Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Limits Of Rationalism

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.


Baruch Pelta said...

that Chazal were demigogs
Freudian slip? ;)

I think your interpretation of Rabbi Slifkin is incorrect. He agrees with you that "for some things there are no rational answers and attempts to devise them fall short." As he has written, "...if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are nevertheless intellectual challenges to which Judaism presently does not have a good response."

He is not on the extreme left end of the spectrum the way the haredim are clearly on an extreme right (even as other groups like Satmar and Neturei Karta have carried themselves off the spectrum). He's what a lot of people think a centrist Modern Orthodoxy which stands up for itself should be.

As for Rabbi Bechhofer...well, I await a serious critique of Rabbi Slifkin's opinions on Torah and science from his theological Right (the Rashi thing, nu what do I know, but I thought Rabbi Zucker's critique was at least serious.). I haven't seen it. I saw Rabbi Bechhofer's rather aggressive critique of Rabbi Slifkin. Rabbi Bechhofer had a rather shocking accusation that Rabbi Slifkin's (IMHO correct) understanding of an Avos d'Rebbe Natan was a "wilful deception," something I'd expect from a less scrupulous haredi blogger, but certainly not RYGB.

David T. said...

Baruch Pelta is correct, and his citations prove it. R. Slifkin is not an extreme rationalist and does not claim to be. Furthermore, R. Slifkin specifically says that evolution cannot be linked with the narrative in Genesis, and implies that the same is true with the story of Noah.

The uber-rationalist approach that you describe does not fit R. Slifkin - it far better fits the "Chaities" from Yeshiva Bnei Torah.

Anonymous said...

"Furthermore, R. Slifkin specifically says that evolution cannot be linked with the narrative in Genesis, and implies that the same is true with the story of Noah."

In what specifically Jewish way does he view the narratives in the Torah?

Garnel Ironheart said...

He notes that God put the narratives in the Torah to teach us certain truths, priorities and moral lessons, not to teach us basic history and anthropology. His thesis with regards to Bereshis, IIRC, is to rank the days as ascending in order of importance instead of a strictly chronological account.

Anonymous said...

To those who may know:

I hear about R’ Slifkin a lot. There is at least one blog dedicated to tearing him down. In that blog’s comments section the angry recriminations that go back and forth – wow.

I am wondering, even here, it seems there is some disputing what he means, what he says, and where he stands.

Could someone maybe cover his main arguments? What he is specifically arguing, and just as importantly what the critics on his right are disputing so vehemently?

He seems to really have caused kiruv rabbis a lot of “tsuras.” Why?

The reason I ask here is that both on his blog and on the blogs that attack him, there is a lot of “yeshivish” spoken, and references to Talmud that go over my head.

It would be great to know how kiruv (Discovery comes to mind…) gets it wrong, what R’ Slifkin is positing, whether his arguments are credible (or maybe nitpicky?) and whether the attacking responses from the kiruv world are credible (or weak).

Any help appreciated. Reb Pelta? You seem to have a handle on it…all others encouraged as well.

And Reb Ironheart – I was mikareved by Aish, and my cousins are black hat through Aish, and many of my friends are black hat through Aish. The proofs for them were secondary to their commitment to Yiddishkeit. They in fact almost never mentioned them.

But they scared me greatly years ago – are they wrong? You seem to have another view, your own proofs. But you don’t say much on what they are. Maybe a guide to your proofs at some point? Would be welcome too.

One specific question: is the fish with scales and fins proof wrong? I remember that one seemed pretty good.

One more: is Schroeder wrong? He had such an elegant explanation, even about the order of days in Genesis (something grammatical that got them back in the right order if I remember right). Is anyone really able to dismantle his POV?

Thanks for any responses,


Baruch Pelta said...

I wouldn't usually respond to so many questions which IMHO require some pretty detailed answers. But, hey, I appreciate the assertion that I "seem to have a handle on" the Slifkin affair. And my mom and brother just left (they were visiting), so I figured I'd take a day off to relax. I really like writing about this stuff, so I figured I'd take some time on my day off to chill out and answer your questions from my perspective.


I heard/read three main critiques of Rabbi Slifkin. The first was that he arrogantly asserted that the Talmudic sages could be wrong about their scientific assertions. The second was that he naively accepted what scientists say the age of the earth is, whereas a tradition confirmed historically by millions of Jews gives good reason to think the earth (and for that matter the universe) is actually quite young. The third was that he accepted the at best unproven and at worst heretical theory of evolution.

The response to those critiques was basically that they are an outgrowth of what some call the "antirationalist" school of thought in Judaism, a school of thought which largely rejects secular knowledge in favor of understanding Jewish literature as providing an empirical understanding of the world and the universe. While this is a valid approach, there is another approach -- "Rationalist Judaism" -- which has always taken secular knowledge seriously. In the past and in the present, there have always been rabbis -- some who were generally associated with the antirationalist school! -- who pointed out that the Talmudic Sages could indeed be wrong in their science and that we had discovered new things (see some of the sources at ). From what we know, the idea that the earth is really old and the idea that evolution happened seem about as confirmed as the idea that the world we live on isn't flat. Therefore, it is a valid approach to accept all three ideas. It's important not to dismiss this approach because modern Jews (even modern Orthodox Jews) need it; they're not going to dismiss secular knowledge and secular thinking lock, stock, and barrel.

When it came to the claim that rabbis in the past maintained that Chazal could be wrong about science, different haredi critics of Rabbi Slifkin reacted differently. When I interviewed Rabbi Avi Shafran (you can read it at ) -- the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America -- he told me that no gadol in history has ever maintained the Talmudic rabbis could be wrong. They may have maintained that a particular Talmudic statement "that's describing science is not correct in the literal world, in the Olam Asiyah, of the world today" but according to him, they would all maintain any such statement is still "true on some deeper level." Anybody who has seen the issue differently, he told me, doesn't "appreciate who we're talking about here." Others acknowledge that they maintain rabbis in the past said the Talmudic rabbis could be wrong about science, but say that Judaism now maintains that those rabbis were/are wrong and quoting their views can accurately be called heresy. You asked for my opinion: I don't find either apologetic compelling.

Baruch Pelta said...

As for evolution and the ancient age of the earth, the haredi critics often assert that the esteemed rabbinic precedents who the rationalists claim for their camp would surely see that there simply isn't enough evidence for the claims of evolution and an old earth. They assert that they can explain away all of the supposed evidence for the claims of an old earth and evolution with a classically Jewish understanding of the earth; for example, Nature worked Differently during both Creation and The Flood, and therefore it's Impossible for us to be sure that our scientific Extrapolations about the past are accurate. You asked for my opinion: This is classic Young Earth Creationism (Slight tangent: Some haredi apologists adopted the more moderate-sounding opinion that they simply don't know how old the universe is; could be young, could be old. Others are now backpeddling from their initial endorsements of Young Earth Creationism to back this opinion. It's ironic, because it means that according to the writings of a blatant Young Earth Creationist they idolize -- Dovid Gottlieb -- every single one of them is now to be considered a person who "[perversely] decides to ignore the statement of the Creator" as to the age of the Earth. See . Okay, but I digress, back to the comment...). I don't know how familiar with science you are (I personally had a horrid science education), but if you want to understand why Creationism's so silly, I'd recommend Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution for starters (I obviously disagree with Miller on the whole believing-in-God-thing). As for the big global flood, it never happened: I recommend and I particularly recommend the link at the top of that piece.

Baruch Pelta said...

Okay, on to the point about Gerald Schroeder's kiruv proofs. I'm kind of retired from writing against kiruv proofs right now...maybe I'll come out of retirement at some point. I never found Schroeder too convincing and people didn't regularly bring him up to me so I never did a full-scale reading of all those who wrote against him. But his stuff offered a new spin on reconciling the Bible with science, so some people wrote responses to him. Google around, you'll find various negative reviews of his books authored by Shai Cherry, Graham Oppy, Victor Stenger, Mark Perakh, Scott Oser, and Niall Shanks. There's also a lengthy negative review by haredi rabbi Yoram Bogacz (located at ). I haven't read it. Rabbi Slifkin maintains that Bogacz's "attacks on evolution lack any credibility," that "he has a very selective acquaintance with traditional Torah sources," and that "his ideas about the laws of nature having been different in the past are hopelessly naive;" however, his "critique of Schroeder's theological assertions/ interpretations of Torah sources are, for the most part, spot-on." I usually find myself agreeing with Rabbi Slifkin, so I suspect that when I hopefully get around to reading the piece, I'll agree with that take.
Kiruv proofs are important because people -- like you -- think they sound "good" and "elegant." Unlike you, they don't then go fishing around trying to figure out if the proofs are valid. They just assume at least some of them are. People want arguments which are so strong as to render the Orthodox lifestance the most logical option for any Jew to adopt. For many, frumkeit can't only be an option -- it has to be the option. It's not enough for you to adopt it...I have to adopt it too. So proofs are important for people because they inspire the idea that while other religions are silly, their own religion's metaphysics are validated by historical truths (see for example ). I think it's important that there are people showing that these proofs are invalid because that inspires people to question their religious elitism and therefore begin to question received knowledge in general. And said questioning, IMHO, is the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom.

Just my two cents :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding Reb Pelta. I am going to check out these sources later. I am busy now, but I did enjoy the first ever video blogs I had ever seen at your blog. I think video blogging is going to be a very important kind of blogging going forward, it is a much richer experience to see the author speaking.

Thank you again,