Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 9 December 2007

A Shabbos to Remember

This Shabbos our community had the pleasure of hosting Rav Nosson Sliffkin who spoke to our congregation about a variety of topics such as animals in Judaism, mythical monsters mentioned in our rabbinic literature and the nature of dinosaurs and the true age of the Earth. Other than one close-minded individual who walked out, all were well entertained by his dynamic approach and depth of knowledge. It's sometimes hard to remember that before the difficulties with his book, The Challenge of Creation, he was on a fast strack to being a very big personality in the Torah world due to his genius.

Having said that, there were some things that he spoke about that troubled me. On one hand, I have no problem accepting that the world we live in is far older than 5768 years old. I've stated as much in previous posts. My position has been that the Torah is true and that if science seems to contradict a literal understanding of Torah, then we don't understand the text properly and have to look at it with an open mind and new light in order to realize what God is trying to tell us.

Having said that, there are limits to this concept. It's one thing to say that the six days of Creation were actually six eras that lasted billions of years. It's another to say that the whole thing is an allegory whose only purpose is to teach us a lesson. If that were so, then why six days? Why such detail spread out like it was? Yes, the Torah is not a history or science textbook and reading it with such intent is a fast track to disappointment but on the other hand, its details are there to mean something in addition to the lessons it provides.

The difficulty with establishing a specific train of thought is that finding the train station to get off at can often be difficult. Having decided that the entire story of Creation is nought but an allegory, it's not a stretch of logic to declare that pretty much the rest of the book of Bereshis is similarly only a story meant to give us lessons but not reflective of any real history. Again, declaring that our forefathers never existed is a bit of a stretch and a huge kick at the fundamental basis of our faith. Finally, if Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are not real personalities, what's to stop one from deciding the same thing about Moshe Rabeinu? Why must one believe that Matan Torah at Har Sinai ever happened? And now one reaches the stage where the most important basis of our faith is challenged.

It is this regard that I humbly think Rav Sliffkin has possibly gone too far in his reasoning. I can understand why. Geniuses often become enamored with their logic and carry it past reasonable points. Given his bitter experience over the last few years, is it possible his lack of anchor within the traditional community has contributed to this?

It is important to understand that, in all things, there is a balance. One cannot interpret the story of Creation literally without ignoring science and much of the real world. To dismiss the whole thing as an allegorical lesson is similarly extreme. Somewhere in the middle the Torah is telling us how the world was born and not just why, although both reasons are imporant.

May we merit to keep to the golden mean and see both sides with equal validity so that we may reach the truth of Torah and God's will.

2 comments:

Nishma said...

Sometimes the answer is in the process itself. On one hand we have the literal reading of the textual 5 Books of Moses. In addition, we have numerous midrashim,i.e. additional information from Torah she'b'al peh, which face the same dilemma (especially if one considers the words of Rambam). On the other hand, one has reality and the realm of thought. Reconciliation -- that is the world of Torah She'b'al Peh and that is what distinguishes Torah from fundamentalism. Our Torah text has contradictions - Hashem tells us to work it out. There are questions in how to connect Torah knowledge with information in the world - Hashem says work it out. That is because Hashem wants us to think. That is limud haTorah.

Taking science as the final voice. Taking literal readings as the final voice. Both are unacceptable to Torah. The real point is to be involved in the proces. Rav Moshe Sternbach, a leading Charedi dayan, stated in regard to Rav Slifkin that he disagrees with the latter's conclusions (that is to say it mildly). But that does not mean he actually understands Bereishit and there are still many questions. He though will live with the questions. While I do not think that Rav Slifkin crossed any lines, that does not mean I agree with his conclusions -- and I do agree with Garnel's problems. The key is to be involved in the process, to live in the questions and to accept the real directive of Hashem to be involved in the process.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Garnel Ironheart said...

It goes beyond that though. The conclusions Rav Sliffkin has reached by allowing such a strong influence from science and the secular historical record are disturbing to many people but they also raise a necessary challenge. If I am to believe in the truth of Torah and the truth is confronted by hard evidence to the contrary, I can do one of two things. I can stick my hands over my ears and say "nya, nya, can't hear you" (the Chareidi approach) or I can conduct my own research and see if I can answer the challenge. That is what is necessary to build strong faith in Torah that can withstand external challenges without confining oneself to a ghetto existence.
If I can't answer Rav Sliffkin's concerns, then how can I, as a rational thinking person, believe what I do?