Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Never Ending Search for Truth

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer (pictured) has posted an article (or more correctly a letter and response) from a 1966 edition of the Jewish Observer that could have easily been written today. It is a debate between Rabbi Shelomoh E. Danziger and Professor Michael Wyschograd of the Department of philosophy of CCNY. The debate is about how literal one must interpret the Torah.

One of the things I try and do here is seek truth. I look for it wherever it may be found. That’s why half of the name of this blog is ‘Emes’. The second part of this blog is about Emunah – belief. One of the ways to find truth is via scientific inquiry. Emunah must include Emes. Often conflicts arise that challenges either our conceptions of Emes or challenges our Emunah. The quest to reconcile them probably dates back to the beginning of time.

About 45 years ago this debate ensued between a Charedi rabbi and a university academic – both of whom were Orthodox. The implied questions in that debate were the following. What are our obligations about the literal interpretation of the Torah in order to remain faithful? What is one to do when a conflict comes up between observable facts and required beliefs? Is there room to re-interpret literal interpretations as allegorical? How far can we go with this? May we say that the earth is more than 5770 yeas old? Does evolution contradict the Torah? What about the Mabul? Is it acceptable to say it never happened and that Torah narrative is allegorical?

These are currently topics of debate in Orthodoxy and of late they have caused great divisions among us. Most notably it happened when Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote some books on the subject from a Charedi perspective. His books were (by now – famously!) banned in the Charedi world and labeled heresy!

I am not here to debate these points. I am here to ask whether Michael Wyschogrod has a legitimate point. In my view he does. If I understand him correctly his point is the following. It is incorrect to say that scientific thought that rejects all non literal interpretations of the Torah as heretical.

Although I do not agree with Professor Wyschogrod challenge sourced in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim and instead agree with Rabbi Danziger’s explanation - I do not agree with his apparent view that there is little if any room to interpret the words of the Torah allegorically. In my view these is a lot more room to allegorize, than Rabbi Danziger suggests.

The great debate is when one must take the Torah’s words literally and one may allegorize. If empirical evidence contradicts a literal interpretations are we to deny reality? My answer has always been that we must attempt reconciliation whenever we can and it is best to use classical sources when doing so. That's What Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan did when he advocated the position that the universe is indeed billions of years old. That is also what I believe.

What about the theory of evolution? Although I am not familiar with Rav Kook’s exact views on this subject, I’m told that he did not consider the theory of evolution to contradict the Torah in any way. I obviously agree with him.

As I said at the outset, this debate took place almost 45 years ago. It seems to me that nothing has been settled. But it is also quite clear that that there are elements among Orthodox Jewry that are trying to settle it by rejecting those of us who try to reconcile Torah with science. That seems to be the position of Rabbi Danziger 45 years ago – and it seems to be the position of his philosophical heirs today who banned Rabbi Slifkin’s books.

Thankfully there are even a few Charedi leaders - among them Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky - who reject such strident literalism as the only legitimate path to Emes. They acknowledge that a reconciling allegorical approach can be just as legitimate as a literal approach in some circumstances. To be clear he withdrew his support for Rabbi Slfkin’s books for reasons beyond the scope of this essay. But he never withdrew his support for the type of approach that those books represent.

This is the Elu V’Elu approach that many of us who have been educated about in modern science have taken. As rational thing human beings we would rather reconcile than reject. We retain our Emunah without the wholesale rejection of science. Even though there are limits to our approach – the rational mind cannot help but do so whenever we can.

As I said - this debate featured in a 1966 article is missing in the Charedi world today. As far as I know the Jewish Observer was the only periodical published in the Charedi world that offered any intellectual discussion at all of these issues. With its demise there is no longer any Charedi periodical that offers intellectual inquiry and debate. And we are all the poorer for it.

Most people who read this blog regularly know my antipathy for the Jewish Observer. But with all its faults its demise was not welcomed. They have lost the Charedi voice on intellectual discussion of these kinds of issues. Periodicals that have this orientation – like Tradition Magazine – are not Charedi. Thus there is a void that even a great magazine like Mishpacha does not fill.

The Jewish Observer closed because they lost readership (due to the internet) and thus were no longer financially viable. I think they should reconsider. In the spirit of Elu V’Elu I (for one) want to hear their perspective on the great issues of our day. Perhaps more importantly their own constituency has nowhere to find discussion on these issues since they generally do not read magazines like Tradition. If we are to seek and find Emes we need to include all Orthodox perspectives in open discussion. It can’t be one sided.

Perhaps Agudah needs to consider publishing a journal that will have some intellectual parity with a magazine like Tradition. It should be seen as an investment in truth seeking rather than as a profitable enterprise. Without all perspectives being heard by as many people as possible how will we truth seekers ever even get close to Emes?