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.)


Bob said...

Correction: Orlofsky insulted Rav Weinreb because the latter criticized Rav Moshe Shapiro for banning R. Slifkin's books while previously, after the tsunami, he had asked what Rav Moshe Shapiro had said on the matter. (Of course there is no reason why doing that precludes criticizing the crazy book ban, but Orlo doesn't realize that.)

Izgad said...

Thanks for the correction. That makes a lot more sense.

Mikewind Dale said...

You have comforted me. I was looking yesterday at a book by David Novak on Jewish political tradition, and a book by Moots about federal politics, and I was depressed by the casual manner in which the former cited Talmudic examples and Medieval commentaries thereon, and the casual manner in which the latter compared the views on the covenant of Bullinger, Calvin, and Luther. It depressed me because I could not imagine myself knowing so much in even after a thousand years of study. You have comforted me.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The increase in knowledge is on reason for Yeridat Hadorot, or in secular terms, why there are no more Renaissance men.

Da Vinci could master most of known science and still have time to practice art enough to be a world class master at that too. In order to be a Nobel prize caliber physicist today you must spend enough of your life mastering the field that you can't also be a world class composer of symphonies.

Similarly, Rashi probably could not have been Rashi had he had to master the Shuluchan Aruch, Mishna Berurah, Mishneh Torah, Zohar, kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal, Igrot Moshe, Yalkut Yosef, etc, first.

dz said...

The irony here is that what Orlofosky's sees as a some sort of flaw in R' Weinreb in fact exposes the utter silliness of the Haredi worldview. He can't seem to wrap his head around the fact that R' Weinreb still respects R' Moshe Shapiro's opinion despite his disagreement with him on the Slifkin matter. To Orlofsky, R' Weinreb's disagreement with R' Shapiro should "passel" R' Shapiro on all matters the same way the Orlofsky's of the world reject R' Kook, R' Soloveitchik, et al. as a result of their alleged heterodoxies on Israel and Western culture.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Some points to ponder:
1) Modern Chareidi thought recoils from anything that sounds "academic" or "scientific". As a result, the academic/scientific style in which references support all assumptions and contentions leading to one's conclusion is rejected as "not the Torah's style". There are also Jewish greats who rarely reference anything. Read the Maharal's works and other than a quick reference to the gemara or midrash he wants to expound on, he simply writes his part without any supporting references. On the other hand, a perusal of many 20th centuries teshuvos show that referencing support for your position through older works is extremely important to provide a solid answer to a question.
2) Chareidi thought as exemplified by Orlofsky is black and white. If you are not 100% on board with all their dogmatic principles, you are 100% an apikorus. Done. Rav Weinrib can be a dedicated learner and a model of piety but since he doesn't wear the right kind of hat, he's posul. Rav Soloveitchik, zt"l, may have written the definitive essay on an important Jewish subject but you can't learn it . It's posul. This is a simplistic way of looking at the world but one which gains adherents looking for company quickly.

Mikewind Dale said...


It would seem to me that the Haredim are - like traditional Jews - completely willing (if not compelled) to cite sources in straight halakhah. Rather, it is in hashqafa (or any sectarian issue of halakhah in which hashqafa is central) that they refuse to cite sources. Traditional Judaism would have been similar, in that there is much more room for personal opinion and speculation in philosophy than in law. But Haredim take this to an unprecedented extreme. I'm not sure, but I feel like I vaguely recall that Lawrence Kaplan's essay on Da'at Torah spoke of the distinction between Haredi reliance on Da'at Torah in hashqafa despite its traditional method of citing sources in pesaq halakhah.

Eric said...

Interesting look at sourcing. I have had the privledge of studying at Ohr Somach in Jerusalem, and had a great experience.

Something that I always laugh about is that even in the Talmud no one can agree. Having sources points us in the right direction to ask the best questions.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Mikewind, an excellent point which raises the question: is there a halacha of haskafa?

I would mention something else though. This is the third blog today where I've found something along the lines of "back then they had less to learn to know everything" but the more I think about it, the more I think it's completely false.
For example, take medicine. Yes, today the medical field is exploding with knowledge and unless you've got Rambam's brain you can't know it all or even 0.001% of it. In fact, the best skill med schools teach nowadays is how to do information searches in an efficient manner.
But do we know more than doctors 400 years ago? In terms of raw amount of knowledge I would venture we don't. Yes, while I know a lot more about genetics, physiology, pharmacology etc than my predecessors, their knowledge of anatomy was far more detailed than mine. Their version of pharmacology, relying on herbals and other natural sources, was far more difficult than just learning names and doses which is all we mostly do anymore.
Same thing with Torah. Yes, there are huge amounts of sifrei shu"t out there but when it comes down to the meat and potatoes of Judaism, when we are talking about the Rishonim and those who came before we're talking about people who pretty much had the Tanach, both Gemaras and the Midrash memorized. The breadth might not have been there but pound for pound their knowledge of crucial Jewish sources and their ability to derive from them was far superior.

S. said...

>It would seem to me that the Haredim are - like traditional Jews - completely willing (if not compelled) to cite sources in straight halakhah. Rather, it is in hashqafa (or any sectarian issue of halakhah in which hashqafa is central) that they refuse to cite sources.

This is the essence of the Daas Torah ideology, and the greatest proof that it is actually a novelty. An eye-opening bit occurs in the Artscroll biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer (I will paraphrase). It concerned the cherem against the Synagogue Council of 1956 signed by a dozen roshei yeshiva. As is well known, the RCA (under the direction of RYBS) did not sign and thus did not consider itself bound by it. Something like 10 years later, for some reason the issue of communal participation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis came up again, and Rabbi Sherer felt that he may be able to persuade the RCA at *that* time to sign on to the cherem. So someone from the RCA responded, "Please give us the halachic reasoning of the roshei yeshiva so that we can review it, make a decision and get back to you." Rabbi Sherer responded with a story: He himself had asked R Aharon Kotler years before what the halachic reasoning is, so that he could let Orthodox dissenters, like the RCA, know. R. Aharon Kotler very clearly refused, noting that it's not about sources. Anyone can find responses to any sources. It's Da'as Torah, and you have to bend your will to it, or not, but it's not a discussion of sources.

In hashkafah, non DT people somehow believe that it's about which rishonim and acharonim say and did things which appeal to you. Lemoshol, say I am moved by the Gra's devotion to chochma. I think Rabbi DZ Hoffmann and Rabbi JJ Weinberg had an admirable attitude toward using correct texts and correcting, not canonizing, printing and scribal errors. I admire Menasseh ben Israel for being a Renaissance man. I like Azariah de Rossi's historical-critical attitude more than the Maharal's view of Aggadah, and I want to follow in the footsteps of the Chasam Sofer, the Netziv and all the others who cited de Rossi as a source of knowledge. This is my first mistake: Da'as Torah ruled that these are off-limits, false, krum, mistaken, minority opinions, they could say it, we can't - there's nothing to debate.

Nowadays halacha *is* hashkafah.