Thursday, August 09, 2007

Slifkin in the Jewish Press II

Rabbi Dovid Kornreich writes in a letter to the Jewish Press:

But why are they challenged in the first place? Why is their faith in the sages’ mastery of all levels of reality so frail and their faith in science so strong? Believe me, I also wonder how to reconcile many fantastic statements of Chazal with empirical reality. The problems are quite perplexing, but they don’t challenge my faith…I humbly submit that it is completely counterproductive, in an attempt to strengthen faith, for Rabbi Slifkin to cater to a mindset (one perhaps shared by Rabbi Slifkin himself) that cannot accept, in principle,the real existence of a supernatural reality.

As I wrote previously(see comments to this post), the general question of how to approach tensions between Science and Chazal involves both a theological and an educational question. From a theological standpoint, there is a fundamental dispute whether the approach of the Rambam, his son Rav Avroham, and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch on Science and Chazal issues is kefirah, heresy. While one can try to limit the application of R Avroham ben Harambam sources, I think that the intellectually honest thing to do, is to at least admit that there was a significant change of public policy in the haredi world, and/or that even amongst charedi gedolim, there are significant differences whether such is kefirah(in cases when R Avroham ben Harambam may be applied).

As Rabbi Kornreich points out, at some point, there is a need to accept supernatural reality. As indicated below in the Rambam's teshuva quoted by the Alter of Kelm, "wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational". Where to draw the line is a separate subject.

I quote from the Alter of Kelm:

There is really nothing new. Those who know what Beis HaTalmud is all about understand its lofty stature; those who do not will speak of it in the darkest terms. We are aware of the preciousness of the Rambams Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the Perplexed). In his Introduction to the same, and in his responsa, Rambam writes that his work will likely not help a thousand fools and it might even worsen matters for them. Yet, he writes, these thousand must give way to the single individual who lives as the more complete image of what Man should be, and who will be helped to live more completely by studying the Guide. So many people who did not fathom the positions of the Rambam distanced and banned those who supported his works! Yet truth, in the end, will prevail. This alone should quiet the complaints against us.

I will tell you this. I can point to an idea in one of Rambams responsa that is a central support of our yeshiva . He writes: With all our might we will attempt to bring Torah matters in synch with rational thought. Wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational. I have seen amongst Torah personalities those whose goal is to take all of Torah past and future and turn it into the inexplicable. They wish for everything to be foreign to rational thought. Rambam mocks them, and rejects them.

Those who know what our yeshiva is about know that we strive to allow Torah to appeal to reason, so that it can be well established within peoples hearts. This is particularly important for young people, the young of our generation, so that proper belief and attitudes become well-seated within them, with the help of G-d. One can easily understand how important this is. We endeavor to do the same even in the study of Gemara and its commentaries. I have written hurriedly, but it will suffice for the discerning.


From an educational standpoint, one can differ whether giving a student an alternative that the Rambam and Rav Hirsch accepted, is indeed, ultimately, helpful to them. Some feel, as quoted below from Rav Aryeh Carmell, that it is helpful. Indeed, people have been helped by that approach. It can allow a person to move on, and grow in emunah, although admittedly, it can be abused and be the beginning of a slippery slope.

Rabbi Carmell writes:

As the centuries progress we discover a curious fact. As modern science becomes more and more soundly established and more discrepancies appear between the words of our Sages and modern science, one would have thought more and more recourse would be had to Rambam’s principle — that the words of our Sages in aggada, are not always expected to be in accord with the facts.

But in fact the contrary is true. Rambam’s principle is ignored, for the most part it is not even known. A good deal of Orthodox education at the present time teaches that whatever the Talmudical Sages assert, in halacha and in aggada, is literally and factually true, and that it is part of our duty as Jews to believe this. There is no doubt that this viewpoint is attractive. It is simpler, and if discrepancies do appear, they can usually be dealt with by assuming that “nature has changed.”

The difficulty is that maintaining this viewpoint depends on the ability of the educators to isolate their students from all contact with modern science. In the world in which we live, it seems less and less likely that this will be successful. Rav S.R. Hirsch, who opened the secular world to the Orthodox Jew, dealt with this very question in 1876. He came down strongly on the side of Rambam and Rav Avraham his son. He rejected the other, seemingly more "religious” viewpoint, because of the disaster he foresaw when the student eventually realizes that he has been misled.

We may be standing before this problem today, when whoever has a cell phone has mmediate access to modern science.

Two final points:

As I pointed out in the previous post and comments, this is not a carte blanche endorsement of everything said by Rabbi Slifkin. The focus of this post is a particular shittah in the Rishonim, which although has recently become associated with Rabbi Slifkin becuause of the controversy(thus the title of this post and its predecessor), has been around for centuries. This post is aimed at the reader who thinks with nuance and can appreciate the distinction.

Lastly, I think that especially those who do allow Rav Avroham ben Harambam's et al opinion on Science and Chazal issues as a valid possibility, need to stress a belief in the greatness of Chazal as links in the Mesorah, and that there does exist reality which can not be perceived by our five senses.

Some try to accomplish primarily the former of these two aims by saying "zogt de heileger gemera", or "de heilge Rambam". This is not new, and has a pedigree for example, in the phrase " devarav hakedoshim". Whether one does this practice or not(I've had roshie yeshivah who did not), educators need to get across to students in our day and age the concept of chazal's transcendence, integrity, and their role as transmitters of the mesorah.

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