Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dialogue – The Expression of Fundamental Beliefs

Recently, some individuals took upon themselves the task of publishing a new Torah Journal. The raison d’être of this journal is the discussion (hence; Dialogue) of contemporary issues in Judaism by writers that possess an a priori commitment to the values of our mesorah. The foundational premise which informs the articles in Dialogue is the idea that the [majority] consensus of our mesorah is inviolate. This distinguishes Dialogue from similar journals currently in circulation while firmly establishing its target market (i.e. Israeli chareidim and American yeshivishe)

This post is the first in a series of missives which are meant to respond to Rabbi Slifkin’s current treatment of the Dialogue Journal. Nevertheless, it is not designed as a defence of any of the articles found in Dialogue per se. This I will leave to the respective authors. It is rather dedicated to an analysis of the stated opinions of Rabbi Slifkin in keeping with the stated mandate of this blog.

One of the articles in Dialogue, entitled A Question of Time, addresses the issue of the age of the universe. It is written by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Yeshivas Toras Moshe. Rabbi Slifkin quotes Rabbi Meiselman as follows:

The issue [of the age of the universe] is not a new one. It was first discussed in our sources in medieval times. Ever since Aristotle, science had claimed that the world had no beginning... Neither the philosophic/scientific proofs of Aristotle, however, nor the scientific proofs of Newton and Laplace moved our Mesorah (transmitted tradition). None of the chachmei hamesorah who confronted the issue ever suggested that the received position be re-evaluated. Creation ex nihilo always remained a fundamental belief. The scientific approach was simply rejected, even in the face of so-called proofs.

As a stand alone selection, this paragraph makes a powerful statement about the unchanging nature of our mesorah in the face of opposing views or ideologies. The unanimous view of our mesorah is that the world is a product of recent, ex-nihilo Creation. In Grecian times gentile philosophers rejected this view on two fronts; they claimed that a) the world was not created, and b) it was eternal. In recent times the apparent phenomenon of universal expansion has led many scientists to reject the ancient concept of an eternal universe. Nevertheless, science still opposes the primary postulate of our mesorah; recent Creation. To my mind, the above paragraph was designed to impart a very simple and clear message. Just as our nation categorically rejects the conclusions of Greek naturalism when it clashes with the dictates of our mesorah, so too does it reject the conclusions of modern science when it is in opposition to the view of our received tradition. Simple and clear, right?

Not for Rabbi Slifkin. He writes:

R. Meiselman claims that the issue is not a new one - thereby blurring the distinction between the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is

What "blurring" is he referring to? There is no distinction between "the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is". Our mesorah is unequivocal on both these issues. Undeterred, Rabbi Slifkin sets out to create a distinction. Unfortunately, not only is his distinction irrelevant, it actually happens to be false.

Rabbi Slifkin claims that there is a fundamental distinction between the age of the universe and Creation ex-nihilo. In order to demonstrate his point, he quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 2:25. The Rambam there contrasts the Platonic view of an eternal universe with that of Aristotle and, amongst one of two reasons, concludes that the Aristotelian view of an eternal universe contradicts the foundations of the Torah such as miracles, prophecy, reward and punishment. Consequently, it must be rejected. On the other hand, the Platonic view does not contradict the aforementioned foundations of Torah and therefore does not have to be rejected. Nevertheless, the Rambam goes on to explain that we do indeed reject the Platonic view for reasons the Rambam explains there.

Based on this, Rabbi Slifkin would like to distinguish between the age of the universe, which Rambam seems to allow for, and Creation ex-nihilo which the Rambam categorically rejects. Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

But these are as different as chalk and cheese. The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief. As Rambam states: "The belief in eternity in the way that Aristotle sees it - that is, the belief according to which the world exists by necessity, that nature does not change at all, and that the ordinary course of events cannot be modified in any aspect - this uproots the Torah from its foundation, and utterly denies all the miracles, and erases all the hopes and threats that the Torah assures." (Guide For The Perplexed 2:25)

Before we demonstrate Rabbi Slifkin’s glaring error of interpretation, it should be pointed out that even if Rabbi Slifkin’s interpretation of this Rambam is correct, which it is not, it is irrelevant to Rabbi Meiselman’s point. This perek (2:25) in the Moreh deals with the Rambam’s contrast of Platonic and Aristotelian Eternality (kadmus) vis-à-vis the plain meaning of the verses in the Torah. The Rambam felt that there was simply no way to shoehorn Aristotelian kadmus into the verses of the Torah. But true as Rambam’s contention might be, it does not serve as Rabbi Meiselman’s point of departure. Instead, Rabbi Meiselman appeals to the immutability of our mesorah. He points out that in the final analysis our baalei mesorah have never rejected our received traditions in favor of scientific arguments. It is a factual observation, gloriously compelling in its simplicity.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned, Rabbi Slifkin’s criticism fails on an entirely different front. He has made a fundamental error in his interpretation of the Rambam. He claims that "The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief". This is just plain false. Rambam does re-evaluate creation ex-nihilo and in fact states that Platonic Eternality does not necessarily contradict the foundations of the Torah. Strictly speaking, creation ex-materia is compatible with the doctrines of the Torah, at least according to the Rambam. If so, why does he reject it? Because the plain meaning of the verses indicate otherwise! This, according to the Rambam, is enough to eschew any re-interpretation of the verses. The only thing that might move one to reinterpret the plain meaning of the verses of the Torah is the presence of unassailable proof to the contrary!

I haven’t yet read Rabbi Meiselman’s article but I’m pretty sure that his approach incorporates the idea that science does not possess concrete proof for the age of the universe. Furthermore, as far as this writer is concerned the only time the Rambam ever acknowledges the presence of unassailable proof against the pashtus of the pesukim is in reference to the anthropomorphic verses in the Torah. That’s it. Nothing else.

This important thread will continue bi’ezras Hashem…

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