Sunday, March 29, 2009

a strange defense - part I

It was by chance that I noticed on Parshablog that R' Slifkin quoted me in an essay in "defense" of his opponents. I don't think I have mentioned R' Slifkin directly on this blog and my original post, which he attibutes to an explanation of the banning of his books, was nothing of the sort. My post was written in reaction to what I view as a corruption of the entire meaning of mesorah that has resulted in part as an outcome of R' Slifkin's approach, but also in part due to other forces at work in contemporary Orthodoxy.

In for a penny in for a pound, so let me just respond to a the three errors that R' Slifkin claims that I make (as an aside, my original post is here):

1) R' Slifkin charges that I interpret the mesorah to be monolithic-- THE mesorah, meaning the views accepted as mainstream by the chareidi world, and therefore am dismissive of interpretations that may be legitimate. If anyone looks back at my original post (and esp. if one is a regular reader of this blog) I think it is more than clear that this strawman has nothing to do with me. I can only wonder how a paragraph in which I cite R' Soloveitchik can be read as advocating respect only for chareidi viewpoints (do other chareidi blogs have siderbar links to R' Aviner)?!

The point that R' Slifkin missed is that whether chareidi, dati-leumi, or Centrist, the mesorah has boundaries and those boundaries are defined by gedolei yisrael. Just because one denies that Judaism is a free-for-all where you can pick and choose from a grab back of historical shitos and hashkafos (my original point) does not mean one advocates a monolithic view of hashkafa. But it does mean aseh lecha rav -- there must be some tradition taught and lived by gedolei yisrael to which one subscribes. If not for R' Soloveitchik's approval of secular education, if not for R' Kook's defense of Zionism, the dati-leumi and Torah u'Madda camps would be intellectually diminished as valid Torah hashkafos. It is not enough, for example, to say that we look to the Rambam as an exemplar of a synthesis of Torah and secular wisdom and therefore reject the advice of contemporary gedolim to steer clear of secular literature -- "Torah archeology" of past viewpoints without guidance on what theoretical conclusions may be drawn or practically implemented is a dangerous game to play with great and grave intellectual pitfalls (more on this important point to come).

Rabbi Slifkin claims that "the rationalist view" finds contemporary support in the "Torah u'Madda" community. Here is a simple way to end this controversy: Rabbi Slifkin, just publish your works with a haskama from the leading Roshei Yeshiva of the mesorah you affiliate with, i.e. Rav Hershel Shachter, R' Mordechai Willig, etc. Ikkar chaseir min hasefer quite literally! I know of no such haskamos that have been printed. Why rely on questionable speculation of what R' Soloveitchik might have held when his greatest talmidim are a phone call away? -- and who so far as I know have written nothing in your support.

To reiterate, it's not just the books that are at issue here, but an entire hashkafa of Judaism. The controversy about books in many cases masks a far deeper controversy. Many fierce advocates of Rabbi Slifkin's books that I read in the blogosphere also espouse views such as orthopraxy, such as the belief that historical-scientific evidence trumps tradition, etc. (views that R' Slifkin himself may not espouse). R' Dr. Moshe Bernstein of YU recently reacted in the YU newspaper to the invitation by students to a speaker whose views undermine the belief in Torah m'Sinai. He wrote that fundemental traditions cannot be questioned even when all the evidence calls our beliefs into doubt; we must simply remain b'tzarich iyun. To those who belief scientific fact trumps belief, there are no tzarich iyuns and no need for haskamos for what the laboratory has proven. Based not only on the chareidi teachings of R' Kanievsky and R' Shternbruch, but also based as well on the view of Professor Bernstein (whose Intro to Bible class I enjoyed immensely) and others like him, I respectfully disagree.


  1. R Slifkin has a blog (where he is inviting comments) here:

  2. It's not worth it and will accomplish nothing.

  3. Chaim, there is no question in my mind that R. Aharon Lichtenstein would theoretically write a haskamah for R. Slifkin's books if it were in his nature to write haskamos on these types of books for an author who was never a talmid of his. Have you seen some of the books coming out of Gush? Check out R. Chaim Navon's book on Jewish thought and Bereishis, that originally appeared as a series on VBM. His shitah is the same as R. Slifkin's.

    Also, R. Schachter and R. Willig would never give haskamos to R. Slifkin simply because they don't want to get involved in this ugly controversy. But if you e-mail me I can tell you what they told me about it, or even better talk to them.

  4. anon19:13 AM


    I didn't fully agree with your first post either -- I believe I commented on it at the time -- but the issue of haskamah really shouldn't carry the day. The original versions of R'Slifkin's books had haskamos from R'Shmuel and R'Sholom Kamenetsky. They were susbequently pulled but not because they realized all of the sudden that relying on R'Avraham ben HaRambam was wrong but for other reasons (I did discuss this point with R'Sholom but acm"l).

  5. 1) If there are gedolim willing to go on record and say that this is l'chatchila the best approach, then kol hakavod.

    2) I still object to comparisons of emunos v'deyos to who to vote for in an election and to the insinuation that the gedolim are simply ignorant of shitos rishonim and are therefore wrong (part 2).

    3) Again, putting the books aside, I take strong exception to the pandora's box of allegorical interpretation of Torah, derision of gedolim, weighting of scienctific/historical evidence over mesorah, etc. that is far too common in most discussions of these issues online. Do you think I am misreading the intellectual climate and attitude?

    It is viewed by many as a short hop from allegorizing the 7 days of Braishis to allegorizing mattan Torah and assuming the text was composed later. For better of worse this book controversy has fueled that fire and I think that is why the gedolim have reacted so strongly. Rabbi Slifkin has in some sense (I think) become a convenient target to shoot at when the real enemy is some of the more outlandish views which are riding his coattails.

  6. >>>Also, R. Schachter and R. Willig would never give haskamos to R. Slifkin simply because they don't want to get involved in this ugly controversy

    If RHS or R' Willig won't even write a haskama to these books to avoid controversy isn't it a kal v'chomer that the books themselves maybe should not be published / advertised to avoid embroiling klal yisrael in controversy?

  7. Come on, Chaim -- we KNOW that there are gedolei Yisrael who believe that the approach taken by R'Slifkin is not only viable but may even make the most sense. Be-mo oznai, I was there and heard when one of these charedei gedolim pointed to further classical sources that support this view which R'Slifkin did not even use (e.g. certain comments of the Seforno in the beginning of Beraishis). It almost borders of a ziyuf ha-Torah not to say all this.

    Maybe it shouldn't be published, or maybe not targeted for the chareidi audience -- but to say one should not state what he believes (with good support of both classical sources and current living gedolim, whether they publicly admit it or not), because you are concerned that someone will then allegorize matan Torah? To paraphrase chazal, kol harotzeh litos yavo ve-yiteh

  8. >>>Maybe it shouldn't be published, or maybe not targeted for the chareidi audience -- but to say one should not state what he believes

    By all means do so -- that's what blogs are for : )

    But saying what you believe in public (I think) is an implicit license to allow others to explain why they disagree. All I am saying in a nutshell is that his views have clearly been rejected by a vast number of great talmidei chachamim and others who might have spoken in his defense have chosen to remain silent rather than engage in controversy. Do you disagree with that assumption? Or do you agree that those are the facts and just disagree with me whether that is sufficient to call into question the need to publish?

  9. Avi the Grok12:05 PM

    is sufficient to call into question the need to publish

    It is certainly sufficient to call into question the need to publish in the charedi world - which R. Slifkin has readily conceded. It is not sufficient to call into question the need to publish in other communities.