Monday, May 31, 2010

IDF Videos of Activists Using Violence against Navy


It's an irrational world.

Gaza is run by Hamas, a terrorist organization sworn to the destruction of Israel and willing to deliberately target women and children. Israel is thus at war with Gaza, although it is being nice in allowing Gaza to receive aid. However, for obvious reasons, a naval blockade is necessary.

The flotilla of six ships was obviously more determined to make an international scene than to deliver aid. Aid can be more effectively delivered via other channels, and if you want to fill a ship with aid, it would help not to pack six hundred people on it.

Israel had to stop the ships. Obviously Israel is not entirely stupid, and would want to stop the ships in the quietest way possible. Which they managed to do with five of the six ships, but you won't see the media reporting that. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think that Israel would want the international disaster of causing casualties.

Apparently, most of the world is not in their right mind. They believe that Israeli forces were given orders to initiate shooting at people and cause a political disaster for Israel.

As we know, Israeli forces who boarded one of the ships were assaulted by weapons. Fearing for their lives, they were forced to defend themselves. Being trained and armed soldiers, they were more effective than their attackers. Which in the eyes of the world, is a moral crime. Apparently in defending one's life, one is only allowed to cause the exact amount of harm that one has suffered so far.

All this is old news, just reflecting the ongoing absurdity of Judeopathy that has been around for a very long time. But the highlight/lowlight, the most absurd thing that I saw in the media, was the description that the Guardian (a notoriously Judeopathic newspaper from England) gave of events. In describing the Israeli version of events, it says that the activists "relieved the commandos of their pistols."

Ah yes! What a perfectly British way of describing it.

"We'll be having those pistols, sir. We wouldn't them to go off. Someone might get hurt. We'll just put them in a safe place where they can't be used. That'll be a relief."

(Yes, I'm aware that one of the dictionary definitions of "relieve" is "steal." However, in this context, it gives the impression that the activists were simply trying to disarm the soldiers, whereas what they actually did was to steal their weapons and use them to shoot at them!)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Healthy Capacity for Self-Awareness

My friend David Bar-Cohen pointed me to a remarkable Gemara in Megillah 12b. It is an Aggadah about Megillas Esther, discussing the events following Vashti's refusal to appear at Achashverosh's party. The Gemara recounts how Achashverosh consulted the Jewish sages for advice on how to treat her, which placed the rabbis in a quandary:

They said [to themselves], What shall we do? If we tell him to have her executed, tomorrow he will demand her from us when the effects of the wine wear off. If we tell him to ignore her, there is a disregard for the kingship. So they said to him, "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, and we were exiled from our land, counsel has been taken from us, and we can no longer judge capital crimes. Go to Ammon and Moav, who are dwelling in their place like wine upon sediment."

In case someone is going to say that Chazal were not telling the truth and were just said this to avoid being put in a tight spot, but that it's not really true, the Gemara continues to confirm that they were speaking the truth:

And what they said is reasonable (Rashi - it was well said and certainly true that Ammon and Moav had more settled minds), as it is written, "Moav has been at peace since his youth, and in tranquility upon his sediment; he has not been poured from vessel to vessel, and has not gone into exile; therefore, his taste stands in him, and his scent has not changed."

This is remarkable! Chazal are attesting that, due to the tribulations of exile, rabbinic judges and scholars lack peace of mind, and are less capable of judging serious matters than their non-Jewish counterparts! Can you imagine anyone saying such a thing today? They'd be slifkinned alive!

Like R. Yehudah HaNasi's acknowledgment in Pesachim 94b of the superiority of the non-Jewish scholar's views, we see that Chazal did not suffer from the "siege mentality" of Jews today. They did not see any reason to automatically deny the possibility of non-Jews possessing certain wisdom that they lacked - even in matters relating to moral and legal judgment, let alone science.

The gulf that separates Chazal from later generations is truly remarkable.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Does this Fabulous Beast Exist?

Following the discussion in the comments to an earlier post about egg-laying bats, I thought it might be useful to post this extract from my book Sacred Monsters:

In determining whether a creature could exist, the following method of analysis is used.

I. How reliable and unambiguous is the evidence?
Are there actually people who have claimed to have witnessed the creature first hand, or is it just a legend? What precisely does the report say? How reliable are the witnesses? Could they have been misled by false information? And if it is a Talmudic account – does the account mean that it is a real creature, or is it a metaphor? Is there any physical evidence, and could that evidence be interpreted in different ways?

II. What is the biological viability of such a creature?
Zoology is a highly developed science, and contemporary scientists are extremely knowledgeable about the natural world. Of course, there are wondrous new discoveries that are made every week. Nevertheless, we now possess a fairly good idea of which types of creatures are biologically viable, and one can now predict what type of wonders will and will not be discovered. For instance, we can expect to find new wondrous evidence of intelligence in certain insects. But we can be sure that no insects fifty feet in length will be discovered, for reasons that we shall later discuss.
However, sometimes people rule out the biological viability of a creature based on a popular conception of what the name of the creature refers to. Yet by slightly redefining the creature, it is often possible to conceive of a creature that is indeed biologically viable. For example, a mermaid that is half human being and half fish is biologically impossible, but a member of the seal or manatee family with more humanlike arms and facial features is certainly viable.
Some point out that even if the existence of such an animal contradicts the laws of science, it is possible that it exists by way of a supernatural miracle. This is indeed a possibility. Yet there are numerous classical authorities who state that positing the existence of miracles is a last resort and they are certainly not God’s preferred system for running the world. Accordingly, it is highly unlikely that there are creatures which can exist only through perpetual open miracles.

III. Can we satisfactorily account for the evidence if the creature is presumed not to exist?
It might seem easy for a skeptic to dismiss the possible existence of an extraordinary creature. But there is usually a considerable body of eyewitness testimony or other evidence of the creature’s existence that needs to be accounted for. As unlikely as something may be, a large body of eyewitness testimony from reliable witnesses, or other testimony from significant sources, may force one to accept the possibility of the existence of such a creature, or at the very least to account for the testimony in some way.

IV. Can we satisfactorily account for the lack of evidence if the creature is presumed to exist?
Proposing that a given creature does exist, on the other hand, leaves one with the problem of why there is no concrete evidence for it. The vast majority of creatures are known not from just one or two specimens but from many hundreds or thousands, both dead and alive. The total lack of any evidence for any fabulous creature is very revealing.

I leave it to the reader to apply this analysis to the Gemara's statement that bats lay eggs.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Beauty of Berachos

About a year ago, I met with a very fine and intelligent person who was of traditional upbringing, and had recently joined Orthodoxy via a Hasidic sect. He was unhappy with certain aspects of this sect's worldview, and wanted to explore how Rationalist Judaism measured up against the version of Orthodoxy that he was involved with. In the course of the discussion, one of the topics that came up was berachos on food. I told him that berachos on food serve to enhance and express our appreciation for it.

The person was quite taken aback to hear that. After all, the hassidic view was that making berachos serves to elevate and liberate the sparks of divine energy that are embedded in all matter and enable it to exist. I guess that compared to that, the idea that I was presenting sounded rather trivial, and not very Jewish. It certainly seemed revolutionary.

Now, I agree that I have a greater appreciation of food than most people. My mother brought me up with the stern message that it is a sin to be disrespectful of food. I have an extremely high metabolism, and going without food for a long period is very difficult for me. And I've actually met the starving children in Africa.

Still, I think that the idea of berachos as enhancing and expressing our appreciation for food is a very, very powerful idea. And I don't think that it's a medieval Greco-Muslim-rationalist-influenced spin on Judaism, but rather the straightforward and traditional understanding of berachos. Food keeps us alive, through the incredible intricacies of the body's functioning - the more one learns about the scientific aspects of that, the more there is to be amazed at. In addition, food tastes good and is enjoyable to consume. What's more, you and I eat better than 99.9999% of the humans to have ever existed. Just think about what you would eat if you lived 500 years ago! Isn't it great to be obligated to consciously appreciate all that, rather than to eat like a mindless automaton? I remember once listening to a very frum person speak with disgust about the food that he was eating. But wasn't he about to thank Hashem and praise Him for it? If we are going to take berachos seriously, this forces us to appreciate the benefits of the food that we eat rather than complain about what it isn't.

Berachos are a beautiful and powerful mitzvah. They are about appreciating the good in life. Isn't that enough?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Letter to Rav Belsky

Adar 18th 5770
To: Rav Yisroel Belsky

Dear Rav Belsky, shlita,

Shalom u’vrachah
, I hope that the Rosh Yeshivah is well. Baruch Hashem, all is well with me.

I am writing concerning a letter that the Rosh Yeshivah sent to Dr. Isaac Betech in Mexico which has since been publicized. (If this letter is some sort of forgery, please let me know, but I am assuming that it is authentic.) In this letter, the Rosh Yeshivah states that “the sages of the Talmud were far advanced in all facets of wisdom and correct in every field of knowledge,” that “the sages spoke only the truth and were the repository of all wisdom,” that “so-called contradictions between Torah and science never presented any problem” to you because you “had not come across any that couldn’t be resolved with ease,” and that “every seeming contradiction can be shown to be of no consequence to a seasoned mind.”

As I understand it, the Rosh Yeshivah is not casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the approach of the many dozens of Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim who write that Chazal were sometimes incorrect in their statements about the natural world. Rather, the Rosh Yeshivah is claiming that while this approach is legitimate, it is not necessary for us to invoke it, since all statements by Chazal about the natural world can easily be reconciled with science.

Given this statement, I would greatly appreciate it if, for my own education and for the community at large, the Rosh Yeshivah could explain how the following three statements of Chazal can be reconciled with science:

• The statement of the Chachmei Yisrael that the sun goes behind the sky at night (Pesachim 94b). Every single Rishon that I have seen discuss this (R. Sherira Gaon and R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham, Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafos Rid, R. Eliezer b. Shmuel of Metz, Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, Ritva, R. Manoach b. Yaakov, R. Menachem ben Aharon ibn Zerach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, Radvaz) agrees that this statement should be interpreted at face value, with only Rabbeinu Tam saying that Chazal were nevertheless correct that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and all the rest agreeing with R. Yehudah HaNasi that Chazal were mistaken. (I know that Maharal, Ramchal etc. interpret it metaphorically, but there is no basis for this in the Rishonim, and nor is there any indication in the Gemara that it is metaphorical.)

• The statement that the bat (atalef) lays eggs (Bechoros 7b). Modern zoology asserts that none of the 950 species of bats lay eggs. It is not reasonable to say that there is a mistranslation here; Rashi translates atalef as bat, and no classical commentator has ever disputed this. It cannot be a platypus or echidna (which lay eggs and nurse their young), since these animals do not fly and the atalef is listed in the Torah as a flying creature. Even if one were to posit that it is a bird, which does lay eggs, there would still be a problem in that the Talmud describes it as nursing its young, which no bird does. It is likewise not reasonable to address this conflict by arguing that the Talmud is speaking metaphorically. The statement about bats is not aggadata, but rather part of a discussion about the natural world. No commentator has ever suggested that it is not meant as a factual statement. Nor can one solve this conflict by positing that nature has changed. Modern science asserts not only that bats do not lay eggs today, but that they have never laid eggs. The only egg-laying mammals, the duck-billed platypus and echidna, live in Australia and are physiologically unusual creatures that are on an extremely remote branch of the mammalian family tree, both geographically and physiologically. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom. I understand that some people would simply say that “science is wrong,” but, as I understand your claim, it is that all statements in Chazal can be reconciled with science, not that science should simply be waved away.

• The statement that the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, elephant, and monkey have a gestation period of three years (Bechoros 8a). Again, the context of this statement dictates against a metaphorical explanation, and I have not seen any Rishon or Acharon state that it is not meant literally. Nor would any biologist that I know assert that this statement is true or was ever true.

I eagerly anticipate the Rosh Yeshivah’s response to these questions. The latter two are of particular importance, since I am currently writing a comprehensive Torah encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, and it would be helpful if I could show how these statements can be reconciled with science. Thank you for your time.

Natan Slifkin

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Rishonim on Torah Study

המאירי על מסכת שבת דף ט/א
ושמא תאמר והיאך הקלו בתלמוד תורה משאר מצות שהעוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה כמו שאמרו במסכת סוכה בכותבי ספרים תפלין ומזוזות וכל העוסקים במלאכת שמים לאתויי מוכרי תכלת י"ל שהתלמוד אינו אלא להביא לידי מעשה והיאך יפקיע את המעשה.

R. David b. R. Avraham b. Rambam
“This [learning in order to practice] is the highest level; it is achieved by one who studies the Torah with the aim of revealing its principles and viewing its mysteries, so that he may walk in its paths and fulfill its commandments.” (Midrash David to Avos 4:5)

R. Shimshon of Shantz
“It is not the study that is the main point, but rather it is a man’s good deeds that pull and bring him into the next world.” (Comment to Sifri Acharei 9:9)

דרשות הר"ן - הדרוש השביעי
שכבר ידוע שכונת כל התורה כדי להשיג יראת השם. ואין התכלית להיותנו משיגי החכמה' כי השגת האדם בחכמה מעוטה, כבר ראינו מי שנאמר בו. ויחכם מכל האדם, וכשהגיע לפרה אדומה אמר אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני. וכבר ביאר זה איוב באור רב. ומה שחייבנו בלמוד ראשיתו אינו רק להגיע אל המעשה.

Rabbeinu Bechaye
“ ‘It is not the study that is the main point, but rather the practice’ – That is to say, the goal of a person’s knowledge and toil in Torah is not that he should study much Torah. The goal is nothing other than that it should bring him to practice. And that is what is written, ‘And you should study them and guard them to fulfill them’ – it comes to teach that the purpose of study is for nothing other than practice.” (Commentary to Avos 1:17; See there at length)

Rabbeinu Yonah
פירוש רבנו יונה על אבות - פרק רביעי משנה ו
והלמד על מנת לעשות מספיקין בידו ללמוד וללמד ולעשות. ר"ל שדעתו לפלפל בלמוד כדי לדעת אמתת הדברים, ורצונו לטרוח כמה ימים ושנים להשיג דבר קטון ולנהוג עצמו על פי האמת, הרי זה למד על מנת לעשות, שכל עיקר אין מחשבתו כי אם אל המעשה להיות אמתי, ולפיכך מספיקין בידו ללמוד וללמד ולעשות שהכל בגלל המעשה:

R. Yosef Albo
ספר העקרים - מאמר שלישי פרק ה
וכלל דברי הנביא הוא כי כל הפעולות שיעשה אותם האדם הן שיהיו ממין החסד או ממין המשפט או ממין הצדקה ראוי שיעשה אותם לפי שהם פעולות או מעשים שהש"י חפץ בעשיתן וזהו שסיים כי באלה חפצתי נאם ה' ויראה מזה שהרצון האלהי הוא בפעולות הנעשות בפועל כשיצטרף אל הפעל ההוא ההשכלה לעשות מה שהשם חפץ כמ"ש השכל וידוע אותי כי אני יי' עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי באלה חפצתי נאם יי' אבל לא בחלק המדעי בלבד מבלי שיצטרף אליו המעשה וכשיצטרף אליו המעשה אז יקרא ידיעה ולא קודם לכן אמר ירמיהו אביך הלא אכל ושתה ועשה משפט וצדקה וגו' דן דין עני ואביון אז טוב לו הלא היא הדעת אותי נאם ה' (ירמיה כ"ב) הנה גלה בפירוש כי אין מעלה גדולה לגבור שהוא המלך אלא בעשית המשפט בפועל ושזה יקרא ידיעה את השם:
והוא מבואר שאין תכלית יותר נכבד אל האדם להשיג שלמות האנושי מידיעת השם וקרא המעשה הנעשה ע"ז התואר שזכרנו ידיעה לבאר שבמעשה הנעשה ע"ז התואר ר"ל בכונה לעשות רצון השם יושג התכלית האנושי שהוא קיום הנפש בעה"ב וכן תמצא המלאך בשם השם מיעד ליהושע בן יהוצדק הכהן הגדול הקיום לנפשו בעה"ב על שמירת המצות ועשית פעולות בכוונת עבודת השם (זכריה ג') אמר כה אמר ה' צבאות אם בדרכי תלך ואם את משמרתי תשמור וגם אתה תדין את ביתי וגם תשמור את חצרי ונתתי לך מהלכים בין העומדים האלה ותרגם יהונתן בן עוזיאל בין שרפיא האלין הרי שיעד לו קיום הנפש והיותה מתהלכת בין המלאכים שעומדים לפניו תמיד בשכר שידין את ביתו וישמור את חצריו וזה מה שרצינו לבארו:

Ibn Caspi

Printed in Hebrew Ethical Wills, ed. Israel Abrahams (JPS)
יוסף אבן כספי, ספר יורה דעה, צואות גאוני ישראל, חלק א, תש"ח.
ודע כי ידיעת ה' הנכבד שזכרתי לך היא המצוה הראשונה לכל תרי"ג מצות שלנו כמו שכתוב 'וידעת את ה' אלהיך.' וזה יסוד לארבע המצות שסדר המורה בראש ס' המדע. וקראם יסודי התורה. והם לדעת שיש מצוי ראשון. ושהוא אחד. ולאהבו וליראה ממנו. ונקרא אלה יסודי התורה בי הם תכלית ועיקר לכל המצות. וזה סוף כל האדם.
השמר לך פן יהי עם לבבך בליעל לאמור אחר שאלה הד' מצות הם העיקר והתכלית מה לי וליתר המצות? הלא טוב לי שאקל מעלי תר"ט מצות. חלילה לך מעשות כדבר הזה. חי ה' כי יתר המצות כולם מועילות תועלות גדולות מצד עצמם ומצד הישרתם לאלה הארבע. ולא תוכל לקיים אלה הארבע קיום אמיתי אלא בקיום כל המצות. ... וכן אין קיום לנפש בלעדי הגוף. ולכן נחלקו המצות תחלה לתקון הגוף ותיקון הנפש ואחר למעשיות ולעיוניות. וכבר ביאר זה המורה באור שלם. שס' המדע וכן בס' המורה. וזכרו זה תחלה רבותינו המכובדים במקומות מפוזרים. ובאר דבריהם אריסטו בס' המדות ביאור שלם. כי בזמן בית שני היה זה החכם ומהם למד בכל מה שאמר אמת. ואין אני זוכר שיצא מגדר דבריהם רק בענין הקדמות ובענין מזלות חוזרין וגלגל קבוע....
והמשל בזה כי אינו הכרח שנדע כולנו על כל פנים דין ארבעה שומרים. או כל הלכות טוען ונטען שאלה ופקדון. ואם הידיעה הזאת טובה, רק די לנו אם יש לנו בימינו שופט או שופטים ידעו זה ושפטו את העם בכל עת. וזה כי אם אוכל לשבת כל ימי ודבר אין לי עם אדם מענין ריב ומדון לא יהי חסרון בנפשי כי לא ידעתי אלה הדינים. ואם ח"ו יארע לי ריב עם זולתי אלכה לי אל אחד מהרבנים היודעים דינים אלו. אין זה חסרון בנפשי כלל....ואמנם במצות הלביות והעיוניות לא כן חי ה'. כי כל עצמם ומהותם הידיעה הנפשית אשר לאיש ואיש וזה בפועל תמיד ציור שלם ודבוק שכלי. וגם זה אינו שלימות גמור אלא אם כן תדע זה במופתים והקשים הכרחיים. ולכן אמרה התורה וידעת את ה' אלהיך...
בני שמור אמרי! הנך היום בן שתים עשרה שנה. לכן שקוד בתורה במקרא ובגמרא עוד שתי שנים אחר כן. ואתה בן י"ד שנה קבע עתים לכל מה שקדם. ותן חלק גדול לחכמות הלמודיות. וזה תחלה ס' המספר מאבן עזרא ואחריו ס' האקלידס ואחריו ס' אלפרגאני וחשבון המהלכות. עם קבעך עתים בספרים המוסריים המישרים אורחותיך במדות. והם ס' משלי וקהלת ומס' אבות עם פרוש המורה והקדמתו. וכן הלכות דעות מס' המדע וכן ס' המדות לארסטו אשר עשיתי ממנו קיצור. וכן ס' אחר נמצא אצלינו המקבץ מוסרי הפלוסופים.
הנה כל זה תבין בב' שנים. ואתה בן י"ו שנה תקבע עתים לתורה ולמקרא ולספרי הרב אלפאסי וס' רבינו משה מקוצי וס' משנה תורה מן הרב השלם. ותן חלק גדול למלאכת ההגיון. ובע"ה אעשה לך קיצור מזאת המלאכה יספוך לך כמו שעשיתי קיצור מס' המדות. ובזה התמיד שני שנים אחרים. ואתה בן י"ח שנה תקבע עתים לכל מה שקדם. ושקוד בחכמת הטבע ובזה התמיד שתי שנים אחר ובנית ביתך. ואתה בן עשרים שנה. אל תרף ידך מן העיון במוסרים ותתחיל באלהיות. הם ספרי מה שלאחר הטבע לארסטו ותלמידיו וס' המורה…
המין האחר הוא הנמצאים מעמנו שיבזו החכמות המיוסדות בספרי אריסטו וחביריו. ולא ידעו כי בנפשם ידברו. כי אלה החכמות היו שלנו מקדם והעד על זה כי הם פירוש ומופת למצות תורתינו. ועוד כי רובן מפוזרות בהגדות בגמרא ובשאר ספריהם. וכל שכן בס' המורה שחבר רבינו משה אב בתורה אב בחכמה. ומי לנו גדול ממשה? והנה בני זה המין אין אני מגנה אותם בהיותם משימים כל ימיהם בשקלא וטריא מן הגמרא. וכל אחד כמו שאמר אבן גאנח מהולל על טרחו ומשובח על יגיעו. אבל אני מגנה אותם כי יבזו ההחכמות ולומדיהם.

Ibn Ezra also says something relevant about learning Gemara, I think perhaps in Yesod Mora, but I can't find it... can anyone provide the source?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Books on Torah Study

Before listing the sources from the Rishonim concerning the goal of Torah study, I would like to note the two wonderful books that present these sources: Torah Study by R. Dr. Yehudah Levi, and Torah LiShmah: Torah for Torah's sake in the works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries, by R. Dr. Norman Lamm.

R. Dr. Levy's Torah Study was reportedly put in cherem by Rav Schach for its sections about the importance of pursuing a livelihood. It also has an especially interesting haskamah from the Gerrer Rebbe. You can look at a sample of the book and purchase it here.

R. Dr. Lamm's Torah LiShmah has a different focus and is a more scholarly and detailed work. It is not just a study of R. Chaim of Volozhin's approach on its own, but rather discusses it in light of the approaches that preceded and surrounded it. You can look at a sample of the book here, but unfortunately it is out of print.

(Note: I would suggest buying the books from the publishers - Feldheim, Ktav - rather than from Amazon. Amazon forces the publisher to let them take a huge cut.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Goal of Torah Study

I recently heard a shiur, from an outstanding, brilliant and widely-learned Rav in the Charedi world whom I greatly respect, about the importance of Torah study. He spoke about how it is a given in Jewish thought that the main purpose of Torah study is not so that we should know halachah - in fact, he said, knowing halachah is so much not the main purpose of Torah study that it's almost as though this is not a purpose at all. Instead, he explained, the main purpose of Torah study is to metaphysically sustain the universe and for our minds to tap into the Divine. He quoted Maharal about how Torah is the energy source of existence, and compared it to how science describes the universe itself as being fundamentally made of energy.

This was consistent with everything that I was taught in yeshivah. In fact, in yeshivah, I was taught that this goal should primarily be specifically accomplished via learning Gemara; more specifically, via the Bavli; more specifically, via certain sections of Nashim and Nezikin; more specifically, by learning b'iyun rather than bekiyus; and more specifically, via a specific derech halimmud.

But, as my studies have increased, it now appears to me that this is similar to so many other topics - it is an approach which began around the time of Maharal, gradually became more and more popular, and eventually became so entrenched in people's minds that they began to read it back into earlier sources and believe that nobody ever thought differently. In this case, the full-fledged treatment given to this idea by Rav Chaim of Volozhin was especially influential; popular belief is that he was simply describing what everyone always thought rather than originating anything.

R. Dr. Yitzchak Twersky, in describing the other extreme - Ibn Kaspi's "putting down" of learning Gemara vis-a-vis studying philosophy and metaphysics - refers to this pattern:

“...This confrontation continues when we find the Maharal of Prague vehemently denouncing those who ridicule the study of Nezikin while revering the study of physics; he repeatedly exposes the fallacy of such argumentation. If we were to look ahead, we could see the Maharal's position as a historical fulcrum: on one hand reacting against the position established by Kaspi and on the other setting the stage for that position usually attributed to the two great contemporaries and antagonists of the beginning of the nineteenth century: R. Hayyim of Volohzin and R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the two great ideologues of pure Talmud study which is, in the final analysis, to be perceived as study of God's essence. All Talmud study is useful and perennially relevant; expending time and energy in order to understand even the discarded opinion in a debate or the wrong view in a controversy is unquestionably meritorious, for it is study of the word of God, it is thinking God's thoughts. Study per se is practical and need not seek to anchor itself in an external, self-transcending relevance. All Talmud study is self-validating and its universality should be the ideal for all. This, of course, is the absolute antithesis of Kaspi's restrictive attitude which would make Talmudic knowledge a purely professional concern nurtured by pragmatic or utilitarian criteria...
Chapter 11 of Tiferet Yisrael goes one step further in the reaction against the Kaspi-type position and the vindication of pure Talmud study... In the history of ideas, this may be seen as setting the stage for R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, sha’ar IV chaps. 6, 10.” (R. Isadore Twersky, “Joseph ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” pp. 246, 257)

Over the next few days, I will post various sources from the Rishonim which speak about the goal of Torah study - and please feel free to contribute more sources.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Curse Upon Thee!

Here is a fascinating extract from Prof. Twerksy's article on Ibn Kaspi (minus footnotes), regarding Rambam's view of the nature of curses:

The Torah prohibits us from cursing: "You shall not curse the deaf" (Levit. 19:14). In the Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides explains, at some length, the nature of the act and the reasons for its prohibition.

When a person is moved by a desire to revenge himself on one who has wronged him by inflicting upon him an injury of the kind which he believes he has suffered, he will not be content until he has requited the wrong in that fashion; and only when he has had his revenge will his feelings be relieved, and his mind cease to dwell on the idea. Sometimes a man's desire for revenge will be satisfied by merely cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy. But sometimes the matter will be more serious, and he will not be content until he has completely ruined the other, whereupon he will be satisfied by the thought of the pain caused to his enemy by the loss of his property. In yet other cases the matter will be more serious still, and he will not be satisfied until he has thrashed his enemy or inflicted bodily injury upon him. Or it may be even more serious, and his desire for revenge will not be satisfied except by the extreme measure of taking his enemy's life and destroying his very existence. Sometimes, on the other hand, because of the lightness of the offense, the desire for vengeance will not be strong, so that he will find relief in uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present. It is well known that hot~tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way from the (annoyance caused by) trivial offenses, though the offender is not aware of their wrath and does not hear their fulminations.
Now we might suppose that the Torah, in forbidding us to curse an Israelite, (was moved by) the shame and the pain that the curse would cause him when he heard it, but that there is no sin in cursing the deaf, who cannot hear and therefore cannot feel hurt. For this reason He tells us that cursing is forbidden by prohibiting it in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.

The upshot of this ethical-psychological explanation, which emphasizes the desire for revenge and the ethical shortcoming of the one who curses, is to deny the efficacy of the act: cursing is not really effective in the sense that it produces malevolent results. It is prohibited because it reflects moral weakness of the one who utters the curse.

In the Moreh Nebukim, in the context of his discussion of criminology and penology, Maimonides again has occasion to discuss the nature of the act of cursing. Having stated that severity of punishment according to the halachah is commensurate with the severity, frequency, and enormity of the culpable act, Maimonides notes that transgressions in which there is no action are not even punishable by flogging for they "can only result in little harm... and it is also impossible to take care not to commit them for they consist in words only." Why then is cursing one's fellow man one of the three exceptions to this rule? Maimonides answers parenthetically, almost nonchalantly, that the Torah dealt stringently with cursing "for in the opinion of the multitude the injury resulting from curses is greater than that which may befall the body." The popular view, "the opinion (and imagination) of the multitude," erroneous and without foundation in truth or reality, is sufficient reason for the law. In a word, the Torah takes into account psychological tendencies, fears, and beliefs, and popular perceptions which, even though philosophically unfounded, exert influence and, therefore, have their own "reality."

This is quite an extreme application of the idea that the Torah works within the intellectual framework of the Bnei Yisrael. Even though Rambam only explicitly invokes the principle of dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam with anthropomorphisms, he is effectively using the same concept here - but in a much more radical sense.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Next Frontier

Thanks to the generosity of a sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous, I was able to print a few thousand copies of my booklet "Chaim L'Amitam," which is the Hebrew translation of my critique of Chaim B'Emunasam. (Both English and Hebrew versions can be downloaded here.) The booklet is being distributed free of charge, but I have to be careful that people don't take it to discard it. If you would like to arrange to distribute some, or you want one for yourself, please be in touch with me via email to arrange to collect it from Ramat Bet Shemesh or Bayit Vegan. I would be especially grateful if someone could encourage those who wrote haskamos to Chaim B'Emunasam to actually read the critique. Monsey would also be a good place to distribute it!

This booklet represents my first foray into the Hebrew-speaking world. I am also currently having my book Sacred Monsters translated into Hebrew. It will be interesting to see the effects of my entering this territory.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kidney Summary

I would like to tidy up some loose ends on the topic of the function of the kidneys. Some interesting discussion came up in the comment to this post, with people claiming that there is scientific support for Chazal's description. So here is a summary of what Chazal say about the kidneys, and what science says.

What Chazal say:

  1. The kidneys advise us on what to do.
  2. ALL cognitive functions relating to making decisions occur in the heart and kidneys.
  3. NOTHING relating to this occurs in the brain. (see too Midrash Tehillim 14)
  4. One kidney advises to do good, one to do evil (this is presumably intended literally, since it is stated immediately next to the statement about the function of the organs).
  5. When God wants to judge whether we are good or not, He examines the heart and kidneys, not the brain.

What science says:

  1. The kidneys filter blood. Cognitive functions such as making decisions occur in the brain.
  2. A decline in the function of kidneys is also associated with memory loss (nothing to do with making decisions). Furthermore, this is not because the kidneys themselves affect the brain, but rather because diseases and problems that affect kidneys can also affect the brain.
  3. There is no difference between the function of the right and left kidney.
  4. A person can survive without kidneys, via dialysis, without being affected in their moral decision-making process.
  5. A person can live on one kidney without turning good/evil.
  6. If God were to assess someone's moral worth, He would check their brain (or that which is housed in their brain), not their kidneys and heart. It wouldn't make a difference if they had a kidney transplant.

I also noticed that in the Nishmas tefillah (which is of uncertain authorship and origins), it is made clear that it is the heart and kidneys, not the brain, that house a person’s consciousness:

For every mouth is in acknowledgement to You, and every tongue swears to You, and every knee bows to You, and every erect spine prostrates itself to You, and all hearts fear You, and all innards and kidneys praise Your Name, as it is written, “All my bones say, Who is like You, O God.”

It's fascinating that in English siddurim, they do not translate kelayos as kidneys, but they do translate lev as heart. Apparently it's a given that "heart" is not literal, but not that "kidneys" is not literal!

It's clear that Chazal truly believed that the kidneys provide moral counsel to the heart. I don't think that all the Rishonim and Acharonim who defended this view, and the modern Poskim (e.g. Tzitz Eliezer) who object to kidney transplants as a result, misunderstood Chazal.

And I don't think that Chazal misunderstood Tenach. In fact, I think that the pesukim are unequivocal: "You are present in their mouths, but far from their kidneys" (Jer. 12:2); "I, God, probe the heart, and examine the kidneys, and repay each man according to his ways, with the fruit of his deeds" (Jer. 17:10).

I think that this is a perfect case to adopt the approach of dibra Torah k'lashon bnei Adam - and a justification for the strong version of this principle.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ibn Caspi quote

Someone pointed out that Rabbi Dr. Twersky's article about Ibn Caspi didn't actually include citations on the topic of Dibra Torah. You can download Ibn Caspi's works at; his Mishna Kesef is here. Twersky has many references in the endnotes of his article, but here is one of the most important quotes, from page 49:

It's tricky to translate this into readable English. If someone has the time to do so, please post it in the comments.

Miscellaneous Tech Notes, nothing to do with Rationalist Judaism

1. There's an incredible utility called DropBox with which you can back up your files (up to 2gb for free), automatically synchronize them across multiple computers (including iPhones and Android phones!), and much more. If you want to sign up, please do so via this link - for each person who joins, I get 250mb of free extra storage. It's really amazing, I can access any of my documents from my phone!

2. Speaking of Android phones, you can get the Mishneh Torah and lots of other Jewish stuff here.

3. If there's a point to LinkedIn, I don't know what it is. Certainly since signing up, it hasn't been of any use to me yet, except for burdening me with dozens and dozens of email invites. Unless you know me personally, please don't invite me to join your network!

4. As usual, I have a backlog of 250+ emails. If you are waiting for a reply, please be patient, or call me.

Monday, May 3, 2010

You Can't Threaten People Into Believing Something

Contemplating the various theological debates of the last few years, the following thought has repeatedly occurred to me. When those on my right insist that it is unacceptable to believe X (where X is anything from the world being millions of years old to Chazal being mistaken to the flood not being global to Torah not being divine to there not being a God), what do they believe the result of that to be?

It seems pretty clear to me that in many or even most cases you can't threaten someone into believing something. Much as those grappling with challenges may want to be a good Jew, they are not likely to suddenly start believing X because you tell them that one has to believe X in order to be a kosher Jew, especially if they are much more knowledgeable than you about the matter under question. If someone has a strong education in biology and has concluded that evolution is true, he is not going to stop believing that because a rabbi tells him that it is incompatible with Judaism. What will happen instead is that they will be deeply tormented and will either (a) reject the rabbi as a representative of Judaism, (b) conclude that Torah must be false, or (c) feel that they are bad Jews and eventually detach themselves from the religious community.

Now, in some cases this may be unavoidable. I simply don't see how it's possible to, for example, grant the legitimacy of someone denying the existence of God, or denying Torah min haShamayim in some significant sense, without fundamentally compromising Judaism. (Although if someone has such beliefs, it can still be possible to help them be part of the Orthodox community, if they so desire.)

But in other cases, is this what those to my right really want? That someone should feel that Judaism is not for them? Is it really so terrible if they say, "Look, I don't believe that evolution is true, and in my view it is really contrary to Torah belief, but I must let you know that there are plenty of Orthodox rabbis who believe otherwise"? Is that really worse than the alternative?

Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me that he once asked Rav Dessler ztz"l about answering someone who was struggling with the factual reality of a certain part of the Torah. Rav Dessler replied that it is not an ikkar of emunah that the Torah be interpreted literally, so it is better to tell the person that they don't need to accept it as literally true than for the person to altogether give up on Torah.

I wonder if those who negate other approaches even think about the consequences. I imagine that in some cases, they just assume that if they insist loudly enough that others must conform to the expected beliefs, then people will acquiesce. In other cases, they are just maniacally driven to denounce those perceived as enemies of the faith (such as myself), regardless of the consequences for those with questions that I am trying to help. And in other cases, I suspect that they might be battling their own personal demons.

Whatever their motivation, I think that they would be well advised to think about the consequences of their declaration that various beliefs are unequivocally incompatible with Judaism.

July/ August Programs

From Encounters With Animals

I will be visiting the US for July/ early August and am available for lectures, zoo tours, etc. If you are interested in arranging a program for your shul/ organization/ community, please write to me at (don't write to me via the comments). Here is a list of my most popular lecture topics, and you can download a flyer here.

• The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought (with multimedia)
• Man and Beast: Our Relationship with the Animal Kingdom
• The Challenge of Dinosaurs (with multimedia)
• Untangling Evolution
• Sacred Monsters: Mythical Creatures of the Midrash (with multimedia)
• Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions
• One People, Two Worlds: Rationalists versus Mystics
• The Dynamics of Controversy: The Making of a Ban

I'd appreciate any help that people can offer in setting up engagements.

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...