Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Changing Face of Ohr Somayach

Way back when I used to teach at Ohr Somayach, it was a relatively moderate, open-minded place. True, Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo was no longer teaching there. But there was still my good friend Rabbi Mordechai Becher (now at Gateways). Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky was teaching that the universe is billions of years old and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb was saying that Chazal could have been mistaken in science. Most significantly, Rav Nachman Bulman, ztz"l, an extremely special person (pictured here), was the mashgiach. I had some discussions with him about Torah/science issues. He told me that Daat Emet, who had just started disseminating their anti-religious literature, was doing a service for the frum community in that they would force it to confront these issues. And he read my early writings on these topics, and encouraged me to publish them. Rav Bulman passed away before the ban on my writings, which, as his family told me, would have caused him much grief.

Ohr Somayach is now a very different place. Rav Moshe Shapiro is the dominant influence there; he is greatly revered and nobody would dream of disputing anything he says. The person who sells seforim there is not allowed to sell my books. Rabbis Gottlieb and Orlofsky now insist that the world is 5770 years old and that we may not say that Chazal erred in science. And now I see that my former colleague Rabbi Chaim Salenger has taken the initiative of calling me mistaken for saying that Chazal occasionally erred in science. He criticizes the approach, which he attributes to me, that the source of some of the statements by Chazal concerning spontaneous generation and the like was Greek or Roman philosophers/scientists, and he specifically mentions the case of the mouse that is half-flesh and half-dirt (which, as is universally explained and is clear from Sanhedrin 91a, refers to a mouse that is being generated from dirt and is halfway through this process).

The funny thing is that Rabbi Salenger thinks he is presenting the view of Rav Aharon Feldman, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. R. Salenger states that spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd" but that Chazal did not believe in it; when they wrote about the mouse that is half flesh and half-dirt, it was a Midrashic statement that must be interpreted allegorically.

But this is not Rav Feldman's position, and with good reason. The discussion about the mouse is not a Midrash or an aggadata - it is a Mishnah, and a halachah. Halachos are not interpreted allegorically! Which is why the Rishonim and Acharonim all understood that the Mishnah was talking about an actual mouse that is generated from dirt. Thus, Rav Feldman, in deference to Rav Elyashiv's view that it is prohibited to say that Chazal relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, insisted (in a conversation with me) that this creature must exist, not that it is an allegory.

In the comment thread there, when confronted with the fact that it is a Mishnah, R. Salenger immediately does an about-turn and insists that this creature does indeed exist. But what about his earlier statement that it must be allegorical since spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd"? He does not explain. This reminds of a point that Dr. Marc Shapiro once made - that if a firm belief can be dropped in an instant when it runs afoul of the Gedolim, in what way can it be said that the person holds any beliefs at all?

Anyway, in support of his new-found insistence that the patently and obviously absurd does indeed exist, R. Salenger quotes the scientific fact that new species are constantly discovered. That is indeed true; however, the new species that are discovered invariably turn out to be variations on existing creatures, not creatures that fundamentally rewrite the laws of science. R. Salanger also cites the Tiferes Yisroel, who is adamant that this creature exists and claims scientific support. The Tiferes Yisroel writes as follows:
"...I have heard heretics mocking regarding the creature that is discussed here and in Sanhedrin 91a, and denying it, saying that there is no such thing at all. Therefore, I have seen fit to mention here that which I found written in a Western European work compiled by a scholar renowned amongst the scholars of the world. His name is Link, and the book is titled Urwelt. In volume I, page 327, he writes that such a creature was found in Egypt in the district of Thebes, and that rodent is called, in the Egyptian language, Dipus jaculus; and in the language of Germany it is called springmaus. Its forequarters – its head, chest and hands – are perfectly formed; but its hindquarters are still embedded in the earth, until after several days when it fully changes to flesh."

However, as I explained at length in both Mysterious Creatures and Sacred Monsters (which perhaps R. Salenger should read), Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman has already proved that the Tiferes Yisrael completely misunderstood what Link was saying. Even the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud notes this. (And, of course, even if Link were to have believed in spontaneous generation, this would not make it true! But what happened to R. Salenger's claim that spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd"?)

Of course, for a Jew who follows in the tradition of most of the Rishonim and many Acharonim, that the source of some of Chazal's statements were the reigning beliefs of the era rather than being allegories or infallible, divine statements, this Mishnah does not present a difficulty at all.Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch specifically applies this approach to this case:
Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he had found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh and his report was accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect the Sages to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of defilement and decontamination apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can the Sages be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well known and accepted in his day.
It is sad that R. Salenger chose to condemn the approach presented by most Rishonim and specifically applied to this case by Rav Hirsch. But, as Rav Moshe Shapiro is reported to have said (after being proven wrong in his claim that Rav Hirsch's letter was forged), "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash."

I miss the old Ohr Somayach. In Rav Bulman's day, Rav Hirsch was from that Beis HaMidrash.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kesav Tamim

Ksav Tamim is a fascinating work by the thirteenth century Tosafist R. Moshe ben Chisdai Taku (alt.: Tachau). It is a lengthy polemic against the anti-anthropomorphic position taken by figures such as R. Saadiah Gaon. R. Moshe Taku insists that God can and does take on physical form, and considers those who believe otherwise to be denying the truths of Tenach and Chazal. I was recently hired by ArtScroll to produce an annotated translation of Kesav Tamim.

Just joking! It wasn't ArtScroll that hired me, it's someone else. No, I can't say who. Anyway, because of this project, even though I had previously looked through virtually all of Ksav Tamim, I am now going through it much more carefully. It is absolutely fascinating. Some people may wonder what the value of this work is today. One answer is that, if we are to understand all the diverse Torah scholars of the past, it is invaluable to gain an appreciation of just how different some of them were from our own worldview; this helps overcome the natural tendency to read our own outlook into others. In addition, when you have one of the Baalei Tosafos, praised by Ramban as a great Torah scholar, staunchly advocating an approach that many would rate as heresy, this forces us to re-assess how we define heresy and heretics. This is something that I address at length in the latest issue of Hakirah, in my article, "They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy."

My translation will not be published for a long time yet, but in the meanwhile, the Hebrew edition of Ksav Tamim can be downloaded here. This is the version from SeforimOnline, which includes some of the text appended from Arguat HaBosem and ends with a page from Ramban which includes praise of R. Moshe Taku. There is also an interesting article by Rabbi David Sedley about R. Moshe Taku, corporealism and rationalism, which you can download here.

P.S. Please remember the new "I need to spend less time on this blog" comments policy. If your comment requires a response from me, it's less likely to be posted. If you have a question, your best bet is to email me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

New Comments Policy

I must say that I was touched and taken aback at the comments to my earlier post about my blogging dilemmas. It was interesting how many people agreed that I should not freely post all comments. Anyway, after thinking about it, my conclusion is as follows: I definitely don't have the time for any more of those endless back-and-forths. I will also be more selective in general of which comments to post. I read all comments submitted, but if you want to ask me a question, it's always better to email me (or call me) rather than to post it as a comment. The comments section is for comments that contribute to the post. If you want to increase your chances of the comment being posted, here are the factors that will help (none are critical, but all help):

1. Use your real name. I don't want to make this a critical requirement - some of the best comments come from those who do not use their real name - but certainly if you are challenging me, I am not likely to give you a forum to do so if you are not willing to post your real name, just as I do.

2. Do not include links without a clear explanation of what the link is to (otherwise you are potentially wasting time for many people).

3. Use good English and full sentences.

4. Stick to the point.

5. Finally, preference will be given to comments that are in the spirit of the Rationalist Judaism enterprise, as I understand it. That doesn't mean that you have to agree with me. But I think that I am able gauge the difference between someone who disagrees with me and yet is operating within the same overall worldview and epistemology, and someone who disagrees with me because they are using an entirely different worldview and epistemology.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Weekend Lectures in Brooklyn

Saturday February 13th, 8.30 pm
Sacred Monsters: Mysterious & Mythical Creatures of Torah, Midrash and Talmud
Sephardic Institute, 511 Avenue R, Brooklyn
Entrance Donation: $10

Sunday February 14th
Congregation Bnei Israel, 3190 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn
10am - Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions
11.30am - Worlds in Collision: Of Bans and Controversies
Entrance Donation: $10 for one lecture, $15 for both

Books will be available for purchase (including The Challenge of Creation which is currently out of print, pending republication).
Please spread the word! You can download a flyer here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blogging Dilemmas

As I have mentioned previously, I have serious misgivings about this blog. My wife points out that it is a drain on my time and concentration, which could be better dedicated to the numerous essays and books on which I am working. On the other hand, it's a way of sharing ideas and receiving feedback, and many people tell me that they appreciate it.

The method for handling the comments section is especially difficult. It's even more time-consuming and draining on my attention than writing posts. There are already many people who send me questions via email, and now there is another forum for people to engage me in debate. Furthermore, due to my position as public figure who is controversial in some circles, there are a lot of people who wish to challenge me. Some attempt to post obscene insults. Others are mensches, but they are strongly opposed to my approach and views. Some people try to flood the comments section with endless lengthy and repetitive comments. There are so many people who demand the right to debate me, and criticize me if I eventually don't want to continue. And then there is the issue that many of these people do not even comment under their own name, as I mentioned previously. I'd like to see them publish their own views on sensitive matters and open themselves up on their own websites for challenges!

It's very clear to me that many arguments are pointless. Debating the scientific merits of evolution with creationists never gets anywhere. Nor does debating Rashi's corporealist beliefs with people to whom it is inconceivable that such a Torah giant could have been a corporealist. This is what I pointed out after several weeks' debate with Rabbi Zucker, whereupon some people claimed that I was just trying to squirm out of it because I didn't have answers. This charge is easily refuted; Rabbi Zucker sent a ten thousand word critique to Hakira, and I wrote a ten thousand word response to all his arguments. I was not lacking in responses in this blog, just realistic about the futility and endlessness of the debate. A lengthy exchange in a journal is far superior to an endless exchange on a blog, which has no end in sight.

On a post from a few days ago about Rashi, I decided to shut down the comments after over a hundred had been posted. Some people wrote to me to complain; one was a supporter who was worried that it made me look bad. But what am I supposed to do? The debate did not seem to be getting anywhere. Furthermore, the people arguing with me had not even read the two primary texts on which such a debate should be based - R. Moshe Taku's Ksav Tamim and my article in Hakirah. So what should I do? I think that in my books, my lectures (with open question sessions) and this website, I have made it clear that I am ready to publicly discuss my views and defend them, which certainly cannot be said about many of my opponents. But I simply don't have the time for endless arguing, and why should my numerous opponents always have the last word and flood the comments section with challenges?

The internet is a free forum. Anyone can open up a website to challenge my views - there are already sites such as NotBrisk which do that. And if people want to challenge my articles in Hakirah, they can write to Hakirah. But I think that it is impractical and unfair to expect this website to be a forum for all my ideological opponents to be able to endlessly air all their objections to my writings. What do you think?

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The  nesher , king of...