Saturday, March 27, 2010

Beasts of the Bible

This Thursday, I am featured in the Animal Planet TV special "Beasts of the Bible." I haven't yet seen it myself, and I am really looking forward to it. But how can I see it in Israel? Is there a way to watch it via the Internet? I've seen ads for sites that let you watch cable TV via the Internet - are they legit, and will they download harmful software onto my computer? Your expertise is appreciated!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Critique of Chaim B'Emunasam - Now in Hebrew

Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous sponsor, my critique of Chaim B'Emunasam has been translated into Hebrew and will soon be printed and distributed. Meanwhile, you can download it (as well as the original English version) here. Please help circulate it amongst the Hebrew-speaking public - if you can get it to the Gedolim who wrote haskamos, all the better. (Note: I am printing it after Pesach, so if you find any mistakes in the Hebrew translation, please let me know!)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Evolution of the Olive

Since olives are very small, how did it happen that the shiur of a kezayis got to be so big? That is the subject of my essay "The Evolution of the Olive," which you can download here.

In posting this essay, I am experimenting with a new model for publishing, based on the "donationware" model that exists with computer programs. I would like to make my writings accessible to the wider public, which does not happen if they are published in journals (unless it's Hakirah, which makes their archives available online for free, but I already have articles reserved for them). In addition, if I am going to devote extensive amounts of time to writing, I need to make it a viable source of parnasah. While I hope to eventually publish all my articles in book form, that is a difficult and very slow process, and it's a pity to keep it all locked up until then if there is another way to make it available. So I am posting this essay here, and asking that if people find they have benefited from my website in general and from this essay in particular, please make a modest donation using the button below. Thank you, and enjoy the essay!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Gedolim and Leadership

I write this post with a heavy heart.

Over the last decade, the Gedolim of the Charedi world have done many things that, in the opinion of many, did not reflect well on their judgment.

The ban on Making Of A Godol, the ban on my books, the financially devastating ban on the Lipa concert and subsequent abrupt reversal, etc.

While I maintain that serious wrongs were committed in these cases, I tried my best to explain the Gedolims' point of view to people. Hence my essay, "In Defense of my Opponents."

Then came Troppergate, which eclipsed them all. Where the real chillul Hashem was not that this menuval did what he did, but that this man, who was known for decades to be a menuval and manipulator, was given so much power and honor, and even after being publicly exposed was not publicly condemned, because of the millions of dollars that he gave to the yeshivos. And nor was there any investigation into what improprieties (signatures on pashkevillim, false conversions, and who knows what else) were arranged by his money.

But now there is something that makes Troppergate look positively mild.

Rabbi Elior Chen of Beitar was indicted for some of the worst child abuse allegations ever. He fled to Brazil but was extradited back to Israel where he will stand trial. According to prosecution officials, the evidence against Chen is so overwhelming that there is absolutely no doubt that he will be convicted. (UPDATE: He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison.)

But recently, a letter appeared, signed by several of the Gedolim, asserting that they know Elior Chen to be a marbitz Torah and a righteous person and thus innocent of all charges, and asking people to support him!

At first, I did not post about this, because I couldn't bring myself to believe that these signatures of the Gedolim were authentic. As much as I had seen what I believed to be improprieties in the Gedolim affixing their names to things, surely they couldn't do this. I was inclined to agree with all the commentators at the afore-posted link who insisted that the signatures must have been faked. People close to the Gedolim insisted that the letter was not authentic.

But then a neighbor of mine wrote to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, asking him why he signed it. He received the following reply:

על כתב שרבותי חתומים גם אני חותם
"On a letter that my rabbis are signed on to, I also sign."

The implications of this sentence are so appalling that I can't even think of how to write about it in a way that will do justice to it.

I have always tried to write respectfully about the Gedolim, even when disagreeing with them strongly. But now I am honestly not sure if one should be respectful about the signing of this letter, especially when it is defended on the grounds that other rabbis signed it. The best limmud zechus I can think of is that, due to their intense dedication to staying in the Beis HaMidrash, the Gedolim are simply naive about the world and/or easily manipulated. But if that is the case, and it results in them signing letters such as this, then how are they suited for leadership positions? The fundamental belief of charedi society, that total dedication to Torah is what makes the ideal leader, is thereby exposed as hopelessly wrong. And even with this limmud zechus, one has to wonder how a Rav could attest with certainty to the innocence of someone who has been indicted for such terrible crimes, with one child suffering permanent brain damage and in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, merely because other rabbis say that he is innocent.

With the publication of the letter supporting Elior Chen, is there any way to justify the system of leadership in the charedi world?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Very Exciting News!

Head over to my other blog,, for a very exciting announcement!

Puzzled by Pi Perplexities

After reading through the fascinating comments to my post about Pi, I am left utterly perplexed as to what to conclude about the kav/kaveh gematriya.

On the one hand:
According to Ephraim's computer program, 111:106 is the third best ratio for numbers under 10,000. And it's the best that could be generated from a single letter difference - i.e. a kri/kesiv. Now, of course coincidences happen. But to have such a figure, resulting in Pi to five significant figures, emerging from precisely the word that the Passuk uses for the circumference, seems far too extraordinary to be relegated to coincidence. (This does not prove that God did it - a person could do such a thing too - but it is an ingenious feat of encoding, and the point is that it is a deliberate encoding.)

But on the other hand:

The kav/kaveh kri/ksiv occurs in Zechariah 1:16 too, where it is not referring to a circumference. This would indicate that it is merely a standard matter of confusion as to how the word should be spelled. (Malcolm argued that the fact that in Divrei Hayamim 2:4:2 it says kav without a kri/ksiv indicates that they knew the correct version and the kri/ksiv elsewhere is deliberately introduced, but I find this unconvincing; the existence of a kri/ksiv in Zechariah seems much more significant than the lack of kri/ksiv in Divrei HaYamaim.)

So is this kri/ksiv a deliberate way of encoding a closer value of Pi or not? I don't know what to make of it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Following this Blog

Since my track record for my pace and consistency in posting is, to say the least, erratic, some people have told me that in the slack periods, they stop checking this website, and as a result they miss posts. So I have added a "subscribe by email" box on the right, for those who don't use RSS readers and suchlike. Just type in your email address, and you'll have the posts automatically mailed to you when they appear.

I am also curious to know how many of my readers share my general approach and how many do not. At the right, a little further down, you will see a poll. Please vote! This is not to prove which approach is correct; it's to see whether I am succeeding in attracting like-minded people.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How is your Knowledge of 16th century Rabbinic Anatomy?

I'm still working through the kidney topic, and I am across a lengthy discussion by R. Yehudah Muscato (Italy c.1530- c.1593), an interesting figure who learned from both R. Azariah DeRossi as well as R. Moshe Provencal. Unfortunately I don't entirely understand what he is saying! Here is the link; it begins five lines from the bottom on the right column. In particular, I don't understand what he means exactly with his references to kochos and ruchos . If anyone can translate/ explain it, I would appreciate it!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Torah Speaks in the Language of Man

I will be writing a post summarizing the topic of kidneys. Meanwhile, I see from the previous posts that people are having a hard time with the application of dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam, “the Torah speaks in the language of men,” to the kidneys. Here is a quote from Rav Hirsch that should make it easier:
Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

R. Yaakov b. Chananel Skili on Kidneys

Here is a quote from R. Yaakov b. Chananel Skili (Spain-Israel-Iraq, 14th century), a disciple of Rashba, about kidneys. It's from Toras HaMincha, Derashah 74 for parashas Ki Tavo. If someone has the time and inclination to translate it, please do so! For a similar view, see Drashos Ibn Shuib to parashas Emor, p. 284.

ענין העצה והחכמה והשמחה המיוחסת לכליות
ועל ידי מה הוא מעורר אותי זאת ההתעוררות, על ידי הכליות, שהכליות יועצות ומחכימות. וכן הוא אומר (איוב לח לו) מי שת בטוחות חכמה, (תהלים נא ח) הן אמת חפצת בטוחות, והן הכליות שהן טוחות בחלב (ר"ה כו א). וכת' (משלי כג טז) ישמח לבי גם אני ותעלוזנה כליותי, הרי שלמה גדול חכמי הטבע והמחקר תלה השמחה בכליות כמו בלב. וכן בדוד הוא אומר (תהלים ז י) ובוחן לבות וכליות, (שם כו ב) בחנני ה' ונסני צרפה כליותי ולבי. וכן בירמיה הוא אומר (ירמיה יז י) אני ה' חוקר לב בוחן כליות ולתת לאיש כדרכיו כפרי מעלליו, ואומר (שם יא כ) וה' צבקות שופט צדק בוחן כליות ולב וגו'. הרי אנו למדים מכל אלו המקראות שהכליות יש להם כח לידע ולהודיע, וגם חלק להם בבינה כדרך שיש בלב, שהרי הקישן יחד.
והוצרכתי להביא כל זה מפני ששמעתי לקצת מבני עמנו קטני אמונה שתופסין על רז"ל שאמרו (ברכות סא א) כליות יועצות, והיו אומרים שאין כח בכליות להבין וליעץ אלא כמו שיש במעי התחתון. והנה למדנו מדברי הנביאים וגם מדברי שלמה דכת' ביה ותרב חכמת שלמה וגו', שהיה חכם בחכמת הטבע ובחכמת המחקר, וגם ממענה השם לאיוב, שהכליות כלי החכמה כמו הלב.
וגם דוד הודיענו שיש בהן כח להודיע לאדם עתידות, וכאשר ייסר איש את בנו הם מיסרות האדם להודיעו הדרך אשר ילך בה דכת' (תהלים טז ז) אף לילות יסרוני כליותי, ולא עוד אלא שהקיש מוסר ועצתם למוסר השם ית' ולעצתו, שהשם ית' יעץ ויסר קודם מעשה והם מיסרים ומיעצים בשעת מעשה, והכל משפע החכמה העליונה.
וכשהוא ית' חפץ באדם ורוצה להודיעו שהוא הולך על דרך לא טוב או בדרך ישר, הוא משפיע מכח החכמה בכליותיו לעוררו וליעצו על הדרך אשר ילך בה, ועל כן קראו ירמיה ע"ה גדול העצה, שכל העצות הן מאתו ית' והוא מגדיל עצה ומפליא התושיה תחלה וסוף, כדי להדריך אדם בדרך ישר לא יכשל בה, אם ישמע לעצת השם ית' הנה שכרו אתו ופעולתו לפניו ואם לאו ימנע מרשעים אורם, או יגלגל ויסבב סיבות ועלילות להפרע ממנו בעולם הזה לדעתו ושלא לדעתו הה"ד ורב העליליה, שמרבה עלילות וסיבות לנקותו ולטהרו מעוונו ביסורין או בדבר אחר, הכל כפי מה שחייבה חכמתו, כי הוא חשב מחשבות לבלתי ידח ממנו נדח דכת' גדול העצה ורב העליליה.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kidneys: Who is "the Most Loyal and Faithful"?

In an earlier post, I discussed the references in Tenach about the kidneys giving advice. Ibn Ezra explains it as a metaphor, due to his rationalist acceptance of science, and due to his seeing that as license to take the initiative of interpreting Scripture non-literally, even against Chazal (as we shall see). But I gave it as an example of dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam, as explained by later authorities - that God packages His messages according to the intellectual framework of the people who hear them. Rambam, as explained by Rav Shlomo Fisher, gives a similar explanation in a different context:
Rambam wrote that Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot was presented to him in a manner that accorded with the view that the heavenly spheres make sounds, and that Mercury and Venus are above the sun, even though the truth is that the spheres make no sound, and Mercury and Venus are below the sun.[1] For prophecy presents itself to the prophet in accordance with his own conception of the world. (R. Shlomo Fisher, Derashos Beis Yishai, Ma’amar Hamo’ach Vehalev, fn. 4)

In the Gemara, it's abundantly clear that Chazal viewed the kidneys as functioning to give us advice:
The Rabbis taught: The kidneys advise, the heart considers, the tongue articulates, the mouth finishes, the esophagus brings in all kinds of food, the windpipe gives sound, the lungs absorb all kinds of fluids, the liver causes anger, the gallbladder secretes a drop into it and calms it, the spleen laughs, the gizzard grinds, the stomach [causes] sleep, the nose [causes] wakefulness. (Berachos 61a)

The anonymous blogger "Not Brisk" refers to my "chutzpah" in saying that Chazal had an incorrect view of the function of the kidneys, and notes that I "don't grasp" that Chazal can have a hidden meaning. Of course, it's not a matter of "not grasping" the possibility of a deeper meaning - there are many sayings of Chazal that are obviously not intended to be understood at face value - but rather, that it is clear that this statement was meant literally, both from context and mesorah.

In this passage of the Gemara, the descriptions of the functions of the tongue, mouth, esophagus, windpipe, lungs, stomach and nose are all clearly literal, scientific descriptions. This is not an aggadic legend intended to be understood metaphorically, like the stories of Rabbah bar bar Chana. Thus, the account of the function of the kidneys is also clearly intended to be a literal description. This is entirely consistent with standard belief in the ancient world (as are the accounts of the functions of the other organs).

Not surprisingly, the mesorah is also that the kidneys literally give advice. There is no Rishon who explains the Gemara metaphorically. Ramban, Rashbash and Rabbeinu Bachya explain the kidneys as having cognitive functions. R. Yehudah HaLevi, R. Yehoshua Ibn Shuib, R. Yaakov b. Chananel Skili (a talmid of Rashba), R. Moshe ben Avraham Provençal and R. Yitzchak Lampronti all address the claim that this is scientifically disproved and rebut it sharply on the basis that our mesorah from Chazal trumps science. Chida claims scientific evidence that the kidneys really do have cognitive functions.

Of course, this position is more difficult to uphold today, when we have dialysis and kidney transplants. Still, the most faithful nevertheless uphold this mesorah. Thus, Rav Ovadiah Yosef advises kidney recipients to choose (where possible) to receive kidneys from Jewish donors, due to the role that the Gemara ascribes to them.

It is thus deliciously humorous that Not Brisk, who declares himself to be defending the view of "the most loyal and faithful among us," takes the approach of out-Slifkining Slifkin. He goes against the straightforward meaning in the pasuk, the clear meaning of Chazal, and the mesorah from the Rishonim and Acharonim, because due to his acceptance of science, he chooses to follow the decidedly non-mainstream opinion of Ibn Ezra (certainly not part of the charedi mesorah!) who himself, due to his knowledge of science, learns the pesukim allegorically and rejects Chazal! What will he accept next - evolution? Oh, the irony!

[1] See Guide for the Perplexed II:8-9, with the commentaries of Efodi, Shem Tov, Narvoni, and Abarbanel in Ta’anos, 4. For further discussion, see Warren Zev Harvey, “How to Begin to Study Moreh Nevuchim,” Da'at 21 (1988) 5-23 pp. 21-23 (in Hebrew).

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Intelligence Agency Misused Passports: OMG!

Is it rational to believe that the Jewish People are unique? Of course, every nation is unique in its own way, but is there something really extraordinary about the Jewish People?

Well, the rest of the world seems to think so, at least in one aspect. Judeopathy (antisemitism) is really an extraordinary phenomenon. The latest example is with the Dubai assassination. Alan Dershowitz has a terrific article highlighting the absurdity of the uproar:

An Intelligence Agency Misused Passports: OMG! at the Huffingon Post.