Thursday, July 2, 2015

From Zoologist to Rationalist

Today is my Jewish birthday. It's a big one - I am now forty years old. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos states that forty is the age of understanding. According to some, that means that I can now study kabbalah! But I don't think that I'm going to switch from being a rationalist to a mystic.

This has been a big year for me. With much help from Hashem and others, I finally fulfilled a dream that I have had since childhood, and opened an animal institution - The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I also finally published a book that I started writing when I got married fourteen years ago, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. The next work that I hope to publish is a book about rationalist Judaism. It will include my various monographs on this topic, as well as a lengthy discussion of the topic of rationalist vs. mystical Judaism in general, and an important monograph that I have yet to write, on rationalist vs. mystical approaches to Torah study. In this post, I would like to share some thoughts which I plan to include in a preface to this book.

*   *   *

It might seem odd that someone such as myself is studying and writing and teaching about rationalist Judaism. After all, I am an amateur zoologist with a lifelong passion for the animal kingdom, and my regular job is running the Biblical Museum of Natural History. What is the connection between animals and rationalist Judaism?

My first encounter with the animal kingdom. Not very positive.
In fact, there was a direct trajectory from one to the other. The fascination that the animal kingdom holds for many people, including myself, is that it is extraordinary, and simultaneously real. It is extraordinary in its diversity of shapes and sizes and colors and forms and behaviors. Like many people, I am therefore drawn to the more unusual and exotic animals. At the same time, there is the fascination of these creatures being real. Animals are not abstract concepts – they are living and breathing creatures.

Therefore, while I was always interested in virtually all animals, there were some that were particularly interesting. Dinosaurs, for example, while no longer living, are extraordinary creatures that are still very real in that their bones can be seen and touched. And I have also long been interested in the distinction between real and imaginary creatures. Is there such a thing as Bigfoot? The Loch Ness Monster? There are some cryptozoological creatures whose existence cannot be absolutely determined one way or the other, but with others we can be sure that they do not exist.

Because of these interests, when I began exploring the intersection between Torah and the animal kingdom, I was particularly drawn to certain topics. Dinosaurs are real and exciting – how do we reconcile them with the Jewish calendar? There is overwhelming evidence that all animals are descended from a common ancestor – how do we reconcile this with the Torah? Salamanders that are generated from fire and mice that grow from dirt are captivating notions, but they certainly do not exist – how do we account for the Gemara’s descriptions of them?

The skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
When did it live?
I was naturally fascinated by these questions. And due to the scientific approach that I inherited from my father, of blessed memory (who was an outstanding scientist, as well being extremely intellectually honest), I couldn’t accept that dinosaurs never existed, or that they lived just a few thousand years ago, or that spontaneous generation really does take place, or that Chazal never actually believed in it.

These questions intensely bothered me. I was also distressed by the inability of my teachers in yeshivah to deal with them. And so I was thrilled when I got to know Rav Aryeh Carmell, ztz”l, who introduced me to the approaches of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and others who provided reasonable approaches to such topics. They stated that the account of Creation need not be taken entirely literally, and that the Sages of the Talmud, notwithstanding their greatness in Torah, held the beliefs about the natural world that were common to their era. I published books to share these approaches with others, who were likewise fascinated by the subject matter and relieved to find reasonable approaches.

Then, as is well-known, my books on these topics were banned. This came as a great shock to many people, including myself. To be sure, I knew that these approaches were not exactly common in the yeshivah world. But how could they be branded as unacceptable heresy? To my mind, these approaches were (a) of impeccable credentials, (b) unobjectionable, and (c) obviously true! How could my ideological opponents, who were far greater in Torah learning and intelligence than me, believe these approaches to be inauthentic, entirely unacceptable, and absolutely false? How could they deny that there was an age of dinosaurs, and not even be interested in thinking about this question? How could they insist that there are creatures that spontaneously generate?

I embarked upon a long process of analysis, study and reflection in order to understand this. What I finally understood was that there are two fundamentally different worldviews regarding epistemology – the nature of knowledge and where it comes from. These are the rationalist and the non-rationalist approaches. They are so far apart from each other that if a person is embedded in the non-rationalist approach, no matter how learned and intelligent he is, the rationalist approach will seem to be entirely false and heretical.

And yet, as I discovered in the course of my studies, the rationalist approach has a rich heritage to it. It was most prominently presented by Rambam, but it was dominant among the Rishonim in many ways. It is fascinating and disturbing to see how an approach that was once dominant in Jewish thought has declined over time to the point that there are great Talmudic scholars of today who do not realize that it ever even existed and vehemently oppose it. Yet this approach presents an authentic and effective lifeline to the many people who have been seriously turned off by the prevailing modes of thought in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Many people care about saving animals from extinction. Let us also save rationalist Judaism from extinction.

*   *   *

Just look at the expression on these visitors' faces
 as they encounter an amazing three-horned chameleon!
Dear Friends: Perhaps you would like to make a donation to The Biblical Museum of Natural History? The museum is a wonderful institution which inspires, educates and enthralls thousands of people, from all sectors of society. It gives them a unique appreciation for Torah, the animal kingdom, and Biblical Israel. As with cultural institutions in general, and zoological establishments in particular, our costs far exceed the revenues from ticket sales, and we are mostly funded via private donations from people who appreciate the importance of our mission. The museum is supported via The Torah and Nature Foundation, which is registered in the United States as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Donations can be sent to the following address:

The Torah and Nature Foundation
9200 W. Sunset Blvd., Suite #700
West Hollywood, CA 90069-3603

You can also make a US tax-deductible donation online, using either a PayPal account or a credit card, by clicking on the following link:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you, dear readers, for your interest and support of my work. May Hashem bless you with health, happiness, and success!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Guest Post: Responding to a Response on the Discourse and TCS

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Rabbi Dovid Kornreich [1], on his blog, has countered some of our posts on Rabbeinu Avraham's Discourse and TCS.   These counter-arguments fail to address the evidence and in some cases introduce further misinterpretations of Rabbeinu Avraham's writings.  Since they come from a student of Rabbi Meiselman, they are worth addressing and we'll address them here. [2]

Purported Variant Texts

To recapitulate, TCS notes that the Rambam in Guide 2:8 references the text "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel" with respect to their theory of the motions of the stars.  In contrast, the Discourse, cites the softer text "their words appear correct".  This is a purported contradiction [3] and thus evidence of forgery [4].   We showed however, that Rabbeinu Avraham himself quotes the same phrase "their words appear correct" in another work of his, Milchamos Hashem.   Rabbi Kornreich concedes that TCS's argument is refuted by this observation. [5]

However, Rabbi Kornreich then attempts to resurrect the argument from TCS by noting a purported contradiction between the Discourse and Milchamos Hashem. [6]  In doing so, Rabbi Kornreich repeats and redoubles TCS's faulty approach.  By the thesis of TCS, Rabbeinu Avraham would never have quoted the phrase "their words appear correct".  Since he does, the thesis and method is proven faulty.  Repeating the same method on a different text doesn't fix the demonstrably broken methodology. [7]

Nevertheless, let's examine this new supposed contradiction. Rabbi Kornreich returns to the Discourse's interpretation of R. Ammi's exclamation "even if Yehoshua bin Nun had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!" (Chulin 124a).
If the author [of the Discourse] understood Rav Ami had the ability to openly contradict a halachic statement of Yehoshuah Bin Nun because he wasn't personally convinced of the cogency of his logic, it means the author of this ma'amar did not subscribe to the doctrine that an Amoraic sage could not --on his own authority--openly contradict a statement of a higher ranking sage-like a Tanna--and certainly not one of the earliest Chachmei Hamesorah like Yehoshuah Bin Nun! [7a]
We should note here that we've already demonstrated that this claim is false.  Everyone who has picked up a Gemara knows that Amoraim don't argue with Tannaim.   In fact, TCS makes the claim that "It is hard to imagine, therefore, that any mainstream halachic authority could have penned these words."  In other words, if there is a contradiction here, it applies to all authorities, not just the Rambam.   Yet we showed that the Chasam Sofer writes [8] that not only could R. Ammi have disagreed with Yehoshua, he could even have disagreed with Moshe Rabbeinu on a matter of Sevara, in complete agreement with the Discourse. [9] So this argument has already been foreclosed.

Nevertheless, let's keep at it.  Rabbi Kornreich goes on to reproduce a couple of pages of Milchamos Hashem and summarizes it as follows:
[N]o amora can stand in contradiction of a tannaic statement on his own authority, with his own logic. The author of the Milchamos Hashem adds for good measure that amoraim must bow to the collective authority of tannaim on ANY topic discussed in the Talmud-including the purely hashkafic ones like the nature of the world-to-come that he is currently discussing.
Does Rabbeinu Avraham really claims that the Tannaim have the final say on "hashkafic" issues? Let's look at it.  I presume that Rabbi Kornreich refers to the following:
... It is a well know fact that among the sages who involves themselves in the study of Talmud, that whenever an Amora makes a statement, and a contradictory statement is found in a Mishna or Beraisa authored by a Tanna, either an answer must be found to align the words of the Amora with those of the Tanna, or else the Amora's words are nullified by the statement of the Tanna.  And if there is a dispute between the positions of two Tannaim, for example when a Mishna and a Beraisa or another Mishna disagree with one another, the sages of the Talmud will discuss this until they either resolve the conflict or else one of the Tannaitic statements is rejected in face of the other.
Rabbeinu Avraham goes to on state that Rav is considered a Tanna.  And since Rav states openly that the world to come does not involve any physical activity [10], the Talmud must be endorsing the view of Rav over the various Midrashim that indicate that the world to come involves a physical reward. [11]  Thus Rabbeinu Avraham seems to be endorsing the use of halachic reasoning and authority in a non-halachic context.

Unfortunately Rabbi Kornreich has misunderstood Rabbeinu Avraham and reversed his meaning. The context of the quotation above demonstrates Rabbeinu Avraham's own position is completely the opposite of what Rabbi Kornreich argues for here.  To unravel this, let's look at what is hidden by the introductory ellipsis in the quotation above:
Behold we will explain this to him and those like him using the Talmudic method of give and take (משא ומתן) and question and answer which they are familiar with, and not using the methods of intellectual judgement such as the evaluation of logical deduction and principles which they are not familiar with ...
Thus, Rabbeinu Avraham prefaces his "halachic" discussion of the nature of the world to come with a disclaimer: he is speaking to those unsophisticated people who can only think in halachic terms and don't really understand how to interpret the depths of Chazal's statements in non-halachic areas. [11a]  However, since he wants his reasoning to be universally accepted, he shows that even under the assumption that halachic reasoning is appropriate, one can still come to the conclusion that the world to come is of a non-physical nature.  His own position, explained earlier, is that all of the statement of Chazal which appear to imply a physical world to come are allegorical. [12]   Moreover, he states repeatedly that halachic reasoning is not appropriate in non-halachic contexts.  For example:
[The Rambam] did not write that book [the Guide] for the multitude, and not for those beginning in their study of wisdom, nor to teach those how have only learned give and take reasoning (משא ומתן) from which you can only learn the ways of Halacha. (Milchamos Hashem)" [13] 
Thus, Rabbi Kornreich has mistakenly attributed to Rabbeinu Avraham a position which he explicitly rejects.

R. Ammi Redux

Rabbi Kornreich also attempts to resuscitate Rabbi Meiselman's argument that the Discourse's interpretation of R. Ammi conflicts with that of the Rambam in the introduction to his Commentary on Mishnah .  Rabbi Meiselman apparently [14] maintains that the Rambam's position is as follows: R. Ammi's exclamation referred only to statements made by Yehoshua through prophecy; had Yehoshua stated the objectionable halacha based on his own opinion, then R. Ammi could not disagree.  [15]

Rabbi Kornreich writes:
Despite the logical difficulty in explaining Rav Ami's "rhetorical point", Rav Meiselman's reading is clearly supported by the Rambam's concluding words immediately after citing the gemara: כוונתם בכך שאין תוספת וגרעון בתורה מצד הנבואה בשום פנים
The phrase starts with "Kavanasam be'kach" meaning--this was the point they were making by referring to a Navi. The point they were making was that nevuah plays no role--not as David Ohsie claims--that their greatness+ nevuah plays no role.
There are a number of problems with this argument:

1) If your explanation makes a hash of the Gemara, then it is uncertain at best.  You certainly don't have an explanation strong enough to be evidence of forgery.  Rabbi Kornreich admits that the flow of the Gemara is not consistent with his explanation.

2) Rabbi Kornreich's narrative is inaccurate.  The phrase "כוונתם בכך שאין תוספת וגרעון בתורה מצד הנבואה בשום פנים"  follows a discussion of a different Gemara which discusses how we would ignore Eliyahu HaNavi if he state something contrary to halacha.  (See graphic below).  [15a]

3) The Rambam here states that there is "no addition or subtraction to the Torah on the part of prophecy in any manner whatsoever".  This can easily encompass the case where a prophet states his own opinion.   The fact that he possesses prophecy does not give any greater weight to his arguments.  They must stand on their own two feet.

4) In fact, as Professor Kaplan pointed out in the comments, the Rambam is explicit that we would not give any special weight to a prophet who states his own opinion whether or not supported by prophecy.  Thus, R Ammi's statement includes the case where the prophet states his own opinion, according to the Rambam.

Rabbi Kornreich writes further:

In addition, at the beginning of the excerpt, the Rambam makes an important qualifier when demoting a Navi's position in the realm of Dinei Torah:
הרי הוא כשאר חכמים הדומים לו שאינם נביאים.  A Navi can only be treated like any other non-prophet chacham by those who are on his level of chochma.
This clearly contradicts the author of the Ma'amar's interpretation of Rav Ami, and it also explains why the Rambam did not interpret Rav Ami as making a rhetorical point.
This is because the Rambam tells us in this very passage that Rav Ami could not argue on Yehoshua Bin Nun in sevara because Yehoshua was certainly was a greater chocham in Torah. Only a sage on the same level as Yehoshua could argue on Yehoshua in Torah.
Rabbi Kornreich is correct in his first statement.  Torah study is not completely egalitarian; there are greater and lesser figures.  So even if we ignore his prophecy, Yehoshua is not the same as Rabbi Kornreich or David Ohsie or even R. Ammi.  Which was precisely why R. Ammi exclaimed that he would not admit to the mistaken halacha even if Yehoshua stated it.  It would have made little sense to say "even if Rabbi Kornreich had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!".

So while Rabbi Kornreich is correct in his interpretation of the Rambam, this is an idea that everyone agrees to including the Chasam Sofer who explicitly disagrees with Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation.  So this statement of the Rambam proves nothing about whether the Rambam's position aligns with that of the Discourse.

 [Update: Commenter "Yoni2" points out that I misread Rabbi Kornreich's statement as "A Navi can only be treated like any other non-prophet chacham who are on his level of chochma.".   But he actually wrote "A Navi can only be treated like any other non-prophet chacham by those who are on his level of chochma.".  Those bolded words are added by Rabbi Kornreich and are not in the Rambam and simply read Rabbi Kornreich's position into the Rambam.  What the Rambam wrote is "behold they are like other sages similar to them who are not prophets" as we described in the previous two paragraphs.]

Furthermore, we have already mentioned that the Rambam rules explicitly (Mamrim 2:1) that any court can overrule a previous court's ruling based on reason, even if the later court is lesser in wisdom than the prior court.   So the Rambam has no principle that a lesser figure cannot disagree with a greater one. [16]  His statement that some figures are greater than others is obviously correct, but not contradictory to the Discourse.

While we've dealt with the bulk [17] of Rabbi Kornreich's objections, we have a few more arguments in TCS to examine before we conclude our discussion of the Discourse.  Stay tuned.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] Rabbi Kornreich is Talmid of Rabbi Meiselman.

[2] We'll avoid addressing the bare polemics in Rabbi Kornreich's post. For example: "I want to acknowledge but decline to comment at length on the disturbingly misleading and obfuscating phrases Mr. Ohsie employs", "I also want to acknowledge and decline to comment at length on David Ohsie's mis-characterization of this particular piece of evidence", and "I couldn't find much that wasn't misguided, trivial or highly subjective about Mr. Ohsie analysis". Since these kinds of comments do not break any new ground but simply express opinion without foundation, we'll leave them alone.

[3] As we noted in this post, there is no contradiction at all, since the Discourse also cites the Rambam's text.   Rabbi Kornreich merely characterizes this argument as consisting of  "disturbingly misleading and obfuscating phrases" without further analysis.  Rabbi Kornreich addresses this issue in a comment: "I would certainly think significant contradictions and textual variants are indeed troublesome-- something every serious scholar should be concerned about when trying to ascertain the real intent of the original author--whoever it may be. I don't see how pointing out that this problem is widespread in Medieval manuscripts at all mitigates the seriousness of the problems they create."  Rabbi Kornreich seems to miss the point here: of course we study such contradictions (and we call it Talmud Torah).  What we don't do is dismiss texts out of hand.

[4] Of course an apparent contradiction in an author's writings doesn't provide evidence of forgery, let alone a contradiction between and author and his Father or Rebbi.  A significant fraction of both Talmudic and post-Talmudic halachic discussion revolves around the discovery and resolution of contradictory texts.  If we simply resort to the attributing contradictions to forgery, then these discussions become senseless.

Rabbi Kornreich addresses this issue in a comment: "I would certainly think significant contradictions and textual variants are indeed troublesome-- something every serious scholar should be concerned about when trying to ascertain the real intent of the original author--whoever it may be. I don't see how pointing out that this problem is widespread in Medieval manuscripts at all mitigates the seriousness of the problems they create."  Rabbi Kornreich seems to miss the point here: of course we study such contradictions (and we call it Talmud Torah).  What we don't do is dismiss texts out of hand.

[5] "This would seem to make a definitive case that if Milchamos Hashem was authored by Rav Avrohom, there is no evidence whatsoever-- on the basis of this textual variant-- that the author of the Ma'amar al Drashos Chazal  was not Rav Avrohom. Scratch Exhibit A."

[6] "However, once we have the Milchamos Hashem essay brought to out attention, then in addition to similarities, we can check to see if there might be any significant discrepancies between what David Ohsie safely assumes to be Rav Avrohom's writing and the Ma'amar in question. If we do find such significant discrepancies, then I maintain, this would be further evidence against attributing the ma'amar to Rav Avrohom."  Rabbi Kornreich implies that there is some doubt as to authenticity of Milchamos Hashem, but doesn't discuss this further.

[7] By way of analogy, suppose that Rabbi Kornreich had invented a gold detection machine.  He sets up the machine and it gives a reading that indicates that gold will be found at a depth of 100 meters, but digging that far deep is very difficult, so the claim is hard to verify.  Luckily, at that very moment, there is an earthquake that tosses the machine aside while at the same time exposing a 100 meter deep fissure.   But no gold! 

Rabbi Kornreich then responds as follows: "it was serendipitous that the earthquake moved the machine to its new location.  The machine is now giving an even stronger signal now that there is gold at 150 meters depth at the new location".   Do we still expect the machine to work?

[8] Chasam Sofer Commentary on Chulin 124a.

[9] We also showed that the Rambam's position is that a later court can uproot the decision of an earlier court even if the later court is of lesser stature.

[10] A favorite saying of Rav was: [The future world is not like this world.]  In the future world there is no eating nor drinking nor propagation nor business nor jealousy nor hatred nor competition, but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads feasting on the brightness of the divine presence, as it says, And they beheld God, and did eat and drink. (Berachos 17a)

Note that Rav Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia interprets Rav's statement to mean that the world to come will be of a physical nature, but that our bodies will no longer requires nutrition.

[11] For example, "Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: The Holy One, blessed be He, will in time to come make a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Leviathan;" (Baba Basra 75a)

[11a]  Professor Kaplan points this out in the comments section of Rabbi Kornreich's previous blog post and writes "This is a le-shitatkha argument."  However Rabbi Kornreich seems to have failed to grasp the meaning of the comment.

[12] In the case of the feast of the Leviathan, Rabbeinu Avraham equates the Leviathan with the evil inclination and eating with it's destruction in the world to come.

[13] A couple of other examples:
And these blind of heart do not understand wisdom and judgement.  Therefore they cannot understand the answers for their complaints and their foolishness based on judgement and intellectual assessment .  So that whoever provides an answer to them which relies on judgement, intellectual assessment or logical argumentation provides an answer that they will not understand ... rather it is fitting to provide an answer the in manner of wisdom that they are familiar with and that they understand and by bringing forth matters which they are capable of comprehending.  (Milchamos Hashem)
These people speak of hidden things which they don't know and don't understand as if they are speaking of the height of an alley or a tall Sukkah. (Milchamos Hashem)

[14] "Apparently" because Rabbi Meiselman doesn't spell this out.  However, Rabbi Kornreich interprets Rabbi Meiselman in this manner.

[15] As pointed out above, Rabbi Meiselman maintains that no authority could think this, but we already showed that the Chasam Sofer explicitly states that R. Ammi can disagree even with Moshe Rabbeinu's non-prophetic opinion.


[17] While we've dealt with Rabbi Kornreich's main arguments, we pick up a few odds and ends here:

A: 'I also want to acknowledge and decline to comment at length on David Ohsie's mis-characterization of this particular piece of evidence as one which is merely "judging the text to be out of character" or "surprising". '    Yet Rabbi Meiselman writes on this same piece of evidence: "It would be very surprising if Rabbeinu Avraham knew of both variants of the Gemara, yet chose to ignore the one cited by his father..." (emphasis mine)

B: So it would seem that Mr. Ohsie has a rather unpleasant choice in reconciling this blatant inconsistency between the Ma'amar al Drashos Chazal and the Milchamos Hashem regarding this fundamental doctrine about Talmudic authority. He can either claim that:
1)  The Ma'amar al Aggados Chazal is the more likely of the two to be true work of Rav Avrohom ben HaRambam and the Milchamos essay is a forgery/mis-attribution. But this in turn will resurrect Rav Meiselman's evidence against the Ma'amar based on the textual variance with the Rambam. 
2) The Milchamos Hashem is the more likely of the two to be the true work of Rav Avrohom Ben HaRambam and this sub-section of the Ma'amar is a mis-attribution. Again, this will directly support Rav Meiselman's overall thesis.
(Of course, Mr. Ohsie is at liberty to claim that there is no significant contradiction here whatsoever and move on. As far-fetched as that might seem to me, it's his prerogative.
Of course, we showed that there is no contradiction.   But Rabbi Kornreich's list of possibilities presents a false choice, skewed towards his own preferred conclusion.  Even if we could not explain this "contradiction" that would grant us no license to assert that either of the texts is a forgery.

Ironically, one of Rabbi Kornreich's comments proves this point.  Commenter "A Careful Reader" spotted a contradiction in TCS itself:

A Careful Reader June 27, 2015 at 10:48 PM
Actually, in footnote 186 on p. 237, Rabbi Meiselman claims to have shown in chapter 8 that "it is IMPOSSIBLE to maintain that the relevant statements in Maamar Odos Drashos Chazal were actually penned by Rabbeinu Avraham" (emphasis added). So much for your claim that it is a "cautious proposal that there is reasonable doubt", and his claim that "there is some evidence... that it may not be... etc."
Freelance Kiruv ManiacJune 28, 2015 at 2:36 PM
Well, if Rav Meiselman wrote the pages I cited and they aren't a forgery, then my claim still stands.

Joking aside, we have a problem where a footnote cross-referencing the book itself overstates the actual text in the book. In such a case, I would think the actual text in the book overrides the cross-referencing footnote.

C: From the comments section: When I approached Rav Meiselman about David Ohsie's "discovery", he told me that he knew of it and that he simultaneously knew of the contradiction between the Milchamos Hashem and the ma'amar regarding Talmudic authority when he was researching the book.  He explained that although this contradiction with Milchamos would have been the better point of the two options, to make it in a definitive way would have required investing another huge amount of time, effort and money to do a thorough investigation of the authenticity of the Milchamos Hashem.  So he resigned himself to only presenting the textual variant problem knowing that if anyone would pull the Milchamos as a counter-point, he could respond with a "mimoh nafshoch".

This explanation is most disturbing and I don't accept that it represents Rabbi Meiselman's viewpoint.  Presenting a false argument because you have another argument available if the falsity of your argument is discovered is not an intellectually honest way to proceed.

In addition, I'm not aware of any doubts as to the authenticity of Milchamos Hashem or why it would take huge investments to present the evidence that it is not reliable.  So the whole "Mimoh Nafscoch" is difficult to comprehend.

D: Indeed, such a doctrine would fly in the face of the entire thrust of this sub-section of the ma'amar. Namely, the Mama'ar insists we may not concede any authority to the Talmud merely on the basis of the stature of the Talmudic sages alone. Their authority --on any subject, legal or scientific--must be earned by passing the scrutiny of our own contemporary expertise! (The wording I employ here in describing the Ma'amar's position vis-a-vis authority is specifically designed to correct David Ohsie's latest misunderstanding of Rav Meiselman's argument about the Ma'amar. That was rather painless, wasn't it?)

Rabbi Kornreich's "explanation" is difficult to understand.  Rabbi Meiselman appeared to claim that the Discourse lends no credence to authority at all, since he tries to refute it with a statement from the Rambam that authority is a source of knowledge.  If all the Discourse means is that we don't accept a statement based entirely on authority regardless of whether or not it makes sense, then this is no contradiction to the Rambam.  We showed in the post that he puts reason ahead of authority as a source of knowledge, and rejects Talmudic statements with which he disagrees.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Confronting Dinosaurs

How do you evaluate whether a professed expert on Torah and science is worth his salt? One step (of many) is to see whether he is ready to confront dinosaurs.

I don't mean whether he is ready to jump into an enclosure of cloned velociraptors and stare them down. (I wouldn't do that, either.) Rather, I'm talking about whether he is ready (and has already thought about) some very basic questions. Like, when the dinosaurs live? Did they live at the same time as people? Did they all live at the same time as each other? And if so, why are their fossils consistently found in different layers of rock?

Interestingly, the Christian Young Earth Creationists (YECs) are eager to confront dinosaurs. At the $27 million Creation museum in Kentucky, there are prominent animatronic dinosaur exhibits, complete with models of the humans that the Christian creationists believe lived alongside the dinosaurs. (As far as I know, they do not explain why the thousands of dinosaurs fossils are all found in layers of rock that do not have fossils of humans or modern animals.) The Christian YECs are interested and excited to talk about dinosaurs from within their religious worldview, in which they are very confident.

Yet there is no parallel to this amongst Orthodox Jewish YECs. Whether they ultimately claim that dinosaur bones are an incredible work of art created by God, or that they lived before the Flood, one finds that Orthodox YECs simply do not want to discuss the topic at all. This is especially significant in that dinosaurs are probably the most basic of all Torah-science questions. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I put a photo of the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex on the cover of The Challenge Of Creation - not just to scare away charedi readers, but also to stress that I am willing to confront dinosaurs.

Perhaps the most striking example of this aversion to confronting dinosaurs is with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science. Despite the book being over eight hundred pages long, it does not once discuss dinosaurs!

The only reference to dinosaurs at all in Rabbi Meiselman's book appears on p. 531, where Rabbi Meiselman rejects the approach of the Tiferes Yisrael that dinosaurs are from a previous epoch. He also indirectly expresses a viewpoint on dinosaurs in a footnote on p. 500, where he refers to a change in animal behavior after the Mabul, and references the Ramban to Bereishis 9:5, which suggests that before the Mabul, animals were all herbivores. That might have been a reasonable suggestion in Ramban's time, but it's simply laughable to propose it seriously today. Is Rabbi Meiselman claiming that Tyrannosaurus rex, velociraptors, and saber-toothed cats all ate grass and leaves?! Aside from the fact that their physiology clearly shows that they were carnivores, we actually have fossilized remnants of their stomach contents and excrement, which show that they were carnivores - as well as a famous fossil of two dinosaurs that died locked in combat.

While Rabbi Meiselman does not explicitly discuss dinosaurs, he does tell us what he believes to be the (only legitimate) approach to the age of the universe. Unfortunately, his approach to this is rather muddled. Often he says vaguely that "time was measured differently back then", which could theoretically mean that there was indeed an age of dinosaurs, but he also insists that it is forbidden to modify traditional beliefs regarding the universe being a few thousand years old (p. 493). He further claims that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging this because the laws of nature were different back then and thus all methods of dating the world as being more than a few thousand years old are invalid. Rabbi Meiselman claims that scientists have no way of knowing otherwise, and that all their conclusions are based on an unproven premise that the laws of nature were always constant.

In a previous post, I have noted that the consistency of historical processes is not a presumption of modern science. Rather, it is a conclusion, drawn from observations of the uniformity present in geology and other phenomena. This was the subject of the very first post that ever appeared on this blog, William Smith and the Principal of Faunal Succession.

(In a possible attempt to counter this argument, Rabbi Meiselman claims on p. 504 that the results of a universe that developed under completely different laws of nature over six days perfectly mimic that of a universe that developed under a single set of laws over billions of years! I'm simply lost for words that such a proposal could be put in print, and that a book espousing such a thing can be taken seriously by anyone.)

But aside from all the scientific evidence that the laws of nature were not different back then, what about the dinosaurs? And the therapsids? And the woolly mammoths?

Forget abstract jargon about radioactive decay and cesium atoms. Think about something tangible and familiar, such as animal life. The fossil evidence clearly shows that there were dinosaurs and all kinds of other creatures which lived before people (since no fossils of contemporary creatures are found in the same strata). These animals lived and died and fought and ate and bred - we even find dinosaur nesting sites. Did all that happen in the space of twelve hours? Did it happen in a universe in which the laws of gravity, the speed of light, and everything else - the very fabric of natural law - was drastically different from what we see today?

And it's not as though there was only one period of prehistoric creatures. The fossil record shows beyond doubt that there were numerous distinct periods. The therapsids lived before the dinosaurs; the dinosaurs lived before the mammoths. And even among dinosaurs, different layers of rock reveal distinct eras. Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Allosaurus are never found in the same layers of rock as Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. The conclusion is that each existed in a different period; the former lived in a period which has been termed the Jurassic, while the latter lived in the Cretaceous period. This is not part of some evil conspiracy by scientists, nor the result of mistakes on their part. Any paleontologist could win instant fame by finding a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in Jurassic rocks - but nobody has ever done so, which shows that T-Rex lived much later, in the Cretaceous.

We see in the rocks that there were countless generations of all kinds of animals, living in distinct periods, leading ordinary animal lives. This is clearly a process that takes many thousands, even millions of years. To describe it as all occurring in one day is simply ridiculous, unless one is taking the word "day" to mean something other than "day." It is not remotely meaningful to talk about "time being different back then." Countless generations of creatures lived and died, in distinct eras - how is it not legitimate to describe that as taking a long period of time?

In fact, I would say that an even stronger question is, how can you write an 800 page book purporting to present the sole legitimate perspective on these topics, and not even address this most basic of questions? Have you never even thought about it, or are you really that afraid to confront it? If the former, then you have no place presenting yourself as an authority on this topic. If the latter - well, then even the Christians have you beat.

If someone claims to be an authority (and especially if they claim to be the sole authority) on Torah and science, and yet they show that they can't even discuss dinosaurs, then they've been caught with their trousers down.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Your Book Bores Me. I'd Rather Eat Someone."

In the following video, a lion reviews The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. He doesn't find it very interesting and prefers to bite his handler in the leg instead:

Others, however, did indeed find the book interesting:
"In The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom Rabbi Natan Slifkin has produced a groundbreaking work of outstanding scholarship, vast erudition, and a truly engaging approach to an understudied topic. The work will be eye-opening for many, who had only a vague sense of the intense interest the Hebrew Bible and Judaism’s sages had for the Divinely created diversity of the animal kingdom. A wonderful book, magnificently produced, that should be on every Jewish bookshelf." - Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
(If you do decide to purchase the encyclopedia, I'd be very grateful if you could buy it from my website or from the museum website. The absolute worst place to buy it is Amazon.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Moses and the Suckers

A friend of mine, a mohel and also a physician, is strongly against metzitza b'peh. Unfortunately, he lives in a country where he is a lone voice, battling against numerous other mohelim who are staunchly in favor of it. He told me how at a conference on mohalim, he tried to convince them not to do it, arguing not only that it has no halachic necessity and is dangerous, but also how in that country, there is a threat of a metzitzah b'peh expose leading to bris milah being banned altogether.

But his arguments fell upon deaf ears. In desperation, my friend tried a different tactic. He proposed to his opponents that he and they go to the Gadol B'Torah of their choice, that they both present their arguments, and that they both agree to go by whatever he says.

Personally, I thought that this was very foolhardy. Any Gadol B'Torah remotely recognized as such by his opponents would probably insist on metzitza b'peh! But it was irrelevant. One of his opponents stood up, and announced: "Even if Moshe Rabeinu himself were to come and rule that we shouldn't do it, we would not listen to him!"

Wow, what a response! The formulation is especially interesting in light of the fact that whereas the opponents to metziza b'peh argue that it is not part of the Talmudic requirement, its proponents argue that it is halachah l'Moshe miSinai. You'd think, therefore, that Moshe Rabeinu could therefore have something to say about the matter!

But in fact, this response is spot on. The hypothetical construct of Moshe Rabeinu coming refers to a scenario of there being absolutely certainty that there is no halachic reason to do metzitza b'peh. But as I wrote in my post "Suckers for Orthodoxy," the reasons for insisting on metzitza b'peh have nothing to do with halachah. Rather, it is due to meta-halachic considerations. These are rooted in Chasam Sofer's approach that when there is any kind of threat to Judaism from the outside, one should fictitiously elevate the importance of practices. 

Thus, since there is opposition to metzitza b'peh from external sources, such as non-Jews or Modern Orthodox Jews (it's not clear which is more dangerous in their eyes - my friend was called "a Reformer"!), one must ipso facto insist on it being non-negotiable. This non-negotiability can be dressed up in whatever way suits the needs at hand - call it mesorah, call it kabbalah, call it halacha l'Moshe Sinai. It's a meta-halachic social strategy, not a halachic position.

Thus, I do indeed understand this person's response. I just think that such meta-halachic social strategies should be weighed against a proper understanding of the topic, likely responses from the wider world, and the safety of babies.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Guest Post: Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Continuing [1A] with the Discourse's analysis of R. Ammi,  Rabbi Meiselman spots another contradiction.  The Rambam, in his Letter on Astrologylists three sources of knowledge: (1) sense data, (2) reason and (3) knowledge "that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous." [1]  But, according to Rabbi Meiselman, the Discourse gives no validity to authority as a source of knowledge, hence a contradiction with the Rambam's third source of knowledge. [2]

The problem with this argument is straightforward: the Discourse make no such extraordinary claim (a claim that no one who visits a doctor or calls an exterminator could agree with). As we would expect, the Discourse explicitly embraces expert opinion as a source of knowledge and specifically grants Chazal authority in Torah. [3]   In invalidating some of the medical advice of Chazal, he remarks that the advice was not validated [4].  He does not say that he personally investigated them and found them lacking, but rather that there were not validated by contemporary medicine.  

Similarly, in confirming Chazal's health recommendations, he says that they are "essential to health as has been validated by investigation and the medical practice of the physician".  Here, Rabbeinu Avraham does attribute Chazal as the source of knowledge, as well as the confirmation by contemporary medicine.  Moreover, Rabbeinu Avraham nowhere tells the reader to embark on his own investigation, but to rely on what he himself writes in the Discourse. [5]

In claiming a contradiction, Rabbi Meiselman most likely refers R. Ammi's hypothetical rejection of Yehoshua.  By Rabbi Meiselman's argument, R. Ammi could not reject the authority of Yehoshua over R. Ammi's logical arguments, while simultaneously respecting Yehoshua as a source of knowledge.  However, we have already shown that the Chasam Sofer explicitly agrees with the Discourse's understanding of the Talmud. [6]  Yet, the Chasam Sofer certainly accepted knowledge from the righteous or a prophet as a source of knowledge.

Rabbi Meiselman may also refer to the following statement earlier in the Discourse (translation mine): 
You should know that anyone who desires to support a well-known opinion [7] and to give respect to its author and accept his opinion without any investigation into the matter as to its veracity, that this is an improper methodology and prohibited...
However, this statement does not claim that knowledge cannot be derived from a knowledgeable authority.  The statement merely emphasizes that one should not blindly accept such statements purely based on who said them "without any investigation" (for example by consulting with other authorities).  Hence, when the Jewish Sages claim that the Sun goes behind the sky-shell at night, we do not accept this view simply because of their greatness.  Likewise, in modern times, we don't accept geocentrism which was the near-universal opinion of both the ancient and medieval greats, both Jewish and Gentile.  Instead, we understand that the science of astronomy has made great advances since then and that these statements need to be re-examined.

Thus, Rabbi Meiselman sets forth a false dichotomy: either an authority is considered reliable in all that he says on a subject or no knowledge can be derived from him.  He makes a similar statement in TCS (pg. 225) in an attempt to prove that the Chazal's medical knowledge was received knowledge (ellipses mine):
Chazal, however, were not physicians...Why then should they be considered a "source" at all in this area [medicine]?  Why should they not be considered amateurs quoting hearsay? Evidently ... Chazal's advice was of a permanent nature because it was not based on experimentation but upon a Torah source. [7a]
To bring this misconception this into sharper relief, consider the field of ethnomedicine, the study of traditional medicine as practiced by various cultures.  One important aspect of ethnomedicine is the discovery of new drugs based on an understanding of traditional remedies. (For example, see this list of drugs derived from ethnomedicine).  In this case, traditional remedies are a important and irreplaceable source of knowledge, but such knowledge is not accepted blindly.  Rather it forms the starting point for research and verification [8].   We can simultaneously place a high value on a given source of knowledge yet retain a skeptical approach.

Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman's argument is a bit different:  Rabbeinu Avraham favors reason over authority, while the Rambam lists sense data, reason and authority as three sources of knowledge with no particular ranking.  Does the Rambam favor reason over authority as Rabbeinu Avraham implies?  The answer is clearly "yes".

To begin with, one can simply ask: if the only three sources of knowledge are sense data, reason and knowledge received from an authoritative figure, whence does the authoritative figure derive his knowledge?  In the Rambam's hierarchy of knowledge, the third source, authority, is derived from the other two (sense data and reason).   While the Rambam implies this hierarchy, do we find that he makes this explicit?  The answer again is "yes".

In his Treatise on Logic, the Rambam gives a slightly different categorization of the sources of knowledge: 
  1. Sense data (e.g. this object is black)
  2. First ideas (e.g. if a=b and b=c, then a=c)
  3. Conventions (e.g. it is important to thank someone that helps you)
  4. Traditions (e.g. knowledge received from trusted person or group)
The Rambam prioritizes the first two sources of knowledge as giving knowledge which is universally agreed upon and undoubtedly true.  In addition, knowledge derived from the first two sources plus "secondary ideas" (like geometric theorems) is termed "apodictic" or demonstrably true. [9]

In contrast, knowledge derived from conventions or traditions are not universally recognized and result in a knowledge with a lower level of certainty.  Knowledge derived from traditions form the art or rhetoric and may involve weaker forms of reasoning such as reasoning by analogy, which is disallowed in the art of demonstration. [10]

Thus, the Rambam does put reason above authority in the hierarchy of knowledge sources.  But we can ask: how does this apply practically to statements of Chazal?  Are their scientific statements to be treated in the same way, as described by the Discourse? 

The Rambam answers this quite clearly in his Letter on Astrology.  While most of the letter is devoted to rejecting the general accepted belief in astrology, at the end of the letter he addresses another difficulty: if the Talmud accepts astrology, how can we reject it?  He offers a number of possible grounds for rejecting such Talmudic statements, including the possibility that the Talmudic statement is simply in error.  He concludes with the following aphorism (discussed earlier), which asserts the priority of reason is such circumstances: "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back". [11]

We see once again that Discourse aligns quite well with the Rambam.  In the next post, we'll address some other discrepancies claimed by Rabbi Meiselman between the Discourse and the Rambam.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1A] After a short interlude far away from lions.

[1] Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man's reasoning—such as arithmetic' geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. (Letter on Astrology)

[2] It is unclear why Rabbi Meiselman needs to quote the Rambam here.   No human being can navigate the world without accepting, at least provisionally, knowledge obtained from others.   Any time that you consult, say, a doctor, an architect or or a plumber, you are relying on the fact that they have knowledge that you don't have through your own perception or your own reason.  Only a solipsist can claim to rely entirely on knowledge directly acquired through their own perception or reason.

In fact, the Rambam is not making any kind of novel or innovative statement here.  He is simply reminding the reader that any belief should have some source, either primary or secondary; the mere fact that some claim (in the case, the efficacy of astrology) is written in a book or is believed by the masses is not valid grounds for acceptance.  Thus he writes
The great sickness and the "grievous evil" (Eccles. 5:12, 15) consist in this: that all the things that man finds written in books, he presumes to think of as true—and all the more so if the books are old. And since many individuals have busied themselves with those books and have engaged in discussions concerning them, the rash fellow's mind at once leaps to the conclusion that these are words of wisdom...
Were it true that the Discourse completely rejects expert the expertise of others as a source of knowledge, there would be no need to find a contradictory statement from the Rambam. 

[3] We are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of knowledge, as it is said (Deu. 17, 11.) "In accordance with the instructions which they may instruct thee, etc.," still it is not necessarily so concerning any other branch of knowledge.

[4] "Since we find that the sages themselves had said, concerning nledical knowledge that the opinion of such and such a Rabbi did not prove to be true, as for instance, The eagle-stone (Sabbath fol. 66b), or other things mentioned."

[5] These two paragraphs should go without saying, but are included in the interest of thoroughness.  We can dismiss any author by interpreting what he says to be nonsensical.  And an author whow never relies on outside knowledge is being nonsensical.

[6] We showed that this was the view of the Rambam as well, but our reasoning doesn't depend on that argument.

[7] Perhaps instead "the opinion of a well known person".

[7a] Obviously, Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation is much more straightfoward: some of Chazal's medical knowledge was well-found and some not.

[8] For example, see J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2007; 3: 25. "The present zootherapeutic study describes the traditional knowledge related to the use of different animals and animal-derived products as medicines by the Saharia tribe reside in the Shahabad and Kishanganj Panchayat Samiti's of Baran district of Rajasthan, India. ... Further studies are required for experimental validation to confirm the presence of bioactive compounds in these traditional remedies and also to emphasize more sustainable use of these resources."   This is just a single sample found randomly using a google search.

[9] The same applies to ideas, first and second; by second ideas I mean such as geometric theorems and astronomic calculations, which are all true, because they may all be demonstrated by premises, most of which come close to the first ideas. In like manner, all the results of experience, e. g., that scammony is a cathartic and gall-nut causes constipation, are also true. Whatever becomes known through one of these three truthful channels the logicians call apodictic. After these preliminaries, you must know that every syllogism both of whose premises are apodictic, we call a demonstrative syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute what we call the art of demonstration.

[10] When, however, one or both premises of the syllogism belong to conventions, we call it a dialectic syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of dialectics. When one or both premises of the syllogism belong to traditions, we call it a rhetorical syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of rhetoric. [...] In general, however, the demonstrative syllogisms do not use analogy under any circumstances, nor do they use induction except under certain conditions; but the art of dialectics does use general induction; and the art of rhetoric uses the analogical syllogism.

[11] The summary of the matter is that our mind cannot grasp how the decrees of the Holy One, blessed be He, work upon human beings in this world and in the world to come. What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back... (Letter on Astrology)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Leopard Encounter

(If you are reading this via email subscription, you will have to visit in order to watch this amazing video!)