My thoughts on the Slifkin ban.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Rav Feldman - Part 1

Many people have commented on Rav Feldman's recent article on Rabbi Slifkin. The general consensus seems to great disappointment that such a subtle intellect gave such weak reasons. Unlike my fellow bloggers though I won't merely refute Rav Feldman's many points. I will present evidence that Rav Feldman himself did not believe everything he wrote in the article. As for why he would write something he did not believe to be true, there is only one explanation I can think of and those of you who regularly read my blog can probably guess what it is.

In general, it's quite hard to show someone doesn't believe what he is saying. In the case of highly intelligent people it is fortunately somewhat easier, for there are certain types of mistakes they wouldn't make accidentally. For example, if a genius writes an nine page article in which the underlying premise of page four openly contradicts the underlying premise of page six, it is clear he was aware of the contradiction and that at least one his premises must be mistaken. If a great mind makes several errors like that in the same article, it should be obvious to all that he didn't think the particular reasons he gave were valid. Mind you he most certainly believes in the conclusion he reached, for otherwise it would be dishonest. To give people bad reasons for doing the right thing is a time honored tradition, especially when the real reason can't be publicly stated. Parents and teachers use such techniques all the time and it shouldn't shock us to see an exceptionally talented Mechanech use it when he has to.

Let's look at some of the inconsistencies:

1) That they were in contact with such sources is undeniable. How else could we explain numerous examples where the Sages had scientific information which no scientist of their time had? How were they so precise in their calculations of the New Moon?

The Rambam says Chazal got their knowledge of astronomy from the Greeks. The Rambam knew the precise mathematical level of the ancient Greeks, as he mentions in several places in the Moreh, and he "wrote the book" on calculating the Halakhic new moon. Unlike Rav Feldman, most of us would not bring an "undeniable proof" by saying the Rambam is clearly mistaken - especially not in an area in which he was the acknowledged master.

That however is simply a factual error - ignoring those well known facts which disagree with a thesis even you bring in more obscure facts to support it. A more fundamental problem is how Rav Feldman ridicules the brilliance of Chazal. (I sent a sneak preview of this to another blogger - not sure if he wants the credit - to see how he would phrase it.) Many societies have made tremendous scientific breakthroughs. Look at Da Vinci and the Renaissance, Archimedes and the ancient Greeks, and Feynman and the countless achievements of American Jews in the last century. Everyone acknowledges that Chazal had the most sublime intellects humans could ever hope to achieve. To say that it was impossible for them to make certain scientific breakthroughs simply because Rav Feldman himself can't figure out how they could have done so is so shocking as to be beyond comprehension. He would never say Einstein must have had nevuah because he couldn't have been that smart. Yet he insists the far more numerous Chazal with their far more refined and developed intellects could never have made what are far less revolutionary breakthroughs and so it is therefore undeniable that they must have had a Mesorah on science.

To completely dismiss the shitah of the Rambam and to denegrate the intelligence of Chazal just to defend a single psak of certain current day Gedolim is the height of counter-productivity.

2) A bigger problem is when he wrote:

Slifkin goes on to posit that the Theory of Evolution in one form or another is a fact – only mentioning in passing those eminent scientists who have discredited this theory because the discovery of the DNA molecule make it statistically impossible. Cf. Professor Alvin Radkowsky, Encounter, 1989, p58, AOJS, citing Nobel-prize winning physicist, E.P. Wigner, that the probability of a simple life-form arising spontaneously from primeval “soup” and reproducing itself (as current evolutionary theories have it) is zero, or impossible.

First of all, look at how minority opinions are meant to be treated in Torah and how they must be treated in Science. With Torah, it is completely assur to maintain a minority opinion in Hashkafic matters, even if those opinions have not been conclusively refuted and have merely been rejected by current Gedolim. With science however you must believe the minority scientist even if he is speaking outside of his area of expertise and his question has been fully answered by those specializing in the field. (DNA itself must have evolved from more primitive ways of passing on traits to the next generation.)

There is however a more fundamental problem with what Rav Feldman has written. According to him not only is there no problem with DNA instantly popping into existence regardless of the mathematical odds, but this actually happened all the time in the recent past. Dirt and other inanimate matter would spontaneously generate into DNA – and the rest of the louse as well! You can't have it both ways. It is ironic that the biggest problem evolution has yet to fully answer in precise detail is not at all a problem for those who believe in Nishtaneh HaTevah, but that is the unfortunate corner Rav Feldman painted himself into. Once again, talk about a counter-productive attack.

3) A cynic would say maybe Rav Feldman got distracted and had forgotten what he had written two pages earlier. There are however even bigger contradictions within the same page on page eight.

One of the most powerful reasons why R. Avraham’s opinion was rejected by most opinions, is the introduction of the wisdom of Kabbalah of the Ari Zal in the sixteenth century. This cast the Sages in another dimension. Before then, many authorities had held that the esoteric wisdom described in the Talmud as Ma’aseh Breyshis and Ma’aseh Hamerkava was science and philosophy. After the introduction of Kabbalah it became clear that these were the Sefer HaYetzira, the Zohar and the Tikkunim. This was accepted by the overwhelming majority of Torah scholars since then. Kabbala made it clear that when the Sages spoke, they based themselves on their knowledge of the mysteries of creation. This would give them an accurate knowledge of matters of natural science as well.

Look at this bizarre train of thought. When the Rishonim thought the esoteric wisdom Chazal had was science and philosophy, they still disagreed with the science and philosophy of Chazal when presented with compelling evidence or a strong counterargument (The Rambam argues with some of Chazal's philosophical positions in the Moreh, and many Gaonim and Rishonim argued with their science). Now however that we know the esoteric wisdom which Chazal had a Mesorah on was Kabbalah – and not science and philosophy – it is completely assur to argue with them on scientific matters. In other words, you can dismiss the primary content of their esoteric wisdom, but not something which is a merely consequence and side benefit of it.

There is another problem with the statement as well. While it may not be as great a logical contradiction as the previous one it is in many ways even more disturbing. Rav Feldman has no problem changing our Mesorah in light of the new evidence - as long as it presented by the Arizal via Ruach HaKodesh and not via science and our own sense preception. Now where is a vast difference between the two, but rather than save Rav Feldman's explantion it utterly destroys it. We don't say that the Arizal was a greater lamdam than the Vilna Gaon or the Rambam. While he was a tremendous Talmid Chacham, his Kabbalistic insights were achieved through Ruach Hakodesh and the many heavenly beings who taught him because of his Tzidkus. As long we follow the Arizal in Hashkafic matters that is not a problem. However, Rav Feldman writes that the conclusions of the Arizal (such as that Chazal never made scientific errors) are Halakhicly binding and we have no choice but to follow them. That is a fundamental contradiction with what is one of the most important Halakhic principles we have -“Lo BaShamayim Hee" - the Halakhic system doesn't change because of new divine revelations. How can we possibly change the Halakhic status of certain beliefs and label them heresy based on a new revelation? It is only if the Arizal's insights are not Halakhicly binding that we would be allowed to follow them altogether. We don't pasken according to the Maggid of the Mechaber, yet Rav Feldman insists we must follow the Halakhic ramifications of the Arizal even when they contradict the previous Halakhic Mesorah that Klal Yisroel had - to the point that the old Mesorah is now kefirah!

There are more contradictions of this nature in Rav Feldman's letter in which his very premise undermines his conclusion, and I have yet to touch upon the more important aspects of the letter. Needless to say there is much in the letter that I agree with and he does discuss some fundamental issues that had not previously been given the attention they deserve. I hope to return to these in the near future. For now though it should be clear that just like the ban itself, there is far more to Rav Feldman's letter than meets the eye.


At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Ploni Almoni said...

Rav Feldman's proof from hemophilia is astonishing. Firstly, the poskim disagree whether the halacha of a woman whose 2 childered died from Milah, applies equally to a man. See the SA YD 263:2. Those who hold that it applies only to the mother base their reasoning on the Talmudic belief that the blood is inherited from the mother. See the Taz & Gra there who quotes the Aguda. Thirdly, the Halacha states that for the 3'rd child you wait until the child gets older & stronger before performing the milah. If they understood hemophilia, it would not help to wait when the child is older & stronger.

At 6:45 PM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

Ploni - Rav Feldman said these proofs are "undeniable". Are you denying them? ;-D

I think there is much misinformation in the letter and I have a theory of why Rav Feldman would do that. I'm not sure if it would be productive to post it, but it is clear he is trying to accomplish something specific.

At 12:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your whole conspiracy theory gives far to much credit to the gedolim. They are great talmidei chachamim, but you are assuming they are near omniscient. I don't think they realized the reprecussions the ban would have, and more to the point, I don't think anyone has yet really informed them of the reprecussions that have taken place. What does Rav Elyashiv know of the emuna struggle of an American Jew? Of his crises of faith? And more to the point, who do you think is going to tell him?

The problem, of course, is a Rav Feldman letter that appears to come from someone who does (or should) understand the American Jewish scene. Yet, again, it appears from the letter that he either doesn't truly understand or is willfully refusing to understand the way Western educated frum Jews speak (note the pattern, since his recent comments on getting good grades in college, which he calls a waste of time, were entirely out of touch with American orthodoxy). My crises of faith, such as it is, comes not from the Rav Elyashivs, who for all their Torah knowledge cannot and do not understand what they are doing (and I believe the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise). My problem is with the Rav Feldmans who have no excuse of ignorance of the West and know full well what harm they are causing and do not appear to be concerned for it.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

your conspiracy theories are ridiculous. this letter is r feldmans attempt to a) put himself on the side of the ban b) give some leeway to people who believe alternates to slifkin's theory (eg schroeder) and c)defend the ban. Most of the reason for the foolishness is that the ban is indefensible. End of story. R feldman is a human being, he has limited lay understanding of science, and while I'm sure he realizes his argument is weak, he prob. doesnt realize how weak it is. You overcomplicate and overanaylze things that are very simple.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger halcyon67 said...

Wow, you guys are brillant. I mean that too. I have no idea what you are talking about. ANd even if I did, I couldn't contribute anything useful or intellectual to this conversation.

I will continue to read your blog though.

Sorry for wasting everyone's time.


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