Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Farber Affair (part 1)- When Silence is Golden

It has been almost a year since Zev Farber published his online manifesto about Torah MiSinai. The reverberations from that essay continue to be felt and show no sign of quieting down. Although Farber was not the first one to raise questions about the challenges of reconciling TMS and current biblical scholarship, nor was he the first to suggest a less than traditional solution, for various reasons that need not concern us here, his essay was widely disseminated, and thus, read, critiqued and attacked. I have been giving a lot of thought to effect that the essay had, on Farber, Orthodoxy in general, Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy specifically, as well as to the other individuals who entered the fray. It is my contention that each player made a mistake in how they dealt with the article, including Farber himself. Over a serious of essays, I will discuss the errors that were made, and make suggestions on how they might have been avoided. To be sure, I do not do so in an attempt to play Monday-morning-quarterback. I do so in the hope that in the future all involved, or those who might become involved, whether in this specific issue or other similar ones, will learn from the mistakes, and learn how to proceed in a more successful manner. 

For no particular reason, I will begin with the oddest player in the controversy that followed the publication of Farber's essay; the American Charedi-lite position (I apologize for the title, but it seems to be the most accurate descriptor). By this phrase, I refer to Avi Shafran, Yaakov Menken and others who either wrote responses or published them on their websites. I say oddest player, as there are many good reasons why those from this world might have avoided entering the fray in the first place. Additionally, in many ways, for those who care to examine this episode carefully, the Charedi-lite world had the most to gain by remaining silent, and their participation harmed their position considerably. Few of their readers were aware of the major issues in modern biblical criticism, or I suspect, biblical criticism in general. By attacking Farber's essay, they brought his questions to their audience.

This might not have been such a bad thing had they had any reasonable responses to his essay. That might have included a way of reconciling the two somewhat contradictory worlds of Torah and biblical scholarship, or even showing why the questions were wrong. Of course they did neither of the two, while leaving the impression that they did so because they were unable to do so. To make matters worse, they gave the impression that questioning and struggling are not really legitimate, and thus, gave fodder to their opponents who suggest that they do not have the intellectual tools to deal with the challenges of modernity. Even worse, those within their ranks who think deeply, were given a reminder that their questions and struggles are illegitimate, something which our great tradition would certainly reject.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit various seforim stores, libraries and batei midrash. One of the things I saw astounded me. While the world of Gush Etzion, Bar-Ilan and their ilk are writing and publishing creative works on Tanach and Jewish thought, the charedi world, for the most part remains silent. I got the distinct impression that for those in the former group chiddush and creativity are not only allowed, but even encouraged, whereas for the latter, it is forbidden to say anything that has not been said. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.

First, and most important, such an attitude is an insult to God and his Torah. If all that can be said has already been said, what does that say to the modern Jew who is seeking to understand what his tradition has to say to him in the 21st Century? If our Torah, is, as we believe, a Toras Chaim, it certainly should continue to speak to us today. Indeed, our chachamim have always been willing to deal creatively with new challeneges, whether from without or from within the Jewish world. Second of all, there are questions that Chazal obviously could not have dealt with, as discoveries in linguistics, archeology and other areas had not yet been discovered in their time. If we follow the charedi approach of only relying on earlier rabbis who were greater than ourselves, than are we not admitting that we have nothing to say on this and other pressing issues? I say this while recognizing the dangers and difficulties involved in plowing ahead without much assistance from those great thinkers who came before us, but in truth, what other choice do we have? Furthermore, although those like Rav Saadyah Gaon and Rambam did not, indeed could not, have answered our current questions, they did suggest the methodology which might be used. The fact that the charedi-lite world did not do so leads one to wonder whether this was due to a lack of knowledge or the fear to engage in this challenging endeavor.

All of this suggests that the best course for those from the charedi-lite world, silence would have been the preferred approach. That they did not do so, leaves me wondering what their real goal really is.

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