Slifkin v. Meiselman – Making Sense of the Controversy
- Road-Map to These Articles
- The Controversy of How to Relate Torah to Modern Science, in a Nutshell
- What is a Machlokos for Shaymayim (The Sake of Heaven)
- First Try: Minimize the Maklokos Between Rav Meiselman and Slifkin
- Would one’s practice of Judaism be different if they believed Rav Meiselman or Slifkin were right?
- Progression of My Own Opinions
- I Am Now Was? Convinced of Rav Meiselman’s Side of the Debate Against Nosson Slifkin
- Please comment
This is part 2 in a series on Rav Meiselman’s latest book. For the full book review, see part 1.
In my review of Rav Meiselman’s book, the purpose was to explain the Rav’s opinion. I was trying to limit my own editorializing or make any decision on if it was the right approach. At the time, i was really grappling with the difference between Rav Meiselman and Slifkin. in this post, I go through my thought process and how I’ve arrived at the conclusion as to with whom I agree. In part III, I’ll discuss the first 6 days of creation to bring out the point.
A rather lively debate is going on within the Torah Judaism world as to what constitutes, well, ‘Torah Judaism’ with respect to scientific discovery. I’ve well documented Rav Moshe Meiselman’s opinion on this matter that if it’s in the Torah which is received from G_d, the starting point is our mesorah [handed down understanding], and unless necessary, do we seek guidance from experimentation.
Recently, I’ve been grappling with the opinion of Nosson Slifkin whose books have been banned by Meiselman and for that matter, many other big names in the Torah world . . . Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rabbi Ahron Schechter, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzsky, and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef amongst a long list of others. These include some of the greatest Torah giants of our generation and are certainly not to be taken lightly. As Torah Jews, we trust that there are those who know more than us, even if we don’t understand. (I wrote about must trust in a gadol [giant] in Torah it in an article on Rav Zilberstein’s discussion of medical halacha.) Still, I was never satisfied with it in this case. I want to understood why … what, exactly is wrong with Slifkin’s books?
First, a brief word on machlokos, or “disagreements” in Judaism. Those which are for the sake of heaven endure, those which are not, will not. This is a core belief which we learn from Korach and explained in Pirkei Avos [ethics of our fathers]. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the concept is explained quite if you follow this link to Torah.org.
Still further, there’s another principal of “minimizing machlokos” – making it as small as possible because we don’t want disagreements. For example, in Bava Kamma, daf 14 (which I happen to be learning right now), there’s a dispute between Rav Pappa and Rav Huna as to whether when your animals gores someone for the first time and you pay half damages, is this as compensation or as a fine? What’s the practical difference? The only difference is whether in the case of admittance, do you pay? If it’s a fine, one doesn’t pay when they admit guilt. If it’s compensation, you pay. Yet, the Talmud goes on for pages and pages trying to prove one way or the other despite the point of dispute being so small. Yet, everyone agrees that if your animal gores the first time, it pays half damages to the other party.
This, in a nutshell seems to be something like much of (but not all of) the dispute between Slifkin and Meiselman. It seems, from a theoretical standpoint, to be only a question of “to what extent” with very little difference in end result. I’ve actually met and had a few short conversations with Nosson Slifkin. He gave lectures at Ohr Somayach when I learned there. I asked him about the ‘proof’ used by the Aish HaTorah Discovery program regarding fish with scales always having fins, as seemingly spelled out in the Torah. Slifkin’s answer to me was that there is, in fact, an exception but he wasn’t publishing it because it was used for Jewish outreach. Meiselman’s book spends an entire chapter on the issue! He had no problem exposing it (though it’s still pretty good, and in summary, for kashrus purposes, if you see a fish with just scales it’s kosher and you can rely on that … something that is 99.99% the case is just fine to rely on, and even in the exception case, it can be argued that it’s really not an exception … see Meiselman’s book).
To go even further, Meiselman openly says (and I apologize for being too lazy to find all the page numbers) that Rishonim (about 10th century to 14th century) sometimes explained concepts in Torah using the science of their day and could be mistaken. Example: Spontaneous generation of life with regards to the “Achbar”, a rodent or squirrel that came from the mud next to the Nile river. The Talmud itself, however, does not state that there is spontaneous generation, and in fact, Meiselman and Slifkin’s answers on this are nearly identical … the Talmud is arguing what the law would be in such a case described by others, and not actually saying it occurred. (Though modern science does believe in spontaneous generation … they say life just sort of happened.) This is useful in discussions of say, grown meat, or a better example, the discussion of flying towers is very useful when discussing Jewish law with regards to airplanes.
Both Rav Meiselman and Slifkin, are, to my knowledge Torah observant Jews who believe in the authenticity of the Torah from the Creator, as handed down to us from Mt. Sinai without change. In practical difference, the outcome is, at least at this time, fairly small if existent at all. The difference, as best I can tell, from reading both of their writings, is that if the Talmud states something as fact, it could be a mistake. Even there, the number of potential ‘mistakes’ is about as many as the fingers on a hand. More often, and I think both would agree, it’s a mistake in our understanding.
Slifkin’s best argument in this regard (sifting through article after article on his blog of attacking everything just short of the color Rav Meiselman’s frock) seems to be “the Rabbonim are suppressing information and alternative thought.” Slifkin, a student of the very much haredi Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, now champions left-leaning publishers (calling out Artscroll?! who even publishes an RCA [modern Orthodox] addition of it’s prayer books) and regularly posts things to embarrass those to “to the right”. (At the time of this writing, his blog leads with an article of haredi-looking Jews alternating between dancing and being sprayed with a water cannon, mocking them for not joining the army. What this has to do with the controversy over his ideas, I have no idea.)
Meiselman’s argument in this regard is that once we start with beliefs which involve “throwing out” parts of Torah and saying that our mesorah as handed down to us from Mt. Sinai has mistakes in scientific understanding, then why wouldn’t you also say there are mistakes in legal understanding? Further, if you start changing things because modern science says something, then what happens when ‘science’ turns out to be wrong and the theories are thrown out for new and better ones? Even the ‘better’ ones are still approximation based on evaluation of evidence. So if we ‘jump ship’, so to speak, to keep Torah up to date with science, in reality, we’ll always be jumping further and further away. Even more so, we’re always putting Torah in the “one down” position, giving in emotionally to the inferiority of what we believe is the word and oral transmission from the Creator. That’s certainly a silly thing to do, for which I think Meiselman’s opinion is quite logical.
So the above conclusions were where I was up until Adar 9, 5774. Actually, let me back up further – I went from science being my religion to Torah being my religion 14 years ago. Still, I ‘needed’ Torah to fit with science. I needed that up until, I don’t know exactly when, but suffice to say, it was recent. As both Rav Meiselman and Slifkin would agree, one best arrives at the truth of the Torah by learning it and seeing it’s depth and beauty. It’s a full and complete system that just makes a whole lot of sense. What were questions, cease to be questions as you learn more. There is few pleasures in this world that I have experienced as great as resolving a contradiction and understanding how it fits together. There are no absolute proofs (though I’ve had fun debating atheists over here and here to sharpen my beliefs), but everyone is seemingly after finding the singularity that explains everything, whether approaching from physics, psychology, the stock market, or, well, the Creator.
When Slifkin’s books were banned, it happened to coincide with feeling the pain of some very bad advice from a person I called “my Rav”. I had major questions on the scientific understanding of today’s Torah scholars. Gerald Schroder’s articles on Aish.com were also taken down for review. It was Schroder’s hypotheses that actually ‘allowed’ me to become Torah observant, though his articles were eventually restored.
It was not until Rav Meiselman’s book that I actually understood the position of the Torah giants of our day. Slifkin is a much more prolific writer, and as I knew him, he was just this guy running zoo tours from a Torah perspective and a sort of side speaker at my yeshiva. Still, I have not been able to resolve for myself intellectually why there was a need for the book ban.
David Kornreich runs a blog whose sole purpose is to challenge assertions made by Nosson Slifkin. He read my review of Rav Meiselman’s book on Torah and science and commented (as you can read over there) that I left out in my review that one can’t call the creation narrative in the Torah just a “parable”. True, Rav Meiselman said this in his book, but I really didn’t think it was answering a serious challenge and so I left it out. So I challenged Kornreich – does Slifkin actually say such a thing? Sure, I can call the “hand of G_d” an allegorical sort of thing, or better yet, a metaphysical sort of thing. No problem … I don’t understand what it really means, though maybe some kabbalist out there does on a deeper level. However, to call an entire narrative in the Torah a ‘parable’ would mean that when the Torah says X happened followed by Y, it’s lying to us. That would be too much for me to stomach.
David Kornreich delivered and provided me with this link – It’s clear from Slifkin’s video where he’s pretty much talking from his book, The Challenge of Creation (the link is to Google Books where you can actually read excerpts online – jump down to page 218 and start there) … he takes it way too far in supporting whatever the current scientific theory is over Torah. Not only does Slifkin put science in the “one up position” and Torah in the “one down position” he quickly dismisses the veracity of the Torah’s creation account! If that’s the case, how can we trust anything in the Torah as being accurate? Let’s just take whiteout to the ten commandments because modern psychology says honoring a deadbeat father is wrong. Then once we do that …
I’ll take up the topic Slifkin and Creation in more detail in part III of this series.