Double or Nothing? A Letter to Prof. Marc Shapiro

To: Prof. Marc Shapiro

Dear Sir,

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?

Sadly yours,

A Perplexed Centrist

Avi Woolf/AIWAC

 

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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11 Responses to Double or Nothing? A Letter to Prof. Marc Shapiro

  1. fred says:

    i have found marc shapiro speaking far less careful than marc shapiro writing.
    overall i agree with your sentiments. [and ironically enough, since his behavior surrounding the hitnatkut, aviner himself is becoming passe old guard…]
    at this point, i have a hard time dismissing yeshayahu leibowitz, his more inflammatory comments aside [judeo-nazis, anyone?]. i am not well-versed in y.l., but many of his political and religious views strike a chord with me and i find them compelling, if not entirely convincing. talk about a theological minimalist! but his idea that any attempt at finding reason in god and the commandments is borderline heresy deeply resonates with me [see also chazon ish on this].
    the idea of placing yl in the mizrachi camp strikes me as absurd [the rabbinate, anyone?]
    how strong was torah umadda in the israeli mizrahi, anyway?
    unlike many religious zionists, i do not find it contradictory to be both a lover of zion/israel, fully observant, and hold to at least the possibility of giving up land. this in fact was the ravs position, where he said something like the kotel is not worth 1 jewish life.
    indeed, the notion that the state of israel is the atchalta de-geula was not a unanimous position, certainly not in the us and england 30-40 years ago, and this position in no way impunes the religiosity or zionism of those who held same; in fact i would argue that it is a healthier and more sustainable position long-term.

    • AIWAC says:

      Fred,

      We’re talking apples and oranges here. You’re talking about politics, which I did not mention at all, and was not at all the subject of my post. My problem was, and is, with the religious reductionism.

      There is a huge difference between being pragmatic and not taking atchalta geula too far or too literally, and Yeshayahu “Judaism has little to nothing to do with facts/reality” Leibowitz. I support the former, and tend to be more of a R. Reines/RYBS Zionist myself, and emphatically reject the latter. I would write more, but YL really brings out energies I would rather keep suppressed.

      I am not a Chazon Ishnik either, and I find his extreme conception of yeridat hadorot to be very harmful and counterproductive. It may have made sense in the 1950s when Orthodoxy was in serious danger, but its causing a lot of problems now. The fact that there are problems and questions does not, to my mind, mean that the whole effort to find meaning and reason (with an a priori kabalat ol malchut shamayim, of course) in God and Mitzvot is pointless. I certainly do not consider it heresy.

      “Torah Umadda” as an official ideology may not have made deep inroads, but most of the old guard Mizrochnikim were very big on Torah im Derech Eretz in the broadest possible sense (many were students at the Hildesheimer Seminary or were friends with those who were; see my post on the attempt to establish a seminar in Israel in the 1950s). Besides, Goldman learned under the Rav at YU before he came here, so he certainly knew about it – and rejected it. In any event, it doesn’t help Marc Shapiro’s case which he brings primarily to an MO audience.

      Avi

      • Shlomo says:

        ד,ו ושמרתם, ועשיתם–כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם, לעיני העמים: אשר ישמעון, את כל-החקים האלה, ואמרו רק עם-חכם ונבון, הגוי הגדול הזה. ד,ז כי מי-גוי גדול, אשר-לו אלהים קרבים אליו, כה’ א-להינו, בכל-קראנו אליו. ד,ח ומי גוי גדול, אשר-לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקם, ככל התורה הזאת, אשר אנכי נתן לפניכם היום.

        Fred: Am I to assume these verses do not resonate deeply with you? 🙂

        “I am not a Chazon Ishnik either, and I find his extreme conception of yeridat hadorot to be very harmful and counterproductive. ”

        AIW: Personally I am more bothered by his conception, as far as I can tell, that one must always choose the more machmir approach, because it leads to the greatest degree of self-discipline – an approach which the gemara calls that of “fools walking in darkness”.

        On second thought, maybe the followers of the CI, due to their extremely belief in yeridat hadorot, really do view themselves (and us) as having inevitably descended to the level of said fools…

      • fred says:

        i do not think that i focused exclusively on the political.

        that judaism has little in common with facts is actually a provocative way of discussing collective national memory, and if couched in non-aggressive terms can be positive. but thats yl for you. his own worst enemy.

        if you are looking for reason behind mitzvahs because you are incapable of functioning without them [sort of a mind game], then i suppose that even yl would grudgingly be okay with it. but recognize the game for what it is, and recognize its pitfalls.

        i am not exactly sure what you mean by chazon ishs yeridas hadoros position, but iiuc it actually is a great boon for orthodoxy and judaism, particularly in israel. pace r chaim, he says that the irreligious are tinokos shenishbu, and he basically rendered moot any hocheach tochiach. without this it would impossibly complicate dealings with mechalelei shabbos, etc.

        my sense of shapiro is that his position is that in jewish history there have been all kinds of positions held by reputable rabbis, and so all these positions, in any combination of other positions, are legitimate. i dont buy it. every thinker can take maverick positions. but to collect every crazy idea and endorse it, well, it means youre crazy.

        i think the last hildesheimer guy died 25 years ago…

  2. fred says:

    shlomo, chazon ish actually was not of that position — for example he felt his shiurim were valid lechumra and lekula.
    and lets have some of derech eretz for how we talk and think about one of the most interesting, independent, influential rabbis of the 20th century…

  3. AIWAC says:

    >>shlomo, chazon ish actually was not of that position — for example he felt his shiurim were valid lechumra and lekula.
    and lets have some of derech eretz for how we talk and think about one of the most interesting, independent, influential rabbis of the 20th century…<<

    Fred, there's a huge difference between the Chazon Ish the scholar and the Chazon Ish the public halachic decisor. The former was indeed interesting, independent and often radical in his chiddushim. Tha latter was an halachic arch-conservative who helped elevate concepts like "emunat chachamim": and "yeridat hadorot" into the brain-paralyzers they are today.

  4. AIWAC says:

    “that judaism has little in common with facts is actually a provocative way of discussing collective national memory, and if couched in non-aggressive terms can be positive. but thats yl for you. his own worst enemy.”

    I disagree; I think he was a genuine reductionist.

    “if you are looking for reason behind mitzvahs because you are incapable of functioning without them [sort of a mind game], then i suppose that even yl would grudgingly be okay with it. but recognize the game for what it is, and recognize its pitfalls.”

    I did not say that. I said that, after an a priori acceptance of Torah and Mitzvot, a careful and measured exploration of the underlying assumptions is far from pointless and can actually be very fruitful. It can strengthen religious commitment and devekut in God. The “it has pitfalls” argument cuts both ways. I have seen many who left judaism or questioned it precisely because they had spent their entire life on the “theological ground floor” of blind obedience and rote observance.

    Listen to this shiur to better understand what I mean:

    [audio src="http://www.yhy.co.il/downloads/MP3/emuna/darca%20shel%20halacha%20-%20harav%20michael%20avraham/01%20harav%20michael%20avraham%20-%20darka%20shel%20halacha%20-%20madua%20aleinu%20lishmor%20mitzvot%20-%203-3-5768.mp3" /]

  5. אהרן רוז says:

    אכן, השמאל הדתי נוהג להמציא הוגים ולייחס להם חשיבות היסטורית מוגזמת בכדי לבסס לעצמו היסטוריה חילופית לזו של החרדים. שליטתו המוחלטת במדעי היהדות האיזוטריים למדי משחיתה את מחקריו והופכת אותם לפובלציסטיקה. ביקורת דומה לזו שלך, באשר לתעשיית הירשנזון המשגשגת למדי, כתב אדם פרזיגר מבר אילן בספר החדש שיצא עתה לכבוד פרופ’ יוסף שלמון. מאמר מבריק וחשוב, הוא טוען שהירשנזון לא ראה עצמו כרב פוסק אלא יותר כמבקר תרבות ומכאן שהתיר לעצמו רדיקליות מסויימת. אך השמאל הדתי מתעלם מכך וממציא לו שרשרת ייחוס. ועיי”ש.

  6. fred says:

    i would grant you the chazon ish as he was is not what the chazon ish has become.
    but i do not think he had a public vs. private persona which greatly diverged. i think people have made the chazon ish in their own image, used him to assert their power, etc.
    i think we need to tighten up what you mean and who you refer to as brain paralyzers with greater accuracy. i actually would be interested in this. the hareidi society cannot be said to be stangnant in its classical sense. nuance please.

    “a careful and measured exploration of the underlying assumptions is far from pointless and can actually be very fruitful. It can strengthen religious commitment and devekut in God”
    fruitful how? this strengthening can be seen as the result of mind games…

    the motivation for observance as acts of submissive faith does not have to be rote, and it does not have to deny questions. in fact, i think the *big questions* are not answered by any taamei hamitzvos, and the others can often be answered within tradition and blind observance.
    i suspect those who left because of reasons of rote left for other reasons primarily…

    i will try to listen to the shiur anon, when i get a chance.

    at the other end of the spectrum, i think roz is right on.

  7. AIWAC says:

    “i think we need to tighten up what you mean and who you refer to as brain paralyzers with greater accuracy. i actually would be interested in this. the hareidi society cannot be said to be stangnant in its classical sense. nuance please.”

    “Emunat Chachamim” as presently understood is very much a call to shut one’s mind down whenever the Gedolim declare in favor/against matters, even those outside the halachic purview. “Yeridat Hadorot” similiarly argues that we are helpless to make even necesarry changes against generations past.

    This DOES NOT ean that Charedi society as a whole is stagnant (though much of its middle/upper leadership is). Far from. However, its devlopment and growth stems very largely from unconsciously REJECTING the above-mentioned principles. See for instance, the “Stop! Here We Think” forum as well as the increasing scepticism towards “gedolim statements” in the wider Charedi community.

    “a careful and measured exploration of the underlying assumptions is far from pointless and can actually be very fruitful. It can strengthen religious commitment and devekut in God”
    fruitful how? this strengthening can be seen as the result of mind games…

    the motivation for observance as acts of submissive faith does not have to be rote, and it does not have to deny questions. in fact, i think the *big questions* are not answered by any taamei hamitzvos, and the others can often be answered within tradition and blind observance.
    i suspect those who left because of reasons of rote left for other reasons primarily…”

    Fred,

    1) I think you have misinterpreted what I have said to be a (personal?) swipe at those who prefer to be “baalabatish” and simply “do what you have to do”. Nothing could be further from the truth, as you will understand from R. Avraham’s shiur.

    It’s just that I disagree with YL that that is ALL there is to it, and that searching for more is borderline heresy (?!). He’s just not my cup of tea, but if it works for you, go for it. Aleh Vehatzlach :).

    2) I think your thinking on this matter is a little too dichotomous (either-or). Between rote observance and unanswerable “big questions” is a whole field of learning, understanding and growth. Think of all the drashot and peirushei Torah, Chassidic sources and works of Jewish philosophy. Are they not attempts to better understand and identify with God and his Torah?

    3) “I suspect those who left because of reasons of rote left for other reasons primarily…”

    Actually Margolese in her “Off the Derech” book section on lack of religious feeling (primarily among MO-lite) discusses just this. But again, this only regards those who feel this is insufficient for them. This DOES NOT mean that those who choose the option of being a baalabatish Oved Hashem and are content with it are inferior in any way. It’s simply a question of what speaks to you.

    Hope that clears it up,

    Avi/AIWAC

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