Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Challenge of Creation

This post by Stanley Kurtz, particularly the line about how depression "can even lead to philosophical introspection- or religious epiphany" got me thinking about The Lonely Man of Faith, which I am currently reading through for the first time, thanks to an impulse buy of a new paperback edition. I do not mean to say, of course, that the Rav was clinically depressed, as he himself makes clear in the opening pages. As it happens, Kurtz's point is that such technical details don't really matter in the over-medicated world we live in. In any event, it's a bit comforting to yours truly, who still gets the occasional nudge from some friends to solve all my problems (not depression, of course) with a nice little pill. Not that I'm doing anything as creative as writing a book of philosophy, of course.

This particular edition is good for one big reason- it starts with a fine introduction by Dr. Shatz that really opens the work up. (For another introduction, see this cute story.) (On the other hand, the typesetting of the Hebrew phrases is awful. One day I must go through my other edition and correct this one.) If I was half the intellectual I sometimes pretend to be, I'd write a thoughtful blog entry about all the places I find myself taking issue with the Rav (generally on side points), and on the far more, and more substantive, places where I find myself in awe of his sublime writing and ideas. But that, believe it or not, is not the point of this entry, even though the title could easily apply to the Rav's work as well.

This entry, of course, is about R' Natan Slifkin's new book, or rather, the launch event I attended last night at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. (I'm pretty proud it was in my neighborhood.) As I left, I found myself whistling the "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady- you know, "Everyone who should be here is here..." Indeed, the place was packed, and among the crowd was a veritable who's who. I got to see lots of people who, well, I just enjoy meeting. And as Dr. Shatz was there (among other YU people such as Drs. David Berger and Shalom Carmy, R' Blau, and R' Feldman), I thanked him for the new edition, stressing what a help his introduction was.

But on to the main topic: As he was signing books, I reminded R' Slifkin that I had gone to the zoo with him last year, and then surprised him by asking him to sign not the new book (which I got as well), but the original, "The Science of Torah." "What's this?!" he exclaimed, "Put it in the genizah!" Instead of signing with his standard "Hope you enjoy the book," he wrote "Hope you enjoyed this fossil!" He's really a great guy.

So before getting to the speeches, who else was there? Well, Steven I. Weiss, who it's always good to see, and a bunch of people from the neighborhood, including Steve Brizel, who I met live for the first time. (He referred me to the post here, and I've commented.) I had best leave the rest anonymous, eh? True to my code as a vexillologist, I inquired as to the odd flag flying up front from the rabbi, and got a solid (if perplexing, to both of us) answer. That's always nice. Side note: With all the triangles in Young Israels, I sometimes wonder about Masonic plots.

I must say, R' Tzvi Hersh Weinreb spoke remarkably well. He began by speaking about the current war in Israel (I do hope I will have my own modest bit to say about it soon), and then, masterfully, linked to the topic of the evening by using the verse in Zechariah about the fasts becoming holidays- "VeHaEmet VeHaShalom Ehavu." He spoke about the importance of truth, and peace, and finished by discussing the point of view that God wants us to study the universe- a Lammian (not me, and yet my view as well) view, I should point out.

Gil Student then spoke very well about ignoring bans. He focused on halacha, and who is entitled to decide bans and the like. I have to raise some points and objections here, though: First, I'd like to point out that just as there may be opinions as whether or not to ban a book, so too there are (or should be) opinions that books are not to be banned, period. (Henry Jones, Sr.: "It tells me that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.") After all, when all is said and done, what happens if, following your "Gadol knows right, so long as I get to choose the gadol" hashkafa, you can't find one to choose? (OK, I'm an Apikores. But I won't surrender my God-given mind.)

More importantly, there was a lot of apologetics last night, as well as within the book itself. "This book is not meant for certain people" and the like. Now, I understand that part of this may have been meant to stave off further bans, as if that would help and as if they would hurt any more. But it strikes me more as groveling. (Chip Diller: "Thank you sir, may I have another!") More importantly: Charedim seem to have no problem dismissing any point of view that isn't their own, openly saying that everyone should be like them (if they don't simply ignore everyone else). Why can't the Modern Orthodox do the same? Why do we look over our right shoulders instead of saying, plainly, that intellectual openness is the one true path in Judaism, and ultra-Orthodoxy is illegitimate?

Eh, I'm shouting down the wind here. And detracting from the main point, which is that the gathering was quite good, and the book, from what I've read so far, is remarkable too. R' Slifkin, God bless him, sees the folly in Gosse as well as in Intelligent Design, and shows said follies in a lucid way. He spoke as well, of course, getting (through a humorous tone) right down to the main issues involving the book. He answered (or dodged, as appropriate) a few questions, and signed some more. I recommended the Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History to him, and headed home.

The next event, in Teaneck tonight, would be a bit much for me, I think. Go if you can! Maybe I'll catch him at Stern at the end of the summer. A big yasher koach to R' Slifkin (and to Gil!), and wishes for all future success to them.

Please God, I shall have something substantive to say on Israel soon. Until then!