Monday, June 29, 2009

"I don't understand" - or do I?

The discussion about disputes over approach/ content being misleadingly labeled as disputes over "tone" began with Rabbi Seinfeld's comments to an earlier post, when he made statements such as the following:

In these discussions of Torah and science, is anything lost by pointing out a stira between science and a maamer chazal with those humble words, "I don't understand this Gamara"?
To do so doesn't sacrifice one iota of critical thinking - nor does it sacrifice kavod.

In a post referencing my response, R. Josh Waxman made the following excellent comments:

I would say that the person he is responding to is being silly. It is not a matter of mere tone to refuse to come to a conclusion. And saying "I don't understand the gemara" is not the same as saying "I understand the gemara in accordance with the Rishonim that Chazal can err in science." This is no mere difference in "tone." It is unfortunate that "frumkeit" and false modesty make people believe that they are not allowed to think.

And meanwhile, if one refuses to come to a conclusion out of piety, there is little to no chance of making use of a conclusion. And understanding that, and how, Chazal made use of contemporary science is potentially extremely useful in coming to understand the correct peshat in countless gemaras.

Furthermore, so many of these non-rationalists are under the mistaken impression that saying Chazal relied on contemporary science and thus erred on occasion detracts from Chazal. In fact, it is just the opposite! I have greater respect for them for this. They did not close their minds to evidence and to knowledge from secular sources, thinking that scientific statements about the world from centuries past were Divinely given. Rather, we see from explicit examples and many implicit examples that they looked to contemporary science. They believed in Torah UMaddah on some level! Which we rationalists respect greatly, even as some non-rationalists do not. That occasionally, or frequently, this led to adopting mistaken positions is no reflection on the piety, or the intelligence of those who held these up-to-date scientific positions.

And it's appropriate to see how Rav Hirsch approached such topics:

In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.
Nowadays too it is enough for the non-specialist to know about any of these areas of knowledge whatever contemporary experts teach that is generally accepted as true. This applies to the lawyer vis-a-vis all other areas, to the mathematician and the astronomer regarding the natural sciences, and to the expert on flora regarding all other areas. We expect none of them to seek out the truth and satisfy his inclinations in any field other than his own specialty.
Moreover, even in the area where one is an expert, it is neither possible for him nor expected of him to know everything through personal investigation and experience. Most of his knowledge rests upon the investigations of others. If they have erred it is not his fault. It is sufficient and praiseworthy if his knowledge encompasses all that is accepted as true at his time and place and generation. The greatness of his wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. The greatest of them knew all the wisdom and science of all the great non-Jewish scholars whose wisdom and teachings became famous in their generations.
Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh, and his report had been accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of defilement and decontamination apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day.
The Talmud in Bova Kama declares “A human spine, after seven years, turns into a snake; this applies only if he did not kneel at Modim. “ Anyone who reads this finds it laughable, but Pliny says the same statement almost word for word, “After a number of years the human spine turns into a snake.” Chazal, however, used this to teach a mussor lesson. To any mind it is clear that every similarly surprising statement of Chazal, if we look into it, was accepted as true by the scholars of the time.
We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reasons for Mitzvos

One of the differences between rationalist and non-rationalist schools of the thought is the issue of reasons for mitzvos. This is sharply brought to light when one compares the following comments of Netziv with Rambam. (If anyone can tell me how to better format the layout of the Hebrew text I would appreciate it.)

First we have Netziv:

העמק דבר על שמות פרק כ פסוק יב
באמת אין לשבח מ"ע של כיבוד או"א שהוא מדת החסד יותר ממ"ע של מחיית עמלק או איבוד עה"נ שהוא אכזריות ושניהם אינם אלא חוקים וגזירות מנותן התורה ית' וכדאי' בברכות דל"ג ב'. אלא באשר אנו רואים מצות כיבוד או"א שהיא מתקבלת על שכל אנושי ג"כ. עלינו ללמוד ממנה למק"א. ובזה הדרך המה כל טעמי המצות אינם אלא לקרב אל השכל ג"כ. אבל חלילה לחשוב שזה עיקר דעת נותן התורה ית'.

He states that “...all the reasons for mitzvos are only to make them appealing to the intellect... but Heaven forbid to think that they are actually the main intent of the Giver of the Torah…”

Now let us see what Rambam writes:

There are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them. According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. vi. 24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (ḥuḳḳim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. iv. 6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits. All this depends on three things: opinions, morals, and social conduct. We do not count words, because precepts, whether positive or negative, if they relate to speech, belong to those precepts which regulate our social conduct, or to those which spread truth, or to those which teach morals. Thus these three principles suffice for assigning a reason for every one of the Divine commandments. (Guide 3:31, Friedlander translation)

The contrast is remarkable!

(Cue the creative reinterpretations to harmonize them...)

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Tone" or Approach?

When the first cherem on some of my books came out (signed by just four rabbonim), and the reasons for it were initially very unclear, there were all kinds of guesses as to what the problem was. At the time I had a meeting with about a dozen rabbonim in a certain city in the U.S. who were very disturbed by the situation. We all sat around the table and they attempted to guess what was going on and how to resolve it. The conclusion that they came to was that the problem was with the "tone" of my books and that it could be resolved by rewriting them in such a way as to fix the "tone."

As the fiasco grew ever larger, and Rav Elyashiv became involved, it became very clear that the objection to my books was primarily due to my quoting the position of Rambam and numerous others that in some cases Chazal made statements about the natural world that were incorrect. Most of the rabbonim to ban my books did not read them and many cannot even read English; they were not in a position to have been judging the tone. In any case, they made it clear, in their written statements and oral communications, that they were objecting to the shittah itself.

And yet, despite the completely unambiguous explanation of their position given by these rabbonim, many people continued to insist that the problem was not the essential content but rather the "tone." I was very puzzled by this, but I gradually figured out what was going on.

I started asking people, "Could you give me an example? Point to a specific sentence which has a problematic 'tone,' and suggest how it could be changed in such a way that the essential position remains the same."

Nobody ever gave a single example.

It seems to me that what was happening was as follows. All these people were subconsciously deeply uncomfortable with most or all of the following:

1) The idea that Chazal could be mistaken;
2) The idea that some of the phenomena described by Chazal, such as mud-mice, could be real;
3) The statement of the Rishonim that Chazal could be mistaken;
4) The idea that the Rishonim/ Acharonim could have been saying something heretical;
5) The idea that the Gedolim could be saying that the Rishonim/ Acharonim were wrong.

How could someone reconcile all these uncomfortable ideas? The solution was that instead of engaging with the sugyas, or the views of the Rishonim, or saying that the Gedolim were disputing the Rishonim, instead one could claim ambiguously that the problem was with the "tone." The Gedolim weren't disputing the Rishonim (despite their repeated insistence that they were!) - they were only disputing Slifkin's presentation.

All this is very clear in the comments made by Rabbi Seinfeld to the previous post. He repeatedly insists that the problem with my books is the "tone." However, it is also clear that he refuses to say that Chazal erred in science. Faced with Chazal's statement about mice growing from dirt, he would insist on saying "that we either don't understand Chazal, we don't know the science, or there has been an error in the transmission of Chazal's statement." He would refuse to adopt Rav Hirsch's conclusion, itself based on the position of countless Rishonim and Acharonim, that they were mistaken.

This is not an objection to "tone." It is an objection to the essential approach.

(In truth, anyone who considers the notion of Chazal’s scientific fallibility to be a genuinely problematic belief is obviously going to find the tone of such statements unacceptable; whereas someone who considers this belief perfectly legitimate, and certainly someone who maintains it himself, will have a very different opinion of the “tone.”)

An alternate solution to the cognitive dissonance engendered by the five factors listed above is to claim (as does Rabbi Seinfeld in the previous post, as an alternative theory) that the Gedolim's stance was "for the sake of a greater exigency, nothing to do with the truth of your claims" - despite the repeated insistence of the Gedolim that they do indeed dispute the truth of my claims! (note: his theory may well be true, in part, of some of them, but not of all of them.)

All this relates to an earlier post of mine about respecting people. I think that it demonstrates a lack of respect to misrepresent people's positions in order to make them more palatable. One should, at the very least, respect the Gedolim enough to accurately convey their position. The Gedolim object to my approach. Which is not my approach at all, but rather that of the rationalist-leaning Rishonim and Acharonim.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mortal Difficulties

Here is a letter that I received today:

While I have not thoroughly read all of your books, as it seems to be harder and harder to acquire, I have read your website, blogs, and various essays. I also read all of the material under the “controversy” link and while I agree with how you go about repudiating your opponents, one element has bothered me, acting as the impetus for my need to pen down my misgivings and forward them to you.

While Gedolim do not hold Papal sway and are prone to error, we (at least in the chareidi community) are directed to take their every move as sacred. We are taught not to question, nor disagree as we are not capable of seeing the “whole picture” as they are.

As I grew older this has bothered me as I consider myself to be “more worldly” than 80% (just a rough estimate) of the Gedolim printed in Yated; yet I have never considered questioning them in line with the teachings of my youth.

After reading your blog and controversy link I feel compelled to change my views and it has become harder and harder for me to swallow what they say at face value. Am I to listen to someone who from a Torah perspective is more knowledgeable than I am, yet in the area under discussion they are my equal?

I have always had trouble understanding the Gemara “hafach bu hafach d’kula bu” as we see that it is not true, as you have shown in your books that Talmudic figures used modern day science.

In light of what I have written I have to tell you that while you may be 100% correct and those who called you heretical are wrong and they will pay for it, I still consider the path you have taken to be equally damaging to a large number of Yeshiva students.

Am I required to understand every statement the Gedolim make? While I don’t understand them am I to ignore my instincts and my knowledge for the “bigger picture?” Or shall I take what they say as sacred and while they are not infallible, to my relatively small brain I should ignore my premonition? In light of your website I now choose the former; so while my decisions may be more informed, nevertheless, life is more difficult viewing the Gedolim as mere mortals and not giving them the Papal clout they have had in my eyes for the past twenty years of my life.

Here is what I wrote back:

First of all, if you have not yet read, you should do so.
It is certainly challenging to change one's approach to the topic of rabbinic authority. But you should find a Rav whom you personally respect and can forge a connection with.
Incidentally, you can buy expanded editions of the banned books (entitled The Challenge Of Creation and Sacred Monsters) at
Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Guaranteed by Dovid HaMelech!"

Check out this mind-boggling flyer at Chaptzem.

Money quotes:

"guaranteed (sic) by Dovid HaMelech"

"How can you possibly ensure the safety of your family?"

Tzedakah is a great thing, but there is a real risk here that it can lead people to be negligent about their hishtadlus. I remember after the Versailles tragedy in Talpiot, hearing a rav lament how some people were claiming that it was due to lack of tzniyus, etc. He said, "It happened because people think that they can short-cut safety regulations! Venishmartem me'od lenafshosechem is also a mitzvah!"

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Dangers of (Anti/) Rationalism

R' Chaim B. of DivreiChaim was recently pointing to several dangers of rationalism:

Taking it too far - Some people take rationalist methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah.
Too much independence - The rationalist push towards people making their own analyses and drawing their own conclusions means that sometimes, even those who are not qualified to do so make their own (faulty) conclusions.
Weakening respect for Torah sages - By showing that they could have erred scientifically, the rationalist approach risks undermining our respect for Torah sages.

I completely agree with R' Chaim's concerns. They are absolutely valid and I have pointed them out in my books. In fact, it is precisely for these reasons that I do not try to make non-rationalists into rationalists. (I see my mission as showing closet rationalists that there is a place for them in Judaism.)

However, for the sake of balance, I think that it is important to show the other side of the picture - the dangers of anti-rationalism.

Taking it too far - Some people take mystical methodology too far and end up denying ikkarei emunah, e.g. by effectively attributing independent power to different mystical forces, or making God into discrete parts. Behind all the flowery terminology, it's polytheism. Alternately/ additionally, some people end up denying obvious scientific facts, e.g. the shape of the world, the number of teeth that non-Jews have, spontaneous generation, which can drive people away from Judaism.
Too little independence - The non-rationalist push towards people placing their trust in others means that sometimes, they end up placing their trust in those who make faulty conclusions and there is no way of their being corrected.
Weakening respect for Torah sages - By claiming that they were scientifically omniscient, the non-rationalist approach risks fundamentally undermining people's respect for them when they find out that this simply isn't true; they have been led to believe that being scientifically infallible is an integral part of their greatness, and if they are proved scientifically fallible, it means that they were not great.

My, How Many Teeth You Have!

Rabbi Josh Waxman has a fascinating post about Rav Chaim Kanievsky's view on Jews and non-Jews having a different number of teeth: link

Thursday, June 18, 2009

DISrespecting Rishonim

Following on from my previous post about respecting Rishonim, I would like to point out a curious fact about disrespecting Rishonim.

It is clear that many people consider it unacceptably disrespectful to claim that Rishonim made a scientific error i.e. they were unaware of the later revelations of science.

However, many of these same people consider it perfectly acceptable to say that certain Rishonim were unaware of the later revelations of kabbalah.

This is despite the fact that the former position merely means that their science was flawed, whereas the latter position means that their Judaism was flawed (according to these people, in a very fundamental way).

Strange, no?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Respecting Rishonim

Which is a more respectful approach towards a Rishon whose view one finds deeply problematic:

(A) Quoting him, explaining why he took this view, and respectfully explaining why one disagrees with his view and prefers the view of other Rishonim.

(B) Sharply criticizing the approach itself without letting on that it was the view of this Rishon.

Other alternatives are possible, but of these two options, which is more respectful? I would unhesitatingly say that the former is more respectful (aside from being more intellectually honest). After all, if one truly respects someone, one entitles them to having their position aired in their name even if one disagrees with it. But others genuinely feel that the latter is more respectful, since if their view is now seen as problematic, one should not shame them by letting it be known that they felt this way, and furthermore one should not be giving one's own reasons for disagreeing with a Rishon.

I would welcome people's thoughts on this matter.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Translation of B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah II

(This is the second and final part of the translation of small parts of B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah that I did a few years ago. The complete Hebrew work can be downloaded here.)

The word “day” can also be explained as a period… There are many different scientific proofs, via precise methods that are tried and tested… that millions of years have elapsed… It is folly to think that it is all falsehood.

The Formation of Man

When the Torah says “And God created the man” it does not refer to one person whose personal name was “Adam.” “The Man,” with the definitive “the,” is the name of the species, as in the previous verse, “Let us make man in our image, as our form, and he shall reign over the fish of the sea etc.” – “Adam” is not a personal name, but refers to the species of man. Similarly, in the continuation, “And Hashem, God, formed the man of dust from the earth, and He breathed the spirit of life into his nostrils, and man became as a living soul.” The description of the formation of man from the dust is by way of allegory and parable. The Holy One did not take a spoonful of dirt and knead it with water, as children do in kindergarten. The “dust” here is raw material, from which animals were also formed.

…Regarding the basic understanding [of Seforno], that the creation of man in the image of God was the end of a long process, which originated in a non-intelligent being, belonging to the category of animals, which continually developed until it received human intellect, and in parallel the physiological form of man that is familiar to us – it is reasonable that this is the correct description. The proof of Darwin, and of the paleontologists, for the existence of earlier stages such as this, seems convincing. The mistake of Darwin is the overall perspective which avoids the question of how changes came about. But with recognition of the Divine will that acts in nature via the medium of angels – we have no need to deny the description of events according to how scientific investigation presents them. There are archeological finds of skeletons of bipeds with small skulls, whose brain could not have been like the brain of man that is familiar to us. The man about which it said, “Let us make man in our image” is the final stage of this staged development.

Gan Eden

“And Hashem, God, planted a garden in Eden in the east, and he placed man, that he had formed, there…” – the species of man, which was formed in the sixth period of the days of Bereishis as an androgynous intelligent and reproducing being. It is reasonable that there were many people scatted in the lengths of the world. Perhaps they had reached America. However, they were unimportant, and the Torah does not mention them at all. In one place, in Eden, that is to say, in the choice land (from the terminology ednah), God placed the choicest of the human species. Over time, He planted there pleasant and goodly trees, possessing good and beneficial characteristics (segulos).
“And the snake was more cunning than all the beasts of the field…” – Here all the commentaries alert us to the fact of it speaking by way of allegory. Animals do not talk, and they do not engage in dialogue with people. The snake is the Satan, which is the Angel of Death, which is the evil inclination…
“And man called the name of his wife Chavah, for she was the mother of all life…” – Just as “Adam” is the name of the species, so too “Chavah” is the name of women in general, of every woman, who is the mother and source for all life that is born and continues from her. There were many men before this man, that the Torah also calls by the personal name of “Adam,” and that Chazal call by the name of Adam HaRishon. Likewise, there were many women before this woman whose personal name was “Chavah.” But they were significant, and concerning them there was a point in the Torah telling us of them…

“And the man knew Chavah his wife”… “The man” is the name of the species, and “Chavah” is also a general name for woman, as above, but here it refers to the specific man and woman who began to live outside of the Garden of Eden, and they gave birth to Kayin and Hevel.

Friday, June 12, 2009

IMPORTANT CORRECTION Re: The Kannoim Strike Again

Earlier today I noted that B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah has been removed from, and I said that I presumed that this was as a result of protests by kannoim.
I was contacted by a representative of who said that the removal of B'Toraso Shel R Gedaliah was not at the behest of kannoim who were bothered by its content, but rather because there were complaints that Rav Shilat's sefer was not authorized or approved by Rav Nadel's family. HebrewBooks does not want to get involved in complex rights issues and therefore removed the sefer.
I am glad that this was the reason, and I wish HebrewBooks continued success in their incredible work.

Meanwhile, if you missed downloading the sefer, I have another scan of it available here, with the approval of Rav Shilat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Interesting and Relevant Links

Heretic hunts and children's literature at Avakesh

Divrei Chaim is perplexed as to why one wouldn't choose to explain the Gemara in a way that doesn't involve scientific error. Be sure to read the comments! Also see Rabbi Josh Waxman's post in reponse.

Rabbi Josh Waxman also discusses the Gra's view of the earth being flat here and in a follow-up here.

The Opposition to B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah

Someone asked for more details about the opposition to B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah, so I am posting the notice that came out:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Translation of B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah I

Here is the first part of a translation of parts of B'Toraso Shel R' Gedaliah that I did some years ago:

Rav Nadel on Bereishis

The parashiyos of Bereishis and Noach, according to the shiurim of the Gaon Rav Gedalyah Nadel shlita
Transcribed by Professor Yitzchak Shilat, internally, for the participants of the shiur.


The Torah is not a book of history, science or philosophy. The Torah is a book with goals of mussar. From everything in the Torah, one can learn mussar haskel. Together with this, when we find narratives of events in the Torah, we must understand that the Torah is speaking truth. A true story, about events that happened and about people that existed, makes a far greater impression upon a person than legendary accounts about things that never existed and were never created; for example, the accounts of the forefathers, gedolim and tzaddikim, act as a sign for their descendants, and their mussar influence is powerful, when they are known as true accounts. The better we know the heroes of the stories and the circumstances, the ethical message is all the more powerful. Furthermore, even if it could be a fictional account by way of “he never existed and was never created but was a parable” (which according to one opinion was the nature of Iyov) – this is when the matter never occurred, and the intent was to transfer a specific ethical/ philosophical concept by way of allegory. But the events of Genesis did exist in some sense, and there is no reason to say that the Torah diverted from the truth, and told us false accounts, in order to teach us ethical/ philosophical concepts. It is certain that there is what to learn from the events of the acts of God as they were. And furthermore, even the awareness of the truth in and of itself is an ethical value.

However, in the course of the Torah’s account one should distinguish between matters that are as their simple meaning, and matters that are not as their simple meaning. The Torah and the books of the Prophets are full of allegories, as Rambam taught us in his introduction to The Guide For The Perplexed. One should especially pay attention to this with the matters of the acts of Genesis, which are deep and cryptic matters. Not only in Scripture, but also in the Aggadic words of Chazal there are many things that are by way of allegory and parable. In truth, in every statement, words cannot say everything. This is impossible; one always requires some assumptions concerning the context. Words that in and of themselves can be understood in many ways, and even to one thing and its exact opposite, for example according to the intonation of the word, for that statement itself can be said calmly and it can be said in astonishment, and it will of course mean the opposite. But nevertheless, there is an understanding that we refer to as matters according to their plain meaning, and there is an understanding that matters are by way of allegory and parable, and there are also many ways in which this can be so. Sometimes, the allegory is an account where the events of it are not the primary concern, and sometimes the related events did indeed exist as stated, but they come to reach about matters that are beyond their simple meaning. Sometimes the account is with words that are not as their literal meaning, but by expanded or borrowed meaning.

Distinguishing between matters that are as their simple meaning and matters that are by way of parable and allegory – this is the primary goal for which Rambam compiled The Guide For The Perplexed. In the introduction to the work, Rambam states that the matters that he busies himself with in the book are “the wisdom of the Torah in its truth.” (In the yeshivos they engage in pilpul on every halachah in the Rambam, but regarding the matters concerning which Rambam states that they are the wisdom of the Torah in its truth – which are included in the books of Mada and The Guide For The Perplexed- they do not seriously relate to them at all. This is chutzpah with regard to the Rambam.) The Rambam states that the work was not compiled for those who busy themselves with Talmud alone, but rather for those enquirers who have also learned the wisdoms of knowing reality, and they know to distinguish between that which must be so, that which is impossible and that which is possible. These people find in the Torah things that if they are understood according to their simple meaning – they are impossible according to rational thought, and they are therefore in great confusion, for on the one hand they are convinced in the truth of that which is clear by way of the intellect, and on the other hand they are convinced of the truth of the Torah, both due to tradition and reception, and due to recognizing the deep wisdom that is embodied in Torah in many places that are known to them – and which of them must they abandon? Should they throw rational thought in the garbage? This cannot be a satisfactory solution. Should they say that that which is written in the Torah is not true? This can also not be accepted, for the wisdom of the Torah and its truth cannot be given to division. These are the perplexed for whom the work is aimed. The Rambam describes their confusion in a very real and emotional way, with heartache. Although he writes prose and not verse, his words are read with arousal.

One should realize that with the knowledge of that which must be so, that which is impossible and that which is possible, one could fall into error. Human knowledge is developing, and there are things that were once considered true, and were later overturned… In general, no person has definitive knowledge regarding anything in the physical world… Even regarding certain things that Rambam thought to be correct from a scientific perspective, these are known today as mistaken, and he would certainly admit this to us… That which convinces the intellect, according to the knowledge and givens of a person in his respective situation, force a person.

The solution that Rambam gives to the aforementioned perplexed person is that there are things in the Torah that are not as their simple meaning, but rather need to be understood by way of allegory and parable. The problem is that these matters are not always easily understood. There are those things in which the allegory is obvious, and are begging to be understood in this way, and there are those matters that are in doubt. The decision in this matter is a rational one: Is the matter that is causing us to think that it is allegorical necessarily the case? If so – we will explain the verses as allegory, and if not, we have no cause to remove them from their literal simple meaning. We never have to choose between relying on the intellect and relying on the Torah….

The perplexity that Rambam presents in such a beautiful and emotional way is due to the difference between the verses which according to their literal meaning give physical form to the Creator and the philosophical knowledge that the Creator has no physical body. Nowadays, we have already forgotten this. Distancing ourselves from attributing physical form, which in those days was not so clear to everyone (see the words of the Ra’avad), does not pose a problem today. We have different problems, and these are the contradictions between the simple meaning of Scripture and scientific knowledge…

And again: the Torah does not teach us an organized professional discipline. If you want to learn a professional discipline – don’t expect that the Torah will teach it to you, go and learn it in a place where they teach professional disciplines. The Torah does not teach how to be a shoemaker. It teaches how to act… If the Torah teaches us about the creation of the world in ten utterances – this is as the Tanna said in Avos: “With ten utterances the world was created. What does this come to teach us – surely it could have been created with one utterance? Rather, it was to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, and to bestow goodly reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten utterances.” That is to say: see what a beautiful and sophisticated world was created and prepared for you; you, man, the conclusion of the acts of Genesis, and take care that you do not destroy it. “Take care that you do not damage and destroy my world” (Koheles Rabbah 7). How do we destroy the world or establish it – the Torah proceeds to tell us. This is the entire Torah. From the ethical perspective – the Torah, including the acts of Genesis, are relevant to every person, and can be studied by every person. The truths of the acts of Genesis are relevant only to scholars who are suited to studying them, and are in the category of “God’s secret is for those who are in awe of Him.”

Part II to come soon...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

B'Toraso Shel Rav Gedaliah

Rav Gedaliah Nadel was a fascinating figure. He was one of the foremost talmidim of the Chazon Ish, and lived underneath from Rav Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak. On the other hand, he believed that the world was billions of years old, accepted evolution, held that Chazal were fallible and science, and that the mabul did not cover the entire world. I had a memorable meeting with him before he passed away.
After his passing, Rav Yitzchak Shilat published a compilation of his teachings, entitled B'Toraso Shel Rav Gedaliah, which was promptly placed in cherem. Of course, they couldn't claim that Rav Gedaliah had heretical views, because he was too big, so instead they claimed that the book misrepresents his views. (It was prepared by one of his main talmidim, from audio recordings, and from my own meeting with him I can confirm that he held these views.)
I was please to see that the incredible website now has this work available for free download. Furthermore, it is possible to copy-and-paste text from the PDF file. Baruch Hashem for the Information Age!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Sun's Path at Night, part III

Most non-rationalists, when confronted with the Gemara about the sun's path at night, immediately respond by citing Rabbeinu Tam's view that the Sages of Israel were actually correct. Over at Divrei Chaim, I have been pointing out that the overwhelming majority of Rishonim, as well as a number of significant Acharonim, accept the Gemara at face value, that the Sages of Israel were mistaken. To his credit, R' Chaim does not quibble with this, or suppress me from stating it, or claim that it is forbidden to subscribe to such a view. However, he does suggest that one should follow the consensus of the Torah world which is to follow the opposing view.

I have two related observations to make about this.

First of all, R' Chaim's approach is very much atypical. The standard approach in the non-rationalist camp is to deny that historically there was a strong rationalist approach and that most Rishonim explained this Gemara k'pshuto.

Second, I think that his idea, that today's Torah authorities can reject the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Rishonim, would come as a shock to many people in that world. They have the idea that they are continuing what was the normative approach to Judaism throughout the ages. In fact I think that it is partly due to this that many people will deny that the majority of Rishonim said that Chazal erred scientifically. They would not be comfortable with the idea that they are going against most Rishonim.

The question is, what does the word "mesorah" mean, and what do people think it means? I think that most people think that it means "the normative approach to Judaism throughout the ages" - the "tradition" i.e. that which has been traditionally, historically, held. But what many people are actually using it to mean is "hachra'ah" - the decision of recent and contemporary authorities as to what is acceptable. Thus it can happen that an innovation, rather than a tradition, can be termed "the mesorah."

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Sun's Path at Night, Part II

Over at Divrei Chaim, R' Chaim discusses the topic mentioned in the previous post and writes as follows:

...Consider this: if Chazal could be wrong about science, then why did R' Akiva Eiger, the GR"A, the Ramchal, the Binyan Shlomo and others need to say anything? One sevara (Chazal did not know science) answers all the kashes -- but that's the one sevara that these achronim assiduously avoid saying.

Of course, the answer as to why they felt a need to say something is that these authorities were coming from a mystical worldview, which is fundamentally at odds with the rationalist worldview. That is how they were able to propose an explanation of the Gemara which is completely at odds with the explanation of Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham, R' Eliezer of Metz, Tosafos Rid, Mizrachi, Akeidas Yitzchak, Maharam Alashkar and many others on this sugya. It is just like the topics of mezuzah and netilas yadayim shel shacharis, discussed in the essays linked to on the right, where we also see a radical difference between the approach of the Rishonim and the approach of the Acharonim.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sun's Path at Night

There are few topics that better express the difference between rationalist and non-rationalist approaches than the different approaches to the following passage in the Gemara:

חכמי ישראל אומרים, ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למעלה מן הרקיע, וחכמי אומות העולם אומרים, ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למטה מן הקרקע, אמר רבי ונראין דבריהן מדברינו, שביום מעינות צוננין ובלילה רותחין. (פסחים צד ע"ב)

The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)

I am currently preparing an essay on this topic, but since it came up in the comments to the previous thread, I decided to raise it here. If you are interested, contrast the explanations of the following authorities to this passage:

1) All Rishonim except Rabbeinu Tam
2) Rabbeinu Tam
3) Maharal

If you ever want to find out if someone is a rationalist or not, you can ask them about this Gemara. First ask them how they explain it, then ask them how the Rishonim/Acharonim explain it, then (if necessary) present them with this list and ask them how they account for it.

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...