Wednesday, August 4, 2010

“They Can Say It, We Cannot:” The Haredi Assault on Jewish Law and Jewish Thought




Rabbi Natan Slifkin has an essay "They Can Say It, We Cannot," which responds to an argument of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv that certain beliefs, such as the Sages of the Talmud could be wrong about matter of science, could be heretical despite the fact that legitimate Jewish figures held them. Rav Elyashiv claims that these opinions were rejected by Jewish tradition and now we must follow the "majority." So people like Rabbi Abraham Maimonides could believe in rabbinic fallibility, but we cannot. I actually had a similar conversation with a Haredi uncle in Israel. He responded to my claim that I was free to reject non-legalist rabbinic statements (aggadita) because Isaac Abarbanel did it on a regular basis with a "he could do it, we cannot." To which asked whether there was a five hundred year limit on being a heretic.

One of the interesting things about present day Haredi thought is that it lacks a distinction between law (halacha) and thought (hashkafa) to the extent that these terms might very well cease to be relevant. It would seem that they reject the key distinction between the two, mainly that thought deals with objective reality while law does not. Law goes based on what the established community decides. It is irrelevant if even God says a certain oven is pure or if objective reality says that Yom Kippur is on a certain day. Because of this we are free to ignore objective reality in law. I can go to court with my walking stick and money belt on the day that "really" is Yom Kippur if the rabbinic establishment says Yom Kippur is on a different day. (Mishnah Rosh HaShana 2:10) I can walk away from the debate between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam over tefillin convinced that Rabbenu Tam was right and still have to put on Rashi tefillin in the morning. In halachic debates in the Talmud and amongst the rabbis of the Middle Ages there is no such thing as a "wrong" opinion; there are just opinions, some that we follow in practice and others that we do not. In terms of the science and Torah debate, this allows us to say, like Rabbi Isaac Herzog, that we still follow laws based on faulty science. We do not have to let Judaism collapse into schisms with every side not eating the homes of the other. Thought is clearly different, there are objective truths and no amount of rabbis saying otherwise can change it. Either God has a body or he does not. (Whether or not one is a heretic for holding either opinion is a separate issue.) King Ahab and his entire court did not have the power to overrule Elijah the Prophet as to the number of gods in existence.

This issue of objective reality is, of course, relevant in terms of one's ability to rule and expect other people to follow. Rabbinic authorities have the right to expect those under them to follow them in terms of law, precisely because it is irrelevant whether they are objectively "right." Even people who disagree with them are obligated to follow them on the presumption that, right or wrong, the "buck" has to stop somewhere. When it comes to thought the issue of ruling is irrelevant because, by definition, if I believe that my rabbinic authority has made a mistake in his theology then he ceases to be my rabbinic authority and I am no longer even allowed to listen to him.

Haredim seem to want it both ways; that law deals with objective reality and those rabbinic authorities can rule on thought. They assume rabbinic infallibility. This turns every legal decision into a theological one. There is no cause to question my religious credentials if I believe that Rabbenu Tam had the better arguments when it comes to tefillin. Haredim would challenge my religious credentials for even believing that Rav Elyashiv is "wrong" in his halachic decisions. On the flip side they expect their opponents to accept their theology as if it were law.

Now this brings me to a criticism I have of Rabbi Slifkin. He has been very careful to maintain a respectful stance in regards to the Haredi leadership despite their disrespectful treatment of him. It is an intellectually untenable position. I can never accept the legitimacy of anyone who sees me as illegitimate (i.e. not just wrong, but insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant). To do that would be to legitimize my own illegitimacy. The moment members of the Haredi community went from saying that Rabbi Slifkin was not only wrong, but a heretic, there can be no more room for Eilu v'Eilu that both sides are the will of God. (See Rabbi Benjamin Hecht's series of articles on the topic.) Either we who support things like rabbinic fallibility and evolution are right or our opponents are right; there can be no middle ground. We need to be striking back. Anyone who denies evolution denies the righteousness of God, by assuming that God has conned humanity by planting the evidence for the express purpose of convincing us that evolution happened. Why should we treat this any differently from Jews who believe that God needed to send his son down to die for our sins? It would be one thing to give observant Jews the benefit of the doubt for the sake of Orthodox unity. But to allow such Jews to question our orthodoxy, that is unacceptable.

This would also be good political tactics. If the Haredi leadership knew that they were going to be destroying Orthodoxy by making evolution illegitimate maybe they would have held back. We can wash our hands of any responsibility of maintaining a unified Orthodox community. It is the Haredim who declared war on us in support of their heretical theology; they are the ones who bear the responsibility for the consequences.

25 comments:

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

"They could say it, we can't" is perhaps the most troubling thing Rav Eliashiv has said on record. the implications are staggering: we, the Daas Torah Gedolim, will tell you what to believe and how to practice your Judaism. Don't you dare go looking into the sources and think about developing your own opinions on them. Only we know what is important and what isn't.
The problem with chareidim interacting with halacha is that halacha is fantastically complex. In the absence of a real Sanhedrin, there is no authority vest in any one rav or group of rabbonim to decide that X is the opinion we must follow and all the others are posul. There are parameters for coming to decisions in novel situations that must be followed and they can be exceedingly subtle and difficult to use.
Chareidism, on the other hand, is relatively simplistic. For all their talk about lomdus halacha is seen in simple black and white terms: it's our way or the wrong way. Done.
Hence Rav Sliffkin, despite spending a great deal of time building his case in his The Challenge of Creation and bringing copious sources from all levels of Jewish thought, is a heretic in their eyes because their Gedolim don't want to deal with halachic complexity.
I do disagree with your final position though. I think Rav Sliffkin has done the right thing by remaining respectful of the Chareidi leadership that has treated him so shoddily. I say this for two reasons:
1) He reocgnizes that the Gedolim who banned him were manipulated by evil men, one of whom is in jail, the other suffering from public disgrace. He knows he never had his "day in court" and as a result bears animus against the real perpetrators of the crime.
2) Despite his controversial views, Rav Sliffkin values Torah knowledge immensely. These Gedolim have a huge amount of Torah knolwedge so he shows them respect based on that.

The Bray of Fundie said...

Anyone who denies evolution denies the righteousness of God, by assuming that God has conned humanity by planting the evidence for the express purpose of convincing us that evolution happened.

Stuff and Nonsense. Like saying: "Anyone who maintains that the suffering of righteous is fairand just denies the righteousness of God, by assuming that God has conned humanity by planting the evidence for the express purpose of convincing us that injustices to the righteous happened. "

The Bray of Fundie said...

Only we know what is important and what isn't.

Correct. It's called having a Rebee, having a Mesorah for the intangibles and the nuances instead of just a writ. It's fine to learn the sources but to ignore living Gedolei Torah is to yield to latter day Tzedukism.

There is a price to pay for the zeitgeist of dead rebbes, ubiquitous translations of everything and anything and touch-button access to any sefer that's ever been printed. I blogged about it here:
http://innate-differences.blogspot.com/2009/11/restructuring-artscroll-debate.html
But this jettisoning of the Mesorah is too high a price to pay.

Izgad said...

Bray

Standard theodicy assumes that God has a purpose in allowing evil to exist besides for simply tricking people into believing we live in an unjust mainly. Mainly that evil is an implicit result of free will. Free will means that we are free to disobey God’s will and suffer the consequences. The whole point of the Omphalos theory is that God made a world that looked much older than it is for no other reason than to trick human beings into believing in an old earth.

The Bray of Fundie said...

who's omphalos?

The Bray of Fundie said...

If, indeed, evolution is a lie then I'd restate it this way; God made a world that looked much older than it is for no other reason than to allow human beings the free will to deny the Genesis narrative and the existence of a Craetor.

Only HaShem knows the fine calibrations needed to maintain the bekheera equilibrium. e.g. When the ANKH"G destroyed the Yetze for Avodah Zarah Nevuah went by the boards as well.

Izgad said...

Omphalos is Greek for belly button. The idea is that God created Adam with a belly button even thogh he had no need for one and by extension created a world that looked old to the point of having the skeletons of never existing animals that appear to be millions of years old. That would be a God who asks us to ignore the same rationalist historical method which we use to understand the world around us in favor of blind faith. That is not a moral God and I would no part with him even if he did exist. What would God have to do in order for you to declare him to be a satanic being and reject him?

Izgad said...

Let me add that the truth of evolution is not really the point here. The fact is that I have my understanding of Judaism just as you have yours. Even if I am a heretic, you have to respect the fact that I believe what I believe and should have no expectations that I would back down just because the leading figures of your Judaism tell me to. By definition those people can have no standing in my Judaism. What would you respond to a Catholic who told you that you had to respect the Catholic tradition because his pope was such a smart and holy man?

The Bray of Fundie said...

Nothing I can think of.

I don't reject Him despite my belief that he legislated Mitzvos for the implementation and regulation of slavery, animal sacrifice, rape victims marrying their attackers, polygamy, female disinheritance and genocidal warfare.

Do you believe that He commanded/legislated these things? if so what are YOU waiting for in terms of rejection?

The Bray of Fundie said...

What would you respond to a Catholic who told you that you had to respect the Catholic tradition because his pope was such a smart and holy man?

Apples and oranges. The pope has nothing worthwhile to say to Jews. I would think that nonagenarian Torah Scholars who are undeniably brilliant and who have been toiling at Torah for 75+ years might have something to say worthy of the attention of every Jew. It is very convenient to brand them heretics and put them on the same level as the Pope but WADR you lack the traction and Torah credentials yourself to make such a declaration.

BTW even Adam had need for a navel. He had no one elses to contemplate.

been fun but gotta go now.

Izgad said...

Abner of Burgos, Solomon Ha-Levi and Joshua Halorki were also all great Torah scholars. You think that these people do not have a message to their fellow Jews? What shoulders do I have to say that they were heretics?

The Bray of Fundie said...

did rav eliyasiv call them heretics?

Izgad said...

To the best of my knowledge he did not. So can we follow them? :)

The Bray of Fundie said...

They can lead...we CAN'T follow ;).

Still waiting for an answer as to why you have yet to find the evolution-embracing G-d of the Old Testament insufficiently morally reprehensible for rejection.

Izgad said...

I can accept a theodicy for our Old Testament Deity because I see all of these things as “incidental.” They serve a higher purpose and are not ends in of themselves. I can accept that Israel has to drop bombs on Palestinian targets and kill innocent civilians in order to pursue its war with Hamas. If Israel dropped bombs just to kill innocent civilians then they would be guilty of genocide.

The Bray of Fundie said...

but the wars on amalek and the 7 indigenous nations were about utter annihilation and take no prisoners.

They serve a higher purpose and are not ends in of themselves.

Pray tell, what "higher purpose" is served by coercing the Rapist to marry his victim or by stoning to death one who throws a carrot into a boiling pot of water on Saturday?

Izgad said...

Both the seven nations and Amalek were groups that transgressed certain cardinal rules and as such were outside the regular rules of civilized people. The seven nations engaged in human sacrifice and Amalek violated the rules of war. It is necessary, in order to further the cause of civilization, that those who fail to follow these rules must not be protected by them, but instead ruthlessly punished with the full force of the imagination. It is for this reason that the Allies were morally justified in the mass bombing of German and Japanese cities. If we are going to live in a world that respects the distinction between military and civilian, it is necessary that every person understand that if their country does not follow these rules they will be held responsible and ruthlessly slaughtered without mercy by the military forces of other countries.

One is not killed for boiling a carrot on Shabbos. One is killed for deliberately doing an action in public to demonstrate that he rejects the foundation of the political order; in the case of a theocracy this being God. It is simply a form of treason and blasphemy.

Since the main crime done by rapist is robbing a woman of advantageous marriage prospects and economic support, it is only fair that the woman can make him marry her and provide what was taken. In theory the woman would not have to live or sleep with the man. She could just hoist a lifetime of alimony support on her.

The Bray of Fundie said...

and you can find reasonable explanations for all of these but not for why G-d might have "planted" false evidence leading to evolutionary, non-Creator conclusions? *EYE ROLL*

The Bray of Fundie said...

re the Slifkin controversy and to paraphrase you:

One is not killed for following Abner of Burgos, Solomon Ha-Levi and Joshua Halorki . One is killed for deliberately promulgating ideas in public to demonstrate that he rejects the foundation of the political order; in the case of a theocracy this being the Gedolim. It is simply a form of treason and blasphemy.

The Bray of Fundie said...

aren't you glad I libricided-suicided HaMavdil? Now I've more time to comment here.

Izgad said...

I can justify any evil as long the evil is performed as a means to attain some higher good. That is the essence of theodicy. I cannot justify evil for the sake of evil. If God is going to stick the bones of non-existent animals in the ground and make them look old he has to have some higher reason than simply “testing” humanity.
In regards to Abner and company, I see you do not get the joke. I gave you a “rogues” gallery of famous medieval Jewish converts to Christianity. These were the really learned ones.
If you have read my posts on the politics of heresy I make your point. I have no problem with rabbis saying that something is heretical for their community. I only object when there is a claim that I am part of this community and therefore should change my beliefs in submission. Of course if I am not part of the Haredi community then I am free to attack and mock the Haredi leadership for their opinions to my heart’s content just like I am free to attack the Catholic Church or even Reform Judaism.

The Bray of Fundie said...

If God is going to stick the bones of non-existent animals in the ground and make them look old he has to have some higher reason than simply “testing” humanity.

this is really illogical. the highets good inheres in the testing. It is the entire reason deter of the Creative process and the human experience. It is the means by which G-d transforms His Kindness from the lower kindness of a welfare check to the deeper kindness for paycheck.

What could be a greater exercise of human Bekhira than in choosing whther or not to believe in G-d?

To me if evolution is false because it contradicts True Theology then evidence to evolution is a challenge to faith on par with yedeeah-bekhira and Tzadik v'ra lo.

Simon said...

I have mentioned to you before that the power of haredim is not in their logic, but in their social system. Given that no set of logical arguments would be of any benefit. Furthermore, any attack on them would be seen by them of additional evidence that the person is a heretic.

Izgad said...

I can only deal with baseline rational people. Anyone else, by definition, is outside of any discourse and must simply be eliminated through unrelenting Hobbesian warfare.

Simon said...

I do not say that Haredim are per se irrational. They provide arguments, albeit bad ones, for their positions. However, their success has been based on their social system and merely showing that their arguments are bad is futile. For example, the Jewish thinkers who, pointed out that Kabbalah involves the heresy of viewing God as a composite entity, may have been right, but they were completely unsuccessful.