example, on p. 94, as part of his efforts to dismiss Gershom Scholem as "a man absolutely ignorant in Torah, Halachah, Jewish thought, and philosophical understanding," he claims that kabbalists are wholly different from non-Jewish mystics, which is why "the whole genuine Torah world asserted immediately that Shabtai Tzvi was a charlatan." Alas, this is absolutely not the case - there were several renowned Torah scholars who were taken in by Shabtai Tzvi.
Its title notwithstanding, "Torah & Rationalism" is in fact a forceful polemic for the non-rationalist approach. Alas, I cannot recommend it.