My thoughts on the Slifkin ban.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Battle Tested Hashkafah

When choosing between competing philosophical truths, it can be almost unseemly to consider the practical ramifications of each. After all, surely Truth is more important than whatever real life consequences happens to follow from it. We see though that time and time again people consider real life ramifications when they are engaged in philosophical debate. For example, there is a long running debate on whether free-will is real or merely an illusion because everything is predetermined. Even the determinists may agree though that the belief in free-will plays a useful role in getting people to live productive lives. While it may be a fiction, and one people are determined to believe in at that, it is still a useful fiction for without it no one would feel the urge to do anything. The practical real life ramifications of the two belief systems is itself one reason who many people choose to believe in free will – or so they tell themselves.

Some of the classic arguments in favor of G-d also make use of such a device. What type of world would you rather live in, one created with a purpose in which our actions matter, or a purposeless one in which nothing truly matters and morality as we conceive it is merely a useful fantasy? (I seem to think that some of those arguments have more merit than my fellow bloggers do, but that will be for a later post.) It is even used as a kiruv device. In elementary school one of my rebbeim told the class the story of the irreligious woman who enrolled her sons in Yeshiva, even though that required her to keep a kosher home and Shabbos, simply because of how much better behaved the Yeshiva bochrim were to the public school kids when walking to school in past her house each day. The beauty of Shabbos and other mitzvos are frequently used as reasons to become frum.

When dealing with the Slifkin ban, some of the pro-Ban forces have used such reasoning to support their position. For example, on page seven of his article Rav Feldman writes The Chazon Ish, considered by many to be the posek acharon (final Torah authority) for our times, writes in his “Letters” [Section I, Letter 15] that “our tradition” is that the shechita of someone who denies the truth of the Sages whether in the Halacha or Aggada (the non-halachic parts) of the Talmud is disqualified just as is someone who is a heretic. He adds that experience has shown that those who begin questioning the truth of the Sages will ultimately lose their future generations to Torah. [None of these opinions apply this approach to the words of the Rishonim or Acharonim; only to the Sages. They would not apply as well to passages in the Sages which are allegorical.] The argument that Chazon Ish used from experience is in no way a proof of whether Chazal made scientific errors or not. He is simply pointing out the dangers of such a belief – even if in truth the Rambam and those who agree with him about a fallible Chazal are correct. Now I have no doubt that the Chazon Ish was a shrewd observer of those around him, and therefore much thought much be given to what he reported.

However, we must also bear in mind a clear counter-example. Rav Hirsch held like the Rambam when it came to Chazal making errors, and not only did he not lose his own future generations to Torah, but he saved and actually built up a frum community that everyone had written off as doomed. When you read Rav Hirsch you are always struck by his fierce intellectual honesty and his commitment to truth. But surely he had strategic considerations in mind as well. Torah was being attacked on all sides, and Jews were abandoning it in droves. Rav Hirsch surely knew that is he claimed Chazal never made an error in any area whatsoever he would have been laughed out of Germany and have been unable to accomplish all that he did. One of the key steps to an effective defense is to limit the area vulnerable to attack. By conceding that Chazal may have made errors in science, Rav Hirsch was able to show how they still conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and how they were without equal when it come to their true area – understanding the Word of G-d.

The Chazon Ish and Rav Hirsch were living in different communities, and what would have beeb considered a statement of outright rebellion for an associate of the former – that Chazal may have been extraordinary in morality and theology, but were frequently mistaken in science – would have been the ideal thing to say in the community of the latter, or in the community of the Rambam for that matter. When there has been a well respected science that was openly threatening the Torah community, the approach of the Rambam and Rav Hirsch has proven to be effective. Many of us would not be frum or even Jewish had that approach not been used. When the community hasn't been under attack by science, those who focus their energy on questioning Chazal's science were very possibly taking the first steps to doubting all that they wrote.

The question is which approach would be most effective for us today? I think it quite clear that the approach which has been battle tested for today's environment is the one which acknowledges that Chazal made scientific errors. We are much closer to Germany at the close of the 19th century than we are to Bnei Brak in the first half of the 20th century. We live in the most open society in all of history, and people are exposed to more ideas – both good and bad – than ever before. Science and technology are becoming more and more entwined in everything that we do, and with that is coming more and more respect for them. Those Rabbanim who say that Chazal knew all of modern science will simply be laughed at as the frum community becomes ever more knowledgeable in these areas. And even if there are still some communities which would gain from the infallible Chazal position (better grab them while you can), in no way should someone make blanket statements which would cripple those living in different communities. Imagine if the Rambam and Rav Hirsch had to contend with their communities seeing statements from the most prominent Rabbonim alive that it is heresy to doubt that Chazal were infallible in science. Would they have been able to accomplish all that they did?

Now I prefaced this post by saying there is something unseemly about deciding such a monumental area by such a crude cost benefit analysis. It would surely be better if such considerations were removed from the discussion. If we do choose to include them though, we should realize that they give us far more reason to oppose the ban than to support it.


At 5:55 AM, Blogger bluke said...

You are absolutely right here. The same argument holds for Torah im derech eretz vs Torah only. There is no question that in America (and even in Israel) society needs a Torah im derech eretz approach. Unfortunately, we are moving further and further away from that.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

I don't know if it is necessarily the best for everyone or even for most people. However, there are clearly many who need such an apporach, and there is good reason to expect their numbers will be growing drastically in the years ahead. To cut them off from Torah seems very destructive.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Rebeljew said...

Your hat is getting lighter every day (not a bad thing IMO). Given that the average education today far exceeds anything that we have seen in the past, as you point out, that we are exposed to more ideas and attitudes, the Ban and the hashkafa that bore it, are just obsolete. It is the tired old "god of the gaps" apologetics that are now being defended by the fundamentalists, not the hashkafas themselves.

At 2:56 PM, Anonymous dave said...

Just curious, what does posek acharon mean, and who is to decide that?

At 9:03 PM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

RJ: Never judge a man by his hat - especially when the hat is but a metaphor. As for the way in which you are using the term, I've always had both the darkest and lightest hat around.

Dave: Rav Feldman defines the term posek acharon as the "final Torah authority", or the last word on these matters, who all defer to. As for who actually feels that way about the Chazon Ish, Rav Feldman simply says "many". No doubt many others feel the same way about Rav Moshe Feinstein. What is interesting is that Rav Feldman is trying to bring the strongest arguments he can in favor of the ban, yet all he can find is the Chazon Ish refering to "our tradition" and his own personal experience - neither of which is an outright psak supported by rock solid logic.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Rebeljew said...


I believe the protrait of the Rambam that circulates has him in a white turban. WHITE!! Similarly, the angels are all depicted in white. When did "dark Judaism", dark suits, dark hats, dark attitudes take over. (If you argue that it was at the destruction of the Bayis Shaini, the Rambam is later.)

At 4:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Chazon Ish was very makpid on givign kovod to R Herzog and others who believed that chazal erred on science, so he pretty definitely couldn't have been giving a psak in that quote RFeldman brings.

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous dave said...

I would say that we haven't had a posek acharon since Moshe Rabeinu. Every generation has their poskim, and one may be even great enough to be called the Posek Hador. But we follow majority rule, so if a good majority of Talmedei Chachomim ruled differently, we wouldn't follow even the Posek Hador.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger ari said...

There are so many problems with saying the Chazon Ish is the poske achron. Of course the main one being that he is not, as even in Eretz Yisroel only Briskers are machmer with most of his chumros. As for R hirsch and Torah Im DE I have a teacher who can read german, he is a huge Hirshcian and he contends that Artschrool have lied as to his views of TIDE.He felt it was for the Kahal and not a horoas sha.Im also not sure if you are correct as to R hisrch holding certain views only because he would have been laughed out of Germany for holding otherwise,I think thats incorrect and almost demeaning that he changed his views for the people around him.

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

This is a well thought-out post. IMHO, however, it overlooks one significant issue. You write The question is which approach would be most effective for us today? There is an antecdent question, however, and that is, "who is the us that you are talking about?"

Your own analysis makes clear that the approach of the Chazon Ish is the right approach for a very large part of what those behind the ban view as their core constituencies. The entire incident only confirms that those from outside those communities -- those for whom the RSHR/Rambam approach is more appropriate -- ideally should be looking to other rabbonim for their piskei halachah, at least on issues such as these.

To be sure, the decision of the banners to resort to the label of kefirah complicates matters. But instead of wringing our hands over how benighted these talmidei chachamim must be, perhaps we should simply recognize not only -- as you very clearly articulate -- that different approaches are appropriate for different groups, but that these rabbonim are speaking to and for a particular subset of Torah Jewry that we are not members of.

On this note, see R' Gifter's letter at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/RavGifter.pdf.

At 9:38 PM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

Ari - Chas V'Shalom. I never meant to imply Rav Hirsch only held what he did for strategic Purposes. That is why I prefaced my statement with When you read Rav Hirsch you are always struck by his fierce intellectual honesty and his commitment to truth. Anyone who reads him knows that he would never engage in deceitful apologetics. In fact, in one of Rabbi Slifkin's books he has a quote from Rav Hirsch in which he thunders against the absurd position that the Rambam didn't really believe what wrote about it being foolish to believe in magic, and was simply preaching that position to the masses. Rav Hirsch always held what he considered to be true. From his presentation though, it is clear he was very well aware of his audience and how to be most effective with them. One the pleasures of studying the great minds is that everything they do makes sense of many different levels.

Jonathan - I don't actually know if there are still communities in which the approach of the Chazon Ish would be the right one. There are clear trends at work here and even the most isolated communities must make sure not to handcuff the next generation. And if it were in fact indicative of deeper problems if someone in an isolated community began to question the science of Chazal, that does not mean there would have been a problem if the Rabbonim there had chosen to teach such a position in the first place.

You different communities observation is an excellent one, and is in fact one of the keys to resolving the conflict. The problem is that the Gedolim said this Kefirah Gemurah for everyone - the Rambam and Rav Hirsch could say such Kefirah, but nowadays it is assur for anyone to do so. Such a statement will surely do tremendous damage – this is Klal Yisroel's Galileo moment. Erecting the fence in such a way that people can still respect the mistaken ones on the other side will take some finesse, but it has to be done.

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

There are clear trends at work here and even the most isolated communities must make sure not to handcuff the next generation.

I suspect you would agree that there are at least some in the chareidi community who would lose their emunah entirely if forced to assimilate the idea that Chazal could err. The only question is how large a group that is; and that's where I sense we might part ways.

Could we really avoid this problem through an inversion of Plato's "noble lie" -- i.e., by inculcating in a new generation from scratch the "noble truth" that Chazal could err on non-halachic matters? I'm not as sure as you. It takes a certain amount of intellectual sophistication to accept Chazal's fallibility in some spheres and yet embrace the concept of mesora in all its inhibitory splendor. I'm not flattering any of us -- it hardly takes genius to accept this idea -- but there are many for whom this notion is too nuanced to work, and for whom acknowledgement of Chazal's limited fallibility would lead to total abandonment of halacha.

The banners appear to believe that this group is sufficiently large, and the risk to it sufficiently great, that saving them is worth incurring all the costs of labelling the Rambam's approach as kefirah for everyone. But while that decision leaves little room for adherents to respect those on the other side of the fence, those who are on the other side needn't mind the banners or view them as their rabbonim.

What about the group you are concerned with -- those who until now have been on the banner's side of things, but who are (or whose chldren will be) sufficiently exposed to mada such that the banner's hashkafa will not work for them? Perhaps they will, in time, come to understand that they really belong on the other side of that fence.

In all events, DBH, you are posting some thoughtful ideas that are a pleasure to read and discuss.

At 4:52 AM, Blogger bluke said...

There is an interesting story with the Chazon Ish on a related topic which is very germane to the discussion at hand.

In the 1940's people wanted to open up a Talmud Torah/Cheder in Hebrew in Bnei Brak. Until then, all the TT's had been in Yiddish. Many in the community opposed the idea stating that R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld had fought tooth and nail against Hebrew in his day. They went to the Chazon Ish and asked his opinion. He was for opening the school in hebrew. The opposition asked him, but what about R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's opposition earlier in the century. The Chazon Ish answered that the battle has changed. At the time of R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld the battle was between Hebrew and Yiddish, today that is not the battle. We don;t need to fight the last war we need to fight the current war.

The application to today is clear. The Chazon Ish's shita about Chazal's infallibity was for his time (like R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's opposition to Hebrew was in his). The battle has changed and therefore we need to adapt as well and not fight the last war.

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Chazon Ish's shita about Chazal's infallibity was for his time (like R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's opposition to Hebrew was in his). The battle has changed and therefore we need to adapt as well and not fight the last war."

Except for one thing. The arguement about yiddish or hebrew is not a debate about metzius - fact. It is more like a debate on strategy. The correct strategy in one generation or one group need not work well for other groups or times.

The question of Chazal making mistakes or not is a fact. Either they did or they didn't. You cannot say that they did in one generation and then say they didn't in another generation. At least, I don't see how you can.


At 9:47 PM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

Jonathan - Anyone who learns knows that many Rishonim felt Chazal could make scientific errors. How it helps anyone's Emunah to say that position is so absurd as to be heretical is beyond me. Why not teach the conflict, even if you have to spin it a bit? For example, say something like some Gedolim have held Chazal could be mistaken, but as they say such things about Chazal, surely they concede that they themselves could be mistaken in that regard.

I have a theory that I think fully explains the ban and the method by which it is was carried out. At this point though I think publicizing it would do more much more harm than good. I'm starting to email it to some trusted people though to see if they can find any holes in it, and if they have advice on how to deal with it.

I don't know if you read my earlier posts or not, but one of my reasons in writing this blog was to encourage others to start their own blogs. If every person who left incisive comments started their own blog, the JBolgosphere would be a much richer place for all of us.

Bluke and CP – what a great discussion! In answer to CP's brilliant question on Bluke's excellent point, the Chazon Ish didn't say that such poistions are obviously false; he simply said such positions shouldn't be taught as they go against our tradition and are dangerous. Perhaps nowadays they can be taught due to changing circumstances. Someone can find the notion of a fallible Chazal to be absurd yet still feel the need to teach both sides of the machlokes, just as they do in other cases as well.

At 2:23 AM, Blogger bluke said...


That was my point. The shita exists in the Gedolei harishonim like the Rambam, etc. What I am trying to say is that today we need to pasken like that shita even if in the past we didn't because the metzius has changed.

At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Chazal making mistakes, the G'marah on the top of Daf 85a says as follows: "And the Rabbis determined that 5 (species sown) in a six (tefach patch) will not draw nurishment from each other. [translation taken from Artscroll]

The G'marah continues with the following question: And how do we know that that which the Rabbis determined is something (to be relied upon)? On this last point, Artscroll quotes Rashi as follows: Can we presume that the Rabbis were sufficiently knowledgeable in the fine points of horticulture to have determined accurately the area from which vegetation draws nurishment?

Here's my question. Doesn't both the G'marah's question and Rashi's point both suggest that Chazal could err in science? The fact that the G'marah can ask such a question itslef suggests that Chazal didn't know everything in science. Rashi's point confirms that, I think.



At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

Anyone who learns knows that many Rishonim felt Chazal could make scientific errors. How it helps anyone's Emunah to say that position is so absurd as to be heretical is beyond me.

Without trying to drag this out too much --

Most people don't learn much, and many people would have trouble cabining those areas in which they can question Chazal from those in which they cannot. It's that group that I believe the banners are concerned about, and that I believe the banners think constitute the rank and file of chareidi Jewry.

I'll keep waiting for your theory. Unless you want to email it to me . . .

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just noticed that in my post, I didn't mention that this was in masechet shabbos.


At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a world of difference between saying Chaz'l COULD make errrors on scientific matters and chaza'l FREQUENTLY made errors in scientific matters. The approach I was taught was to attempt to reconcile chazal and science whenever possible.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Rebeljew said...

CP's answer is essentially the approach of the Moreh Nevuchim. Whereever we have no proof, we hold the Chazal literally. However, it is absurd to reject that which is proven. We can conclude:

a) By proof, he meant observation and sound extrapolation, or he never would have found a situation "proven".

b) He felt that Chazal could and did make mistakes in science and that their assertions were not mesoretic.

c) If the observation and therefore our conclusions about science, change over time, that is acceptable. We can adjust our hashkafa and certain aspects of halacha accordingly.

Look at the halachas of niddah today, for example. How do they resemble anything written in rishonim or earlier?

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous that is an excellent proof from rashi!

At 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's wonderful, being able to add rashi to the list of rishonim who at least flirt w/ kefira acc. to the ban.

anonymous: you should email that point to some other bloggers,and slifkin too, you should pass it around,

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY! »


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