Sunday, January 18, 2009

Handling the Truth

An event took place at Bnei Yeshurun in Teaneck on March 5th, 2006 that was widely reported and commented upon at the time, including by yours truly. A video of a portion of this event has recently been made available and is up at the Media Center website. A shorter version can be viewed above.

This event was widely heralded as a first step in trying to reconcile the two worlds of Charedi and Modern Orthodox Judaism. Three Charedi Leaders were invited to address a Modern Orthodox community on various issues facing Jewry today.

The reverse has yet to happen. We have yet to see a Modern Orthodox rabbinic leader address the Charedi community on any issue. So as far as I am concerned nothing was accomplished except to present the Charedi viewpoint to the Modern Orthodox world.

One of the biggest issues of that day – an issue that has yet to resolved - was that of reconciling Torah with science. There are scientific discoveries that contradict simple readings of the Torah narrative. One of the most famous of these contradictions is the age of the universe. And one of the most controversial figures addressing that issue is Rabbi Natan Slifkin.

Not that he is the only one. There are many that address this issue in similar ways. But Rabbi Slifkin is certainly the most controversial. His books attempting to do so were banned - at first by rabbinic leaders in Israel and then later by American rabbinic leaders. Rabbi Slifkin’s books at first had approbations by some very Charedi rabbinic leaders. Most of them withdrew their approbations when the Israeli leaders deemed Rabbi Sifkin’s books to be heresy.

To the vast majority reading these words, this is not news. It is just a review of some very unfortunate recent history. This event as most people now know has been the source of tremendous enmity between the Modern and Charedi segments of Jewry. I believe that the divide is greater now than ever – perhaps even insurmountable. What used to be a deferential attitude from much of Modern Orthodox Jewry toward Charedi leaders has turned into virtual scorn against them by some. Instead of advancing the cause of belief in God and His Torah it has driven some people away from it.

The video clip provided by Hamercaz has only added to that. Rabbi Aaron Schechter - in what can only be termed a harangue - goes out of his way to avoid the issue entirely and instead bashes anyone for even trying to deal with it. He basically says that the age of the universe is none of our business and that we should instead concentrate on learning Torah and doing Mitzvos.

Without mentioning his name he blasts Rabbi Slifkin for reinterpreting the words of the Torah - saying he has no right to do that. The problem is that it was not what Rabbi Slifkin did. He brought proofs from Chazal and Rishonim that his views are well within legitimate Jewish thought. This is a view that was accepted as a legitimate approach by some of the most Charedi of Rabbaim - until the ban and its explanation by some of the rabbinic signers of that ban.

An ancient universe was conceded to by great rabbinic figures of the past – much greater than any of those alive today. But that was dismissed as heresy anyway. An explanation for this was offered. It was not heresy for them. It is just heresy for us. In other words, starting from now it is heresy to believe in an ancient universe (or that Chazal were infallible in matters of science). Before the ban these views were just fine. As evidenced by the approbations on Rabbi Slifkin’s books.

To answer a question about reconciling Torah with science by saying its none of our business is to entirely ignore a legitimate question. Rabbi Schechter’s response to that…? ‘Too bad.’ – ‘Don’t think about it.’ ‘I don’t’. Rabbi Schechter implies that anyone who attempts to reconcile it is at best stupid. The smart approach? Deny your mind!

What bothered me the most was the intensity and near anger in his voice. He was practically screaming his answer. As if the louder and angrier he sounded the truer his answer would be. But questions are not answered any better by the degree of shouting accompanying them. Bullying people into belief does not work – except to the already converted.

That Rabbi Schechter is member of the Agudah Moetzes does not impress me. Nor does the fact that he is the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin. The only thing that would impress me is how he deals with the truth. In my view he did not handle that very well at here.

That he is sincere is not a question. I believe he is. But to me it is that he is so angry that is the problem. Yes - his passion is sincere and reflected in that anger. But his angry passion has as much to with his inability or unwillingness to answer the question as it does with anything ese.

The fact that a man who preaches denial has such a loyal following is depressing. That people are willing to ignore or deny their own minds betrays the intellectual honesty that is the hallmark of Jewish thinking.

We Jews are logical thinkers by our nature. The Talmud is replete with just such thinking. Logic is the underpinning of the Gemarah. The rules of explaining Torah law are based on the direct communication by God through his Torah, the masoretic transmission of Oral law, and the use of logic and reason. If logic and reason dictate a question, then denying or ignoring the question as though it doesn’t exist is a lie. The Gemarah never tells us to not ask. While it does often leave questions unresolved, it never puts down the question. It never says don’t ask.

My first encounter with Rav Schechter was when he read the Kesubah at my son’s wedding. During the dance portion of the wedding Rabbi Schechter had a continuous smile that was virtually frozen upon his face. It never left him. He danced so beautifully with my son it was truly a sight to behold. And my son was not even his Talmid. They had never met before that day – or since.

I was truly impressed by this rabbinic figure who I knew only as a member of the Agudah Moetzes and Rosh HaYeshiva. But in every subsequent encounter with him whether personal or virtual I have been left disappointed. And I’m sorry to say the same thing holds true here.