Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Worth A Thousand Words

The Sukkos edition of the Hebrew edition of Mispachah featured an interview with HaGaon Rav Chanoch Ehrentrau, "Av Beis Din of Europe," speaking about "his close connection in his youth with Rav Dessler z"l, and his shimush with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and with Rav Elyashiv." Take a close look at the top bookshelf... there's a copy of Mysterious Creatures, and The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax!

(Hat-tip: R. Eliezer "Eagle-eyed" Brodt)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Case of Dr. Isaac Betech

Dr. Isaac Betech is a pediatrician in Mexico. He is very active in Jewish outreach, in collaboration with Rabbi Yosef Yagen of Monsey. By his own admission, he was instrumental in getting several Gedolim to sign a letter of condemnation against my books. According to someone in Mexico who wants to translate my books into Spanish, he would be unable to distribute them in bookstores due to Dr. Betech's influential opposition.

In a previous comment thread (link), an extensive discussion with Dr. Betech occurred. Dr. Betech requested to publicly debate the scientific merits of evolution with me, and said: "The reason I want to debate is because I want to know the truth, and this has been one of the main mottos in my whole life." He still has not responded to my main question to him, despite my having posed it numerous times. Here it is again:

Dr. Betech, you claim to want to have a scientific debate, but is that really the case? In other words, supposing I were to present overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution. Would you then accept it? And what would you then say about Bereishis?

Meanwhile, I am not accepting his proposal of a scientific debate about evolution. I am instead offering a counter-proposal, and I am also accepting another proposal of his.

The counter-proposal is to publicly debate the scientific theory of his creation model. After all, he claims that his beliefs about the development of the world are not only based on Torah, but also on science. And he claims that such debates are important for reaching truth, and that pursuing truth is one of his main mottos.

I propose a format for such a debate as follows: Dr. Betech would first describe his model in detail, explaining when and how each major group of animals (Paleozoic fauna such as ammonites, Mesozoic fauna such as Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs, mammals, birds etc.) appeared and disappeared. Then I would pose ten question to him about his model. Then he would respond. Then I would pose further questions about his responses, to which he could again respond. Then I would make a brief closing statement, and then he would do the same. I would be generous and allow him to have the final word.

The second proposal is as follows: In a correspondence with a friend of mine, Dr. Betech said that he is able and willing to debate the question of "Did Chazal ever err in science", because it befits a scientist such as himself to evaluate (according to present day factual scientific knowledge) if there are any scientific inaccuracies when Chazal stated their innumerable specific statements describing nature. (He refused to debate the different question of whether it is legitimate to say that Chazal erred in science.)

I would be willing to engage in this debate, and the format would be as follows: Dr. Betech would first explain his methodology for determining what Chazal's words mean, in preparation for assessing whether they are consistent with modern science. I would then ask him questions on this methodology, to which he could respond. Then I would ask him to explain ten statements in the Gemara in light of modern science. Dr. Betech would give his explanations, I would ask questions, to which he could respond. Then I would make a brief closing statement, and he would do the same, again having the final word.

Dr. Betech, what do you say?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Expert in Torah

In a previous post, I discussed the mistakes commonly made when defining who is an expert in science. In this post, I would like to address the question of who is an expert in Torah. The confusion surrounding this issue is probably the most significant factor involved with those people who, with little or no knowledge of the issues involved, decided that in STARC the Gedolim had to be correct. After all, between a 29-year-old average yeshivah graduate, and two dozen Gedolei Torah, isn't it obvious who's correct? It's like matching a high-school student against two dozen Nobel-prize winning scientists!

In defining "experts in Torah," (or "Gedolim",) there are two misconceptions that are commonly found. The first is the assumption that anyone with expertise in one area of Torah automatically possesses expertise in all areas of Torah. This is something that I discussed in an earlier post (perhaps someone can find the link). There is a common assumption that anyone who is, say, a prominent Rosh Yeshivah, and/or is known as a great Lamdan (i.e. possesses great expertise in applying the Brisker Derech to certain parts of Shas), is also proficient in all areas of Torah, as well as automatically being a tzaddik.

I don't know why this assumption exists, but there is no basis for it. First of all, a good Seforim library will contain many thousands of volumes, and it is impossible for anyone to be proficient in anything beyond a small fraction of these. Second, there are different areas of Torah study that people choose to specialize in, so there is simply no basis for assuming that specialists in one area are knowledgeable about other areas. Third of all, the particular field of Torah relevant to my books is a very arcane area, so there is no reason to expect people to be proficient in it if they do not have a prior interest in it; I doubt that the Gedolim who opposed my books ever researched the views of the Rishonim on the critical passage in Pesachim 94b about the sun's path at night. Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, some of the most important texts in this field are deliberately avoided in yeshivos. The Moreh Nevuchim is a case in point - I have been told, and I believe it to be true, that most of the Gedolim who signed against my books have never studied the Moreh.

The second and more fundamental point in judging who is an expert in Torah relates (as with expertise in science) to epistemology and worldview. The Gedolim who opposed my books all come from a particular school of thought: the anti-rationalist movement of the last few hundred years. Rav Moshe Shapiro has studied the Moreh Nevuchim, but has done so through the lens of Maharal, not Rambam. My books, on the other hand, are based on the worldview of the rationalist Rishonim of Sefard (and a few later figures).

But don't the Gedolim know about the other worldview? Not adequately. Some, such as Rav Elyashiv, probably do, to some extent; and that is why he says that the books are not technically kefirah, just forbidden for the charedi world. But most, although they are aware that Rambam and some other aberrant figures had some "strange" views, are entirely unaware of how prominent and mainstream was the view that Chazal were not infallible in science. Any sources that they are shown, to that effect, are immediately interpreted from a non-rationalist perspective. "It's a forgery, it was just for kiruv, it is supposed to be interpreted according to a deeper meaning," etc., etc. The haskamos on the notorious work Chaim B'Emunasam make this very clear. I also have a letter from Rav Scheinberg in which he states that any source from the Rishonim saying that Chazal erred in science must be a forgery.

Thus, the analogy of a high-school student to a group of Nobel-prizewinners is wrong, because in that example, both are operating within the same general approach. A better example would be - and please forgive the analogy, but it illuminates the point well, so insert plenty of "lehavdils" - an average rabbi against all the leading scholars of the Vatican regarding whether the New Testament reflects Divine inspiration. The Vatican scholars are clearly far more learned regarding the New Testament text and surrounding literature and history. Nevertheless, since they are coming from a radically different worldview, there is no reason to give them greater weight than the rabbi regarding the question of whether the New Testament reflects Divine inspiration.

Finally, it is with regard to this point of worldview that the advantage of the academic approach comes into play. The passionate religious authority, especially in the charedi world, is ideologically and emotionally committed to a particular approach to Judaism. The problem is that the traditionalist, anti-rationalist worldview, by its very nature, precludes the acknowledgment of any legitimate alternative. To admit to the existence of radically different approaches would undermine this religious worldview. Indeed, as Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky writes in Emes LeYaakov, the goal of the charedi/ yeshivah approach is to minimize any apparent theological differences between the Rishonim, even if one needs to engage in creative intellectual gymnastics to do so. But the academic scholar usually does not need to say that all great Torah scholars of the past subscribed to the approach that he deems correct. He is freely able to acknowledge the existence of very different schools of thought.

For these reasons and more, it's wrong to look at STARC and other such disputes as "young whippersnapper versus a multitude of great Torah authorities." Rather, it's "the rationalist approach of the Sefardic Rishonim and others, versus the anti-rationalist approach of later authorities." Or, more precisely: "the rationalist approach of the Sefardic Rishonim and others, versus the anti-rationalist approach of later authorities who cannot in principle acknowledge the existence of other approaches."

(P.S. There are some weird things going on with the comments. Some of the end up in Blogger's spam folder, and it sometimes takes me a while to notice them. Also, many appear to be submitted multiple times. Please only submit comments once. And please familiarize yourself with the comments policy.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Day The World Changed

Whoops! It's so embarrassing to miss an important anniversary.

Yesterday was the 6th of Tishrei, which was the sixth anniversary of the day that I received that fateful call from Bnei Brak warning me to retract my books or face scandal and humiliation. At the time, people told me that the whole thing would blow over very soon. Little did we realize that it would rage for nearly two years and have permanent effects.

The Science, Torah and Rabbis Controversy (STARC) was a much bigger deal than the controversy over Making Of A Godol, the controversy over One People Two Worlds, and even the controversy over the Lipa Concert (which, to my mind, was far more egregious). The reason for for this was that STARC went much further than just a ban on three books or a condemnation of one person. First of all, it was a ban on views held by thousands of people, not just me. Second, it was a War of the Worlds, a clash of cultures that involved so many issues. It wasn't just about dinosaurs, evolution or the validity of a few statements in the Talmud. It was about the nature of Chazal and our relationship to them, the definition of Gedolim and our allegiance to them, the way in which contemporary rabbinic authority functions, the way in which the Internet affects Orthodox Jewish society, our relationship to science, and fundamentally different worldviews regarding how knowledge is acquired. It took me years to realize that the differences were so fundamental and far-reaching, and that it was truly the case that every single page of my books was unacceptable to my distinguished opponents.

I personally know of many dozens of people who distanced themselves from the charedi world to a lesser or greater extent as a result of STARC, and there are doubtless many more. The ramifications of STARC are still appearing, in all kinds of ways. I therefore don't think that it's "wasteful bringing up of the past" to further explore the issues surrounding STARC, and I plan to do so in future posts. Meanwhile, don't forget that a vast collection of documents relating to STARC can be found at this link.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An Expert in Science

One of the problems with successfully conveying the rationalist approach is that, when it comes to science, many people do not understand how to assess expertise and authority. There are various rabbis around the world, some quite prominent, who are often portrayed as being "experts in science." Some of them support my work to a greater or lesser extent, some of them oppose it to a greater or lesser extent. But do any of their opinions carry weight as being "experts in science"?

The reason why these great Torah scholars are presented as also being great experts in science is that they have all read much popular scientific literature. One of them was given the task of addressing the a conference of kiruv professionals on Torah-science issues a few years ago, due to his alleged expertise in this area; as one participant told me in awe, "He's read every issue of Scientific American for the last fifteen years!" But does this mean that he is an expert in science?

It should first be noted that it is pretty meaningless to talk about "knowing science." There is physics and biology and astronomy and archeology and paleontology and a host of other fields. And within each of these, there are a multitude of subdivisions. The body of scientific knowledge is so huge that nobody gains expertise in more than a small fraction of it.

The problem with claiming these people to be "experts in science" is (A) their lack of credibility, (B) their lack of systematic knowledge, and (C) the difference in epistemology and worldview. That may sound like a lot of meaningless jargon, so allow me to explain.

The first point is credibility. None of these people possess formal qualifications or a formal education in science. Now, that alone does not mean that they do not possess expertise. After all, I consider myself to possess a certain expertise in various zoological matters, and yet I too lack formal qualifications and training in this area. On the other hand, I would never expect that people would respect me as an authority whose opinion should be relied upon, since they have no way of knowing if I am truly an expert or just a crank.

I am not a scientist. I am, however, someone who accurately reports the state of scientific knowledge, as can easily be verified. The credibility of my scientific positions does not rest on my personal credibility as a scientist (of which I have none), but rather on the credibility of the global scientific establishment that I am quoting. But when a Posek who is not a scientist disputes the entire scientific establishment, his acceptance is based upon his own credibility (which I would also argue to be non-existent). Thus, when people say, as they often do, "So what that Rav X is not a scientist? Slifkin is not a scientist either!" - it completely misses the point. It is truly laughable when a certain popular rabbi from Jerusalem tells his audience that "people who know science" - by which he is referring to a Rosh Yeshivah with a PhD in mathematics (not one of the natural sciences) and a physician - have declared that my science (referring to my belief in the antiquity of the universe and evolution) is wrong! The mathematician and physician are not disputing me; they are disputing the entire scientific establishment. And they have zero credibility in doing so.

The second factor is systematic knowledge. Systematic knowledge means that one possesses knowledge about a topic that is not only extensive, but which also fits together to provide a thorough, cohesive understanding. As an example, I'd like to pick my own field of zoology, and the sub-field of taxonomy - classifying animals. A person may be able to name a multitude of species, from pangolins to pottos, but this is not systematic knowledge. Systematic knowledge would mean understanding the larger patterns, the difference between an order and a genus, between a rodent and an insectivore.

Systematic knowledge is particularly relevant in the case of evolution. Non-scientists, reputed to be "experts in science," can toss out a lot of scattered data in the form of objections to evolution. But they have no systematic knowledge of the animal kingdom, which is what evolution is based upon and addresses. Evolution (in terms of common ancestry) addresses - exceedingly well - the overall pattern of life; the nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom, the geographical distribution, the fossil record, the patterns of homologous versus analogous similarities in physiology. Not only do these people have no overall model to address any of these; they've never even addressed them at all. Their knowledge is scattered, not systematic.

The third factor is epistemology and worldview. Modern science rests upon a particular epistemology and worldview - the scientific method. Hypotheses are offered, which must make predictions that can be tested. Conclusions are drawn based upon evidence, not based upon the social/ religious status of people. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The stability of the natural order is taken as a given without evidence to the contrary. Etc., etc. It is these differences in epistemology and worldview which account for far-reaching differences between the conclusions of modern science and the conclusions of the aforementioned Torah scholars.

It's difficult for many people to grasp these points. So perhaps some parables would help. Imagine someone from an Eastern culture claiming expertise in Western medicine due to having watched and memorized every episode of House MD. To someone who knows nothing about medicine, their knowledge of facts would sound very impressive - but they are not an expert in Western understandings of physiology or medicine! Or imagine a non-Jew claiming expertise and authority in paskening halachah against all Jewish poskim due to having read every English halachic guidebook. To another non-Jew, they would sound very knowledgeable about Jewish law - but learned Jews would know that this person has no credibility in issuing halachic rulings that run contrary to all Jewish poskim!

This may provoke the following question: Okay, so these Rabbis are not "experts in science." But what about Torah? How can regular learned Jews possibly dispute Torah scholars who are vastly superior to them in Torah knowledge?

That will have to wait for another post.

Comments Policy

Since there are new readers joining this website all the time, I wanted to reiterate (and expand upon) my policies in moderating and posting comments. First, let me explain the factors behind my policies:

1. I dislike the entire blog format. I much prefer journals, where only letters meeting certain requirements and standards are printed. It makes for a much more focused and high quality publication.

2. We live in a free society. There are plenty of websites and publications expounding views that are very different from rationalist Judaism. I'm not especially interested in this being a forum for such people.

3. I am used to people disputing my views, but if their challenges are posted here, I feel obligated to respond. And I just don't have the time. There are countless people out there who want to have endless arguments with me. But at any given time, aside from all the projects in which I am involved, I have around 200 emails waiting for my attention. I just can't spend time engaged in blog comments.

Those are the factors involved in my formulating my policies. The resultant policies are not clear-cut, but if you want to increase your chances of your comment being posted, here are the factors that will help (none are critical, but all help):

1. Use your real name. I don't want to make this a critical requirement - some of the best comments come from those who do not use their real name - but certainly if you are challenging me, I am not likely to give you a forum to do so if you are not willing to post your real name, just as I do. And even a pseudonym is better than "Anonymous."

2. Do not include links without a clear explanation of what the link is to (otherwise you are potentially wasting time for many people).

3. Use good English and full sentences.

4. Stick to the point of the post!

5. This website is intended to supplement my books. I feel that if someone is genuinely and seriously interested in my take on Rationalist Judaism, he/she should read my books The Challenge of Creation and Sacred Monsters. So I don't like to post comments on topics that I have already addressed in the books. For example, in my post about Stephen Hawking, a number of people submitted challenges that I already addressed at length in The Challenge Of Creation.

6. Finally, preference will be given to comments that are in the spirit of the Rationalist Judaism enterprise, as I understand it. That doesn't mean that you have to agree with me. But I think that I am usually able to gauge the difference between someone who disagrees with me and yet is operating within the same overall worldview and epistemology, and someone who disagrees with me because they are using an entirely different worldview and epistemology.

If, after all this, you are still wondering why your comment was not posted, feel free to email me and ask why, and I will try to respond. And in general, if you want to ask me a question, it's always better to email me (or call me) rather than to submit it in the comments section. The comments section is for insights that contribute to the post.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking Challenges God

(This essay was posted to the Zoo Torah mailing list. To subscribe to this list send an e-mail to essays-subscribe@zootorah.com.)

The relationship of science to religion is always a hot topic, but it became especially fiery in the last few days with the announcement of a new book co-authored by legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. “Stephen Hawking Says God Did Not Create The Universe” is the incendiary headline in many news outlets. His new work, The Grand Design, co-authored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, seeks to give a scientific explanation for our remarkable universe which writes God out of the picture.

Although always an atheist, Hawking had previously given more room for those who believe in a Creator. In his bestselling (albeit usually unread) A Brief History of Time, Hawking acknowledged that even if an all-encompassing set of scientific equations for the universe is discovered, it does not necessarily account for the universe’s existence: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

But in his latest book, Hawking strikes a different note. In a September 3rd adapted extract that appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the title “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” They further argue that many theories in modern cosmology predict the multiverse model—that “our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws.” A small number of this multitude of universes allow for the formation of life, and we inhabit one of them. Accordingly, there is no need to look for a bigger explanation for our universe. Is this true?

There are several ways in which science is employed to give rational support for belief in a Creator. (I will not be including the anti-evolution arguments of the Intelligent Design movement, to which I object on both theological and scientific grounds.) These do not automatically direct us to the God of the Jewish faith, for they do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the designer possesses the attributes that we ascribe to God (as opposed to those ascribed to God by Aristotle and others). Nevertheless, they certainly greatly enhance religious belief and help ground it in a rational foundation.

One way in which science supports belief in God is that the laws of science themselves require a lawmaker. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out, it is “a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered… It is not at all natural that ‘laws of nature’ exist, much less that man is able to discover them.” Einstein, no believer in a conscious God, nevertheless often expressed amazement at the comprehensibility of the universe. As historians of science have shown, the idea of looking for such regularities in nature was an outgrowth of monotheism, which proposed an underlying unity to creation. When the scientific revolution picked up momentum, many forgot its roots. But as science advanced, discovering relatively simple equations that govern phenomena across the universe, many physicists have begun to ask where these laws came from. Even if Hawking is correct that the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing, that they somehow breathe fire into themselves, he has not explained how these laws themselves came to be legislated.

The second way in which science is employed to give rational support for faith is that were the laws of nature to be different in the slightest way, our universe would not be possible. Some famous atheists such as Douglas Adams dismissed this argument, claiming that it is like a puddle marveling that its hole in the ground is exactly the right shape for it. But this entirely misses the fact that our universe is not any old universe, but rather an amazing universe that allows for the formation of such complex phenomena as matter, planetary systems, life, and intelligence.

Hawking attempts to address this with the multiverse model, claiming that since there is a multitude of universes, of course some of them will be of an extraordinary nature. In response to this, it is first important to note that the multiverse model is entirely speculative, with no actual evidence whatsoever. In an article appropriately entitled “Outrageous Fortune,” which marveled at the unlikely and fortuitous nature of our universe, the leading scientific journal Nature pointed out that “there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape of multiple universes, or if ours is the only one.”

But let us suppose that it is indeed the case that there are an infinite or very large number of universes, which would mean that some of them possess remarkable characteristics. Would this mean that Hawking has successfully made his case? Others point out that it means no such thing. As renowned physicist Paul Davies once wrote in The New York Times, “The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.”

As we enter Rosh HaShanah, the festival marking the new year and the creation of the universe, we still have reason to marvel at our universe—at its nature, and at the laws and possibly meta-laws governing its nature. In the words of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: “Each discovery in the natural sciences only confirms the fundamental truth first set forth by Judaism: There can be no thought without a thinker, no order without a regulator, no law without a lawgiver, no culture without a creative spirit, no world without God and no man without the gift of free-willed morality.” Shanah tovah!

(For extensive further discussion of all these ideas, see my book The Challenge Of Creation, available in Jewish bookstores worldwide and online at www.zootorah.com)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Different Languages

Here's a powerful, tragic example of how people can be speaking different languages.

Most Westerners believe that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict lies in the "Two State Solution."

The Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, also speaks about the desire for the Two State Solution.

Westerners therefore assume that the moderate, mainstream position in the Palestinian world is the same as theirs.

But what does the "Two State Solution" actually mean?

For Westerners, one of these states would be a Jewish State, primarily inhabited by Jews, but also with some Arab citizens - after all, it would be unthinkable to expel them. The other state would be a Palestinian State, primarily inhabited by Palestinians, but also with some Jewish citizens.

But when Palestinians speak about their desire for the "Two State Solution," they mean something else entirely, as Abbas made clear today. See this article in Ha'Aretz, in which aside from refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and insisting on the "right of return" for all Palestinians, he also refuses to accept "any Israeli presence, whether civilian or military, on the Palestinian territories."

So when Palestinians talk about a "Two State Solution," they mean one non-denominational state inhabited by Jews and Palestinians, and one Palestinian state inhabited solely by Palestinians.

I wish that every time a Westerner would talk about Palestinians who are interested in peace, this would be pointed out.

Without Doubting Chazal for a Second

Sent: Monday, September 06, 2010 5:37 AM
To: zoorabbi@zootorah.com
Subject: Chazal and science

Dear Rabbi!

I'm having difficulty with a passage the gemara (Zevachim 22) quotes from a braita, stating that if the eye of a large fish were to dissolve and pool in its socket; one would be able to immerse himself in it as if it were a mikva, provided it has the 40 saah required for a mikva. And this is codified as law in Rambam and Y"D (201.33).

Without doubting chazal for a second, can this be explained or reconciled with modern science?
From what I recall the largest eye ball is that of a horse and or a squid (while the large fish whose primary senses are scent and sound have relatively small eyes) Which is still drop in the bucket from the 25-35 cubic feet of volume required for 40 saah.

Any information or guidance would be greatly appreciated.


A fascinating question! Without doubting Chazal for a second, this cannot be explained or reconciled with modern science. However, while the Rishonim of Ashkenaz and many Acharonim would not doubt Chazal for a second, this is not true of the Rishonim of Sefarad and many other Acharonim, such as Rav Hirsch. They would take the approach that Chazal were simply adopting prevalent beliefs of the period in considering that such creatures may exist. A friend of mine has put together a comprehensive list of such opinions at torahandscience.blogspot.com

Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Futile and Misleading Arguments

On several occasions over the years I have had reason to note that the wrong kind of argument is taking place. It occurs when a debate is purportedly about a certain topic, but really there is a much more fundamental difference of opinion - or epistemology - which means that the debate actually taking place is not only futile, but also misleading.

The first time that I realized this was when debating certain frum Jews about the scientific validity of evolution. It dawned on me that their claim of wanting to debate and discuss the scientific merits of evolution was a sham. They were fundamentally ideologically opposed to it, rating it as heresy. A scientific discussion, on the other hand, means drawing conclusions from the physical evidence without any preconceived notions. So there was no scientific discussion taking place, and any pretense at such a discussion was futile and misleading without the underlying theological dispute being resolved.

I just noticed another example of this in a comment thread over at Hirhurim (which, incidentally, recently featured a fascinating post about the Torah-Science controversy). In a discussion about the ikkarei emunah, a ferocious and lengthy debate - 195 comments! - took place between one Rabbi Shalom Spira and some other people. The topic was whether there have been accepted Torah authorities who acknowledged that Torah scrolls are not word-perfect, and whether there is any evidence of this. Rabbi Spira insisted that there are no such authorities and there is no such evidence, while a number of people insisted that there were and there is.

I don't know why they wasted their time.

His opponents completely missed the point. This is not a matter of whether there is evidence supporting the conclusion that there were great Torah scholars who accepted that Torah scrolls are not word-perfect, and whether there is evidence showing that they are not word-perfect. It is a matter of a religious belief. Rabbi Spira was completely open about this! I quote:

...a Jew is indeed absolutely required to accept Rambam’s eighth principle, viz. that every single word in our Sefer Torah was dictated by HaKadosh Barukh Hu to Mosheh Rabbeinu.

...the Ibn Ezra will not inform us of the Halakhah on this matter, when the gemara has already clarified what the Halakhah is. Instead, it is appropriate to give a forced explanation to the Ibn Ezra in order to judge him favourably that he was an Orthodox Jew.

...Epistemologically speaking, history is a matter of belief – not science (because all evidence we have regarding events that occurred prior to our birth is circumstantial and second-hand in nature), and the Torah governs how we are to appreciate history. When the Ribbono Shel Olam reveals Himself at Mount Sinai with the declaration “Anokhi… asher hotzeitikha me’eretz mitrayim”, it is a declaration that we must interpret history in accordance with the theological norms of Judaism. And one of those norms is to recognize that our Sifrei Torah are word perfect.

To engage in a debate about the evidence is to further enhance the mistaken impression that there is an evidence-based epistemology being used. There isn't. It is a religious debate, not a scientific or historical debate. And that is why they failed to convince him. They were engaged in the wrong argument.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rationalist Vs. Mystical Judaism

Early on in the days of this website, I had a post defining rationalism, which is linked on the right. However, since many readers have joined since then, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss it again - this time in a little more detail, and to contrast it with its opposite. My goal with this description is to leave the definition of rationalism sufficiently vague to include both medieval rationalists and contemporary rationalists; in a future post, I plan to spell out the differences between the two. Note that my use of the word "rationalism" is not identical to the dictionary definition, but I feel that my definition (adapted from that of Rabbi Dr. David Berger) is more useful in a Jewish context. Note too that I am using the antonym of "mystic"; it's not ideal, but it's the best I could come up with. And remember that these represent two ends of the spectrum, but there is a vast range of possibilities in between.

The differences between rationalists and non-rationalists fall into three categories:


believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

Mystics are skeptical of the ability of the human mind to arrive at truths, and prefer to base knowledge on revelation, or – for those who are not worthy of revelation – on faith in those who do experience revelation.


value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history - past, present and future. They tend to minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

Mystics prefer miracles, and believe them to be especially dominant in ancient history and the future messianic era. They tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.


Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and one’s religious life in general, primarily (or solely) as furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society.

see mitzvos as primarily performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces, with their reasons being either to accomplish this or ultimately incomprehensible.