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.

56 comments:

  1. As other commenters have pointed out, Chazal say things also that make it clear that thinking is in the head. The example that comes to mind is the debate in egla arufa whether we measure distance from nearby towns to the dead person's heart or head. There are others, quoted in comments.

    I have no problem saying that Chazal discussed things using the science of the day, as the Ramchal wrote. But the Ramchal's point wasn't to focus on Chazal's being wrong, rather to focus on the true lessons that they were "wrapping" in their scientific comments. There's a lot we can learn about the interplay between thinking and feeling, and to get caught up in Chazal's wrong-ness is not the point of the Ramchal.

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  2. Chazal say things also that make it clear that thinking is in the head

    So it's a machlokes Chazal! It wouldn't be the first one. In fact, in ancient times there was a dispute between two schools of medical thought regarding the role of the brain.

    the Ramchal's point wasn't to focus on Chazal's being wrong, rather to focus on the true lessons that they were "wrapping" in their scientific comments

    The approach of the rationalist Rishonim is very different from that of Ramchal. Ramchal holds that they didn't really care about the truth of the scientific statements, it was just packaging for deeper ideas. The Rishonim observe that they did, and that many statements were *not* packaging deeper ideas.

    And I'm not sure what lesson is being "wrapped" in their statement about the role of the kidneys.

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  3. >The example that comes to mind is the debate in egla arufa whether we measure distance from nearby towns to the dead person's heart or head.

    I might be wrong but isnt that merely because breath (which is considered a life force) comes from the head. I dont think its a question of the brain being cognitive though

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  4. "A person can survive without kidneys, via dialysis, without being affected in their moral decision-making process.

    A person can live on one kidney without turning good/evil."

    For what it's worth, one's moral decisions can be unaffected by the fact that he just hired or fired his life-guidance counselor.
    (This comment of mine is not a commentary on chazal's position at all.)

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  5. Here we go again! I noticed that in your "summary" you neglected to point out the factors that many of the earlier commenters noted. Specifically, they brought sources to show that your "What Chazal Say, numbers 2 and 3 are false, and number 4 relies on your parenthetic "presumably" assumption in a significant way. You are certainly entitled to your opinions, but if you are presenting a summary of what was discussed on your blog, you should either be complete, or else say that this is a summary of your own views - but that other, opposing views with supporting evidence were also presented in the threads. Otherwise, I think you are being disingenuous.

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  6. Please correct me if I am wrong, but are there not also passages in the High Holiday davening about God searching through the various chambers of our abdomens (kol hadrei baten) to assess our character? (In addition to our hearts and kidneys...)

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  7. Of course it's MY summary!

    But my characterization of Chazal is entirely accurate. Did you look up the Midrash, which makes it even clearer? Here it is:


    מדרש תהילים מזמור יד
    זה שאמר הכתוב (ירמיה יז, י) אני ה' חוקר לב בוחן כליות. למה הזכיר את הלב ואת הכליות מכל האיברים. אלא, העינים הולכות אחר הלב, והאזנים ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה איברים שבאדם, כולם הולכים אחר הלב. והכליות יועצות את הלב והלב גומר. לפיכך אינו מזכיר אלא הלב והכליות בלבד, והקב"ה חוקר את הלב ובוחן את הכליות.

    It makes it clear that it's ONLY the heart and kidneys, NOT the brain.

    Are you seriously claiming that this Midrash is consistent with science?

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  8. The various commenters on your blog have been through this before. The midrash that you cited does not prove your point at all. Number 1: there are many indications (cited by earlier commenters) that when Chazal spoke of the heart, then meant it as a metaphor. If so, then "presumably" the kidneys are also used metaphorically. Number 2: if one were to reject number 1 for whatever subjective reason, then one can still say that Chazal were interpreting the pasuk based upon the science of their times - BUT, since the pasuk itself was a statement by GOD, who knows the truth and whose seal is truth, the true meaning of the pasuk must be something other than how Chazal interpreted it based upon the science they knew. Their interpretation does NOT mean that the pasuk itself presented a falsehood due to the ignorance of the people (a claim you make, which to date is unsubstantiated).

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  9. You said that the English translated siddurim don't translate kelayot as "kidneys". So how do they?

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  10. nice summary

    >>> A person can survive without kidneys, via dialysis, without being affected in their moral decision-making process.

    didn't you know that modern dialysis machine come with an optional CPU.

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  11. I'm new following your blog and must say I enjoy the lively debate on this topic.

    A few comments on this last post:

    Being a recent kidney donor, I can personally testify that I feel no change in my moral behavior as a result of now having one kidney.

    Your last comment about what science has to say steps outside of the realm of things that science addreses, i.e. science does not have an opinion as to what or whether God checks in a human to determine moral quality. There is no falsifiable hypothesis that can be addressed in matters concerning God.

    In the comments Dov brought up the Ramchal. The Ramchal and others who include esoteric approaches in their worldview may not be primarily concerned with the 'wrapping' but I would hope that they would want the external wrapping to be accurate. If the details of a mashal are confused it is going to be difficult to access the nimshal.

    Finally, being a religious Jew involved in the cognitive neurosciences I would be interested to hear what Rav Slifkin has to say about sciences opinion of the existence of a soul. Many of the things we attribute to the soul have been found by modern neuroscience to be functions of the brain. What then is the soul?

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  12. Apparently, the belief that you "think with your heart" and "feel with your kidneys" was widespread in the middle east and egypt at that time and before.

    That's what I learned from a specialist in ancient philology....

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  13. The midrash that you cited does not prove your point at all.

    Please tell me how you are reading it. What other interpretation is there?

    there are many indications (cited by earlier commenters) that when Chazal spoke of the heart, then meant it as a metaphor

    I'm not aware of any. Please name them.

    since the pasuk itself was a statement by GOD, who knows the truth and whose seal is truth, the true meaning of the pasuk must be something other than how Chazal interpreted it based upon the science they knew. Their interpretation does NOT mean that the pasuk itself presented a falsehood due to the ignorance of the people

    Ah, now we get to the main point!
    So you are saying that, as far as you are concerned, it is a matter of religious dogma that nothing in the Torah can be scientifically inaccurate. Well, if it is religious dogma, then obviously there is no way that I could ever prove otherwise to your satisfaction. So any discussion is futile.

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  14. science does not have an opinion as to what or whether God checks in a human to determine moral quality.

    The point is, where is a person's mind/soul housed. If a person's kidneys are switched with those of another person, would this change how God judges him? My answer is, of course not.

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  15. Casey Kasem says "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

    When I was a teenager listening to AT40, I heard him say this and I thought it sounded silly. When I grew up, I realized that this was a profound statement.

    L'havdil, Chazal say stuff that to me sounds silly today, like what they say about kidneys. I hope one day I will grow up and understand what they really mean, just like I now understand what Casey Kasem means.

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  16. Maybe they meant what they said?

    And it's not "silly." The smartest person to have ever existed would say the same, were he living in that era.

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  17. It's amazing to me how people can claim that straightforward statements of Chazal somehow mean something other than what they actually say.

    There's no ambiguity here! It's clear as day.

    And these statements are by far not the only example of incorrect scientific statements. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of them in Chazal, rishonim and achronim. To claim that all of these incorrect statements (down to the present day -- just last year, a famous charedi rabbi claimed that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth) are somehow "metaphoric" is ludicrous.

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  18. This post leads me to raise several questions: (1) are there any other sources in Chazal other than the the Midrash Tehillim? In particular, I don't see the idea of one kidney advising to do good, the other evil in this Midrash; (2) do the pesukim be understood that way? In particular, when I say these Tefillos, I understood the reference to the kidneys to be the visceral reactions of a person; (3) are there any ancient sources other than tnach and chazal that ascribe a similar function to the kidneys?

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  19. "And I'm not sure what lesson is being "wrapped" in their statement about the role of the kidneys."

    Are you suggesting that even non-Rationalists (like the Ramchal) don't interpret the kidney passage to have a deeper meaning because you can't figure out what the lessons are? Why don't defer that question to a non-Rationalist?

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  20. They probably take it literally and insist that it is true. Or maybe they do contrive some "deeper meaning," in which case I would like Harry to explain what it is. After all, it was he who said that this Midrash does not at all mean what it looks like it means.

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  21. Its still a common expression that X thinks with his ....or talks from his ...

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  22. Someone sent me your blog on kidneys. I didn't realize it came from you and after I finished my brief reply I realized we're pretty much on the same page. I wonder if you are really understood by those who are "to the right of you"! Anyway, here was my response (thinking your'e some off the derech guy.... Sorry!

    When our people (Rabbi Slifkin included) try to reconcile Torah and science, all types of crazies come out.

    Science is bonafide TEVA, part of this OLAM. Olam is LASHON NEELAM or concealed. Hashem conceals His presence with science. Mi sherotzeh l'toas yavo vyiteeh!

    Chazal were talking purely from a spiritual, religious viewpoint. (Something tells me that the Tzitz Eliezer was misquoted. He probably had strong halachik grounds for his psak and added that in as an aside.)

    People who are busy disproving the Torah scientifically will also try to find bugs in Fish. Rav Belsky shlita was matir the fish for precisely this reason! Next thing you know, they'll say that scientifically there are no bleeyos in metal utensils! Or there are bleeyos even after 24 hours!

    In any case, basic Judaism is to recognize Hashem Echod, meaning Hashem is the only true existence. We need to find the Yad Hashem in everything. Science, aka teva, is Hashem's method of concealing. It is our choice to see through the concealment.

    Albeit there is no reason to try to defend medrashim regarding the Klayos, I always understood the Yoatzos part to refer to the cleansing of the blood which in turn is pumped to the brain keeping it alive and enabling the brain to function as a living organ--hence thinking. It follows therefor, that cleaner blood or stronger blood would allow one to think clearer.

    Alternatively, since kidney dysfunction is a disease which often comes from diabetes, a malaise that is subsequent to improper eating habits or TAAVAH, it would follow that the impurities of the blood are base in nature thereby affecting your logic with your base desires. Religiously, it makes sense.

    By the way, I had a kidney transplant and I don't recall any loss of memory!:)

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  23. Of course any statement about the physical world made by a prophet, inspired author, or sage is conditioned by their knowledge of how the world works. Such statements can be treated as literary flourishes rather than an accurate expression of wisdom or the communicated divine message. We understand the function of the heart and kidneys far better than they, and aren't bound to their understanding. In point of fact, the adrenal glands located on the kidneys do mediate actions based on their production of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, among others. The conscious brain, however, retains its control over the decision on how to react to a perceived stress.

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  24. 'The point is, where is a person's mind/soul housed.'

    This equating of mind and soul is far from simple. Leaving the soul aside for the moment, current scientific opinion does not view the mind as 'housed' in the brain. This Descartian dualism of mind and body has largely been rejected. Brain states are often equated with mind states. But this is only tangentially related to the kidney question.

    The esoteric tradition of Judaism considers not only the body to have 248 limbs and 365 gidim but also the soul. The Ramchal and other Kabbalists (perhaps Chazal also to some extent) can be understood as refering to the both to the limbs of the body and the limbs of the soul. It is true that science has shown that the functions of the physical limbs is different in many cases than that described by Chazal, but Chazal and the Prophets did not view the world from a purely physical standpoint. This still leaves many questions, but perhaps opens a new angle of discussion.

    Finally, there is a point that I don't think is sufficiently addressed in this blog. That is what is referred to as the 'Demarcation Problem'. See this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demarcation_problem .
    This is the question as to what are the limits of science, that is, what questions can be addressed by scientific method and what cannot. This to some degree is the flipside to many of the questions you address as to what is the extent of Chazal's knowledge.

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  25. The spine of the human body reflects the line of the Sephirot Da'at-Yesod-Malchut. In between, the heart is the Sephira of Tiferet. The kidneys are Hod and Netzach. They speak "advice" to the heart. The word advice refers to the word Etz, as the two kidneys are the two trees in Gan Eden, two types of "advice" to the heart of man.

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  26. Rav Aryeh Kaplan suggested that the soul determines which of many possible options of neural activity will actually happen. In modern terms, the soul directs the non-determinism in the brain.

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  27. "the soul directs the non-determinism in the brain"

    The soul to man is as the Soul to the Universe. The Soul directs the non-determinism in the Universe, steering the evolution of life.

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  28. Dov and Moshe R'phael, I'm afraid neuroscience would disagree with both of you on this one. Recent findings support the current reductionist trends. The neural behavior of the brain does not seem to require an outside agent to steer it.

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  29. "The neural behavior of the brain does not seem to require an outside agent to steer it."

    The first question is not if Nature requires it. The first question is if Nature allows for it. I think the answer is yes.

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  30. Hello, I do not really know about the Hebrew and English and certainly I do not know and understand much details of indepth Judaism but I do know my Dutch and in the Dutch lingo there is a well known saying; "iemands nieren proeven" translated: "to taste somebody's kidneys" meaning: " to probe somebody, to get to know him/get to know his or her opinion on some matter.
    As in this headline:
    http://www.trouw.nl/krantenarchief/2000/06/03/2444622/Clinton_komt_in_Moskou_Poetins_nieren_proeven.html
    Clinton comes to Moscow to taste Putin's kidneys
    i.e.
    Clinton comes to check Putin out !
    So what about that? Bavel, Bavel tell me what, where did the Dutch get this from? Do you have this in your lingo's aswell?
    By the way in Turkish so I was told, Yoktan means ' From Heaven' -(2012 another issue, another blog but Bavel nevertheless)

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  31. Rabbi Slifkin said:
    "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)."

    The Rambam and Rav Saddia Gaon understood the heart in Tanach to be metaphors. Kidneys would logically follow.

    "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)."


    The Maharshah to that section in Brachos (quoted verbatim by Pachad Yitzchok in the "kloyot yoatzot" entry) explains that your crucial passage listing the literal functions of many human organs is placed inside an AGGAADIC context about the heart and right and left kidneys. He explains why this passage is placed in this section.

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  32. The Rambam and Rav Saddia Gaon understood the heart in Tanach to be metaphors.

    I would like to see your source from Rav Saadiah. But in any case, finding a source who says that it is metaphor does not mean that it is metaphor. Or do you agree with Rambam that the Six Days of creation and the story of Gan Eden is a metaphor? And that the incident with Avraham and the angels occurred in a vision? Besides, Rambam had no problem saying that Chazal understood pesukim incorrectly. He wasn't claiming that Chazal did not believe the heart and kidneys to have cognitive functions. I am not so ready to say that Chazal misunderstood the Chumash.

    The Maharshah to that section in Brachos... explains that your crucial passage listing the literal functions of many human organs is placed inside an AGGAADIC context about the heart and right and left kidneys.

    Are you trying to say that the Maharsha did not see it as literal? If so, you are absolutely incorrect. The Maharsha may well have understood both sections as being related, but this does not mean that they are both non-literal; on the contrary, it is evidence that the right/left section is literal, too. In other places, Maharsha rails against those who interpret aggadata non-literally in order to fit with science. "Aggadah" simply means non-halachic sections of the Gemara, it does not mean non-literal. The discussions of refuos are also aggadah.

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  33. Vincent wrote: in the Dutch lingo there is a well known saying; "iemands nieren proeven" translated: "to taste somebody's kidneys"

    I am pretty sure that "proeven" does not mean "to taste" in this context. Rather, it means "to test". It is an old form of the verb "beproeven", related to the noun "proef". And so, the answer to your question

    Bavel, Bavel tell me what, where did the Dutch get this from?

    is: From Tenach!

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  34. One more point. Of course there are some instances in Tenach where "heart" is a metaphor - e.g. when it speaks about the "heart of the heavens." But this does not remotely prove that every reference to it is a metaphor. Just like the idea of "the hand of God" does not mean that when it says "put your tefilin on your hand," it is a metaphor!

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  35. Also, in pesukim which say things such as "heart of stone," the word "stone" is a metaphor, but not the word "heart." Just like when we speak of someone having an iron gut, muscles of steel, eagle eyes, etc.

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  36. when the navi says " I will replace your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh" it is clearly a metaphor. Likewise the "kidneys" In the modern USA when we say "my heart goes out to you" or that love is expressed as a "heart" or "sweetheart". it is all metaphor. or "orech yamim biymina voosher vokivod bismolo" or the gemara "push away with your right hand and bring close with your left hand" all metaphors.

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  37. Anonymous, please read my previous comment. "Stone" is a metaphor, "heart" is not.

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  38. ">>I would like to see your source from Rav Saadiah."

    Here is an excerpt:
    ספר האמונות והדעות מאמר ב

    וכיון שבארתי הדבר הזה, אשוב אל העשרה ההם בביאורים וענינים, ואומר: שרצו הנביאים ב'ראש' ענין ההגדלה וההעלאה, כאשר אמר בבני אדם (שם ג' ד') כבודי ומרים ראשי. ורצו ב'עין' השגחה, כאמרו (בראשית מ"ד כ"א) ואשימה עיני עליו. ורצו ב'פנים' הרצון והכעס, כמו שאמר (משלי ט"ל ט"ו) באור פני מלך חיים. ונאמר (ש"א א' י"ח) ופניה לא היו לה עוד. ורצו ב'אזן' קבול הדברים, כאמרו (בראשית מ"ד י"ח) ידבר נא עבדך דבר באזני אדני. ורצו ב'פה' וב'שפה' באור וצווי, כאמרו (במדבר ד' כ"ז) על פי אהרן ובניו. (משלי י' כ"א) שפתי צדיק ירעו רבים. ורצו ב'יד' יכולת, כאמרו (ישעיה נ"ט א') הן לא קצרה יד י"י. ורצו ב'לב' חכמה, כאמרו (משלי ז' ז') נער חסר לב.

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  39. Right. Obviously, with the pasuk in Mishlei about "a lad lacking a heart," it does not mean that he was literally missing an organ. This does not mean that the pasuk is telling us that a heart is not a cognitive organ. It's just like saying "You have no brain."

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  40. ">>And that the incident with Avraham and the angels occurred in a vision? Besides, Rambam had no problem saying that Chazal understood pesukim incorrectly. He wasn't claiming that Chazal did not believe the heart and kidneys to have cognitive functions. I am not so ready to say that Chazal misunderstood the Chumash."

    See all the examples of the Rambam and Rav Saadia brought in the link and you'll immediately realize that these examples are not subject to dispute. It just establishes that the Torah uses human organs as metaphors very freely and it is obvious to all.

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  41. Yes, it is obvious to all that sometimes, the word "heart" is a metaphor (e.g. "the heart of the heavens"), and sometimes, the adjectives used for the heart are metaphors (e.g. "heart of stone," "lacking a heart"). None of this remotely proves that the very notion of the heart being a cognitive organ is a metaphor. It's exactly the same in English - sometimes the word "brain" is a metaphor ("he's the brains of this outfit") and sometimes the adjectives used for the brain are metaphors ("narrow-minded"). But the brain is certainly understood to be a cognitive organ!

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  42. "Are you trying to say that the Maharsha did not see it as literal? If so, you are absolutely incorrect."

    It depends which section of the passage you are discussing.

    "The Maharsha may well have understood both sections as being related, but this does not mean that they are both non-literal;

    On that much we agree. Most of the sections in the passage are non-literal and the center is literal.

    "on the contrary, it is evidence that the right/left section is literal, too."

    In a vacuum, this argument has merit. But the Maharshah implicitly deflects this argument in his commentary.
    The reason why this literal passage is placed in a non-literal context is explained by the Maharshah. But it clearly emerges from the Maharsha's explanation, that the section about the moral character of the right and left kidneys (which you are basing your position on,) are non-literal.

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  43. I see no such thing in the Maharsha at all. Please cite his words where you claim to see this.

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  44. "Also, in pesukim which say things such as "heart of stone," the word "stone" is a metaphor, but not the word "heart."

    It could just as easily be true that both subjects are metaphors--just as we use the expression today in our language.
    To decide which it is, we need to appeal to a clear precedent.
    Rav Saadia has indeed provided such a precedent to establish that Tanach uses a heart as a metaphor for wisdom.
    No real youth is missing a heart.

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  45. It could just as easily be true that both subjects are metaphors--just as we use the expression today in our language.
    To decide which it is, we need to appeal to a clear precedent.


    Er, no, not at all. To decide what it is, we need to consider how the word "heart" is used in other places in Tenach and by people of that time. Finding one precedent where the word "heart" is not literal does not prove that every instance of the word "heart" is not literal! After all, if I were to speak about God's eyes, I would not be speaking literally, but if I were to speak about someone being eagle-eyed, the word "eyed" would be literal (even though "eagle" is not).

    Rav Saadia has indeed provided such a precedent to establish that Tanach uses a heart as a metaphor for wisdom. No real youth is missing a heart.

    Correct, and no living person is missing a brain. But when we say that someone has no brain, this does not show that we do not believe the brain to be a cognitive organ.

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  46. Rafael, (about you commenting on me about the Dutch kidneyproblem)...
    Yeah, the Dutch must have got it from their old 'Statenbijbel' at the time the Dutch where really into that kind of thing in the 17th century of the common era. I could have known that too, but you know, there is so much in that book in fact everythinhg is in it, so you skip past it easily or one forgets.
    If their intuition hadn't told them that it was the truth the saying would not have catched on, or would have faded by now. Taste or test someone's kidney's are you mad? people would have said.
    This is not scientific but an educated quess. If the Dutch knew about it then and prophets and Sages knew about it before that time, then my inclination leads me to believe it too.
    What about: " een fan zijn in hart en nieren?" "to be a fan in heart and kidneys" to be a die heard / grassroot fan

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  47. Even supposing kidneys are being used as a metaphor... why in the world would somene use kidneys as a mataphor for moral judgment?!

    At the very least, we have an example of dibra Chazal b'lashon bnei adam!

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  48. >>"I see no such thing in the Maharsha at all. Please cite his words where you claim to see this."


    It's hard to summarize a full length post inside a comment, but I'll try:

    You claimed that the reference to kidneys as specific moral guides of good and evil in the sub-section in Brochos was meant literally.
    You attempted to deflect the argument that they are not literal on the grounds that the next section in the passage is clearly literal. Thus you are determining the ambiguous character of one passage by its proximity to another passage which is unambiguously literal.
    Correct?

    All I am saying is that the Maharshah's commentary undermined the cogency of your argument and allows one to reasonably tease apart the two passages and assign one literal and other non-literal.
    The Maharsha says:


    מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת ברכות פרק ט – הרואה [דף נד עמוד א]
    ב' כליות כו'. משום דכל אברים הפנימים דחשיב בסמוך אין בהו אלא אחד בגוף אדם חוץ מב' כליות
    וע"כ אמר שנבראו להיות יועצי הלב אם לטוב אם לרע וע"כ הם שנים אחד יועץ לטובה ואחד לרעה וקאמר ומסתברא כו' דכתיב לב חכם לימינו וגו' דלא על הלב גופיה קאמר אלא על ב' יועצי הלב ובזה שייכא ברייתא זו אמתני' דהכא דקתני בכל לבבך בשני יצריך דלא על הלב גופיה קאמר דאין לאדם ב' לבבות אלא על ב' יועצי הלב שהן ב' כליות קאמר ודו"ק:

    The Maharshah links this passage to the earlier gemoro explaining the terms in the Sh'ma: בכל לבבך--בשני יצרך
    The intuitive way to read בכל לבבך would be "with both hearts". Why does the gemoro say "with both inclinations" and not "both hearts"? (Or perhaps the unspoken question is, how is it possible for a single heart to have two opposite inclinations within it?)

    The Maharsho understands this whole passage about kidneys as providing the answer. But it is provided in distinct stages:

    Stage one: [From the beginning of the comment until וע"כ]
    Most of the vital organs of the body are singlular--heart, lungs, liver intestines, etc. They don't come in pairs of two. So the Sh'ma can't speak of "serving Hashem with both hearts" the good and the evil.
    The only organ which come in a pair are kidneys which provide "counsel".
    This is the anatomy lesson --meant literally, of course--which only serves as the background for the moral/spiritual teaching of the overall passage about inclinations-- which the Maharshah continues to use to explain בכל לבבך from וע"כ until the end.

    Thus the reference to kidneys in the main moral idea about good and evil advice, is not necessarily meant to be understood on the same level of meaning as the anatomical background itself.

    The Maharsha is in effect splitting this passage into two distinct sections--the background and the moral message. Although it seems clear that the background anatomical section is literal, one cannot conclude as you do, that the entire passage must be the same.
    So your argument by proximity of the two passages fails.

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  49. I don't think that anyone would ever read the Maharsha that way unless they were a priori opposed to the idea of the right/left section being literal. Which you obviously are. Certainly Maharsha himself says absolutely nothing about that part not being literal. And as he says in Sanhedrin - “it is the way of heretics to remove words from their literal meaning." He would be turning in his grave to hear how you are abusing his explanation.

    The funny thing is that you are only open to the second part being literal because you (mistakenly) believe that there is scientific support for the kidneys giving advice, and you are only closed to the first part being literal because you are aware that there is no scientific basis for saying that one is good and one is evil. If you thought the scientific evidence was different, you would change your explanation in a flash.

    By the way, the reason why I think the first part is meant literally is not *only* due to its proximity to the other part. It's also because there is absolutely no independent reason to think that it is not literal. And there's no mesorah that way, either.

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  50. "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). "

    Maybe this has been translated incorrectly. Maybe it should say: "I, God, probe the heart, and examine the kidneys, but repay each man according to his ways, with the fruit of his deeds."

    Earlier, I wrote: "one's moral decisions can be unaffected by the fact that he just hired or fired his life-guidance counselor."

    In this analogy, God is probing and examining the guidance counselors, but still He judges you based on your moral decisions, made by your brain.

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  51. This discussion omits the basic distinction between the text of the torah and that of any subsequent text, whether it be nevi'im, ketuvim, talmud, or midrash. According to basic Orthodox beliefs, the torah text is taken to be divinely dictated or directly approved. While it uses figurative language, the events portrayed are considered real rather than a recasting of pagan myths. The false attribution of properties of various human parts aren't found in the torah text. In contrast, the words of the prophets are theirs even as they communicate a divine message. As such, they may use conventional but incorrect notions in expressing that message. That possibility is even more pronounced in the ketuvim such as Tehilim. Chazal using their own understanding of the world, are certainly not immune to error. Midrashim that haven't a clear Tannaitic source are even more questionable. All of this is glossed over by the simple citation of "dibra torah kileshon bnei Adam".

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  52. For example also see Tehilim 147:3
    "He heals the broken-hearted..."
    This is not to be taken literally.

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  53. That's entirely irrelevant. We speak about someone having a "broken mind," and this does not at all mean that the mind is not the seat of the intellect. It's "broken" that is not literal, not "heart" or "mind."

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  54. Here's an interesting, kabbalastic, look at kidneys:

    http://www.chabad.org/article.asp?aid=1216840

    I fully understand that this is a rationalist site...

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  55. Here's an excerpt from a dvar Torah I just received in my email:

    "I was reminded of the Chazon Ish’s famous essay this week as I learned my daily page of Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah 28b (the section of the Talmud which deals primarily with the laws of idolatry and our relations with non-Jews), where it discusses various medical treatments that the rabbis used to heal the sick:


    Rabbi Abbahu had pain in his ear and he was given some directions by Rabbi Yochanan — others say, by those in the House of Study. What were the directions? — Similar to those of Abaye [who said]: My mother told me that kidneys were only made to [heal] the ear.


    I must admit that I was skeptical when I first read this passage. After all, whoever heard of a connection between the kidneys and the ears? So I snooped around the internet a little bit until I found this amazing piece of information:

    A new study, based on research done by Dr. David Harris, associate dean of Sydney Medical School-Westmead at the University of Sydney, finds that older people with moderate chronic kidney disease are more likely than others their age to develop hearing loss. Australian researchers reached their conclusions after studying more than 2,900 people aged 50 and older, of whom 513 had moderate kidney disease. Of those, 54% reported having hearing loss, while only 28% of the others did. Tests showed that 30% of patients with chronic kidney disease had severe hearing loss, while just 10% of the others did. The research suggests that there's a strong connection between chronic kidney disease and hearing loss. The study was published in the October 2010 edition of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases.

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  56. Wonderin' what we can blame the pancreas for: http://news.yahoo.com/woman-acts-drunk-medical-mystery-033649874.html

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