Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Farber Affair (part II) What would Rambam Do?

This is the second in a series on the “Farber Affair”. To read the first post, including my reasons for writing this series, click here.

When Rambam wrote the Moreh Nevuchim, he knew that he was heading into potentially dangerous waters. In attempting to reconcile the Torah with Aristotelian philosophy, he recognized that his conclusions would not, indeed could not, be understood by everyone, and that some people would see his views as dangerous, or even heresy. Therefore, in his introduction to the Guide, he wrote that there would be seeming contradictions within the text, and that it was up to the reader to resolve them on his own. Notwithstanding the fact that in some segments of the Jewish world, he was vilified, he was successful enough that ultimately, his views remained hidden enough as to make him a virtual Rorschach test for Jewish scholars. From Rav Soloveitchik to Satmar, from Strauss to Rav Schneerson, from Shapiro to Schweid, they are all certain that they know the “real” Rambam.

I do not know Zev Farber personally, so my analysis will focus on his actions and words, and not his motivation. I will refrain from analyzing him, and focus on the article that started it all, and to a lesser degree, to his followup responses.

To begin, I will state clearly that I do not blame Farber for struggling with how to create a balance between the worlds of of Torah, religion and belief on the one hand, and scholarship, intellectual honesty and autonomy on the other. The questions with which he struggled are real questions and can not simply be dismissed. I have great respect for anyone who attempts to deal with these issues in a serious and thoughtful way.

That said, I have several questions:

  1. Why was there a need to publicize the conclusion that he reached? In other words, even when he concluded that the Torah does not contain any objective history, and was somehow revealed in some other way to some other prophet or leader, why share that view publicly? Surely he knew that such a departure from even the most open traditional views would ruffle feathers.
  2. Even if Farber hoped that by sharing his belief, that he might help others who were struggling, why do it in such a public direct manner? There are others who have attempted to deal with the same conflicts who have come up with answers that are seen as controversial. Still, by sharing their views in more scholarly forums, they remain relatively unknown outside of those circles, and have thus, not been the subject of any articles, critiques or attacks in the non-scholarly Jewish world.
  3. Finally, if Farber felt the need to share these views openly and publicly had value-perhaps with the assumption that many needed help reconciling these two worlds- why use a tone that suggests that he is among the few who are brave enough to want the real answer? Even if there was value in sharing his views in a view that it would be readable to the non-scholar, taking such a tone virtually assured that he would ruffle feathers. Even when he subsequently backtracked somewhat, there were still comments he made suggesting that his initial take reflected his real views. Calling one's philosophical opponents “dinosaurs” does nothing to lead to calm and thoughtful discussion. While I can certainly imagine how painful the attacks against him must have felt, to some degree, they were self-inflicted.

I began this post with the Rambam, as I think he suggests a better way. For anyone who attempts to reconcile somewhat conflicting worlds, much foresight is needed. The intended audience, potential reaction (to both the author and his institution), manner of speaking, and chance of being understood and accepted by the intended audience, are among the lessons that such an author would be wise to consider.

Although I strongly disagree with the conclusions that Farber reached, as well as the manner in which he shared his views, I admire his willingness to deal with questions which are troubling to many within the Jewish world. It is my hope that future attempts will learn from Farber's mistakes, as well as from the reaction to him, to emulate the Rambam in proceeding with extreme sensitivity and care.


  1. 1) I think the questions are completely unfair. Why do you write a blog? WHy do others? Why do you share your opinions? Many people have different motivations--some want gaava and others do it for holier reasons... But the fact that you do not pose these questions to everyone who shares their views publicly is unfair.

    2) For all your questions, if they must be answered, there is one simple answer: The desire to perpetuate truth instead of falsehood. Why is that not enough?

    1. I'm a little perplexed by your response. You seem to have misread what I wrote. Please read the introduction in the post linked to at the beginning of the article, and re-read my post. If you have any questions at that point, I will gladly answer them.

  2. No one who wants to retain his or faith is going to lose it over R Farber's piece. There are so many built-in safeguards for someone in that situation. (Don't read kfira, don't believe kfira, continue "learning" and participating in communal life - all of these things help maintain and affirm faith). For someone already questioning, his piece may be useful. Anyway, ask around - no one who is happy in his or her faith and wanting to stay in that place has heard of Rabbi Farber, nor cares who he is or what he says. The internet is not the same place as real life.