I. A Season for Everything
After six years, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on a specific aspect of the Slifkin Torah-Science Controversy. R. Natan Slifkin recently commented on the remarkable disgrace that has befallen his most active detractors during that controversy (link), culminating in the least of the shaming, the recent broadcasting throughout cyberspace of a detractor’s childish yet revolting insults of a prominent scholar and leader (unquestionably a lesson that we must always speak with words and tone as if they were widely broadcast). While this cannot compare to the financial, sexual and legal scandals facing other opponents, it still adds to the stunning tales of falls from grace. I would like to examine a different angle — the timing of the ban.
From a Maimonidean perspective, Judaism is one giant revolt against paganism. But even those with other approaches agree that there are specific prohibitions to distance Jews from idolatry. One of these is to refrain from being a me’onen (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) quotes R. Akiva who explains this rule as prohibiting “calculat[ing] the times and hours, saying, ‘Today is propitious for setting forth; tomorrow for making purchases…'” This is a prohibition against seasonal superstition. You are not allowed to say that a specific time is appropriate for any given activitiy. Time is even and equal, without inherent bias towards particular actions.
This prohibition is quoted by later authorities, including the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 179:1). Medieval scholars debated whether astrology is subsumed under this prohibition. Those who viewed it as a reliable science considered it permissible and those who denied its efficacy, such as Maimonides, forbade it (cf. Beis Yosef, ad loc. – link).
II. A Season of Judgment
And yet, despite this prohibition, Judaism is a seasonal religion. The holidays throughout the year create rhythms and themes. There are times to mourn, times to rejoice, a season for love and a season for repentance. These are not functions of the inherent qualities of the times but of the themes determining how we are expected to act then. The spiritual ups and downs of the year are guides to our own expected behaviors.
The month of Elul is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a season of repentance. The Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are not only a more intense period of repentance but also a time when we are being judged by the divine court. We tremble in fear of the life-or-death verdict over the upcoming year. The Rema records a practice that within this period, communities do not enact a ban, a cherem, against deviants (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 602:1). The Netziv (Meshiv Davar 1:66) explains that when we face judgment, it is improper to judge others. Our fear for our own judgments prevents us from rendering judgment on anyone else. The Magen Avraham (429:8) writes that this custom extends throughout the month of Tishrei, which the Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Choshen Mishpat 77) says is the practice in his region.
III. A Disastrous Ban
This is one of the many surprising aspects of the attempted ban on R. Natan Slifkin’s books. His persecution began, remarkably, during this period of judgment, when enacting a ban is forbidden by custom. As he wrote to me on that fateful day six years ago when he was initially confronted and threatened, it all began three days before Yom Kippur, during the height of the repentance season (link). The blame for that aspect of the controversy lies with the activists/trouble-makers, not with the signatories of the ban, although we must continue to question why great rabbis would give their names to questionable figures, many of whom have now been publicly disgraced.
Looking back, we see a ban that was a disastrous generator of disillusionment. The improper timing demonstrates the angry haste behind the ban, the rush to attack without forethought, the lack of the self-awareness that is a fundamental component of repentance. The personal trajectories of its proponents reveal a ban that was conceived in anger, born in sin, implemented with recklessness and concluded with disgrace.