Rabbi Slifkin recently published an article on his site with his perspective on a story that has been circulating. I should begin by saying that I am, generally, a very big fan of Rabbi Slifkin. I have met and chatted with him a number of times. I visited and very much enjoyed his new museum. I own, have read, and constantly recommend many of his books. His website, though, as of late, has been a little much. His constant, continued ranting about his book ban aside, his most recent article had me rolling my eyes too many times not to write something up about it. His words will be indented, with my comments beneath.
Have you heard the miraculous story that is making the rounds? It goes like this:
An Arab was following a Chassidish woman in Jerusalem for about 20 minutes, after which he disappeared. The woman immediately called in his description to the police, who were able to make the arrest. They brought the suspect in for interrogation, during which he revealed that he was planning to stab her but couldn’t get close to her, since she had with her two big bullies with her, one on her right side and one on her left side. After realizing these bullies weren’t leaving her sides, he gave up. The police went back to the woman to confirm she was alone as she had told them. She confirmed that she was alone, but said the whole time the Arab was following her, she kept repeating the words from the bedtime Shema: “מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל” ["To my right, Michael, to my left Gavriel"]
Someone wrote to me to ask for the "rationalist response." They also forwarded a list of objections to the story by a skeptic, along with their responses to said objections. My response was something much more basic: What reason is there to believe that it is actually true?
The “Rationalist Response”. Should we trademark that? Get a patent pending? A copyright? Yeah, that sounds good.
I mean, come on. What does that even mean, the “rationalist response”? He’s turned the word “rationalism” into such a buzzword that it is utterly meaningless. His point that he doesn’t believe the story because there’s no reason to is precisely accurate. That’s all that need be said. That’s exactly my response to these stories as well, as is anyone who actually thinks about things. But that’s just logic. That’s how we live our lives when it comes to everything: “Give me a reason to believe something, and I will”.
Look, we accept that there is an all-powerful God. In theory, I suppose, it is possible for such a story to have happened. I just have no reason to believe this one, so I don’t. Problem solved. Case closed.
Nope! We haven’t yet shoehorned it into the Rationalist Judaism© brand! So we have to mention the term “rationalism” a bunch of times, and then we’ll be good.
The whole thing is nuts. The Ramban believed in Kabbalah and “mysticism”, whatever the heck that means. Ah! I guess the Ramban wasn’t “rational”! I mean, reading his brilliant, incredibly organized commentary on the Torah certainly makes him seem utterly irrational. Come to think of it, the Arizal, the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yosef Cairo, and Ramchal — just to name a few — seem pretty irrational too, what with their mystical beliefs and all. They just don’t really seem like thinkers, ya know? But maybe that’s just me.
Still, it's a beautiful story, and in stressful times like these, it makes people feel good. For many people, that is why they believe that it is true. And given that therapeutic effect, I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea to dismiss it. When people are full of anxiety and fear, if they want to believe that they have angels by their side protecting them, and this helps them leave their homes and continue with their lives, then let them believe it!
Too bad the whole world isn’t as Rationally Jewish© as Rabbi Slifkin is, really…
What bothers me, however, is the reaction to some people who disbelieve the story. I saw someone quote a popular saying: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. But anyone who believes none of them is an apikorus." This saying is often proffered with the undertone that any given story should not be dismissed.
Well, Rambam would certainly not have believed any of these stories at all. As he writes in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
”…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle."
Aside from the fact that this quote is taken out of context, it’s still clear that Rambam wouldn’t have believed them if he didn’t have any reason to believe them. If he had a reason to, then he would have. It’s just like what Rabbi Slifkin said at the beginning of his article. It’s just simple logic. And the Ramban — you know, the irrational, mystical Ramban — would operate precisely the same way.
And that's with regard to events in the Torah. Certainly when it comes to popular legends, he would dismiss them as folktales. Of course, there are indeed people who dismiss Rambam as an apikorus, not entirely without basis. Still, most of us would consider him a legitimate role model to follow.
Who, today, dismisses Rambam as an apikorus?! Or is this just Rabbi Slifkin pulling his old “stick a random, unusual, and unaccepted medieval source that disagreed with a mainstream opinion just to rile people up” shtick?
I would paraphrase the popular saying as follows: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. And anyone who believes none of them is a Maimonidean rationalist."
Oh, you’ve got to be joking. If ever you were to roll your eyes, now is the time. But, you know, it has been like two paragraphs since we last said the word “Rationalist©”, so it makes sense to mention it again. But what’s this?! Now it’s “Maimonidean Rationalism©”!
Why? Come on, now…
No! You’re not a “Maimonidean Rationalist©”… You’re just using your brain. Why are we pretending that only Rambam would reject these stories?
And what does that even mean? Why is Rabbi Slifkin only speaking about Rambam’s outlook anyway? As if he — or anyone, for that matter — only holds of what Rambam says about things?! Seriously, what was the point of most of this article? His first point was good, but then it just degenerated into the typical formulaic stuff that he’s been posting recently.
I’ve been increasingly impressed with all the Rabbi Slifkin has been doing off his blog — the museum, the new encyclopedia, etc. — and have been recently unimpressed with the quality of material on his blog.
Again, I would just like to conclude by saying that I am very much a fan of Rabbi Slifkin. I just think, in general, his whole “‘rationalism’ and ‘mysticism’ are two, mutually exclusive and contradictory, but somehow still valid, versions of Judaism” is as ridiculous as it sounds. No — there is no such thing as “Rationalist Judaism” and “Mystical Judaism”. There’s just “Judaism”.