A General Response to the Charge of Heresy

It is difficult to provide a detailed response to the attacks on my books, since they are very vague. In the many months that have elapsed since the condemnations were issued there have still not been any detailed explanations given by the signatories. None of the signatories contacted me to explain their objections in any detail, and all of those whom I tried of my own initiative to contact refused to meet or speak with me.

Without any knowledge of what exactly in my books was being condemned, my initial response was that if there is anything that is shown to be incorrect, inappropriate, or, God forbid, heretical, I would remove it in future editions of the books. But as far as I was aware, all the significant points in all three books were solidly grounded in reliable sources that are legitimate and appropriate to cite. In addition, I carefully followed proper procedure in having everything checked by many Torah scholars of high standing and possessing expertise with these topics, so that if they would find anything inappropriate, I could change it.

In the many months following the ban, I endeavoured to find out the positions of those that condemned my books, and following is my understanding of their positions and my responses. As I currently understand it, the opponents of my works are levelling four charges (some of my opponents subscribe to several of these charges, others to only one):

Charge #1: It is genuinely heretical to believe that the universe is billions of years old.
Charge #2: It is genuinely heretical to believe that the Sages of the Talmud erred in scientific matters.
Charge #3: The above positions are not actually heretical, but they are not the preferred approach in the yeshivah world and they are dangerous and should be prohibited.
Charge #4: The "tone" of the books is wrong; the author writes without the proper reverence for Torah sages.
Charge #5: The approach is wrong; e.g., the author takes science as a given and makes Torah fit it.

I will now respond to these charges in detail.

Charge #1: It is genuinely heretical to believe that the universe is billions of years old. The Torah states that the world was created in six days, and that must be interpreted literally.

Levelled by: Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Yitzchok Shiner.

My Response: I believe that the world is billions of years old, and I believe that I have provided authoritative sources to support this intepretation of Torah, and that the physical evidence warrants taking this approach. The concept of interpreting the six days of Creation non-literally has a long pedigree. Rambam interpreted them as a conceptual hierarchy of nature rather than a sequence of time. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman interpreted them as six long eras, each billions of years long. I explain the justifications for interpreting the Torah in this way in my book The Science Of Torah, and at much greater length in my new book The Challenge Of Creation. My distinguished rabbinical opponents are, of course, perfectly entitled to oppose these authorities and deem these views heretical. While I oppose that charge, I believe that my opponents are legitimately entitled to adopt it; my only complaint is that they should be explicit about who they are condemning. I.e., they should have said, "The view of Rambam and others that the six days of creation can be interpreted non-literally is heretical," rather than, "Natan Slifkin has written a heretical view."

Charge #2: The author's position that the Sages of the Talmud erred in scientific matters is "makchish maggideha," denying the authority of the Sages and the Oral Law, and is genuinely heretical.

Levelled by: Rabbi Moshe Shapiro and Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel.

My Response: The condemnation of me as makchish maggideha is especially curious in light of the fact that the term makchish magideha as a category of heresy was established by Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8) who himself held that the Sages were mistaken in certain scientific matters! In fact, Rambam explicitly defines makchish maggideha as "someone similar to Tzaddok and Baytus," who Rambam explains denied the very concept of an Oral Torah (Perush haMishnayos, Sanhedrin 11:3). He certainly did not intend it to refer to someone who denies that Chazal were infallible in science, as he would then have been defining himself as a heretic! Some claim that this is a minority view that is not part of our mesorah (tradition). My mentors do not believe that minority views that are held by such prominent authorities as Rambam can be deemed heretical. But, in any case, contrary to popular belief, this view was held of by many prominent Rishonim and Acharonim. The concept that the Sages sometimes relied on the flawed science of their era is is a position with a long and distinguished pedigree. The authorities who took this view include Rav Sherira Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, Tosafos, Rosh, Tosafos Rid, Akeidas Yitzchak, Maharam Alashker, Rabbi Yitzchak Lampronti, Maharam Schick, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog. A more extensive listing can be found here. In fact, it appears that this was the dominant view amongst the Rishonim.

It is a view that was recently legitimized by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, ztz"l, it is the view of my own revered mentors, and it is the view of many thousands of distinguished Torah scholars today, including Roshei Yeshivah and Poskim.

Charge #3: The above positions are not actually heretical, but they are not the accepted approach in the yeshivah world and they are dangerous and should be prohibited.

Levelled by: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Dan Segal

My Response: I fully concur that these are not the accepted approaches today in the Charedi yeshivah world due to the fact that they could be harmful to many people within that world who have had no exposure to these issues. Fortunately, my books - at least before the ban was issued - were not read by such people. My books were only read by people who had a prior interest in this topic. For such people, my books are beneficial, as is abundantly clear from the numerous letters from the readers posted here. I do not think that there is a single person who has been harmed by my books, and I know of hundreds who have been helped by them. Still, in order to allay concerns in this matter, I am republishing the books in a way that will more clearly target their intended audience. I must add, though, that I do not understand how the very serious term of "heresy" could be colloquially applied to this concern.

Historically, there have always been Torah authorities who dealt with the challenges posed to Judaism and defended Judaism via a rationalistic, scientific approach - Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, to name some examples. There are many people who need this sort of approach, and my books help with their needs. They are the vast majority of those who toil in the physical and biological sciences as God-fearing Jews, of outreach workers, of those who for various reasons have encountered parts of secular culture, and all of whom have used the sources and the approach of my books for many decades, if not for hundreds of years. I do not believe that anyone should reject my approach if they are not willing to provide these people with a viable alternative - by which I mean to provide cogent and sensible answers, rather than just dismiss the questions.

Charge #4: The tone of the books is wrong; the author writes without the proper reverence for Torah sages.

My Response: I have repeatedly requested examples of this and only ever received a very minor example that was easily changed. After contemplation and investigation, it appears that when people speak about "tone" (which is usually understood to mean "phraseology") they are really referring to the approach (methodology). For example, when someone claims that I did not write about the Sages with sufficient respect, they usually mean that I did not conclude that they were correct in certain cases and accepted the conclusions of modern science instead. This charge is addressed in the next section. In any case, complaints about phraseology are highly subjective; standards of propriety vary greatly between different cultures and communities. Many of those who benefitted the most from the books specifically appreciated their forthright tone, while some found them overly deferential to traditional authorities!

Charge #5: The approach is wrong; e.g., the author takes science as a given and makes Torah fit it.

Levelled by: Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon

My Response: A careful reading of my books shows that I do not automatically take "science" as a given, only those parts which are well established. My approach is that of Rambam: "Accept the truth from wherever it comes." In such cases, I cite classical Torah authorities for whom such conflicts did not pose any difficulties. To be sure, though, the rationalist approach of Rambam, bequeathed to me by my mentors and preferred by my readership, differs from the approach favored by the rabbis who opposed my book. This reflects a long-standing division between different streams within Orthodox Judaism.

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