Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Slifkin Effect (Part II)


Unfortunately, the previous installment of this post degenerated into an endless debate between GH, Daganev, lakewood yid, Chardal, retreading ground well covered in GH's blog. All of which having little to do with the post itself. Yet, I will soldier on.

The last of R' Keller's of the articles, called "The Attempted Synthesis of Torah and Evolution," is one the of the most mean-spirited pieces of writing from a Charedi that I've seen since, um, that nasty Yated piece a couple of weeks ago about YCT. And it follows along with the whole pattern of Charedi behavior with respect to the Slifkin ban -- ad hominem attacks, misrepresentations and playing fast and loose with language (e.g., calling an opinion "R' Avraham's ben HaRambam's position" when it was also held by the Geonim and the Rambam himself).

The key question facing those attempting to reconcile Torah and science is the propriety of a non-literal reading of Genesis. Many rishonim, most famously the Rambam and R' Saadiah Gaon, held that, within certain parameters, a non-literal interpretation of Torah is ok when a literal reading conflicts with reason. However, R' Keller's previous article assumed that the literal text of the Torah was itself a prove against evolution, making the Charedi position entirely circular: evolution is wrong because the Torah says so. But how do we know that the Torah says so? The second article doesn't do anything to shed light on this question. Instead it engages in name calling, ad hominem attacks and mischaracterization. In fact, the linchpin of the essay -- the RCA's recent statement on the permissibility of harmonizing evolution with Torah -- is truncated by R' Keller mid-sentence thereby omitting a reference to the just-described opinion of the Rambam on harmonizing Torah and reason. Also omitted from R' Keller's quotation of the RCA's statement is the citations to the views of R' Hirsch and R' Kook, allowing him to focus on the easier target cited in the statement -- R' Joseph Hertz, whose is treated with nothing more than sarcasm and disrespect. The article pokes fun at his rationalistic intepretation of miracles while ignoring the fact that such an approach is supported by such greats as the Rambam. Particularly amusing is his crticism of R' Hertz allegorization of "dust of the ground" from which God created Man. R' Keller claims that this is contrary to the Midrash that the dust was taken from "every part of the habitable earth." Of course the Midrash does not say that --it says that the dust was taken from the "four corners of the Earth" -- a phrase which is, of course, taken figuratively -- precisely what R' Hertz is criticized for doing with the pasuk itself. Another easy target, Shadal, is inexplicably dismissed as a Maskil, despite the fact that he lived in Italy, far from the Haskalah movement, and despite the fact that his views varied greatly from the views of the Maskilim.

There is also a veiled reference to Slifkin, referred to as "one of this school" who "has 'allegorized' Maasei Bereishis and written Ein Mukdam uneuchar baTorah - that the account of Creation in the the Torah is not in chronological order." No attempt is made at addressing Slifkin's arguments (supported by the Ralbag, the Rambam and R' Dessler), just a sarcastic dismissal: "This is absurd...It was only in God's mind!"

R' Keller also asserts that the RCA reference to the Rambam's statement that "what the Torah writes about the Account of Creation is not all to be taken literally, as believed by the masses" as supporting a non-literal reading of the biblical account of creation as "completely out of context." While R' Keller doesn't explain what the Rambam means by that statement, he ignores even clearer statements of the Rambam to the same effect:
Therefore the Almighty commenced Holy Writ with the description of the Creation, that is, with Physical Science; the subject being on the one hand most weighty and important, and on the other hand our means of fully comprehending those great problems being limited. He described those profound truths, which His Divine Wisdom found it necessary to communicate to us, in allegorical, figurative, and metaphorical language. Our Sages have said (Yemen Midrash on Gen. i. 1), "It is impossible to give a full account of the Creation to man. Therefore Scripture simply tells us, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. i. 1). ... It has been treated in metaphors in order that the uneducated may comprehend it according to the measure of their faculties and the feebleness of their apprehension, while educated persons may take it in a different sense.
While scholars up until today debate the Rambam's precise view on the interpretation of the first chapters of Bereishis, to say that he was a literalist is completley false. In fact, R' Keller's seems to acknowledge as much, stating that according to the Rambam the Creation account "was in logical order," not chronological (a position consistent with R' Slifkin's in The Challenge of Creation).

The most odious element of the article is its distortion of the intentions of those who seek a synthesis between Torah and evolution. For example, the RCA statement is characterized as "giving the...impression that the official Orthodox position is against intelligent design, and for the teaching of designerless evolution...". The statement does no such thing -- all it does is say that "evolutionary theory, properly understood," as well as a literal reading of Genesis, is a view supported in Jewish sources. Unfortunately, the Charedi world simply can't fathom the pluralism being expressed by the RCA and mistakes openness to evolution as advocacy of it.

Another example of this is R' Keller take on the RCA's reference to the traditional approach to Genesis as the "literalist position." R' Keller claims "many" use this phrase "most probably because they wish to distance themselved from the Conservative Christian Right who have been actively prmoting Intelligent Design. They are obviously more afraid of Biblical Literalism than they are of indirectly supporting the teaching of G-dless evolutionary theory. What they call literalism, we prefer to refer as peshuto shel mikra -the simple, undistorted understanding of Torah according to our mesora."

This statement is so confused that I don't know where to begin. The "literalist position" supports Intelligent Design? ID proponents do not read Geneisis literally. They accept the evidence of an old earth and the descent of species, they just hold that God was actively involved in the process. How is this consistent with a literalist position? And who is this unnamed "they" that are "more afraid of Biblical Literalism than they are of indirectly supporting the teraching og G-dless evolutionalry theory"? The RCA?

The worst example is the comparison of those who accept the evidence of an old univers to Holocaust deniers. I kid you not:
Unfortunately, we now have Jews questioining the age of the earth. But that does not change the fact that until the recent past, this was a universally accepted fact and this is out mesora. Tha universally accepted historical facts can be doubnted, we see illustrated in our time, when there are those who deny the Holocausett while people are still walking around with serial numbers on their arms.
There are no words.

It is not surprising that he would resort to such rhetoric when it comes to the age of the universe because, unlike evolution, the evidence for a very, very old world is overwhelming. When logic, fails, go for the gut, I guess. Lots of Jewish guilt, question marks and exclamtion points!:
Have the would-be synthesizers of Torah and science created a new "Tradition" that leaves the Chofetz Chaim, the Vilna Gaon, the Rishonim, the Gaonim and the Tanaaim and Amoraim outside the true tradition? Did they all not understand the Torah? Chas veshalom! And for what reason? Because scientists have come up with an unproven theory with many holes in it, based on chance, and their rejection of a Creator, are we now obligated to explain that theory without own theistic twist? Ands how will this help us? We still won't be accepted by the evolutionists, who refuse to listen to anything of the sort. If we believe in Hashem the Creator, why can't we believe that He created the world as the Torah and Chazal tell us: with Asara Maamaros --Ten expressions of His will? Did He have to take billions of years and have the intended final purpose of Creation -- Man -- emerge from an ape? What was wrong with what we have believed in for thousands of years: that Adam was yetzir kapov shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu -- the Handwork of the Holy One Blessed be He?"
There is really nothing to argue about, I guess. The mentality expressed in this passage is so committed to the nostalgia of ancient beliefs that arguments from science are simply irrelevant. There is such an investment in the abosulte pristine superhuman greatness of the "Choifetz Chaim, the Vilna Gaon, the Rishonim, the Gaonim and the Tanaaim and Amoraim" that any suggestion that they were wrong on scientific matters cannot be entertained.

This is why there can be no reasonable dialogue between this mindset and the approach represented by Slifkin and the RCA statement. It's really an old debate. Those that adopt the rationalist view of the Rambam and Saadiah hold that, with notable exceptions, Torah has to be made consistent with reason. To them, all of the citations to the "Chofetz Chaim, the Vilan Gaon, the Rishonim, the Gaonim and the Tanaaim and Amoraim" are irrelevant. Of course they thought the world was created in 5766 years. They simply didn't know what we know. Now that the evidence for an old world, or for evolution of species is clear, we must reinterpret accordingly. Such an approach to reason simply cannot be tolerated in the Charedi mindset embodied by the article and has a long pedigree of its own. The opinions handed down as part of the "mesora" trump reason. This is why one of Slifkin's greatest heresies was his position on Chazal's fallibility on scientific matters because it represents to elevation of reason over the mesora.

This is the crux of the debate. And it is ironic that in the pages and pages the JO devoted to the issue, this goes unmentioned.

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