Friday, December 31, 2010

Coming to America

I'm coming to America on a lecture tour at the beginning of February. Shabbos February 5th I'll be at Young Israel of Oceanside, Wednesday Feb. 9th I'm speaking in Englewood, and Shabbos February 12th I'll be at Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. So far I am free on the other days, so if I you would like to arrange for me give a lecture in your community, or at a high school, please write to me at You can see a sample list of lecture topics here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Nu, So What Did You Think Of My Alps?"

As I mentioned, I'm currently in the Italian Alps for a few days, giving some lectures, and today, I went horseback riding. It is bitterly cold, and I have a bitter cold, but I did not want to miss the opportunity. Now, riding a horse is not one of my skills (I’ve spent more time riding elephants), and the horse that I was given was a huge and feisty stallion who seemed as though he was auditioning for Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan; I was the only person in my group who was given a switch in order to impose discipline if necessary. However, he didn’t throw me off and he was obedient, at least for most of time. We made our way through the tiny, narrow streets of a rustic village, then up the hills through snow-encrusted countryside, with the gigantic white Alps looming around us. It was incredible.

The experience reminded me of something that I wrote about fifteen years ago, back when I was Nosson Slifkin. At the time, I was grappling with two stories which appeared contradictory. The first concerned the late Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal (whose daughter was my elementary school teacher, so I guess that makes me an indirect talmid of his!). The story is told that Rav Segal was once traveling in Manhattan, and his companions suggested that they take a detour in order to see the famous Empire State Building.

“Only,” he replied, “if you can assure me that when I get up to Heaven, God will ask me if I saw the Empire State Building.”

The second story concerns Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who once went out of his way to see the Alps. When asked why, Rav Hirsch replied, “Because, when I get up to Heaven, I want to have an answer when God says to me, ‘Nu, Shimshon, what did you think of My Alps?’ ”

Fifteen years ago, these stories presented a contradiction that bothered me. In classical yeshivah fashion, I reasoned that the contradiction could be resolved. The Empire State Building is a man-made creation, and thus there is no reason to admire it. The Alps, on the other hand, are God’s own handiwork. Thus, there is no difference between Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch.

Fifteen years later, I’m not dismissing the possibility that this resolution is valid, but I am more open to acknowledging the likelihood that the stories reflect a fundamental difference between these two great Torah scholars. I can think of two ways in which to explain the nature of this difference.

One possibility is that these stories reflect two different approaches within Judaism. Rav Segal was of a particular ultra-Orthodox ideology in which Torah—the pursuit of God’s wisdom and commands—is of paramount interest, to the point where it is virtually of exclusive interest. Neglecting the pursuit of Torah and mitzvos, even for a short time, merely to appreciate a wondrous sight, would be inexcusable. Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, was of the Torah im derech eretz school of thought, in which a Jew’s life is enriched by appreciating the wonders of the world—be they God’s creations, or the creations of man, with his ingenious application of his God-given brain.

Another possibility (perhaps related to the previous one) is that these stories reflect the different origins of Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch. There’s a hilarious satirical news story about a person in New York for whom all therapy had failed to cure his chronic miserable attitude, and he was about to undergo a lobotomy, when at the last moment the surgeon realized that there was nothing clinically wrong with the person; he was, in fact, from Manchester. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I can see why it might have caused Rav Segal to have little interest in sightseeing. A miserable, grey, industrial and very provincial town, Manchester tends to produce cynical people who have little interest in the wider world. Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, was from a very different culture.

So, there are three possible explanations for the differing attitudes of Rav Segal and Rav Hirsch. I’ll have to contemplate the matter further before deciding what my attitude should be with regard to man-made wonders. But meanwhile, I’m glad that I braved the cold and my cold to ride through the mountains. When God asks me what I thought of His alps, I’m going to tell Him that they are terrific.

Horses are pretty awesome, too.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

I'm in the Italian Alps for three days giving some lectures, so my internet access is sporadic. I hope to be able to write an Alps-specific post tomorrow! Meanwhile, here is a guest post from the Brooklyn Wolf (it also appears with comments on his blog):

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

There are many that have said that the recent bans promulgated by the Gedolim (i.e. Rabbi Slifkin, the Lipa concert, The Making of a Gadol and now Vos Iz Neias among others) have caused the stature of the Gedolim to become far less relevant and important today. To some extent, that is true -- the mishandling of some of these bans has exposed the flaws in the process of some of their recent halachic rulings and has damaged the reputation of the Gedolim among the general populace.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by what happened with some of the cases mentioned above, the Gedolim still can be said to have enormous power. They can bring pressure to bear on people and events which can lead to loss of money, public embarrassment and communal shunning. The ability to bring such pressure to bear is an enormous power -- one that must be wielded with extreme care. I would think that if one has the ability to wreck a person's life, that ability should only be wielded with extreme care and great trepidation. The power to do such is a great power -- and, as Uncle Ben reminded Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.

Do the Gedolim have a responsibility to us? I believe they do. Any leader has a responsibility to the people that he or she leads. If a Gadol (or anyone else for that matter) is going to assume the power to greatly affect the lives of others, then he must be responsible to make sure that that power is used wisely and appropriately. There must be safeguards, checks and balances to make sure that the power is being used properly -- and those wielding the power must be responsible to make sure that those safeguards, checks and balances are in place.

Sadly, today, there are no such checks and balances. We have recently seen how the current edifice of halachic decision making is flawed and that the leaders (perhaps unintentionally, but still disasterously) have shirked their responsibilities. Those responsibilities include the following:

The responsibility to adequately investigate the facts and circumstances before making a ruling.

If a Gadol is going to issue a ruling that will impact a person (and all the more so if the impact is going to cause a severe loss of money or prestige), he has a responsibility to independently investigate the circumstances surrounding the case. This includes contacting the people affected and giving them a chance to adequately respond.

We saw this responsibility cast aside numerous times. The Gedolim who signed on the ban against Lipa's concert were told that there was going to be mixed dancing (among other misinformation) at the event. At no point did any of the Gedolim who signed on the ban even so much as pick up a phone and call Lipa or one of the event organizers to determine if this was true (it wasn't -- there wasn't even going to be mixed seating). The same thing occurred with Rabbi Slifkin -- he was phoned (not by any of the Gedolim who signed on the ban against his books) and told that he had hours to retract his books and was not given any real chance to respond. In addition, the ban against his books was signed, in many cases, by those who did not even read the book.

Another aspect of this responsibility is the responsibility to not simply rely on the signature of another Gadol when deciding whether or not to sign on to a halachic decision of considerable importance, scope and effect. If Gadol X signs on a document, I should have the right to assume that Gadol X has actually looked into the matter and came to the decision himself. If, however, Gadol X is signing on the document only because Gadol Y signed, then what is really the value of the signature? To say that he trusts Gadol Y? We already knew that he probably did. In the end, you get documents where twenty or thirty Gedolim sign, but only one or two probably actually gave any real, serious thought to the decision at hand. If so, is it really twenty or thirty Gedolim issuing a decision? No it's not -- it's merely one or two making the decision. In the end, however, I believe that if a Gadol is going to sign on a document, they have an absolute responsibility to investigate the matter for themselves. If I'm to be told to obey a document because Gadol X signed, I have the right to be assured that Gadol X actually did his due diligence to investigate the case -- and not rely on the word of a third party -- even that of a fellow Gadol.

A Gadol has, in my humble opinion, an absolute responsibility to do his utmost to ascertain the facts of a situation before issuing a ruling on it. It's not reasonable to expect a Gadol to get every fact correct every time -- they are only human and sometimes mistakes will be made -- but they must do their absolute best to make sure they have the facts of the situation before issuing a ruling. If the Gedolim are going to fail in their responsibility to investigate the facts (including all sides), then how can we have a responsibility to listen to their words?

The responsibility to avoid even the appearance of manipulation by those with agendas.

If a Gadol's ruling is to have any meaning, it must be clear that it is a fair ruling. If people perceive that the ruling was manipulated or engineered by those who have a particular axe to grind or agenda to push, many people will simply ignore the ruling.

I find it extremely ironic that a Dayan (judge) in a Bais Din must take great pains to figuratively bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of manipulation or favoritism in a court case involving a lousy five dollars, but when it comes to public policy that affect wide swaths of the community on a far grander scale, no such impartiality is enforced. It will all too well known that many of the now-infamous halachic decisions that have been handed down lately (including, according to several reports, the recent ban on Vos Iz Neias) were engineered by parties with a particular political, monetary or ideological grudges against others. It is, in my humble opinion, the absolute responsibility of a Gadol to make sure that his decisions are not only arrived at in a fair manner without undue influence, but that they also don't even have the appearance of manipulation by insiders or outsiders. If a simple five-dollar case in Bais Din requires this, I would think that it's a no-brainer that major halachic and public policy decisions requires the same -- and in this, the Gedolim have failed.

The responsibility to clearly elucidate their rulings including defining the parameters of those rulings, the process of how the question came before them and the process of how they arrived at their decisions.

A Gadol who issues a ruling has a responsibility to make the ruling as transparent as possible. That includes not only clearly defining the parameters of his ruling (i.e. in what circumstances does it apply and under what circumstances does it not apply), but also on what facts and assumptions the ruling relies, how he came to make the ruling in the first place (this is a part of maintaining the appearance of independence from manipulation) and upon which sources he relies to make his rulings. The saying "sunshine is the best disinfectant" is wholly applicable here -- a Gadol who is not being manipulated by others and is making his best effort to issue a correct ruling has no reason to fear being completely transparent about the factors that go into his decision. Allowing people to see how the decision was arrived at will increase people's confidence that the ruling is impartial and correctly arrived at.

The responsibility to ensure that their rulings can be verified by the general public.

Rav Elyashiv has been famously quoted as saying that there are so many rulings being issued in his name that are not, in fact, from him that unless you hear from him directly (or see it in a responsible Torah journal or legitimate sefer) that you can assume it's false.

While I can applaud Rav Elyashiv for his honesty in this matter, I believe that he (and other Gedolim) have absolutely abdicated a fundamental responsibility that accompanies power -- the responsibility to ensure that forgeries are not issued in their name.

This is something that is extremely important. The government takes great pains to try to shut down counterfeiters -- not necessarily because their efforts might devalue the currency (although that can be a factor) but also because counterfeiters, by definition, usurp power that the government alone has -- the power to print currency. Likewise, one of the most carefully guarded objects of rulers of old was their signet rings and seals -- not because they liked to wear rings or have pretty designs made in wax -- but because such objects actually conveyed power to those who wielded them. If you saw an edict sealed with seal of the king, such an edict was extremely likely to be obeyed, whether the king actually endorsed the edict or not. It's not for no reason that the writer of Megillas Esther focuses on the fact that the king gave his ring to Haman -- the one who wielded the ring truly wielded the power. A ruler or leader who does not actively take steps to find, stop and punish those who wrongly usurp their power is no true leader, since it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine which of their edicts are proper and legal.

While the Gedolim may not have signet rings and seals, they have, in my humble opinion, utterly failed at the responsibility to protect the validity of their rulings. By allowing word of their rulings to spread by word of mouth and broadsheet, they allow far too many opportunities for other people to either put their own spin on their rulings or, worse, make up rulings for them out of whole cloth.

I find it utterly incomprehensible that in today's day and age, we still disseminate rabbinical rulings by word of mouth and by posters plastered on walls. Oddly enough, I think that the World Wide Web is an ideal medium for the Gedolim to issue their rulings. If a Gadol had his own website under his firm control, he could post his rulings there -- and people would be able to be reasonably confident that the ruling was, in fact, issued by the Gadol who owns the site. In addition since "space" and "paper" are not true issues on the Web, the Gadol can expand on his ruling as much as necessary to cover some of the other points I made in this post. Even if the Gadol in question did not want to get involved with the Web, there is always the option of having an automated telephone system where people can call and hear a recording of the Gadol saying something to the effect of "yes, I issued this ruling, these are the parameters, this is how I came to the decision, etc. The Gadol, of course, would have to be vigilant in ensuring that only content he approves of goes up on the site or the telephone system (the site/telephone system, in effect, becomes his signet-ring) - but as I mentioned earlier, an essential part of having the power to issue rulings is the responsibility to protect the integrity of those rulings. Failure to do so results in an open invitation to having the very validity of the rulings he issues questioned, disregarded and, ultimately, ignored.

The responsibility to be able to make independent decisions regardless of the personal consequences and free from communal pressure.

This responsibility is perhaps the most important responsibility that a Gadol has and yet, at the same time, the one that may be the hardest for him to make because of the potential personal cost involved.

In the United States, justices to the Supreme Court are appointed and, failing any misconduct on their part, maintain their positions for life. There is an important reason for this lifetime appointment -- the need to maintain an independent judiciary. It is vitally important that, if a decision is to be a correct one (meaning free of political pressures and based strictly upon the law and his or her interpretation of it) then it is important that they not be subject to recall based on those decisions. You may argue with how successful the implementation of this has been (both conservatives and liberals can probably quote numerous cases where they feel that judges ruled based on their political biases rather than the law*), but the principle is sound. When a correct decision needs to be made, it has to be free from political pressure.

This also needs to apply to the Gedolim as well. If a Gadol is going to issue a ruling, it is his responsibility (as I mentioned above) to ensure that the ruling is fair and not manipulated or engineered. However, it also has to be free from personal considerations as well, including those of power and prestige.

Unfortunately, it is all too apparent that in many cases, Gedolim sometimes make decisions because it's the popular decision to make and one that will appease the masses. Jonathan Rosenblum, in an article about a year ago, made the point very clearly. In discussing why there would be no public statement regarding a possible change in communal policy, he says the following:

There is another reason that there will be no such public statements. Any such statement would be met with vicious attacks by the “kenaim,” who would say about the gadol in question precisely what KollelGuy asks me: Who are you? The Chazon Ish did not say what you are saying; Rav Shach did not say it.” Perhaps KollelGuy remembers the attacks on one of the Sages he mentions for his tacit support of Nahal Chareidi. (Even Rav Shach used to say that he was afraid of the stone-throwers.) One of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the United States told me recently that the gedolim cannot even discuss questions surrounding poverty because if they did the “street” would just label them fake gedolim.
In other words, there are cases where the Gedolim are afraid to make a correct ruling (or public policy decision) because it would mean the possible loss of their positions as Gedolim. Even if you put aside the fact that this causes their rulings to smack of corruption (even if there is, in fact, no corruption in any particular ruling), this undermines the whole point of having Gedolim determine public policy to begin with. Of what value is there to have a Gadol make a determination if there is a possibility that the determination is rooted in his fear of being labeled a "fake Gadol?" Aren't we relying on them to give us true rulings? If their rulings can be influenced by "the street," then how can anyone trust their rulings?

I'll admit that it's not easy to ask any person (Gadol or not) to put their positions on the line when they are faced with making an unpopular ruling. But part of being a true and responsible leader is to take responsibility for your leadership decisions. If the cost of a true ruling is the loss of personal power and prestige (i.e. by being labeled a "fake Gadol") then perhaps that's the price you must pay. If a person is going to accept the awesome responsibility to wield the power to ruin lives, then he must also be willing to take the responsibility to stand up and assure the people that his decision is correct, even if it comes with personal consequences. Failure to do so simply means that the inmates are running the asylum.

If one is going to posit that the Gedolim have the power to make important communal and halachic decisions and that we, the general populace, have a responsibility to follow their decisions, then they have a responsibility to make sure that their rulings are factual, informed, fair, honest, clear, verifiable and free from manipulations, agendas and communal pressure.

The Wolf

* But then again, if both sides feel this way, perhaps it's right after all...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Quiet Revolutions

Someone by the name of Aryeh wrote an excellent, insightful comment on the previous post which requires discussion:

I think you miss a lot of subtleties here.

Yes, the final authorities on all issues are contemporary posekim. This is how it's supposed to be: each community must follow its own leaders in its own generation. This is what we learn from Parshas Shofetim, where the Torah says "ובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השפט אשר יהיה בימים ההם". As Rashi explains ad loc., the Torah says "in those days" to teach us that we must follow the leaders in our generation even if they're lesser than previous generations.

In the time of the Sanhedrin, this was explicit. As with modern legislatures, the ruling of a later Sanhedrin superseded any previous ones. Although the earlier ones were presumably greater -- the members of some were nevi'im -- the later ones had more authority, because they were expected to take into account the earlier rulings and only overturn them for good reason.

This is the key point. Judaism does not operate according to a purely traditional model in which nothing can ever change. But neither does it give complete authority to each generation to do as it will. Each generation's leaders must decide for themselves how to rule, but only as far as they pay great respect to past rulers.

So the correct summary would be that the current posekim are the final authorities. But they must give very great weight to the rulings of the Acharonim, who must give very great weight to the rulings of the Rishonim, etc. In most cases, if the Gemara decides an issue the Rishonim will not overrule it; if a clear majority of Rishonim agree on an issue the Acharonim will not overrule it; and so on.

Now, in every generation you can find plenty of places where earlier generations are actually overruled. But this is part of the system, as long as it's done with great respect and in limited doses. Almost any major posek will overturn at least a few significant precedents. This is true for the modern/rationalist world just as much as for the chareidi world, or probably more so.

An unwritten rule is that when overturning an established ruling, posekim must try to explain how the earlier ruling wasn't really wrong. This can range from saying it wasn't really talking about our situation, to saying it was a copyist's error or forgery or "don't ask questions". The explanation can be elaborate or implausible, but it should be there.

This rule is unwritten, of course, because to write it down clearly would be to admit that you're being a bit dishonest. But it's clearly present in the Gemara already -- הכא במאי עסקינן? That phrase and those like it are the sign that an illogical, contradictory, or otherwise problematic Mishna or Beraisa is being reinterpreted. Out of respect, the Gemara maintains the fiction that the Tanna'im meant something that they clearly did not. Subsequent posekim follow in their footsteps.

(This is why your essay on the kezayis was "disrespectful". Normally we take pains to pretend we don't think earlier posekim were wrong even if we're overruling them. You demonstrated at great length that they were wrong, without even the reason of needing to overrule them.)

Since each generation pretends to agree completely (not just almost completely) with all the earlier ones, someone who doesn't think about it much might be fooled into thinking the agreement is real. This isn't a bad thing -- it lends legitimacy to the religion. "We've always followed the same halacha" is much easier to teach and accept than "We generally follow the same halacha, except when particularly influential rabbonim change it." Most people will not cope well with sophisticated or subtle theology.

Anyone with much learning is not going to really be fooled, though. No one who knows anything can claim that the Amora'im would have agreed with all the halachos in the Shulchan Aruch. For the more sophisticated, we have principles like לא בשמים היא, and the story of the tannur shel Achnai and others in that vein. These emphasize that the accepted halacha is correct even if it's not exactly what earlier generations accepted.

But this isn't what's emphasized publicly, because it appears to undermine traditionalism. Talking about it undercuts respect for earlier generations.

As far as the gedolim not having the freedom to rule as they please -- this is inevitable until we once again have a central religious authority that can rule by fiat. The general population must choose whom to listen to somehow, if they're given a choice. It would make little sense to suggest that they should choose one posek according to their whim and then follow him forever no matter what, without ever considering a change to a different posek. Whatever guided their original choice can also guide subsequent choices.

Rabbonim always have to tailor their messages so that their flock will listen to them, whether that means supporting the political-religious ideology du jour, not mentioning halachos that their congregation doesn't want to hear about, or anything else. Rabbonim are not supposed to just mechanically produce halachos, they have to get people to follow them, and thereby follow Judaism. This will always involve political decisions.

I think nothing I've said here and nothing you've said in this blog post is specific to charedim or anti-rationalists. The only difference is perception and presentation. Modern and rationalist posekim overrule old decisions too, while also not claiming to be as great as the ones they're overruling. They're only somewhat more honest (i.e., less respectful) about what they do. The big difference is that they less often deny the validity of alternative positions, not that they have a different idea of how to arrive at halachic conclusions.

I would basically agree with everything that Aryeh said (except for his comments on my kezayis essay!). In fact, I have long studied and taught similar such ideas myself. Menachem Fisch, in "Rational Rabbis," argues that this is basically the purpose of the Gemara; to show how to change the rulings of previous eras without making it look as though that is what one is doing. Traditional societies are based on the idea of the authority of previous generations, and thus revolutions cannot be presented that way. Concepts like nishtaneh hateva are sometimes invoked even when those invoking them know full well that this is not the case, but by describing the situation in this way, they can change the halachah without undermining the authority of the earlier decisors.

Was not my previous post then seriously flawed in its focus? Was it not a criticism of the standard halachic process rather than a particular group of anti-rationalists?

It's true that the standard halachic process does involve quite a lot of this effective overruling of earlier authorities under the guise of doing no such thing. And this is something that is often bothersome to me, as much as I appreciate the necessity for it. And I do recognize that some of my writings undermine the values behind this process (I justify it on the grounds that people today are more knowledgeable and benefit from being filled in more). So, the basic approach that I criticized in the previous post is really a fundamental part of Judaism. Nevertheless, with the rationalist approach, it is significantly less troubling, for several reasons.

With the rationalist approach, it is understood that the authority of rabbinic decisors from previous eras is institutional. It does not stem from their being of superhuman intelligence or possessing divine inspiration, but rather from their unique historical situation and the consequent canonization of their rulings by those of subsequent eras. Since their authority is institutional, changing their rulings via halachic sleight-of-hand does not really undermine this authority. Furthermore, it is understood that any changes in halachah or theology do not reflect negatively on the earlier figures. People think differently in different times and places, and we are able to benefit from the advances of earlier generations, but we still respect the accomplishments of earlier figures and understand how they reached their conclusions even as we quietly diverge from them.

In contrast to this are the anti-rationalists, who will loudly insist that everyone acknowledge that the earlier generations were infinitely more intelligent and knowledgeable and holy, and yet toss their views out of the window and declare them a perversion of Judaism whenever it suits them. Deep down, they don't really respect the Rishonim at all; they just capitalize on certain mantras such as Rishonim k'Malachim in order to boost their own authority. Moreover, they attempt to suppress the right of others to still respect these earlier authorities and follow their approach, and they engage in large-scale revisionism of history in order to delegitimize those who follow the earlier approach. Now, I do understand their reasons for this - maintaining a certain way of life in face of the threats of modernity - but the aggression with which they impose this on others is jarring.

Furthermore, when there really are very good reasons to quietly diverge from earlier authorities - such as with organ donation - it is never done. Whereas in the past, this sort of divergence from earlier positions was done for pressing public benefit, today it only seems to be done in order to advance anti-rationalist agendas. The people ultimately wielding the power in determining the direction that these revolutions take appear to be the less-than-savory kanna'im and askanim rather than rabbinic leaders with wisdom and sensitivity to the needs of the generation.

It is true that the anti-rationalists are following a traditional approach of engineering revolutions that are deemed necessary (and I do appreciate the reasons why they see it as necessary) by effectively rewriting history. But the extreme nature of this revolution, in conjunction with the intolerance for those who really do want to follow the Rishonim for excellent reasons, the selectivity with which this approach is applied, and the nature of the people driving these revolutions, is what I personally find extremely disturbing.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reversing the Hierarchy

When I was in yeshivah, I was taught very clearly that the hierarchy of rabbinic authority was as follows: At the top were Chazal, then came the Rishonim, then the Acharonim, and finally contemporary Gedolim.

Not only did I really believe this, I also really believed that they believed it. And they also really believed that they really believed it.

Over time, it has become increasingly clear to me that, in fact, this hierarchy is not what people follow. They actually completely reverse it.

In anti-rationalist circles, while Chazal are ostensibly the highest rabbinic authority, any inconvenient sayings of Chazal are simply ignored or are wholesale reinterpreted without any regard as to whether this is really what Chazal meant. (Soon, I will be posting an extraordinary statement from a very prominent Acharon who is explicit about disregarding a halachic position of Chazal in favor of contemporary norms.)

With the Rishonim, despite declarations about Rishonim k'malachim and heated opposition to saying that they didn't know elephant physiology, any inconveniently rationalistic sayings of the Rishonim are ignored, banned from study, and/or openly declared a perversion of the correct approach (but, of course they hasten to add incoherently, it was okay for the Rishonim to pervert the correct approach!). Acharonim trump Rishonim every time.

As for the Acharonim, despite endless stories of their unimaginable greatness in Torah and wisdom, their own "inconvenient" opinions are likewise written out of history. Nobody in the yeshivah world is going to be quoting Chassam Sofer on the science of the Rishonim and the value of secular studies (when taught by an appropriate teacher).

Topping Chazal, the Rishonim, and even the Acharonim, are the Gedolim. They tell us what to think; which views of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim are heretical and should be cast aside; how we to force Chazal's words into an appropriate interpretation.

But in fact, even the Gedolim are not at the top of the ladder. For if any of the Gedolim ever say anything inconvenient, they are simply ignored in favor of other Gedolim who are more cooperative; and if they persist with inconvenient statements, then their Gadol license is revoked. Rav Elyashiv has issued all kinds of piskei halachah that you'll never see on posters or in the Yated.

There was a terrific illustration of this in the comments of "Poshiter Yid" (to whom, despite his amazing anti-rationalist stance, I am actually taking a liking; he's entertaining, eloquent, and not particularly hostile). First he said that the Rambam is "kodesh kedoshim" and that the words of the Rishonim were all given at Sinai, but then when confronted with positions of the Rambam that are different from those acceptable to the Gedolim, he claimed that Rambam was wrong, with the proof being that the Gedolim say differently. Later, he gave a wonderful description of how "the Gedolim guide us and tell us how and what to think," but when faced with a statement from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky that went against his beliefs, he said that Rav Yaakov must have been under the influence of alchohol when he published it (!)

For anti-rationalists, the Gedolim are much more important than the Rishonim. But even the Gedolim are only respected and followed insofar as their views concord with what the anti-rationalist himself considers legitimate. Amazingly, the hierarchy of rabbinic authority that they loudly claim to be true, is the complete opposite of the one that they actually follow.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest monograph, The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel. It discusses the Scriptural, Talmudic and Midrashic accounts of the kidneys providing counsel to the heart, and explores the response of Rishonim, Acharonim and contemporary figures to this topic. The topic also has broad and significant ramifications for other conflicts between Torah and science, some of which are discussed in the document.

You can obtain a copy by making a donation with a credit card or Paypal account below. After making a donation (recommended minimum $5), you will be taken to a page where you can download the monograph (a 20-page PDF). Please take this opportunity to support this website; I can only invest the huge amount of time that it demands if readers express their appreciation via these donations. (And please do not e-mail this document on to anyone else.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Torah Values Vs. Halachah

Continuing, and hopefully wrapping up, the topic of organ donation, here is a discussion of my second reason for becoming an organ donor. I would like to reiterate (because people ignored it the first time) that I am NOT issuing a "psak," nor have I even studied the matter thoroughly. But since we all decide whether to sign up as organ donors or not, I am explaining why, until I thoroughly research the topic and reach a final conclusion, in the meanwhile I am signed up.

Although it is not true to say that "where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way," it is true to say that sometimes fundamental Torah values either override halachah or dictate its direction. Now, this is a principle that certainly is and has been open to abuse. For example, although homosexuality is a very difficult topic, one can't simply say that because there are fundamental Torah values of freedom (or whatever) then it should be permissible -- since there is a contrary and explicit Torah value that homosexuality is forbidden. Likewise, to say that because there is a fundamental Torah value of compassion for the downtrodden, therefore it should be halachically permissible to engage in policy X for the Palestinians, may ignore the fact that there are contrary halachic principles regarding Eretz Yisrael and/or Jewish welfare. So if there was a clear and unequivocal position in Judaism that brain death is not death and organ donation is prohibited, one could not use the idea of fundamental Torah values to override it.

But we do see that there is a concept of the spirit of the law that is not always in accord with the letter of the law - a perfect example is naval b'reshus haTorah. And we also see that Poskim will in some cases have a clear direction in which they direct their halachic conclusion - for example, with certain question of niddah or agunah. Furthermore, while I don't think it is even necessary to invoke it for this case, there have been authorities who have explicitly said that there are Torah values that are even more fundamental than halachah and override it. Ironically, this occurred with the first Charedim! R. Yisrael David Margaliyot-Jaffe Schlesinger, a disciple of Chassam Sofer, made this argument in order to justify issuing rulings that were not founded in halachah; see Michael Silber, "The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition," p. 54 (although this did meet with opposition!) Dr. Marc Shapiro discussed how R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner considered certain values to be more fundamental than halachah and thus override it, and how even Rav Soloveitchik - the Halachic Man - wrote that "the halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolute zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly."

So, getting back to the topic of organ donation, and incorporating the "common-sense principle" discussed by Rabbi Dr. RMH, here's how I would apply it:

1. It is a fundamental Torah value to save lives. Lo ta'amod al dam reyecha. And several lives can be saved by organ donation from a brain-dead person.

2. It is established beyond reasonable doubt that all thoughts, feelings, etc., occur in the brain, and not anywhere else in the body.

3. It is established beyond reasonable doubt that someone who is brain-dead is not coming back. Ever. Forget about all the medical miracle stories - it's not happening in this case.

4. The halachic status of brain-death cannot be clearly derived from Chazal; there are disputes as to which inferences to make from their words, and in any case they had a fundamentally different medical reality as well as conception of physiology.

So you have someone who is certainly effectively dead, who is dead by virtually every measure, who left instructions with HODS that he himself wants to be considered dead in such circumstances, and who even from a halachic perspective can well be argued to be dead. By doing so, several lives - real lives, of people who can feel and think and speak and act and who do mitzvos and who want to live and who have families who want them to live - will be saved. That is the final, tremendous act of chessed that the departed wanted to do - making his unavoidable death save the lives of others. Surely that is clearly what Hashem wants, what Chazal would have wanted, and the direction that the halachah should take.

You can learn more about being an organ donor, and sign up, at

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Talmudic Authority and Canonization

Continuing the discussion regarding organ donation: Previously, I explained that Chazal believed the heart (and kidneys) to be the seat of the mind and soul. As such, the approach of figuring out how to define death based on Chazal's statements about physiology is fundamentally mistaken. But if Chazal did believe that life resides in the heart, would we have to follow them anyway, even if they were mistaken?

In the final chapter of my book Sacred Monsters, I discussed the topic of halachos in the Gemara that are based on mistaken views about the natural world. I favored the approach of Rav Herzog and others, which is that the halachos still hold true, for reasons that I explained in the book. But in this case, there are two crucial differences.

First is that in cases where lives are at stake, nobody follows the Gemara. The classic example of this is that the Gemara says that whereas a baby born in the seventh month of pregnancy can be viable, a baby born in the eighth month is not, and thus one may not violate Shabbos to save its life. Now, people come up with all kinds of explanation as to why the Gemara is not binding - nishtaneh hateva of babies, nishtaneh hateva of medicine - but the bottom line is, pikuach nefesh trumps everything. Nobody is going to let an eight-month old fetus die just because Chazal said it's not viable. So if it is the case that a person's soul is seated in his brain rather than his heart - and I think that is clearly so - then there is no essential halachic problem in pulling the plug, and the pikuach nefesh of saving all the people that can be saved with his organs would supersede the importance of upholding Chazal's authority.

The second difference is that it's not as though the Gemara said "A brain-dead person is still halachically alive." Instead, those who do not hold of brain-death infer this position from various halachos in the Gemara dealing with different aspects of life and death, such determining whether people in a collapsed building are alive. Now, the halachos themselves are perfectly valid, given the medical realities of the period. It is only the inferences, which depend upon Chazal's (and Rashi's) understanding of physiology, which are problematic. Thus, even if the inferences are correct from the point of view of analyzing Chazal, but one ignores them because Chazal had a mistaken view of physiology, one is not contravening any actual halachos in the Gemara.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

With all your Heart, With all your Soul

Continuing with my elaboration of my reasons for signing up as an organ donor, here is a discussion of the first part of the first of my two reasons. (About a year ago, I noted that when people give two reasons for something, it's usually the second reason which is the real reason, and the first one is a smokescreen. That is not the case here!)

As noted, I have not extensively studied the topic of organ donation - which is why I am explicit about not giving a thoroughly-researched conclusion on the matter. But I have extensively studied the topic of Chazal's knowledge of science in general, and Chazal's view of the kidneys in particular (and I plan to e-publish a monograph on this specific topic in the near future). And this gives two critical insights on the matter, both relating to the fact that the very act of analyzing different passages in the Gemara in order to determine whether Chazal considered life to fundamentally depend upon respiratory, circulatory, or neurological activity, misses the point entirely.

First of all (and this was a point that only occurred to me yesterday, so I am not yet certain of this), as Rabbi Breitowitz notes, in the ancient world there was no practical situation in which there was a differentiation between brain death and cardiac death. All vital systems - respiratory, circulatory, and neurological - would fail at approximately the same time, and there was no way of keeping one system going while another had failed. Thus, the failure of any one of them would be a satisfactory indicator of death. As such, any argument that the Gemara demonstrates Chazal to have conditioned death on a particular one of these systems is in error.

Second, after studying the matter very carefully in Chazal, the Rishonim, and Acharonim, it is abundantly clear to me that that Chazal, consistent with standard belief in the ancient world, mistakenly believed that the mind and free will are housed in the heart (assisted by the kidneys), not in the brain. There was no concept of organ transplants back then, but if there would have been, Chazal would definitely have held that the person's identity and soul is transplanted with the heart and kidneys, not the brain. We today, on the other hand, say that a heart transplant has no religious significance, whereas if a brain transplant would be possible, it would mean a person's mind and soul are being transferred. So even if it can be argued that Chazal considered a person's life to reside in the heart, this is irrelevant, since Chazal were mistaken as to which bodily organ houses a person's mind and soul.

Is there any Posek who agrees that Chazal were mistaken as to which bodily organ houses a person's mind and soul, but says that nevertheless they considered cardiac death to be actual death and were correct to do so? If so, I would like to know about it, because it would challenge my reasoning. But as far as I am aware, no Posek who does not accept brain death as actual death says such a thing. As such, the significance of my following this particular aspect of the topic is not so much that I agree with the reasoning of those Poskim who accept brain death, but more that I disagree with the reasoning of those who do not accept it, as I believe that they are fundamentally in error regarding Chazal's beliefs.

I am convinced that if Chazal would have understood the true nature of the heart and brain, and would have lived in a world where one could distinguish brain death from cardiac death, and where it was possible to save lives by using the organs of someone who is brain dead, they would have urged us to do so.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Matters of Life and Death

The post yesterday on organ donation caused considerable consternation and led to a record-breaking seven votes of kefirah. I want to discuss it in more detail, but to break down the discussion into several topics and postings. In this post, I would like to address the charge that I was undermining the halachic process by making a decision on a life-and-death topic based on inadequate study and reasoning. The odd thing is that I specifically addressed this charge in the post, but people either ignored what I wrote or did not understand it.

Every single person makes a potentially life-and-death decision in this area. We have all either signed up to be an organ donor, or not. Either way, it has consequences that could mean the difference between life and death. Not signing up means that your organs will not be donated to a needy recipient, which could mean that a person who would otherwise have lived, will die.

So we have ALL effectively made potential life-and-death decisions in this area. The question is, what was the grounds for our decision? Shev v'al ta'aseh is sometimes a halachic verdict even in life-and-death situations - but where it is so, it is a halachic verdict of what to do (i.e. nothing) based upon an analysis.

Ideally, we would all be competent at making halachic decisions, and we would all have the time, knowledge and skills to be able to research this topic thoroughly from both a halachic and medical standpoint. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us - including me. So in the meanwhile, we make the decisions based on what we have. I made it clear that I was NOT issuing a formal conclusion based on my usual careful research, which I have not yet done and may never get around to doing, but rather I was explaining my reasoning for the way in which I reached my decision in the interim.

I would bet that most readers here have not signed up to be a donor, not because they have investigated the issue and concluded that it is halachically wrong based on sufficient investigation, but because they've never given it thought. I do not consider that to be adequate grounds for a potential life-and-death decision. And if those people then criticize me for reaching a decision based upon insufficient knowledge or research - well, the hypocrisy is appalling.

Now, some of us, instead of making our own evaluation of the halachic propriety of being an organ donor, follow a halachic authority. But this, too, is making a decision - the decision of which halachic authority to follow. There are halachic authorities who permit and encourage organ donation, and there are those that prohibit it. Even if a person has one halachic authority that he consistently follows (which is the ideal scenario), he is still making a decision as to which halachic authority to choose in the first place. And with a topic such as this, there is a broad correlation between the hashkafic orientation of the Posek and his decision in this area. For example, a Posek who is closed to the idea of Chazal/ Rishonim/ Acharonim being mistaken in science, will not say that these authorities based their decision on a mistaken understanding of the role of the heart. If you have reason to suspect that Chazal may have been mistaken in this area, and you follow the pesak of a Rav who is closed to this possibility, then you are effectively making a decision that you yourself have reason to suspect is incorrect.

Life is complicated. We have to make important decisions all the time, very often based on wholly inadequate information. This is one such case for me, and I am explaining the factors involved in my own choice (which I shall discuss in more detail in future posts; there were some unfortunate misunderstandings of these factors). But everyone is making a choice - and those who disagree with the way in which I make my decision, are welcome to explain and justify the grounds for their own decision. I suspect that many people would not be able to justify their decision - either way - against a sustained critique.

(On a different note - If anyone is traveling to Israel from the US and can bring something for me, please email me at!)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I Signed Up To Be An Organ Donor

I am normally loath to publicize my opinion on topics that I have not thoroughly researched. And I have not thoroughly researched the topic of organ donation. But there is no "shev v'al taaseh" on this topic, since lives are potentially at stake. And although I have not thoroughly researched the topic, I do think that the basis for my decision to sign up with the Halachic Organ Donation Society has weight.

First, I should disclose that I have personal experience with the loss of an immediate family member (my father) which involved difficult end-of-life decisions, as well as a friend whose life was saved via receiving a liver donation. While some might argue that this means I am emotionally biased towards saving lives, I think that it means that I have a better understanding of the value of life than someone who has never experienced real life-and-death scenarios.

My reasons for considering that those advocating for the halachic permissibility (indeed, preferability) of organ donation are correct, are as follows:

Those who claim that organ donation is halachically prohibited are basing themselves on the idea that a brain-dead person is not truly dead (and thus his organs cannot be recovered), which in turn is based on various inferences from the Gemara that only cardiac death is considered true death. But based on my research, it is abundantly clear to me that Chazal, consistent with standard belief in the ancient world, mistakenly believed that the mind and soul are housed in the heart and kidneys, not in the brain. It is for this reason that Chazal considered the status of the heart to determine whether one is alive or not. Now, ordinarily, I follow the approach of those who say that halachos canonized by Chazal are binding even if based on mistaken beliefs about the natural world. Being an Orthodox Jew means subscribing to the halachic authority of Chazal. But I would not adopt that approach in this case, since (a) it is a matter of saving lives, and (b) it was never formally canonized that cardiac death rather than brain death defines true death.* (My impression is that those who do not accept brain death will not declare that Chazal and Rishonim had a mistaken understanding of physiology in this area; I would be very interested if someone can demonstrate otherwise.)

Another reason why it seems to me that one should be an organ-donor is that it is a case where fundamental Torah values take precedence over technical halachic discussion. I recall learning somewhere (perhaps someone can recall the source) that if one is stranded on a desert island, and the choice is to eat crabs or one's dead co-travelers, then even though from a strictly halachic perspective there are less prohibitions involved in eating a dead human being, nevertheless fundamental Torah values dictate that one should eat crab instead. Similarly here; when we are talking about saving multiple lives at the "cost" of someone who is effectively dead, I think that fundamental Torah values cry out to save those lives - and I think that if Chazal were alive today, they would certainly agree.

Finally, someone that I know and respect greatly has written on this topic at Rationalist Medical Halachah. His analysis appears sound; I know him to be scientifically knowledgeable (he is a physician) as well as a talmid chacham; I trust his honesty; and we share the same epistemology, i.e. the rationalist approach.

You can learn more about being an organ donor, and sign up, at

* Note that the Gemara speaks about cessation of brain function such as breathing, and not about the brain per se.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Modern Orthodox Charedim

In the previous post, I listed seven principles of bias. Some people were apparently wondering what the point of all this is. There are two applications that I can think of.

One is that, when assessing someone's opinion, it is useful to know the extent to which they are biased. We often do not have time or expertise to explore and analyze issues for ourselves, and we must rely on others. And even if we are analyzing the issue ourselves, we may by relying on others to a certain degree. If we know them to be fundamentally biased, this should make us more cautious about relying upon what they say.

Another is that acknowledging the existence of fundamental bias in a person can help us avoid wasting time arguing with them. Even extremely powerful arguments and evidence will not sway them. They will continue to insist that they are being logical and reasonable and that they are objectively evaluating the evidence. But you can be sure that this is not the case, and you therefore need not waste time in a futile effort to get them to agree to your point of view.

This is why I was not interested in an extensive debate with Dr. Isaac Betech about evolution, and that is why I was not interested in continuing debate with Rabbi Saul Zucker last year on the topic of Rashi's corporealist beliefs (although someone else is in the process of writing a response and demonstrating how he has misrepresented his sources). It wasn't because I didn't have any further rebuttals in response to Rabbi Zucker (when Hakirah asked me for some, I easily provided them), but rather because I recognized that the debate would never end. Every Orthodox Jew is powerfully biased against the notion that Rashi was a corporealist. This is even more true with graduates of YBT, which stresses that the Maimonidean rationalist/ philosophical/ logical approach to emunah and theology is the correct, authentic and traditional approach, held by all great people in Jewish history. (Thus, YBT graduates claim that Rashi rejected the idea of magical objects, and that he did not believe in demons.) The bias of a YBT graduate such as Rabbi Zucker against Rashi being the antithesis of a Maimonidean is even greater than the bias possessed by ordinary frum Jews.

Furthermore, as noted previously, people who do not acknowledge their biases are more likely to be crippled by them. I reeled in shock when Rabbi Zucker, who freely admits that he does not believe that a corporealist could even be worthy of respect as a Torah scholar, claimed that with regard to the question of whether Rashi was a corporealist, he can "categorically state" that he has "no tendency that prevents an unprejudiced consideration of this question." !!!

Thus, compounding the issue of fundamental bias is an inability to even acknowledge its existence. As such, it was apparent that he would never find any arguments to be convincing, just as young-earth creationists never find any arguments for evolution to be convincing. And the same goes for many Orthodox Jews who were following the discussion.

It is very important to realize that fundamental bias, and the closed-mindedness that it engenders, is by no means endemic to Charedim alone. Plenty of card-carrying Modern Orthodox Jews also have fundamental bias in certain areas, and indeed it is to be expected. The fact of one being open-minded to evolution and scientific errors in the Gemara does not mean that one is objective or open-minded; it usually simply means that these are concepts that are normative in one's own social sphere and/or upbringing. An ability to be objective about the scientific validity of statements in the Gemara has no bearing whatsoever on one's ability to be objective about the scientific validity of statements in Tenach. When it comes to ideas that are not normative in Modern Orthodox circles, people can be as fundamentally biased and closed-minded as any flat-earther or young-earth creationist - and as with flat-earthers and young-earth creationists, they will insist that they are being logical and reasonable and objectively evaluating the evidence, and even denounce the closed-mindedness of those to their right. There is a correspondence in the most recent issue of Hakirah which illustrates this spectacularly, and I shall post it soon.

All this will become of particular relevance when I move on to the final part of the discussion about the firmament, which will happen any day/ week/ month now!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Seven Principles of Bias

This is a long overdue post. A topic that has come up on many occasions, and is fundamental to disputes between rationalists and anti-rationalists, is that of bias. There are many misconceptions surrounding the topic of bias, and I'd like to try to clear them up. And so, I formulated seven principles of bias:

1. Everyone is biased

And I mean everyone. Every single person, in every assessment that they make, has all kinds of biases. Sometimes it is as obvious and powerful as confirmation bias - the tendency to interpret matters in a way that confirms one's prior views. At other times it can be as subtle as emotional associations, either positive or negative, with something from one's childhood. No person is a computer.

2. There is nothing wrong with being biased

Being biased is part of the human condition. It hampers one's ability to objectively appraise a topic, but that handicap does not reflect badly one someone any more than a physical handicap. For example, as someone who grew up Jewish and lives in Israel, of course I am biased towards seeing Israel as the good guy in the Israel vs. Palestinian conflict. There's no shame in that bias.

3. Being biased doesn't mean that you are wrong

This is a corollary of the first principle; since everyone is biased, of course being biased cannot mean that one is wrong. And even if, in a dispute, one person is substantially more biased than the other, it still does not mean that he is wrong.

4. There are different degrees of bias

This is an extremely important point. Although everyone is always biased, the degree of bias can be so drastically divergent that it becomes qualitatively different. Confirmation bias is extremely powerful. Confirmation bias to one's religious worldview is often fundamental - which means that even overwhelming evidence will not convince someone that their position is false.

5. Bias affects credibility

As noted earlier, being biased has nothing to do with being wrong. However, it justifiably affects credibility in the eyes of others. When evaluating claims, we put a certain degree of trust in the person making the claim (which varies depending on how much we can research the evidence ourselves). To the extent that the person is biased, there is less basis for this trust.

6. People who do not acknowledge their biases are more likely to be crippled by them

Many people believe that they are able to be fully objective in evaluating claims - even those which run counter to their deeply-held beliefs. They further believe that by claiming themselves to be objective, this is reason for others to accept that they are objective. Not only is this false, but in fact the reverse is often true. People who delude themselves into thinking that they are objective are even more likely to fool themselves in other areas. The first step in overcoming bias is acknowledging its existence.

7. There can be clues that someone lacks fundamental bias and/or has the ability to overcome it

This has be handled carefully. There can be clues that someone else, or oneself, has the ability to overcome bias, at least in certain areas. One clue is that the person has demonstrated the ability to admit error in the past. (However, this is not always a valid indicator; sometimes there is a "born-again" mentality in which there is a drive to cleanse oneself by denouncing a former way of life and of thinking.) Another clue is that a person is freely able to admit to certain weaknesses in their position and strengths in their opponent's position, even if overall they consider themselves to be correct.

These are the principles that I came up with - I'd be glad to hear other people's reformulations or additions.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rambam's Mechanism of Reward and Punishment

Many people were greatly taken aback when I quoted Rambam's letter to Marseilles, which showed him to have believed that the Destruction occurred because the people pursued astrology rather than the art of war and the conquest of lands:

This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts” (Jer. 4:22).

A number of commentators insisted that this letter must be interpreted in light of traditional doctrine about the Destruction being punishment for the cardinal sins. As such, Rambam is not saying that it was actually the lack of military strength (resulting from pursuing astrology) that caused the Churban, but merely pointing to a problem resulting from astrology. I think that this is an exceedingly forced way of reading the above paragraph. Moreover, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here about Rambam's worldview. Rambam held that there is no such thing as arbitrary reward and punishment, which God inserts into the world. Rather, the mitzvot are the path to intellectual, moral and societal perfection, while aveirot detract from that. To the extent that there is reward and punishment, it is the natural consequence of one's actions. Thus, Rambam's view is that the people were pursuing astrology - which he explains to be the root of idolatry - and as a natural consequence, did not engage in the material, worldly efforts that would have helped them have a defensible kingdom. Rambam is not arguing with the idea that the Destruction was a punishment for idolatry; rather, he is explaining what, in his view, this actually means.

In general, to understand Rambam's views on any topic requires a thorough grasp of his overall worldview, which was radically different than anything we have been taught in yeshivah. A careful study of The Guide for the Perplexed, with the help of those that have unlocked its difficulties, is indispensable for this. In the future, I plan to discuss Rambam's view of the different types of harm that befall man and their causes. For now, I would like to point out that Rambam's view on reward and punishment in general were extremely different from conventional rabbinic doctrine. Prof. Menachem Kellner has a discussion of this topic in the appendix to his book Must a Jew Believe Anything? which he kindly consented to make freely available. You can download it here; please read it before commenting on this post!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Not So Poshut

There was a furious debate in the comment thread of the previous post centering around one "Poshiter Yid" who put forth a decidedly anti-rationalist view and attacked other views as being heretical. Like some others, I suspect that he might be somebody pretending to have such views in order to study the response or be entertained by it. However, I have certainly heard similar views from many people, so we might as well take him at his word.

As I see it, there were a number of problems with the discussion on the previous thread. One was that many people were completely misunderstanding Poshiter Yid's position. He wasn't out to deny man's moral responsibility for his actions; only to say that ultimately, what happens in the world is entirely directed by God. Another problem is that both Poshiter Yid and many of his opponents assumed that their view is the only authentic Jewish view. In reality, both are rooted in hundreds of years of Jewish tradition, as diametrically opposed as they are. And they are rooted in such fundamentally divergent worldviews as to make debate futile.

Still, I would like to clear up some misconceptions that Poshiter Yid has regarding the limits of Orthodox theology.

Ok, I'm willing to hear this. What would the Rambam and Ramban say? I'm pretty confident they both held from hashgacha pratis as well as klalis. Wasn't it the Vilna Gao who said "If Hashem is not involved with the movement of a single blade of grass, I wish not to live."?

First of all, it's funny to try and prove Rambam's views from a statement by the Vilna Gaon. The former was a rationalist, the latter was a mystic.

Rambam held that hashgachah is solely a function of the intellect, and that most people thus do not merit it. Furthermore, he held that hashgachah is more of a function of how a person relates to the world, rather than God manipulating events for his benefit. In general, Rambam held that the world functions according to the laws of cause-and-effect that God set up, and that it is the goal of man to understand these laws and improve his life accordingly. This is diametrically opposed to the mystical view that these laws are just a disguise and have no real validity.

Someone helpfully quoted Rambam:

"There are sects among mankind who maintain that Divine providence controls all the matters of this world… that when a leaf falls from a tree, He decreed that it would fall…. This approach is far-removed from the intellect."

To which Poshiter Yid responded:

I maintain my position. The last line quoted above is enough to strengthen my belief even more. WHOSE intellect? We are nothing but specks of dust, who have the chutzpah to use our "intellect" to decide what's true and what isn't?

That's a very fair approach and one with a long history in Judaism. It certainly justifies someone wanting to take an anti-rationalist approach. However, it would behoove Poshiter Yid to acknowledge that this is indeed Rambam's approach, and thus to be cautious about dismissing it as outside of Jewish tradition.

Since when does it have to make sense to us? Does the Para Adumah make sense? So let's throw that by the wayside, too! It's not about what makes sense to us. Tefillin make no sense either.

It's certainly true that God's commandments do not HAVE to make sense to us. However, Rambam holds that they certainly for the most part should and do make sense to us. See my post "Rambam on Reasons for Mitzvos". Rambam also held that God's ways should make sense to us. (Personally I think that the rationalist approach is on very thin ice here. But this is nevertheless Rambam's view.)

And yes, God can make a square circle, too. How? Because squares, circles, and all of geometry and physics are natural laws, which He can manipulate, bend and break according to His will.

Again, Rambam disagrees. He says that God cannot do the categorically impossible. A person can legitimately disagree with this. But they should not claim that such a view does not exist in Jewish tradition.

Jack M., disdainful of Prof. Kellner's suggestion that "most of the evil from which we suffer is the result of human stupidity and cupidity; the fires were started by stupid kids literally playing with fire, but they spread so disastrously because too many people were concerned with everything but fire prevention and fire fighting," responded sarcastically:

Right. And the First and Second Temples were destroyed because of poor political decisions and inferior military training.

Ironically, this is exactly what Rambam implies. In his letter to the community of Marseilles, he writes as follows (and thanks to Prof. Kaplan for reminding me of where to find it):

This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts” (Jer. 4:22).

My goal on this website is not to try to obliterate the non-rationalist viewpoint. Rather, it is to save the rationalist viewpoint from extinction by showing that it has a long tradition. But aspiring rationalists should also acknowledge that the non-rationalist approach also has a long tradition.

(With regard to those who requested additional voting categories - I want to keep things simple. "Emes" and "Kefira" are simply catchphrases for thumbs-up and thumbs-down.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Incendiary Comments

On my earlier post about the drought, someone posted the following comment:

...Today in shul our Rav stressed the point that it's all in Hashem's hands. He was focusing on this rain situation. He said all the forecasting and other stuff is a bunch of nonsense. The entire idea of what we call "cause and effect" is nonsense. There is only 1 cause, and it is Hashem. If He wants it to rain, it will rain, and all the things you think you can do to bring it, conserve it, or whatever are futile...

This idea of completely negating the cause-and-effect of the natural world, and the function of physical endeavor, is entirely alien to the rationalist school of thought. Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein just wrote a superb post which included part of a mailing by Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa. I am also on Prof. Kellner's email list; he specializes in Maimonidean thought, and here is another extract from his latest mailing:

Rambam also made it clear that (just as traffic accidents don't just "happen," but are caused, so) most of the evil from which we suffer is the result of human stupidity and cupidity; the fires were started by stupid kids literally playing with fire, but they spread so disastrously because too many people were concerned with everything but fire prevention and fire fighting, and emergency response to challenges other than hostile attacks (earthquakes, for example - Israel sits on a major fault line). For the last several weeks the Minister of the Interior has devoted huge attention to denouncing his colleague MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem for the crime of pointing out that the Emperor was naked (=pointing out that maintaining the ideal that all men should spend all their time in yeshivot has no basis in Jewish history or law, runs against a long line of explicit legal pronouncements, and causes great suffering and pointless poverty). If some of that time and energy had been devoted to the job of overseeing the fire services and making sure they got the budgets they need, we might well be in better shape.

(By the way, check out the new "Reactions" buttons under each post. Please click whichever you think appropriate; it's useful to know how many people read this website, and how many are aligned with/ oppose my approach.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

From the Israel Water Authority

The Hebrew text reads: "Don't wait for miracles - start saving water!"

(Hat-tip: Gidon Shaviv)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Teaching Emunah - Then and Now

Over at Cross-Currents, my friend Rabbi Yaakov Menken has a brief essay entitled "Teaching Emunah to our Children" which stresses the importance of making emunah into something entirely rational and logical, following the approach of Rambam and along the lines of the "proofs of Torah" used in the Discovery Seminar. In the comments, someone brought up the topic of the "Four Animal Proof." I responded that this alleged proof is deeply problematic, and I noted that we are better off teaching about the extraordinary nature of Jewish history and the value of a Torah lifestyle rather than marketing such “proofs.”

Looking back at Dr. Marc Shapiro's fascinating post on Rav Kook, I noticed something that I had missed before (due it being overshadowed by the other fascinating revelations in that post). Rav Kook specifically addresses this idea of scientifically/logically "proving" the truths of Judaism:

Li-Nevokhei ha-Dor begins (ch. 2) by arguing that it is the “obligation of the true sages of the generation” to follow in the path of the medieval greats who were always concerned about those suffering religious confusion. While the contemporary spiritual leaders must respond to the concerns of modern Jews, R. Kook points out that since the issues confronting people today are so different than those of the medieval period, the works of the rishonim are of only limited value in confronting the current problems.
In ch. 3 R. Kook states that the medieval approach of trying to “prove” religion will not work in our day, and that in place of this, religious leaders should stress justice and righteousness, i.e., the humane values of Judaism.[6]

Dr. Shapiro's footnote has an especially interesting reference to Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg:

[6] R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg would later argue against trying to “prove” Judaism in the medieval fashion. In the post-Hume and post-Kantian world I thought that this was pretty much agreed upon by everyone. How wrong I was can be attested to all who attended my lecture on Maimonides at the 2008 New York Limmud conference and recall the dispute that took place afterwards. An individual who is involved in kiruv adamantly insisted that the major doctrines of Judaism can be proven to the same degree of certainty as a mathematical proof, and that these truths can thus be proven to non-Jews (who if they don’t accept the proofs are being intellectually dishonest). In this conception, there is no longer room for “belief” or “faith”; since the religion has been “proven” we can only speak of “knowledge”. The notion that Judaism could not be proven in this fashion was, I think, regarded by him as akin to heresy. I have had a lot of contact with “kiruv professionals” and had never come across such an approach. Yes, I know that people speak about the Kuzari proof for the giving of the Torah. However, I always understood this to be more in the way of a strong argument rather that an absolute proof, with the upshot of the latter being that one who denies the proof is regarded as intellectually dishonest or as a slave to his passions. I also know R. Elchanan Wasserman’s strong argument in favor of the viewpoint expressed by my interlocutor (see Kovetz Ma’amarim ve-Iggerot, pp. 1ff.), but before then had never actually found anyone who advocated this position, lock, stock and barrel. So the question to my learned readers is, is there a kiruv “school” today which does outreach based on the “Judaism can be proven” perspective?

Meanwhile, at Cross-Currents, it seems that people are misunderstanding what my book "The Camel, The Hare and the Hyrax" says. Here is a comment that I just submitted:

Rabbi Menken, you appear to have misunderstood my book. The Discovery crowd claims that we don’t know the identities of the animals in the Torah’s list, but I claim the exact opposite. What I proved was that we can be very, very confident about the identities of the animals in the Torah’s list – via Chazal, mesorah and from the consensus of everyone who has studied the zoology of the Torah, including Rabbonim as well as academics and zoologists. The problem that these animals don’t chew their cud is usually solved by saying that “maale gerah” doesn’t need to mean “chew the cud” – but once you redefine it, there are many more such animals. (This does not present a problem with the Torah, which makes no claim that these are the only such animals in the entire world.) There are certainly many gaps in the fossil record, but nobody with expertise in this area would claim that this is relevant to discussing the identities of these animals, for reasons that I explained in my book.

Regarding the statement in the Gemara in Chullin that this topic is a rejoinder to one who says that Torah is not from Heaven – there are at least three different explanations of what the Gemara means. The one used by Discovery was first proposed by Naftali Hertz Wessely.

If Discovery feels that the proof is solid and that my book has no merit, why can’t they publish a detailed explanation of the proof and rejoinder to my book? The answer is obvious. Incidentally, I should mention that a number of people in various Aish branches, as well as people from Arachim, accepted my conclusions and stopped using this “proof” for that reason.

I certainly think that Rav Kook's approach of teaching about the humane values of Judaism, in addition to teaching about the extraordinary nature of Jewish history and the value of a Torah lifestyle, makes for a better foundation.

(Note: Lately I had had to reject a number of comments that were off-topic, submitted by suspected trolls, or otherwise not abiding by the comment guidelines. Please familiarize yourself with these guidelines.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scientific and Philosophical Mistakes

There's a certain mistake that I used to make all the time, out of ignorance, but which now I only make when I'm writing sloppily. It's to describe Chazal as making "scientific mistakes." I now know that Chazal did not make scientific mistakes.

Not every mistaken belief about the natural world is a scientific mistake. A scientific mistake is when one engages in the scientific process and, for whatever reason, emerges with a mistaken conclusion. To quote one definition, science is systematized knowledge derived from observation, and experimentation carried out in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied. But a mistake which did not involve engaging in the scientific process is simply a mistaken belief about the natural world.

I think it could be argued that the steady-state theory of the universe held until the Big Bang became accepted was not a scientific mistake. To my knowledge, it wasn't as though the steady-state theory was based upon any experimentation. Rather, it was simply a holdover from the beliefs of antiquity.

Likewise, Chazal rarely engaged in what we would call science. Statements about the sun going behind the sky at night, or about mice being generated from dirt, are not scientific mistakes; they are simply mistaken beliefs about the natural world. (But it is sometimes cumbersome to write that, which is why I sometimes takes the sloppy shortcut and write "scientific mistakes.")

I noticed a similar error in a different context. I once challenged a certain protege of YBT (a very unusual yeshivah which teaches that Maimonidean-style philosophy is the sole legitimate and traditional path of emunah) to account for Rav Moshe Taku, a Tosafist who believed that God is corporeal. He replied that Rav Moshe Taku "made a philosophical mistake."

For the last few months, I have been working on a translation of Rav Moshe Taku's Kesav Tamim. I'm about two-thirds of the way through, and one thing that I can say for certain is that Rav Moshe Taku did not make a philosophical mistake. That's not to say that I agree with Rav Taku's position that God is spatially located vertically above us in heaven and that God has substance and appears in a variety of human forms; with my education, it's impossible for me to subscribe to such a view. But his corporealist view is a mistake about a theological matter, not a philosophical mistake.

Rav Moshe Taku did not engage in philosophy. He was far more familiar with philosophy that many of his predecessors in Ashkenaz, who had probably never even read Rav Saadiah Gaon's "Book of Beliefs," and certainly did not actively engage in dispute with philosophy as he did. In fact, the early scholars in Ashkenaz were barely aware of philosophy at all. In Prof. Avraham Grossman's article "Rashi's Rejection of Philosophy - Divine and Human Wisdoms Juxtaposed," he writes as follows:

It is generally agreed that Rashi's work contains no direct reference to philosophy, a field that exerted no apparent influence on his writing. Scholarship has customarily held that this is due to a lack of knowledge of the subject on Rashi's part. While interest in philosophy was not prevalent in the Christian Europe of Rashi's time, among the Jews in Moslem lands it enjoyed widespread appeal thanks to the significant role played by science and philosophy within Moslem society. This fundamental statement is certainly true. Apparently, however, although Rashi had no intimate knowledge of philosophical study and its nature, he did possess a general knowledge of it, which generated in him an aversion to the subject. He indirectly urged people to keep their distance from it... I wish to emphasize that Rashi was not familiar with any philosophical works, nor was he acquainted with philosophers in his environment or had read their work. Nevertheless, as someone whose entire literary activity was infused by a rare intellectual curiosity he was exposed to this field, if only by way of general knowledge.

Rav Taku actively engaged those who wrote about philosophy. But he did not engage in philosophy. And thus he did not make a philosophical mistake.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Puzzled at Passaic

Although I have visited the United States on countless occasions, I am not American. And I've never been to Passaic, except for one quick stop to visit an old friend. Nevertheless, my understanding is that while Passaic is a somewhat yeshivish neighborhood, it's no Lakewood or Boro Park. The Passaic Torah Institute advertises itself as "a yeshiva for working people... many, if not most, did not have the chance to be nurtured in Yeshivos growing up."

I'd wager that many of these people believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, however they reconcile it with Torah. I'd also wager that many of them would follow Rav Hirsch in rejecting the existence of spontaneously generating mice. And I'll bet that many of them heard about the notorious ban on my books, and were greatly distressed by it.

I was therefore greatly puzzled to discover that the Passaic Torah Institute, for its Chanukah party this Wednesday, has as its guest speaker none other than Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer!

Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer was one of the main zealots behind the ban of my books, along with Rabbi Leib Pinter and Rabbi Leib Tropper. It was he who marked up various pages from the books, jotting down comments describing me as a “thoroughly evil person,” “idiot,” “shaygetz,” “low-life,” “animal,” and “sick man,” and sent copies of these notes to various Gedolei Torah to obtain their signatures on the ban. And it was Rabbi Schmeltzer who authored the infamous work Chaim B'Emunasam, in which he actually had the gall to edit the words of Rambam - deleting and re-arranging words - in order to completely distort Rambam's positions. The goal of Rabbi Schmeltzer's work is to show that anyone who denies the truth of any statement in the Gemara about the natural world is a heretic who should be put to death by any means possible. (You can read my critique of Chaim B'Emunasam at

How can such a person be honored as a guest speaker in a place like Passaic? And how is it that nobody is protesting? I did write to the heads of the PTI, but I did not hear back from them. Is it that people do not know what kind of a person Rabbi Schmeltzer is, or is it that they don't care?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament

This is a long post, but a very important one, so please bear with me!

The story so far: About two weeks ago, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a solid dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

Last week, I pointed out that Chazal's belief in a firmament was not merely of halachic interest to them, but was also how they interpreted the Torah itself, in its mention of the rakia and Shamayim. This was especially significant for those who oppose the belief in the universe developing over billions of years and evolution due to these notions going against Jewish tradition. For aside from the fact that Jewish rationalist tradition was clearly to interpret Genesis in such a way that we do not need to deny scientific facts, the topic of the rakia presented another argument: That even these staunch traditionalists are going against Jewish tradition in their acceptance that there is no firmament and that Chazal's and the Rishonim's view of the rakia was incorrect.

Now, I've been at this game long enough to realize that one can never, ever use arguments to convince anti-rationalists that they are wrong; they are always creative enough to come up with something. But I was curious to know what it would be. Would they resort to saying that all the Rishonim and numerous Acharonim misunderstood Chazal?

They came up with something else instead. In the comments on this blog, as well as on one of the anti-Slifkin blogs (it's a strange sort of honor to have websites that are singularly dedicated to opposing one's views), they came up with the following: True, Chazal mistakenly believed the rakia to be a solid dome. However, this is not part of the mesorah, since this was not their Torah tradition. Rather, it was a case of their using contemporary scientific knowledge to shed light on the Torah. And Rambam says that astronomical matters were matters for which there was no mesorah.

To this, I responded as follows: Throughout the Gemara, we find countless examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on knowledge of the natural world. But we never (to my knowledge) find them using knowledge of the natural world to explain the words and concepts of Tenach! Furthermore, since in the ancient world everyone believed that the sky is solid, there is no question that when each of the Sages received their Torah education from their parents and teachers, they were taught that the rakia is a solid firmament - as were their parents and teachers in turn.

As for quoting Rambam that there was no mesorah on astronomical matters - first of all, the idea of my opponents taking Rambam as the final word on mesorah is quite funny. Rambam, who claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?! In any case, Rambam's statement is with regard to astronomical matters that Chazal had to figure out in order to create and apply halachos, not with regard to cosmology - the basic structure of the world and the meaning of basic words and concepts in the Torah.

But let's learn a little more about Chazal's view of the rakia. As we will see, it is definitely a case of their using Torah to shed light on science, not the other way around. Please note that this post is not discussing yours or my view of the meaning of rakia, which will be the subject of a future post, but rather Chazal's view of the meaning of rakia - and please keep all comments on that point.

The main discussion is in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at the beginning of Maseches Berachos. After discussing how the sun passes through the thickness of the firmament after sunset (before circling around behind it), the Gemara quotes a range of views about how thick the firmament actually is. It then discusses the distances between the land and the firmament, and between the firmament and the "upper waters" (I will discuss the nature of the "upper waters" in a future post). Then, since it cited the verse "Let there be a firmament," it brings the following discussion about that verse (and a similar version is found in Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 4:2):

Rav said: The heavens were fluid on the first day, and they congealed on the second day, as Rav said: "Let there be a rakia" means "Let the rakia become solid, let it become congealed, let it become encased, let it become taut."

The commentaries explain that Rav is addressing the difficulty that if the heavens were already created on the first day, what exactly happened on the second day when God created the firmament - which the Torah identifies as being the heavens? Rav is thus answering that the heavens were only created on the first day in fluid form; it was on the second day that they solidified into the firmament.

But how did Rav know this? The Perush Charedim says that he is deriving it from "Let there be," which implies giving it substance and strength. A different explanation is given by Radal (on the Midrash), who explains that Rav is deriving it from the actual word "rakia" (which is only introduced on Day Two). Rakia refers to something solid, as we see in the passuk, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18).

The Yerushalmi and Midrash also bring another answer to the question of what exactly happened to the heavens on the second day:

Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi said: ["Let there be a rakia" means] "Let the rakia become like a cloth." This is just as it is said, "They flattened out (וירקעו) sheets of gold" (Shemos 39:3).

The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi is following the view that the heavens were created on Day One as a single drop. Thus, what happened on Day Two is that they were stretched out flat like a cloth. He derives this from the passuk which shows that rakia, as a verb, refers to flattening out gold i.e. taking a lump and stretching it out in two dimensions.

The Gemara continues:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The thickness of the firmament is as the width of two fingers. But the words of Rabbi Chanina dispute this, as Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: It says, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18) - Tarkia means that they were made as a thin sheet of metal (i.e. less than the width of two fingers). I might think that they are not strong - therefore it teaches us, "firm"; I might think that they sag with time, therefore it teaches us "like a mirror of cast metal" - that every moment they appear as freshly cast.

The Gemara then cites some related exegeses:

Rabbi Yochanan says: Ordinarily, when a person stretches out a tent, it sags after time; but here, "He stretched [the heavens], like a tent in which to dwell" (Yeshayah 40:22), and it is written "firm" (Iyov ibid.) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Ordinarily, when a person casts vessels, they eventually rust; but here, "like a mirror of cast metal" - that at every moment, they appear as freshly cast (i.e. as beautiful as when originally made).

From all this, a few things are evident. First of all, Chazal used derashos to derive knowledge about various aspects of the firmament - how it was made, its dimensions, and so on. Now, some people might define mesorah as being "that which was received since Sinai," and they might further claim that such derashos do not fall into that category. But I find it hard to believe that my traditionalist opponents are ready to write off so many of Chazal's derashos (and there's no reason why it would be limited to only these) as being "not part of the mesorah." (When Chazal make a derashah that the four animals with one kosher sign are the only such species, can this also be simply written off as "not part of the mesorah"? I look forward to Rav Shlomo Miller suggesting that!)

The second point is that, while Chazal used these derashos to derive knowledge about specific aspects relating to the firmament, it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word. That's not to claim that there aren't those in recent times who explain these sources differently. But Chazal's traditions were clearly in accordance with the straightforward meaning.

In a future post, I will bring further pesukim which shed light on the nature of the rakia, as well as a variety of other sources. But it's clear that Chazal's mesorah was that the rakia is a solid body that is stretched in two dimensions - otherwise known as a firmament. Does this cause a religious problem? If you're a traditionalist, it certainly does, which is why they have to find a way to weasel out of this. But following the rationalist approach of certain Torah authorities, this does not pose a problem at all, as I shall later explain.

Denying Extremism, Dismissing Hooliganism

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, just published an article, in response to an earlier column b...