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It's Not About Rationalism


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The Slifkin Affair, perhaps, set the tone but, it seems, that the same issues that dominated this matter keep surfacing in the variant disputes that continue to arise within the Orthodox world. What is often overlooked, though, in the rhetoric that surrounds these arguments is the dual nature of the debate. The dominant focus would seem to be the issue of rationalism. What often occurs is that critics of various pronouncements emerging from the right-wing (charedi) world challenge these views as being irrational. Supporters, in turn, contend that this promotion of “rationalism” is simply a reflection of an influence of secular non-Torah values and ideas upon our people, even amongst individuals who, otherwise, may observe mitzvoth. This would seem to be the dominant issue: rationalism and thought versus faith, authority and tradition (with what should be the real objective, often even overlooked, being how to combine the two.) There is, however, another issue, whose focus is eilu v’eilu, and this argument is often, sadly, ignored

The Slifkin Affair serves as a good example of the dual-nature of the debates that seem to permeate Orthodoxy today. There were clearly two aspects to the Affair. One was the substantial issue focusing on specific questions concerning the reconciliation of Torah and science. Variant views were presented as they have existed throughout the ages – with heated debate. This would reflect the substantive disagreements which would include such matters as the role of rationalism within the Torah constructs. The fact is, though, that this type of debate has been heard within the global beit midrash throughout the centuries. There have been Torah scholars that favour rationalism and those that have not – and often the words that have flown between them have been heated. This continues within the parameters of modern debates as well.

The second aspect of the issue focused on a different matter. It was not the arguments against Rabbi Slifkin’s specific position that bothered many of the individuals who came to his defense. In fact, many of them may have actually disagreed with Rabbi Slifkin on many, if not all, of his substantive assertions. What troubled them was the attempt to define Rabbi Slifkin’s words as being outside the pale of Orthodoxy. It is one thing to debate an issue – even to debate an issue with heated words. Any review of various sefarim in the beit midrash will attest to the use of strong language in the defense of one’s view and in the critique of another. What occurred with Rabbi Slifkin, though, was something else. He was accused of being outside the pale. The essence of eilu v’eilu became the issue. This continues to be part of the issue today.

What occurred in the Slifkin case, however, indicated what would become the norm in such debates. In defending Rabbi Slifkin’s position as part of the pale, the substantive value of this position was also defended. This then became the dominant issue for it also provided further ammunition to attack the critics. How can you challenge a position argued with and based on reason? It further became apparent that those who challenged the very acceptance of Rabbi Slifkin’s views as within the pale used the very same arguments with which they dismissed his assertion of reason. It almost seemed that reason itself was deemed to be the entity that was outside the pale of Torah. The result was that the assertions against reason were lumped together with the assertion of limited parameters on eilu v’eilu. The battle over reason thus took centre stage.

This is actually most unfortunate. The result has become a fight between two camps, each one declaring the other outside the pale. What developed in a defense of Rabbi Slifkin to maintain the views that he has as within the pale of Torah, was a challenge against variant views in disagreement with Rabbi Slifkin as themselves being outside the pale. This continues today in regard to the continuing disputes that dominate Orthodoxy. Two camps have developed, each one declaring the other outside the pale of Orthodoxy. This has emerged because the very issue of eilu v’eilu has itself been discounted.

This is why it is important to remember that, in response to the various challenges that keep arising within the Orthodox world, the issue is not just rationalism. Alongside variant irrational views that emerge is often the cry that this is the solitary view of Torah. The irrationalism is often defended with an argument that presents the view as the only legitimate Torah view. This actually should not be surprising. If a view is going to be imposed upon others, it is in the interest of the one imposing this rule to not allow people to even think about the matter. Rationalism inherently brings the mind into the discussion – so there is an interest in the one not wishing others to think to challenge any form of rationalism. Those who challenge this view must be careful, though, not to fall for this tactic.

The reality is that within Torah there is a place for views that may be described as irrational. The very belief in God can be seen as a discounting of rationalism, to some extent. The role of rationalism within the realm of Torah, as I mentioned above, is an area of debate within the pale of Torah. That this debate should continue is a reflection of Torah strength. See Pirkei Avot 5:17. The modern debate that revolves around this issue, though, does not serve this purpose because it does just entail the discussion of variant viewpoints within Torah but includes the attempted assertion to declare the other outside the pale of Torah. This is its real weakness.

All these issues: it’s really not about rationalism. It’s about attempting to read Torah within limited and colloquial parameters which sadly challenge the very glory of God’s Word.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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