What Rav Elyashiv Really Meant
On Friday I bought a new and fascinating book, Machshevet Yisrael V'Emunat Yisrael (unfortunately I bought it just before I received an email from the editor, offering me a complimentary copy for review!) It is a collection of articles by Orthodox Jewish academics (mostly in Hebrew) on various themes in Jewish thought, based on a conference that took place at Ben Gurion University. One article by Dr. Baruch Schwartz, which I haven't yet read properly, appears particularly provocative, attempting to present a theologically and logically justifiable basis for Orthopraxy. There's also a fascinating article by Rabbi Dr. David Shatz on Modern Orthodox vs. Charedi approaches to history. But the article that I want to talk about is Dr. Marc Shapiro's article, "Is There A Pesak for Jewish Thought?"
Dr. Shapiro presents a sound discussion of the problems with the notion that matters of belief are subject to the halachic process. He further observes that the rationalist Rishonim definitely did not believe that one can pasken on belief. But he notes that the picture is not so straightforward; there are a few cases where Chazal do appear to pasken on matters of belief, and some Acharonim appear to take this stance. He concludes without a conclusion, noting that the matter is complicated and requires further analysis.
The springboard for Dr. Shapiro's discussion is, of course, a discussion of the so-called "Slifkin Affair" (which I much prefer to call "The Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy"). He summarizes it over the course of two pages, and describes what happened with Rav Elyashiv as follows:
Elyashiv informed him (R. Aharon Feldman) that while it was acceptable for earlier authorities to state that the Sages' scientific knowledge was defective, it was not permitted for Slifkin to do the same. With these few words a viewpoint advocated by earlier authorities... was now being ruled off-limits for contemporaries, in a completely halakhic fashion. (emphasis added)
But are these last few words an accurate description of what happened? I don't think so.
In an article in Hakirah entitled "They Could Say it, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy," (which you can download for free) I explained that Rav Elyashiv was not issuing a conventional halakhic ruling. Instead, he was issuing a societal policy - that rationalist approaches should not be taught in the haredi community.
My basis for saying this is not that I am afraid to confront the notion that a Gadol HaDor rated my books as kefirah. At this stage, I really couldn't care less; I know that they are not kefirah, and that's all that matters to me. Instead, I have two sets of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way.
One is that it is vastly more reasonable. As Dr. Shapiro explains in his article, and as I explained in my Hakirah article, it is very problematic to claim that Rishonim's grasp of Torah theology is now prohibited and rated as fundamentally perverse. Given a choice between explaining Rav Elyashiv's stance in a way that is basically reasonable, or in a way that is bizarre and problematic, why not opt for the former?
My second set of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way is that I have quite a bit of evidence for it - some of which I have not released before this post. It's true that Rav Feldman wrote an essay in which he explained Rav Elyashiv's position as a halakhic rejection of earlier views, but one must differentiate between what Rav Elyashiv said and how Rav Feldman presented it. Furthermore, there is a certain timeline of events that must be taken into account.
Here is the email that Rav Feldman sent in February 2005:
My short visit to Israel last week was, among other reasons, to ascertain Rav Elyashiv’s reason for the issur on Nosson Slifskin’s books. Contrary to rumors, I did not travel on anyone’s behalf.
Rav Eliashiv felt that the hashkofos of the books regarding Chazal and the age of the universe are forbidden to be taught, and this despite The fact that others, even great people (such as R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Pachad Yitzchok and, in our times, Rav Dessler and R. Shimon Schwab) may have said similar things. "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not," he said. In other words, the halacha is not like them.
Most important, Rav Eliashiv said that by his signature on the public announcement regarding the books he did not mean to rule that the author is a min or kofer. As far as he is concerned, Rav Eliashiv said, “the author could be one of the lamed vov tzadikim”; the books nevertheless are forbidden to read. He was surprised when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus.
He then dictated a statement to me, in the presence of his secretary, Rav Yosef Efrati, and one of his grandsons, which read as follows: כוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל or, "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." The word "only" was meant to specifically Exclude the implication that the author is a heretic.
With best wishes,
In this letter, we learn that Rav Elyashiv "was surprised (emphasis added) when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus." And we have his statement that "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only (emphasis added) regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." Although R. Feldman states that the word "only" was intended to exclude the implication that I am a heretic, it's clearly more than that, based on the earlier observation of his surprise; it's also to exclude the idea that the books are actually heretical. In fact, Rav Feldman told me personally that Rav Elyashiv felt that the books can be called "heretical" only in the colloquial sense (of books that are Very Bad).
Furthermore, note that Rav Elyashiv only said "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not." It was Rav Feldman who presented this as a halachic statement: "In other words, the halacha is not like them."
Not a lot of people know this, and I haven't mentioned it previously, but Rav Elyashiv's written statement was actually intended to be a postscript to a statement by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael of America, that was never released. Here is the full statement:
בזמן האחרון הופיעו ספרים שנכתבו ע"י ר' נתן סליפקין נ"י ובהם דברים המערערים את האמונה הטהורה במעשה בראשית בבריאת האדם ובקדושת דברי חז"ל, לזאת דעתנו שכל החרד לדבר ה' ירחק מהם ולא יכניס אותם לביתו.
וע"ז באנו עה"ח
מועצת גדולי התורה של אגודת ישראל
נ. ב. גם אני מצטרף להנ"ל וכוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא בענין הספרים הנ"ל היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל
יוסף שלו' אלישיב
Rav Feldman had wanted this statement to be released, but Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky opposed it; he felt that it was too uncomplimentary to me. In any case, one clearly sees that the books were considered to be problematic and harmful to the community - no more.
What happened next was that over Pesach, Rav Feldman returned to Israel. As he told me explicitly in a subsequent meeting, he was placed under a lot of pressure by Forces On The Right who felt that he was "siding too much" with me. Furthermore, he was distressed at the negative public image of Rav Elyashiv. As a result, he penned his notorious essay "The Slifkin Affair: Issues and Perspectives." Instead of admitting that the ban was a social policy which got carried away with the language, he decided to attempt to justify the language of the ban to the full, and explain the ban as a halachic pesak on matters of belief. This necessitated his writing the following statement, which Dr. Shapiro quoted in his article:
Beliefs, besides falling under certain commandments, affect a Jew’s status with respect to various laws and are therefore also part of practical halacha.
However, Rav Elyashiv himself clearly did not feel that my beliefs affect my status with respect to any laws whatsoever! Furthermore, Rav Feldman himself did not believe that these beliefs have any effect on someone's status with respect to laws. Here is an email that I received from someone in 2009:
Rav Feldman explicitly told me, a baal teshuva, that I could read the books. I don't know the reason. He thought about it for a moment, and replied it's fine.
So I think that it's clear. As I wrote in my Hakirah article, Rav Elyashiv’s position is that this approach is forbidden for the community—theologically opposed (but not unequivocally beyond
the pale) and socially unacceptable. It will be tolerated in a footnote in the Schottenstein Talmud, it can be mentioned discreetly as a bedi’eved, but it cannot be presented up-front as a legitimate approach. It's a societal policy, not a halachic disqualification.