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A Giant Of Faith And Intellect

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When I moved to Israel fourteen years ago, I was very keen on meeting Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, zt”l. He had taught Gemara to my father in Yeshivas Dvar Yerushalayim many years earlier, but what excited me was his role as editor of Challenge, the first of the Torah/science genre. I visited him one Shabbos, and he was glad to answer my questions.

In the years to come I would benefit from many discussions with him in which he mentored me in my approach to Torah and science. His frankness and intellectual honesty was a breath of fresh air. In the beginning I was very conservative on these issues, due to a fairly limited education in Jewish philosophy. Therefore, some of what Rav Carmell told me seemed shocking, but I gradually discovered that everything was grounded in the thought of authentic Torah sources.

Rav Carmell reviewed many of my manuscripts in a way that set him apart from other Torah scholars. Many rabbonim who review books do so in a relatively casual way; in some cases they don’t even read the books before writing an endorsement. With my books, because they dealt with sensitive issues, I made sure to show them to rabbonim who would review them carefully.

Rav Carmell took “carefully” to a whole new level. When he finished, there would be dozens upon dozens of incisive comments written in the margins, which he would go through together with me. If there was something he really didn’t like, he would refuse to write an endorsement unless it was removed, or he would qualify his endorsement to reflect that which he disagreed with. This was a grueling process, but because he was my personal mentor and widely acknowledged as a great authority in this area, it was an honor to subject my work to it.

His breadth of knowledge was spectacular. Not only did he master the standard areas of Torah knowledge, he was also expert in Jewish philosophy and theology. And he was fluent in science – not only having a “feel” for it, but also being conversant with the latest literature, even into his eighties.

Rav Carmell also stood out in terms of vision. His wonderful but sadly little-known book Masterplan was a modern day version of Hirsch’s Horeb, showing how Judaism deals not only with the narrow concerns of the individual but also with society and the environment.

Rav Carmell was perhaps most famous for being a longtime disciple of Rav Eliyahu Dessler. He published Rav Dessler’s teachings in the five-volume Michtav Me-Eliyahu which he translated into English as Strive For Truth. For me, Rav Carmell exemplified the concept of striving for truth. He lived by Rambam’s maxim “Accept the truth from wherever it comes.”

I was once discussing an extremely difficult Torah/science problem with him, and he gave me an answer which made me very uncomfortable. When I expressed my discomfort, he replied, “I dislike it just as much as you, but the evidence leaves us with no choice.”

Rav Carmell also taught me the corollary of “Accept the truth from wherever it comes,” which is “Reject falsehood from wherever it comes.” About twelve years ago, he rejected a halachic explanation that I had written in a manuscript on the grounds that it just didn’t make sense. I protested that I was simply presenting the view of one of the acharonim. Rav Carmell replied that one must be very wary of accepting something merely on the grounds that it was stated by a great authority if it does not make sense.

As it happens, I went back and checked the sefer again, and it turned out I had misunderstood what it stated. But the lesson remained with me, and I recently noticed that Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, comments that even if one’s own rebbe states something that does not seem to make sense, it is forbidden to accept it.

Rav Carmell’s intellectual honesty was matched by his integrity and courage. When some of my books were condemned by certain rabbonim, Rabbi Carmell was not intimidated. He wrote a polite but firm letter to one of the distinguished opponents of my work, relating a private communication he had with Rav Dessler which justified my approach. He also wrote a public letter stating that he had carefully considered the matter and maintained his endorsement of my works. Then, after the opposition to my works widened yet further, he wrote an essay in support of my works entitled Freedom To Interpret.

About the Author: Rabbi Natan Slifkin is the author of several works on the interface between Judaism and the natural sciences. Later this year he is publishing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, and he is currently developing a Biblical Museum of Natural History to be located in the Beit Shemesh region. Rabbi Slifkin's website is www.zootorah.com and he also runs a popular blog at www.rationalistjudaism.com.

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