My 300-Page Book on the Slifkin Affair

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Chapter One: Why I haven’t written it yet

Every day someone forwards me another little dig from the blogosphere about the conspicuous silence of Cross-Currents regarding the Slifkin business. The writers assume that we contributors must be under a Ban of Squelch forbidding all discussion of this dicey yet juicy subject.

In fact, the case is just the opposite: we are under pressure to write SOMETHING, and write it NOW. Some people can’t write a word under pressure. Me, I’m one of those people who can easily write all too MANY words–but they aren’t any good. When I got up to page nine of my Slifkin Opus, I began to sense that my readers might not want to read QUITE that much. Besides, the more I write, the more I write stuff that is repetitive, dull, banal, and obvious. The introduction alone is four pages long.

If you don’t believe me that I’ve written pages and pages (mostly drivel), send me an email, I’ll be happy to send you all nine pages.

I am just going to cut to the chase: I can see what bothered the gedolim about Slifkin’s writing, and why some of them thought it necessary to issue a cherem. I don’t think people of such great stature in the Torah world can be dismissed, ignored, or treated with disrespect. But my sympathies lie mostly with Slifkin, whom I consider a friend and an intellectual ally. I could EASILY write a 300-page book, half of which would be a passionate defense of his writing and criticism of the cherem against him; the other half would be a defense of the gedolim and a critique of Slifkin’s writing. But finally, I would have to come down on his side.

Now, for those who don’t know what this is about: Rabbi Nosson Slifkin is the author of several books, and numerous articles, about the interface between Torah and science. They are absolutely wonderful books, fascinating, the product of a breathtaking amount of research and study. One book, his The Science of Torah, deals with scientific evidence for an old universe, evolution, and so on — and the possible approaches to such evidence, from a Torah perspective. Another book deals with what might seem a highly specialized subject: the four animals mentioned in the Bible that have one, but not two, kosher signs (i.e., they either chew the cud, or have split hooves, but not both). It’s called The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax, and it is a superb book! (The fourth animal, of course, not in the title, is the pig.)

About two weeks ago, some of the most prominent rabbinic authorities, Talmudic scholars and Torah leaders of our day — often referred to as “the gedolim”, i.e., “the great ones” — issued a ban, or cherem, against Slifkin’s books, stating that the approach he takes to reconciling scientific findings with Torah is not compatible with the true, authoritative understanding of Torah handed down through the ages.

An article that partially, but not completely (and not entirely accurately), explains why the ban was issued, and who signed it, appeared in the chareidi newspaper, Yated Ne’eman.

As I said above, I understand the reasoning behind the ban, and even agree to some extent with that reasoning, but I do not accept it as binding on everyone in the Orthodox world. The reason I feel comfortable in exercising my own judgment in this case is that not all the gedolim signed the cherem, and I have reason to believe that many of those who did not sign it do not in fact agree with it. When gedolim disagree about an issue, there is precedent for using one’s own judgment, in consultation with one’s own rabbis and teachers.

The chapters in my as-yet-unwritten Slifkin tome cover some of the following ground:

1. What is da’as Torah — Torah authority — and under what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate to use one’s own judgment instead of accepting the judgment of the gedolim of one’s era?

2. Who or what ARE gedolim, exactly?

3. What is wrong with Slifkin’s general approach, what is right, and why am I generally supportive of his position? This would of course be a highly opinionated paragraph. Make that, fifty paragraphs.

4. Why do I think that the evidence for an old universe is strong, but the evidence for evolution (as THE explanation of how we got here) is weak?

5. What is the difference between science and “scientism”, and aren’t there enough words in the dictionary that I have to go making up new ones?

6. What is the difference between the New York Times and the Yated Ne’eman?

Sadly, the answer to each of the above six questions would have to incorporate within itself answers to each of the other five, making for a very tangled web. Now you see my dilemma.

In the following days I hope to begin posting all three hundred pages right here on this blog, two or three pages a day. Watch for it. If nothing further appears in this space, you will know that 1. the Ban of Squelch came down on me after all or 2. the whole project just got so overwhelming that I am in bed with a pillow over my head or 3. the workload in my alternate identity as a wife, mother and teacher reached such a level that further procrastination became an unviable option.

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22 Responses

  1. Aaron says:

    I have not read any of his books, but I just want to comment on the view that if you don’t accept the literal interpertation of Maase Bereshis, then you are a heretic. I refer you to the book, Selected Writings by Raboo Shimon Schwab and his essay, The Age of the Universe. I have not read it since it was first published about 17 years ago so I can’t quote exact passages, but I do remember him saying that if you want to believe the literal interpertation, fine, but if you are bothered by it & you want to interpert the six days as 6 time frames spanning millions of years, that’s also fine. He clearly says there is room for both interpertations.

  2. Michoel says:

    Menachem,
    You write, “One also wonders how many Gedolim who support the book are staying quiet out of fear. (I am personaly aware of a few such cases).” Did they tell you they were staying quite because of fear or did you just read their minds? I don’t think we can make a whole lot of assumptions about the motivations of those that didn’t sign. Maybe they held they weren’t qualified. Maybe they agree that there is heresy but don’t believe banning is effective. Maybe they agree with Rabbi Slifkin. We don’t know.

  3. Michoel says:

    Menachem,
    I only read the Science of Torah which seems to be the most problematic sefer for the ban-issuers. It is true that Rav Belsky wrote a very strong haskama to the Camel, the Hyrax and the Hare. He did not write a haskama to the Science of Torah. Neither did Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. If one knows as, Rabbi Slifkin certainly did, that there are g’dolim that hold that some of his ideas are heretical, and he publishes the sefer in a way that shows very great confidence in his own understandings, he is basically saying that those that don’t agree with him are wrong. And we hear yelling and screaming that the g’dolim are hurting emunas chachamim. He could have done a much better job of stressing tentaive nature of some scientific theories. I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Slifkin and I learned a lot from him. I also feel very much for his tzar. I just don’t see this issue as black and white.

  4. othie says:

    “I think it’s the ingrained disdain or distrust in the charedi community towards women scholars that makes one question a woman’s audacity to address such matters, whereas a male, even one lacking the obvious qualifications such as rabbinic ordination, would have a pass.”

    My objection on this score is that it’s sufficient to argue on the merits. If a woman lacks the knowledge to deal with a topic, it should become obvious. If the woman’s points can’t be refuted on the merits, and one moves to disqualify on the basis of gender (or to preempt discussion on the basis of gender, as in the present case) …well that’s just pathetic.

  5. othie says:

    “Othie, Daas Torah is not a late phenomena and can be traced back to the talmud itself. The only thing that is a late phenomena is the term “da’as Torah” but not the basic premise.”

    What precisely in the Talmud are you referring to, and how does it relate to da’as torah as the term is used today, and was used by you in your original post?

  6. Yaakov Yisroel Felder says:

    Dear Mrs. Katz,
    Good luck on your 300 page book. You failed to mention his other book, “Mysterious Creatures”. I totally side with R’ Slifkin on all the basic issues. I don’t think there is any credible way to believe that there are no errors in Chazal regarding scientific issues. The Gedolim who issued the ban don’t have the scientific background to understand this. They might also not be aware of the many (some of them obscure)Torah sources who made the same points as most of them did not even read the books. For those who argue that this is a psak issue, how can one pasken without both reading the books in entirety plus having the scientific background, in order to properly understand & appreciate the evidence. The methods employed in the ban were also despicable, as well as the comments written on those 37 pages. In addition, they have thereby labeled almost all Mo & some Chareidi Jews as heretics. I can’t understand how part of you would want to defend the ban.
    I wonder if their “Psak” works retroactively to C”V label such greats as Rambam, Ramban, Meiri, Rav Hirsh, Rav Dessler, etc. as heretics. What did your father hold on these issues?
    I would like to take you up on that offer to see the other nine pages that you wrote.
    Kol Tuv,
    Yaakov

  7. Israel Zucker says:

    “what rabbinic qualifications in these texts you have, that compelled you to undertake such a weighty task?”

    I can’t help wondering if this same question would have also been posed to a male author, like say R’ Yoinasan Rosenblum.
    I suspect TK might herself object to this suggestion, but I think it’s the ingrained disdain or distrust in the charedi community towards women scholars that makes one question a woman’s audacity to address such matters, whereas a male, even one lacking the obvious qualifications such as rabbinic ordination, would have a pass.

  8. Avi Rubin says:

    Othie, Daas Torah is not a late phenomena and can be traced back to the talmud itself. The only thing that is a late phenomena is the term “da’as Torah” but not the basic premise.

  9. Menachem says:

    “In addition, if indeed as you assert, there are gedolim that dispute this ban, perhaps you should wait for them to publically make their opinion known.”
    ” I see that that he has some solid haskamos but to say such things publicly requires, I believe, much stronger haskamos from much bigger authorities. If there were any haskamos that were sought and denied, perhaps he should have disclosed that as well.”
    Let us talk about the facts. The two most important Haskomos, are probably Rav Yisroel Belsky, and Ran Shmuel Kamenetzky. Both of these Haskomos are written in the strongest terms, and it is clear that both of these gedolim read the books thouroughly. (Something that none of the gedolim who banned it can claim.) I cant imagine what Michoel means.
    Also if we are going to ask who refused to give a Haskomoh it would be more interesting to know who refused to sign the ban. Only one member of the American Moetzes signed the ban, what happened to everyone else. Someone getting signatures for a ban is more likely to approach everyone, than someone getting Haskomos. Therefor the missing signatures are quite conspicous. One also wonders how many Gedolim who support the book are staying quiet out of fear. (I am personaly aware of a few such cases).

  10. othie says:

    “and I hope you will not be offended if I am so presumptious as to ask what rabbinic qualifications in these texts you have, that compelled you to undertake such a weighty task?”

    No rabbinic qualifications are necessary. Mrs. Katz just needs to be right.
    Texts on da’as torah are relatively late phenomena and very accessible. Part of the mystique of “da’as torah” is the idea that one needs to be da’as torah to speak on da’as torah, but that’s both circular and untrue.

  11. Shimshon says:

    Michoel says, “The question of what is heresy is a halachic question that I believe should be left to g’dolei yisoel.”

    The main problem I have with this whole affair, and I think it is a huge one, is the lack of, what in American legal terms is called due process. For some reason, I thought the whole concept of “due process” (you know, the right to a trial, the right to face your accusers in court, and other “minor” technicalities) had Torah origins. That ANYONE, no matter who they are, can issue such a din Torah (that R. Slifkin’s work is k’fira) without those kinds of safeguards in place, well, it REALLY tests my emunas chachamin and da’as Torah. It offends my sense of justice. Maybe the books in question are k’fira (though I really don’t think so), but with such serious accusations being thrown around, isn’t the proper forum for deliberating them a duly constituted beis din composed of Gedolim, ones who have not been tainted (a word I use reluctantly) by deciding a priori without deliberating over all the evidence presented?

    I live in a large and well-known chareidi enclave in Israel, and I have seen lives destroyed because of totally baseless accusations (I’ll concede I make this statement based on my own investgation, but once again my point is, no beis din was convened to weigh the evidence) taking on a life of their own. Granted, in these cases, Gedolim were not involved, but some of those casually going about their destruction were respected members of the community, and some of their actions could not have been committed without at least tacit approval by greater authorities.

  12. wolf terner says:

    Jews aren’t stupid (OK, some really are!)and we don’t need to be told what to read and what to avoid a la Taliban. If the Rabbis have a problem with something then tell people the what and why for. Spinoza and his Cherem days are over for good. Cherem died in the gas chambers, along with the Stetl. Unfortunately, the stetl mentality has, all too often, remained behind.

  13. Neil says:

    As others stated, if you are sympathetic to Rabbi Slifkin, you acknowledge that he has reliable sources for his positions, then to call it kefirah is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it constitutes publicly humiltiating another human being and attempting to ruin his career. Furthermore the way in which this ban was done, refusing to speak to Rabbi Slifkin is downright scandalous. Mrs. Katz, if you are sympathetic to Rabbi Slifkin, then take a stand support him. Don’t try to straddle the fence and say you understand why they would ban his book.

  14. Fred says:

    “I hope you will not be offended if I am so presumptious as to ask what rabbinic qualifications in these texts you have, that compelled you to undertake such a weighty task?”

    Why does an intelligent person require rabbinic qualifications before using the brain God gave them to analyze the texts and come to a conclusion? God endowed us with intelligence so that we would use it. If someone is able to form a coherent opinion on a subject without checking the latest kol koreh in the Yated, by all means, let them do so!

    Will Ms. Katz address the political machinations that seem to have animated this ban? It’s not all about kefirah, you know.

  15. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    Your intellectual honesy and revrence of Mesorah blend beautifully. Can’t wait to read all 300 pages.

    Yaakov Rosenblatt
    Plano, Texas

  16. Michoel says:

    I don’t think these issues can properly treated in a blog format. Just for the record, I have some fundamental disagreements with R. Slifkin with regard to his assumptions about science, his conclusions, and his claims of support form many sources. Most troublesome for me is that way that Rabbi Slifkin expresses his opinions with extreme certitude despite their very controversial nature. I also disagree with his and Rabbi Adlerstein’s statements about how to treat scientific questions in the field of kiruv. The question of what is heresy is a halachic question that I believe should be left to g’dolei yisoel. Is it crucial to bear in mind something that hopefully we all know is true; publicly stating what Torah says about controversial issues is an immense responsibility. I see that that he has some solid haskamos but to say such things publicly requires, I believe, much stronger haskamos from much bigger authorities. If there were any haskamos that were sought and denied, perhaps he should have disclosed that as well. When one says: “This must be the correct understanding”, knowing that many authorities may consider it heresy, one is effectively forcing those authorities to come out against it. I do agree that R. Slifkin’s writing is brilliant and I hope that he is doing well and wish him much hatzlacha.

  17. Sholom Simon says:

    There are a couple of things regarding this ban that bother me — althought I admit I don’t have all the information. I’d love to see you, and/or others, comment on it:

    1. The idea that creation did not take place in 6 24-hour days is not new, and, is, in fact, the position of more than a few outstanding g’dolim of prior generations (e.g., R Dressler, and, so I’ve been told, the Rambam, and etc.). If R Slifkin has such sources to back himself up — what’s the problem?

    2. Did the g’dolim get to hear R Slifkin’s side of things? If not, wouldn’t that seem the prudent thing to do?

    3. What of the g’dolim who have him a haskama? Where are they now?

  18. ron mann says:

    Another important question is process related.

    Considering the disastrous impact on the reputation of R’Slifkin (and implications for parnassah, shiduchim, etc…), can Gedolei Yisroel explain the need to issue the ban in such haste (w/o giving R’Slifkin a chance to defend himself)when the books have been in print for so long. This question is particulalry acute when you consider the haskamos that appeared in the books.

    We are taught the importance of minimizing embarassment of our fellow Jew, avoiding lashon hara, etc… We expect that Gedolei Yisroel having spent their lives immersed in Torah should be inculcated with a sensitivity to these issues? Assuming that Gedolei Yisroel acted correctly, I would still like to understand the process a little better.

  19. Menachem says:

    There is certainly a legitimate basis for opposing Slifkin’s books. Some of his ideas, and the way that he presents them are beyond the accepted hashkafah in the “Yeshiva World.” However to call the works “Kfirah, Minus, and Apikorsus is a totally different thing.
    The other issue that is of supreme importance here are the tactics that were used in obtaining signatures for the ban.

  20. Avi Rubin says:

    Dear Mrs. Katz,
    I commend you for being so forthright and so bold in trying to get to the bottom of this. These questions, such as what is Daas Torah, what are gedolim and so on are weighty ones that aren’t just a matter of personal opinion. Answering them in a way that they will make for worthwhile reading requires a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge, both talmudic and hashkafic and I hope you will not be offended if I am so presumptious as to ask what rabbinic qualifications in these texts you have, that compelled you to undertake such a weighty task? In addition, if indeed as you assert, there are gedolim that dispute this ban, perhaps you should wait for them to publically make their opinion known.

  21. Joe Schick says:

    This post is almost like the spoof about Cross-Currents and Slifkin. What exactly about the ban do you find
    reasonable?

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