Tuesday, February 22, 2005

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Stepping into the Minefield: Slifkin & the p'shat

Sometimes a person just can't resist stepping into the minefield...

There is currently a big controversy within the Jewish orthodox/ultra-orthodox community regarding a rabbinic author, Rabbi Slifkin, and the books he wrote which, according to some significant rabbinic authorities, contravene conventional doctrine (regarding science, Torah, and the possible age of the universe).

The books and author info can be seen here.
The major condemnation here. (Adobe Acrobat required)

And some absolutely top-of-the-line thoughts and comments about it here, here, and my favorite sarcastic critic here.
A real detailed list of everything about this here and here.

As I read through these thoughts an opinions on this controversy, and I have to admit that I have one of Rabbi Slifkin's books on my bookshelf, the following thought came to mind:

In generations past, community rabbinical authorities had the responsibility to direct the spirtual and religious life of their community. They directed the educational direction and religious approaches. At various times and in various communities, these changed to follow the needs and influences of a given community.

There have been occasions in the past where works of great rabbi's have been limited in certain communities, as the mindset of the given community was not condusive to that particular work at that particular time. (The specific example that comes to mind is the Rambam's Guide from Egypt and it's proscription in France.)

It's my belief that's what's happening in this case. A select set of rabbinical authorities have seen that Rabbi Slifkin's books are problematic within the mindset and operational parameters of their relatively-closed communities, and reacted to prevent it.

The problem they have encountered is twofold: one, statements targeted at their community are basically instantly transmitted world-wide (note that one major form of communication for the target community is posting on neighborhood billboards, which people are writing down and posting on the internet within the hour), two, it's no longer possible to limit a community's outside influences (within the circle of religious communities, wide ranging contact between themselves is now the norm), rather one must prepare the community to handle what will come.

The world has changed, for good or bad, whether we like it or not. Deal with it with must.

From the mystical tradition side, I find it very odd that this issue is being only addressed from the p'shat (see explanation below), simple age of the universe issues (less than 6,000) are clearly meant for the simple explanation and understanding only.

PaRDeS : Each passage of the Torah is subject to 4 general levels of interpretation/understanding. The four level of interpretation are called: P'shat, Remez, D’rash & Sod. The first letter of each word P-R-D-S is taken, and vowels are added for pronunciation, giving the word PARDES (meaning "garden" or "orchard"). Each layer is deeper and more intense than the last, like the layers of an onion.

# P'shat (pronounced peh-shaht' - meaning "simple"): The p'shat is the plain, simple meaning of the text.

# Remez (pronounced reh-mez' - meaning "hint"): This is where another (implied) meaning is alluded to in the text, usually revealling a deeper meaning.

# D’rash (pronounced deh-rahsh' also called "Midrash"): This is a teaching or exposition or application of the P'shat and/or Remez.

# Sod (pronounced sawd or sood [like "wood"] - meaning "hidden" or "secret"): This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a passage.


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