In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin tries to explain his rationalist approach to the statements of Chazal. He justifies this approach by pointing out that just because someone errs does not make him stupid. The adoption of this attitude is supposed to make it easier for the reader to swallow his rationalist approach to Chazal. It goes without saying that the authors of this blog possess a radically different opinion of the concept of "Rationalism" and how it interfaces with the statements of Chazal. But now is not the time and place. What I’d like to focus on is Rabbi Slifkin’s example. In his eagerness to demonstrate his point, he commits a serious blunder while simultaneously contravening his very own justification for Rationalism.
In reference to the halachic question of which direction an Australian lulav should be held by one who is celebrating Succos in the northern hemisphere, Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:
No less an authority than Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, famed author of Aruch LaNer and a university graduate, discussed this question. He suggested that it was more reasonable that they should be held in the normal position. Others, however, apparently disagreed.
To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference!
This case exemplifies the challenge that I have faced many times in teaching the rationalist approach to Chazal. Very few people are able to appreciate that errors made by people in very different eras and cultures do not reflect any sort of stupidity.
Wait a minute! R’ Yaakov Etlinger lived in the nineteenth century! He died just before Albert Einstein was born. He was aware of the law of gravity, he was aware of the vastness of space, and he was aware that the world was round. Concordantly, he should have been aware that people in
were not “upside down”. If his shaa’la hinged on the fact that Australians are "upside-down", it sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it? According to Rabbi Slifkin, any “modern reader” understands the ludicrousness of this position. Why didn’t Rabbi Etlinger understand it? Australia
The answer is, Rabbi Etlinger was not stupid at all. On the contrary, anyone who believes that Rabbi Etlinger committed such a serious faux pas is lacking in plain common sense. Rabbi Etlinger was not talking about Australians; he was talking about Australian lulavim and the direction they grow. When it comes to the concept of derech gidulo, there most definitely is an absolute frame of reference. It’s very simple. The direction a lulav grows in