Monday, May 23, 2016

Adulating Dishonesty


In this forum, I’ve been steadily working through the web of obfuscations, convoluted arguments, inexcusable omissions, and downright distortions that is Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s Torah, Chazal and Science. However, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the charedi polemicist of Cross-Currents fame, recently published an adulatory review of Rabbi Meiselman’s book in the journal Dialogue (which coincidentally has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board). This had the benefit of drawing my attention to further falsifications in Rabbi Meiselman’s book that I had previously overlooked. It also demonstrates a fascinating sociological aspect of the charedi world, as we shall see at the end of my review of his review.

Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly! But let me carefully work through some of the problems with Rabbi Menken’s review.

The Ideal Perverter of Rav Soloveitchik

At the beginning of his review, Rabbi Menken explains why he thinks that Rabbi Meiselman is “in many ways, the ideal person to address this controversial issue. Because he was a dedicated and close talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik… he is best able to rebut those insisting that their ideas are compatible with Rav Soloveitchik’s school of thought.” Who is "those"? You mean all Rav Soloveitchik’s other close talmidim and family members? They all regard Rabbi Meiselman as a completely dishonest charedi revisionist of Rav Soloveitchik. I know, I’ve spoken to them.

Besides, you don’t even need to be a talmid of Rav Soloveitchik to know that Rabbi Meiselman grossly distorts his teachings – you just need to be able to read. The most egregious example of Rabbi Meiselman distorting Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings in this area is when he quotes the Rav as saying that evolution and the Bible have long been recognized as being at odds – without revealing that one paragraph later, the Rav explains that this is a thoroughly mistaken approach! Such brazen dishonesty is, unfortunately, rampant throughout Rabbi Meiselman’s book.

Chazal and Science

Rabbi Menken describes Rabbi Meiselman as showing that the only sources indicating the fallibility of Chazal are Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and those who lived after the scientific revolution and were unsettled by it. Of course, this is nonsense. There are many dozens of sources amongst the Rishonim and early Acharonim who present this view.

Most notably, this occurs with the Gemara in Pesachim, where the Sages of Israel state that the sun passes behind the sky at night, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observes them to be incorrect. Rabbi Meiselman has an extremely muddled discussion of this topic, in which he eventually is forced to concede that most Rishonim do understand this Gemara to mean that the Sages of Israel were wrong, but he claims that these sages did not derive this position from the Torah. Yet the same view is presented by Chazal in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah where it is connected to pesukim! Elsewhere, Rabbi Meiselman claims that these sages of Israel were not Torah scholars, which is likewise refuted by the Gemara in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah. Furthermore, if Chazal could mistakenly believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night, why could they not also mistakenly believe things that were universal belief for much longer, such as spontaneous generation?! Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is following the consensus of Rishonim with his work, but in fact he is going directly against the consensus of Rishonim.

Rabbi Menken happily accepts Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments that the relevant section of the maamar of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery. David Ohsie has presented a lengthy series of posts refuting these arguments. I would simply like to point out that the only people who find Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments to be remotely convincing are those who, for religious reasons, are convinced that this approach is heretical and thus Rabbeinu Avraham could not possibly have said it. Rabbi Meiselman makes reference to several scholars of Maimonidean manuscripts that he consulted with regarding aspects of this discussion, and when I contacted them, none of them knew anything about his argument, and it seems that he was not interested in asking their opinion.

The “Unsophisticated” Rav Hirsch

Rabbi Meiselman dismisses the views of more recent rabbinic scholars who noted that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. He claims that they “were generally not trained in science” and therefore said Chazal were wrong, and “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters they might have felt less intimidated.” But what on earth does training in science have to do with anything?! When scholars such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog observed that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation, they just honestly accepted that Chazal's words meant what all the Rishonim and Acharonim and common sense says that they mean, without contriving a forced reinterpretation of Chazal’s words that goes against all sense and tradition. It is simply a red herring to say that “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters” they would have said otherwise. (On the other hand, it is entirely accurate to say that had the Gedolim and Rabbi Meiselman been more sophisticated in scientific matters, they would not have rejected the evidence for the antiquity of the universe!)

Rabbi Menken also helpfully drew my attention to another distortion that Rabbi Meiselman commits. In discussing and dismissing the writings of 19th century rabbinic scholars on these issues, Rabbi Meiselman states that “In the face of these challenges some may have felt compelled to concede the imperfectness of Chazal’s factual knowledge. When they did so, however, it was always in response to some specific issue. Moreover, they made no attempt to square this concession with the overwhelming consensus to the contrary.” To prove the falseness of these claims, let us simply quote these authorities. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes as follows:
“In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.”
Rav Hirsch, then, does not present this approach as a particular response to a specific issue. Furthermore, he clearly states that he believes this to be a normative view (albeit obviously with those who differ). The same goes for Rav Herzog, who presents Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s position as being the normative viewpoint. But you wouldn’t know from Rabbi Meiselman’s book that Rav Hirsch says this, because Rabbi Meiselman never once quotes Rav Hirsch’s writings on these topics, even though they are the most thorough pre-20th century treatment of these topics.

Rabbi Meiselman is perfectly entitled to adopt the view that Chazal were infallible in their definitive statements about the natural world. However, it is a falsification of the history of Torah scholarship to deny that there was a major school of thought that felt otherwise, or to dismiss the statements of figures such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog.

At the end of the day, regardless of the sources for and against the notion that Chazal could be mistaken in scientific matters, what is the logic to it? Rabbi Menken claims that "Rav Meiselman's statement is reasonable and straightforward: that Chazal were careful with their words, and would only make a definitive statement that they knew to be true." In fact, Rabbi Meiselman’s statement is not reasonable in the slightest. Yes, Chazal were careful with their words. Still, like every human being that has ever lived, they would make definitive statements that they believed to be true. One can never ultimately know if one’s statements are true. Rabbi Meiselman has no problem dismissing hundreds of scientific statements made by the Rishonim and Acharonim; he does not see it as impugning their integrity. There is no reason why Chazal should be any different.

The Age of the Universe

Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is a Rosh Yeshiva with a "clear understanding of modern science." I’m not sure on what basis Rabbi Menken, a computer scientist, is able to endorse Rabbi Meiselman in this way. Rabbi Menken makes an astonishing claim regarding Rabbi Meiselman’s approach to Creation and the Flood: “In each case, he shows how the Biblical passage may be understood while neither discarding its plain meaning nor rejecting facts known to scientists.” Likewise, Rabbi Menken later writes that Rabbi Meiselman succeeds in explaining Genesis “without compromising science.” Well, just about every scientist in the world (of those in the relevant fields, and lacking a religious agenda) would find that laughable.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that every single field of science dealing with matters pre-dating the Deluge is fundamentally invalid. He claims that they are all based on an incorrect assumption that the laws of nature have never been different. In fact, Rabbi Meiselman is ignorant of the very basis of the fields of science which deal with that period. The constancy of nature was not an assumption for them – it was a conclusion, first drawn by William Smith, who observed that the geological layers show an orderly, uniform pattern, not the chaotic mess that the religious Christians of the time expected, as the result of their belief (along with Rabbi Meiselman) in the miraculous and non-naturalistic creation of the world. It’s as a result of the discoveries of Smith and others that there are multi-billion dollar industries based upon the work of geologists. Geology works, precisely because the world did develop according to an orderly, naturalistic process, and not the supernatural, entirely different process from today that Rabbi Meiselman insists upon.

And let us not forget that it is not only with regarding to creation and the flood that Rabbi Meiselman discards science. There are many statements in the Gemara that are at odds with modern science, which Rabbi Meiselman simply ignores, probably because he has no way of satisfactorily dealing with them. Chazal make definitive statements about the gestation period of different animals, the spontaneous generation of salamanders from fire, and all kinds of things which, following Rabbi Meiselman’s principles, one would have to accept as being factually true, even though they are completely at odds with science.

If somebody wants to simply say that all modern science is bunk, well, so be it. But to reject (without explanation) the fundamentals of physics, geology, paleontology, biology, and archeology, which are accepted by all scientists in those fields, while simultaneously claiming that one “understands modern science” and is not “rejecting facts known to scientists” or “compromising science” is laughably dishonest.

Rabbi Menken Betrays The Gedolim

There is one absolutely fascinating aspect of Rabbi Menken’s review. He presents Rabbi Meiselman’s book as being the long-awaited explanation for the Gedolims’ ban on my own books. To quote Rabbi Menken: “Many were confused when those views were ultimately declared to be wrong and even kefirah by Gedoley Torah. No previous writer has laid out in such detail where those writers went off course and what needs to be corrected.” Later, Rabbi Menken states that Rabbi Meiselman “…has defended the honor… of our Chachomim, shlita, in our times.”

Now, this blew me away. After all, Rabbi Meiselman presents positions and statements that the vast majority of the Gedolim would find to be every bit as heretical as my own. For example, there are numerous passages in the Gemara and Midrash which discuss various cases of spontaneous generation, according to the unequivocal consensus of all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Yet Rabbi Meiselman comes along and insists that all these Rishonim and Acharonim did not know how to learn these passages, and innovates a new explanation of them. This brazen disregard for their Torah scholarship – which, for the record, I myself strongly dispute – would be regarded by most, if not all, the Gedolim as completely unacceptable.

Indeed, there was one book that was presented as the Authorized Response to Slifkin, Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer’s Chaim B’Emunasam, which featured approbations from many of the Gedolim who banned my books (unlike Rabbi Meiselman’s book, which features no approbations). In their approbations, several of the Gedolim specifically stated that one is obligated to accept the traditional explanations of the Gemara that are given by the Rishonim and Acharonim, and not to contrive new and non-traditional explanations in order to make the Gemara compatible with science. They are condemning precisely Rabbi Meiselman’s approach!

Nor is this the only case of Rabbi Meiselman presenting positions that the Gedolim oppose. He makes several statements that the Gedolim would find unforgivable. For example, he states that Chazal “would only make definitive statements that they knew to be true – and, along with those, made tentative statements that might well not be true.” Can you imagine Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel or Rav Moshe Shapiro accepting that some of Chazal’s statements, such as those describing the earth-mouse and which involve derashos from pesukim, are only tentative statements about the world that might well not be true?!

Rabbi Meiselman is certainly not explaining the view of the Gedolim who banned my books; he is simply taking a different anti-rationalist view that these Gedolim would likewise deem heretical. Why, then, does Rabbi Menken see them as presenting the same approach? Furthermore, even more fascinatingly, Rabbi Menken’s own book, Everything Torah, presents exactly the approach regarding the age of the universe that Rabbi Meiselman (and the Gedolim) condemn!

What on earth is going on here? I think that the answer is as follows. It’s all about tribalism. It doesn’t matter that Rav Elyashiv and Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and Rabbi Yaakov Menken all have mutually exclusive views. It doesn’t matter that Rabbi Meiselman is a heretic by Rav Wachtfogel’s definition and Rabbi Menken is a heretic by Rabbi Meiselman’s definition. The important thing is that they are all against Slifkin, Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy, and all those other things. You can say that the Acharonim were wrong, you can say that the Rishonim were wrong, you can say that Chazal were wrong, as long as you say that Slifkin is wrong!

(The full series of critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book is at this link)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Close Encounters

I spent an amazing day at Glen Afric in South Africa, filming a new video for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. This was definitely the most dangerous shoot I have ever done!

First was Monty the lion. Now, I had filmed with him three years ago, for the video that we show at the museum. However, three years on, he was MUCH bigger, and vastly more dangerous. The trainers weren't even sure if we could do the shoot at all. Finally we worked out the safety procedures. Firstly, of course, there would be plenty of handlers around, with pepper spray and guns. The videographer, as usual, would be safely protected inside a cage within the enclosure, along with my good friend Jake Shepherd holding up my lines. Then, just to the side of what the camera could see, another cage was set up, with a person inside who would yank me in if things went south. After a safety rehearsal, the lion was released! He was clearly a much more powerful and dangerous animal than when I had last seen him, as you can see in this photo, when he got angry! (You can click on all the photos to enlarge them)


Then came the shoot with a beautiful leopard, Selati. She seemed mildly interested in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.


Although much smaller than the lion, Selati was still a highly dangerous animal, it was quite disconcerting when she suddenly strode up to me:


Then it was time to film with the cheetahs. Cheetahs are less dangerous than leopards, but can still be unnerving:



Finally the cheetah settled down and I got to have a good cuddle!


There was also an elephant that sort-of charged us, which we got on video, but it will take me a while to upload that. Fun!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Going to Africa, Coming to America

I. On Wednesday night, I am going to Africa for two weeks. On the agenda is filming a new video, speaking at Mizrachi Johannesburg, and leading the annual Africa tour for Torah In Motion in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. My blog content and scheduling will thus be changing! If you're in Johannesburg and would like to buy any of my books, please write to me.
II. At the end of July, I am coming to America for about a month. On Shabbos July 30th, I will be speaking at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach. On Sunday 31st, I am so far open for engagements. After that, I will be based in LA. I have availability for scholar-in-residence engagements for Shabbos of August 6th and 13th (but probably not on the East Coast). If you'd like to arrange something, please write to me. Please note that the Biblical Museum of Natural History will be functioning as normal during that period - we have excellent guides - so if you're in Israel for the summer, don't forget to book a tour!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Siren Vs. Tehillim - Which is Jewish Tradition?

In my younger years, I would not stand silently during the sirens on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. After all, I reckoned, those are non-Jewish, meaningless customs. Instead, I would recite Tehillim, the traditional Jewish way of memorializing the deceased, which actually helps them in the Upper Worlds. (Of course, if I was in public, I would nevertheless stand in silence out of respect for others.) Such is still the normative attitude in the charedi world.

This year, it occurred to me that I had it entirely backwards.

Standing silent for the siren may have been introduced into Israel as a copy of procedures done in non-Jewish nations, but it is not chukkas ha-goy. It is simply a natural human expression of solemnity in the face of tragedy. And such a response to death goes back to the Torah itself. When Nadav and Avihu were killed by fire, it says vayidom Aharon, "Aharon was silent." Iyov's friends sat in silence with him for seven days - they didn't recite Tehillim. The Gemara (Berachos 6b) says that "the merit of attending a house of mourning lies in maintaining silence." Contemplating matters in our minds is something that is very much part of traditional Judaism.

What about the siren? A siren can be seen as simply a way of alerting everyone to this avodah, just like the Shabbos siren. Or, it can be seen as recalling the wars in which many lost their lives. It can even be seen as very similar to the shofar blast, another type of horn which sounds and to which in response we stand in silent contemplation.

Standing silent for the siren, then, echoes traditional Jewish practices. It is not something that is simply copying non-Jewish practices, like schlissel challah, pouring lead, and many other popular rituals in frum society.

But saying Tehillim, on the other hand - just how traditional is that? In my monograph What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away? I demonstrated that in classical Judaism, one gives charity for the dead and one prays (such as with the Yizkor prayer, which is recited at Yom HaZikaron events). For one's ancestors and teachers, one learns Torah and does good deeds as a credit to them. Saying Tehillim for strangers does not appear to have any basis in classical Judaism; the earliest sources to discuss such things explain that it does not actually accomplish anything for the deceased. I am fairly sure that it is a custom that goes back no more than two hundred years (but I am open to being corrected!).

So which is the traditional Jewish way of responding to such things, and which is the meaningless custom of recent origin? Like so many other topics that we have discussed here, it all depends on whether you define Jewish tradition as starting in Biblical times and carrying on through Chazal and the Rishonim, or whether you define it as starting about a hundred years ago. Similarly, it also depends on whether you follow the rationalist approach of the Rishonim or the more recent mystical approach.

(Of course, it is still infinitely better to say Tehillim during the siren than to ignore it entirely!)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Greatest Miracle


There are two things that lie at the core of of my relationship with God and Judaism. One is the personal providence that I perceive in my life, as non-rationalist as that may be. The other is the single greatest miracle in post-Biblical history: the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland. An ancient nation, exiled and dispersed and massacred with the most horrific persecution in history, fulfills its ancient prophecies and returns to its homeland, to create an amazingly vibrant country and triumph against overwhelming odds.

The more that one learns about the creation of the Israel, the more miraculous it becomes. Historian Paul Johnson, in A History Of The Jews, describes the extraordinary confluence of circumstances that was necessary for it to happen, including the death of Roosevelt (who had turned anti-Zionist), and an amazing brief period in which the Soviet Union was pursuing an active pro-Zionist policy. As Johnson concludes: "Israel slipped into existence through a fortuitous window in history which briefly opened for a few months in 1947-8. That too was luck; or providence."

I recommend reading Johnson's book to learn more about all the factors that had to coincide for Israel to come into existence. I still can't quite believe that for much of my life, I did not celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut. God performed one of the greatest miracles in history, to our immense benefit - how can we not celebrate it? "The ingathering of the exiles is as great as the day upon which the heaven and earth were created" (Pesachim 88a). (See Rav Eliezer Melamed's discussion at this link.)

Happy Yom Ha-Atzma'ut!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Star Wars, The Holocaust, and the Wild West

This is going to be a confused jumble of thoughts, because the last two days have been a confusing jumble.

Yesterday, my Facebook feed was filled with people commenting and sharing links and photos about the special day of the year. Only for some people, that was the annual Star Wars Day ("May the Fourth be with you"), whereas for others, it was Holocaust Day.

I really don't mean to sound moralizing or patronizing. I must be honest; to my shame, I must admit that I probably feel more connected to Star Wars than to the Holocaust. But it was striking to see how, generally speaking, people in Israel are so much more connected to events of genuine national importance.

Star Wars itself can be loosely described as trying to teach about the dangers of fascism, with the most recent movie, The Force Awakens, being blatant in its equating the evil First Order with the Nazis. Still, while I watched The Force Awakens, and I enjoyed it immensely, there was one scene that bothered me intensely. Action movies are a lot of fun, even when there is a high body count (and sometimes because of the high body count). But The Force Awakens portrayed what I think must be by far the greatest loss of life in any movie ever, with the First Order destroying an entire planetary system - many millions, even billions, of lives. And yet, that act took up just a few seconds of screen time, showed a few scared faces, played a few sad notes of music, and then the action and fun rolled on. Have we really reached a point where a story can portray such staggering loss of life in so casual a manner?

Meanwhile, if secular culture is utterly desensitized to the magnitude of holocausts, the same is true at the other end of religious spectrum. Just a few hundred yards down the road from my neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph is the Wild West, a.k.a. Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. The last few days have been full of rioting, over several "causes" - the screening of a kosher movie for women by one chassidic group, the arrival of the police to attend to a wife being battered, the arrest of a young man in the Auerbach faction for avoiding military service under the guise of being in yeshivah but who was actually partying away. The police, and civilian civil guard volunteers, are screamed at as being "Nazis".  That's an epithet that I haven't heard leveled at Jews since - well, since the last municipal elections. (It should be noted that most of the charedim in that neighborhood despise the rioters. However, the charedim in that neighborhood, and even in Aleph, are not willing to make any kind of public demonstration or denunciation against them.)

I hope and pray that people get a proper perspective the easy way, via education, rather than the hard way.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Challah With Keys? Give Me Bagels With Locks.

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a custom of some to bake "Shlissel Challah" - challah with the design of a key, or challah with a real key actually baked into it. It is alleged to be a segulah for parnassah (sustenance).

There's a debate about the origins of this custom, with some claiming that it is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices, while others defend it as having Jewish origins. Yet, unlike certain hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things even if their origins are questionable. There's lots of things in Judaism that originated in foreign cultures; but where something originated is less important than what we've made of it.

But what about the very idea of such a segulah? While the rationalist Rishonim were obviously not into segulos, I'm not militantly against them. Segulos are often harmless placebos, and may also be time-honored tradition.

Yet in this case, however, I am a little more concerned, given the wider context. In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). Chazal's directive that a person must teach his child a trade, i.e. to be financially self-sufficient, is widely ignored in charedi society. There is a real problem of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus. And the segulah industry is rife with problems.

Instead of trying to get parnassah via an unproven and unlikely custom of unclear origins, why don't people try get it via a proven method ordered by Chazal themselves? The answer, of course, is that Chazal's way is much more difficult. But such is the way of the world. "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" - not by the key in the challah.

(Regarding segulos in general, see my posts on The Ring Of Power and Manipulating with Mysticism for Money.)