An Account of Events

On the morning of Tuesday, September 21st, 2004, (the sixth of Tishrei) I received a phone call from a Rabbi Michoel Lyons in Bnei Brak who said that he was acting on behalf of several askanim (people who busy themselves with communal affairs). He did not disclose their identities, but I later learned that they included Rabbi Leib Pinter, Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz, Rabbi Yaakov Kalmanowitz, Rabbi Leib Tropper, and Rabbi Naftoli Elzas, amongst others. Rabbi Lyons very politely informed me that he would be faxing me some letters from four Gedolim - Rav Elya Weintraub, Rav Michel Lefkowitz, Rav Yitzchak Shiner and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, stating that I must retract three of my books - The Science of Torah, Mysterious Creatures, and The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. He added that I would have until the end of the day in which to agree to withdraw my books and publicly apologize. If I refused, he said, I would face public scandal and humiliation, with the letters being publicized and names of other Gedolei Torah being added. I received the four letters, which spoke sweepingly of the books being full of utter heresy, with Rav Lefkowitz adding that the Gedolei Torah who wrote haskamos for my books had since withdrawn them.

I was astonished and shaken at all this. I had been warned a few days earlier by Rabbi Sholom Kamenetzky that there were "zealots stirring up a hornet's nest," taht he was under pressure to recant his support for me, and that I should begin to marshal sources in support of my views, but I did not imagine that this is what would happen. First of all, as far as I was aware, none of these three books even contained any significant novel points - they are simply based on the writings of Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rav Dessler, etc. They were not, of course, the mainstream Torah viewpoints which are usually presented in the ultra-Orthodox community, but they were nevertheless fully "kosher" views which were necessary for the intended audience of my books - people who have been dissatisfied with normative approaches, and many of whom experience crises of faith.

Furthermore, everything I wrote was carefully checked by many distinguished Torah scholars, who approved it all, and some of whom wrote haskamos. Yet the letter from Rav Lefkowitz stated that the haskamos had been withdrawn. I contacted all the rabbonim who had written haskamos - Rav Yisroel Belsky, Rav Aryeh Carmell, Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein, Rav Mordechai Kornfeld, Rav Aharon Lopiansky, Rav Chaim Malinowitz, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, and Rav Sholom Kamenetzky. None of them had withdrawn their haskamos, and only one of them, Rav Sholom Kamenetzky, knew that there was any controversy going on. (He had been instructed by Rav Weintraub, who is his rebbe, to revoke his haskamah, but he had not done so and still has not done so.)

Of course, it is always possible that my books contain some errors, which I am always more than eager to correct when they are pointed out to me (and which is why I submitted my books for rabbinic approval in the first place). But a few errors here and there would surely not disqualify three books as being "full of utter heresy." I also found it inconceivable that anyone, especially Gedolim, could be willing to publicly condemn me in such strong terms without meeting me first to discuss the matter fully - to explain their objections in detail, to hear my explanations and Torah sources, and to work out constructive ways of resolving any remaining differences of opinion. I therefore immediately began to contact the four signatories to arrange meetings. (I had not heard of any of them previously, but I discovered that they were rabbinic authorities of considerable stature.)

In the morning I called Rav Weintraub's home and spoke to his wife. She said that Rav Weintraub is not willing to meet with me and that he says I must speak to Rav Wachtfogel. I asked if I could send a fax to Rav Weintraub, and in the background I heard him instruct her not to receive it.

I then called Rav Shiner and asked to meet with him. He agreed and we made arrangements to meet at 7:45 pm.

Subsequently, Rabbi Lyons called me back and said that he had heard that I was trying to arrange meetings with these Rabbonim. I explained my position (as I had worked it out in consultation with my own rabbonim), that it would be inconceivable to publicly condemn someone without meeting them first, and that I was fully willing to meet with all the Rabbonim at their convenience to discuss the matter, and if they showed me anything that I wrote which was wrong or mistaken, I would gladly retract it. After the phone call, I faxed this to Rabbi Lyons as my official response to the ultimatum:

I have been told that the letters from Gedolei Torah concerning my books will be made public. But it is inconceivable that anyone, especially Gedolim, would condemn someone without meeting and talking with them. I am ready to meet with these Gedolim at their convenience and to hear what their objections are, and to discuss the matter fully. I am certainly willing to retract from anything in which I am proven wrong or mistaken, and kal v'chomer if I am proven to have written something that goes against the fundamentals of emunah, chas v'shalom. Surely to condemn someone without meeting them goes against both the spirit and the letter of Torah and Shulchan Aruch, and would be an unbelievable chilul Hashem befarhesya, and will be widely recognized as such. I spoke with my Rav, Rav Chaim Malinowitz shlita, and he fully concurs with the above. I therefore assume that the Gedolei Torah would wish to discuss the matter with me first, and I repeat my readiness to meet with them, together with my rebbe'im, whenever they want. I am independently making every effort to contact all of the Gedolim signed on the letters.
Sincerely, Nosson Slifkin
During the call, Rabbi Lyons told me that none of them would be willing to meet me. I replied that this was incorrect, as Rav Weintraub's wife conveyed a message from him that I should speak with Rav Wachtfogel. Rabbi Lyons replied that this information was superseded by a later statement that nobody, not even Rav Wachtfogel, would meet with me. I countered that this could not be true, as I had already arranged to meet with one of the signatories that evening. Rabbi Lyons was very eager to find out who this was, but I refused to tell him. However, since his team was in touch with all these people, it wasn't too difficult for him to find out who I had arranged to meet.

A short while later, Rav Shiner called me to cancel his meeting with me. He said that I would just try to argue and defend myself. He also said that he was concerned that I might use his words against him. He added that he is not a gadol and is not really the leader of this, and I should meet with Rav Elya Weintraub. I said that Rav Elya is not willing to meet with me. He said, "He will if you come in remorse and willing to retract everything, not if you are going to argue." Rav Shiner added that I had done "a terrible thing." Despite my protests, he refused to meet with me.

Meanwhile, I had been trying all day to arrange a meeting with Rav Lefkowitz, via one of his assistants. Eventually his assistant called me to say that Rav Lefkowitz would not meet me because he wasn't actually familiar with any of my material (he does not read English) and was simply relying on Rav Weintraub for everything. The assistant explained that for me to meet Rav Lefkowitz would give the misleading impression that Rav Lefkowitz was actually conversant with the subject of the condemnation. He said that it was Rav Lefkowitz's way to place complete trust in Rav Weintraub. The assistant added that Rav Lefkowitz would investigate my statement that the Gedolei Torah who wrote haskamos for my books had in fact not retracted them, and that this sentence would be removed if it turned out to be innaccurate. (In fact the sentence stayed in even though it was not true.)

The only person left to contact was Rav Wachtfogel. Although Rabbi Lyons had made it clear that Rav Wachtfogel would be unwilling to speak with me, I did not want to take his word for it and I made efforts to contact him. I managed to leave a message with his wife that I wanted to meet with him to discuss the matter, but she refused to take my phone number, saying that "the Rosh Yeshivah does not return phone calls." Despite many further attempts, I was unable to reach him. There was no further contact between myself and Rabbi Lyons or any of the Rabbonim.

Three days later, on erev Yom Kippur, posters with the letters from Rav Weintraub, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Shiner were placed in several shuls in my home neighborhood of Ramat Bet Shemesh. (Such posters are traditionally put up on erev Shabbos/ Yom Tov as if they remain unnoticed until Shabbos/ Yom Tov begins, it is impossible to then remove them.)

When these posters were publicized, I received a number of phone calls expressing support from various well-known rabbis. One was Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel in Baltimore. He said, "Nosson, I heard you're having a lot of agmas nefesh and I'm just calling you to be mechazek you. You're a wonderful person, and you're being mezakeh the rabbim, and you're just trying to be mevakesh the emes, and it's obvious to anyone who reads your sefarim properly that that's what you're trying to do. You are working totally leShem Shamayim, and so are these people. It'll all die down eventually, but don't fight it as that will just prolong it."

Shortly after Yom Kippur, I was shown a letter of condemnation that Rav Moshe Shapiro had written to one Rav who had written a haskamah to one of my books, and which was now being circulated. I was stunned, as I had known Rav Moshe Shapiro several years previously and had a minor but positive relationship with him. I already knew that he took a rejectionist approach towards science, because a few months previously he had told one of his talmidim that scientists are entirely wrong about the universe being billions of years old and dinosaurs living long before people. But since he knew me to be a sincere person who was working l'shem Shamayim, and had given me his blessing for my previous (non-science related) works, it was shocking to me that he would write such a disparaging letter and circulate it without even talking to me first. Several of my colleagues subsequently met with Rav Shapiro on my behalf to try to get a clearer picture as to his precise position, but conflicting reports resulted.

Over the next few months, attempts were made to gather signatures from leading Rabbonim for another condemnation of my books. Rabbi Reuven Schmelzer, a disciple of both Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, attempted, as their emissary, to gather these signatures. At the time, various reports reached me that he was not being successful. A close friend of Rav Mattisyahu Solomon relayed to me that he would definitely not sign. One of the closest people to Rav Elyashiv sent an assurance that he would not sign. My supporters and myself assumed that it had all died down, and were completely taken by surprise when the second letter of condemnation appeared, signed by Rav Elyashiv, Rav Mattisyahu Solomon and numerous others.

At this point I spoke again by phone with Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel. He said that the ban is a terrible chillul Hashem. He added that doesn't understand how these people could take the responsibility to do this, and how they will justify it to Hashem. I complained that no-one was standing up for me. Rabbi Feldman replied that the four leading Torah leaders of the US stood up for me by not signing. He said that it's so clear that I am just trying to find pshat in these topics and using intellectual honesty, just like we approach any sugya.

Meanwhile, in the previous months I had managed to build up a picture of who was ultimately engineering the ban. It appears that the primary person was Rabbi Yaakov Kalmanowitz. He was someone strongly opposed to "secular thinking" - recordings of him on this topic can be downloaded here (Part One and Part Two). But I was also reliably informed that his primary opposition to my works was not so much due to what they stated. Rather, it was because one of them bore the endorsement of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rosh Yeshivah of Philadelphia Yeshivah, someone that Kalmanowitz considered "not fit for Torah leadership." His campaign against my books was ultimately aimed at undermining Rabbi Kamenetzky's reputation.

Also involved in the campaign was Yaakov Kalmanowitz's brother, Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz of the Mir Yeshivah in New York. He did not want to openly involve himself, and so he recruited his friend Rabbi Leib Tropper of Yeshivas Kol Yaakov in Monsey. Rabbi Tropper created a story that was told to the Rabbis were were approached to condemn the books. The story involved two students in his yeshivah, described as "angelic," who allegedly dropped out of yeshivah and left Orthodoxy after reading my books and concluding that "if the Sages could have been wrong about science, then they could have been wrong about everything." Rabbi Elya Wachtfogel, the primary rabbinic authority behind this ban, presented this story as grounds for his campaign. I myself was shaken when I heard about this story, but my mentors were skeptical and advised my to investigate it. The investigation showed that one of them was barely observant to begin with, and dropped out of yeshivah before my book on the Sages' knowledge of science was published. When I discovered the identity of the other student and wrote to ask him if it was true that my books caused him to drop out, he wrote this reply.

I was also tipped off that a close friend of Rabbi Osher Kalmanowitz was also involved in the campaign: Rabbi Leib Pinter. It seems that he may have been the original person to have launched the campaign. However, Rabbi Pinter subsequently became the subject of a legal investigation and was unable to be further involved in the campaign against my work.

(To be continued)

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