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It’s All in the Angle

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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Sadder But Wiser on February 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Riemer’s comments against Rabbi Safran regarding worker rights and cruelty to animals are admirable but specious. I could be the most evil individual on earth, yet my science may be correct. Rabbi Riemer needs to challenge Rabbi Safran on the science as he begins to do regarding the Hammurabi Code, and not on ultra-Orthodox behavior.
Ellen on February 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm (Reply)
Thanks for reviewing Rabbi Safran's book and providing a thoughtful perspective on a worldview different from what one gets in the surrounding nonthoughtful culture.

One of the most unsolvable problems for those who posit the "truth" of science versus the supposedly "wishful thinking" of Torah is the the lack of purposefulness in the former. It's all well and good for people to claim, incorrectly, that science explains all phenomena in our universe. It doesn't, but even if it did, that would not make it a substitute for religious belief.

For those who take it seriously, religious life and belief offers a moral purpose in life and a way of life that is beneficial to human individuals and society at large. Hardly any social or medical scientist would dispute these points today, since their own disciplines have been used to arrive at these conclusions. What religious teaching cannot offer is proof of its own "truthfulness." Science seemingly offers more convincing proof of truthfulness, without offering any purposefulness, morals, or path in life.

The last word on this subject will probably be spoken by the survival or not of societies that embody the truthfulness but lack of purpose of science, vs the purposefulness but not provable truthfulness of religion. The calamitous decline in fertility seen in secular societies today, combined with their excesses of self-destructive behavior, it seems to me, will prove to be decisive in determining the outcome of this competition.
charles hoffman on February 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm (Reply)
Jack Riemer attacking Avi Shafran is a fight on an uneven plane. Shafran's book is not intended for Riemer's audience any more than Riemer's criticism will soften Shafran's rhetoric.

Shafran is of the new "triumphlists" of Right-wing Orthodoxy; their theorum is "we have orgs, we have bucks, we must be right". But if they need to attack belief in science to defend emunah or belief in God, they've lost the battle.

Riemer, on the other hand, is similarly crippled by his own falsity of attack. It's not about his present-day agenda; the new concerns about workers' safety, cruelty to animals, and a dozen other social issues are not antithetical to Halacha; they're just not a direct part of the halachic debate. Just like Christian Conservatives can legitimately argue among themselves whether there should or should not be a system of universal medical coverage, Orthodox Rabbis can have differing positions (or absolutely no positions whatsoever) on a myriad of issues unrelated to halacha, and still be true to themselves, their beliefs, and their role in society.

Not every movement, group, or cultural effort has to address every problem of the world in order to be legitimate; if anything, the penultimate sign of a descent into modern day Avodah Zara *false worship* is the belief that some school of thought or belief has all the correct answers and a monopoly on the truth.
Mildred Bilt on February 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm (Reply)
Fifth paragraph attributed to Rabbi Safran and his knowledge about the 'scientific community' to wit; scientists are saying we won a lucky draw because ours is the only planet in the zillions of universes that sustains life? OOPS! I'm not an astrophysicist and I don't worship at their feet-but Rabbi Safran (if the quote is true) is severely remiss in his understanding of what was said to him or he is somewhat hearing impaired or his contact in the 'scientific community' was, regrettably a maintenance worker, or Rabbi Riemer misquoted him. For the record;theidea of multi universes is kicking around but as for our own infinite universe, there are zillions of planets in it and the physicists who spend their lives computing it, watching the movements of the bodies in it, gazing at it with highly sophisticated wave devices, telescopes on earth and in space etc, unanimously agree there is life on other planets in our universe. Every man and woman in the field knows that to be true. Some of these people are religious and believe in G-D. Why not? Where is the conflict that seems to be posed here?
    S. Benson on February 3, 2013 at 5:31 pm (Reply)
    "unanimously agree there is life on other planets in our universe"
    Not true. Many will posit that the large number of galaxies, solar systems, and planets *suggests* that there is probably life on other planets. However, there has been no evidence, at all, of extra-terrestrial life.
    At most, some suggestions of the presence of water or of simple molecules, e.g. amino acids, but the presence of "conditions" or "building blocks" is not the same as life itself.
Jeff Portner on February 3, 2013 at 12:26 am (Reply)
Rabbi Shafran's statements about the influence that contemporary culture has on the Reform and Conservative movements is accurate, even if only partially true. Shafran does not say these movements have no value, but that their habit of promoting contemporary secular concerns at the expense of traditional Judaism runs the risk of abdicating their responsibility to transmit authentic Judaism to successive generations. In non- Orthodox Judaism, the rights of "lettuce workers" and the living conditions of the animals we consume, no matter how worthy of our attention as Jews, have become substitutes for living an authentic, distinctive, and serious Jewish life.
Raymond in DC on February 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm (Reply)
"Is it fair to deny the moral integrity that led these groups to take some of the stands they have taken? ... 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?"

With all due respect to Rabbi Riemer, although Reform Judaism often spoke of focusing on the prophetic teachings, its proponents in the 19th and early 20th century were hardly concerned with worker or civil rights, women's suffrage, or animal welfare, never mind the "social justice" causes of today - abortion and gay rights, affirmative action, global warming, etc. Rather, it was an attempt to dispense with what they termed "archaic" behavior and a cloistered existence, in favor of a secular "enlightenment" and participation in what they deemed a more "modern" culture. Conservatives weren't so eager to dispense with tradition or its teachings, but were anxious to find a way to have them coexist in their new American environs.
madel on February 4, 2013 at 7:12 pm (Reply)
If you read the novel HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), published by Gefen Publishing of Jerusalem, you will experience a brilliant, fully detailed discussion of the compatibility of Torah and modern science within the framework of a group therapy session challenging its members to bring the Torah's blessings of health, peace, and prosperity to the world through an adventure they agree to undertake to prove the existence of God.

With amazing precision, the author attaches chapter and verse of the Torah to the Big Bang and evolution while explaining in convincing dialogue why the Torah intentionally leaves the specifics of the underlying science vague. Perhaps we all should take up this group challenge in a real world setting and save us from ourselves.
DF on February 5, 2013 at 9:30 am (Reply)
This "review", to the extent it can be called that, rather than a platform of Jack Riemer's personal views, is deeply flawed.

1. What exactly is "ultra-orthodoxy?" (A term Riemer repeats multiple times, as though trying to make a point.) Is there a corresponding "ultra-secular?" And if the Agudah is on the "far right" of the spectrum, as Riemer asserts, then what are the tens of thousands on non-Agudah affiliated Jews of the Chassidic or Lithuanian approach - off the spectrum completely?

These mischarachterizations betray a fundamental lack of knowledge of the community this book is addressed to, such that Riemer is unqualified to review it. There are others. Riemer is amazed that an "ultra orthodox" [i.e, Agudah] Rabbi is aware of George Orwell. I am amazed at his amazement. Orwell is hardly an esoteric literary figure. "Animal Farm" is taught in almost every Yeshivah high school, which every non-chassidic "ultra orthodox" rabbi since WWII has attended. (And not a few others also have post-secondary high school degrees.) On that note, Riemer says that in his generation, "ultra orthodox" rabbis did not speak English. If so, Riemer must either be nearly 100 years old, or else have grown up in an unusually cloistered orthodox community, and in either case ought to know better.

2. Riemer wants to know why the orthodx community is silent about the issues the "rest of the community is alarmed about", such issues being, in Riemer's mind, "workers rights" and pain to animals. I see no evidence that the rest of the community is so concerned with these issues, though undoubtedly some reform and, one presumes, conservative, rabbis are. There are millions of Jews in America. Some are "alarmed" about these issues, some are alarmed at government over-reach, and the majority simply are not involved, period. Moreover, Reimer ought to know there's not enough time in the day to involve oneself with every trendy cause. Why are the environmental activists not alarmed about women in Arabia? Why are the feminists not alarmed about the Panda bear? Etc.

3. Finally, Avi Shafran is hardly the right man to use as a vehicle to attack "ultra orthodox" Jews. The man has published a steady stream of pro-Obama, pro-democrat articles over the past 5 years, ever since he stopped some of his duties with the Agudah to start a new magazine. Either he's on an odyessy of his own, or in the past felt compelled/was compelled to constrain his views to reflect that of his employer, or is simply engaging in an old-fashioned journalist's attempt to spur interest in the new mag by being provocative. Whatver the case, Shafran's output of the past five years puts his views well out of the mainstream of most orthodox Jews.
ch hoffman on February 5, 2013 at 11:35 am (Reply)
df - whoever you are and why ever you're hiding behind your initials:

Riemer is right to characterize Agudah as ultra-Orthodox; and very few in Agudah's leadership would disagree.

The fact that there are non-Agudah chassidim is irrelevant - Agudah represents the interests of frum-to-the-max wherever it is and whatever the issue.

You know it; they know it; and the whole world knows it.
So get over it.
DF on February 6, 2013 at 9:15 am (Reply)
Actually, CH - whoever you are and why ever you're hiding behind your initials - the official spokesman for the Agudah has many times criticized the obnoxious phrase, "ultra-orthodox."
ch hoffman on February 6, 2013 at 9:53 am (Reply)

agudah may well criticize the term ultra-orthodox, because like any organization of the extreme, they refuse to recognize their position on the spectrum. But when compared with the other major organizations of orthodox jews in the US - young israel, ou, etc - one would categorically find that even where some of their positions may overlap, the Agudah would invariably have taken an overall position further to the extreme than any of the others.

there is nothing wrong, per se, with being the zealot of the gang - someone has to. But it is also necessary to realize that agudah speaks for its members, not for all of orthodoxy.

and my full name is indicated above -
charles hoffman
DF on February 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm (Reply)
Charles - I agree the Agudah speaks only for its members, and not for all of orthodoxy. Actually, it is occasionally even at odds with its own members, and I say that as a former intern for them. But no one ever said otherwise. There's not a single decent-sized Jewish organization on the planet that speaks for everyone. Heck, [to paraphrase what Obama said about his Reverend] even the shul Rabbi doesnt speak for all the shul members!

As for the Agudah being on the right wing - of course. And reform Jews are on the corresponding left wing. So we should call them "ultra-secularists?" Besides, there are tens of thousands of Jews who are far more right wing than the Agudah.
Sadder But Wiser on February 6, 2013 at 9:55 pm (Reply)
Raymond in DC: I think that you are being disingenuous when you discuss George Orwell and state that:
"Animal Farm" is taught at "Animal Farm" is taught in almost every Yeshiva high school, which every non-Chassidic "ultra orthodox" rabbi since WWII has attended. (And not a few others also have post-secondary high school degrees.) Today, MOST Haredi Yeshivas (at least in the NYC geographical area) at best pay lip service to secular studies, and often fake teaching any secular studies. If I encounter an Ultra-Orthodox Jew with a Ph.D., I immediately think that the individual is a Baal Tshuvah who came to his Ultra-Othodoxy after completing his secular studies.
In fact, a primary difference between the Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Judaic streams, is their attitude toward secular studies with the Ultra-Orthodox mocking secular studies. And Ner Yisroel, which R' Avi Shafran attended, is considered the Left wing of the Yeshiva world spectrum.

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