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.