It is a well-known fact that with the death of Darwin, his evolution theory became more and more popular and many young Jews were attracted by his ideas and left the fold. In 1885, in the city of Kovno, there was a meeting of rabbis, which included the famous Geonim Rabbi Elchanan Spector and Rabbi Alexander Lapides. On that occasion one prominent leader suggested that one should ostracize any Jew who studied Darwins works. Both Rabbis Spector and Lapides strongly opposed the move on the grounds that Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku (2), stolen waters are sweet and that Darwins theories would only be sweetened by putting a ban on his books. (3)
Judaism has little interest in using thought control over people. In the days before the emancipation bans were sometimes utilized when the coherence of a Jewish community living in a gentile and often hostile surroundings was at stake and the adherence to unity was crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. The rabbis were also most reluctant to initiate a ban knowing how harmful it would be for the family of the so called deserter and even more so for himself. (4) But above all they realized that such condemnations were most of the time counter productive.
Today religious condemnations in the form of bans reflect negatively on those who initiate them. They are seen as symptoms of fear and a lack of intellectual honesty. They indicate a refusal to conduct intellectual debate and reflect fundamentalism and dogmatism. Willfully or unintentionally bans are identified with the Christian clerical authorities who condemned Galilei in the seventeenth century for suggesting that the earth was not at the center of the universe. Bans have been used against demons, witches and other forms of superstition. Hardly activities which rabbis want to be identified with.
Even when rabbis want to send a message to some of their followers that they are not in agreement with the contents of some books, they should realize that a ban is the last road to take. It is no longer possible to keep such a censorship solely within a certain social group. Once released it travels to every corner of the world to be seen by all, Jews and gentiles. As such it provokes laughter and greatly embarrasses authentic Judaism. This is especially so when some rabbis try to hold scientific information away from their followers or want to hold on to ideas which the intellectual community and mainstream orthodox Judaism has long since rejected as simplistic, incorrect and outdated. No doubt, the rabbis have a right to convey their displeasure but they should do this through appropriate and convincing arguments, never through mind blocking. (5)
To refute arguments in ones study is easy when one has only to answer oneself. The art is to confront the adversary and see if ones arguments really live up to the challenge. Instead of condemning a book one should meet the author, ask him to explain his point of view and try to refute his opinions. In that case the first requirement is to actually read the book from beginning to end. Reviewing or criticizing a book before having read it is highly problematic, unless one is afraid that by reading it, it will prejudice the reader too much.
Besides this, a truthful criticism should reflect great expertise. Reckless condemnations concerning scientific claims show great ignorance even when some of these claims may be open to debate. Such statements are an indication that one cannot suffer disagreement because one is not able to defend oneself. It reveals an inability to handle opposing views. Pulling something apart is often the trade of those who cannot construct. Criticism is like champagne, nothing more execrable if bad, nothing more excellent if good, as Charles Caleb Colton once said.
It is also commendable and a matter of decency not to condemn somebody’s views when they are in essence restating earlier and well established sources quoted by great rabbinical authorities. One should have the courage to challenge or attack the earlier sources and not those who depend on them and who are more vulnerable. One should be careful not to hide behind false valor and take the easy way out. Courage is the result of resisting and mastering fear, never the result of escaping fear.
Criticism should not be querulous and wasting, destructive and extirpating, but rather should be guiding, instructive and inspiring. Judaism has never been afraid of dissent and debate but has in fact encouraged it. What after all is the profit of condemnation when Judaism simultaneously loses its soul?
It is time to set Judaism back on its authentic foundations as a religion of moral and intellectual heroism encouraging open mindedness. One should never forget that we owe most of our knowledge not to those who have agreed but to those who have differed.
Jews have greatly suffered from all sorts of inquisitions. The Talmud and its many commentaries have often been put on the Index of the Church. It has been burned and condemned but it outlived all its foes. Let us therefore be careful not to follow into the footsteps of the Catholic church. It seems it loved the truth so much that it was afraid of overexposure. Such attitudes have no place in the Jewish religious world of today. The truth cannot be served by bans, but by honest investigation and dialogue. Today, to use a ban, even when one is right, is wrong, let alone when one is definitely wrong.
Judaism was able to overcome many of its most intellectual opponents because it showed courage. It is committed to the truth and because it is convinced that the truth is represented by the holy Torah itself.
Let the condemning rabbis never forget that censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent. The stones that critics hurl with harsh intent, a man may use to build his monument.
May the Lord of the universe show us light in these days of darkness.
1. Several months ago, the books of a well-known author and Torah teacher, Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, were put under a religious ban by several rabbinic leaders in Israel and the USA. The rabbis claimed that his books on Torah and science include heretical views, which contradict Jewish Tradition. Since this ban has turned into a major desecration of Gods name (it has now hit the NY Times, 22.3.2005), I feel obligated to respond. Most disturbing is the fact that the condemnations hurled at Rabbi Slifkin, were seemingly meant for earlier impeccable rabbinical authorities who were the first to make these heretical observations known. It has also come to our attention that several rabbis who signed the ban did not read Rabbi Slifkins books. It is the purpose of the following essays to discuss the various implications of this ban and to discuss the relationship between Judaism and Science.
2. Mishle, Proverbs, 9.17; Nedarim 91a. Bans as mentioned by the Talmud were of a very different nature. As shall be shown in our later essays, the condemnation of rabbinical works was generally highly unsuccessful even when initiated by opposing rabbis. They were however motivated by very different circumstances that those which prevail today.
3. See Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind by Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991, p. 55.
There is a beautiful end to this story. At this meeting the famous sage, tzaddik and mussar exponent Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm got up and said that nobody could blame Darwin for his theories stating that men descended from animals and lower forms of life. Darwin after all was surrounded by British Lords who were only interested in waging war, people with little regard for the rights and dignity of their fellow men. If Darwin had mingled with individuals like my mentor Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, he could never have uttered such foolish theory. Rabbi Simcha Zissel contended that the most effective way to counteract Darwinism and any other teaching antithetical to the Torah is not to avoid them but to overcome them by inculcating moral and ethical values (ibid). For the Jewish religious view on evolution see our forthcoming essays.
4. See for example: Responsa Rosh 43.9 and Responsa Mahari Bruna, 189
5. It is well known that the heretic Uriel Da Costa (1585-1640) from Amsterdam was several times put under a ban by the leaders of the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam and consequently committed suicide. Concerning this most unfortunate and tragic case the famous sage Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, author of the Torah commentary Torah Temima made the following comment:
This phenomenon, to our sadness, seems to repeat itself in every generation. Whenever people quarrel over matters related to ideology and faith, and a person discovers his more lenient opinion is in the minority, all too often although his original view differed only slightly from the majority the total rejection he experiences pushes him over the brink. Gradually, his views become more and more irrational and he becomes disgusted with his opponents, their Torah and their practices, forsaking them completely. Instead of instructing him (Da Costa) with love and patience and extricating him from his maze of doubts by showing him his mistake, they disparaged him. They pursued him with sanctions and excommunication, cursing him until he was eventually driven away completely from his people and his faith and ended his life in a most degrading way (Makor Baruch, chapter 13;5.)