Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On 800 Pound Gorillas Sitting In The Corner...

I recently received a letter from a reader about my post on miracles. The reader went on to state (capitilization his):

"NO ONE serious in even the LW Chareidi world takes the mabul literally. NO ONE. Honestly, I assure you. I know well known Rabbis who have told me personally that its not literal. They don't preach itto the masses because they don't want to get into trouble."

(-- N.B. The author mentions later on that what he means here is not that LW Chareidi world doesn't hold of the factuality of a flood, rather that they doubt the factuality of a world-wide flood )

The above statement, to me, shows how backwards we have become. Assuming that the first statement of the quote is true (or reasonably close to true) then why have we become so afraid to speak our minds? What is the fear of harsh words from the "right wing?" In short, the issue of absolute literalism, according to the above quote, has become our 800 lb. gorilla sitting in the corner - no one wants to talk about him, but we all know that he's there.

I suppose that there are several questions that need to be asked here:

1. Is the initial statement of my corrospondent correct (or reasonably close - in other words, does, say, 75% of the LW Chareidi world accept that the mabul story as written in Noah did not occur literally as written) ?

2. If the above statement is reasonably true, then why is everyone so afraid? Are we afraid of becoming the next Nosson Slifkin? Are we afraid of being branded heretics? Does the "right wing" of the Chareidi world really hold that much power over everyone else?

3. Even if my last question in #2 above is answered in the affirmative, we then have another question: is keeping silent about one's beliefs justifiable in the name of societal convenience? We're not talking about Conversos here, where keeping your mouth shut about your beliefs meant staying alive - we're talking about simple societal convenience. If there are truly enough of "us," then wouldn't it be proper to establish our own institutions - yeshivos, shuls, etc. if the "right wing" won't have us because we refuse to ignore evidence placed in front of our eyes?

(And, yes, I do include myself in the above. As I stated in other posts, I have always been a big believer in being "out there" and not hiding under the cover of anonymity. I regularly post on one of the larger message boards on the internet - and I do so with my real name, unlike the majority of the posters on the board. The people on those boards know a great deal about my personal life. I really don't like "hiding" behind this wolfish mask. Yet, when I broached the subject a while ago, the unanimous concensus of people who both replied to my post and contacted me privately indicated that I should remain anonymous, since they feared that if I were to go public, I would "lose my voice.")

4. Of course, the last question that I suppose one must ask is this: Even if we accept that the mabul story cannot be understood literally and can be viewed as either allegory or partially accurate (i.e. in describing a local flood, rather than a worldwide flood), then one must ask where the line is to be drawn? Can one say that the Avos were allegorical? Moshe? Mattan Torah? The wanderings in the wilderness? At what point must one stop and say: this is true because the Torah says it is - and it cannot be understood any other way? At what point do we turn to the person with the alternate interpretation and say "you, sir, are out of bounds - come back to the fold?" And when we draw the line for them, how do we justify where that line lays?

The Wolf

29 comments:

Mis-nagid said...

What line? Stop turning your brain off. There is no line except in your head. Not between "primary" and "secondary" miracles or between the authors of earlier or later works. If you're interested in the truth instead of protecting dogmas there is no "out of bounds."

Chana said...

This is a bit off-topic, Wolf, but desired to make a comment. Firstly, as to Harrison Bergeron- tis one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut stories, and I actually just wrote something about the "evils of equality." Anyway, however...

For being the next R' Slifkin- I think I read this on your site, what the Frumteens mod was saying. In any case, I went over there and wrote a (harshly worded) letter-reply, which he simply refused to post/ publish. Perhaps people worry that they may put themselves on the line- and for what? After all, their words won't necessarily be heard, only smatterings and distortions of their words.

I've always seen the flood as being real. To me, it is no more strange and confusing than the fact that we know of moons covered in deep ice and planets that destroyed themselves through volcanic action/ major floods. In any case, interesting post!

Mis-nagid said...

chana, the same scientific tools that support "oddball" (only from our pov) planets precludes a Flood. No one with a lick of intellectual honesty believes in a global flood, precisely because of the kind of science that can tell us things about distant planets.

bluke said...

I also loved that Vonnegut story, I had no idea it was posted on the web (I guess I should have known).

BrooklynWolf said...

For those reading this and wondering what a Kurt Vonnegut story has to do with this, the answer is "nothing at all."

The Vonnegut story came up in a comment I made on DovBear's blog here.

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Ah, the dilemma of the Orthoprax.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it, learning Torah is like learning anything else...like learning math, for example. You don't teach calculus to second graders. Why? Because they're not ready to learn it yet, and it'll just confuse them.

It's the same way about studying. The Rabbis who know the mabul isn't literal but still teach that it is might figure that their students aren't ready to accept a figurative or partially accurate mabul. Because, like you said in question 4, if the mabul isn't literal, how do we know the Avos or Moshe are? So, they teach a literal one so as not to confuse their students.

Mis-nagid said...

Anonymous, there's a big difference between not teaching a difficult subject like calculus and lying about a simple one. How hard is it to understand that it's just a story? Do you tell your children that Clifford really is a big red dog, saving the truth for later because it'll "confuse" them? Kids are fully capable of comprehending the mabul as a myth, just as they are of Clifford.

You're intentionally conflating the difficulty of understanding a subject with the difficulty of getting them to believe a less-plausible explanation later. You tacitly admit as much in your wicked Machiavellian justification. You say it'll "confuse" them. You mean they won't swallow the whopper unless they're too young to know any better. Try getting an educated grownup like Wolf to believe that the Mabul is anything but a myth if he hadn't been brainwashed from before he had a mental immune system in place into making unjustifiable exceptions. Your "ends" of heading off the obvious questioning of other implausibilities by the "means" of giving them a version you don't believe is simply brainwashing cloaked in excuses that do nothing to hide the the fact that you have no faith in the believability of your own religion through coming to it honestly.

The Hedyot said...

This is so off-topic but I figured you'd probably want to know it anyway: You're misusing your metaphors. The phrase "800 lb. gorilla" is not the proper term. I believe what you mean to say is "the elephant in the room". 800 lb. gorilla is a term used to describe an entity which has become so large and powerful it is practically unstoppable by anything, (for example, it is commonly used to describe Microsoft). "The elephant in the room" describes a situation where there is something so obvious and impossible to ignore (like an elephant in a room), yet everyone goes about their lives ignoring the reality and pretending it doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that gorillas can reach 800 pounds. 400, maybe 500 is probably the maximum.

Ke'evei Beten said...

leaving aside the question of the flood (I mean, it's a good moral story, who cares if it really happened)....
the issue that you raise about orthodox jews being afraid to speak what they want to...

i think that
a) a long time ago, the orthodox world decided that conformity and obedience was more important to them than truth so all questioning voices had to be silenced. (for a good example, read the ad in hamodia over pesach, claiming it was halachically forbidden to read any other newspaper)

b)in order to acheive this obedience and conformity the orthodox world dumbed down education to the point where frum jews think science is just theories, and that all non-jewish systems can have no moral contribution to make to the debate about a moral life...

now you are living with our own choices of leaders and moral choices... anyone who speaks up gets squashed or forced out...

i say... that's about the time to leave orthodoxy, or to fight to fix it...
what are you prepared to do?

BrooklynWolf said...

Yep, I goofed. I used the wrong metaphor. However, I'm not going to change it now. Thanks for the heads up Hedyot.

(Although, I suppose one could argue that the RW Chareidi community is trying to make itself into the proverbial 800 lb. gorilla.)

KB,

You seem to have the essence of the problem down. (BTW, I wasn't aware that HaModia said it was forbidden to read any other paper - what a way to quash the competition [e.g. The Jewish Press, the Yated, etc.)] - simply say it's forbidden to read them!)

What the LW needs are strong community leaders who will stand up for their beliefs and challenge the RW crowd. Unfortunately, I fear two outcomes of this, neither of which appeal to me:

1. The RW wins and we re-enter the dark ages.

2. The LW succeeds, but we end up splitting the frum community even further.

The Wolf

Avi said...

Why stop with the Mabul? Was the tower of Bavel also a metaphor? Where does it end. Maybe even Mattan Torah never happened. Once you start cutting things out of the torah, you become like a little kid with a pair of scissors cutting everything in sight.Cut away enought things and you are left with a very small torah, and no God to believe in.

BrooklynWolf said...

There's a very good reason, Avi to doubt the factuality of a world-wide flood but not that of Mattan Torah - very specifically, that there is evidence *against* there being a world-wide flood in the last 10,000 years. There is no evidence against (or for, for that matter) Mattan Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The Wolf

Yonatan said...

Avi said "Once you start cutting things out of the torah, you become like a little kid with a pair of scissors cutting everything in sight."

Yeah but there's also the problem of understanding the Torah as an adult in a way that is most appropriate for a little kid. Many folks' approach to Torah never evolves beyond the early stage of literalizing everything that the "Medrash Says".

Jewish Atheist said...

And when we draw the line for them, how do we justify where that line lays?

You can't. That's why Orthodox Judaism isn't intellectually honest. People would rather stay frum than find out what's really true. If they're so confident, they should go charging wherever the truth leads.

You can't decide where you want to be before you figure out how to get there and still call yourself intellectually honest.

BrooklynWolf said...

Sadly, yonatan, there are people like that out there.

JA,

I understand your point. However, in Judaism, we do have some "ground rules" by which we play the "game." The very first of those rules is that God exists. There are others that follow.

I am perfectly aware of the fact that God's existence is unprovable from an empirical standpoint. His existence is something that I accept on faith - without proof. That being said, I suppose you can consider every religious person "intellectually dishonest" to some degree. If that's the case, then so be it.

Of course, that doesn't really answer my original question.


I suppose that there really is no way to make an absolute line in the sand. Perhaps that's why Judaism exists in all permentations along the spectrum from atheistic to the most Orthodox. Even the name "Orthodox" is a misnomer, as not all Orthodox hold identical positions on just about anything in Judaism. But nonetheless, a group has the right to maintain standards, and if we don't want to see our religion constantly moving to the right, have to stand up and find leaders that will help us maintain it's centrality.

The Wolf

Jewish Atheist said...

However, in Judaism, we do have some "ground rules" by which we play the "game."

First of all, please don't say "Judaism" when you mean "Orthodox Judaism."

Second of all, even if you take certain axioms as unquestionable, you must still build on those axioms an honest structure. It seems like you want to draw an arbitrary line not based on "God exists" or even "God inspired the Torah," but on, "Well, we've gotta stop applying reason at some point or we're going to start finding stuff we don't want to see." This is exactly what I was talking about on my blog with compartmentalization. It's dishonest.

(Sorry if this came out strongly worded. I enjoy your blog. :-) )

Yonatan said...

This posting about R. Gedaliah Nadel should be required reading, specifically the "controversial" part after footnote 5:
http://chakira.blog-city.com/read/1230733.htm

(I personally took great comfort in knowing that some of my beliefs - while not necessary mainstream - are consonant with those of a Gadol b'Torah.)

BrooklynWolf said...

JA,

Firstly, you are correct. When I said "Judaism," I did, in fact, mean "Orthodox Judaism." Please consider my statement emended.

Secondly, you are correct, to a point. There comes a point where, if one posits certain truths, that you have to state that you cannot regard anything to the contrary. All you can do is attempt to reconcile the truth that you believe with the truth presented before you. The flood is a perfect example of this - I do believe that there was a flood - I don't think that the Torah was speaking *entirely* in metaphor about the whole thing. But, OTOH, I am presented with very strong evidence that either (a) a world-wide flood did not occur or (b) it did, but God covered up all the evidence for it. Option (b) sounds absurd to me, so I'm left with option (a). So, what do I do when faced with these two "competing truths?" I try to make some sense of it and say "OK, maybe there wasn't a world-wide flood as described, but it's possible that there was a local flood."

Lastly, please don't apologize for asking questions, even if I can't answer them all. Even though we are coming from different starting points, I can certainly see your point of view, even if I don't agree with it.

And thank you for the compliment. It's nice to know that even though you're coming from a different direction than I am that we can still have this dialouge and that you (and others) enjoy it.

Yonatan,

I'll have to take a look at it!

The Wolf

lisa said...

"RW" "LW" this is a bunch of non sense. There is one torah, period. Youre arguements are so regressive and are outdated. Going back thousands of years ago there throughout the doros there were been kofrim who made your arguments. Moreover there is no zeicher of them nowadays and you are just heading down the slippery slope into oblivion

BrooklynWolf said...

Lisa,

Thank you for your...spirited arguments. I must ask, however, for you to elaborate a bit more.

Firstly, you are correct that there is only one Torah. However, as has been shown many times since there, there is more than one way to interpret what it says. Shivim Panim LaTorah is what it says.

Secondly, what arguments, specifically, have I made that are "so regressive and outdated?" As a matter of fact, I haven't made any arguments in my post, only asked a bunch of questions. Am I to be labeled a kofer for asking if people in the frum community are willing to accept the idea of a local flood rather than a worldwide one? Am I to be labeled a kofer for asking that if a significant portion of the frum community does believe that way that people come forward and say so? Or am I a kofer for simply stating that the scientific evidence indicates that a world-wide flood did not occur? And if the last case is so, then please, Lisa, tell me then where the evidence is that a world-wide flood existed, OR, give me a plausible reason why God would hide said evidence.

The Wolf

lisa said...

The parameters of authentic torah philosophy are the tanaim amoraim geonim rishonim acharonim etc. If you want to make any argument, you must ground it with a recognized authority.Do you have any basis in maimonidies nachmonidies the zohar etc. for your rediculous assertion. It is clear that your thinking lies outside the pale of the current "state of the art" namely those well versed in judaic philosophy and history. Any published article must pass a "peer review" and your comments dont pass the smell test. sorry

BrooklynWolf said...

Again, Lisa, I ask you to be specific on which assertion you're talking about here.

The assertion only assertion that I've made in this post (and if you find another, please point it out and I'll be more than happy to correct myself and either defend it or retract) is that the current scientific evidence does not support a global flood. What the Rishonim or Achronim say about that is really irrelevant. Mind you, I'm not saying here that a global flood didn't happen - I'm just saying that the current scientific evidence doesn't support it.

That being said, there *are* sources for a non-global flood. Perhaps the most famous one is the Midrash that the flood did not cover Eretz Yisroel. You've heard of that one, haven't you? Furthermore, Tosfos concurs that when the Torah says that it covers all the mountains that it means "all the mountains where the flood occured" and not all the mountains in the world.

So, now, I've presented my sources on that. That being said, I again ask you which assertion I made that you were talking about.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Lisa,

While we're at it, I'm kind of curious about your take on this post of mine. Please comment (or email me privately, if you wish).

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

I loved it when she brought the Zohar as an example of an authentic torah philosophy. Good show!

Anonymous said...

Lisa must be from Brooklyn. Note her inability to spell 'ridiculous'.

Anonymous said...

By the way, as author of that email, I should point out that I said no-one 'serious'. In other words scholars who have looked into it. Not chareidi sheep who haven't thought about Noach since kindergarten.

bluke said...

I recently posted, When is צאת הכוכבים?, on my blog about the dispute between the Gra and R' Tam regarding when nightfall is. The main argument of the Gra against R' Tam is החוש מכחיש, R' Tam is against reality. Well before 4 mil (72 minutes) after sunset it is pitch black outside and you can see hundreds of stars.

We see a very important point from this Gra, החוש מכחיש (reality contradicts) is a good question. Torah has to correspond to reality, if it doesn't we are misunderstanding the Torah.