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 We do not write articles on Torah and science, we do not publish in Tradition or the Jewish Observer or even attend the UOJS conferences anymore since they became nothing more than weekend getaways for MDs and DDSs to get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.


  1. So you just believe in separating science and Torah into two separate studies and the two do not or need to meet? One is the study of what we see, can measure and understand and the other is only about the way we live / act?

  2. There's no reason the two can't be separated. There's no evidence that the creation story in Genesis is meant to be taken literally so far as its chronology is concerned. That's something a good number of rishonim and acharonim agree upon. Let's be blunt: do you really believe that the universe revolves physically around the planet earth, Chaim?

  3. MJ,

    Could you please expand on

    attempts at so-called reconciliation with Torah is unnecessary and foolish

    Which of the following are you saying?

    a) Prevailing scientific theories cannot be reconciled with Torah. They present competing stories which cannot be true in the same context.

    b) We don't care if prevailing scientific theories can be reconciled with Torah, since we're not interested in what the Torah says about the origins of species, etc.

    c) The Torah doesn't have anything to say about the origins of species, etc. Whatever people take to mean that must be allegory.

    d) Whatever the Torah says about the origins of species, etc., is sufficiently obscure to be not worth trying to understand precisely, so it's impossible to compare it to the precise findings of prevailing science.

    e) Something else.

  4. Not exactly. That's far too reductive. But in any event, the only thing that the explanations found in cosmology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology deny is a literal reading of Bereishis. That's it. Holding onto a literalistic interpretation is purely a recent fetish of chareidi reactionaries.

  5. No Joseph...The universe revolving around Earth, to me, is in order to teach you the importance of every second or act in your life... The literal understanding "pshat" of the Torah is different.

    I go back and forth about whether there is a need at all to merge the two or not...

    A quote from

    "I made peace with evolution years ago. I’m neither convinced of its truth (although it explains volumes of collected phenomena that no one in the frum community even begins to deal with) nor convinced of its untruth."

    Could the world have been created in a mature form in six days? I don't know and the answer is irrelevant in my daily life. The Torah is very broad...

    I can sit tight... The Torah and faith for me is an blueprint for behaviour for mankind in order to express or reveal G-dliness. The rest is intellectual gymnastics which is still fun...

  6. >>>> Could the world have been created in a mature form in six days? I don't know and the answer is irrelevant in my daily life.

    >>>> The Torah and faith for me is an blueprint for behaviour for mankind in order to express or reveal G-dliness.


    Do you not see how incompatible these 2statements are. How do you expect the world to learn anything from the Torah, if the Torah, as read literally, speaks untruths or worse, nonsense.

    Deut 4:6 says we are supposed to be an intelligent nation. It’s sadly becoming not so.

    Several months back a colleague of mine approached and asked me, that he had read that Jewish Rabbis believe non-jews have more (i think he said more) teeth than non-jews, and if this was true (about the rabbis believing). I suspected some “ignorant of science” chareidi rov was mouthing off and naturally I was embarrassed for us Jews. So without knowing what he was talking about, i explained that he probably took it out of context and the statement was allegorical, “teeth” representing aggression and some other BS like that…..

    so to say that believing in non-sense is not relevant to your life is/can be a huge chillul Hashem.

  7. Any creationist biologist should be disqualified from working in any professional lab. It's like a physicist denying gravity.

  8. I know we are talking physics and not biology but many Rabbinim (e.g. the lubavitcher Rebbe) said that not only are the sun and the planets revolving around the Earth but that the Earth is not rotating in a 24 hour cycle.
    There are many undeniable reasons why this couldn't be happening.

  9. NOP,

    I disagree strong. There's nothing wrong with a physicist denying gravity. What matters is that the work they do needs to be good science.

    There's no reason why a creationist can't do good science. (Although it is interesting, if one looks at prominent creationist scientists like Jonathan Sarfati and Michael Behe, the scientific productivity seems to drop off massively when they start focusing their careers on creationism).

  10. So what do Orthodox Physicists do?

  11. No, it's not. This mature earth stuff coheres perfectly with biology (and science in general.) It's a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

    Don't try to make witty jabs until you know enough to deserve the privilege.

  12. New Orthodox Philosopher's comment needs to balanced out with Jerry Coyne's comment:

    “University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne admitted in Nature “improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of 'like begets like'.” Even when it comes to fighting antibiotic-resistant superbugs, Coyne observed, "evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance and, yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say." He also writes “In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics.”

  13. elemir, the convicted rabbis from New York was a chillul Hashem, while an ignorant statement is a *huge* chillul Hashem? Hmmmm...

  14. elemir,
    how can non-jews have more teeth than non-jews?

  15. "But in any event, the only thing that the explanations found in cosmology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology deny is a literal reading of Bereishis. That's it."

    And Noach. Don't forget Noach.

  16. "No, it's not. This mature earth stuff coheres perfectly with biology (and science in general.) It's a philosophical position, not a scientific one."

    It's not really a philosophical position, it's an unverifiable empirical claim, which makes it definitely not science, which makes it at the very least extraordinarily incongruous for a scientist if not downright inappropriate.

  17. Look, there are at least three ways you can explain what Bereishis means if it is not literal. Pick whichever one suits you. My point is that this interpretive position existed long before modern science.

    Most people point to Rambam, but read Saadya's commentary on Sefer Yetzira where he states that the cosmology of the book is not the same as a simple understanding of scripture.

    As far as my position on why reconciliation is unnecessary and foolish: Read Kant.

  18. Natan: you did not publish my comment...

    that is fine. I am learning that debate in these forums with people with fixed beliefs on both sides is useless...

    What is wrong with the world being created with "memories"?

    Those memories have helped science advance these days to study the natural process currently happening and likely to happen in the future...

    P.S. theory of relativity: what revolves around what?

    People can believe in whatever they want...

  19. MJ: Read Kant.

    Kan't you give a blog-comment-worthy summary, or at least point us to the particular bit of Kant's philosophy that you want us to consider here?

  20. Chaim, geocentric theologists often misuse the theory of relativity to substantiate their position. However while Relativity does state that an observer can't know the relative movement of two independent bodies, it also states that multiple observers looking from multiple points of view can reliably determine the relative movement of two independent bodies.

  21. >>> What is wrong with the world being created with "memories"?

    Refer back to previous comments…mostly because either (a) it frees anyone from believing or trusting in anything one observes (I think you fail to see the consequences of accepting this viewpoint of the world) and/or (b) it implies that the Creator is some kind of con artist.
    To me it makes a lot more sense to say that our sages simply didn’t know how old the universe was. Period. There was a heck of lot else about nature they didn’t know or misconstrued.

    >>>> P.S. theory of relativity: what revolves around what?

    Technically true … but stating that the sun circles the earth every day implies a denial of the earth rotating on its own axis. Secondly, if you are referring to the sun’s annual “relative orbit” around the earth, this works fine when discussing the earth-sun orbit but taking into account the entire solar system then that would imply that the planets have some kind of weird motion relative to the earth (no orbits) and also denying the whole gravitational relationship between the planets and the sun.

    As an aside, when I first read that the Rebbe wrote about this idea of using relativity to explain the (pseudo) geo-centricity of the universe, i was very dismayed.

  22. Okay. First by "creationism" I mean believing that the world was created in 6 days, about 6000 years ago (or anything that's under, or near the accepted scientific age).

    Many scientists are strongly religious, and do a wonderful job, like Francis Collins.


    I agree, as long as they don't have the gall to ask for research money for the pseudoscience.


    I'll email Jerry, I'll ask him what it's about.

  23. Like R. Slifkin I toil in the trenches, seeking to make sense together of Torah and biological science. In learning Gemora, I find that most t'rutzim will still make good sense anthropologically.

    But there are exceptions. Take the question of whether, during threshing season, a farmer's wheat chaff blowing onto his neighbor's soil will cause damage to the next crop (B.B. 24b-25a). In my personal horticultural experience, high cellulose products like wheat chaff or rice hulls in large quantities will cause damage, just as R'Abba bar Zavda (or bar Zutra) states. But the reason given, that the chaff over-fertilizes the soil, is incorrect. The reason why the next crop will show stunted growth is just the opposite: Decomposing chaff utilizes large quantities of nitrogen. Thus most available nitrogen in the soil is used by the composting chaff, and the new crop is nitrogen-starved.

    The Talmud is not a science book, and its Sages are not inerrant. That should not diminish its value as timeless, sacred wisdom. In the case I just analyzed, the n'zikin still occurred; it was only the stated reason why the damage occurred that was incorrect.

    Explaining Torah and biology in each other's light is a sacred task, and it must be done carefully, knowledgably and respectfully. With that in mind, I wrote and edited a recently published book, Judaism in Biological Perspective.

    Rick Goldberg

  24. MJ,

    Are you really saying that a materialistic evolutionary outlook (that all living organisms arose through a totally undirected process) is compatible with the Torah?

  25. My background. I was brought up secular and studied science and then medicine in university. My physics knowledge is basic and old now.. I don't claim to be an expert at all. It was actually science itself that drove my to search for spirituality (modern, Eastern) and subsequently to Chabad Chassidus.

    I see that the theory of relativity is misquoted in this context. I apologize for bringing it up. I guess the point people get at is that although it is simpler mathematically and correct with respect to gravity etc to say the earth revolves around the sun can you not say although the maths would be ridiculously complex that can also be vice versa? Note this is not a scientific question and is irrelevant to science itself - just a religious question really..

    Elemir: I disagree with your statements. It does not free anyone from believing or trusting in anything one observes. The laws of nature / physics are set up or "created" in this way so we can precisely do this. It is about the application of the observed science not theory that is important. I do not deny or dismiss science. True science and scientists recognize what is fact and what is theory and are remarkably flexible when new evidence comes up. This is amazing... Scientists not being true to their profession was seen recently with respect to climate data...

    It is whether scientific theory can override traditional Torah theory. People here say yes and have Jewish sources to back them up - I really have no problem with that. I am not arguing if you are right or wrong.

    The deception issue is not an issue to me either. Hashem wants us to question everything and think rationally but act according to the mitzvot. There are always obstacles put in our way of faith not just in science and we can overcome them. In the end we are judged on our actions and observance of mitzvot not our questioning nor doubts in Rabbinic texts. For me the enjoyment is in the struggle to search for the truth while respecting others opinions, even if they seem foolish to us.

    There are sugiyas where the Rabbis say clearly that the Greeks had it right and we are wrong... I do not have a problem with Rabbis being wrong in science or even history. Chassidus doesn't teach us that these are facts but that there is a personal spiritual lesson from the statement in avodah. I do not go to the Torah to learn science.

    Natan: I understand that you looked into the halachic implications of saying the six days are not literal eg shabbos?

  26. ChaimJ - I have a full discussion of that topic in The Challenge Of Creation.

  27. I will have to find someone who actually as your book so I can borrow it...

    Sorry but I am not looking at buying them (irrespective) of the bans..

  28. ChaimJ…

    So you concur that a person must make up his mind about his beliefs through some rational process. At least for those beliefs that lend themselves to rational determination.

    Therefore let me continue… the age of the universe has 2 competing views.
    On one side scientists present at least half a dozen and more independent modes of hard “evidence” that the world/universe is over 6K yrs old. Ok, to this you argue that God falsified the evidence. So, i respond to this argument in one of 2 ways

    1) to examine the source of this claim that God falsified evidence
    2) or to accept falsified evidence and go back and examine the reliability (or credibility) of the proponents of a young earth

    Point 1. who introduced the idea of falsified evidence.

    The Torah doesn’t claim this to have happened and neither do Khazal nor any commentator until very recently (among them the last Lubavitcher Rebbe as mentioned earlier). So that now gives you 2 choices, either Khazal didn’t know much of science in general including the true age of the universe or Khazal simply didn’t know that God falsified evidence. Either way it impugns Khazal. So why not go with the choice that corresponds to common sense, and that is, its unlikely that God would “falsify evidence” and Khazal simply didn’t know the age of the universe.

    2) Ok, even if you say that the evidence was falsified, so the next step is to examine the source of the belief in a 6000 year age and determine that source’s reliability. How reliable is the Torah’s accounts in other very ancient historical matters. Let’s examine others stories in Genesis, the flood, the tower of Babel and the evidence is overwhelming that the Torah is obviously a-historical.

    Bottom line: A rational person concludes that Genesis 1-11 cannot be read literally and certainly not as to the age of the universe.

  29. Isaac,

    Kant saw that as long as one thought that one could obtain knowledge of God via any kind of objective experience then as empirical scientific knowledge increased faith would disappear because everything in the external world could be explained in naturalistic terms. His solution was to deny that we had objective (empirical) knowledge of God. Instead of knowledge we have faith -both in God and in human free will.

    Trying to reconcile Torah and science embraces the idea that the Torah contains objective (meaning empirical) knowledge of God and thus reproduces this fallacy. Whatever knowledge of God we can obtain through Torah is ultimately via faith.


    The idea that God is constantly, or even occasionally, intervening in nature was rejected by Rambam for good reason.

    I truly cannot understand how anyone who accepts the approach of Rambam to philosophy and scriptural exegesis sees this whole thing as an issue.

    God created the universe and the Torah for a number of good reasons does not give an empirical account of that creation. What's the big deal? Orthodox scientists should spend their time doing valuable research, not wasting their time writing about issue that Rambam covered rather thoroughly.

  30. MJ,

    As I have mentioned here before, the Rambam was a True Believer in Aristotle, and it's very hard for me to see how anyone can just take his conclusions at face value in the context of modern scientific knowledge. Aristotle had a lot of good stuff to say about logic, ethics, political philosophy, etc., but his physics and metaphysics are not much of a starting point for us today. Therefore, I have no idea what you are talking about when you advocate not thinking about things that "Rambam covered thoroughly".

    In general, if you want to just be a technician and not try to see where your science is leading you in philosophical terms, fine, but don't criticize others who do find this kind of thought important and the conclusions not at all obvious.

    It's all very nice to say that we get our knowledge of G-d from "faith", but where is the faith supposed to come from? Am I supposed to have faith just because I feel like it, or because someone said so? What if I get up one morning and I don't feel like it (or I have kids who don't feel like it)?

    Sometimes, this 'rationalism' seems more dogmatic and closed-minded than the anti-rationalist approaches (which I am far from happy with, BTW).

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  33. Elemir.

    Thanks for that. I have realized that I am not a rationalist.

    Even more so I realized I personally am a happier, better person not being one...

    I do not dismiss anyone else, their philosophies or beliefs as long as it brings you closer to G-d and Torah and most importantly makes you a better person (kind, compassionate, just, honest, tolerant).

    Each to his own. The Torah is broad and Hashem is loving..

    I wish everyone here all the best especially Natan. I wish you peace in all sincerity. I found a good friend that has your book and will read it.

    I do believe we have the same goal but different paths. I encourage and support you in yours.

    Bereishis Rabba 8:8: Whoever wishes to err, let him err..

    The Torah, both written and Oral can be appear to be undermined by the vast array of Rabbinic disputes. However G-d did not omit potentially confusing passages because they may be misleading because ultimately the individual “wishes to err”.

    i.e. if the person has a vested interest in confirming a polytheistic or atheistic position he therefore allows himself wittingly or unwittingly to be troubled by disputes in the Torah.

    If a person is sincere and does not seek a pretense for an easier life (he does not WISH to err) then he will never be misled by the Torah since something that is 100% truth can not by definition, mislead.

  34. Chaim - you have an interesting approach to Judaism, as expressed in your comments. You say that you are happier not being a rationalist, and then you say that the Torah, which is 100% truth, cannot possibly mislead someone who is searching sincerely, i.e., not looking for an easy way out. I have 2 questions for you: First, how do you know that the Torah is 100% truth? If you know it by rational arguments and conclusions, then you are a rationalist. And if you know it by belief, then you must know that there are millions of people who have equally strong, yet different beliefs, in their religious views, such as Christianity. Second, there are numerous examples of people who were not looking for an easy way out, yet were mislead by what they understood from the Torah. Two examples here should suffice. The Karaites, who had their own elaborate system of laws, thought that one may not have any fires burning over Shabbat (this is much more difficult - not easier - than what we know the halacha to be) because of what they read in the Torah. The Raavad says that great people were mislead by what they read in the Torah to think that G-d has a hand or an eye, etc. These were sincere people who were mislead by what they thought the Torah meant. I guess my point is that without rationality, all one has is his own beliefs, and beliefs can lead one, even a sincere person, into areas of untruth, foolishness, and even heresy.

  35. Chaimj,

    All the best wishes to you too, most sincerely.

    I completely and unequivocally respect your right to have whatever beliefs (blind or rational) you wish, but the key is to understand the consequences of your position and that most inportantly, your approach not harm anyone else.

    Some examples. (and I would appreciate your comments on them)

    1. I hear that some ultra-right wingers are prepared to not convert, or worse revoke conversion from, people who won’t believe every last word of Khazal, e.g. they believe in a 6000+ year universe or other possible mistaken ideas of Khazal. Do you accept this as part of your Judaism?
    2. how do you deal with your child when he comes home and tells you that common sense leads him to believe that many tenets of your blind-faith are simply not true. Do you throw him out for being a kofer. And you can’t convince him to accept your beliefs because you admit you’re not a rationalist. Do you pound your fist on the table and insist he believe??
    3. how do you (personally) reconcile the statement you made that the Torah is 100% truth when it contains statements that taken literally are not true.
    4. How do you reconcile your earlier statement that you see the Torah as a guide for mankind, when most of the world are rational beings and you are not? How would you expect them to even bother with a document that without human interpretation is worthless to 21st century man.

    And I could go on ….

  36. Shlomo:

    I have no problem with other faiths for non-Jews as long as they follow the 7 noachide laws..

    I believe that the truth down here in the physical world is relative and not absolute. Judaism and Torah was not meant to be for non-Jews to follow. Jonathon Sacks once wrote (although the London beis Din made him remove it) : "In heaven there is one truth, on earth there are many"

    My belief in Torah - one of Rambam's 13 principles of faith is not entirely based on rationalism. I have a different view of faith in G-d or Torah.

    To quote a friend:

    "I believe that the rational mind is severely limited. I believe we know about -1% of what is going on around us."

    The Torah for Jews to me is different. I was not talking about people exclusively looking for a easy way out but rather ALSO people who had a personal, perhaps selfish, motive or intent when looking at Torah. Also the Torah to me is inclusive of the Oral Torah (and even Kabbalah) - I do not separate the two like the Karaites.

    Furthermore our knowledge of G-d, Torah and the World has clearly advanced over time. We were often misled by other cultures and beliefs and incorporated external understandings into Torah which were not there to begin with. It took the Muslims to remind us that G-d has no physical body, something I believe we knew prior.

    The Torah is an ongoing revelation by Hashem in my opinion. Rationalists as I understand stay away from Kabbalah, metaphysics. I personally think this is a problem..

    I did not say that rationalism is not good or not necessary. It is crucial and inherent in Judaism. But for me it is only one vital part of Judaism and not the deciding factor in my faith, beliefs nor practices. I understand my intellect is limited and that we can never know G-d or even our true existence entirely. Therefore I can not change my beliefs based solely on rationalism especially my own.

    I hope that made more sense.

  37. ephraim,

    You have to separate Rambam's specific conclusions via classical science, which was a branch of philosophy, and the philosophical-exegetical model that he used.

    Rambam provides a model for how to proceed allegorically when contemporary science does not accord with scripture.On some readings he even left open the possibility of believing in a primordial substance.

    I really am not a "technician" as I gave up bench science a few years ago to pursue philosophy. Science as such does not lead us anywhere. If you want to believe in God there is no scientific reason not to. If science tends to be reductionist then that is a good reason to show why you cannot draw illegitimate philosophical conclusions from empirical evidence. But again, Kant discussed this 200 years ago.

    Finally, you misunderstand faith. Faith is not a mere feeling. Faith is rational belief that cannot count as empirically knowledge. I have all sorts of reasons for believing in God and free will. But not having the expectation that empirical science has a great deal to say about these issues is a benefit for me. People often lose faith faith when they are brought up in a religious environment that makes the fundamental category error of conflating the two.

    Once the two are properly disentangled it becomes perfectly reasonable to be a rationalist who holds to a robust metaphysics, who also studies and occasionally teaches kaballah.

    I wish people would not confuse being a modern rationalist with being a retrograde Maimonidean a la Chait/YBT.

  38. Elemir:

    I understand this is a blog devoted to the "rationalist approach to Judaism that was most famously presented by Maimonides", therefore I do not want to waste other people's times here with my views which are different..

    However to answer your questions:

    1) Totally disagree with that view. I think many Rabbis have become insanely intolerant and misrepresent Torah. We seem to have really been going off the derech...

    2) I do educate my children in what I believe. I do not believe in censorship however. I can honestly say that I do not have answers to some questions and that sometimes we have to suspend our understanding or perception of reality as we see it. I would honestly say that I do not know how to answer that. I would then explain why I do and believe what I do and that common sense is not always that simple nor correct. If he chose to follow another path, I would never throw him out like I would never turn away any other Jew because of their beliefs or practices. It is a dark world and everyone is struggling to see. I only demand sincerity and compassion.

    My children know about dinosaurs and love science. My answers to them may not please you but I try to be honest. You can not force anyone to believe or have faith - that is something internal and essential to a Jewish soul. Science however also has a lot of unanswered questions and contradictions. It is not the absolute truth although I believe true science does attempt to find the absolute truth.

    3) That is explained via metaphysics / Chassidus. The truth as it is above does not always find itself expressed below in the physical world. We can however learn important spiritual teachings in our behavior and life from those statements even if they are not true below physically.

    4) I believe I discussed this above in my answer to Shlomo. Also I stress the Torah is not for the whole world... and I did not say rationalism is not important or essential just that it is not the deciding factor in my beliefs.

    Kol menachem has recently come out with a series on Rambam's 13 principles of faith...

    They are very interesting...

    I could also go on but it is futile and more importantly unnecessary. i am not out to convince you to change...

  39. p.s. I believe from personal experience and observations that rationalism was 20th century and the 21st century will be post rationalism and "post-modern"...

    People want meaning and are seeking spirituality and finding that rationalism is just not meeting all their essential needs... It is just not all that it is cracked up to be.

    Chabad is growing exponentially in numbers and chazari tshuvah...

    However each to his own...

  40. MJ -

    "Faith is rational belief that cannot count as empirically knowledge." So what's wrong with me, a Jew, subscribing to the "rational belief" of the Christian theologians? They too say that there is good REASON to have FAITH in Yeishu, etc. Assuming that you think there's something wrong with that, can you please tell me what it is? If you stick to pure faith, then you can say that our pure faith rejects that pure faith, (but who really KNOWS?) If you stick to pure reason, then you ought to be able to prove/disprove things through that. But if you talk about faith as a result of reason, then there are many possible pathways. What's wrong with me choosing my own?

    "it becomes perfectly reasonable to be a rationalist who holds to a robust metaphysics, who also studies and occasionally teaches kaballah."

    I think Professor M. Kellner would probably disagree.

  41. bJudaism and Torah was not meant to be for non-Jews to follow. Jonathon Sacks once wrote (although the London beis Din made him remove it) : "In heaven there is one truth, on earth there are many"

    Funny thing is that he said it in Radical Then Radical Now ( A Letter in the Scroll) a few years earlier without a peep from the Cheredim, and it is still in there!

  42. Chaimj,

    I’m trying to understand how a non-rationalist functions, so may i continue? … if this is too personal, i’ll obviously drop the discussion.

    You say you are not a rationalist, but can i assume that does not imply that you never use your intellect to make decisions in life.

    For example, you said that many rabbis are misrepresenting Judaism. On what basis do you decide that that is what they are doing? Similarly, what made you decide that chassidus has any truth to it? also, how do you decide where to draw the line with what you accept from the scientific world and what you deny. As an aside, do you believe all midroshim to be literally true, and if not where do you draw the line and why.

  43. Elemir:

    I would not consider myself a part of rationalist Judaism where religious beliefs and practices are made solely on rational thought. However a rational approach in general to Torah and life is essential.

    I believe we are limited in more than we care to admit in our rational understanding of life, the universe and all.

    Faith (i.e above intellect but not exclusive to intellect) is the most important to me. I use my intellect to rationalize and approach my faith. I put my faith in the Torah as outlined by Rabbis particularly for the Chabad Rebbeim. Not all Rabbis are holy or correct. Which ones to follow is from experience and trust in Hashem in that he leads me on the correct path which I review on a daily basis.

    I believe spiritually there is a descent of the generations and much intellect and understanding has been lost.

    I believe in Kabbalah and metaphysics which can not be proven or even in most instances understood. Yet I believe the physical world is dependent on and influenced by the spiritual worlds.

    I believe in a direct, personal and continuous intervention of Hashem in the world.

    I believe the world is 5770 years old despite current scientific evidence and that does not bother me at all. I believe the physical world is created continuously by Torah and can be changed through Torah. I believe that if the Rabbis got the Rosh Chodesh day wrong - the whole universe changes to fit in with that psak.

    I do not approach Torah in what is literally true and what is not. It is irrelevant to me in my daily life and an unnecessary distraction from what Torah is: "Hora'a - a teaching". Torah is not Science. Obviously not all is literal. But all has a direct personal lesson in avodah and life for me at this time - this is what makes Chassidus true to me. It changed my WHOLE life in a positive way and made me serve Hashem and society better. i.e in my opinion a better Jew.

    Religion to me is about G-d. I spend my days thinking about G-d, how he creates the world. What he wants from me. How I can be close to him. How I can see his direct intervention in the world. How I can reveal the truth i.e. G-dliness in this world of concealment. I do not think rationalist Jews think about G-d that much except in a distant, abstract, impersonal way if at all. I think they end up just thinking about the world and themselves...

    In my own opinion and I do not have a source for this. I believe we actually create the world we live in by our own personal beliefs, desires and understanding. Therefore I believe the Chassidic outlook creates the best possible world for me to exist in.

    As for science, I just don't see it as a conflict... For me the purpose of science is about applications, not theory nor belief, although theory can be fun. E.g. string theory and creation through speech. You can be an incredible scientist in any field and not believe in anything. It is all about the method...

    Gandhi once said: “Rationalists are admirable beings, but rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of a stick and stone believing it to be God.”


  44. Rambam provides a model for how to proceed allegorically when contemporary science does not accord with scripture.

    If that's all you get from the Rambam, than I have no idea how you can say that it's a waste of time to think about things that he already "covered thoroughly".

    I wish people would not confuse being a modern rationalist with being a retrograde Maimonidean a la Chait/YBT.

    The reason people get "confused" in this way is that there really are very few visible examples of "modern rationalist" Jews who are Talmidei Chachamim and have produced some kind of convincing synthesis of rationalism with classical Jewish sources. Nothing personal, but my assumption until proven otherwise is that you are probably just another amateur (like myself).

  45. p.s. This is why Chassidus places so much emphasis on a Tzaddik / Rebbe. A real Tzaddik of which there are few and a real Rebbe of which there is even less is an existance that is not worldly nor bound by the limitaions of nature.

    This is our glimpse of something that is not rational but rather miraculous that we can actually grasp in this world. There are thousands of documented stories displaying this.

    I also read the article from YU about Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol? The trouble is I know direct evidence from primary and secondary sources that refutes this understanding displayed here. I guess you could still always consider them all coincidences.

  46. I do have some questions for you guys:

    1) How do you rationally believe the Torah is divine or in G-d in any form or definition?

    2) What exact form of a mature world would you accept? Without the light from distant stars created in transit - how would we know Shabbos is over? You would not want fossils but what about coal or oil which are essential for our lives? Would they be OK to be created with the world?

  47. ephraim,

    I think we should all think about things that have been talked about by Rambam. What bothers me is that people seem to get really tied up in knots about it instead of recognizing it as a mainstream theological position that was laid out by one of the greatest medieval sages. The more that people write these supposed syntheses, or are overly apologetic about Rambam, as if he needs to be defended from modern chareidim, the less we can simply take it as a matter of course that his view represents the normative mainstream view of Orthodox Jews engaged with contemporary science.

    Instead I prefer to answer very simply: this isn't new, this is Rambam, let's move on. If you don't want to accept it, fine, but leave me alone.

    And while I am not an amateur, I would never confuse myself with a talmud chacham either.

  48. Kellner chassid,

    I could give reason why you should follow the Jewish faith and not christianity, but no, I could not accuse you of gross irrationality in following another religion. But there is no such thing as "pure faith." A person can alwyas give reasons for their faith. But that is not the same as giving reaosns that would count as universal justification.

    My personal understanding of Judaism is that there is very little emphasis on personal faith the way there is in Christianity. There is much greater stress on communal or covenantal faith.

    I'm not sure what points in particular you think that Menachem Kellner would disagree with and why.

  49. Chaimj, thank you for your extensive explanation, but sadly, what you describe is very difficult for me to accept. It’s simply and plainly unreasonable. In a nutshell, you state (quite correctly, as i too believe) that there are aspects of life that mankind doesn’t understand and likely never will. True, then you lay out what seems to me a set of beliefs fabricated by some individuals to whom you ascribe superhuman capacities. Unfortunately, and i really don’t mean to be insulting, this borders on the delusional. Honestly, why is this no different than a jungle witch doctor with all his spells and concoctions.

    BTW, you didn’t address, what to me is, the absolutely most critical point. How do you draw the line on exactly which irrational beliefs you are prepared to accept from among the litany we find in our mesorah and which you as well view as incredible. The most important to explain are all the “apparently nonsensical” midrashim. After all this goes directly to the heart of Khazal’s overall credibility

    As to your questions … I certainly can’t answer for others, but myself, I divide my beliefs into 3 categories and of course not everything falls neatly in only one of the 3.

    1. those beliefs that i (and others) have been unable to “prove” but one can offer reasonable arguments so that I lean towards their validity, and accept with varying degrees of confidence. (eg. a Creator, jewish history and “chosen-ness” , religion playing an important role, existence of an afterlife)
    2. those beliefs that i am simply “agnostic” about…i.e. i just don’t know or take no stance(eg. belief in a messiah, efficacy of prayer, reward and punishment in this life)
    3. those beliefs that can be shown to be true (or false) by the use of strong (even if circumstantial) evidence. In this category, and here is where i likely differ with most on this blog, is the divine ( authorship of the Torah. The evidence to me against this belief is very cmpelling.

    As for your comment about rationality and the 21st century, i strongly disagree with you. I do concur that mankind hungers for spirituality and that explains why many are more than ready to be irrational about what they believe, but my opinion is that this is only a temporary spike and rationality, as people become more educated with prevail. And in the case of Judaism, if it is to survive, it must face reality.

  50. Elemir...

    I was never trying to convince you of anything.

    I am not sure what is delusional. That is a fixed false belief. Mine may be fixed to some extent but not proven to me to be false although clearly you may argue.

    My line is blurred just like yours seems to be. Belief in G-d may in some respect be beneficial to the individual in many respects but does that make it rational?

    Do you have beliefs until they are rationally dis-proven to you Or believe in only what is rationally proven to you? Why is the first not delusional? Then you sit on the fence with others... Why? What is the point? Are you just trying to conserve Judaism or protect as much as possible Torah? Why is that important? You seem to be confused.

    Atheism makes much more sense to me. So does a man made Torah over generations with just good teachings and lessons....

    Again what is literally true and not is not a issue to me. It is irrelevant. I don't need to prove scientific or rational validity in statements by Chazal. Some statements are obviously allegorical by chazal (midrashim)and in the Torah e.g. G-d's hands, eyes etc.

    I draw my line in my beliefs according to my Rebbe... This is faith in him as a guide to Torah, life and how to connect with G-d.

    MY driving force is as above:

    I believe we actually create the world we live in by our own personal beliefs, desires and understanding. Therefore I believe the Chassidic outlook creates the best possible world for me to exist in. I believe nature and our existence can change miraculously since the world is being continuously created by G-d or it would revert back to nothingness.. not like an artist who makes a physical model and walks away from it..

    How do you explain documented miracles... e.g cancers disappearing after a Tzadiks blessing? Or the Rebbe sending shluchim to find a single person in a distant place to help them at their exact time of need even though they had no prior communication? Are they just lies?

  51. Chaim, how do you explain cancer patients who get a berachah and then die? Or cancer patients who make a miraculous recovery without getting a berachah?

  52. Cancer patients dying with a bracho does not refute the fact that some brachos do work. there could be many theological explanations why brochos do not always work.. e.g making an adequate vessel for the shefa, the illness itself is a tikun etc.

    Also miracles are not dependant on brachas. Praying to Hashem is the ultimate bracha and the only reason the brochas from Tzaddikim work in the first place.

    My point was not about the Tzaddik per se but rather obvious miracles when one day a huge cancer is in the body and the next week it is gone... and Doctors can not explain it medically.

  53. ChaimJ,

    First, "documented" miracles are few and far between. Just because someone wrote about it does not make it documented.

    More importantly, by your logic, anything that cannot currently be explained by science should count as a miracle.

    I guess that gravity is a miracle. Prion disorders are miracles, etc. etc.

  54. ahh.. the rationalist who blindly believes everything can be eventually explained by science...

    They may be relatively few compared to 6 billion people but they are documented by the person usually with physician corroboration with regard to medical miracles.. and then there are others...

    It depends how you define miracles. Are they just an unknown mechanisms or are they above and override nature or even enclosed within nature..

  55. Chaim,

    And what about all the documented miracles that the Christians talk about and publish - childbirth to infertile women after visiting the Lourdes, rosary bead miracles, crying statues, etc.? These are just as documented as the rebbeshe miracles are. Are they also true? If not, why - because they're goyish?

  56. I did not really want to get into these arguments on beliefs...

    I am happy with mine, naive as it may seem to you and likewise I am sure you are happy, fulfilled people in yours...

    so I will leave this discussion...

    All the best to everyone here.

    May Moshiach come soon and show us who is correct and what the right path and truly is. I am humble enough to admit I am wrong when given the right proof... which would probably require a fairly large revelation (like Y. Albo needed to overturn the Torah)...

  57. Skeptic.. just to clarify..

    yes even non Jews with any religion deserve and can have miracles...

    G-d is for everyone not just Jews...

    I do not claim that everything called a miracle by a Jew or non-Jew is truly a miracle..

  58. May Moshiach come soon and show us who is correct and what the right path and truly is.

    Amen .... but i'm not holding my breath.


  60. 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.

    Do you mean the AOJS - Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists? I joined that outfit some 30 years ago and can barely recognize it today. I find it increasingly difficult to justify shelling out dues every year.

    You do not win a war by abandoning the field to the enemy. If we keep quiet, the general public and even the scientific community gets the impression that all or most Orthodox Jews are medievalists who do not accept evolution and believe that the earth is 5770 years old. And that the sun revolves around the earth, and soon that the earth is flat. This is especially true when such views are stridently espoused by a Who's Who of the other side's halakhic authority figures, up to and including the late Moshe Feinstein. We have to make our voices heard, both in the Jewish community and the general scientific community. We have to let all concerned know that the argument is not over halakha but over metziut - objective reality. Those that do not accept metziut - the world as it is and not as we might wish it to be - cannot be our halakhic authorities, since halakha functions in the real world and not in some Orthodox Fantasyland. I have published in Intercom, the flagship journal of AOJS, but I must say that most of what appears there, and what I respond to, is pathetic drivel. But we have to speak up and let the other side's "gedolim" know what we think of them; it's not just evolution but a whole lot of other things.

    When in the course of Jewish events. . . .

  61. Neandershort,

    I found your "Declaration" both entertaining and informing, but unfortunately it is probably the perfect illustration of why nothing is going anywhere towards productive change in the Orthodox world. The problem is that too many unrelated issues are being lumped together and people are given the choice of all or none.

    Probably no one agrees with you on all the different points you make on that page. (How many? 15? 20?) I strongly agree with you on some, strongly disagree on others, and haven't had the chance to think through still others.

    I live in Haredi society and am totally fed up with the crazy attitude towards secular knowledge and education, but I'm not ready to go live among the people who think mixed swimming is l'chatchila. I know I'm taking extreme examples here, but that is the point. Both sides are being ridiculously simplistic, and this dichotomy is not useful to anyone serious anymore.

  62. Something I came across...

    Science does possess one single element of faith (although most scientists fail to realize this), and that is that science relies on the idea that the universe and reality is truly as it presents itself to us, and that no deliberate deception is involved within the nature of the universe itself.

    Deliberate deception implies a conscious God. If God is indeed deliberately deceiving us, it could be for one of two reasons. One: God is a deliberate liar and wishes us to believe His inerrant holy book despite the scientific evidence to the contrary. Two, and more generously: God has created a universe which suggests a history deliberately different then that of what really happened because God wants us to believe in the alternate history.

  63. ChaimJ, I think there's a distinction between "God is indeed deliberately deceiving us" and "God indeed deliberately set up a system in which we can deceive ourselves."

  64. >>>>> Science does possess one single element of faith (although most scientists fail to realize this), and that is that science relies on the idea that the universe and reality is truly as it presents itself to us, and that no deliberate deception is involved within the nature of the universe itself.

    This is not the only element of faith among “rational people”. There are many others, chief among them is that we all believe that the basic laws of nature are extremely reliable. Otherwise you would never step out of your house for fear of floating away or stepping onto an airplane. Etc. stc…

    there is however a huge difference between faith in very reasonable (i.e not counter reason) concepts and faith in concepts that are proven or shown with strong evidence to be wrong.

    >>>> Deliberate deception implies a conscious God. If God is indeed deliberately deceiving us, ….

    Then how could you trust that following the dictates of God’s Torah is beneficial??

    Besides …is not part of your fundamental beliefs that “the seal of Hashem is Emet” or “moshe emet v’torotah emet”…i don’t understanding what you’re getting at.

  65. I am not really getting at anything..

    People who dispute the Omphalos hypothesis do it on philosophical terms only not scientific or necessarily rational...

    The truth is and this is why I wrote that I am not a rationalist - these questions are really not a problem to me.. and the deception issue just does not appear to be a problem either.. It all depends on the initial angle or outlook you take when approaching Torah and G-d.

    maybe I am just happily naive..

    I cam across a study this year that shows skepticism and happiness are inversely related..

  66. >>>> I cam across a study this year that shows skepticism and happiness are inversely related.

    Something we can 100% agree on. I have to say, I am living proof of this statement. I certainly was a lot more self-satisfied, if not necessarily happier, when i was “blissfully ignorant”.
    But, fortunately, (or unfortunately depending on your view), my make-up just didn’t allow me to believe in something that is evidently untrue. I do, however, accept that there are many that can.

  67. elemir...

    Lets say the Torah is not divine. It is a book written by different people over millenia. It is a mix of truth and falsehoods. One thing is for sure is that it has had an unprecedented effect on the world, it has an unbelievable depth of knowledge and understanding of us - human beings and an incredible beauty. This is evident from the thousands upon thousands of texts written on it and for me personally (which is why I actually became frum), particularly from Chassidus.

    All in all it is a great book to learn and learn from.

    I do not know if you do believe in G-d and if so what type of G-d you do believe in. If you don't then a Jew, other than strong genetics and ingrained or "nurtured" desire for education, is nothing special when compared to any other person. However, the Torah makes Jews who are ordinary into extraordinary people.

    The real question is knowing you are a Jew - what does that mean? What does it require of you? What can you offer humanity as a Jew?

    Maybe nothing in particular or maybe something extraordinary. And if so how do you do it?

    Have you read Jonathon Sacks book - A letter in the scroll?

    It is very interesting in that it sets out to show how a Jew only through the Torah, is extraordinary and unique and how non-Jews in particular notice this more than we do ourselves.

    Whether the Torah is true or false is irrelevant - it has proven itself over and over again to be a special guide to Jews and to humanity as is evident by just looking closely at history. This is not about beliefs.

  68. >>>>> Lets say the Torah is not divine. It is a book written by different people over millenia. It is a mix of truth and falsehoods.

    Since this statement reflects what I basically believe about the Torah, then what is wrong with trying to identify the flaws and fixing them. This is not a novel concept. After all isn’t that what Torah Sh'Baal Peh (oral tradition) is all about. It fixed the flaws in the Torah that Khazal realized needed correcting. Unfortunately we (i.e. Judaism) slowed that process down and lately it’s at a near standstill.
    >>>> One thing is for sure is that it has had an unprecedented effect on the world,

    True. And that’s one of the primary reasons I’m a shomrei Torah u’mitzvot, but at the same time I realize that’s it’s not the Torah that makes Jews what they are, its Judaism.

    >>>> it has an unbelievable depth of knowledge and understanding of us - human beings and an incredible beauty.

    Absolutely do not concur. It was written to improve upon a world as existed approx. 2500 years ago. The beauty you see is only in the eyes of the interpreters.

    >>>> This is evident from the thousands upon thousands of texts written on it

    Without which, the Torah would have been past over ages ago.

    >>>>>> However, the Torah makes Jews who are ordinary into extraordinary people.

    No, to repeat its not, its Judaism.

    >>>> What can you offer humanity as a Jew?
    It’s ironic that you should make this statement. Among other reasons, what turned me from Lubavitch was the disparagement of non-jews.

    >>>>> Whether the Torah is true or false is irrelevant - it has proven itself over and over again to be a special guide to Jews and to humanity as is evident by just looking closely at history.

    I repeat…, it’s not the Torah that did this on its own…. Its Jews and Judaism. And the continuous improvement of Judaism, but sadly we have been (near) frozen for the longest of time.

  69. elemir..

    Here we have to agree to disagree.

    The Torah gave the Jews Judaism. The Torah is supposed to be versatile and evolve within in specified context only - Talmudic logic and laws.

    I have never seen the Rebbe talk badly about non-Jews, just lubavitchers themselves which I abhor and correct when I see or hear it. This is a cultural thing from the US +/- Europe and given the Jews history it was not entirely inappropriate, although it is now.

    >The beauty you see is only in the eyes of the interpreters.

    I totally agree. It is completely dependent upon the viewpoint you take when approaching it.

  70. >>>>> The Torah gave the Jews Judaism

    The Torah may have started Judaism off and provided a very extensive foundation, but it certainly didn’t directly produce the Judaism we practice today.

    Just look at your day-to-day routines (davening, learning). Look at shabbos/yomtov, how much of the laws are found in the Torah (muktza, carrying, sewing, etc.) What percentage of what you do or don’t do is a directive from the Torah. It’s almost all rabbinical. On the other hand, we have effectively abrogated many of the the Torah's actual commandments. (karbonot, tummei, death penalty (even when we had a sanhedrin), interest, shmittah, etc.)

    And then there is the whole question of beliefs. Where in the Torah does it lay out any of the dozens of things you believe in or that one has to believe it or else, eg. messiach, olam habo, techiat hameitim, that God wrote the Torah, that Moishe was the greatest prophet, etc….

    I think it’s a bit misleading to say that Judaism=Torah. What you practice and follow is the most current rabbinical/halakhic interpretation of the Torah, plus a whole bunch of beliefs that our sages introduced over the years, a very important distinction

  71. I agree Judaism today is nothing like the old - even prior to Bayit Rishon.

    You are obliviously ignoring the Oral Torah which I believe was given at the same time as the written.

    This is where we differ - I believe in the Rabbis ( and Ruach Hakodesh)and even more so Hashgacha Pratis - nothing happens without Hashem's will.

    The Torah we have today (to me) is derived from the written Torah (and Oral) and there is an ongoing revelation of Hashem's will even today.

    Because of differences in core and essential beliefs between us - the whole argument here is a bit silly.

    If you want to relearn the beauty of the Torah learn some sichos.

  72. By the way elemir..

    Groups with your belief systems are not new and have been around many times over the thousands of years of Jewish history.

    Yet they never survived - look at what has... the things you do not believe in is what has kept Judaism going as a distinct group with an ongoing mission.

  73. Sorry.. one last note.

    I saw recently a quote:

    A Jew is someone whose grandchildren are Jewish.

    this obviously excludes those who for some reason CAN NOT have children or grandchildren.

    This definition of what is a Jew as opposed to who is a Jew is not based on beliefs nor practices. Do you fit it?

  74. We believe (i.e. accept without proof) that we received a written and an oral Torah. The oral one has been corrupted over time, as anybody who played the game of "telephone" as a child knows. We follow the mesora not because it's 100% accurate - it isn't - but because it's the only one we have, and much of the written Torah cannot be understood on its own.
    The problem isn't the Torah. It's that the people in charge of the system are a reverse Allstate - the Bad Hands People. Stupid, evil, out of touch with reality. The more I hear of their shenanigans the more disgusted I become. My son is (at least) as cynical at 27 as I am at 57. Our task is to take our Torah back and put 21st century people in charge. That's right - our Torah. It belongs to all Jews, not just to Agudat Yisrael and its gerontocracy of evil. I don't know how we're going to do this, but a necessary first step is to publicly repudiate the gerontocracy and let the Torah world know that we reject its authority and will no longer look to them for validation.

  75. Well, I see your website has attracted and become the repository for people who deny/denigrate the mesorah of Chazal (I am not referring to the "mesorah" of the current "gedolim" - I am referring to that of the Tannaim, Amoraim, and Rishonim) in the name of "rationality." This is what has become of your "movement" - are you proud? Is this what "Rationalist Judaism" represents? Not once have you repudiated any of the statements with the above denial/denigration sentiments that are contained within the comments of your website - and they are growing more and more. Readers: you should know that there are people out there with a true sense of intellectual/rational thought, who affirm the mesorah of Chazal, not deny it. And these people do not think that everything that Chazal said in the realm of science is ipso facto true. You can have rational Judaism without resorting to the pseudo-rationality of this yish'u be-divrei shakker.

  76. I noticed that you have refused to post my comment of the other day. Did I hit a little too close to home? No matter. Your underlying philosophy will soon be exposed and examined before the world of the Modern Orthodox Jewish readership, many of whom have already begun to realize that you and the clever weavers of Andersen's tale share much in common.

  77. A Fan of Rabbi SlifkinJanuary 5, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    R. Natan,

    I, too, noticed that quite a number of the recent comments on a few of the different threads here have a decided leaning toward rejecting aspects of the classical mesorah. By your not responding to those comments, while you passionately respond to comments that deny evolutionary theory, you imply (I'm sure you don't mean to do this) that challenging evolution is not OK but challenging the mesorah is OK. I am concerned that within a span of some time, you will come to be known as being on the fringes (or beyond) of Orthodox thought, even within the centrist circles. I would beg you therefore to do something to prevent this from happening.

  78. A Fan - As you may have noticed, I have not been writing any posts lately. I barely even read the comments that are posted, much less have time to respond to them. I certainly didn't read the elemir/chaim exchange.

  79. It's perfectly okay to challenge evolutionary theory, as long as you have evidence, i.e. hard data from nature, not somebody's interpretation of somebody's holy book. Aspects of the theory are challenged every day in the scientific literature, as are aspects of gravitation and electromagnetism. That is how science progresses. But the obscurantists in charge of the haredi establishment don't believe in the give-or-take of rational discourse. The lunatics took over the asylum.


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