Monday, December 05, 2005

The Slifkin Affair - Torah, Science, and Chazal

The Slifkin affair has raised its ugly head again.

For those who aren’t aware of the controversy let me briefly bring you up to speed. A brilliant and very young Charedi author has written a series of books that try and reconcile Torah with science. These books state that the Torah does not contradict a belief that universe is 15 billion years old and that our Sages, Chazal, could have been wrong in matters of science. To bolster those views, Rabbi Slifkin quoted sources in Rishonim and Gedolei HaAchronim who have said similar things. A couple of years ago a group of Charedim asked Rav Elyashiv to ban this book claiming that such statements amount to heresy. The books are written in English, a language that Rabbi Elyashiv does not understand. But based on what this group of Charedim told him, Rabbi Slifkin’s books were banned... put in Cherem.

There was much subsequently written both pro and con about the books and whether they actually contained heretical views. There has also been much heated debate about it on internet discussion groups like Avodah/Areivim and on numerous blogs about all the elements of the controversy. While the contrversy gave me tremendous grief... what gave me some solace is that a significant Charedi endorser of the book, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky had not removed his endorsement even though the book was put in Cherem by R. Elyashiv, a man whom many consider to be THE Gadol HaDor. This meant that at least one American Gadol, the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Philadelphia yeshiva (which is in effect, Lakewood’s high school) agreed that Rabbi Slifkin’s views were acceptable Torah views.

To me the issue was never about Rabbi Slifkin, although he was the target and victim of the ban and my sympathies go out to him and his family for all the grief they have had to put up with. To me the issue always was... and still is... whether views about reconciling science with Torah such as those expressed in Rabbi Slifkin’s books and by many others who have written similar books are acceptable Torah views.

A few days ago a letter was published that showed Rabbi Kaminetsky signed on to the ban. It seemed like complete retraction of his acceptance of Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to reconciling science with Torah. Needless to say this depressed me greatly. It was bad enough that Rabbi Elyashiv had banned what until then were acceptable notions of Torah and science... and the terrible way the ban was obtained. But now even Rabbi Kaminetsky seemed to agreeing with it.

Is Klal Yisroel descending into the abyss of ignorance that was here-to-fore reserved for only the most uneducated in third world nations? Were we now required to believe nothing of what science has shown us to be true? Can we exist as a rational people if we are denied the right to use our minds and make the same logical deductions that scientists make when confronted with data telling us that the stars are millions of light years away? When we see the light of an exploding star that exploded 100 million years ago, are we now to believe that such a star never existed and the explosion we are now witnessing never took place? This seems to be what we are being asked to do by those who view Rabbi Slifkin’s books others like it as heresy.

Rabbi Kaminetsky has tried to clear up exactly what he meant by joining in the ban against Rabbi Slifkin. He has said that he found out Rabbi Slifkin’s actual views are far more problematic than those expressed in his book. As such he can no longer endorse his books and joins in banning them. But the fact remains that he did not publish any statement on his own and merely signed on to a pre-existing letter written by Rabbi Aharon Schechter who not only banned Rabbi Slfkin’s books but said specifically that the views in those books are against the Torah (K’neged Torosenu, to use his words). This once again puts a question mark on the acceptability of reconciling science with Torah in the way it has been until now.

It is still unclear to me exactly what Rabbi Kaminetsky's Shitta is Halachically/Hashkafically with respect to the acceptability of belief that the universe is older than 6000 years ...and on whether Chazal could've been wrong in matters of science. It didn't seem to matter to Rabbi Elyashiv that Rishonim and Achronim has made such statements and now Rabbi Kaminesky seems to agree.

Yet... I'm going to go out on a limb and say the following. Based on the way things have developed and the thrust of Rabbi Kaminetsky's words of explanation, I presume that he believes that such views ARE acceptable... NOT that he himself believes them, he may or may not... but, that they are acceptable Torah viewpoints. His focus seems to be on Rabbi Slifkin’s overall views, not on his views as stated in the books that were banned.

That Rabbi Kaminetsky signed onto a letter that seems to be repudiating not only Rabbi Slifkin’s views but even a view that the universe is ancient or that Chazal could be wrong in matters of science... is still a question mark in my mind. But my gut feeling is that he does not hold like R. Elyashiv... or at least what is purported to be R. Elyashiv's view.

The one thing that would be helpful to me is an unequivocal statement by a more or less universally recognized Gadol about the permissibility of holding the two views in question. Something to the effect of the following:

1) Viewing the universe as being older than 6000 years is an acceptable Torah viewpoint.

2) Saying Chazal could have been wrong in matters of science is an acceptable Torah viewpoint.

In my mind, this would end the whole controversy.