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Commentary with Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is a regular column on the Nishma website in which Nishma's Founding Director analyzes contemporary issues, in the general as well as the Jewish world, from a Torah perspective.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

THE SLIFKIN AFFAIR REVISITED - Part 4: The Challenge of Truth

Available on the Nishma web site


  1. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:29 PM

    In any intellectual endeavour, there will be inherent bias. What I cohose to research, the question I choose to ask, the sources I give credence to, my conclusions are all biased. The difference between propaganda and good intellectual research, Torah, science or otherwise, is the extent to which those biases are acknowledged. For example, I might have an interest in a certain species threatened with extinction. Why that species? A choice, or bias, on my part. But although bais leads me to choose this species, my study might still be seen as objectively valid as long as I use a wide range of sources, both those that agree with my hypothesis and those against it, giving equal weight to each and then allowing for the answer to my hypothesis to be the one I don't want it to be despite my bias. On the other hand, having chose my topic, I might have already chosen the answer as well. Then those sources which agree with me become legitimate in my eyes while those that disagree with me become inherently flawed and I can therefore ignore them without worry. After all, if they were worth paying attention to, they'd have agreed with my position. A good secular example of this is "An Inconvenient Truth" where all the pro-global warming arguments are given full credence while any of the substantial evidence against it is either ignored or dismissed as being unworthy of mentioning. In the Torah world, this bias has become institutionalized. Whenever a question is asked, the answer is already pre-determined and all that's left is to marshall those sources which support the pre-arranged position.

  2. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:31 PM

    Thus eilu v'eilu no longer happens in the real world outside of those discussions which quote the gemara where it happens. We are presented instead with the concept of Daas Torah - we (the self-proclaimed Gedolei HaDor) will tell you what the halachah is and you cannot argue another position. Other positions are automatically heresy and you wouldn't want to be heretic, right? This, the Sliffkin Affair isn't so much a failure of eilu v'eilu as a willful dismismall of the concept. One side in the argument is so convinced that they are the sole bearers of truth that they are prepared to excommunicate and dismiss any who disagree with them based on that simple assumption. The response from the rest of the Torah world, therefore, must be equally forceful - the Torah is not in Heaven, nor is it in Bnei Beraq or Mea Shearim. Intellectually honest leaders but not only be prepared to have an opinion, they must be able to justify this opinion with more than just "because we said so!" and they must be prepared to submit that position to honest debate with those authorities they disagree with and accept that their position might be the losing one. This is unlikely to happen any time in the near future so essay like the brillian one by Rav Hecht just concluded will be unable to chance the issue. By virtue of the fact that he doesn't "tow the party line", anything he writes is, in their eyes, meaningless and not worthy of considering. how does one change such arrogance?

  3. First, I thank you for your kind comments regarding my essay. I believe the issue is ultimately where we want the decision point to be and a concern for how bias will affect the decision. As long as you present a choice, you are basically, at the same time, presenting the decision point. The more choice you allow the general population, the great chance for bias to affect the decision. The underlying assumption of the promotion of Da'as Torah thus would be that the more one is learned in Torah, the less will be the negative effect of bias. Da'as Torah is thus, I believe, an attempt to move the decision point into the hands of individuals of Torah stature -- that is why, once a decision is rendered within this group, there is no presentation of disgreement. This ultimately explains the pronouncements and behaviours of this group and its supporters. The problem is that this is still not a true presentation of the reality. Outside this group of individuals, there are still others who present opposing views and thus the choice continues to be presented. The group does not include the full spectrum of Torah thought as would a Sanhedrin. The response of those who follow this group of individuals is thus to, I would say incorrectly, discount the opinions of anyone outside the group -- which creates its own new problems. But if they in any way give credence to those outside the group, they will be defeating their whole purpose. The difficulty is that there really is a reason for this madness. There is a difficulty if everyone in the general population felt they could make Torah decisions, especially if they do not recognize their own biases. Yet a hiding of the truth of the divergence inherent within Torah is not the answer as it will further limit the ability of individuals to gapple with Torah truth and the reality that members of the general population inherently do make -- and are called upon to make -- Torah decisions at least to the extent of whom they choose as their Rav, etc.

  4. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    To use a corresponding secular example - once upon a time when things were more right in the world, people went to doctors and were generally told what to do. Not to say that people followed their doctors' advice but the interaction was very paternalistic. This led to a growth of pseudo-health professionals who listened to their patients' concerns and generally gave them what they perceived they wanted. As a result, medical training changed. Students are taught to be more patient-centred, to listen better, and to keep an open mind towards alternative therapies, so that patients will feel their concerns are being addressed and that they are part of the decision-making process regarding their health. Of course, there is one inherent flaw with this approach - most people haven't got the faintest clue about how their bodies or modern medicine work. They get their ideas from the interet and crazy aunt Sadie who had something go wrong with her vasectomy or something like that. As a result, they often feel they know more about their condition that people who have spent their lives learning medicine. One might say a similar situation exists in the religious world. The chareidi model would be analagous to the old medical model. You have a problem, you want direction on an issue, you're not sure which horse to buy, etc. so you go to the Rav and he tells you what to do. Again, in the old days not everyone did what the Rav told them but that didn't stop the Rav from being "the" local authority. Over the past couple of centuries, pseudo-religious movements arose to cater to people who wanted religion without the co-existing obligations. And then over the last few decades, the Orthodox world itself split, between those who felt the old model should change - ie. the Modern Orthodox - in order to accomodate people's desire to be good Jews while accomodating their increasing sense of individualism, and the Chareidim who are sticking to the old model come Hell or high water. The problem with both models is that neither work well.

  5. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:34 PM

    Modern Orthodoxy has led to a breakdown of any kind of centrality. People are individuals first, and choose their heters on an as-needed basis as opposed to an overall cohesive philosophy, with the underlying guiding principle being - what's good for me? You can find Cohanim who can quote Rav Feinstein's heter on stam chalav as a justificaiton for their not buying chalav Yisroel but then they want to send their kids to med school so they look for heterim from other rabbonim after being told the same Rav Feinstein forbids them to become doctors under most circumstances. On the other hand, you have the chareidim who have decided that their form of Yiddishkeit is the true and only form and that anything else is outside the pale. As noted in the previous post, acknowledging other points of view shatters their whole foundation. What can be done about this? A friend of mine once noted to me that every generation has its curse. Ours is either the Toronto Maple Leafs not winning the Cup or general selfishness. Assuming that the latter is correct (or more relevant to this conversation) then the true priority for the Torah world is to address that characteristic in both the Chareidi and MO worlds. Yes, with the proliferation of Artscroll and Feldheim books, people are becoming their own rabbis. Why ask a shailoh when the answer is on page 56 of the book? Teaching people how to ask and to use a consistent system (the MO's need this) or teaching them that there are still some decisions you can make yourself and that ultimately you must take some steps to strengthen your personal Yiddishkeit against the temptations of the outside world without locking yourself in a psychological ghetto (the Chareidim) would be far more productive towards reforming Torah Judaism.

  6. mirskym@sympatico.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    I agree with RBH 100% that the real basis for concern by the Rabbonim proclaiming the ban is the danger of the layman being given alternative interpretations, albeit within statements made by Rishonim, but left to their own to draw conclusions. In reading your writings and hearing you speak, your philosophic approach to Torah in general appears to be to probe and ask questions - don't just tell me assur or mutar - explore the underpinnings and the sources. I believe the Rabbonim are concerned that most Jews aren't sophisticated enough, or have enough Torah background to delve into maasei breishit. They are concerned about it being the possible beginning of a slippery slope "off the derech" if certain conclusions are made. So they would rather assur the writings as a matter of policy. Not that I agree with the tactic, but for some people I believe they are right. Look at what popular Kabalah has started among lay people (let alone non-Jews)! So they would feel that just as Kabalah should be taught to those who are ready and have the Torah basis and maturity, the same would hold for discussions like Slifkin. Publishing a book for the masses removes this control.

  7. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    The operative saying in response to the concerns in the previous post come from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. "Mr. Scott, you've fixed the barn doors after the horses have already come home." Not everyone can appreciate the depth of halachah. For some people, just knowing what's permitted and what's not is enough of a challenge and for them, there's a high degree of worry that they can be led in the wrong direction by a high sounding but incorrect work. For most, however, an appreciation of the depth of halachah is what separates our fundamentalist approach to Hashem from those of other religions (hmmm, sounds like Schmislam). Much of this differentiaion, however, is academic. In the olden times, most leading rabbonim opposed the translating of the Talmud into the vernacular. As my rebbe once told me: "Do you think the Sages were stupid, that they couldn't have written a systematic book of rules like the Shulchan Aruch but instead left this confusing mish mash for us?" The point was that to learn the Talmud effectively, one had to go to a Rav who had inevitably learned from his Rav and so on. Yes, people could still make mistakes and go "off the derech" but the chances were lessened by this approach.

  8. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    One of the initial criticisms of the Steinsaltz Talmud was that it allowed any Israeli, no matter how uneducated, to pick up a Gemara and be able to understand the text, at least superficially. Artscroll has only compounded that problem with their English, Hebrew and Swahili editions. Now even Southern Baptists in the great state of Alabama can learn gemara if they so choose. So any attempt by the "Gedolei Hador" to limit what people can learn is doomed to fail. It's like the Internet ban which almost no one observes (it's amazing how many unemployed kollel types get a heter for it for "business purposes"). Additionally, the nature of society has changed with its strong emphasis on indivdualism. Who was the ban supposed to be for? Litvish and Chasidish types generally only read those works approved by their yeshivah or clan. It's the rest of us out here that were supposed to march in lock step with the orders from Israel, yet our individualistic tendency to examine orders to see if they match with our personal philosophies would prevent that order from even be effective. I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much. I don't need someone, however learned and intelligent, who hasn't even read the book, telling me not to expose my neshama to it. Thus, all the information is already out there and people are exposed to it in an unlimited fashion and choosing whether or not to take it in. Banning the Sliffkin book only created more interest in it (maybe they should ban my books next, I could use the sales) and worsened the problem they were trying to prevent.

  9. mirskym@sympatico.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:37 PM

    You're right that this information is available many other places, but I believe the reaction in this case is because the book is coming from someone who comes from their world - a musmach who studied at Mir and dresses like them - therefore a bigger risk that Chareidim would be drawn to read the book. I'm not justifying, only trying to think of an explanation. I always hold be "havei dan et kol adam l'kav zchut". The gedolim are doing what they feel is best. It's the kannoim, the hangers on who distort their words and malign and slander Slifkin himself with the pashkvilim and other inflamatory methods that at are fault.

  10. A ban is only as effective as the extent of its impact. As such, I do believe that the authors of the ban directed it for those within their influence, ie. individuals in the Charedi world. Does this mean that they think it is okay for people outside their influence to read the book? I would think not but their goal is primarily to protect their world. To do so, they have to limit the freedom of intellectual exploration -- and this should not be seen as totally negative. Indeed there are individuals who do not have the capability to roam intellectually -- but more significant is the concern that you can never tell someone that they are not proficient enough to enter into such an exploration. As such, the only way to ensure that this will not occur is by declaring such an activity forbidden -- and thereby ensure that one not leave the derech. The cost of this action is the loss of Torah ideas and thus an understanding of the ideal of Torah -- for in such a overall edict even many of those proficient would also not roam. The Sridei Eish wrote that when Torah confronts modernity there is a great opportunity to grow in Torah -- but there is a potential cost in the casualities that foresake Torah in this process. He was willing to accept this cost. Perhaps these gedolim are not -- but they still shuld recognize the cost arising from their plan. Part of that cost is the damage done by those who follow their words without a full understanding of the underlying meaning of these words.

  11. schweitzer@axxent.caNovember 16, 2010 at 6:38 PM

    The problem with the ban is that it was not just meant for the chareidi world. How else to explain the story of Rav Miller calling Torah in Motion and telling them to revoke their invitation to Rav Sliffkin? But even if it wasn't, the previous post notes a horrible consequence of such insulation. I recall an incident that occured at UWO during my first year there. A professor in psychology published a paper purporting that Orientals were more intelligent and sexually responsible than Caucasians and in turn that Caucasians were more than Blacks. There was the predictable outrage and a campus group invited David Suzuki to debate him. The debate turned out to be a farce. The professor kept saying "Here's my data. If you don't agree, show me yours that will refute it." Suzuki's response boiled down to "I don't have to refute it because since it's racist it's obviously wrong." Science doesn't work that way and neither does Torah, l'havdil. If Sliffkin is wrong, prove it. If Steinsaltz is wrong for changing the tzuras hadaf in his gemara, prove it. Limiting people's options to roam through new ideas does worse than limiting new Torah thoughts. It creates a group of ideologues incapable of thinking for themselves and whose best skills are screaming loudly when anyone disagrees with them. If that is what the Chareidi world is slowly devolving into, we should consider switching to Islamofascism. At least they have a ready supply of virgins.