During Pesach recently passed I was asked by a wise Rav if I really agree with everything Rav Natan Slifkin, the founder of the nascent movement of Rationalist Judaism, writes. My response was that it wasn't so much a matter of agreeing or disagreeing as it was of understanding Rav Slifkin's important role in the current evolution of the Torah observant community.
(Ooooooh, I said the "E" word!)
In any functioning system of thought or beliefs there is usually a middle ground balanced by two opposite extremes. It is the dialetic between those extremes that inevitably provides the middle ground with its substance. An absence of one of those extremes inevitably leads to an imbalance with the middle ground sliding in belief and opinion toward the remaining side.
Look at the evolution of Torah Judaism over the last sixty years or so and one can see this dynamic at work. In the wake of the Shoah the Chareidi community, the right side of the Torah observant spectrum, did a remarkable job of rebuilding itself. As Modern Orthodoxy muddled along, content with having one major yeshivah (YU) and one marquee name (the Rav), Chareidism went beyond rebuilding and grew into entirely new dimensions far eclipsing what had existed before World War 2. Along with that progress came efforts to brand their version of Judaism as the Torah Judaism that had always existed through media efforts, historical revisionism and outreach including within the non-Chareidi Orthodox community. Agree with it or not, like it or not, they have been extremely successful in this regard.
The problem is that much of modern Chareidi hashkafah is based on a suprisingly simplistic view of Judaism. The same community that can explain the most difficult Rashbas and Ritvas six ways to last Shabbos Nachamu also insists that the Torah's narrative of the creation of the world is to be understood literally, that Chazal were demigods who had a perfect knowledge of science, more so than today's most advanced scientists, and that all legitimate Torah authorities across the ages held these believes to be basic Jewish doctrine so that any deviation from the party line is automatically heresy.
In the absence of an effective counterweigh from the Modern Orthodox side, Chareidism has quite simply started to become the norm when one thinks of what religious Judaism should be. As I've written many times before, put a guy in a blue shirt and khakhi pants next to a guy in a black hat, suit and white shirt and who gets labelled as being more religious ten times out of ten? How many people assume that Yiddish, far from once being the vernacular of the Eastern European Jewish population regardless of religious affiliation, has always been a secret code language for frummies? How many people honestly believe that in order to be a faithful Jew you must understand Genesis and Noach on a completely literal level?
It is in his role as uber-rationalist then that Rav Slifkin performs his most valuable work. With his commanding knowledge of Torah combined with his natural genius (I want to see the family's DNA, apparently they're all like him) he is able to point out all the flaws in the philosophy of Chareidism. He can note, for example, that the idea that all important Rishonim and Acharonim agree with the current Chareidi understanding of Genesis or the halachic process is preposterous. There are dozens of major authorities that don't tow the line and a knowledgeable Jew is more concerned that today's Chareidi Gedolim are condemning major authorities in their attempt to preserve the fictional purity of the faith. He is, in short, the counterweight that Modern Orthodoxy should have been.
So if that's the case, why don't I have a membership card in his club?
The Gemara in Chullin 105B is one big reason. The text in question relates a bunch of statements by Abaye. Each of them discusses something he customarily did and starts "At first I thought..." and concludes "but now my master (Rabbah) tells me..." In each case Abaye first relates the reason he performed the behaviour and then concludes that Rabbah told him what the real reason was. The pattern is very clear - the first reason is rational, the second definitely not. For example:
At first I thought that the reason why one should not eat vegetables from the bunch which was tied up by the gardener was because it had the appearance of gluttony. But now my master has told me it is because one lays oneself open thereby to the dangers of magic." (From the PDF linked to here)
Judaism cannot be completely explained on a rational basis. It would be nice if we could convincingly link the narrative in Genesis to what we know of the national evolution (that word again!) of the universe. Certainly some have tried but it is quite clear that the sequence of what was created does not match what we know to be the facts of natural history. Furthermore when we look at the story of Noach there are even more questions to be asked, such as how such a small boat held so many lifeforms and weathered a flood that dissolved the rest of civilization. How about the ten plagues? What I am to make of Yehoshua making the sun stand still? When God intervenes in history we cannot hope to understand how the phenomena occured even if we think we know so much about science and natural history. For some things there are no rational answers and attempts to devise them fall short. Even Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim admits that many of his interpretations are just that, his interpretations and probably not the real meaning of things.
On the other hand, using irrational or magical answers for all the important questions about Judaism is also unacceptable. Yes, the spiritual aspect of our selves is supposed to be dominant but we are also physical beings. As much as the kabbalists would like us to see the physical world as the illusion and the spiritual world as the hidden but true one, we are trapped within this reality and relate to it through our five senses. We have rocks on this planet that are billions of years old. We see starts in the sky whose light took billions of years to reach us, a gigantic universe that spreads out across unimaginable distances. We cannot be happy with the simplistic geocentric explanation that was traditionally once all we had. We need real answers to real questions, especially when it seems that Torah and science conflict with one another.
There is the niglah and there is the nistar. One without the other provides an incomplete view of Creation and existence as we participate in it. The radical Chareidi fringe provides one extreme, Rav Slifkin provides the other and for most of us the challenge in our Judaism is finding the proper balance between the two, knowing what questions rationalism answers and when to use irrationalism instead. Sometimes we pasken like the Shulchan Aruch, sometimes we are told to follow the Zohar even those the Shulchan Aruch rules differently.
This is not an easy task. God knows we need His help and a dose of His wisdom in order to navigate between the two extremes properly.