Monday, January 31, 2005

Richuk Karovim II

My posting on the Slifkin matter has generated thoughtful comments that raise significant questions. I would like to elaborate on what I wrote previously and also indicate that a somewhat extended discussion of my views on book banning was included in the January 2003 issue of the RJJ Newsletter and posted below. With respect to the current matter:

1. Orthodox Jews are obligated to be obedient to Torah authority. This obligation obviously pertains to situations where there is disagreement with what Torah authorities are mandating. As a guide, we have the poignant incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rebi Yehoshua that is recounted in Rosh Hashanah, Mishnah 2:9. If I were instructed by Torah authorities - specifically persons who have condemned Slifkin's writings - to withdraw what I have written on the subject, I would do so without hesitation. I would obey because obedience is an essential condition of our religious commitment.

2. Obedience does not necessarily negate our ability to express an opinion. I believe that we have a significant zone of freedom, a belief that should be evident from what I have written over a great number of years. Our thought processes are not reduced to sycophantic expressions. Our status as Orthodox Jews does not carry with it an obliteration of thought. There are limits, of course, one obvious one being that we are not free to challenge halacha. Another limit is the obedience referred to in point 1.

3. Even when obedience is required, there may be occasions when it is acceptable to maintain one's previous position, the proviso being that whether in word or deed, maintenance of a previous position does not beget action that is contrary to the obligation of obedience. There is, in other words, a certain latency to some views that are being abandoned. I know of no formula that can guide us in these matters. It may be useful to reflect on the follow-up to the Rabban Gamliel and Rebi Yehoshua story that is presented in Berachos 27b.

4. I am not competent to judge Rabbi Slifkin's writings, nor do I have a problem with sharp criticism of his work. As I wrote in the RJJ Newsletter, I take exception to the mindset that generates bans against a Torah-observant Jew whose aim was, as I understand it, to demonstrate the compatibility of Torah and science. If it is necessary to criticize him, it should be sufficient to say that he is to-eh (mistaken) and that what he has written is inappropriate. This view does not contradict what I wrote about the obligation to be obedient. I also should mention, as one commentator did, that we should be concerned about the impact of a ban on Rabbi Slifkin and his family.

5. I will not detail here the various difficulties I have with the process used here and elsewhere to issue bans. I will simply question whether the process was sufficient and appropriate.

6. Those who are ready to issue bans, especially when the language of the work that is being banned is not familiar to them, should be mindful of what has been said regarding Rav Yitzchak Elchanon's reaction to Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch's Commentary. His view was that the work was perhaps not appropriate for Vilna, but it was necessary and appropriate for German Jews. If this Commentary were written today, I wonder whether it would pass muster. As one critical example, there is his interpretation of Bereshis 25:27.

7. Perhaps we should not be concerned that bans make the already difficult enterprise of kiruv even more difficult. I have strong doubts about this. Can we ignore the impact that bans have on some Orthodox? We are losing people at an alarming rate and while modernity and an open society are certainly the primary factors, it is also certain that bans do damage on this front.

8. Several comments concern the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, presumably because of the close relationship that I had with him. I do not know how he would have reacted to Rabbi Slifkin's writings, although there is a strong prospect that he would have regarded them as heresy. Bans, however, are another matter. This is what I wrote in the RJJ Newsletter referred to at the start of this posting:

"The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited."

Cross-posted on Cross-Currents.