Apparently this wasn't what some people liked so this year a different Rav was brought it. In contrast to the previous one who was a pulpit rabbi, this one is one of Aish HaTorah's "missionaries". He's one of their biggest guns, apparently (or so he likes to think). He's also known as an amazing speaker and, given his reputation as Aish's "rabbi to the Hollywood stars" I was intrigued as to what he'd be speaking about during various parts of the program.
I'll admit my biases off the top. I really like the previous Rav and was not happy he wasn't even invited back so for me this guy was starting at a disadvantage. In addition, due in part to my blogging experiences, I am well-aware that Aish's Discovery material, the stuff they use to prove the truth of Torah, is about as deep as a puddle of rainwater after the sun has dried it away. So I was cynical going in.
Unfortunately my cynical side was not disappointed. I was hoping for great speeches on a variety of subjects, some of them even Pesach-related. Instead I got the Discovery Seminar, only it was the dumbed-down version due to time constraints. Talk about disappointment!
Imagine the following: you attend a conference on the latest treatments for heart attacks. Twenty years later you attend another conference on the same subject and the main speaker repeats all the stuff he said at the first one. What would your response be to such a speech, given that treatments for heart attacks twenty years ago are totally obsolete and only of historical interest today?
I attended a Discovery program around twenty years ago and the material that this Rav covered was almost identical to that original presentation. Over the last twenty years there have been tremendous social changes in the Jewish community including the rise of the atheoskeptics along with the growing off-the-derech phenomenon. Chrisian missionaries, as annoying as they can be, aren't the primary threat to many parts of our community anymore but just like twenty years ago that's all his presentation was about: Kuzari proof, verses in the Bible that refute Chrisianity, etc. etc. Every talk he gave about his successes was the same: he finds some schmedrick that knows nothing about history or comparative religion and feeds him the Kuzari proof. Nothing about atheoskeptics. Nothing about answering the questions OTD's raise.
By the end of the first talk I was annoyed so I raised my hand. My question was quite simple: "Your material is all nice and good for a high school student with no knowledge of Judaism. What do you say to someone who actually knows what you're talking about, has investigated the alternatives and doesn't buy your 'proofs'?"
The answer? "That's the subject about another talk." Talk about blow-off.
The problem wasn't so much the shallow nature of the so-called "proofs" this Rav considered so conclusive. It was other things like how he misrepresented Chrisianity, something he quietly admitted to me that he did to 'simplify' things for the crowd. Ah good, now he's not only arrogant but thinks we're all stupid too.
Then there was the aforementioned arrogance. In one of his talks he assured us he needed only 5 minutes alone with the Pope to convince him of the truth of Judaism. Right, because you get to be Pope after collecting another of those proof-of-puchase things from boxes of Alphabits. Listen, I'm not a fan of Catholicism or Chrisianity in general but I have no doubt of the great intelligence the Pope needs to possess to do his job.
There was also a lot of disappointment. One of his speeches was titled "Answering the skeptic". I was excited for that one. Perhaps there was an actually intelligent version of his presentation he'd been saving up? No, he assured us off the top, he wasn't going to speak about that. There was no point in speaking to skeptics, at least publicly. There you go: a major threat to traditional Judaism and we might as well just ignore them and speak about successful encounters with ignoramuses.
Maybe it was the inconsistencies in his speeches. A couple of nights after telling us that he was 5 minutes away from converting the Pope to Judaism he told us the story of how he spent an eleven hour flight to Israel convincing some hapless chiloni about the truth of Torah. However, at the end of the flight the young man in question did not immediately go out and buy a black hat and sign up for kollel learning. For the Pope he only needed 5 minutes but after 11 hours this chiloni was still not completely convinced?
There was other inconsistencies. He told us a story of how he mocked some Mormon missionaries (in Salt Lake City of all places) and pointed out the absurdities of their beliefs. They apparently responded by saying that it was their willingness to believe in such absurd things that made them beloved of God. Of course, he chortled, this is in total contrast to Judaism which is a completely rational faith with no absurd beliefs!
No, I didn't mention the idea of spending $100 or more to buy a gloried lemon for Sukkos. No, I didn't mention dibbuks or any Baal Shem Tov stories. Instead I went for what I thought was the obvious: the idea that there are many prominent Jewish figures who believe we should read the first chapter of Bereshis literally which means that the Earth was created over 144 hours and that dinosaur bones were planted by God as fakes in order to test our faith. Fake dinosaur bones, could there be anything more absurd?
His answer, of course, went beyond inconsistency and into something that is either a lie or idiocy: there are no rabbis he's aware of, he said, who hold like that.
Okay, where to being? How about Rav Dovid Gottlieb, philosopher-in-chief at the Yerushalayim branch of Aish's competitor, Ohr Sameach? In addition to ineffectually slagging Rav Natan Slifkin from time to time, he apparently believes that it is the universally accepted Jewish belief that we must read Genesis literally. Here's the money quote:
Our mesorah insists that the six days of Creation, counting from the first creative act, were six literal days
Got it? Well apparently this Rav had never heard of Gottlieb and, in his mind, that meant he was of no importance.
And what of the Slifkin controversy which was based entirely on this issue, with Rav Slifkin writing a whole book on how there is copious support in the mesorah for a non-literal understanding of Genesis and his opponents putting him into cherem for daring to say so?
Oh no, was the response, that's not what it was about and anyway, no one takes the literal position that Genesis must have taken 144 hours as we understand them. They simply hold that we can't understand what happened during that period of time and Slifkin crossed some kind of line by trying to explain it.
What about Rav Aharon Shechter and his diatribe, made famous by Youtube, against Rav Slifkin while insisting on a literal understanding of Genesis? Nah, he hadn't heard about that either.
Fine, I figured I'd go for the big gun. He wasn't aware of any rabbonim who were in favour of the literal reading of Genesis? Had he perhaps heard of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a"h?
(By the way, this is probably why Chareidi-type figures try so hard to ban the internet. They don't seem to be able to figure out how to adjust to the new reality it has created. Pity the poor Chabad shaliach, for example, who insists that open meschichistim are a fringe part of the movement when confronted with an on-line video showing a prominent Chabad Rav insisting der Rebbe fihrt de velt.)
In a letter dated back to 1961 the Rebbe reveals a partial understanding of science but also quite openly dismisses any understanding of Genesis other than the "traditional" (in other words, the view he favours) one:
The theory of evolution, to which reference has been made, actually has no bearing on the Torah account of Creation. For even if the theory of evolution were substantiated today, and the mutation of species were proven in laboratory tests, this would still not contradict the possibility of the world having been created as stated in the Torah, rather than through the evolutionary process. The main purpose of citing the evolutionary theory was to illustrate how a highly speculative and scientifically unsound theory can capture the imagination of the uncritical, so much so that it is even offered as a scientific" explanation of the mystery of Creation, despite the fact that the theory of evolution itself has not been substantiated scientifically and is devoid of any real scientific basis.
Nope, the Rebbe wasn't a literalist either!
Now, I am not a skeptic, by any means. I have critically examined the relevant materials and concluded that the Torah is true but that it is also an incredibly complex document. Both the atheoskeptic who insists that it's a man-made document and the fanatic who insists on believing any bit of dogma, no matter how bizarre, both misunderstand the Torah, possibly wilfully in order to adjust it to meet their personal agendas. Fine, that's the way they are, I can't help that.
But after listing to this crap (sorry, that's the most polite word I could come up with) I became very angry. People are becoming frum because of him? After listening to presentations full of inaccuracies, misrepresentations and lies? What kind of superficial, simplistic Judaism are they being led to practice? How well do they really understand how Torah works? What kind of easy pickings will they be for the first atheoskeptic with a spare copy of The God Delusion who walks by?
I liked the food. I liked the davening. The seders were great.
But I'm really hoping this Rav's appearance is a one-time event that doesn't get repeated.