Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Slifkin Affair: A Post Mortem

Krum as a bagel

Last week marked a rather depressing end to the Slifkin affair. Or at least the end of a chapter. I am not sure these recent events have been fully digested by the pro-Slifkin camp, whose attitude has been characterized by an almost comical sort of self-denial throughout. I include myself in that category, by the way. I hesitate to blog about this because my own thoughts on the matter are not fully developed, but if my thoughts were fully developed, I wouldn't be blogging, right?

From the first issuance of the ban back in fall 2004, those in the charedi world who felt blindsided by the apparent prohibition on beliefs they understood to be legitimate with support in the masora twisted themselves into pretzels trying to explain why Slifkins views were still valid despite the ban:

They never said the books were kefira, right? Just assur. Oh, they said kefira? I mean they never said he was a kofer, just that he was a person with kefiradik views. Right? They never said I would burn in hell if I read it.

R' So-and-so told me in private that he really really is against the ban, but just won't say it publicly.

I heard that R' So-and-so is going to issue a letter next week saying it was all a big misunderstanding.

I spoke with someone who testified that R Elyushiv was being sarcastic. It was all a monty python-esque spoof. His barber told me that he can recite the entire Life of Brian backwards.

If you take R' Elyashiv's letter and fold it like so and put in on your head, it looks more like a hat than a ban.

The ban was never issued in Chinese so they couldn't have really meant it.

The response from the Gedolim was close to unambiguous:


R' Aharon Feldman subsequently clarified that R' Elyashiv stands by the ban and so does he. R' Shternbuch indicated his support as well. R' Feldman and R' Shternbuch both attempted to give the much requested justification for the ban. Instead, more than anything, these letters showed that the Gedolim are not used to having to explain themselves clearly and coherently. No retractions of the ban or clear statements of support from other cheradi gedolim were forthcoming. In an almost Orwellian manner, institutions such as Aish HaTorah stopped teaching that the world could be billions of years old and many rabbonim in kiruv publicly renounced views they had previously espoused. And then a couple of weeks ago, any remaining doubt was removed when three Major League Gedolim who had not signed the ban, including R' Shmuel Kaminetsky, a Godol with impeccable credentials, whose haskama of his books was the main Charedi pillar of support fo Slifkin, all condemned him.

Quite predictably, even then the pro-Slifkin crowd (including me) questioned the autheticity of R' Shmuel's signature. But then reports issued confirming that the signature was valid.

So where does that leave us? It means that anyone who continues to count themselves as part of the "follow the Gedolim" Charedi world, the world of the Yated and the HaModia, the world of the Mo'etses Gedolei Torah, has to subscribe to a sort of Da'as Torah on steroids. Not only are the views of the Gedolim on any topic authoritative and binding, but the gedolim are empowered to uproot the mesora. This was a central point of R' Moshe Shternbuch's letter (hattip to R' Daniel Eidensohn who makes a similar point at Avodah):

Furthermore these people mistakenly think they have found support for their views amongst our traditional sources. In fact, however, we are obligated to always give precedent to Daas Torah. These are the accepted mainstream Torah views expressed in the Talmud as well as the writings of the great rabbis through the ages. Only those views which have been widely accepted are valid - and not minority views that have been rejected or ignored.

A similar point was made in R' Aharon Feldman's letter, namely that the "revelation" of the Arizal showed that the view among Rishonim that Chazal erred in matters of science was no longer acceptable. I have heard similar things over the last few weeks, like its assur to criticize the Avos without a source in Chazal, and that its assur to offer an explanation of a pasuk contrary to a Chazal, even though the Rishonim did both things fairly regularly. What is happening is a displacement of Judaism of the Rishonim with the Judaism of the Gedolim. The legacy of the Rishonim was truly diverse and rich: they hailed from Spain, the Middle East, from Italy, from France and Germany. They included figures such as the Rambam and the Ramban who truly did have mastery over the secular knowledge of their time in additon to a mastery of the Torah. Their replacement: a narrow group of Israeli and American Torah scholars who all went to nearly identical yeshivas and are all more or less similarly uninformed regarding secular knowledge.

This is why I think the affair is over as far as the Charedi world is concerned. Even if the Pro-Slifkin crowd's fantasy were realized -- an Edah-style public roundtable discussion involving all of the Gedolim regarding the ban -- the result would be the same. There is no way to reason with this type of thinking because it is self executing. It's assur because R' Elyashiv and the other Gedolim said so and no marshalling of sources or logical argumentation can change that.

For many, this is may not be relevant. There is thankfully a diversity of rabinnical views out there, rabbis who have a narrower view of what Daas Torah means. Rabbis who follow the footsteps of the Rishonim, and who value rationalism and science. And these rabbis are not only in YU, but can be found in Charedi yeshivos as well. But to follow them means rejecting the hashkafa of R' Shternbuch, R' Elyashiv, R' Perlow, R' Dovid Feinstein, rabbonim who I and many others follow on issues of halakha and respect greatly.

There. That's my last Slifkin post. (Until my next one :-)).

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