Authority and Wisdom: The Slifkin Affair

A few months ago, as described in the January 12th issue of Dei-ah ve Dibur, a group of Rabbanim of stature issued a ban on various books written by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, because these books take positions in favour of scientific data even when such data conflicts with these Rabbis' understanding of pshat of Torah and certain Talmudic statements. In their eyes, Rabbi Slifkin fundamentally challenged certain principles of faith -- as understood by them. To these Rabbis, Rabbi's Slifkin's assertions were heretical and his books deserved to be banned.

To Rabbi Slifkin's defence came many who maintained that Rabbi Slifkin's comments were all within the pale of Orthodoxy. In fact, throughout his works, Rabbi Slifkin quotes, in support of his assertions, many illustrious Rabbis of the past. Hence the controversy -- and the calling into question issues of authority and the application of a halachic process.

In the article below, Rabbi Hecht delves into these issues, and their significance for the Jewish world today.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his Introduction to Iggrot Moshe, writes the following:

"I decided to print my responsa because I only clarify and elucidate the halachah. Other Torah scholars can analyze my reasoning and decide whether they concur with my opinions. As anyone can see, I did not blindly rely on others, not even on the great decisors who preceded me, but critically reviewed and decided for myself what the correct ruling should be, as Rav Akiva Eiger taught us to do.

"I ask all who study my rulings likewise to critically analyze my writings. In doing so they will become aware of the halachic process, thereby learning to reach a halachic conclusion, and I will be rewarded for having taught this method..."

(Translation from Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler)

With these words, Rav Moshe weighs in regarding the age-old tension between two values: the value of authority and the value of wisdom. Rav Moshe requests that those able to study and analyze his words not rely upon his halachic pronouncements simply based upon the power of his authority, although these pronouncements will almost necessarily have such power. He asks to be a teacher of Torah wisdom; as such, he requests that it be solely the conviction and force of his analysis and argument that emerge triumphant -- and only if and when these pass critical analysis. 

To follow authority means to observe a ruling or pronouncement solely based upon the position and being of the one making the decree -- without necessarily understanding or even agreeing with the words and/or ideas being voiced. To follow wisdom means to observe a ruling or pronouncement based upon the determined value of the words and/or ideas being voiced -- i.e. because one has undertaken a process through which one comes to understand and agree with these views -- without regard for the status of the one making the pronouncement. Rav Moshe asks to be involved in the dynamic of Torah wisdom; the natural effect of this is that his words must have a more limited role in the dynamic of Torah authority. He requests that one follow based upon one's determination of the wisdom of his words themselves (thereby also teaching wisdom to the reader), and not the stature of his person and the acceptance of his authority. Yet, is it not wise to follow the authority of the wise even against one's own judgement? Yet again, can one ever truly attain wisdom if one does not accept the responsibility of the decision and attempt to understand? 

Authority and wisdom both have tremendous value and an exalted place within Torah. Both, though, are involved in a continuous tension that demands continual reconciliation. Sadly, without this recognition and the continued Torah effort to, paradoxically, foster the co-existence and even integrate the value of authority and the value of wisdom, we are ultimately left with neither. The present Slifkin Affair is an example, to the tragic detriment of all klal Yisrael, of just such an occurrence.

Both authority and wisdom are fundamental building blocks in the essential process of Torah itself. We are to observe God's Law because we are to meet the obligation to follow His Will, i.e. His Authority. Two models emerge to explain the basis of this Authority. One model compares God's commands to melech ha'metzuva al ha'am, a king who commands his nation; authority can emerge from a legal, communal and/or moral foundation. A second model compares God's commands to a rofeh ha'metzuvah al ha'choleh, a doctor who commands his ill patient; authority can emerge from a recognition of the greater wisdom of the one giving the command. Both models are real. God is King. God is Omniscient. In either case, there is a call to observe Torah simply because God commands us to do so -- even as we might not (or even, more emphatically, do not) understand the reasons for these commands. Yet, as evidenced in the famous gemara in T.B. Shabbat 88a, it was also important for B'nai Yisrael to decide on their own to follow Torah. We are also to observe God's Law because we recognize the wisdom of Torah, and must desire God's Wisdom. There is a value in responding not only to the force of command but also to the reason for the command. Even as we follow a mitzvah because God is infinitely wiser than us (and we should follow the direction of the wise even when we do not understand it), we must nonetheless search for understanding. There is also a call to observe Torah because it is wise, and we are to see this wisdom, search for this understanding. 

We are to respond to God's Will and we are to respond to God's Wisdom. These models can seem discordant, and even, at least on the surface, contradictory. Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 8 in a certain way responded to the problem through the distinction between mitzvot sichliyot, laws we understand, and chukkot, laws we do not understand. Through the former, we are to integrate within our beings God's Wisdom. Through the latter, we are to foster our commitment to observing God's Will, accepting His Authority. Yet even Rambam understood that this distinction was incomplete. We are to attempt to find the Wisdom in the chukkot. We are to recognize the power of Authority in the mitzvot sichliyot. Our relationship to Torah as a complete whole is, paradoxically, to be built upon the two pillars of God's Will and God's Wisdom. The Jewish People, however, found the secret that enabled the integration of these principles into a unique formulation of our relationship to Torah -- and for this they were praised. That secret was Na'aseh v'Nishma. We are committed to both authority and wisdom. Furthermore, we are committed to the unique co-existence within Torah -- that these elements should ideally have -- which fosters the roles of both. (For further understanding of the depth of the meaning of Na'aseh v'Nishma and its status in integrating authority and wisdom, see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Nishma Study Materials on Kabbalat HaTorah.) 

The challenge of responding correctly to authority & wisdom intensifies as we move from considering our relationship to God's Authority & Wisdom towards human authority & wisdom. Indeed the Torah itself passes authority on to the human being through such commandments as listening to the navi (see Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 172) or following the rulings of the Sanhedrin (see Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 174 and Lo Ta'aseh 312) or, as Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 496 extends this command, to following the directions of the Ba'alei HaKabbalah in each generation. Such authority thus possesses a legal, communal and moral basis -- the force of mitzvah itself. Included within this structure is also the authority that emerges from the greater wisdom of these individuals. Yet we still cannot compare the authority of a human being with the Divine Authority. The authority invested in a person is not inherent as it is for the Divine Authority. It is comparable to following the authority not of a king but of one appointed by a king. It is from the mitzvah of the Torah that this human authority emerges and so this authority only extends pursuant to the parameters of the mitzvah. Its power is limited to that which is granted. In addition, an authority based upon greater human wisdom also has limitations, especially in comparison to an Authority based upon God's Wisdom, for no matter how great the individual, the human being is fallible. With God's Wisdom, there is no possibility of a lack. With human wisdom, there is. As such, there is always a critical element in relation to human wisdom. For similar reasons, our pursuit of the wisdom of a human being must also be approached within narrower parameters especially in relation to the pursuit of the Divine Wisdom. Indeed the Torah itself demands of us an allegiance to Torah authority vested in the human being and also demands of us to pursue the Torah knowledge of the human being. That is a challenge that we must face just as we must face the apparent contradiction to respond to both God's Will and God's Wisdom. The challenge to responding to human authority and human wisdom, however, is more problematic, for neither are built upon an essence of perfection. And so the challenges are greater. It is precisely in response to this greater challenge that the Slifkin Affair highlights our gross inadequacies in dealing with this fundamental calling of responding to authority and wisdom -- as independent values and in their paradoxical co-existence -- within Torah. The results may be, sadly, catastrophic. See Ntziv, HaEmek Daver, Introduction to Bereishit.

In following various statements and responses in regard to the Slifkin matter, I felt almost that I was party to two separate discussions without any dialogue between the two camps. One discussion was in the realm of wisdom. One discussion was in the realm of authority. Rarely did these two discussions overlap and therein lies the essence of the real problem that this whole matter highlighted. The Rabbanim who placed the ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books, both in the brevity of their statement and especially in its tone, were relying upon authority in promulgating their position. Their goal was not to convince others of their view. Their goal was for their position be adopted; their argument was simply the force of their authority. Those who responded in defense of Rabbi Slifkin focused on the substantive issue of whether his statements were within the pale or not, and especially how this might be determined. They wished to discuss the very issue of science and Torah. They were, in turn, met with further responses from the realm of authority -- for example, the classic challenge from authority based on knowledge: "Do the Gedolim not know these arguments?" Like two ships passing in the night, there was no point of contact or, perhaps, we should say limited points of contact. The result was a distortion in the presentation of authority and a weakness in the discussion of wisdom.

While the fundamental issue was whether the views expressed by Rabbi Slifkin were within the pale of Orthodox Judaism or not, once these Rabbanim made their statement in the manner that they did, the issue became the role of human authority within Torah. As such, the responses to the ban should have focused on the issue of authority, not the issue of Science and Torah. This is not to say that there is no value in presentations that defended the halachic and hashkafic basis of Rabbi Slifkin's views, but ultimately these arguments -- while they may have caused some individuals to question the ban and perhaps even delve into the issue of Torah authority -- did not truly serve their intended purpose. The Rabbanim were commanding from the realm of authority. They were not atttempting to convince and thereby teach within the realm of wisdom. To attempt to change the situation, you first have to enter their realm, challenge them in that realm and then attempt to force them to enter your realm.

You also cannot promote wisdom in a vacuum. That is, these arguments were for and by individuals who already accepted Rabbi Slifkin's views or who, at least, did not see them as outside the pale. No matter how intelligent the presentation, one will still hear only one side. For true wisdom to emerge, one always needs to hear both sides. Beit Hillel always quoted Beit Shammai. See T.B. Eruvin 13b. Rav Yochanan lived for the questions and challenges of Resh Lakish. See T.B. Baba Metzia 84a. Wisdom grows from the shakla v'tarya of Torah debate and discussion. Sadly, this is one of the great faults in our contemporary Torah world -- there is no place where individuals of differing views on major issues can truly enter into Torah debate on a subject. (If I have one directed critique of the Rabbanim who issued the ban, it is that they further contributed to this terrible weakness within our Torah world.) Thus, each view is expressed in a vacuum containing only those who already share the view. Once the ban was pronounced, a substantive defense of Rabbi Slifkin was not really the requisite response -- for there were no arguments to which to respond. 

Personal attacks on the Rabbanim showing putative weaknesses in their methodology of gathering evidence and making a decision were also unhelpful. Further, if their methodology was indeed correct, would the ban have been acceptable to his defenders? I doubt that a more thorough initial analysis of Rabbi Slifkin's works would have changed the decision of the majority of these Rabbanim. And for those whose opinions would have changed, there should be shame in presenting such an important halachic decision without proper investigation. Ridiculing the projected substantive view on Science and Torah of these Rabbanim, which some also did, was also inappropriate. There genuinely exist viewpoints within Torah that do vehemently disagree with Rabbi Slifkin's view. Presentations of Torah wisdom demand shakla v'tarya between the disputing positions, not the summary dismissal of one side. While I respect many of the presentations in defense of the wisdom of Rabbi Slifkin's words, a more worthwhile and productive initial response would have been to respond to the issue of authority. This means: to challenge and generate discussion/debate on this issue and, thereby, draw these Rabbanim into a discussion/debate on the substantive issues.

The opening question should have regarded the nature of a ban -- who should make one and who should follow one. The argument of these Rabbanim was that they had the right to make a ban -- based on authority -- and their expectation was that it should be followed by everyone. The response of those who disagreed ultimately was that the ban did not apply to them. They inherently challenged the universality of the authority of those making the ban. That should have been the argument in response: Did these Rabbanim have the right to act in the realm of authority?

The strange irony here is that when the issue of authority emerges, the presentations on the subject generally lack a review of Torah sources. People will assertively state what they think, but will rarely have actually taken the time to research the topic. Perhaps this should not be so surprising, as the topic of Torah authority is generally not critically studied. In the case at hand, those who defended the ban did so through a simple pronouncement that it was the Gedolei Yisrael who issued the ban. But what exactly does the status of Gadol mean? Must it necessarily be assumed to have halachic significance? Is it a category of authority? What is the nature of this authority? How does one become a Gadol? What are the criteria for this title? Were all the Gedolei Yisrael involved in this ban? What does the ban mean if some were not? Was there a formal vote on the subject? 

With a view to studying the nature of human Torah authority, let's review the facts in a most critical manner under the microscope of various halachic parameters. A group of rabbis made a proclamation that the ideas expressed in Rabbi Slifkin's words were outside the pale. There were two groups responding to this statement. One group consists of those who chose to follow the authority of these rabbis. Pursuant to the instruction Aseh lecha Rav (see Avot 1:6, 16), we are to create for ourselves a personal authority figure. The concept of a personal authority structure may seem foreign to many people but that is clearly the intent of this directive from Mishnah Avot. A perusal of the commentators on the mishna would, of course, yield a spectrum of opinions on the nature of this structure. Some indicate a strong power in this authority. Some see this authority as merely an instrumental necessity in the teaching of wisdom. Different balances between autonomy/wisdom and authority are presented. Nevertheless, there is a concept -- in fact, a most important concept -- of choosing an authority for oneself. (See, further, my recent Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, "Autonomy in Authority: The Choice of Rabbi, Introspection 5765-1.

An individual who has accepted a member of this group of Rabbanim as his rav, will likely adhere to this ban. These Rabbanim can (and, most likely, should) tell individuals who follow them what they think of publications. Also, the individuals who follow them are correct within the boundaries of their personal authority structure to follow them. The fact that these rabbis rely upon authority more than the teaching of wisdom within their personal authority relationships is a matter to be decided upon within the confines of this community of authority. The fact that I do not like this structure and do not have it with my own rebbe does not mean that it is not a model that is acceptable within Torah. Of course, this also does not mean that personal authority structures do not demand scrutiny. Oftentimes, individuals will deliberately seek out a rabbi who maintains a position that these individuals already hold, and then use that rabbi to add some level of halachic authority to their pre-existing view. The role of authority thereby becomes a game. I choose a position I wish to follow. I then choose a rabbi that maintains this position. I then add a level of lustre to my position by portraying myself as simply following Torah authority.

In scrutinizing personal authority structures, there is also the issue of whether one can change a rav. The more flexibility one has in relation to a personal authority, the greater the role of autonomy and wisdom in relation to authority. This flexibility therefore defines the inherent limits that personal wisdom will have on personal authority. (The point that the chosen rav becomes a rebbi muvchak may become most significant in this regard.) Still, there is a personal authority structure within Torah based upon individuals choosing authority figures and choosing to be bound by their words -- and on this level there would be nothing wrong with rabbis stating to their followers that certain books are unacceptable to them within their understanding of Torah.

But that is not what occurred. These Rabbanim perceived themselves as speaking to all Israel, ones who chose their authority and, a second group, ones who did not. Confusingly, many of those who follow these rabbis would vehemently challenge the declaration that the authority of these rabbis is based upon personal choice of followers. After all, one chooses one's rav, not the reverse. As such, one chooses to become subject to the authority of one's chosen rav. Instead, we are faced with an assertion that these rabbis have some type of objective authority over all Israel. The reason that this assertion is generally not presented within the context of halachic arguments is that such an assertion is ultimately hard to defend within strict halachic parameters. (For an overview of the topic, see Lawrence Kaplan, "Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority", Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy.) Generally, the rules of imposing halachic authority apply to institutions such as the Sanhedrin, and not to individual rabbis. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Introduction. The most famous singular voice that extends objective authority to individuals or, better, an informal grouping of individuals, is Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 496 who extends authority to the Ba'alei HaKabbalah. Yet Sefer HaChinuch does not define who are the Ba'alei HaKabbalah. What the Chinuch does do, though, is say that the rules of following the majority are most applicable in this command. (See, further, Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvah 78.) As such, even according to the singular view of the Sefer HaChinuch, the onus would be on these rabbis to show that they are within the category of Ba'alei HaKabbalah and that they represent the majority of the Ba'alei HaKabbalah. Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 78 then presents one other possible criteria. In following the rule to follow the majority, it is necessary to have discussion between the majority and the minority -- for who is to say that, after an honest discussion, members of the majority may not join the minority thus forming a new majority? Most interestingly, for there to be authority according to this view, there must first be shakla v'tarya in wisdom. The significance of this in connection to this entire matter should not be overlooked.

This leads into the issue of the authority of wisdom. The argument is also presented that these Rabbanim should be followed based upon their status as bastions of Torah knowledge. Strangely, what many followers of this authority do not recognize is that this also demands a decision by individuals as to whether these individuals are bastions of Torah knowledge. Just because someone describes and defines a person as a Gadol, does not mean I accept this status or even should accept this status. Much would depend upon one making this assertion. Much would depend upon my own study of this person's works. In any event, this argument, as it applies to many alleged gedolim, is often inherently untrue. 

Certain individuals say that one cannot argue with a Gadol because the Gadol knows more. But watch what happens when you present these individuals with an opposing opinion of another Gadol, more specifically, a Gadol as you define a Gadol. The result often will be the derision of the opposing Gadol, thus demonstrating the reality that this kind of authority is ultimately grounded in personal choice. Or, the result will be a reasoned recognition that one chooses the Gadol one wishes to follow -- thus also demonstrating again that much of the modern authority structure within Torah is a matter of personal choice. The only difference is that, in the first scenario, the façade of objective reality is maintained. Bottom line: the sadness of the Slifkin Affair is that it demonstrated the falseness of our authority structures within the present Torah community. There is a certain level of "bullying" in pushing the authority of certain individuals. Even a question such as "why is that individual a gadol?" is responded to with attack rather that a sincere response. It is also interesting to see how language is used within this process. How quick it is for some individuals and certain groups to use the term Gadol? And once you call someone a Gadol, it must mean a person is one. I have always maintained that the reluctance and hesitation of certain groups to apply this term -- which I happen to agree with -- has had public relations consequences. Authority must emerge correctly, not be used simply to push an agenda. The greater sadness is that the debate on the issue could have shown this terrible weakness. This issue, unfortunately, was side-stepped. (The argument that Gedolim are guided by a Divine Hand -- i.e. the concept of Daas Torah -- suffer the same issue. How do you make the determination of who is guided?)

Wisdom also suffered in the lack of connection between the two sides. Even as Rabbi Slifkin had his arguments for his position within Torah, the rabbis who issued the ban have their arguments. Sadly, they chose not to enter into a shakla v'tarya of Torah study. Still, this does not entitle others to belittle the substantive position of these rabbis, which some did. The relation of science and Torah is a major issue within Torah study. Understanding the position of Chazal and the nature of the Talmud is, similarly, a major factor in our attempt to comprehend the entire structure of Torah thought. Another important matter of discussion could have been the nature of the Mesorah and how we view minority opinions throughout the ages, especially in matters of Hashkafa. This issued also emerged with the publishing of Marc Shapiro, Limits of Orthodox Theology on the Fundamentals of Faith (Rambam, Commentary to the Mishna, Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter Chelek, 13 Ikkarim). There is also the related issue of the difference between matters of disagreement and a decision that an opposing view is apikorsus, heresy. See the important comments of Ra'avad on Rambam. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 7:3. In any event, hearing only one side voice its arguments ultimately does not promote wisdom. In fact, it can develop a false sense of security in one's own perceptions. This was also the reason why the Minchat Chinuch found a weakness in the authority of wisdom when there is no shakla v'tarya.

There is a side issue in regard to the Slifkin Affair that also bothers me. That is the kiruv element. There were those who stated that Rabbi Slifkin's works were important to satisfy the questioning of a certain population -- people returning to Torah who had problems with the conflict of Science and Torah. Does this mean that Rabbi Slifkin's works are simply instrumental apologetics? I read within the statement of one of the rabbis that we must bring people back to Torah only through the Truth. While I may disagree with his understanding of what the Truth is, I do agree with this sentiment. One of the dangers that arises from the maxim "the end justifies the means" is that the means will frequently corrupt the end. In my opinion, Rabbi Slifkin's defenders should not be basing their support for him on the notion that his works were intended to bring about a particular outcome. If that were truly the motivation behind the books, the result must ultimately be perversion. Instead, it would have been better if they had argued on the basis that Rabbi Slifkin had conducted an honest, fair-minded and rigourous investigation into the topics he wrote about, and had come to his conclusions without bias towards any particular agenda.

There is always more that could be said on this issue. This is a vast topic that demands further analysis and teaching. Wisdom demands shakla v'tarya, which is sadly missing in our world, as highlighted by the Slifkin Affair. People do not wish to learn with others who disagree with them. They wish to exist within the cocoons of similar opinion. Authority also has a significant place within Torah. Unfortunately, the nature of these authority structures need to be studied and implemented within the full guidelines of halacha. This is also sadly lacking within our present world, and was also highlighted by this matter. And we haven't even addressed the further issue of the balance of human wisdom and human authority. Our hope is that this matter is still not settled, and that an open discussion on the relationship between authority and wisdom will produce a positive effect on our world Torah community. 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

© 2005 NISHMA