Monday, December 28, 2009

Between Reason and Faith, part I

From the introduction of Between Reason and Faith: Anti-Rationalism in Italian Jewish Thought 1250-1650 (The Hague: Mouton 1967), by Isaac E. Barzilay:

During the five centuries which separate Sa'adyah Gaon (d. 942) from Joseph Albo (d. 1444) a supreme effort was made by Jewish intellectuals to reinterpret Judaism in the light of Greco-Islamic philosophy and science which, from about the tenth century on, began to penetrate the Jewish world, exerting a marked influence on it. A tenacious loyalty to an ancient law and culture, on the one hand, and a growing awareness of the intellectual and scientific trends in the milieu, on the other hand, prompted such an interpretation and made it imperative. The creative minority within Jewry, it seems, could not respond to the challenge of the philosophical and scientific awakening in both the Islamic and, at a later period, the Christian world in any way other than by absorbing the new ideas and attempting to reconcile them with Judaism.

The product of this effort was, indeed, a new synthesis necessitated by the historical reality. This synthesis had twofold implications. On the one hand, the interaction with the wider intellectual currents of the time caused Judaism to emerge from its insularity, enriched it, and demonstrated its vitality and adaptability. On the other hand, this process was wrought with grave dangers as far as the spiritual survival of the Jewish people was concerned.

Since Jewry was deprived of the natural prerequisites for a normal national existence, its preservation in the Diaspora depended primarily on the integrity of its religious beliefs and practices, as well as on the preservation of its national hopes and aspirations. These foundations rationalism, by its very nature, tended to weaken and undermine. Although the spread of rational speculation and knowledge generally constitutes a positive force in the life of normal societies, enriching their ethos and elevating them to higher cultural levels, it has proven throughout exilic Jewish history to have had a rather adverse effect on the national Jewish ethos, evoking in the people centrifugal tendencies of social dissolution and religious decline.

Being both individualistic and universal, enlightened and skeptical, rationalism is bound to have an adverse effect on Judaism, an essentially national religion centered on the community rather than the individual, and based on practices rather than abstract creeds. Notwithstanding the fact that medieval Jewish rationalism evolved its concepts and attitudes within the framework of traditional Judaism, its character was essentially individualistic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists

In yesterday's e-shiur, I referenced my article Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists which I published in Hakirah. You can download it here, and I'll add the link to the "free resources" section on the right.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rationalist Judaism: The Movie

In today's live video e-shiur, the topic will be Rationalist Judaism: Its Nature, Decline and Rebirth. It will be an overview of the entire topic, and I highly recommend it, if this topic interests you! To register, click here. If you can't make it to the class, you can purchase a recording of it afterwards.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

And Man made Godolim in his image

Jonathan Rosenblum has a fascinating article on Cross-Currents , the latest in a series of iconoclastic pieces that he has been writing as of late. He states as follows:

1. The charedi system of mass kollel is a deliberate reform of traditional Orthodox society.

2. It is causing financial disaster and other problems.

3. It is unsustainable – bitachon won’t help.

4. The Gedolim know and accept that many people should be seeking work instead of learning, and that the “system” should promote this as a perfectly legitimate option.

5. One of the reasons why they don’t say so is they cannot do so without it sounding like the policy for the last sixty years is a mistake (I don’t understand why Rosenblum can say it without giving this impression, but the Gedolim can’t.)

6. Another reason is that they are afraid.

7. Another reason is that they would instantly be delegitimized as Gedolim. People only respect Gedolim as Gedolim when they say what people want to hear. “If you don’t agree with me, then you’re not a Gadol.”

Rosenblum should be given much credit for saying this. Charedi society is in desperate need of reform, and it is courageous of Rosenblum to say so. However, there are a number of disturbing questions that his article raises.

First of all, what does it mean that Gedolim are “afraid” of saying that which they consider true and important for helping people?! I say things that I believe are true and considerably less important for helping people, even at great personal cost (and even requiring me to file a police complaint about threats to my family). And I am not a Gadol – merely someone who was taught by his parents that integrity is of paramount importance. Rosenblum is apparently not afraid to say these things, either (at least on Cross-Currents). If someone refrains from saying something that needs to be said, on the grounds that he is afraid of people, does that not show that his yiras bnei adam exceeds his yiras Shamayim? This would be a severe deficiency in any person – kal v’chomer for someone in a position of leadership. And if the Gedolim sometimes are motivated by fear of the kanna'im, how can anyone trust their leadership? If what Rosenblum says is true, this is an extraordinarily damning indictment of the Gedolim.

Second, with regard to Rosenblum’s comments about how people only respect and follow Gedolim insofar as they say things that they can agree with – this is true. People always claim that the Gedolim agree with them, and are loathe to say otherwise. But perhaps this is equally true of Rosenblum himself. In this article, Rosenblum claims that the Gedolim secretly agree with him that the kollel system is deeply problematic and should be radically changed. How do we know this to be true? I think it is entirely likely that this is only true of the more Americanized Gedolim that Rosenblum is in touch with – people such as Rav Aharon Feldman and the Novominsker. But I highly doubt that Rav Shmuel Auerbach, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Michel Lefkowitz feel the same way.

Unfortunately, I have personal experience with a case of Rosenblum re-creating the Gedolim in an image with which he is more comfortable. In a public lecture to a mixed group of modern Jews and non-Jews, he claimed that the Gedolim who banned my books are not (narrow-minded, primitive) people who object to the idea of the universe being millions of years old or to the Talmud being fallible in science. Rather, they objected to my “tone” - the dangerous rationalism of someone who is arrogantly trying to appropriate Rambam’s approach and innovate new paths in Judaism. But the truth is that clearly the majority of those Gedolim who banned my books, and especially those more prominently involved, such as Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Shiner, and Rav Moshe Shapiro (who is a rebbe of Rosenblum) were indeed objecting to the idea of the universe being millions of years old and Chazal being fallible in science. They said so explicitly! But it is uncomfortable to Rosenblum to admit that, so instead he publicly re-creates the Gedolim in his image (see my letter to him here – he did not reply.)

As I have said before, I think it is far more disrespectful to deliberately distort someone’s position than to dispute it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

EJF Update

On December 14th, EJF announced that Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtogel was taking over from Rabbi Leib Tropper as Chairman of the Rabbinic Committee of the Eternal Jewish Family. It also included an announcement by Rabbi Reuven Feinstein expressing enthusiasm that Rav Wachtfogel had agreed to accept the position. My sources tell me that there was also a letter from Rav Steinman to Rav Wachtfogel, wishing him success upon the appointment.

Four days later, on December 18th, published a letter from Rav Wachtfogel claiming that the "rumors" that he had accepted the appointment were "in fundamental error" and "utterly without basis."

I am glad that Rav Wachtfogel will not be accepting the position.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Orthodox Biologists Do

The following was left as a comment by "MJ" to an earlier post. I thought it would be valuable to give it prominence as a post:

Science is a process of inference to the best explanation. A hypotheses is a current best explanation and experimental data is but one way we try to verify whether such explanations fit with data.

In that sense evolutionary theory is one of the best explanations as it provides a unified explanation of data gathered from a variety of fields using a variety of different methods and has suggested programs of further research that have resulted in further discoveries and explanations that cohere with, and thus support the evolutionary meta-explanatory framework.

Having personally worked side-by-side at the bench with half a dozen other orthodox biologists and having studied with others and after having been professionally and personally acquainted with yet more, I can say without reservation that the vast majority of us who believe that standard evolutionary theory is the best explanation and that attempts at so-called reconciliation with Torah is unnecessary and foolish. We do not write articles on Torah and science, we do not publish in Tradition or the Jewish Observer or even attend the UOJS conferences anymore since they became nothing more than weekend getaways for MDs and DDSs to get CMA credits.

We simply publish in scientific journals like all our colleagues in the small sub-fields that most laypeople would probably find rather boring. We do not get involved in these intrareligious fights because they are driven solely by religious dogmatic considerations which we do not share in by laypeople with religious dogmatic agendas who will not be persuaded by argument or by evidence.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Things I Hate About Blogging #1 and #2

#1. When I write for publication in a book, journal, etc., I go over it again and again, I show it to others for their feedback first, I chew over it for a long time, tweak it and tweak it, etc. When I write on a blog, it's not possible to write with that kind of care. That's a problem with blogging in general.

#2. I open myself on my blog for a frank discussion of my view on a variety of sensitive issues, and I do it under my own name. This is even though I am a target of attack for many people, of all sorts (which in one case led me to having to make a police report). But many of the people who comment and argue with me do not do so under their own name. So they get to try to catch me out/ insult me under the safety of anonymity.

The combination of the above two is what really frustrates me about a comment on an earlier post, by a person who does not give his full name, and who makes a comment about my not giving my opinion on something. I've been quite busy (baruch Hashem) and have not had the time/head to formulate a proper response. Sure, I could toss something out off the top of my head. But why should I? Since I am the one putting my name to my comments, shouldn't I have the right (even the obligation) to refrain from responding until I have time to do so properly?

Rabbi Leib Tropper Resigns

Readers may remember an earlier post about Rabbi Leib Tropper and Eternal Jewish Family. Rabbi Tropper just announced his resignation. Unfortunately, Rabbi Tropper's replacement, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, maintains the same views as Rabbi Tropper, regarding the acceptance of the antiquity of the universe and of scientific errors in the Talmud placing one beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish beliefs (Rabbis Tropper and Wachtfogel were two of the figures primarily involved in the ban of my books).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Following the Majority

In response to the following comments to earlier posts:

"what do you make of the far greater number of scientists who consider it true?"

What about the far greater number of shittos that say chazal's science was true?

"Personally, I am far from an expert on climate change. But I do know how to determine the majority opinion of experts, and I see no reason to dispute them any more here than with the age of the universe."

The problem is, R' Slifkin, if we applied a similar process of reasoning to those gedolei HaTorah who banned your books, we might argue that their view of a 6000 year old universe, etc. is the "correct one," (at least with regards to what constitutes the correct reading of Genesis) and your views are "fringe," and hence not true.

I would like to make the following points:

1. In the times of the Rishonim, the overwhelming majority view was that Chazal's statements about the natural world are not infallible.

2. In the times of the Rishonim, the overwhelming majority view was that we should interpret Bereishis in such a way that it does not conflict with proven science.

3. You don't need to follow the majority if you are qualified to have your own opinion!

4. If you are not qualified to form your own opinion, it makes sense to follow the majority of those who are qualified to form an opinion, all else being equal. There can be factors which change this.

5. Many people, myself included, do not agree to the popular view that great Talmudists and halachists automatically qualify as great experts on the interface of Jewish theology and science.

(This is not a post about climate change - please keep the comments away from that topic. If you want to discuss climate change, do so on the earlier posts.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yated on Global Warming

"Is Global Warming a Scientific Hoax?" by Yaakov Kornreich. Yated Ne'eman (U.S. Edition), December 4th 2009.

(Thanks to Baruch for sending me the article. I don't know anything about Yaakov Kornreich, but according to what I found on the internet, he published a book for NCSY in 1970 entitled Jewish Youth Monthly, A Science and Torah Reader. Here is a small extract from the Yated article.)

The Evolution Analogy

Global warming has been promoted as science, but in fact it is no more scientific than evolution, which has also been promoted by the liberal, secular left as a means with which to try to discredit all forms of traditional religious belief.

While evolution had its roots in the relatively crude scientific theories promoted by Charles Darwin 150 years ago, it has been promoted ever since by committed secularists as a weapon with which to attack the credibility of the Torah Sheb'ksav and to heap ridicule on the simple faith of people.

Religious scientists have proposed numerous alternative theories which are as consistent with the biological and archaeological evidence discovered since Darwin's time as the current version of evolution, which requires as much faith to believe as any religion.

Similarly, global warming has been zealously promoted by the far left wing for reasons which have very little to do with the findings of science, and which are, in fact, driven by its political ideology.
Perhaps global warming has indeed been promoted for reasons driven by political ideology rather than science. On the other hand, the same is most certainly true for the Yated's opposition.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Climate Change Skeptics

People like package deals. When you are a part of a community, it's nice to be able to adopt all of that community's attitudes and values. So if your group of people is anti-abortion and anti-Obama, and they also turn out to dispute climate change, well, let's join in that, too.

That is one theory as to why many Orthodox Jews are dismissive of global warming. Jonathan Rosenblum knocks it here, here, and here (where he accuses others of not being empiricists!) and R. Avi Shafran expresses skepticism here and here (where he quotes Michael Crichton?! I loved Jurassic Park, but I would hardly cite Crichton as an authority).

Another possibility is that it may be part of a general attitude of skepticism towards science. With evolution being the hottest topic in science for religious people, and the overwhelming consensus of scientists being in favor of it, it is natural that anti-evolutionists would feel a need to attack the scientific edifice in any way that they can.

A third possibility is that it has to do with the same mistaken theological worldview that led Sefer HaChinnuch, Malbim and others to deny the possibility that species go extinct. One trusts that God is taking good care of the world, and that we don't need to take responsibility (cf. R. Shafran writing about natural catastrophes being prevented by "Divine Guidance.")

What I don't believe is that this dismissiveness is the result of clear, rational assessment of the evidence and of the scientific consensus. As demonstrated with evolution, these people do not have shining records with such things. And just compare Rosenblum's presentation of surveys of scientific opinion with that presented on Wikipedia. In any case, the majority of scientists clearly believe in global warming, and I seem to recall Charedim being very into the idea of following the majority, or even being yotzei according to all views - not dismissing the majority in favor of the minority.

Whatever the cause of their antipathy towards climate change (I would like to hear readers' suggestions), the recent scandal over severely inappropriate behavior by some climate scientists is bound to have been greeted with glee, and we can probably expect an article to appear on Cross-Currents soon.

Personally, I am far from an expert on climate change. But I do know how to determine the majority opinion of experts, and I see no reason to dispute them any more here than with the age of the universe. I can't see a secular (or any other) bias that would account for their conclusions, while I can certainly see the flaws with the anti-global warming crowd. In addition, it makes perfect sense to me that the amount of chemicals we put into the atmosphere would change it! With regard to the scandal of climategate, this looks to me to be the same as Piltdown Man or Haeckel's embryos: utterly shameful, but it doesn't mean that the overall model is false. One has to look at the context in which the emails were written, and in general to look at the overall picture.

I think that it would be wise to remember the words of the Midrash:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:19)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Come Meet Me at the Bet Shemesh Book Fair

Beit Shemesh Authors book Fair

יריד סופרי בית שמש

In Memory of Charles H. Bendheim זצ"ל

Thursday 10th December 2009

יום חמישי כ"ד כסלו תש"ע


Come meet local authors and enlarge your library

בא להפגש עם סופרים מקומיים

R’ Pinchus Bar Giora

ר' פינחס בר גיורא

David Guedalia

דוד גדליה

R’ Dov Lipman

ר' דב ליפמן

R’ Natan Slifkin

ר' נתן סליפקין

R’ Jonathan Duker

ר' יונתן דוקר

Shoshana Kesner

שושנה קסנר

R’ Zvi Miller

ר' צבי מילר

R’ David Spektor

ר' דוד ספקטור

R’ Ari Enkin

ר' ארי אנקין

Dov Krulwich

דב קרולוויץ

R’Yaakov Montrose

ר' יעקב מונטרוז

Penina Taylor

פנינה טיילור

R’ Yehonasan Gefen

ר' יהונתן גפן

Eli Lepon

ר' אלימלך ליפן

R’ Haim Perlmutter

ר' חיים פרלמוטר

R’ Tal Moshe Zwecker

ר' טל משה צווקר

Gita Gordon

גיטא גורדון

Shoshana Lepon

שושנה ליפן

R’ Moshe Pinchuk

ר' משה פינצוק

R’ Karmi Gross

ר' קרמי גרס

R’Moshe Lichtman

ר' משה ליכטמן

Riva Pomerantz

ריבה פומרנץ

Menorat Hamaor Shul

6 Nachal Maor, Ramat Beit Shemesh

בית כנסת מנורת המאור, נחל מאור 6, רמת בית שמש

Refreshments will be served

כיבוד קל

(Note: My books will be on sale at a discount)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tech Help Needed!

Note: This is nothing to do with Rationalist Judaism.

I am having a technical problem with my computer and I was wondering if there are any computer gurus who read this blog and can help!

I am trying to upgrade from Windows Vista x64 Home Premium to Windows 7 x64 Home Premium. Compatibility is fine, everything goes fine until the last stage, when it gets to 62% in putting in the new files etc. Then it reboots, says that it's starting services, then says that the installation failed and it's rolling back to Vista. This is NOT the notorious "continuous reboot cycle" that's all over the net. Nor is it the problem that Microsoft describes here. Instead, looking at the error log (reproduced below), it seems to be a problem with a bluetooth driver - it says "BthMig: Failed to migrate bthport keys, bailing out." But my computer has no bluetooth hardware or software that I know of. I found this exact problem discussed here, but with no solution proposed. If anyone can help, I would be most grateful!

2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Number of Enumerated Devices = 11[gle=0x00000103]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:35, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Number of Enumerated Devices = 11[gle=0x00000103]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:20:38, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Number of Enumerated Devices = 11[gle=0x00000103]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:10, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Number of Enumerated Devices = 11[gle=0x00000103]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=00000002x[gle=0x80092004]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:21:13, Error Failed to find driver file path. Error=ffffffffx[gle=0x00000003]
2009-12-03 18:37:16, Error [0x0808fe] MIG Plugin {e0cbf06c-cd8b-4647-bb8a-263b43f0f974}: BthMig: Failed to migrate bthport keys, bailing out

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rav Feldman Writes Back

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

Thank you for your e-mail. I do not recall any “factual errors or serious flaws” in my article, “The Slifkin Affair,” which were brought to my attention; otherwise I would certainly have corrected them.

I do not recall having received a letter from you, and I apologize for not answering it. However, I do recall receiving a list of 38 sources which you said supported R.Avraham’s position. However, when I reviewed them I did not find more than several which were substantive (most of them repeated identical sources) and which would convert R. Avraham’s view into a majority view. I have always planned to point this out to you, but because I thought my response would not make a difference, and because I am overwhelmed with my duties, I never did.

I have not tried to “re-ignite” this issue; it is you who have kept the flames of disrespect towards gedoley torah burning. I simply thought (vainly perhaps) that my article deserved wider dissemination.

I apologize for having misspelled your name several times in my book, in the text and in the running heads. I went to large expense to replace the plates so that these errors will not appear in future printings.

Finally, I mailed a letter two weeks ago addressed to your Beit Shemesh address in which I asked you to remove a posting on your website in which literally every sentence has factual errors. Your posting states that I visited Rav Eliashiv together with Rav Berel Weisbord who asked him whether your books could be used for kiruv purposes and that Rav Eliashiv agreed that they could be used for such purposes. Rav Weisbord has, to the best of my knowledge, never in his lifetime visited Rav Eliashiv, certainly not with me, nor was this question posed by anyone at any meeting I had with Rav Eliashiv. On the contrary, Rabbi Moshe Frances of the Chicago Kollel told me that he posed this question to Rav Eliashiv and was told that it was forbidden. Finally, the statement that Rav Eliashiv forbade the books only for “his” community is totally false. I should hope that you keep your website free of such serious flaws in the future.

Very truly yours,
Aharon Feldman

* * * * * * *

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dear Rav Feldman, shlita,

Thank you for responding to my email. I did not receive the letter that you mailed me, but my mailing address has changed: it is now 2/1 Nachal Raziel, Ramat Bet Shemesh 99632.

I will certainly remove from my website the account about Rav Elyashiv telling you that the approach of the Rishonim in my books is legitimate for outreach purposes. I apologize for this error; I thought that my information was reliable, since it came from a senior member of the Ner Israel faculty who claimed at the time that he heard it from you directly.

I likewise will accept your understanding of Rav Elyashiv's statement that the books are "forbidden from entering the community," that he meant the entire Jewish world rather than only the charedi community. I admit that I find it difficult to believe that Rav Elyashiv really did rule that an approach which his own rebbe, Rav Herzog, proclaimed to be the entirely normative approach from the Rishonim, is in fact a heretical aberrant view that is forbidden for everyone, even though countless talmidei chachamim and Roshei Yeshivah in Jerusalem and the US consider it perfectly legitimate.

With regard to your claim that it is I who have tried to keep the flames of disrespect to Gedolei Torah burning - as you yourself told me, five years ago, I have a right to defend myself. You are claiming that your article deserves wider dissemination than that which it has already received. Surely I deserve the right to defend myself before that wider audience? And what about the flames of disrespect towards those Rishonim, Acharonim, recent Gedolim and contemporary talmidei chachamim whose approach is being deemed unacceptable? Could it not justly be seen as disrespectful to claim that their understanding of Chazal is critically flawed and can be deemed heretical? Do they not have a right to have someone speak up on their behalf?

I am pleased to hear that it is certainly your intent to correct factual errors and serious flaws. But along with countless other people, I am at a loss to understand how you did not notice any at all in the point-by-point rebuttal of your article.

For example, you yourself admit that in the list of forty sources that I sent to you, all of which say that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not always correct, you found several that were substantive. Why did you not add them to your article, in your list of such views?

Furthermore, I do not understand your dismissal of the rest of these authorities on the grounds that they were simply repeating identical points. In repeating identical points, they were endorsing their legitimacy! By your logic, there is only one Gadol who opposed my books, since all the others signed on to the same statement!

My latest response included a list of over forty gedolei Rishonim and Acharonim, from the Geonim through to recent Gedolim, all of whom opposed the claim that Chazal were correct in all their statements about the natural world. I simply do not understand how you can maintain that this is an aberrant "minority viewpoint" that has "fallen by the wayside over the centuries" and may therefore not be followed by anyone at all. It is not a minority viewpoint, and it has not fallen by the wayside. When you learn the Gemara in Pesachim 94b that Chazal believed the sun to travel behind the sky at night, is there even a single Rishon that you can name whose approach to this sugya you consider viable? You are certainly dismissing the approach of the overwhelming majority of Rishonim. I do not deny that in recent centuries, many have rejected this approach, but there have nevertheless been significant Acharonim, recent Gedolim and contemporary Roshei Yeshivah who have acknowledged it as a legitimate normative view from the Rishonim. I am still at a loss to understand how anyone can claim that no Jew in the world is entitled to follow such a mesorah.

Natan Slifkin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Theological Significance of Geocentrism

Tomorrow's live internet class continues with the topic of astronomy. Last week, we discussed how Chazal came to accept the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model of the universe, and how the Rishonim viewed that acceptance. Tomorrow, we will be discussing how the Rishonim utilized the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic model, in which the earth is at the center of the concentric spheres of the universe, as part of their theological worldview. Next week, we will move on the topic of the Copernican revolution. To register for the class, click here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two Reasons

Many years ago, a friend of mine in yeshivah made an observation. He claimed that whenever somebody gives two reasons for something, the second reason is always the real driving reason, and the first reason is secondary, but placed in the first position in order to make it more palatable and sound better. Over the years, I have seen this confirmed endlessly, in a variety of ways.

Here's a mundane example. "How are you? I called for two reasons. Number one, I wanted to see how you are doing. Number two, I was wondering if you could do me a favor..."

And here's an example that relates to the topic of rationalism. Why do/don't we believe in the Theory of Evolution? Over at, they give a list of reasons for not believing in evolution. The first six are scientific, and the last four are religious. It's interesting that they put the scientific reasons first!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Re-igniting the Storm

-----Original Message-----
From: Zoo Torah []
Sent: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 5:44 PM
To: 'Rav Feldman'
Subject: "The Eye of the Storm"

Dear Rav Feldman, shlita,

Shalom u'vrachah, I hope you are well.

I recently acquired your newly published book, "The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues." It was with great surprise that I saw that it includes the essay of several years ago, "The Slifkin Affair: Issues and Perspectives," entirely unchanged from its original form. This was even though a number of rabbis and academic scholars publicly pointed out the many, many factual errors and serious flaws that this essay contained. Especially disturbing was that in describing the "discarded minority view" that Chazal occasionally erred in their statements about the natural world, you omitted any mention of the more than three dozen further sources which I sent to you a few years ago, in a letter to which you never responded. Attached is the letter, along with the most comprehensive of the critiques of your essay that were circulated.

I was also surprised that you chose to re-ignite this controversy at a new level, by introducing it to the domain of English published works, when even you yourself acknowledge that it is probably the public issue most damaging to the honor of Torah and to its leaders in recent memory. But since you chose to do so, I have decided to respond in kind, and I will publish a complete book about the controversy. This is something that I refrained from doing until now, but the publication of your book, along with the publication of the appalling sefer Chaim B'Emunasam, has helped me decide that it is the appropriate course of action. Actually, I think it will be of great help in helping people make informed decisions about where in the Orthodox world they should align themselves.

Natan Slifkin

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Black and White

I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine in the Mir. He suggested that in the charedi world, there are several qualities that are seen as necessarily connected - meaning, that if somebody possesses one of them, they are seen as automatically possessing all the others. They are:
  • Great Torah scholarship
  • Righteousness
  • Spiritual powers (e.g. berachos)
  • and I forget the fourth.
In other words, anyone who is a great Torah scholar is automatically also considered to be a tzaddik, and so on.

I have an elaboration of this concept which relates to the comments in the previous discussion about yeridas hadoros. Intelligence and wisdom themselves have several components. There are analytical skills and there is retention of knowledge. There are different types of wisdom and intellectual acument - Talmudic expertise and philosophical expertise are very different. And there are many other divisions that could be mentioned. But my impression is that many people assume that anyone who excels in any one of these, also excels in all of them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yeridas HaDoros

The comments on the previous post have made me realize something that I've been chewing over for a while. If there's one single issue that really strikes at the core of the rationalist/non-rationalist divide, it's yeridas hadoros.

The notion of yeridas hadoros is rarely defined, but certainly most people take it mean that Rishonim, and all the more so Chazal, were more intelligent than us. With this understanding, yeridas hadoros conflicts with two aspects of rationalism.

One, which is more the Rishonic aspect of rationalism, is that rationalism maintains that there is a basically constant order of nature over history. Mankind doesn't change in its level of intelligence. Menachem Kellner, in his book Maimonides on the Decline of Generations, uses this argument and others to show that Rambam did not subscribe to the notion of yeridas hadoros.

The second way in which yeridas hadoros conflicts with rationalism is that rationalism mandates that claims require evidence proportionate to the degree that they are far-fetched. Until a few centuries ago, all mankind believed that the ancients were more intelligent than us. That's why it was virtually unthinkable to dispute Aristotle. Today, outside of traditionalists, people do not accept that the ancients were more intelligent than us. There is no evidence for it, a lot of evidence against it, and understandable reasons as to why people used to believe it to be the case.

Within the Torah world, aside from Rambam, it's hard to find those that oppose this understanding of yeridas hadoros. There is a discussion by R. Shlomo Fisher that approaches it, based on Kesef Mishnah, which I discussed in Sacred Monsters. Also, as noted, I heard a prominent Rosh Yeshivah from YU say, "Who says there's such a thing as yeridas hadoros?" But, understandably, this is something that most people would be wary of voicing their opinion on - it is dangerous in many ways.

There are many people who are rationalist vis-a-vis evolution, or Chazal's knowledge of science, but whose views on yeridas hadoros mean that they cannot be considered as full-blooded rationalists. (Of course, my own views on certain topics would probably also disqualify me from being considered a full-blooded rationalist by others.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Man's Maverick is Another Man's Bore

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a certain Rav. This Rav is a tremendous talmid chacham with tremendous breadth of thought, but he is basically in the charedi world. He didn't object to any specific view of mine, but he criticized me for the totality of them. He said to me, "Look, it's okay for a person to have one or two radical views, but why do you have to have so many?" The world being billions of years old, evolution, no global flood, Chazal being wrong about spontaneous generation, Moshe not being ten cubits tall, Rashi being a corporealist, etc., etc., etc. Why do I have to always be a radical?

My response was that in the intellectual circles into which I was (at that time) moving towards - frum academics and frum people who subscribe to their rationalist approach - nothing that I say is remotely radical. All the aforementioned views are completely normative. In fact, in these circles, I am considered as a person who has not contributed any original or interesting ideas.

It was interesting to see how taken aback he was.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chazal's Belief in a Flat Earth

This Wednesday will be the second part of my live Internet class about Chazal's belief in a flat earth and the sun moving behind the sky at night. In this part, I will be reviewing how various authorities over the ages dealt with it. You can download the audio/ video for the first part (which will be necessary for understanding the second part) here. To register for the classes, click here. Next week, I will be moving on to the topic of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism.

By the way, there is a change of schedule for the zoology classes - they are starting next Sunday instead of this Sunday.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yet Another Ban - UPDATED

(UPDATE: I apologize for assuming that everyone is fluent in Hebrew. People, this poster is a joke; it's an advertisement put out by the manufacturer.)

The Challenge Of Ptolemy

A quick reminder that today at 2pm EST is my first live shiur via Torah In Motion. The topic tonight is (probably) The Challenge Of Ptolemy. Did the Sages of the Talmud believe the world to be flat? In the Talmudic era, the rabbis faced a challenge from Ptolemy in astronomy. The way that they coped with it is remarkably different from how it is commonly portrayed. To watch/listen to the shiur, you have to register with Torah In Motion. For a list of all my classes, many of which will appear as part of this series, click here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rabbi Leib Tropper and EJF

Rabbi Leib Tropper is known to many readers of this blog as one of the team of people involved in engineering the ban on my books. He told the story about two students in his yeshivah, "malachai hashareis, "who read my books, and promptly dropped out of yeshivah and went off the derech. When I investigated it, I found out the one of them, who had said, "if the rabbis can make mistakes then why am I learning Bava Kamma" (a direct quote from R. Tropper), dropped out of the yeshivah and left observance before my book on Chazal was published. The other one, who read my books, dropped out of the yeshivah and went to YU - which I would not exactly describe as "going off the derech." 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 honestly don't really care much about all that. But there is something else about Rabbi Tropper's activities which I find very, very disturbing. First, some background. For the last few years, Rabbi Tropper has been running an organization known as EJF - Eternal Jewish Family, whose mantra is that they are seeking a "universally accepted standard for conversion," which sounds wonderful. Exceptionally well funded by Tom Kaplan, EJF flies out rabbonim to conferences in hotels.

There are, however, some very serious accusations against EJF. I will briefly review these, after which I will get to the problem that I personally find particularly worrying.

One problem, which unites such disparate forces as the Badatz of Jerusalem and the Roshei Yeshivah of YU against EJF, is the charge that EJF encourages proselytization. This has been discussed at great length by R. Daniel Eidensohn on his blog Daas Torah.

Another problem, also discussed at the aforementioned blog and elsewhere, is that the rabbis who endorse EJF have also received exceptionally large donations to their yeshivos - in one case, millions of dollars. כי השחד יעור עיני חכמים ויסלף דברי צדיקם.

The third area of controversy was recently made very public. Guma Aguiar, the nephew of Tom Kaplan, has filed a Din Torah against Rabbi Tropper for allegedly misappropriating millions of dollars that he gave him for charity. This story, which you can read in great detail here, includes this report:
For example, when Aguiar's daughter was born at the end of 2007, he wanted to express his and his wife's thanks to G-d by donating $36,000 to each of 36 rabbis. He says he turned to his uncle's close confidante Rabbi Leib Tropper to formulate a list of 36 beneficiaries.

The list, which you can find on the website, is basically a who's who of the rabbis that consented to sign on to the ban on my books. It pays to play along with Rabbi Tropper's zealotry! But apparently Aguiar wanted the list to include rabbis from a broader spectrum of Judaism than that represented by Rabbi Tropper's narrow perspective. After the list was expanded and agreed upon, the money was sent, but according to Aguiar, the money didn't reach all the rabbis. While the article does not specify which rabbis are alleged not to have received the money, my impression is that it is those who were not part of Rabbi Tropper's suggested list.

But the problem with EJF that is of greatest concern to me is the serious effort by Rabbi Tropper and his partner in Israel, Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein, to delegitimize those who do not share their narrow hashkafic viewpoint - both rabbis and converts.
There is a deeply troubling report as follows:
Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein said words to the following effect, from the podium, during the Tuesday, November 6, 2007 afternoon session of the EJF conference:
"Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur, and as such, is pasul l’dayanus. Therefore, a ger who underwent conversion through a beis din on which such a person served as a dayan remains non-Jewish. The conversion is invalid even b’dieved."
Let me repeat that these words were made before a large audience of rabbis and gedolei Torah. Stunned, I privately asked Rabbi Eisenstein if he realized that this psak would, in effect, exclude the modern orthodox rabbinate from the conversion process. He answered affirmatively, adding that Rav Elyashiv held this psak to be “pashut.”
Similarly, the previous day (Monday), Rabbi Leib Tropper mentioned, also from the podium, that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was asked if it is mutar to convert a person who is mikabel ol malchus shamayim but is unwilling to believe that the world is only 5768 years old. Rav Kanievsky answered that it is in fact assur to convert such a person. Rabbi Tropper also made seemingly hateful remarks, saying: how ridiculous would it be for a person wearing non-Yeshivish clothes and/or wearing cologne to serve as a dayan!?
More troubling yet, during the same speech, Rabbi Tropper made remarks to the following effect: "EJF’s goal is to connect a would-be ger to a universally accepted beis din. A universally accepted beis din could not, by definition, include dayanim who believe the world to be older than 5768 years."
I would be remiss not to mention that these remarks were said boldly, publicly and to an audience of over one hundred chashuvim. There was no visible protest amongst the assembled.

We thus have Rabbi Tropper's well-funded organization working to delegitimize the entire non-charedi rabbinate. We also have a nightmare scenario for sincere converts. I noticed the following report in the comments to this post:
I know about a case where a Jewish boy was dating a non Jewish girl and the local Chabbad was mekrev them for Orthodox conversion with kabalas mitzvos. Someone told the EJF about them and they got involved, they scared the girl with their tactics and the couple left orthodox Judaism and got married in Reform temple. As it turned out the girl was a scientist and the EJF freaked her out with their insistence that she will believe in 6000 years old universe.

Nor should one think that this witch-hunt will be limited to those who accept that there was an age of dinosaurs. In opening pages of the appalling work Chaim B'Emunasam, which claims that every Jew is obligated to believe that every single word in the Gemara is from Sinai or else he is a heretic and should be killed, there is enthusiastic praise for Rabbi Tropper and EJF for his assistance to the author. On his own blog, Rabbi Tropper recently made the following announcement regarding the forthcoming EJF conference:
Some of the new issues to be discussed will be the importance of true Torah Hashkafa and Midos as an ability to measure a candidates seriousness to convert properly... Someone who does not believe in “Emunas Chachachim” though he knows Halacha, should a Beit din proceed with the conversion?

We know from another post on his blog that Rabbi Tropper believes that every Jew is obligated to listen to the "Gadol HaDor." (As I noted in a previous post, he claims to base this on a Teshuvos Yaavetz, but Yaavetz says no such thing, and even if he would, there are clearly others who argue.) We thus have a real risk of a situation whereby converts who do not accept whatever pashkevil has Rav Elyashiv's signature to it are going to have their conversions declared invalid by EJF. Read this post to gain an insight into the terror being experienced by many sincere converts.

The latest EJF conference begins today, in the Sheraton Meadowlands, NJ. Something has to be done.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Live Internet Classes - Free!

I am thrilled to announce the launch of several series of live online Torah classes! One will be on "Zoology and Torah," the other will be on "Science and Torah." These will be interactive classes running with the latest videoconferencing software. The classes are free; you just need to register. For details, including information on several other fascinating courses that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog, see It's a unique opportunity for in-depth learning on these topics, so register now, and tell your friends!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Miracle for a Rationalist

Baruch Shehechiyanu Vekiymanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh!

(Baruch Hashem, mother and baby girl are both doing well.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Case You Haven't Seen This Yet...

Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, giving a pro-Israeli testimony at the UN Human Right Council's special session on the Goldstone Commission's Report on Operation Cast Lead. When most of the world is against us, it's refreshing to see someone who is still willing to say it as it is. And rationalists can wonder at the fact that the most compassionate army in the history of warfare can be condemned more than all other armies put together.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Daughter's Parashah Picture

So my daughter, age 6 1/2, comes home from her Chardal school with a parashah picture for Bereishis, depicting Adam HaRishon in Gan Eden. Now, I'm not going to start making trouble about the real meaning of the story, because the pshat level has meaning and the real meaning is not suited to a six-year-old. But what bothered me intensely was how they depicted Adam. He was wearing some kind of kapotteh (even though the picture was pre-sin), a huge kippah (even though he was not Jewish), he had a long beard (even though he's supposed to be only 20 years old) and he had long chassidishe peyos!

I don't like it. But on the other hand, I don't think that it's good from a chinnuch perspective for me to be disagreeing with her teachers or her school's education materials.

What do you think?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Arguing with the Gadol HaDor

Rabbi Leib Tropper, of kanno'us and EJF fame, has a blog in which he recently wrote that it is forbidden to challenge the halachic ruling of a Posek HaDor who is alive. He quotes the Yaavetz as his source, presumably referring to Teshuvos Yaavetz 1:5. It's a very long teshuvah but I can't see where the Yaavetz says such a thing (in fact, the Yaavetz very much stresses the importance of not honoring people over the perceived truth of Torah), nor do I find it easy to imagine that he could say such a thing. Rav Moshe Feinstein certainly did not believe this; his teshuvah on this topic is a must-read and you can download it here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Mystique of Silence

There are many differences between the Gedolim who banned my books and myself. In this post, I would like to draw attention to a difference that is usually overlooked.

The issues that I deal with in my books and lectures are very, very challenging. However, I nevertheless confront them. But that is not all. I also take questions and objections, from anyone and everyone, in public, and I virtually always respond to them (and in the rare cases where I do not, I explain why I am not doing so). In my lectures, anyone can challenge me with a question; my e-mail address is well known and I receive thousands of questions (apologies if I haven't gotten back to you yet, but I have a bit of a backlog), and I now also have a blog where virtually anyone can post questions and challenges, and they don't even need to give their name. (But I must say that it does bother me when people do not use their real name and pose questions to me; I consider it lacking in derech eretz.)

The Gedolim, on the other hand, do not openly discuss these difficult topics in any detail. (Ever heard any of them discuss the dirt-mouse?) They are largely inaccessible, and they certainly do not take questions in an open forum. When Bnei Yeshurun in Teaneck hosted the "Gedolim visit the Modern Orthodox" event, all the questions were pre-screened. Rav Shineberg was at a question-and-answer event in London a few years ago, but when a girl politely asked some questions relating to the ban on my books, he simply refused to respond. These Gedolim don't have email (except for Rav Aharon Feldman) and they don't have websites.

The only three of the Gedolim who ever spoke up at length in public with their views on the issues with my books were Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Aaron Schechter. Rav Sternbuch's essay had people begging me to take it off my website on the grounds that it made it look him foolish. Rav Feldman's essay was so full of holes that three different people fisked it. Rav Shechter's speech, which has already received an unbelievable 5865 views on YouTube, earned scorn and ridicule. For my part, I am very glad that these Gedolim spoke up at length. When the Gedolim gave no elaboration for their position, people can and do hypothesize that there are some deep and profound reasons. Their defenders make up whatever reason appears most rational to them and present it with conviction as being THE reason. Thus, a number of talmidim of Rav Moshe Shapiro gave their explanations of his position to me, all insisting that they were correct, and all giving mutually exclusive explanations. But when the Gedolim actually give their reasons, people can see for themselves how flawed they are. (Personally I think that my own defense of the Gedolim was by far the most effective.) Still, even these three rabbonim do not publicly take questions on these issues.

All this probably serves to explain why the Gedolim generally don't speak up with their reasons. Once reasons are given, they can be subject to evaluation. When rabbis in authority positions keep silent, they are able to preserve an aura of mystery, and this allows the faithful to maintain their faith in their leaders. It's much, much more challenging to actually explain and defend your positions. But I think that accountability is extremely important, especially for people in positions of leadership. Rav Moshe Feinstein has a wonderful preface to Iggros Moshe where he explains why he is publishing the reasons for his rulings. I can understand that there are arguments in favor of rabbinic leaders not having to explain themselves, but I think that in most cases, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Maimonides on Reward and Punishment

Menachem Kellner is the author of some absolutely fascinating books on Rambam. I plan to review one of them, Must a Jew Believe Anything? on this website. In the meanwhile, I asked Professor Kellner if he can make the appendix, which deals with Rambam's views on reward and punishment, available for free, and he kindly consented. You can download it here, and you can buy the book here. Happy reading, and Chag Sameach!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy Fifth Anniversay

Five years ago today, three days before Yom Yippur, I received the infamous phone call from Bnei Brak telling me that I had until the end of the day to retract three of my books and publicly apologize or face scandal and humiliation. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then! I have learned so much about theology, Jewish history and sociology.

I was looking back at my emails and here's one that I sent to R. Gil Student that day. There are some aspects of it that today are quite amusing!

Hi Gil,


No, I haven’t been put in cherem. But three of my books have! By some rabbanim, mostly in Israel, that I had never even heard of. Apparently this has been brewing for a while. The letters speak of the terrible kefirah in my books, and give an example, that I speak of the world being millions of years old... My Rav told me to tell them that it is absolutely ossur to condemn someone without meeting them and discussing it with them. If they'll show me where I wrote something wrong, of course I'll change it, my website is full of corrections to my books. On the other hand, with regard to things such as the "heresy" of saying that the world is millions of years old, I might be able to show them some sources that might change their mind (Rav Aryeh Carmell was making efforts to phone them). But 3 of them refused to meet with me (actually one initially agreed but then later mysteriously changed his mind), and the fourth is so far unreachable by phone. One of the letters stated that the rabbanim who gave haskamos to the books have retracted them. So I called them all up to check, and it was absolutely not true! None of them had retracted their haskamos, nor will they do so! I couldn't believe what a lie they wrote. I told them and they said they would take that line out. It might have been better left in, to later expose them.

I'm told that there are some really driven kana'im behind this, apparently the same team that went after Making of A Godol. Most rabbanim have been telling me to pretty much ignore it and just do some limited damage control. I discussed it with R' Shmuel Kamenetzky and he said to ignore it, but that a letter from R' Wolbe might help. So I contacted a close talmid of Rav Wolbe, only to be told that Rav Wolbe has been senile for a while and is now being manipulated.... what a sad world.

Anyway, I would really appreciate it if you didn't blog this. (a), I don't really want all the publicity yet. (b), it makes the charedi world look extremely foolish, or evil, - again! If at some stage you do decide to blog it, I would appreciate it if you would discuss the text with me first. All my rebbe'im said that it should be allowed to just blow over.

Kol tuv,

PS Please keep this email in strict confidence, ok?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ask the Rationalist Rabbi

When my reputation as the "Zoo Rabbi" spread, I began to receive hundreds of questions relating to animals. Now that I have a reputation as the "Rationalist Rabbi", I'm receiving new types of questions:

Dear Rabbi Slifkin: G’Mar Chasimah Tova.
I greatly enjoy your books as well as your blogs. I was wondering if you ever heard of a segulah for a pregnant women to wear a ruby (someone tells me it is a Rabbeinu B’chaya on parshas tezaveh) and if so if there are any rationalists who object to it (or any other similar segulah). My wife wants to wear a ruby necklace and I am objecting to it.

Here is the response that I sent:

There is discussion in the Shulchan Aruch etc. about a gemstone that is a segulah for a healthy pregnancy, and Rabbeinu Bachya mentions it too (although I think he talks about eating it, not wearing it). From a rationalist perspective, this is extremely unlikely to be physiologically helpful, and some might even be opposed to it as being superstitious. On the other hand, never underestimate the power of placebo, and of making your wife happy; there may to be more to lose than to gain by objecting to it.
Check out this post and the comments to it:
Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Limits of Academic Methodology: Halachah

Previously, I discussed the advantages of academic methodology in ascertaining historical realities. In this post, I want to focus on one limitation (there are others) of academic methodology. It is my belief that, in most cases, academic methodology should not be relevant to halachah.

In my book Sacred Monsters, I explained why according to some opinions, even though based on the academic/ rationalist approach we see that Chazal were mistaken in believing that lice spontaneously generate, this should not affect the halachah that it is permissible to kill them on Shabbos. I discussed the case of Tanur Shel Achnai and showed that the Torah has its own protocols which can sometimes diverge from objective reality.

There is a much more common case, which ironically was brought up in the comments to the previous post by someone opposing my viewpoint. I am referring to the prohibition of bishul, cooking, on Shabbos.

It is very clear that from a scientific perspective, whether or not a food becomes cooked depends on factors such as the temperature, the duration for which that temperature is maintained, the specific heat capacity of the food, and so on. Yet the halachos of bishul are based on concepts such as kli rishon, kli sheni etc. To my mind it is obvious that there is no need to change the halachic parameters of bishul, and I don't believe that anyone would ever suggest otherwise. Aside from the fact that the parameters of kli rishon/ sheni have been canonized, they make for a much more useful application of the melachah than temperature and specific heat capacity. The physical reality is used as a rough basis for the halachic concept, but the halachic concept then takes on its own reality which does not change by virture of it not being precisely matched by the physical reality.

In the same way that scientific realities generally do not affect canonized halachah, the discovery of new or more correct manuscripts of ancient halachic authorities should also not affect it. The Chazon Ish's views on this matter are well known; there is a fascinating article in an old issue of Tradition (I think) which discusses it, and notes that if an ancient sefer Torah - even that of Moshe Rabbeinu - were discovered, we would not change our contemporary sifrei Torah to match it! Similarly R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was opposed to using the botanical findings of Prof. Yehudah Feliks with regard to changing certain halachos of Pesach, even though he was apparently not opposed to the scientific method per se.

I am sure that some readers will be shocked by this; I recommend that you read (or re-read) the final chapter in Sacred Monsters to appreciate this point of view. (If anyone can provide the precise reference for the Tradition article, I would appreciate it.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Three Types of Rationalists

(Re-posted - I just discovered that Blogger posted it according to the date of when I started writing the post, not when I finished.)

There are three types of rationalists.

There are medieval rationalists.
There are 21st century rationalists.
And there are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century.

There are plenty of ideas and arguments that seemed perfectly rational in the twelfth century, but which have since been shown fallacious.

So, for example: Rambam believed that only a fool would deny spontaneous generation. That was a reflection of the scientific beliefs of his era, which a rationalist today should not accept. Many rationalist Rishonim believed that God's existence can be logically proven. But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence. Rambam believed that being a good Jew and receiving a portion in the next world is contingent on intellectual perfection, and therefore simple-minded people, children, and those making fundamental hashkafic errors simply cannot receive a portion in the next world. But this was a result of his particular hybridization of Greek philosophy with Judaism.

I have noticed a distinct group of people who consider themselves loyal followers of the Rambam, but they are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century. And as Rambam says, "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in the front, not behind." Rambam did not believe Chazal to be infallible, and he would certainly not have rated himself that way, either. A rationalist today should follow Rambam's underlying guiding principles, not necessarily his specific application of them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Leiman Library

I once spent a memorable Shabbos at the home of Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman. His library is legendary, and some of the treasures of the collection are now featured on the website An especially valuable resource on this website is a collection of over a hundred articles by Rabbi Dr. Leiman that can be freely downloaded, including such treats as The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London. It's a real treasure trove!

(Thanks to S. for letting me know.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Determining What Torah Scholars Mean

Over at Machzikei HaDas, Yirmiahu quotes from a post that I wrote a while back, as follows:
Academic study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages with the aid of examining the context in which they were written. What societal, cultural, intellectual, political factors could have been involved, if any?...If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior.
In case people are not following the link, I want to quote in full the paragraph from which the last phrase was quoted:
Note that I am not passing a value judgment on these different approaches. If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior. But I am not judging which approach is more valuable from other perspectives, such as for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah or for reaching psak. There is a fascinating exchange in the current issue of Hakirah on topic of whether calling a form of study non-historical means that it lacks value.

Yirmiahu finds fault with my position that the academic method is superior for reaching historical truth. He first claims that
the concept that learning Torah l'shma makes a scholar 'great and exalts him above all things' (Avos 6:1, from the Artscroll Siddur)" is exchanged for a view in which their views and opinions can be evaluated with the same suppositions we would use for any other shmo.
I don't know what that Mishnah in Avos has to do with anything. Is Yirmiyah taking it to mean that a Torah scholar becomes immune from the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place? That's quite an inference! The Hebrew phrase is וּמְגַדַּלְתּוֹ וּמְרוֹמַמְתּוֹ עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים - I don't think that this means anything of the sort.

Yirmiahu then claims that
The entire endeavor to "discover" a controversial position in the teachings of a Torah scholar doesn't strike me as reflecting awe of our Sage either.
It's not an attempt to make them controversial, it's an attempt to find out what they really meant. I think that respecting people means trying to ascertain what they really meant, not what would make them look good according to current standards. I know that this is how I would want to be respected! Reinterpreting someone's position to make it acceptable by today's norms does not reflect awe of them in the least; on the contrary, it reflects lack of awe. But I do agree that it is better for enhancing religious stability and inspiration amongst the masses (this is an important point which I will have to write about more at length on another occasion).

Yirmiahu then quotes Rambam:
The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation).
This is quite a remarkable incident of quoting something out of context. Let's look at the paragraph in its entirety:
You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.
Let's see. Rambam could have claimed that Chazal were always speaking about the pnimiyus, or some other such contrivance, in order to have their words not be contradicted by science. Instead, he said that they sometimes took positions based on the faulty scientific beliefs of their era. So Rambam is doing exactly the opposite of what Yirmiahu is (selectively) quoting him for!

Yirmiahu continues as follows:
While I don't suspect that the Rambam would demand that only a necessary inference should establish that an erroneous position was held, to cull dispersed writings to reveal an non-obvious error (while conceding that theoretically one's entire position could crash down like house of cards by the revelation of a single statement to the contrary) is not in anyway consistent with the Rambam's maxim.
Obviously he is talking about my Rashi article. First of all, I find it amusing that he sees it as a weakness that I conceded that a single clear statement by Rashi against corporeality would destroy my analysis. Actually, I see it as a strength - I am making a clear test for falsifiability. Isn't one of the common creationist charges against evolution that it is non-falsifiable? (Which happens not to be true.)

But Yirmiahu's main point here is that it is disrespectful to Rashi to show him to be a corporealist. Well, either Rashi was or was not a corporealist. If he was not, then I am simply wrong. If he was, then I don't see it as disrespectful to show what a Rishon actually held, for the reasons explained above. I do consider it disrespectful to distort what they held, or to try and cover it up. And how is this inconsistent with Rambam's maxim? Rambam was clearly talking about not negating the significance of true statements; but he most certainly held that Torah scholars absorb the beliefs of their era, even when this has ramifications on Torah beliefs!

But why discuss Rashi's view on this? What is to be gained? This is something that will be made clear in my follow-up article, "They Can Say It, We Cannot," due to appear in the next issue of Hakirah. Aside from understanding pshat in Rashi, I think that discovering that prominent Rishonim held views that are considered heretical today forces us to carefully analyze what the entire notion of heresy means - and I think that there are some interesting and unexpected conclusions. (And please don't try to predict my views, you are almost certainly incorrect!)

Yirmiahu then quotes from Rav Hirsch about how “the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” Of course, Rav Hirsch also held that Chazal accepted the false scientific beliefs of their era, and he also condemned Rambam for being influenced by Greek philosophy - thereby showing that he did not follow Yirmiahu's policy.

Yirmiahu then states:
To apply the principles generally utilized in the humanities to those we view as atypical in their wisdom and piety is to commit the fallacy of Hasty Generalization (or betray that one does not view them as atypical in wisdom and piety)
Now, it is of course true that one should be careful about generalizations. It is certainly not impossible for a person to rise above the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place, and nor did I ever claim otherwise, contrary to how some might like to falsely portray me. However, these are certainly factors that should be taken into account. Yirmiahu claims that these factors are not relevant, or are significantly less relevant, with Torah scholars, who are "atypical in their wisdom and piety." I believe that they were atypical in their piety, but I'm not sure what piety has to do with this topic. And with regards to wisdom - what does this mean? Intelligence (and if so, which kind of intelligence)? Torah knowledge? Torah values?

This will probably be one of those deep and irreconcilable differences between rationalists and mystics.

Ten Bites

There was a game going around Facebook in the last few days, in which people would give lists of ten types of "something" that the...