Paul Shaviv On Rabbi Slifkin, The Age of the Universe, Chabad and Haredim

Paul Shaviv writes:

Whether we read the tangled tales of our “founding family,” or the mystical account of the origins of morality in the Garden of Eden, Genesis has always been the most engaging and the most challenging of the Five Books of Moses. But no part of it has exercised more attention than the account of Creation described in its opening 34 verses.

Way back, I was comfortable in understanding Genesis – Bereshit – as a majestic, spiritual account of Creation, containing in its short texts infinite spiritual truths. It was not a literal account. In the mid-1960s I first encountered Lubavitch-Chabad Chassidim who argued that the world was exactly five-thousand-and-some years old, and that God created fossils. But no one I knew – including several Orthodox rabbis – took them seriously. It was an exotic sideshow to the Chabad “gig,” which we all loved, in its uncomplicated, pre-Messianic incarnation.

A little later on, I encountered the “Orthodox Jewish scientists,” who sought to demonstrate by elaborate interpretations that the text of the Bible did not contradict any scientific theory. It was noticeable that as the scientific theories changed, so did the explanations. While, again, the arguments were sometimes fascinating, I could never understand why they were necessary. But every year, I loved those few weeks in the fall when the New Year began with the reading of the powerful account of the beginnings of the world as we know it. I could listen to Bereshit being read from the Torah without being troubled.

I am still not troubled, but others are troubling me. For in today’s Orthodox community, there are strong and insistent voices saying that you have to believe the world is 5767 years old or you are a heretic, with all the exclusions that are implied. Whether you are meticulous in observing the commandments or not is no longer a sufficient yardstick.…

The Challenge of Creation is important for two reasons.

The first is that it powerfully and rationally argues that to be Orthodox need not – indeed, must not – mean abandoning reason, nor need it mean rejecting science. That is – as indicated – a courageous statement in an Orthodox world that has been hurtling in the opposite direction for the last 30 years or so.

Rabbi Slifkin’s courage brought a firestorm down on his head. But his book is a powerful injection of calm common sense into an increasingly eccentric community. The small group of Orthodox who yearn to hear voices in Orthodoxy to whom we can relate – we feel like one of Rabbi Slifkin’s ecologically endangered species – owe Rabbi Slifkin a huge thank you.

The second, less immediately apparent reason, is that it is a practical complement to recent, and important, books by Menachem Kellner and Marc Shapiro, demonstrating that the parameters of Jewish definition have always been fixed by tests of practice, not tests of belief. Being Jewish was always about what you did, not what you thought. That idea sharply distinguished Judaism from most branches of Christianity, whose test of faith was belief, and it can only be conjectured whether those who want to reverse those parameters actually understand what damage they are doing. (Given the equally strong movement against the study of Jewish history in the same circles, it is entirely possible that they don’t.)

…This civilized, respectful, erudite, well-argued, beautifully structured book is a revelation in a controversy that has been marked by crude and adversarial public mud-slinging. His opponents could learn major lessons from him in derech eretz, let alone in Torah.

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14 Comments

Filed under Bans, Books, Chabad Theology, Haredim, Modern Orthodoxy, Torah and Science

14 responses to “Paul Shaviv On Rabbi Slifkin, The Age of the Universe, Chabad and Haredim

  1. Neo-Conservaguy

    “The first is that it powerfully and rationally argues that to be Orthodox need not – indeed, must not – mean abandoning reason, nor need it mean rejecting science.”

    Give it up – you guys weren’t Orthodox 30 years ago, you were really old time Conservative or Traditionalists. Being Orthodox does indeed seem to mean abandoning reason. That’s why JTS rabbis love to point out the disparity between classical Jewish thought and Orthodoxy; the former embraced change when necessary, the latter has been proved to have little interest or ability to do so. Hence, Orthodoxy is not a classical movement, but rather a radical reactionary movement to the right brought about by equally radical shifts to the left by Reform and, to some extent, the Conservative movement.

    If only the huge numbers of progessive-traditionalists in this country had the courage to separate themselves from Orthodoxy and stand on their own feet, and claim their own movement, the times would be exciting indeed. Orthodoxy left these people behind, and they should close the door after it and bolt it shut.

  2. Yochanan Lavie

    “Being Jewish was always about what you did, not what you thought”

    Ideas do matter. If it’s all baloney, why practice anything? Why bother? That’s why I was disillusioned with my Reform upbringing. In Classical Reform, you don’t practice hardly anything, and you don’t have to believe hardly anything.

    BTW, like Neo I am not a literalist in my reading of Bereishit. But I think Judaism is more than religious behaviorism. (That’s one of the troubles I have with the chumra of the month club, on the right.)

    It is also more than a Liberal social organization, that happens to have holidays.

    There still has to be some core beliefs.

  3. Paul Shaviv

    Yochanan – I agree. I should have been a litle more careful in the article. There are ‘core beliefs’. But I don’t think that beliefs about Bereshit etc were ever considered in that category.

  4. Paul Shaviv

    Neo-Conservative: Orthodoxy has moved. Compare, for example Hertz and ArtScroll. (And anyone who rushes to discredit Hertz should read R’Yechezkel Abramsky’s hesped on Hertz first. Dayyan Abramsky served as Hertz’ Av Beth Din.)

  5. Neo-Conservaguy

    The more I learn about R. Hertz Z”L, the more I wish he was around today to teach the true way of enlightened commitment for Torah and Mitsvoth. Every now and then, I come across a clever comment in his Chumash or Siddur that leaves me smiling for a long time. Then again, a friend recently mentioned that it was a blessing from haShem that R. Hertz wasn’t alive today to see what had become of “his” Orthodoxy.

  6. Yochanan Lavie

    The Hertz chumash was used in my family’s Reform synagogue. It lead me on the path to traditional Judaism. I was a precocious Bar Mitzvah student, looking for the meaning of life. Hertz’s commentary and essays showed me that you can be a believing, practicing Jew w/o being a moron. It still moves me to this day. I am saddened that his chumash is being replaced by that of Rabbi Art Scroll.

    (BTW, wasn’t Hertz a musmach of JTS, back in the day when JTS alumni could get Orthodox pulpits?).

  7. Neo-Conservaguy

    He was not just A musmach of JTS – he was the first!

  8. Yochanan Lavie

    My criticism of (much of) Orthodoxy, is that it possible to go to an Ortho shul, and never hear about God; only about halacha l’ma’aseh (not that that isn’t important, too).

    My criticism of non-Orthodox Judaism is that you get no sense of what I call “commandedness.” It becomes: “It’s okay to do whatever you want (or believe whatever you want) as long as you’re a good person.” Moshe Rabbeinu replaced by Mr. Rogers (z”l).

    I need for my life to have meaning. I need to feel a sense of transcendence. But maybe it’s all b.s., and Yahweh/Hashem/God is just the Flying Kashe Varnishkes Monster. Whadya think?

  9. S.

    >He was not just A musmach of JTS – he was the first!

    Correct. However, it must be pointed out that JTS was an Orthodox rabbinical seminary before its reorganization under Solomon Schechter. Although at that time JTS was certainly not frum enough for many segments in Orthodoxy, it was no different from R. Hildesheimer’s rabbinical seminary in Berlin.

    In addition, at that time the terms “orthodox” and “conservative” were used interchangably among English-speaking Jews, and basically just meant “not Reformist.”

  10. Neo-Conservaguy

    The other rather striking similarity between the forming Conservative movement and the forming Orthodox movement is that their shuls mostly looked the same: separation of men and women in the building was either by balcony or often merely by aisle (gasp!). One wonders how it was safe for the men to pray without the improved protection for body and nefesh that the Mechitsa Movement would bring 50 years later. The previous generation clearly existed on a higher spiritual level that enabled them to resist the evil inclination all around them in shul, and even allowed them to eat non-glatt kosher meat without the spiritual and bodily damage that a modern frum Yidden would, God forbid, incur eating such pig-food.

  11. Jath

    the jts was founded chiefly by R’ Sabato Morais of Leghorn Italy.
    http ://sceti. library.upenn.edu/ morais/

  12. Dr Fred

    The tragedy today is that right-wing Orthodoxy defines a Jew by what he/she does ritually. This is contrary both to Halacha and Torah,both of which define a Jew by what he is ( the “essence”, if you will).Halacha is, for this age at least, the tangible matrix to contain the intangible ethos/ essence of Judaism.RAMBAM alludes to this when he states that, if a Jew does not forgive or is not compassionate, we should question if he/she is, in actual fact, a Jew.Halacha without the ethos produces the “disgusting person in the confines of Halacha” mentioned by RAMBAN.

  13. Anonymous

    In response to Mr. Paul Shaviv�s gratuitous attack on Torah Judaism and Chabad Lubavitch in the Canadian Jewish News several weeks ago, Rabbi Kaplan sent a letter to the editor. Unfortunately the CJN has elected not to allow for a full and proper response, and declined to print the letter. Instead they felt it was only appropriate to print Rabbi Grossbaum�s (softer) comments and claimed that the Rabbi Kaplan�s request not to edit (read re-write to the point of no recognition) prevented them from doing so (although very interestingly such requests have been accepted by the same newspaper to the same writer to in the past). We are saddened that a paper that promotes extreme diversity has suddenly elected to depart from its own standards and now cynically attempts to muffle criticism when the points made are contrary to their narrow agenda.

    Paul Shaviv concludes his recent foray into the Slifkin controversy with a final glowing pearly description of Rabbi Slifkin’s book, and contrasts him with his opponents calling them “crude and adversarial public mud-slinging.” He then goes on to suggest that they “could learn major lessons from him in derech eretz and Torah.” The (local) opponents, as has been publicized in the pages of this very newspaper, are led by the world-renowned Torah Sage HaRav Shlomo Miller. Does Mr. Shaviv truly believe that calling an internationally recognized Gaon (Torah Genius) and his rarified clerisy “crude and adversarial” is in the spirit of derech eretz?

    Interestingly, the author who presents himself as utterly committed to the lofty values of derech eretz, seems to have no problem insulting others. In the beginning of the very same article he writes “In the mid-1960s I first encountered Lubavitch-Chabad Chassidim who argued that the world was exactly five-thousand-and-some years old… But no one I knew – took them seriously… I was an exotic sideshow to the Chabad “gig,” which we all loved, in its uncomplicated, pre-Messianic incarnation.”

    How fascinating! Our resident master of derech eretz has no issue calling a nearly 250 year old legitimate Torah movement that counts amongst its adherent’s brilliant scholars and scientists alike, Chief Rabbis’, outstanding Halachik authorities’ famous authors and energetic activists a “gig.” Then in a final display of incredible “derech eretz,” Mr. Shaviv finds it important to parenthetically insinuate that Chabad has now become an illegitimate “messianic incarnation,” conveniently choosing to ignore the well-publicized fact that the Chabad Lubavitch movement has, on numerous occasions, rejected the credo of an increasingly small messianic fringe amongst its adherents.

    To this writer is seems that before taking the liberty of lecturing others on derech eretz, Shaviv would do well to take a strong dose of his own medicine first!

  14. 1. This is the dumbest letter I’ve ever read.

    2. Chabad has not “rejected the credo of an increasingly small messianic fringe amongst its adherents,” unless by “credo” you mean public displays of messianism. Chabad has NEVER rejected the idea that the messiah can come from the dead or that the Rebbe is that messiah.

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