It’s All in the Angle

By Jack Riemer
Friday, February 1, 2013

When I was growing up, the debate between Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox rabbis on the one side and ultra-Orthodox rabbis on the other was no contest. Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox rabbis spoke English; ultra-Orthodox rabbis did not.  And so it was not really a fair fight—at least not in the minds of the native-born Jews of my generation.

Today, it is something of a new ballgame, as Rabbi Avi Shafran’s new book, It’s All in the Angle, demonstrates.  Rabbi Shafran is a spokesman for the Agudath Israel, which is an organization on the far right of the Orthodox spectrum, but he is obviously erudite and sophisticated, knowledgeable in secular matters, and acquainted with science.  And in this collection of short essays, he demonstrates talents that should make those who disagree with him take notice that they are dealing with a writer of substance, who cannot be dismissed as a mere anachronism.

For example, he has a short essay called “Blind Faith and Physics.”  Don’t be misled by the title.  He does not argue that blind faith is to be preferred to the wisdom of science, as one might expect.  Instead, he points out that there is blind faith within the scientific community, not only the religious community.

He begins the essay by citing a certain professor at MIT who, back in the 1990s, said, “We are closing in on a vision of the universe in which everything will soon be calculated, predicted, and understood.”  But as Shafran shows, scientists today are not all so brash.  Careful calculations indicate that if the parameters of the universe had diverged even a little bit from what they actually are, life on this planet simply could not exist.  If the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it is, all hydrogen atoms would fuse and become helium.  And it is clear: no hydrogen, no water; no water, no life.

So what do some of these scientists say now?  To avoid the embarrassing conclusion that there is intentionality in the universe, which would refute the dogma that they want to hold on to, they posit that there is an infinite number of other universes in the cosmos, and that ours just happens, by chance, to be the one that has the configuration necessary to support life.  As one of them puts it, “From the cosmic lottery that contains zillions of universes, we humans happen to have drawn the one universe that allows humans to exist.”  In other words, human life is a matter of the luck of the draw, and the fact that it exists is no proof of Divine purpose.  Rabbi Shafran, for his part, fiercely contests the view that dumb luck is really a sufficient explanation for the order in the cosmos, and concludes with these words from George Orwell: “It is a formidable struggle for some people to see what is in front of their eyes.”

Can you imagine an ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the previous generation knowing who someone like George Orwell was, or using him to make the case against the fanaticism of some scientists?  Rabbi Shafran is clearly not your grandfather’s ultra-Orthodox spokesman. 

Rabbi Shafran takes on the dogmatism of some scientists and the challenges of some of the other secular idolatries within our culture, and makes the case against them very well.  But his book is not without its shortcomings.

The first is an unwillingness or inability to deal with some of the valid challenges that come from the natural or social sciences.  In one essay, for example, he says that when he was growing up he was troubled by the fact that the Code of Hammurabi, which is clearly much older than that of Moses, bears striking resemblances to some of the laws in the Torah.  So he went to his teacher, who solved his problem with just one sentence: “Avi, what do you think Abraham our father spent his entire life doing?” 

I don’t know how to begin to deal with the idea that Abraham could have been Hammurabi’s teacher, or how to respond to someone who takes such a notion seriously and thinks it suffices to refute two centuries of serious biblical scholarship.

The second shortcoming of these essays is their author’s frequent assertion that the main reason the Reform and Conservative movements have made the changes they have is to win the favor of the culture around them.  Is it fair to deny the moral integrity that led these groups to take some of the stands they have taken?  Was it really only a desire to keep up with their neighbors that led rabbis to fight for the rights of lettuce workers, and to declare lettuce harvested by immigrants receiving less than subsistence wages to be treyf because of oshek, the outright mistreatment of workers?  Was it only a desire to keep up with the culture that led rabbis to fight for civil rights, some of them at the risk of their lives?

My greater concern is that there is no explanation in these essays for the thunderous silence within the ultra-Orthodox community over some of the moral issues that the rest of the community is alarmed about.  Is there not a qualm of conscience to be found among those who are silent about the pain caused to animals in kosher slaughterhouses or the rights of workers in these places, or is kashrut their only concern?  If this group can be concerned about the need to use microscopes in order to make sure that there are no invisible bugs in the water we drink, should this group not be equally concerned about social injustices that require no microscope to see?

All of the columns in this collection are written with elegance and erudition, and many of them are persuasive, but Rabbi Shafran seems unable or unwilling to find a place within them for the valid challenges to tradition that need to be wrestled with, and not just dismissed by saying, “It is up to the Sages, who know more than we do, to deal with them.”  And this is why, with all the brilliance he demonstrates in this book, I doubt that his camp will have any chance of winning the debate for the minds and hearts of an inquisitive and independent generation.  Nevertheless, it is very good to have him in the conversation, and there is much that all of us can learn from him and the viewpoint he represents.  We need to reckon with what he says, and we need to hope that he and his camp will reckon with the challenges that we raise as well.  If that happens, we will have a vital and vibrant community, with mutual respect, and not be silos standing side by side, ignoring each other.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co-editor of So That Your Values Live On and the chair of the National Rabbinic Network, a support system for rabbis across all the denominational lines.

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