Thursday, April 08, 2010

The River, the Kettle and the Angry Book

Rabbi Aharon Feldman inspired me twice. His books The Juggler and the King and The River, the Kettle and the Bird educated me on Torah subjects and gave me entry into the world of elegant philosophical commentary of the Talmud and its relevance to contemporary life. Not only is his pen full of profound talmudic and psychological insights, he conveys them in an eloquent but simple English. His books are easy reading, deceptively so because they are rewarding the more thought you put into them. His latest book, tantalizingly titled The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues, is also written in that elegant style.

In R. Aharon Lichtenstein's recent review of the book in Jewish Action (link), he writes that the book was written with "no small modicum of anger." I agree with that assessment. Let me explain what I mean, although I obviously speak for no one but myself.

This book is a collection of essays that R. Feldman has written over the years, including a letter he wrote to me about Lubavitch messianists (p. 195ff., the Hebrew original is here: link - PDF). According to the author's Acknowledgments, a student gathered the essays and created the selection of topics. The collection is good because the chapters address many of the controversial issues of the day, making the book very timely. He discusses homosexuality, Orthodox Feminism, Lubavitch messianism, Zionism, Rabbinic Authority (Da'as Torah), the Torah-Science controversy and much more.

In almost every chapter, with only a few exceptions discussed below, R. Feldman writes about who or what he thinks is wrong and why. His critiques of Orthodox Feminists, Zionists, R. Natan Slifkin, etc. are polite but strong. You might even call them harsh. With the full force of his powerful intellect and eloquent voice, he knocks out his opponents and keeps on punching. There is no mercy and understandably so; this is a battle for Torah truth.

Yet, this is precisely why he seems angry. It is a rarity in the book for R. Feldman to begin by praising the good aspects of his subject before strongly disagreeing with him. An exception is his critique of the English Steinsaltz Talmud, which he begins and ends with praise of its positive aspects and tears apart in the middle. Much less is given to R. Natan Slifkin, whom R. Feldman calls "a talented young man... a fully observant chareidi Torah Jew whose intent was clearly leshem shomayim (for the sake of Heaven), to defend the honor of the Torah." That isn't bad, but it seems artificial, like an obligatory handshake before the boxing match begins. The Steinsaltz praise, on the other hand, seems sincere, as does R. Feldman's acclaim for Gedolim books before he critiques them.

When it comes to Zionists or Feminists, however, there is no praise at all, or at best praise so faint as to be essentially non-existent (cf. p. 81). That is where the anger is sensed most acutely (and where R. Lichtenstein focused his review). Is there really no substantial good he could say about them before proceeding to his critique?

Another sign of what I perceive as anger is the occasional gratuitous insult. For example, referring to Yeshiva University's affiliate RIETS as "a rabbinical school notorious for its minimal spiritual requirements" (p. 230). Or describing the content of a book of women's essays on Jewish law as "a series of unfortunate misreadings and misinterpretations" (p. 91) or "reminiscent of the cant and jargon of the agitprop" (p. 94) or simply an "absurdity" (p. 99). Is that kind of loaded language really necessary for a sober analysis?

What makes this even more painful is that, more often than not, I agree with R. Feldman. With the exception of the Torah-Science issue and that of Zionism, where my teachers differ strongly with R. Feldman's position, I find his views generally to be consistent with what I have been taught. His eloquent presentation make his essays compelling but his tone detracts from his ability to convince.

That notwithstanding, I would not want readers to think that his new book contains only negative essays. There are a few, such as his discussion of his personal beliefs ("Credo of Credence") and his description of the Chazon Ish, that present his positive vision of Judaism. They are, certainly, free from anger and show this master of thought and expression at his best.

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