Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My New Favorite Word

I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I don't like to use difficult words unnecessarily. I prefer that whatever I am saying or writing should be easily comprehensible; for example, I would rather say that a certain book needs to be written rather than to describe it as a scholarly desiderata. And books which use words like "ontological" do not appeal to me.

However, sometimes there is such a word for which there is no adequate simpler alternative. And I have decided that the word "epistemology" perfectly encapsulates the difference between rationalists and non-rationalists.

Epistemology refers to the concept of how knowledge is acquired. There are fundamental differences in how people reach their opinions about things, and this comes into sharp contrast with the topics of my books. How do we decide if Chazal erred in science? Do we evaluate their statements in light of science? Do we evaluate science in light of their statements? Do we look at what the Rishonim say? Do we follow what the Gedolim say? And if so, which Gedolim?

I recently noticed a long-defunct and short-lived blog, "Banned In Bnei Brak: The Natan Slifkin Controversy." It's worth taking a look at, especially the comments. The author of the blog is open about his belief that there isn't even an issue to debate with regard to who is right:

..."controversy" implies that there are two sides arguing - perhaps not of equal strength but each with it's own merits. And to pit one man against practically every Gadol - including some who initially supported him, as we shall see - is perhaps not best described as a "controversy."

It's all about epistemology.

(Hat tip - the person who shares a ride with me in the morning on Tuesdays.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Regularity of Nature

One aspect of the rationalist approach is its approach to the natural order. The rationalist approach perceives nature as a superior way for God to run the world than using miracles. Related to this is the rationalist approach of seeing the natural order as being pervasive.

…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle. (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)

When God wishes to perform miracles, He does so via causes that are the most appropriate according to natural laws…. This is because the natural order of existence was set by God in the most perfect way possible, and when necessity, due to providence, requires a change from this order, it is appropriate that God should divert from this as little as possible. Therefore God does not perform these miracles except via causes that divert very little from nature. (Ralbag, Commentary to Genesis, 6-9, HaTo’eles HaShevi’i)

For the rationalist Rishonim, the reason for believing the natural order to be pervasive was the value that they ascribed to it. For rationalists today, there is a more powerful reason - empirical confirmation. We see that the natural order is able to account for all kinds of phenomena, and we see that it has been in place for billions of years.

A perfect example of the anti-rationalist approach is presented by my former colleague Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, in this lecture on the Torah Anytime website.

(It should be noted that contrary to how Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is sometimes described by his colleagues, he does not possess a PhD in physics. Rather, his doctorate is in mathematical logic, which has nothing to do with the natural sciences. On a related note, my father z"l, who was a distinguished physicist with two doctorates, used to point out to me that mathematics has little to do with real-world phenomena, which is why when you find an someone branded as a scientist who insists that the world is several thousand years old or has some other such peculiar belief, you can be sure that he is a mathematician. I would add: or Chabad.)

Rabbi Gottlieb divides scientific pronouncements into different categories to which he attributes different levels of credibility. His main point is that science cannot make any definitive statements when it is extrapolating. He refers to extrapolations that are based on the physical constants of the universe always having been the same as being utterly baseless. Of course, the unspoken subtext to all this is that science cannot proclaim the universe to be billions of years old, and we are therefore justified in insisting it to be less than 6000 years old. However, Rabbi Gottlieb, in his categorization of scientific claims, and his discussion of the weakness of claims that are based on extrapolation, makes two egregious errors.

The first is that he sets up the discussion as one relating to physics and to the origins of the universe. He quotes Steven Weinberg as saying that "all conclusions about the universe depend on the assumption that our point is non-typical." He derides this as being a gigantic extrapolation, with no evidence, and he goes on about how "everything rests on it" (sic) and about how it is related to an atheist idea that we are not special.

But this is all utterly misleading. The issue at stake is not the Big Bang theory; it is not whether the world is 13.8 billion years old; it is not physics at all. Rather, the issue at stake is whether the universe is 5768 years old, or if it is much more than that. And for this, one does not need to engage in any complex physics regarding the origins and development of the universe, which is what Steven Weinberg was discussing. There are much more straightforward and down-to-earth lines of evidence, from geology, paleontology, archeology and so on. Christian geologists of a hundred years ago knew the world to be much more than 6000 years old long before there were any assessments of how many billions of years old it is. You can be sure that when Weinberg referred to "all conclusions about the universe," he was not talking about whether the universe is more than 5769 years old!

(Regrettably, Rabbi Dr. Leo Levi commits the same error in his book Torah & Science, describing the evidence for the age of the world as being based on carbon-dating and suchlike. But the point is not the precise age of the world; it is the antiquity of the world.)

Once you consider such down-to-earth techniques, it becomes more difficult to challenge the extrapolations. Let us consider varves as an example. These are annual layers of sediment laid down on the base of lakes. In the spring and summer, melting snow causes streams to flow with greater volume and speed, enabling them to carry coarse sediment such as sand which settles on the base of the lake. In the winter, when there is less run-off from the mountains, the streams only carry finer sediment. This is a process that can easily be observed in freshwater lakes today. Each varve therefore consists of a thin layer of light (coarse) sediment and an even thinner layer of finer dark sediment. In the Green River formation of Wyoming, there are places with twenty million such layers of sediment. Now, Rabbi Gottlieb will argue that there is no basis for extrapolating that this means that it was formed over millions of years. He would claim that the rate of run-off fluctuated much more rapidly back then. But to be produced within the time span that he wants, the rate would have had to fluctuate every few minutes. But how would this have managed to produce distinct layers?!

Even more basically, the simplest evidence that the earth is far more than a few thousand years old can be detected by the naked eye and without any special scientific skills. At thousands of locations in the world, one can find remains of extinct creatures. Such remains may include fossilized skeletons, eggs, and footprints. But in every one of these places, distinct groupings of creatures are found, depending upon which layer of rock they are found in. This shows that there were many eras of different types of animal life on the planet, which in turn shows that the world is much more than 5769 years old.

The second severe error committed by Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb is that he completely omits two vital and related methods of corroboration that are available for processes of extrapolation.

The first is cross-checking. Extrapolations can be confirmed by independent verification. For example, using ice-layers as a measure of years can be corroborated by dating deposits of ash with known volcanic eruptions. (Of course the die-hard anti-rationalist will claim that this does not have any bearing on the validity of counting ice-layers before the volcanic eruption, especially during the period of creation when the laws of nature were allegedly different. Still, it should have been mentioned.)

The second is the convergence of techniques which results in a coherent system that makes testable predictions. As I explained in my book, there are all kinds of techniques which demonstrate the antiquity of the earth - dendrochronology, varve analysis, ice-cores, paleontology, and so on. Positing that the natural world was different such that one cannot assume that ice-layers were deposited at the same rate back then, would mean that the natural world was massively different. It would mean that dendrochronology would be thrown off, varve analysis - everything. It would mean nothing less than a totally chaotic order, absolutely incomprehensible to us.

But we can see that this is not what happened. Because science works. The different methods of dating corroborate each other. They enable us to make predictions. This is how geologists earn a living! They are employed by mineral companies precisely because geology works, and it enables us to accurately predict where different deposits will be found. Paleontologists can predict which types of fossils will be found depending on what type of rock they are investigating. Instead of finding chaos, we find a very neat arrangement of fossils and sedimentary layers, with clearly distinct eras of animal life. This is why the early Christian geologists, who had formerly assumed that the deluge could account for their findings, were forced to reject this belief.

But what if everything was changed and speeded up in synchronization? Well, if all physical phenomena as we know them were sped up, then the speeding up is irrelevant. Imagine if one were to posit that the fifteenth century only lasted five minutes, as all physical processes occurred much more quickly than usual. Would this be meaningful in any way? If virtually everything is being sped up, then effectively nothing is being sped up.

There is much, much more that can be said about this topic, but I'll leave it at this for now, aside from some final observations on the latter part of the lecture.

Making a similar error to that which he committed with regard to the age of the universe, Rabbi Gottlieb claims that evolution is all (sic) about extrapolating from micro-evolution to macro-evolution. No, it isn't! He has neglected the fossil record, the nested hierarchical pattern of classification, vestigial limbs, and so on. And of course, in his claim that macro-evolution is scientifically baseless, he does not let on that he believes in spontaneous generation (as per Chazal), which is much more radical than macro-evolution.

It is tragically ironic that Rabbi Gottlieb laments that "if only scientists were a little open-minded." He, of course, is not open-mindedly evaluating the evidence, since he a priori considers it heretical to believe that the world is billions of years old or that evolution occurred. Kol haposel bemumo posel. But perhaps the greatest irony in Rabbi Gottlieb's protest against extrapolations is that his most famous presentation about the basis of emunah - the testimony from Sinai - rests on the premise that you can extrapolate from the mesorah, thought-processes and critical skills of people today to people who lived 3000 years ago!

The lecture involves a maximum of scientific jargon, which doubtless impresses the audience; it is unclear if they are expected to understand it. But overall, the lecture is inaccurate and misleading. Some people praise it as the Complete Chareidi Idiots' Guide to Torah and Science. That's an interesting way of putting it...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chazal and Science

I heard that R. Reuven Schmeltzer of Monsey, who was one of the arrangers of the ban on my books, has published a new sefer which insists that not only were Chazal infallible on science, but further that there is absolutely no legitimate alternate point of view. He also put together the notorious kuntrus on this topic that was printed at the beginning of R. Moshe Shapiro's Afikei Mayim, which I responded to here and here.
This is probably a good time to advertise a phenomenal website put together by my friend R. David Sidney, which lists and categorizes many sources from Chazal, Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim which state that Chazal were not infallible in science. The list can be found here. I recently sent him a new source:

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Feinstein
(1821-1903; Lithuania), Shiltei Hagiborim, Sela Hamachlekot 2:

ר' אריה לייב פיינשטיין, שלטי הגבורים, סלע המחלקות, ב (ווראשא, תר"ס); ז"ל

Hebrew text available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/31346, pp. 74-76 (HebrewBooks pagination).

To this category [of dispute] belong also Talmudic disputes regarding knowledge of the world and of nature. For it is known that most of the tannaim and amoraim were knowledgeable in all disciplines, as many gentile scholars testified (Me’or Einayim, Imrei Vina), and as the contemporary scholar R. Y.M. Rabinowitz has demonstrated in his book, Mevo Hatalmud. Notwithstanding that most of the knowledge of the world and of nature has already been discovered by scientists, with clear demonstrations and reliable experiments, there are still many things that have not been reliably determined. With regard not merely to specific details, but to general approaches and broad theories as well, the opinions of scholars still diverge, with different scholars adopting differing approaches. Therefore it is not surprising if in the Talmud, too, there are disputes in matters of nature, even regarding matters that have now been clarified through new experiments. There are therefore many disputes regarding tereifot [i.e., which physical injuries are fatal], salting [of animals], mixtures [of permissible and forbidden foods], the laws of niddah, pregnancy and nursing, which all relate to the disciplines of physics, chemistry and medicine. Even now, with our own eyes, we see that there are disputes between prominent physicians about major issues, like bacteria, for example. There is no reason for surprise at the existence of disputes among Chazal, in their days, before the various disciplines, including the sciences, developed. Similarly there are many disputes in matters of seeds and saplings, which are rooted in the knowledge of the abilities and the nature of plants (botany). This is especially true in matters related to astronomy, which, as is known, was not well understood in the times of Chazal, before later generations investigated and established it using telescopes.... Early gentile scholars, as well as Chazal, in their day, believed the earth to be flat, in contradiction to what has now become clear through compelling demonstrations and the testimony of those who have circumnavigated the earth—that the earth is spherical. They also accepted the Ptolemaic view of the sun’s motion, against the Copernican model which has now been proven with compelling demonstrations. Therefore we find that both the sages of Israel and the gentile sages were of two minds regarding whether the sun revolves above or below the earth and regarding the orbit of the constellations, until one time the gentile sages agreed with the Jewish sages, and one time the opposite. The dispute we quoted earlier between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding the sanctification of the new moon is not surprising, even though they were both great in intellectual reasoning, because the various disciplines had not yet been researched, and they used reasoning and hypotheses founded upon comparison and analogy, without demonstrative experiments. However, in matters founded upon pure intellectual reasoning (pure mathematics), like the reckoning of measurements and triangles, and in inferences proven with physical trials, there is no dispute amongst the sages. If one or many sages made an error in such matters, the rest of the sages quickly determined that it was not so; it did not enter into the study hall as a matter of dispute at all—just as they at once contradicted and immediately rejected the rabbis of Caesarea (at the beginning of tractate Sukkah) who said that [the area of] a circle that is inscribed within a square is [less than the latter by] a half [sic], when it is not so, for we can see that that is not accurate.

[Translation by DES.]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Torah u'Madda - The Wrong Term?

Here is a letter that I received from a colleague regarding my "In Defense Of My Opponents: Postscript":

I was just catching up a little on what's been going on on the internet in the past several months. I read your truly excellent postscript, and I have an opinion to offer. Do not use the term Torah Umadda.

Torah Umadda (TU) is a loaded term. Many people who identify as being to the right of Yeshiva University but who have no problem with your ideas would viscerally, and sometimes not just viscerally, react negatively to the term TU, which they would not construe to mean whatever exactly you mean by it. Furthermore, and no less significantly, to many Y.U. undergraduates, semicha students, alumni and rashei yeshiva, TU connotes an ideology and/or an ideological and sociological subgroup to which they are opposed more or less definitely. Many, many people who are or have been affiliated with Y.U. get wary and uncomfortable when the term TU is thrown about. It comes with all sorts of baggage.

Part of the problem is that it's ambiguous. I have never read Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's book entitled TU, but apparently he presents numerous different possible meanings of it. My perception is that many people who claim to espouse the ideology don't really have a clear idea of what they're espousing. They're passionately supportive of TU because they perceive it to be an ideology that encompasses (and, hence, justifies) their own personal and independently held beliefs; not because they can articulate what the ideology actually is and adhere to the ideology. The ideology, rather, adheres to them.

To many, TU suggests the view that study of Torah and of secular wisdom are both so essential to the religious life of the modern Jew that there is some ambiguity as to whether one is more highly valued than the other. I doubt you intend anything like that when you use the term, but rest assured, some will so construe it.

I believe that perhaps the most crucial flashpoint with regard to TU is that many who espouse it believe, consciously or unwittingly, not only that both Torah study and study of secular wisdom are important to pursue, and that both ought to inform our understanding of the world, but that Torah, on the one hand, and secular wisdom (and, often, "modernity"), on the other, are sources of values. These values can come into conflict, and if they do, it is not always obvious that the values dictated by Torah trump those dictated by Madda. This is not a position I hold; I think it is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism. I think there are many people at Y.U. who share both this understanding of TU and my objection to it. All of those people will be more or less alienated by your use of it. It goes without saying that those to the right of Y.U. will feel disenfranchised.

An additional reason not to use the term, in my view, is that it is most definitely associated with an institution. TU is Y.U.'s motto. It is on their logo, their stationery, their publicity and press releases, and at their events. Y.U. is a fine institution, but it's quite limiting, indeed pigeon-holing, to present the ideological gulf in Judaism today as existing between Chareidi society and Yeshiva University, which is, effectively, what many people will understand if you use the term TU.

Those are my thoughts. And, by the way, I agree very much with your analysis of the ideological state of today's orthodox Jewish world. I find the word "epistemology" (Oxford: the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods and validation) very useful in discussing it. I think much of the intellectual disparity between the different camps boils down to differences in epistemology: different groups start off with different fundamental axioms from which they derive the rest of their knowledge. If you start from the axiomatic premise that everything in Tanach and the Talmud must be true, you will arrive at one set of conclusions. If you start instead with the base axiom that human reason is the path to knowledge, some of your conclusions will differ from those in the first set. (This does not preclude your believing Tanach and/or the Talmud to be invariably or almost invariably reliable sources of information.) I find it useful on occasion to engage in discussion -- or debate -- with someone whose epistemology differs from my own, not because I think I can convince him to arrive at my conclusions using his epistemology, but to demonstrate to him either (a) that his epistemology is inconsistent or otherwise flawed, or (b) that I believe what I believe not because I am incorrectly applying the axioms he has assumed everyone applies, but because I have, in fact, a different set of axioms -- which he must persuade me to abandon if he wishes to convince me of his position. It is usually illuminating for someone to identify the fundamental source of his disagreement with another, and, as you say, it can often ease tension and increase understanding, if not consensus.

Defining Rationalism

There is a lot of confusion about the term "rationalism." What is a rationalist? The differences between rationalists and non-rationalists fall into three categories:

• KNOWLEDGE - Considering it as legitimately obtained ourselves via our own reasoning and senses, and considering that it should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

• NATURE - Valuing a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceiving a consistent natural order over history, past and future.

• THE SERVICE OF GOD - Understanding the role of mitzvos and one’s religious life in general as furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society rather than the mechanistic manipulation of spiritual or celestial forces.

(This primarily refers the medieval rationalists of Sefarad, in contrast to the non-rationalist approach that subsequently emerged.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rav Elyashiv on Modesty

Someone sent me the following video:

elyashiv3 from elimand on Vimeo.

A transcript of the conversation (which does not appear to include all the nuances) can be found here.

I have so many questions about this video, I hardly know where to begin. I find the attitude of the questioner extremely puzzling; it seems to me that he is incredibly patronizing towards Rav Elyashiv and relatively disinterested in what Rav Elyashiv actually answers, moving immediately to his next question. Is this my imagination?

And did Rav Elyashiv say that a Beis Din appointed by the Gedolim would be halachically binding on all Klal Yisroel?! Which Gedolim would have to be in that Beis Din for this to be true? Would there have to be Sefardim or Chassidim? Did he say that this applies to dictates regarding tzniyus that are issued by the "Mishmar haTorah" Beis Din under discussion? It's not clear to me.

Does anyone have any light to shed on any of this?

Monday, May 11, 2009


You can now reach this blog at the address www.rationalistjudaism.com
(Typing www.rationalistjudaism.blogspot.com will also get you here.)

Arguments vs. Discussions, II

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on dinosaurs. When I explained why I don't believe that God planted the fossils, one person started to strenuously argue. I noticed that he wore a jacket, hat tilted back, no tie, and a beard that had never been shaved.
"You're Chabad, right?" I asked.
Yes, he replied.
"So you're arguing this position because it was the Rebbe's position, right?" I asked.
Yes, he replied.
"Is there any circumstance under which you would say that the Rebbe was wrong?" I asked.
No, of course not, he said.
"So there's absolutely no point in having this argument!" I pointed out.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Evolution, part 1: Extinction

I plan to post a variety of material relating to evolution. This post will begin with the topic of extinction.

For Biblical literalists and traditionalists, finding fossils of extinct creatures came as rather a nasty shock. In classical Jewish thought, there is no reference to extinct creatures, at most only one of the two Leviathans and Behemoths. The Rishonim all explained that one component of Divine Providence is that species are kept in existence; the Sefer HaChinnuch insisted that no type of animal ever goes extinct.

The discovery of fossils of all kinds of extinct creatures therefore presented a challenge. For rationalists, there isn't much of a difficulty in formulating a response. Yes, the evidence clearly shows that there have been many species of creatures that went extinct long ago. The Torah does not mention them, but there is no reason for it to do so; it was not relevant or meaningful to the generation that received the Torah. As for classical theories of divine providence, they simply have to be revised in light of this new information.

However, for traditionalists, literalists and mystics, such a response is not so easy. How can Torah, which incorporates all wisdom, make no mention of all these creatures? How could the Rishonim be incorrect with their explanations of providence?

Netziv thus resorted to explaining that these creatures were all the result of prohibited cross-breeding performed by the generation of the Deluge. However, few are willing to present this answer today (although one of my rebbeim in my yeshivah in Manchester taught me this explanation). Likewise, there are those who claim that all fossils are simply the fabrications of paleontologists, but even within the traditionalist camp, many are reluctant to make such claims.

R. Yisrael Lifschitz proposed that these creatures were from previous worlds that the Midrash describes as God having created and destroyed. But his answer was problematic for a variety of reasons; primarily, because that Midrash does not appear to be referring to different eras of life on our planet (for more details, see The Challenge Of Creation).

As far as I am aware, nobody else from the traditionalist/ literalist camp has addressed the problem of extinction. But the truth is, probably most of them don't even realize that, quite aside from the issues of the age of the universe and evolution, fossils of extinct creatures inherently pose a challenge to traditionalists.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Arguments vs. Discussions

I try very hard not to get involved in arguments, only discussions.

Discussions are with people who are of the same broad ideological background and reach conclusions with the same methodology. In a discussion, I might start off by disagreeing with the other person, but by having the discussion, one of us might be able to convince the other.

Arguments are with people who are from a different ideological background and reach conclusions with a different methodology. In such arguments, it almost never happens that one side convinces the other. They are generally a waste of time; the only benefits can be if (a) they are public and there is value to teaching the observers, or (b) if one wants to sharpen one's own thoughts.

I sometimes succumb to temptation, but I try my best to only get involved in discussions, not arguments.

(This post is in preparation for future posts.)