Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Slifkin in the Jewish Press

I do not agree with everything that Rabbi Slifkin writes, but neither do I think that he is automatically wrong on each issue either.

I did not fully read Challenge of Creation, although I browsed through it last year at the book launching held at Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills. I am therefore not in the position to critique Challenge of Creation any more than a Harry Potter-challenged reader can comment on the eye color of Albus Dumbledore or on other Harry Potter trivia. I imagine, though, that Rabbi Slifkin would be on firmer, although fiercely controversial ground in the Sacred Monster book, although obviously, I have not seen that, as of yet, either.

I note that Rabbi Yehuda(Leo) Levi has written, "in this particular book, the author has managed to avoid the many pitfalls awaiting anyone treating the intersection between science and Torah.” As always, consult with your local Orthodox Rabbi if in doubt on the halachic appropriateness of a particular book.

I think, though, that in the presentation quoted below, Rabbi Slifkin is both intellectually open and respectful, both to the opposing approach, as well as to the Torah authorities who disagree with him:

The final approach to these types of issues takes a different line. There are authorities who state that although the sages of the Talmud were towering in their Torah scholarship, their knowledge of the natural world was not something received at Har Sinai. When it came to science, they accepted the reports of the experts of their era, which included information that we now know to be false.

For example, the Gemara describes a mouse that, instead of being born from parent mice, grows from dirt. This was a prevalent belief in the ancient world, but modern science firmly rejects the notion that a mouse could grow from dirt. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that since the naturalists of Talmudic times reported of such creatures, the sages of the Talmud had no reason not to rely on these experts. Acknowledging that no such mouse exists is no reason to view the Talmudic sages with any less respect.

It is this approach that was recently branded as heresy by numerous distinguished rabbinic authorities in the haredi world. Their position is that every single statement in the Talmud must be understood as either received from Sinai or otherwise divinely inspired, even statements about the natural world. Accordingly, they would state that if the Talmud describes a mouse that grows from dirt, such a creature must indeed exist.

Be that as it may, I am writing for those communities whose rabbinic leaders follow the position of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and scores of other Rishonim and Acharonim over the ages who took the rationalist approach that Chazal were not infallible on scientific matters....

There are those who acknowledge that this rationalist approach has legitimate roots from a historical perspective but nevertheless oppose it on the grounds that it could be dangerous. They fear that if we teach our students that Chazal could err in some matters, they might start questioning Chazal on everything.

I do not discount these concerns, but it is clear to me that, for the communities to which my book is targeted, the dangers in the other direction are even greater. People who grow up in a world where there is exposure to modern science and popular culture might enjoy reading Rowling or Tolkien, but they know these monsters are fictitious. When they encounter statements in the Talmud or Midrash that run counter to their knowledge of the natural world, they are challenged in their faith. If their rabbinic leaders dismiss their questions or, worse, chastise them for asking, their difficulties become a crisis.

For such people, learning that the great Torah authorities of history did not see any need to accept Talmudic statements of science as being infallible is a great reassurance, and can be a lifeline for someone whose emunah is drowning. Precisely that approach which causes a crisis in rabbinic authority for some, rescues rabbinic authority for others.

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