When You Don't Need To Listen To The Rabbis
In yesterday's post, I explained why we should follow the Sanhedrin even if they are wrong. A number of people (who didn't realize the underlying message of the post) understood me to be saying that we must follow the Gedolim of today even if they are wrong. Some people even challenged me that I should therefore have obeyed the Gedolim who banned my books.
In response to this, I present below the page from my website dealing with the controversy over my books, in which I explained all the reasons why I did not need to obey the charedi Gedolim. I've added a very important paragraph which specifically deals with the points raised in yesterday's post - it's highlight in bold and dark blue.
Why I am not following the ban
Some people have raised the question that, regardless of who is right or wrong in the central issues of Torah and science, the books must be withdrawn. The reason is that since leading rabbinical figures have banned the books, they must be obeyed even if one believes them to be mistaken. A verse cited as a basis for this is, "Do not stray right or left from all that they tell you" (Deut. 17:11) upon which Rashi cites the Midrash, "Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, you must listen." I would like to explain why I am not doing so.
First of all, contrary to popular belief, there is no halachic obligation whatsoever for me to obey the distinguished rabbis that banned my works. The above mentioned verse is referring to the Beis Din HaGadol, a body of rabbinic authority that is no longer in existence. Nowadays, Judaism only obligates a person to follow his own rabbinic authority (in a case where he cannot determine the correct course of action himself). Furthermore, one is not obligated to follow other rabbis even if they are in the majority. The Chazon Ish points out that one need not follow the majority of rabbinic opinion, past or present, in determining a ruling. Only with the Sanhedrin was the ruling determined by majority vote. My own rabbinic authorities, who are certainly of adequate stature to render their own decisions in these matters, have ruled that my books are perfectly acceptable.
(It is sometimes pointed out that the Sefer HaChinnuch extends the above verse to include not just the Sanhedrin, but also the leading rabbinic authorities of every generation. In response to this, it should first be noted that the Sefer HaChinnuch is a minority view in this regard and is not binding. Second, even within the Sefer HaChinnuch's view, there are various criteria required that are not fulfilled in this case.)
Now, while there may not be a halachic obligation to listen to any particular group of rabbis, there is certainly a very strong Torah principle that one must uphold rabbinic authority and not undermine it, even if it is mistaken. Nevertheless, this is not applicable here, for several reasons. The primary reason is that the rabbinic authority being challenged here is not the broad base of Orthodox rabbinic authority; rather, it is specifically the rabbinic authority of the charedi community - a community of which I am not (any longer) a member. Second is that, for reasons discussed below, the very nature of this rabbinic pronouncement is deeply problematic on a number of counts. Third is that the benefit of upholding the rabbinic authority of the charedi community is outweighed by the benefit of upholding the traditional rationalist approach to Torah and science issues (as well as the benefit of exposing the flaws in the contemporary model of rabbinic authority in the charedi community).
Still, even though I am not obligated to follow any rabbinic authorities other than my own, it nevertheless is appropriate to take the opinions of others very seriously. In light of the extremely great stature of the Talmudists and Halachists opposing my works, one may wonder why I am not playing it safe and withdrawing my books. The answer is that I believe that in this particular case, my own rabbinic mentors have several significant qualitative advantages.
One: My own rabbinic authorities possess greater expertise in science.
It is easy to dismiss views as heretical if one does not appreciate the reasons why they are being presented. History has proven that unfortunately sometimes even great rabbinic authorities have rejected views that turned out to be scientifically proven. For example, Rabbi Yaakov Rischer (1670-1733), author of the Shevus Yaakov and one of the greatest halachic authorities of his era, rejected science due to its position that the world is round, which, he claimed, ran contrary to the Talmud's position that the world is flat. This clearly demonstrates that knowledge of science is important in determining which beliefs are acceptable.
Two: My own rabbinic authorities possess particular expertise in Torah scholarship on these issues.
The field of Torah and science is relatively obscure. The teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and even Rambam, are not widely known, even by great Talmudists and halachists. For example, few people are aware that Rambam held the view that the six days of creation were not actually time-periods (see, for example, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller's article on this topic in the Jewish Observer). Another example is that it is widely believed that the position that the Sages were not infallible in science was the solitary view of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. I know for a fact that some of the signatories to the ban were under the impression that there is not even a single authentic source to this effect. My own rabbinic mentors have a particular interest in these topics and therefore possess particular expertise in this esoteric area. They are, for example, aware of numerous Torah authorities of previous eras who subscribed to these views.
Three: My own rabbinic authorities are much more familiar with my books.
In evaluating a book, it is important to be familiar with it in its entirety, not just with a few extracts. For example, many people are under the impression that my book Mysterious Creatures sets out to show that Chazal were mistaken about science, whereas in fact the majority of the book explains why in many cases there is no conflict. The introductions place the books in context, explaining what they are for and why they were written. The impression gotten from seeing the most extreme extracts of the books cannot be compared to that received from reading the books in their entirety. (Of course, those who believe that is is genuinely heretical to state that the Sages erred in science would not have this opinion changed even if they read the entire book. However, many of those who opposed my works did not subscribe to this extreme view.)
Four: My own rabbinic authorities are more familiar with my target audience
My rabbinic authorities, rather than being from the insular sections of the yeshivah world, have dealt for many years with people who have been grappling with these issues. (Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was quoted as saying that in his experience, these questions rarely arise; the experience of my rabbinic mentors is vastly different.) They are more aware of which sort of people are reading my books, of the neccessity of my books for these sorts of people, and of how the style of my books and their tone is uniquely suited to this audience.
Five: My own rabbinic authorities know me as a person
Knowing the people involved in engineering the ban and approaching the signatories, there is little doubt that they did not describe me in glowing or even objective terms. The signatories probably saw me as someone out to destroy Torah under the guise of explaining it. Had they met me, I believe that they would not have been so quick to condemn me. No doubt this is one of the reasons why the zealots who engineered the ban were so determined to prevent me from meeting with any of the signatories.
Six: My own rabbinic authorities discussed the issues with me
My rabbis discussed whatever reservations they had with me, until everything was ironed out. The signatories of the ban did not meet with either me or my rabbinic mentors and were not able to discuss their concerns, which, in some cases, I may have been able to allay. The Minchas Chinnuch, commenting on the Sefer HaChinnuch's unusual view that the consensus of rabbinic authorities of each generation must be followed whether right or wrong, notes that this is only the case if the rabbinic authorities actually discussed the issue with each other; failing that, one can never know if the minority might have actually been able to convince the others of the correctness of their position.
Seven: My own rabbinic authorities follow a different school of thought
There have long been two distinct streams of thought within Jewish philosophy, commonly termed the rationalistic and the mystic. The rabbis who condemned my works are aligned with the latter, whereas my rabbinic mentors are aligned with the former.
For example, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch wrote that those who seek to explain phenomena in terms of mechanical natural processes and to minimize the miraculous do so in order to minimize the greatness of God. Rambam, on the other hand, wrote that "we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible." Rabbi Sternbuch apparently follows those who criticized Rambam's approach, whereas my rabbinic mentors follow Rambam.
The banned books are available online at this link.
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