To: Prof. Marc Shapiro
I recently had the pleasure of listening to a recording of your speech at the Goldstein-Goren conference regarding Jewish dogma. While it was certainly enjoyable, I must take issue with the first example you gave as a debate regarding dogma, namely the debate between Rav Heinman, Eliezer Goldman and Yeshayahu Leibowitz on one side and Rav Shlomo Aviner on the other in 1977.
Let me start with a major inaccuracy in your description. You portray Rav Aviner’s disputants as “members of the old guard” of Mizrahi Jewry and thus representative of moderate Orthodox thought. Nothing could be further from the truth. No-one, certainly not Leibowitz, would have considered himself “representative of Mizrahi thought”. Similarly, Eliezer Goldman may be a celebrity in liberal Jewish Philosophy university faculties these days, but he was little known outside the Kibbutz Dati movement (which itself was always a small minority among RZ Jews) and LW-leaning circles in his lifetime. As we will see, the marginality was for a reason. Lastly, while I consider myself pretty well-versed in the “roster” of old-guard Mizrahi leaders and thinkers, I never heard of Rabbi Heinman until this point or see his name appear with any regularity on traditional publications of Mizrahi. He may well be an important thinker, but I don’t think I would consider him anywhere near as central as, say, Yitzhak Refael, Shlomo Zalman Shragai or even Moshe Una.
This is not a mere nitpick, since your example was clearly meant to convey the idea that there was a fight here between ‘old Mizrahi’ and the Chardal movement regarding dogma. You claim that this argument was representative of both schools of thought. You even connected it later to ‘the Slifkin affair’, a connection which in my opinion belittles the latter and gives ammunition to Rabbi Slifkin’s enemies.
Why is this? It’s simple: Leibowitz and Goldman were both card-carrying members of what I like to call the ‘reductionist school’ (a la Peter Berger) of Orthodox (?) Jewish thought. Both advocated against concepts which you yourself likely hold dear in favor of wholesale surrender to whatever Western thought and science say and merely being ‘privately Jewish’. Concepts like ‘Torah U-Madda’ were to them absurd and pointless, trying to bring together two worlds which are impossibly at odds with each other.
Rav Heinman may have believed in your take on the 13 ikarim (that there are legit differences of opinion on most) but Leibowitz and Goldman did not. Aside from a general belief in God, neither of them accepted the other principles even in the most extreme liberal interpretation. Principles like reward and punishment, TMS, the very possibility of Divine Revelation and so forth did not register by them. As far as they were concerned, Judaism makes no statements of fact about the world at all. This as opposed to most of us who constantly try and maintain a balance between what can and cannot be accepted (e.g. non-literal interpretation of Creation, but on the other hand Sinai did occur &c). Prof. Dov Schwartz, in a long, laudatory essay about Goldman, hinted that Goldman was even more radical than what appeared in his written works. He then goes on to claim that he’s one of the most important thinkers for religious Jewry today. God help us all if that is indeed the case.
Surely you can understand why the comparison between the debate from 1977 and ‘the Slifkin affair’ is not apt. Rabbi Slifkin had a genuine and legitimate difference of opinion, based on sources from authorities past, regarding the question of whether Hazal were infallible when it comes to science. This is a point of dispute that, until recently, was considered a legitimate point of disagreement within the Orthodox world, where both sides had what and who to rely on. Goldman and Leibowitz, on the other hand, threw everything out the window. The fact that they were personally religious and devout is immaterial to the radical nature of their thought.
The reason I wrote this long letter is because the example from 1977 is symptomatic of a serious problem facing those of us Orthodox Jews who wish to hold to a middle ground. On the one hand, we agree that the Charedi world is pulling too far in one direction, rendering previously legitimate positions kefira. On the other hand, many in the LWMO world are emulating ‘the reductionist school’ and are arguing, at least obliquely, that one barely has to believe anything at all (a position that causes many more problems than it solves, IMHO).
So, as a final question to you, Prof. Shapiro: Are these the only two choices we face as Orthodox Jews – total surrender to either the Charedim or the secular Western world?
A Perplexed Centrist