Thursday, May 19, 2005

Reaching Conclusions

I receive a lot of response to my blog. Some readers send ideas for future posts. Others send comments or related documents. Many send praise, sometimes on meeting me in person, other times via e-mail. And I also receive a lot of criticism. Of course, sometimes the criticism is totally incomprehensible. I'm used to that. I wrote a website against anti-semitic critics of the Talmud (here) and against Lubavitch messianism (here), so hate e-mail is nothing new to me. I give my readers credit, because I have not yet been sent viruses by people unhappy with this blog. Criticism generally bounces off of me, sometimes too fast. Every once in a while I have to stop and consider whether I am being legitimately criticized. It is not farfetched at all.

Over the past few months, basically since the Slifkin controversy erupted, I have been receiving e-mails from old friends who read my blog and criticize me. This hurts, although it shouldn't. They are not being mailicious. Not at all. These are people I like and respect, and they are trying to point out their surprise, even shock, at some of the things I write. Sometimes they are misreading my blog but often they are not. Whenever I receive these e-mails, I try to stop and reconsider the issue from first principles. Is what I am doing and saying proper? Sometimes I'll talk it over with others also.

Last week, I was surprised to receive what I considered to be criticism from an old friend about one of my posts on Religious Zionism (here). Specifically, my dismissal of the Satmar Rav in this way:

Again, if the Satmar Rav's goal was to prove conclusively that Religious Zionism is invalid, indeed heresy!, he does not seem to have done so conclusively. Quite the opposite. His explanation of the sources, while more or less viable, is much less plausible than that of the Religious Zionists.
Where is my awe for hakhamim? This question bothered me. A lot. I have previously written and spoken with tremendous awe for the Satmar Rav. When I was in YU, I once wrote a devar Torah in the weekly parashah sheet based on an insight from the Satmar Rav--not something that happens too frequently in YU. Did I get carried away in my zeal to justify Religious Zionism and fail to show the Satmar Rav proper respect?

I e-mailed three people whose judgment I respect, and printed out my (at the time) three essays on Religious Zionism for my rav. Of the four people, one thought I went too far in dismissing the Satmar Rav and should have used softer language. Another agreed, but thought that no one has the right to criticize me for rejecting the Satmar Rav's view. The third thought that my language was so mild that it should not be criticized. My rav agreed that there was nothing wrong with my tone. In learning, it is normal to agree with one view over another. Part of learning Torah is looking for proofs in favor of one position or another. He also encouraged me to tell the following story that I told him:
I went to Israel in my third year of beis midrash and, based on my reading of the commentary Birkas Avraham on various tractates of the Talmud (by R. Avraham Erlanger), decided that I wanted to attend his lectures in Yeshiva Kol Torah. I had already been accepted into another respected yeshiva, but I decided to try to get into Kol Torah anyway. They ignored my application from abroad, so I showed up at the yeshiva on the first day of the zeman to try to get in. The person in charge of Americans was not particularly enamored with the idea of accepting a student from YU who insisted that he would be returning to YU. However, he told me that if I convinced them that I am an illuy (genius), they will accept me. He arranged for an oral examination--on Shenayim Ohazin, arguably one of the hardest chapters in the Talmud. The examination lasted for a while and I was surprising myself at how well I was doing. I was taking him through rishonim and aharonim all over the place. Finally, I ended up in a dispute between Reb Hayim and the Or Samei'ah. So, the examiner asked me, who do I think is right--Reb Hayim or the Or Samei'ah? I looked at him with a bit of shock and disbelief. I simply told him that I couldn't decide between the two giants. That was the end of the exam. They sent me to the other yeshiva, which they praised as an excellent yeshiva (which it is), and wished me well.
The point of the story: Part of learning is trying to be makhri'a between different positions. Yes, you have to know what you are talking about (this point cannot be emphasized enough, especially on the internet). And, of course, you have to remain within the confines of normative tradition (OK, let's emphasize this point also). But choosing one Torah position over another, based on extended analysis and thought, is a natural part of advanced learning. Just 1) don't call anyone names and 2) acknowledge that the people who hold the position you are dismissing are intelligent and learned, usually much more than you.

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