Friday, July 30, 2010

"They Could Say It, We Cannot"

With everything that I write, there are always people expressing their comments and their beliefs as to how true/unacceptable it is. I was therefore amazed that I didn't get a single piece of feedback on my article in Hakirah “They Could Say It, We Cannot”: Defining the Charge of Heresy. It dealt with an incredibly important and provocative topic that lies at the heart of the Torah-science controversies of the last few years: the very definition of heresy. It's now freely available for download; click here. Since writing the article, I have been working further on the tricky topic of defining heresy; I gave a lecture on this topic recently in LA and I plan to write a full treatment of it. Meanwhile, here's a fascinating quote from Prof. Haym Soloveitchik. He raises the question of why Rambam listed belief in the preeminence of Moshe's prophecy as a fundamental; would anyone really care if someone believed that, say, Yechezkel was his equal? He answers as follows:

...An ikkar does not arise from the fact that its negation is false, but from the fact that its negation undermines the Jewish system of belief. That Moses’ prophecy was of a different order than that of other prophets is an explicit verse in the Torah (Numbers 12:7); [but] it was a specific historic context, its denial by Islam, that turned this verse from a religious dictum into an ikkar. A belief is an ikkar when its content is what differentiates Judaism from the surrounding credal system.
(“Two Notes on the Commentary on the Torah of R. Yehudah he-Hasid,” p. 244)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Civets and Dinosaurs: Miscellaneous Notes and Announcements

1. Ramban makes a comment in last week's parashah which is of incredible importance. On the passuk of "Ve'asisa hayashar vehatov," he points out that the Torah cannot discuss every case that arises (this is interesting in light of Ramban's mystical view that "everything is in the Torah"), and therefore we must extrapolate moral values from the mitzvos to apply to other cases. I think that this has ramifications for everything from software piracy to pyramid schemes to organ donation.

2. I was recently asked if Kopi Luwak is kosher. I had never heard of it, and was intrigued to discover that it is coffee made from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet. I don't have my seforim with me so I can't do the research now, but I can think of a few factors to consider: (1) The beans absorb enzymes from the civet's stomach, but then again, so does honey with bees; (2) There may be a difference with something that is excreted rather than regurgitated, on the grounds that kol hayotzei min hatamei, tamei; (3) There is debate in the Gemara and onwards concerning whether it is permissible to drink donkey urine; (4) Is it ever justifiable to spend $100 on a cup of coffee?

3. During my lecture tour, I often have the pleasure of experiencing people telling me that my books have made a positive impact on their lives. Last Shabbos, in Baltimore, someone came over to me and said, "Rabbi Slifkin, I have to thank you for transforming my life... by letting me know about DropBox!"

(Click here if you haven't yet installed this terrific utility.)

4. Yesterday I was in one of my favorite stores, the Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway. I saw two cheaply-priced gems that I didn't buy because I already own them, but someone else might want to seize the opportunity: Moshe Sokol's Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, and Lester A. Segal's Historical Consciousness and Religious Tradition in Azariah de' Rossi's "Me'or Einayim." These books are difficult to find and often expensive, but I highly recommend them both. And the Strand is a great place to find other rare and cheap books on Judaism, science, and pretty much anything.

5. Tonight (Wednesday) I am speaking about dinosaurs and evolution at the Talmud Torah Learning Program in Flatbush, 1305 Coney Island Ave. The presentation will be in the simcha hall at 7:30pm. Men and women are welcome; there is a $7 suggested donation. I will also have books on sale, including the new edition of The Challenge Of Creation (which hasn't yet reached the stores here), and you can get the set of all four of my books that are in print for just $90.

6. There are still a few spots left for this Sunday's Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo. Please spread the word, and email me if you want to make a reservation.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mad Dog Englishmen

An extraordinary court case recently occurred in England. Five men were on trial in England for causing $275,000 of damage, back in July 2009, to an arms factory that was supplying parts to the IDF. The men admitted to causing the damage, but said that it was for the purpose of preventing Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The judge told the jury that Israel was indeed committing war crimes, but asked them to put their emotions aside as they think about scenes in Gaza "which one would rather have hoped to have disappeared with the Nazi regimes." The men were acquitted. (See here, here and here for details and op-eds, and see especially here for a review of the judge's summing-up speech.)

At first I thought that this was further evidence for my feeling which I posted about a few weeks ago, that hatred of Jews is a phenomenon that transcends any rational explanation and must be metaphysical in origin. It turns out, however, that this case is more of a reflection on the madness of the British. Two years earlier, environmental activists who sabotaged a coal power plant were likewise acquitted, since they were engaged in the greater good of preventing global warming. (See here for more info.)

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Gaza case is in this write-up, by a Jewish friend of the judge, who laments the judge's appalling behavior, but notes that he is not an antisemite, and he sees this case as an illustration of how effective anti-Israel propaganda has been at swaying decent people to its cause. Over Shabbos I met someone who works for Stand With Us, an important organization that combats anti-Israel propaganda. Let's hope that they make some headway.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Publishing Dilemmas

For my MA, I wrote a number of papers, and now I am debating what to do with them. Here is the complete list (the reason why it is so long is that I had to do additional work because I didn't have a BA):

1. The Sun's Path at Night

2. The Theological Significance of Geocentrism for Jews in the Medieval Period

3. Jewish Responses to Copernicus and Heliocentrism

4. Shiluach haKein: The Transformation of a Mitzvah

5. The Evolution of the Olive

6. “The Torah Speaks Like the Language of Men”: Talmudic Parameters

7. Arguing with God: When May Students Dispute Teachers?

8. Maimonides’ Naturalization of Miracles

9. Rashi and Corporealism

10. Maharal’s Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship

11. The Sages’ Legendary Powers of Life and Death

12. Wrestling with Demons

13. Sod Hashem Liyreyav: The Expansion of an Explanatory Tool

14. North African Rabbis and Electricity

15. The Personalities of Non-Humans in Scripture

16. The Beasts From The Whirlwind: Animal Life in the Book of Iyov

17. The Extinction of Species in Jewish Thought

18. Rav Soloveitchik's Approach to Evolution

19. The Economics of Torah Study in the Medieval Period

20. The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel

Eventually, I plan to publish 1-3 in a book entitled Shaking The Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions, and some of the others will appear in Rationalist Judaism: Its Nature, Decline and Rebirth. But it would be a pity if they don't see the light of day until then, and besides, what do I do with the others? There are several options, each with different advantages and disadvantages.

For my career, it's best to submit them to academic journals. But then they won't be read by the people who would most benefit from them. Hakirah is another option, but there is a limit to how many articles from one person they can print. I also have to figure out how to make parnasah as a writer (I much prefer writing to teaching). With the kezayis essay, I tried making it available online and asking people to make an appropriate donation, but even though hundreds of people downloaded it, only about ten people made a donation.

I'd be interested to hear people's ideas. The essay on Shiloach HaKein is especially important to the rationalist enterprise, and would be timely for parashas Ki Setze; I would very much like to release it on this website, if people are willing to make an appropriate donation.

Meanwhile, in other news, I am pleased to announce that this Sunday I am giving a lecture at Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore at 6.45pm on the topic of Rationalist Judaism. The entrance donation is $10, and books will be available for purchase. If you have any friends in Baltimore, please let them know! I also have a few spots left next Sunday for the Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo.

Monday, July 12, 2010

From Yeshivah to Academia

Growing up, it was a given that I would go to university. My father, zichrono livrachah, was a lifetime academic with two doctorates and over two hundred papers published, many of which appeared in such prestigious journals as Nature and Science. I certainly did not intend to follow in his footsteps and take up a career in the academic world, but my family and I assumed that, after spending three years in yeshivah gedolah (the norm in our circles in England), I would study something in the sciences and then enter the workforce.

But just two years into yeshivah, I had already "flipped out" and decided against going to university. At the time, my parents were horrified (although I'm not sure why they expected differently, considering that I attended black-hat yeshivos). This led to some friction, but eventually I won them over; being a published author helped considerably. On the shelf of my books that my mother displays in her hallway, she framed a cartoon that she cut out from a magazine; it depicts a book signing in a store, where next to the "Meet the Author" table is another table: "Meet the Author's Mother."

Meanwhile, however, I was "flipping back." Even before the ban on my books, I was becoming disenchanted with the charedi world in general and its approach to Torah in particular, and the ban served to accelerate my departure. I was no longer ideologically opposed to university. However, it seemed to have become largely irrelevant, since I already had established my career as a rabbi, teaching and publishing. It did not seem to make any difference that I lacked any formal secular education since A-levels (the British final exams in high school). I read widely, and in any case most people assumed that I had attended college.

Nevertheless, over the last few years, a number of factors led me to realize that I would benefit from having a college degree. Furthermore, my research and writing was taking me ever more into Jewish academic studies. Now, all my life, I had thought of university as a place where one studies science; not the arts, and certainly not Jewish studies. Torah is to be learned in a yeshivah, not a university! The idea of someone studying Torah subjects in a university had always been alien, distasteful, unimaginable.

But now my own studies were taking me in that direction. I was extremely dissatisfied with the limited nature of the curriculum for Torah scholars in the yeshivah world. In addition, the prevalence of intellectual dishonesty was extremely disturbing; the views of Rishonim were usually explored with a view to reconciling them with a pre-existing hashkafic worldview rather than a sincere attempt to understand what they were actually saying. Furthermore, when I was looking to understand Rambam's approach to various issues, I discovered that the people who had really studied his writings were to be found in academia, not yeshivah.

A combination of all these factors, as well as others, led me to finally take the plunge two years ago. I submitted a set of my books, letters of recommendation from various academics who were familiar with my work, as well as a copy of the cherem on my books, to Machon Lander in Jerusalem (not to be confused with Lander College). These enabled me to be accepted directly to the Master's program in Jewish Studies, with the proviso that I had to complete a number of additional courses to make up for lacking a BA. I majored in Torah SheBa'Al Peh and Hagut, and this month I completed the program and received my final grades. Next year, b'ezrat Hashem, I plan to begin a PhD in Jewish History (focusing on intellectual history) at Bar-Ilan.

Rav Hirsch writes that one of the reasons why the Torah disapproves of nedarim is that a person should never make absolute decisions about their future plans; life is a process of growth, and plans change as a result. Never, neither as a teenager in high-school nor as a yeshivah student, did I dream for a moment that I would be studying Torah in an academic setting. The contrast between yeshivah learning and academic learning fascinates me, probably because to a large extent it explains the nature of my books and the resultant ban. I have written on this topic before (see here and here), and I plan to further address other aspects of it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Torah of Science

As many of you know, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Yeshivas Toras Moshe was one of those who condemned my books. In fact, of all those who opposed my books, Rabbi Meiselman was one of the most vitriolic. His ire was aroused by the fact that I had mentioned him in the acknowledgments of one of the books, thus putting him, as he said, "in an extremely uncomfortable position." (As it happens, his contribution was negligible, and I explicitly mentioned that the people listed in the acknowledgments were only those who had given some sort of input and were not being presented as endorsing the book's thesis.) As a result, he felt forced to give a series of shiurim that would make it clear that he was on the side of the Gedolim and condemned my work.

Rabbi Meiselman's condemnations of my material reflected exceedingly poorly on him, for a number of reasons. One was that, while he doubtless has genuine differences of opinion with me, every single one of his criticisms was based on a serious distortion of what I wrote. Furthermore, he issued a number of personal insults, quite unbefitting anyone, let alone a Rosh Yeshivah. Worst of all, he issued some appalling motzi shem ra about my personal history, which subsequently was spread by others.

I sent a letter of protest to Rabbi Meiselman, to which he did not respond (you can read it here). A number of people thought that I was exaggerating his distortions, or wondered if perhaps he has more credibility than I made it appear. I therefore uploaded all his shiurim about me to my website, so that people could listen to them and hear his rhetoric for themselves. Rabbi Meiselman subsequently sent me his only communication, via an intermediary - a request that I remove the audio recordings from my website. I sent a message back that I would be quite willing to do so once he retracts his false accusations. There was no response. However, a number of people, including parents of students at Toras Moshe, complained to Rabbi Meiselman about his disgusting attack.

Possibly as an effort to regain credibility, he has written a book with his own views on Torah and science. "The Torah of Science" is due to be published soon by Feldheim Publishers. Apparently, he argues in the book that the world is 5770 years old and that evolution is false, amongst other things. I don't know if the book also contains overt attacks on me or my own work. According to my informants, Rabbi Meiselman also claims in the book that the famous passage by Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam about Chazal's knowledge of science is a forgery!

Here are my predictions about what the book will NOT include, even though one would expect these to be included in a book presenting itself as the authoritative guide to this subject matter:

  • A citation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh's important letters about Torah and science;

  • A discussion of the most fundamental discussion in the Gemara on this topic, that of the sun's path at night, with mention of all the Rishonim on this sugya;

  • A discussion of specific problematic statements in the Gemara that my books address, such as the mud-mouse, the gestation periods of different animals, Rashi's explanation of mermaids, and so on. There will be generic platitudes about the wisdom of Chazal and the folly of scientists rather than an analysis of the most difficult statements by Chazal that are challenged by science.

  • An explanation of all the diverse biological phenomena that evolution so neatly explains, such as the nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom, fossils, vestigial limbs, the geographical siting of specific animal groups such as marsupials, and so on. Why do whales need to come to the surface to breath, rather than being able to breath underwater like fish? Don't expect this book to provide any framework for answering such questions; it will just be a list of kashyas on natural selection, presented as a fundamental disproof of the entire evolutionary model.

One person who saw the manuscript told me that I will have absolutely no difficulty in exposing the fundamental fallacies and errors of the work. Still, I do think that the book is cause for concern. Many people will be under the mistaken impression that since Rabbi Meiselman has a PhD in mathematics (and I heard one rabbi mistakenly claim that it was in physics), this means that his opinion on the age of the universe and evolution carries weight and authority.

On the other hand, when I (and probably others) do expose the mistakes in Rabbi Meiselman's book, the resultant publicity will doubtless lead many people to my website, where they will learn about Rabbi Meiselman's disgusting personal slander of me. This is not good PR for him or his yeshivah - especially since his book makes it look as though he is trying to "get back at me" for exposing his low behavior. So I think that, aside from the errors in science and rabbinic scholarship, Rabbi Meiselman is committing a strategic error.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lecture Schedule - UPDATED

Here is my lecture schedule (so far) for July/ August:

Shabbos July 17th: Young Israel of North Beverly Hills

Sunday July 18th, 8.30pm, at Young Israel of Century City: "Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions." Donation: $10. Download flyer here

Shabbos July 24th: Shomrei Emunah, Baltimore

Sunday July 25th: Torah Tour of the Baltimore Zoo - registration required - Download flyer here.

Shabbos July 31st: Ahavas Achim, Fair Lawn, NJ

Sunday August 1st: Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo - registration required - Download flyer here

As you can see, I still have availability during weekdays for additional lectures, if anyone wants to arrange something.
Also, if anyone can give me a ride from NY to Baltimore on Thursday July 22nd, or back to NY on Monday July 26th, please be in touch!