Monday, August 23, 2010
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky and the Wisdom of Asking For Sources
Quite a number of bloggers have already discussed the audio clip of Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky of the Haredi outreach yeshiva Ohr Somayach attacking Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union. I would like to add my thoughts to the matter, particularly on the matter of asking for sources. The essence of Orlofsky's tirade against Weinreb is that Weinreb apparently bothered to ask someone if he knew whether Rabbi Moshe Shapiro said anything of use in talking about a natural disaster such as the Tsunami. This qualifies Weinreb, in Orlofsky's eyes, as an idiot.
Coming from the academic world, asking other people for primary and secondary sources to follow up on for your research is expected. Academics hold conferences simply to allow scholars to present research in progress to other scholars in related fields and get feedback. No matter how great you are, you want to hear from other people, get their criticism and yes hear if they know of sources that you do not. I have been working on a doctorate on Jewish Messianism for the past several years; I make no claim to knowing everything on the topic. In fact, it is likely that you my reader know something about this topic that I do not. I encourage you, if you know of a book or have a thought that might be of interest, please contact me.
One of the greatest scholars that I have had the privilege to study with is Professor Louis Feldman, the Classics professor at Yeshiva University. Professor Feldman is a man who quite literally has Greco-Roman literature and the Church fathers at his fingertips. He has the practice of asking his undergraduate students to hand in paper topics and then gives them back page long single-spaced small print typed lists of source material to look at. Any issue that you can think to write about, Feldman can give you sources until they are coming out of your ears. Now Feldman, of all people, used joke with us that the problem with scholarship today is that there is too much being written and that we should pay people not to write. Even someone like Feldman, who comes closer than anyone I know to knowing everything, could still feel overwhelmed at times as to what is out there that he does not know.
In reading rabbinic letters, particularly from pre-modern times, one of the major themes that consistently come up is the need for books. "Do you have a copy of this book; can you send it to me?" This was only natural in a world where books were rare and expensive. Yes, even the greatest scholars in Jewish history did not know everything and had to ask their colleagues for help. How does someone like Rabbi Orlofsky deal with this? He probably lives in Artscroll hagiography land where every rabbi knew the entire Talmud by the age of five regardless of whether they lived within a hundred miles of a full set of it.
One of the most basic things about knowledge is that it is so vast that no single person could ever hope to master it; forget about knowing everything, even individual fields are too broad for the individual. Because of this, the pursuit of knowledge is, by definition, a collaborative effort. This leads to a collaborative view as to the nature of truth. I do not know everything. I know a few bits and pieces about something. I will, therefore, seek out other people, even and particularly people that I strongly disagree with and engage in a dialogue with them. Not because I have some Truth to convince them of, but because I believe that they have something to teach me. Whatever views of theirs I may strongly disagree with, I assume they came to those views honestly, through knowledge that I do not have. Put our two sets of knowledge together and hopefully we will produce something better than either of us could produce on our own.
I wonder what it does to someone to follow a fundamentalist view of religion, where there is direct divine revelation, preferably in the form of a holy book, understandable to man. Once you have this revelation you have the Truth and there is now no more need for questions; if the process of questions and answers are still used it is merely to demonstrate that all questions have been answered and are unnecessary. Such knowledge would require no collaboration; there is the Truth known to a few privileged men, everything else is error and heresy to be uprooted. In an odd twist on Nietzsche, this mode of thinking requires both that God be made human enough for his wisdom to fit into the human mind and there must be human beings godlike enough to know God and serve as purveyors of the Truth. God is thus abandoned and men, otherwise known as gedolim, are worshipped in his place. (See Rabbi Marc Angel Takes on Kupat Ha'ir.)