This interview was conducted in Rabbi Shafran’s office at Agudath Israel of America’s Rabbi Moshe Sherer Headquarters on August 28, 2009. Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. At the time of this interview, Baruch Pelta was an undergraduate student in Judaic Studies at Touro College. He is currently a graduate student in the same subject at Brandeis University. He blogs at Baruch's Thoughts.
Baruch Pelta: The Mendelssohn article is what I'd like to focus on if I may.
Avi Shafran: Sure.
BP: So what I was wondering is - firstly, why did you write that article? In other words, what inspired you to write that article?
AS: Well, actually I was asked to - by the Jewish Observer. I'd written an article a bit earlier on - a few months earlier - about Abraham Geiger, who was a Reform leader in the 19th century. And obviously that article was - well I guess if one wanted to characterize it uncharitably they'd say it was triumphalist, in the sense that it contrasted his words with things Rav Hirsch said about the same time. The two knew each other, actually, and Abraham Geiger spoke of his trust in the German Reich, and his hope for the future. Rav Hirsch was very reserved and reluctant to put trust in a government, as was borne out to be a wise and certainly a far-seeing approach. Geiger was very different, and, of course, Hirsch represented what ended up persevering and growing. Geiger, you know, sort of made fun of [traditional Judaism] and said things that were disparaging of frum Jews. So I pointed that out - I think the article was called "Abraham Geiger, Where are You?" or something like that. It was addressed to him and said, you know, “Look at the world in front of you and see this thriving Jewish world, one you never imagined would be here today. And as far as your beloved Germany, you know, you don't want to know what happened with that. That kind of an article.
So obviously it wouldn't have raised any hackles within the Orthodox community - it may have raised a few in the Reform (I have no idea, I never heard any response to it). But after that article was published, Rabbi Wolpin called me and asked me if I would write one about Mendelssohn. I said, "Why?" He said "I don't know. I just think it would be a nice follow-up." I said, "Well it's going to be a very different kind of article, because Mendelssohn was not a Geiger. Mendelssohn was essentially an observant Jew. I think he was also misunderstood, misrepresented in many ways, and, you know, are you sure you want such an article? I'm going to write whatever my research yields and I find to be accurate. Geiger was an open-and-shut case, but Mendelssohn was much more of a subtle, complex personality. Not that I'm a historian or expert, but I hope I've read enough about him to realize that, you know, he wasn't such a simple person. He was essentially an observant person, despite what happened to his family and his students.”
So Rabbi Wolpin said, "Write it, and we'll see what happens with it." So I wrote it just as I called it, as I saw it, I did my research. He read the article and, while I didn't put any pressure on him to accept it, he accepted it – and presumably showed it to his editorial board, which accepted it.
Its theme was that there was a subtle problem with him [Mendelssohn] involving his attitude toward the Torah authorities of the time, with whom I guess he may have thought of himself as on the same level as – even though he wasn't a rabbi and certainly not a halachic authority. But he was a brilliant man.
So they accepted the article, they published it, and I think what made it stick in the craw of a lot of people was the fact that many [frum] people have a visceral, automatic reaction to the name Mendelssohn - for whatever reason. Rabbi Wolpin told me afterward was that he thinks it was a mistake for them to put in a photograph of him [Mendelssohn]. It was in fact a prominent photograph, I think maybe it was facing Rav Hirsch or something like that - there was some sort of a juxtaposition. And a photograph of him altogether - they don't generally put in photographs of people that are not intended to be put up on a wall in a frum house and, you know, venerated. So that may have made it prominent, stick out more. Whatever the reason was, there obviously was a strong firestorm of upsetness at it. Then others also created a “counter firestorm” of their own [defending the article]. What happened afterwards was that, I think, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah met on the issue. I wasn't with the Agudah at the time. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, a rebbe in the high school there. So I was totally out of the firestorm. I looked at it with befuddled bemusement, from a distance.
Once, I called to speak with Rabbi Sherer about an unrelated issue and his secretary picked up. She says, "How are you weathering it? How are you holding out?" and I couldn't even understand what she was talking about. I said, "What?" Here [in NY], obviously, it was roiling much more than in Providence, Rhode Island at the time. But there was a Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah meeting – that is [where] the buck stops when it comes to Agudah publications – and they decided that the Agudah – or the Jewish Observer – had to put in an apology for having published it. I don't think it was quite a retraction. I don't think it even talked about the substance of the article so much. I think it was worded, "We apologize for having published this piece, it was an editorial error."
That was fine with me. By the way, at that meeting, I understand, there wasn't a unanimous decision; there definitely were great people who felt that it [the article] wasn't objectionable -- even if it may have a mistake for the J.O. to do it (which they may or may not have thought), they didn't take issue with the substance of it. But that's neither here nor there. Afterwards Rabbi Schwab Zt"l wrote a piece where he did take issue with the substance of the article, and you know, obviously he's an authority, he takes whatever position he feels, and he had a very different picture of Mendelssohn than I had, or I even have today. You know, with all due respect to him, I'm not sure how much of what he wrote – if we went back in time -- would be borne out by what we'd see. Neither of us was there when Mendelssohn was alive, so it's certainly hard to say. But I must say, I accepted their position, of course. I had no input in it anyway, but I was very happy to be a subject of such, you know, discussion. (Laughter)
BP: I was told that you actually asked reshus from Rav Gifter before you published that article.
BP: Not true. Okay.
AS: What I did do was, after the J.O. decided to apologize, I did write each of the members of the Moetzes to ask them - lilmod ani tzorich, I just want to understand what your objections were, and I do have responses from them all, and they were very polite, nice responses. So I did sort of consult after the fact, but not before.
BP: So you didn't consult with any gedolim before.
AS: No. None whatsoever. The only person I would call a Gadol that I had any connection to over those years, although he was not part of the Moetzes, was Rav Yaakov Weinberg in Baltimore. He was my rebbe, and if there is anyone I would have gone to it would have been him. But I didn't, at least before the fact. I figured, Rabbi Wolpin knows what he's doing, he has an editorial board, and there are ample checks and balances within the J.O.'s structure.
BP: I don't know if you were aware of this, but I've been going through the old Jewish Observers. I've seen in earlier issues, I've seen people say, you know "All the gedolim rejected Mendelssohn", and things of that nature. So, had you seen that or did you have any impression of that?
BP: Alright, no.
AS: I wasn't a baki in Jewish Observer (Laughter). You know, I wrote an article once and they liked it, and I kept on writing for them, whenever I had an idea or something. As I said, this wouldn't have been my idea. That's why this is interesting. I know there was that attitude, if not from the J.O. particularly, but I had certainly heard it. But I had read enough history to realize that it wasn't quite so simple, that most things that seem simple in history seldom are. There are very few totally evil people and very few totally great, righteous people. There are shades and there are complexities to human beings.
BP: In the Novominsker’s response, he wrote that the thing that the article may have accidentally obfuscated was that Mendelssohn's philosophy is a synthesis, and a synthesis is bad. We can't have a synthesis, it's evil, it's a total perversion of Torah…
AS: Synthesis of what?
BP: Of Torah and secular studies. He then notes that Rav Hirsch's philosophy is not a synthesis, and that's why Rav Hirsch is different [from Mendelssohn]. But the Seride Esh holds that it was a synthesis. And not only does the Seride Esh hold that it was a synthesis, but in our own day, you know, Rabbi Yehuda Levi - Professor Leo Levi - he also holds it's a synthesis.
AS: Okay, but it's semantics. Rav Hirsch used the term "handmaiden of Torah." Science, and even culture, the handmaiden of Torah. And I consider myself a Hirschian beyond any qualification. I very much live that way, that's how I educate my children - this is how I've raised my children, who are fine, frum people and, and how I decide what I'm reading or what I'm exposed to. I do not reject the outside world. A person might stand for something different - but I think the word "synthesis" can mean different things. It depends what the emphasis is. What's the ikkar and what's the tafel. When you have an ikkar and a tafel, it's still a synthesis. It's not an equal synthesis. And what exactly the relationship between the ikkar and the tafel is also makes a big difference. And also what the tafel is in different times makes a big difference. For instance, the culture in Hirsch's time, the secular culture, the literary culture, was very high. Today the literary culture is very low. It's a very different one. You can't compare the two. I mean, there are no masterpieces of [Torah-] acceptable fiction being produced today, or if there are, they are very, very, few. Most of it is objectionable on just religious grounds. So if Rav Hirsch were alive he wouldn’t countenance that, I don't think that he would say that we would gain from reading… I don't know, whoever it is...reading the Top Ten in the New York Times' best seller fiction list. If there would [have been] such a list back in his day, I think he would have said there were things to be gained [from some literature then]. I think that times have changed in that respect. I grew up with Rav Hirsch. I consider him a rebbe, because I always felt an affinity for his derech. I plowed through his perush on the Chumash as a teenager, and that was one of the major influences on me. I cede that ground to no one.
[If] the Novominsker Rebbe makes that distinction between the two of them [i.e. Mendelssohn and Hirsch], there is a distinction. I think that Mendelssohn definitely embraced secular culture more, but he wasn't a rabbi. In other words, I wasn't extolling him as a Torah authority. I don't think the Novominsker Rebbe was really addressing what I was addressing. I wasn't putting Mendelssohn up as someone to emulate. I made very clear, he wasn't a rabbi at all, he was a philosopher. He was, you know, his life was in the salons, not in the Beis Midrash. He made no claim otherwise! I was simply saying that as a Jew, we have a totally warped picture of who he was. He wasn't a freethinking rejector of halacha, who ate treife meat privately. In Boro Park, if you ask them to act out Mendelssohn's life in private, you know, they’d say: You take a piece of pork, be mechalel shabbos. He was meticulously observant! But [in my view,] he had some hashkafic fine points that didn't click. Whether I'm right or not, I have no idea, but nobody can know, it's just a hypothesis. But I don't think it would be fair to say that I put him up as a figure to emulate. I was just trying to correct the record of the image of him that people had.
BP: With respect to the Torah im Derech Eretz path, or the Frankfurt version of that path – I personally try [to be a follower of the] Berlin [version] –but with respect to that derech, there is a move to delegitimize that now. I don't know if you've heard about Rav Mantel and what he said. You know, [that derech is] against Da'as Torah. You are in the home of Da’as Torah, the Agudah (laughter). So I guess I'm asking what would the opinion of Da'as Torah be on Torah im Derech Eretz, and if they said you have to reject this, would you then – to use your words – cede your ground?
AS: I think I understand what you're asking, and it's a hard question to answer because I think it's largely a moot point because of what I mentioned before. There's a theoretical Torah im Derech Eretz and then there's the here-and-now, practical life-impact of it. The culture today…take science, for instance, just forget culture for a minute. When science is what it's supposed to be, which is not agenda-driven science, but pure science…it is a Mussar book. It is something that would give any thinking Jew a boost in his emunah, in his appreciation of Hashem and his Torah - it would be unbelievably powerful and [an] important part of Jewish life to study it. The anti-mussar[ists] ask, do you stop learning to study Mussar? We would stop learning to study some science, because you wouldn't be well-rounded, you wouldn't be able to be as much of an oved Hashem without it as you would be with it. I firmly believe that. And I believe that someone who knows how to read science today and finds the right sources can also do that and I believe in doing that.
But science is agenda-driven today. And it is so agenda driven that it is very difficult to find a truly open-minded, straightforward scientist who's reporting and writing for the popular readership, not in a journal or somewhere. Who's writing [today] about nature with the modesty that the true scientist has? A certain modesty, a certain awe of the grandeur of nature, unfortunately, is missing. Today, most scientists who write for the popular readership are vehement atheists who are intent on utilizing the knowledge that they have to further their goals. This is not just recently either. In fact, Isaac Asimov and Steven Jay Gould and people like that, were the most well-read writers of their time, and today it's not any better. That [sort of science writing is something] I can't condone and if the Moetzes Gedolei Ha-Torah or any group of gedolim today would that say [that teaching] science [from such books] is verboten because it carries a shemetz, a residue of kefirah in it, I couldn't argue with that. But that doesn't mean that I'm relinquishing my theoretical acceptance of sciences being a tremendously valuable handmaiden to Torah.
BP: Now, if they were to say, "You have to give up the theoretical value of science," then that would probably be a different question. In other words, if they were to say you have to give up science, then you could deal with that, but that's not contradicting your own values.
AS: If they said give up the theoretical, I could not accept that (although there are those who have that netiah [leaning] to follow that derech [approach]). But I don't think they would ever do that. I really don't. I mean, it's like saying what would happen if they told me to go out and convert to Christianity. It's not going to happen. This wouldn't happen either. I think that the gedolim that I’ve interacted with would respect in theory the Hirschian derech, just like a Litvisher Godol would respect a Chassidisher derech, even though it's not his. And vice versa. I mean, there is a pluralism in Orthodoxy, in Ultra-Orthodoxy, that people don't fully appreciate.
AS: And I think that the pluralism extends to this subject. So I do think that taking Rav Hirsch out of history and bringing him into today, he would be repulsed by much of what today passes for science. Kal vechomer what passes for culture! There is beauty, there is wonder, there is brilliance in music today. But [to] search it out… it's very hard to find it in the mainstream mass of what's out there.
BP: I want to sharpen that point. If the gedolim were to say, "the culture today is so treif, and” -- it's pretty treif (laughter) --
AS: You and I both know that. As a ba'al teshuva you're probably more exposed to that than I am, but I'm pretty well exposed to it.
BP: Well, you're in New York, so…we're even (laughter). But there's a certain amount of treifos out there, so if the gedolim were to say listen, theoretically it's gevaldik, but now we're going all out against culture…
AS: They have done that to a large degree.
BP: 100%, to a large degree. But if they were to say entirely, I guess, would you cede that ground, would you say, "Well Rav Hirsch, I understand theoretically..."
AS: I would accept it in action. But there would be a part of me that would say, well, theoretically though... (laughter). In other words, it wouldn't be a change of my philosophy. I think it would be a change of how to apply that philosophy to the current situation. I mean, there are a lot of examples throughout all of history of things that were in a sense ideal, but the times can't handle them. It's unfortunate, I really wish it wasn't that way. I still believe that there's so much to gain out there, and yet it's so hard to do it because of what else is out there. There must be movies today that could fill a person with tremendous chizzuk - I'm sure there are. I'm not going to seek that, because you’re unlikely to find it and more likely to find something that you don't want to expose yourself to.
BP: I understand. So if I may ask one other thing, kind of on the topic. You were talking about science before, and with regards to science - I saw a blog post from you awhile back, I think I actually commented on it…and I don't hold back in my blog comments (laughter).
AS: Few people do (laughter)!
BP: But it was about that scientists are close-minded…you know, you can't be banning the other point of view, and people who ban the other point of view, such people, you know, these are open people? These are people who are open to new ideas? So I read it, and I said, you're right, people who ban things, they're not really open to culture, they're not open to new ideas, they're not trying to. And so I guess I was wondering, how you -- and I saw Rabbi Slifkin asked the same question – can say they shouldn't be banning...
AS: And we are.
AS: A simply answered question. I don't purport to be objective (laughter). From a religious perspective, you ban things if you feel that they're harmful. Just like you would ban a substance out of concern of it being physically harmful. I don't make any claim to being objective. I mean, I was objective at some point in terms of choosing Judaism - I'm a ba'al teshuva too, in that sense. However, while I was raised frum, there was a point in my youth where I had to confront [my upbringing]. You know, “Do I accept this? And, why should I?” I read, and I talked, and whatever else I needed to do, and I did accept it. Imperfectly, unfortunately, because I'm not a tzaddik, but I definitely accepted the concept of [what] Torah is, and that it's true. Once I accept that, then I'm no longer objective!
But I don't claim to be a scientist. A scientist -- if he's writing science – he has to make a hakdamah where he says, by the way, I'm an atheist scientist. Just like if he's a religious guy, he should say, I'm a Catholic scientist, or a Jewish - an Orthodox Jewish - scientist. If he's promoting himself as an objective scientist with no agenda whatsoever, and no background, and all he's doing is putting forth the facts of the matter, and interesting ideas, then he has to hew to a degree of objectivity that I don't believe that I have to hew to, and I don't believe that they generally do hew to. That was my whole complaint. It was not that I'm better than them, no.
BP: No, I'm not saying [that that was what you were saying].
AS: [I'm not saying that I'm] more objective than them, no. But I don't claim to be objective, and they do. It's like my complaint with the Jewish Week and papers like that. They don't have any real Orthodox presence in that paper. I once wrote about that. Somebody said, “And Hamodia has a non-Orthodox presence?”
BP: I saw your response to that.
AS: Somebody said it's the same thing. They [at Hamodia] don't purport to be objective. They are only up front about, they're clear about it, everyone knows it, there's nothing to answer for, to them. But the Jewish Week, by saying that they're servicing the entire Jewish community - it's a lie. I mean, if they say that we're servicing the Reform and Conservative, then it's not a lie. If they're up front about what they do, I have no complaint against them. They are saying what they're doing. But if they are saying that [they're] servicing the entire Jewish community, then…I mean, the Chareidi community in New York?! It's such a powerful part[of the Jewish world] - just looking at it from from an anthropologist's point of view! Yet, it’s totally missing in the paper. How do you explain that? And they don't explain it. There's no answer to it, because - it's a good question (laughter).
BP: I hear.
AS: Basically the scientists claim to be objective and they're not. Don't claim that if you're not.
BP: I've interviewed a few people, and we're getting closer to my interest and my research than the other people I've interviewed. I guess what I'm looking at especially is modes of rabbinic authority and what happens when rabbis disagree. So I guess while we're kind of getting closer to that, I'll hone it in. With regard to the Slifkin issue, with regards to other issues like that. Someone says that Rav Hirsch's system's a synthesis and then someone else says, no it's not, and in fact synthesis is evil. Those are two very mutually exclusive point of views. Also, with Rabbi Slifkin, he obviously had support of certain rabbonim, his rabbonim, even Rabbi Carmel. I guess what I'm wondering is how does the community, how does the Jewish Observer - how do the gedolim, how does anybody deal with that? It seems to me what people will do is they'll say, “Well Rabbi So-and-so's ideas are crazy, his ideas are off-the-wall…”
BP: And then it's like, "Wait a minute. But his rabbi is this rabbi, so you're saying this rabbi's ideas…" "No, no, no. His ideas aren't off the wall. These aren't his ideas." "But they are…" "No, they're not." So - if that makes sense - I guess I'm wondering, is that what happens? You wrote about the value of Da'as Torah in your article, how it's an ancient concept. And then after that, there seemed to be different de'ot ha-torah about your article, so…
AS: There's no question that there are different de'ot among gedolim, there always have been, from the Gemara's time - since Moshe Rabbenu's death, there's been disagreement. So that's a given, that not all rabbonim, even of great stature, equal stature, will agree on things. And it's also a given that rabbonim can make mistakes. We don't believe in “papal infallibility,” and if they're arguing, of course one's going to be right and one's going to be wrong, practically speaking. There's a whole massechta about what happens when the Beis Din makes a mistake, when the Sanhedrin makes a mistake. The whole of Horiyos is about how to undo, how to deal with - so there's nothing to talk about there.
BP: One caveat though - and I usually don't talk this much in my interviews, but we're already… I'm interested (laughter). Daniel Eidensohn pointed this out to me - that Rav Dessler basically claims that if a rabbi ever says anything it's basically - they're all right, all the gedolim are right, and it will be figured out, how it all coincides, when Moshiach comes. And then he told me that he went to your rebbe, Rav Weinberg, and Rav Weinberg said, you can't tell me a thinking person said that.
AS: I also think…
BP: So I guess those views will be reconciled (laughter)…
AS: I don't think so, I don't know what he was referring to, but I suspect [what] he was referring to – the Maharsha says this -- that aggados, for instance, that seem to contradict one another, are in fact different facets of the same thing and that at some point we'll understand them. But to say that everybody, by virtue of the fact that he has a beard, or has...
BP: A gadol.
AS: There’s no roster of gedolim. People have rabbeim, and by popular acclaim certain people rise to the top, and have the most talmidim. But, you know, I don't even know how you'd identify who's a gadol or who isn't. But leaving that aside, I don't think that if Rav Dessler did say that
-- I'd have to see it -- anyway, if he did say that, I don't think that it has any practical [ramifications]. I mean, there are disagreements and people have rabbonim that they go to and I have to respect somebody else's [right to follow his rebbe]. And I do that even with people who are far, far from where I am in Judaism. People who have just in common with me that they believe halacha is divine. People would call them very Modern Orthodox, and they have their posek. I would never interfere with that, and I would never imply that somehow that posek is wrong.
BP: And I've seen that you don't.
AS: I've always said, I never -
BP: The Observer itself, though, has taken a different stance.
AS: The Agudah is an organization. And - that's what it means, it's an Agudah. Which means, to be an umbrella of different groups. There's no way - I mean an umbrella of different groups will have different points of view, different approaches, unless you have a system by which the organization qua organization has shittot. And that's what the Moetzes is for. They don't always agree but they all agree to put out a common decision or to not decide, as the case may be, on a particular issue. That's what the Agudah is. I don't think that the Moetzes should be seen as the Vatican, as the Jewish Vatican. They simply are a conglomeration of great men who, between all of them, claim a large followership. And it's a group which is self-perpetuating, which means that the gedolim of yesteryear are in a sense the grandparents of the current Moetzes, because they were their replacements, or the ones who voted them in. We're not involved at all who's on the Moetzes, it's done entirely by the Moetzes members themselves. So it creates itself into the next years, into the next generation. And, as such, they command a certain respect. But my rebbe, Rav Weinberg, was not on the Moetzes. If I had a shayla, hashkafah shayla, whatever it may be, I wouldn't go to the Moetzes, I would have gone to him. And I don't think any of the Moetzes members would have held that against me in the least. The same way I have respect for someone who is on that left field, who has to go to someone that he respects. That's the essence of Judaism, having a rebbe. That's why this Da'as Torah thing is to me like a red herring. There is a concept…I mean we never know who's right and who's wrong in an argument, all we can do is if there's a consensus, assume that the consensus knows what it's talking about. If there is no consensus, you follow -- I wouldn't say your own lights -- but your own choice of who it is, and what derech you've chosen to take. If you do that in good faith, you're a good Jew. The J.O. is different. That's an organizational organ.
BP: And, being an organizational organ, they can have their own shittas, I don't think anyone…
AS: [Who do you mean] the editor, the editorial board?
BP: Well, the editorial board and the Moetzes. In other words, the editorial board - I was talking to Rabbi Wolpin the other day, and he was telling me how there were certain articles where they'd say, you know we think these are treif and we're going to send them to Rav Kamenetzky or the Novominsker…and Rabbi Elias was obviously very involved in that. But, they can have their own shittos. You know, that's one thing, but then when they say that this other position is kefirah, it's minus, afra le-fumei…
AS: That's their opinion.
BP: And if they were saying it with regard to a certain rabbi, that's one thing. But what I've seen is they say it about the rabbi who is following the other rabbi.
AS: I'm not sure what you mean by that.
BP: Well, I'll give you an example. Two examples, actually, that I could think of offhand. The Synagogue Council of America thing. Which is a big part of my research right now, because the Jewish Observer was founded in the aftermath of that. The Rav…they didn't make explicit reference to him much, it was "the integrationists," the Modern Orthodox rabbis, and the heads of the Executive Committee, they went after them. But the truth was, if you read the explicit lashon of the issur, it was obviously directed toward the organizations that the Rav held control over. In other words, he was the halachic decisor for the RCA, which was the rabbinic arm of the OU. The other organizations had never been in the Synagogue Council, and they were trying to pressure him. But they didn't say, you know, Rabbi Soloveitchik has to follow our decision. They said the RCA has to follow our decision, because no other posek has given an alternative one. So that's one thing, and with regard to the Slifkin controversy, that would be another example, with - when Rabbi Aryeh Carmel comes out and he says, I support Rabbi Slifkin. I mean, you see, with rabbinic history, there's a lot of slamming, godol versus godol. I mean, I'm not denying them the right to do that, they've been doing that for many years. But what I've seen in recent years, it seems to be that it's not the godol that they'll go after, it'll be his talmid.
AS: I wouldn't so much say the talmid, I'd say it would be the concept that they feel -
BP: Well, they're going after the concept, but they…
AS: I think it's better that way (laughter). I don't see it in a jaundiced way, I see it in a polite way. If indeed your description is correct, they had every right and reason to go after Rav Soloveitchik and to create a new 20th century version of the R. Yonasan Eybeschutz controversy. It could have been a machlokes of personalities again, of people, individuals.
BP: Well, the RCA is a Zionist organization. It's a Modern Orthodox organization. They've been attacked before the Agudah was in America, the Agudas Ha-rabbonim was attacking them. But the RCA was under the Rav's control. What they were doing is they were trying to take it out of his control, without actually saying, you know, we're taking it out of his control. Rabbi Hollander, actually, in a later interview - he's explicit about it. I'm really getting in depth in my research here (laughter)…But with Rabbi Slifkin they came out explicitly, I mean -
AS: They didn't attack Rabbi Slifkin personally, they attacked what he wrote. They limited the attack and I think it's very responsible to do that, it's like telling a child you did a bad thing, rather than you're a bad child. They attacked the concepts, they said he doesn't have sufficient respect for Chazal. And, frankly, I was very happy with his books when I first saw them, but at the end I felt there was a certain condescension toward Chazal. I think he was insufficiently sensitive to the possibility that maybe he was misreading them, or not fully appreciating them.
BP: If indeed he had condescension toward Chazal -- and that's not my field, I'm in history – but if indeed he had, that wasn't the concern that the public was given from the gedolim. The concern the public was given was that Chazal can be wrong about science. I think that Rav Weintraub said that…
AS: But that comes from that. In other words, I'm just describing the attitude, you're describing the result of it. It's all the same ball of wax. But he did not fully appreciate, or they feel that he did not fully appreciate, Chazal – who they are. And that's kefirah, in their eyes. If indeed, that's true, then that is kefirah. And they called a kefirah a kefirah, they called a spade a spade. You can disagree with their judgment, that's where pluralism kicks in. But you can't hold against them that they had that judgment, or that they saw that the books were becoming popular, and that people were assuming that since no one's speaking up that they're muskam [acceptable to the rabbis]. Rabbi Slifkin claims there were troublemakers involved…I can't speak to that because I don't have any of the facts, I try not to speak about things I don't have facts for. But whatever happened or didn't happen, they felt there was a need for them to express their opinion. Their opinion is that things that he wrote there were kefirah, born of an insufficient appreciation of what Chazal are. And he treated Chazal as scientists. You know, as observers of the world, and that's it. Not people who were imbued with a special spiritual ability to see [deeper] things.
BP: But I think that concern that you just elucidated upon is different than to say: Chazal are wrong about science. In other words, if you're saying the Chazal are wrong about science stems from that, so forget Chazal being wrong about science – that's the problem. There's the ikkar and the tafal. To say that Chazal can be wrong about science, that's a position which is currently held by certain gedolim. But it was specifically on that issue, not the issue of his tone. But with regard to the issue of if Chazal could be wrong about science, it seemed to be like [they were saying], he is the only person who has held this position ever since Rabbenu Avraham ben Ha-Rambam. And Rabbenu Avraham ben Ha-Rambam is a lonely shittah, and Rabbi Meiselman's coming out with a book that that shittah wasn’t even authored by Rabbenu Avraham…
AS: Really? That's what he says?
BP: Yeah. He also, by the way, attacked Rabbi Slifkin personally.
AS: That I know. But he's going to claim that the introduction that what's printed in the Ein Yaakov, that the introduction is not the Rambam's son?
BP: Yeah, there’s a fellow who's a big talmid muvhak of Rabbi Meiselman who has the transcript and he thinks this is an amazing thesis, and he talks about it.
AS: There are areas, when you talk about Chazal being right or wrong about science, there are different levels on which things they say are to be understood. And not everything that might be a straightforward statement of scientific fact was necessarily intended…
BP: I understand that. If Rabbi Slifkin was attacked for saying that they could be wrong about this specific thing, that would be one thing. But the attacks seemed to be that he said Chazal could be wrong about science.
AS: I don’t think so. That's why I mentioned the attitude before. I think if you read between the lines, you see he's treating them like any other pre-medieval observers of nature. And they were much more than that. If after due diligence a godol or an accomplished talmid chochom says, "This particular Chazal that's describing science is not correct in the literal world, in the Olam Asiyah, of the world today but rather it must only be true on some deeper level, etc." so that's one thing. But you have a young person who is not a big talmid chochom. He may be learned, he may even have a lot of books under his belt, but still [he] doesn't have the experience of 50 years of life and learning. He comes out and he says, "Well, the rabbis of the Talmud said this and that, and it's clear that the scientists say it's the other way, so therefore…" It was a certain condescension. And a certain trivialization of who these people were. It was a lack of full respect for them. And that yields, that gives birth to, statements that are not true.
BP: But there are certain rabbis who would hold that certain scientific statements of Chazal were not…
AS: Totally and on no level are true? I don't believe that's so. I really don't. I think there’s always a level on which it’s true! I think that, to take one of Rabbi Slifkin's favorite topics -- spontaneous generation – I wrote an essay about this that you won't find anywhere because it's in a book that's out of print. I called it "Spontaneous Veneration," because then it was about how there are different, alternate realities when it comes to human knowledge. There's what chemistry and physics tell you, and there's also what your pure senses tell you. And, as you know, in halacha, the pure senses are what matter. You don't take a microscope to sha'atnez unless you can see something that you can see with your visible eye, and just need to see it more clearly; a microscopic amoeba is not treif. It's the human senses that God specifically gifted us with that are the limits of our perception. And if you're using scientific instruments, there's no end to how far you can go. You end up with subatomic particles, you'd end up with nothing that you can deal with, without any logic whatsoever. So with spontaneous generation, it's clearly “true”! You take a piece of meat, and you throw it in the corner, and there are maggots there! So Rabbi Slifkin was saying, "No, if you carefully look at it, and use a microscope, you'll see that there were eggs there, etc." Fine, I agree, but I'm not dealing with that level. I'm dealing on the level of the human senses.
BP: But let’s say, the idea that the world's flat. So I saw, it's been so long since I've seen this, so I couldn't quote you the source offhand, but Rav Emden holds that the Zohar or certain parts of the Zohar were written later than the Gemara, and he knows this for numerous reasons, but one of his ra'ayahs is that the Zohar holds that the world is round. And the Gemara, according to his reading, holds that the world's flat!
AS: I can't respond to that because I haven't researched that particular example. But if Chazal did say something like that, then I would say it also has to do with perceptions, and there's a reality that is not the scientific reality.
BP: And there's never been any godol who held that the Chazal can be wrong about science in the sense that they're [completely] wrong. In other words, when they wrote it - it was wrong. Ever?
AS: I don't think so, I don't think so.
BP: Alright. Thank you very much.
AS: Well, that's my perspective, and I've never heard otherwise [from my rabbaim or authoritative sources]. And I believe that we don't appreciate who we're talking about here. When the Gemara makes the metaphor of angels and humans, and humans and donkeys…that's a qualitative difference. It's not just a quantitative difference. You can't take a donkey and turn it into a human - even with evolution (laughter). So I believe, they [Gedolim] are trying to tell us: You don't know who you're dealing with here. Their words might be inscrutable, their words might seem ridiculous to you, but you're not perceiving them the way you're supposed to be perceiving them.
BP: Thank you very much for your time.
 Baruch clarifies in the comments below, "Dr. Eidensohn didn't "tell me" anything. I saw that post that Shadesof is referring to and quoted it. I was talking pretty fast and didn't make that clear. I might have been inaccurate there too; I don't know right now offhand if Rav Dessler is referring to gedolim or Chazal in that segment of Michtav MiEliyahu.