Sunday, June 13, 2010

Abby Sunderland: The Torah Perspective

Over the last few days, the world was captivated with the fate of Abby Sunderland, the sixteen-year-old girl missing at sea. I actually feel a certain kinship with Abby, because we both (not together!) set out on a small boat from Marina del Ray in California. At that point, the similarity ends:

Me (age 25): I got as far as just outside the marina, whereupon the high waves of the Pacific caused my little motorboat to toss around a little, whereupon, suffering from mild hydrophobia, I began to totally freak out and headed back to shore as quickly as possible, whereupon I lay down on the ground. The girl on the boat with me, who I was dating, wondered how she could possibly marry such a guy. (Eventually she did anyway; I must have had some other redeeming moments.)

Abby (age 16): Set out solo to circumnavigate the entire world non-stop, complete with six months' worth of dehydrated food and her eleventh-grade schoolwork. She managed four months and thousands of miles before her boat was damaged and she had to be rescued.

What Abby set out to do is simply staggering, but it has launched a ferocious debate. Is she a heroic adventurer and an invaluable source of inspiration for mankind? Or is she a foolhardy fame-seeker who is needlessly costing the Australian taxpayer a lot of money?

What is the Torah perspective on this? Many years ago, I heard an idea (I think it was from Rav Yaakov Weinberg ztz"l) that since the Torah is the Source of All Existence, then if there is no word in the Torah for something, it means that the concept has no value. Thus, there is no word in the Torah for romance, fair play, or adventure, because all these concepts are meaningless from the Torah's perspective. Romance is transitory and valueless. Fair play is foolish - if there is an evil murderer in town who challenges you to a duel, shoot him in the back! And adventure likewise has no place in the Torah scale of values - one should not risk one's life just for a rush of adrenaline.

This is all well and good from the perspective of the mystical school of thought, but what about the rationalist school of thought? I do not think that Rambam would have had any place in his worldview for the idea that if the Torah does not mention a word, it means that the concept has no value. The underlying premise, that the Torah is the metaphysical source for all existence, does not exist in Rambam's thought. According to Rambam, the Torah is a document that teaches certain lessons that the Bnei Yisrael needed in order to perfect themselves.

Related to this is that R. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon, in his introduction to his translation of Chovos HaLevavos, writes that there used to be many more words of Lashon HaKodesh which were subsequently forgotten over the ages. Nowadays, all that we have are those words which are found in Tenach. It is partly for this reason, he writes, that many seforim over the ages have been written in languages other than Lashon HaKodesh. For many purposes, we just don’t have enough Lashon HaKodesh words left in our vocabulary.

I am also reminded of something that I heard from Rav Nachman Cohen, who used to be the head of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. He once asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach about the Torah perspective on cloning. Rav Shlomo Zalman's response was that the Torah doesn't say anything about it either way.

So what is the Torah perspective on Abby Sunderland's adventure? As far as I can tell, there is no clear direction from the Torah at all on this topic. There are some things that we just have to figure out for ourselves.


  1. While every word above might be true, it seems to overlook the rather obvious. WWMS (What would Maimonides say) - something about "ushmartem et nafshotechem m'od" comes to mind.

  2. But what are the parameters of that? Surely it is not forbidden to do any leisure activity that has risk of accident.

  3. Let's see...meaningful concepts to which there is no source in the Torah...Let the list begin.

  4. Several comments:

    1. I think romance definitely exists in Torah. What is the story of Yaakov and Rahel about if not romance? Fair play also exists in civil legislation. Adventure may well be the single thing that Torah was not interested in - Torah is not big on adventure and heroism.

    2. Howevever the idea that if a word is not in Torah it is not important is a two edged sword. Go look for humra, tzniyut, halav yisrael or even hiddur mitzva in the Torah. Basaically the whole idea is pretty flawed.

    3. Even "VeNishmartem Meod LeNafshotakhem" quoted by anonymous is drah. The pshat of the sassuk is being very careful not to fall into the illusions of false images of gods.

    4. I find it rather unacceptable to postulate that Torah has nothing to say about cloning. It has something to say about everything else, why not cloning? Isn't it supposed to be the blueprint of the universe, the ultimate word of the Creator? and he has nothing to say about cloning?

  5. Isn't it supposed to be the blueprint of the universe

    According to the mystics, yes. Not according to Rambam. (I know the Midrash; it is far from unequivocal, and it can and has been interpreted in all kinds of ways.)

  6. I know exactly what you mean. I was a pretty good sailor in a small sail boat. But when I got out to the open sea I got really scared. Someone needs real guts to what she did

  7. Rafi said:Torah is not big on adventure and heroism.

    What about the stories of Dovid Hamelech in Tanach? For example, Shaul sends him to collect those foreskins of the Plishtim in order to marry his daughter. And the Goliath story where Dovid is a hero.

    Come on guys, Heroism, adventure, love, romance.... These concepts are found throughout the tanach.

    I actually wrote a whole post on if everything is found in the Torah based on the Meiri:

  8. What about the fact that life after death, or the concept of "olam haba" at all are not mentioned in Tanach? Does this mean they have no value? How is this question answered by the mystic school of thought?

  9. Just one correction -
    My father, Rabbi Nachman Cohen, told me that it was in fact Dr. Abraham Abraham who asked R. Shlomo Zalman the question about cloning.

    All the best!

  10. Seems pretty clear to me that the story of Chava's creation from Adam's rib (DNA) is a clear allusion to cloning in the Torah.

  11. The Torah has nothing to say one way or the other about such concepts as "meaning" or "values", nor does it have any words for them, yet they form the bedrock of the modern orthodox lifestyle.

    Funny, no?

  12. R' Yaakov Weinberg is the source of this idea, but you kind of mischaracterized it. Plus, there was no greater Maimonidean than R' Weinberg, so I think it would be unfair to label him as a "non-Maimonidean Mystic".

    His point was that if a concept or word does not have a basis in the Torah, it has no true "value" in the Torah's currency. In other words, with no Torah source, an idea can exist, it can even have secular value, it just does not have a lot of meaning or value to a Torah life. Meaning, it has no role in "perfecting one's self.

    This is not a mystical idea at all. It is a very rational idea. The Torah is a toolbox for perfection. If it is not in the toolbox it has no Torah value.

  13. Rabbi Slifkin -

    You wrote: "As far as I can tell, there is no clear direction from the Torah at all on this topic. There are some things that we just have to figure out for ourselves."

    These are the BEST 2 sentences that I have read in your blog to date! I have NEVER heard a frum Rav ever say these 2 points. Ever.

    And that you posted them on your blog, and said these points in a public statement, is great.

    Thank you.

  14. Maimonides in the Guide Book III chap. VIII says that the language of the Bible is a uniquely "holy" language.
    Reason: there are no direct words in the Torah for excrement, reproductive organs, or conjugal relations.

    Although others dispute his position in terms of fact, it is clear that Maimonides understood that, contrary to what you are trying to infer from Ibn Tibbon, the Hebrew vocabulary of the Bible is not purely due to convention but is in fact designed to reflect its spirituality.

    I know that this is not exactly the same concept as Rabbi Weinberg proposes, I don't see why it belies anything more mystical than what Maimonides proposes.

    The common denominator is that a lack of direct Hebrew word for a common activity is a subtle indication that Judaism tries to downplay or discourage it.

    (And note to E-man--just because some Biblical figures may have engaged in it doesn't give it sanction. Do we hold up everything Sampson did as a model for emulation?)

  15. Will someone please explain to me what is considered to be found in the Torah? For instance, you mentioned romance. It is pretty clear to me that shir hashirim portrays a great deal of romance. Take heroism, fair play, adventure, etc. all these things can surely be found somewhere in the great sea of Torah. What are the parameters to this concept?

  16. > But what are the parameters of that? Surely it is not forbidden to do any leisure activity that has risk of accident.

    The most famous source on the permissibility of leisure activities involving considerable risk is Noda Be'Yehudah's responsum on hunting, which I discuss, inter alia, here:

  17. "Thus, there is no word in the Torah for romance, fair play, or adventure.."

    I'm sure the Rav read the Tanach and this was just sarcasm.

    But that is not important. The important thing is that by definition TSPB can be used on any situation in life. The problem might by with those not able to use it...

  18. Perhaps the most famous example of a word that doesn't appear in Torah, and thus has no Torah value (according to the mystics that is) is doubt. Yet oddly enough, "The mystics call this world "alma d'sfeika" -- a world of doubt." -- According to

  19. I enjoyed your "romantic" sailing story!

    I agree with the comments of others, that there are many concepts not mentioned in the Torah, and that we cannot draw conclusion from that fact. Something may not be mentioned because (a) it was unknown (like DNA), (b) not relevant (like leisure time for people other than royalty), or (c) assumed but not spoken about (like sexual habits or how to bake a cake)

  20. When I read the headline of this post I got scared. "THE Torah Perspective" as if on an issue like there is one clear Torah perspective. Thank G-d, you surprised me.

    As for the contents of the post, I believe G-d has an opinion on everything and we have to figure it out as best as we can, but Judaism, per se, does not.

    So G-d certainly has an opinon on the Sunderland adventure. Judaism may or may mot.

    I agree with you that many of life's higher ideals are simply not discussed in Judaism (at least not directly). Fair play, courage, honor, duty, fighting or dying for the homeland, being self-reliant, being noble, being puntual, being neat, eating with a fork etc.. I think these are obvious. Judaism comes to build on what's in the world. You don't need a Torah source for basic human values and ideals.

    (Some people explain R' Hirsch's TIDE precisely in this way. It certainly fits in with Wesseley's Toras Ha'Adam/Toras Hashem distinction.)

    (All that being said, I don't know if what Sunderland did is proper or not.)

  21. Sorry to ask this somewhat facetiously, but what is the Torah perspective on Rabbah bar bar Chanah?

    The Talmud records his adventures (travels? exploits?), presumably to teach greater Torah lessons. (I assume the Amoraim didn't teach them in order to encourage or discourage adventures.)

    But I don't remember any reasons for Rabbah bar bar Chanah to be on the ships in the first place.

    Perhaps it's all in the motivation? If we go out in search of meaningless adventure, it's inappropriate, but if we want to experience the vast size of the ocean to reflect on our part in creation, it's OK?

  22. So what is the Ranbam's view on the Torah being the blueprint of the universe.

    I fail to see why such a statement can't fit into your rationalistic view of the world. Even you have to admit that HKBH created the world. What is so difficult to say that he used the Torah as a blueprint.

  23. Because much of the Torah is a description of historical events that took place, and many of the commandments are a reaction to these events.
    Howard, with all due respect, I really don't think that this website is for you.

  24. I appreciate your concern, but I think I am old enough to decide what websites I should be looking at.
    Anyway, you still haven't explained to me how you understand the idea that the Torah is the blueprint of the world. Nor have you explained how the Rambam understands it.

  25. 1. Where does it say that the Torah is the blueprint of the world?

    2. There is a Chazal about the Torah "preceding" the world. Many Rishonim protest that this is not possible, and therefore explain it to mean that the Torah is the goal of the world, etc., etc.

  26. Howard / R' Slifkin:

    The "blueprint of the world" bit is from the Zohar. That is not a very compelling source for this blog... sorry.

  27. (E. Fink - I know! I used to quote it at the beginning of my books.)

  28. I figured you knew it, I was just addressing my comments to both of you.

    I think the quote has its place but not in a discussion of pure rationalism...

  29. I believe the blueprint of the world aka looked into the Torah and created the world is actually a medrash Rabba.

    In relation to this Mishna, most people have heard of the following Medrash Rabba (Genesis 1:1). It says, "R. Hoshaia Rabbah began his discourse with the verse 'Then I was by Him as a nursling (amon)' (Prov. 8:30). The word amon may be read umman, meaning "overall design"--I was in the mind of the Holy One, says the Torah, like the overall design in the mind of a craftsman. In the way of the world, when a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, he builds it not according to his own whim, but according to the idea of an architect. Moreover, the architect does not build it out of his own head; he has [a design]--plans and diagrams to know how to lay out the chambers and where to put in wicket doors. Even so the Holy One looked into the Torah as He created the world."

    Howard, I discuss your issue on my blog that I linked to above, if you care to check it out.

    Your issue is that you are trying to understand Rabbi Slifkin through a non-rationalistic approach. True, the Ramban and others understand that Medrash how you are saying it, but there are approaches like the Meiri and the Eitz Yosef and Anaf Yosef that I discuss.

  30. Heschel, in Heavenly Torah, has a good discussion of various Rishonim understood such statements.

  31. As Rafi said, I believe the statement that the Torah has nothing to say on any given issue is problematic. Both according to the mystical and rationalistic orientations. As the guidebook for life, how could there be an aspect of life the Torah has no input about? I remembered someone telling me about a certain learned man in Jerusalem, who when asked about what the Torah has to say about modern war ethics, he replied that there exists no precedent, so we must follow conventions of international law. Notwithstanding the fact that international law is largely an illusion which is mainly invoked to undermine Israel, this approach to Torah is bankrupt and stultifying. There is a tremendous problem when even very learned rebeim cannot access what the Torah has to say about a given issue because there exists no explicit seif about it in the Mishnah Berurah.

    Many issues we face as a people and nation nowadays are ones in which finding the precedent requires some imagination, creativity, innovation, inspiration, and being able to gauge the "big picture" properly, all rare qualities in the mainstream Torah world and ones which the mainstream systems of Judaism actually militate against.

    As far as the mysticism/rationalism dialectic-- this is an issue of great importance to me. I spent quite a few years learning Kaballah seriously, completing the Etz Chaim, learning significant sections of the Leshem's writings, beginning with kavanot... More recently, my Judaism underwent a major overhaul in what can be called a more pshat-oriented, rationalist bent. I have a deep conviction that much of the seeming incompatibility between the two modes could be mitigated by a proper (and deep) understanding of both. Strangely enough, if one understands the code properly, the Ari has some very insightful things to say about the rationalist/mystical dynamic (for example, in derushe nekudot, where he talks about what's higher, the panim or the achoraim, and says that in certain respects both are).

    In this case, it is certainly possible to understand the statement of Hashem looking into the Torah and creating the world in a way more in line with the "mystical" mode and not necessarily violating the basic tenets of rationalism.

  32. > I agree with you that many of life's higher ideals are simply not discussed in Judaism (at least not directly). Fair play, courage, honor, duty, fighting or dying for the homeland, being self-reliant, being noble, being puntual, being neat, eating with a fork etc..

    Abravanel manages to read a rather Iberian notion of honor into the Torah, as I note here:

    Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein purportedly invoked a similar notion of honor in a different, and quite remarkable, context:

    And see also:

  33. As the guidebook for life, how could there be an aspect of life the Torah has no input about?

    See Ramban on Ve'asisa hayashar vehatov. He says that since the Torah is finite, it cannot possible cover every situation, so it gives us the general values and we have to take it from there.

  34. I don't think this Ramban precludes the notion that there is a precedent to any potential issue within the Torah. Yes, it may not be spelled out; the case may not be mentioned explicitly because of the Torah's finite nature. But that doesn't mean the Torah has nothing to say either. It does means we have to, like I said, employ some creativity and vision.

  35. " As the guidebook for life, how could there be an aspect of life the Torah has no input about?"

    Very easily.

    In Roe vs Wade, the US supreme court ruled that the US constitution prevents states from outlawing abortion, due to its protection of "the right to privacy". Now, there is no way that the framers of the constitution had abortion in mind. The justices used a creative interpretation, consistent with their political philosophy and world view. Similarly, the constitution could not possibly have anything specific to say about gene transfer, DNA paternity determination or digital copyright protection.

    I think that creative interpretation of the Torah is very similar. It is not possible to say that the Torah (however you understand its divine authorship) has anything specific to say about, say, surrogate pregnancy, weapons of mass destruction, or the confidentiality rights of HIV patients.

    At best, rabbis/commentators can express their opinions, based on their own world views and hashkafa, and back them up with loosely related Torah references.

  36. Yitzhak,

    Thank you for those links. The Abarbanel's comment is most interesting. But his statement about honor is a human one rather than a specifically Jewish one. I think you will agree, and I think this is partly what Rabbi Slifkin is trying to convey with this post, if I'm not mistaken.

  37. Aren't there a bunch of Chassidic stories about a men who feel an urge to leave their home towns and explore the world (or at least Leipzig)? Those men's travels in those days were probably just about as dangerous as Sunderland's voyage in these days.

    What to learn from this is a whole 'nother matter.

  38. > But his statement about honor is a human one rather than a specifically Jewish one. I think you will agree,

    Indeed, I stated as much in the post:

    "The concept of honor under discussion here does not appear to be a particularly Jewish one; it is tempting to suggest this as evidence of host culture influence on Abravanel’s thought."

  39. There is a Shach somewhere in Shulchan Aruch that gives, as an example of something I cannot remember, a statement "about which the Torah has no opinion." The Chazon Ish criticized this Shach, saying there was no such thing as a topic upon which the Torah had no opinion.

    Sorry i cant remember the marreh makkom, but it's on all fours with what youre saying.


  40. DF: I suspect that the Shach to which you refer is the famous one in HM 73:39, where he mentions an idea of דינא דמלכותא דינא applying

    דוקא מה שאינו נגד דין תורתינו אלא שאינו מפורש אצלינו

    As I recall, the Hazon Ish does take issue with this formulation; I don't have the work in front of me.

  41. The Hazon Ish I had in mind is HM Likutim beginning of #16 s.v. u'le'fichach "there is no such thing as a law that is not explicit, for everything is explicit in the Torah":

    אח"כ ראיתי בש"ך ... ולשון הש"ך ז"ל קשה לכוין שאין חילוק בין דין מפורש לאינו מפורש ואין כלל דין שאינו מפורש שהכל מפורש בתורה

  42. I've been going back through the archives of this blog to see what I've missed, and couldn't help commenting on this post (even though I doubt anyone will see it). It's insufficient to say that just because the Torah doesn't mention something, that thing has no place in Judaism, because you could also infer the exact opposite! In many cultures, the fact that they had or have no separate word to name some topic means that that topic is a fundamental part of the culture. For example, the ancient Egyptians had no word for "religion" because their religion an gods were one and the same with their way of life. Even in Judaism, I've heard that the reason Biblical Hebrew has no word for history is that history is an integral part of the Jewish experience. While you can't apply this logic to broad concepts, it does work for many words.

  43. I don't buy R. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon's view of an ancient larger Hebrew lexicon. I'm not linguist myself, but I know about Zipf's law: The probability of a random word chosen from a corpus being the n-th most common is proportional to 1/n. This has been verified for mostly all languages, even Esperanto and similar. It's likely to hold for the proposed ancient Hebrew with a huge lexicon. Now, the distribution has a parameter: the constant of proportionality. It can be used to assess the size of the vocabulary. (Even better would be a non-parametric fit ....) In any case, we find there's not horribly many words we're missing. I did the calculation during a boring lecture, and it was a few hundred, under a thousand (with a reasonable error bar)

    A better approach: Count how many words (roots) occur only once.

    In any event, it's unlikely that the vocabulary was massively larger. (Interesting side question: Why did the creator of the world decide to choose one of the most primitive Semitic languages to give his holy words?) The comparison to Arabic or Ugarit doesn't count, as all we know from them is younger; they had more time to amass vocabulary, and more speakers, and a larger territory.

    Anecdotally, I was informed that tanakh's language likely presents how people actually talked (of course not שירת האזינו and friends) -- very much unlike Greek tragedy or philosophy which is completely artificial and willfully unlike any spoken dialect.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...