Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rav Kook and Evolution, and much more!

There is an absolute gem of a post over at the Seforim Blog by Dr. Marc Shapiro. It discusses the newly released writings of Rav Kook concerning evolution and the historicity (or ahistoricity) of the early parts of the Torah, and the views of various Rishonim on such topics as the scientific accuracy of various prophecies, the lifespans in the Torah, and the general idea of the Torah communicating theological messages that are cloaked in then-contemporary beliefs. Make sure to read the footnotes too!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rav Ovadiah Yosef on the Zohar

Pursuant to yesterday's post about the Zohar, someone sent me a fascinating and important piece of information. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was asked about the status of the Darda'im - a Yemenite group which denies the authority of the Zohar - and whether they should be rated as heretics. Rav Ovadiah replied that since the Zohar was concealed for a long time, and the Darda'im raised many objections which, to their mind, showed it to contradict the Torah, one cannot rate them as heretics.

Here is the email that I received, followed by a scan of the sefer where this appears:

גילוי מרעיש: דעת הגר"ע יוסף שליט"א על ה"דרדעים" והיחס אליהם

לאחרונה יצא לאור הספר "מעיין אומר", שהוא שו"ת בקצרה שכתב משמשו של הגר"ע יוסף והאחראי על קבלת הקהל בימי שישי, הרב יהודה נקי.

בחלק א', הלכות בית כנסת, דף רכ"א, כותב המחבר בהערה:

"לגבי הדרדעים, זכורני ששאלתי את מו"ר נר"ו [הגר"ע יוסף], איני זוכר בבירור אם היה לגבי צירוף למנין או לקנות ספרי תורה ומזוזות מסופר דרדעי, האם דינו ככופר בדבר אחד מהתורה, שפסול.

ואמר לי מו"ר שקשה לומר כן, שהרי הזוהר היה גנוז שנים רבות, ואחר שנמצא הם מצאו בו כל מיני קושיות, שלדעתם, מראה סתירה לנאמר בתורה, ולכך אי אפשר לדונם ככופרים. וממילא מובן למה נזדעזע רבינו" [ כשמישהו אמר כשבית כנסת דרדעי יש להורסו כדין בנין עבודה זרה, ואמר "חס ושלום"].

I would imagine that the Chasam Sofer would have been even more accommodating towards them, but it is significant that even an anti-rationalist such as Rav Ovadiah is somewhat sympathetic and refuses to rate them as heretics.

Incidentally, Dr. Marc Shapiro informed me that in the next issue of Milin Havivin he has an extensive article in Hebrew on "Is there a hiyyuv to believe Rashbi wrote the Zohar," quoting a wide variety of sources.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Forcing the Opposition

In the comments on the previous post, someone raised a concern that I've been pondering for quite a few months - that the more successfully I defend the rationalist approach, the more harm this will do.

Dr. Menachem Kellner raises this topic at the beginning of Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism. If I recall correctly, he argues that the cause of the demise of the rationalist school of thought in Judaism was... Rambam! Before Rambam's time, the anti-rationalists never really got their act together. But because Rambam's formulation of the rationalist worldview was so powerful, this forced his opponents to flesh out their approach and push it much harder, and it eventually overwhelmed the rationalist approach.

Sometimes I fear that a similar phenomenon may have happened with STARC. Before it started, everyone knew that the Rishonim were of tremendous stature and always to be respected. When STARC began, many people (including the Gedolim who banned my books) assumed that the problem with my books was that I was misrepresenting the Rishonim or something like that. At that stage, the idea that the Rishonim were to be respected still held true.

But as it continued to unfold, people showed that many, many Rishonim also held that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world. Now, by this stage, the stakes were very high. It was absolutely inconceivable to my opponents that young Natan Slifkin could ultimately be right and the Gedolim wrong. So a new concept had to be invented: that the ideological views of the Rishonim could simply be arbitrarily paskened into kefirah, without any justification required. It was calmly stated that it was fine for the Rishonim to have a certain view of Chazal, but that for us to adopt that view is a perversion of the truth that is actual heresy.

The traditional way of arguing one's case - citing Rishonim and Acharonim - ceased to be relevant. All that was important was what the Gedolim say. This was a revolution which cannot be underestimated.

If this is a correct description of events, then the message is quite alarming. It means that we should be careful about arguing the rationalist cause, since (with some people) it will never be acceptable, and the only result will be that the parameters of Torah discourse will be altered - and not for the better.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History II - The Mesorah Strikes Back

Some good news... according to my sources in the Mir, my booklet Chaim Le-Amitam/ Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History, which documents the appalling distortions of the Rishonim and Acharonim in the multi-haskamafied Chaim B'Emunasam, is having an impact. Copies of it have reached Rav Moshe Shapiro's disciples (thanks to supporters who distributed it widely). Apparently, they are tremendously embarrassed by it, and are in consternation as to what to do. They are too scared to present it to Rav Moshe himself. But that doesn't matter, because I will be delivering a copy to his home soon, when I distribute it throughout Bayit Vegan.

Meanwhile, I met Rav Yaakov Hillel at a wedding a few weeks ago, and without telling him who I am, I gave him a copy. I saw him reading it on his way out.

(No, I don't expect either of them to admit how they are responsible for misrepresenting the mesorah and to formally retract their haskamos.)

Reminder: My booklet can be downloaded in both English and Hebrew at this link:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Baby's Blue Beads

Hi Rabbi! I hope you are doing well. Some sephardic family members of mine have recently approached me and urged me to use "blue beads" on our baby's crib (due in three weeks, G-d willing) to protect it from the "evil eye." I responded that, as an observant Jew, I believe there is no other power other than G-d, thus, I need only turn to Him for protection. They were quite upset by this and insisted I reconsider. What exactly is the rationalist approach to amulets such as blue beads and chamsas in Judaism? Are there any sources on the subject so that I can show that our sages rejected such seemingly irrational and pagan practices (which seem to be rampant in many sephardic circles)? Thanks!!


Hi Robert,

There are a few issues here. Things like this relate to disputes stretching back at least 600 years as to what Judaism is about. Rambam certainly would have opposed such things as harmful nonsense. But even Rambam okayed certain segulos for their placebo benefits. Now, there aren’t any placebo benefits here, but there is another factor to take into consideration: the importance of maintaining a good relationship with your extended family! But only you can figure out how much of an issue this will be.

Can I post your question (with a different name) and my answer on my blog?
B’shaah tovah!
Natan Slifkin

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Anti-Hirschian Hirschians

Over at "On the Main Line," there's a fascinating interview with Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudas Yisrael, by Baruch Pelta. Rabbi Shafran is a very fine person who I personally like very much, even though I dislike the tone and content of much of what he writes.

Amongst other topics, the ban on my books is discussed. Rabbi Shafran claims that the problem with my books was the "tone," that there was condescension towards Chazal. Now, I don't deny that the tone of my book would be problematic to many people in the Charedi world, but this does not make the books objectively kefirah. Furthermore, I'm not quite sure how the non-English-reading Gedolim such as Rav Elyashiv, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Moshe Shapiro would have been able to evaluate the tone. Apparently they were following the testimony of Rabbi Leib Pinter, Rabbi Leib Tropper and Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer, which, in light of revelations about these people since the ban, should surely mean that any verdicts reached on the basis of this testimony are invalid.

More to the point, this is not what the Gedolim hold or said. The idea that the problem was the "tone" is a common refrain heard from those who are uncomfortable with what the Gedolim actually hold. Baruch Pelta points out that the Gedolim were clearly condemning the basic position that Chazal could have erred in their statements about the natural world. Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Moshe Shapiro - they were all explicit about this.

So Rabbi Shafran first tries to claim that this in fact stems from the problem of tone. Now, this doesn't address Baruch's point at all; the Gedolim nevertheless claimed that the resultant position - that Chazal could be mistaken about the natural world - is kefirah, even though this was the position of many dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. Rabbi Shafran then claims that what I said was different from all those Rishonim and Acharonim - that to say (as I did) that Chazal were making a statement about the natural world which is not true on any level, is something that was never said by any Torah authority.

I regret to say that this reflects simple ignorance about the positions of many dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. I urge Rabbi Shafran to read the sources at When the Rishonim said that Chazal erred in describing the sun passing behind the sky at night, they did not mean that Chazal were nevertheless correct "on some level." The Rishonim did not say that Chazal were talking about "a reality that is not the scientific reality." Maharal does say that, but his approach is an innovation that has no basis in the Rishonim and was not followed by many of those who lived after him.

Rabbi Shafran claims that when Chazal spoke about lice spontaneously generating, they meant that the eggs are too small to see. That's one view, which I discuss in my book, but others are of the view that Chazal were not talking about that (as the Rishonim and Acharonim make clear) and that they were simply wrong. When Rav Hirsch discusses Chazal's statement about spontaneously-generating mice, he does not say that Chazal were nevertheless correct "on some level" (aside from the idea that the halachic discussion is nevertheless valuable, a point that I stressed at great length in my book). Rav Hirsch says that when Chazal spoke about the natural sciences, they simply followed the scientists of their day, and were thus sometimes mistaken.

The irony is that Rabbi Shafran insists that he is a full-blooded Hirschian. I recommend that he reads Rav Hirsch's letters on Chazal and science (available at this link). The letters that the Gedolim condemned as forgeries and kefirah.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Summary of the Betech Affair

I apologize to all those who are fed up with the Betech Affair; they should skip this post! Unfortunately, many people are just now getting to know about it (and this blog), and many of these people do not have a strong background in evolutionary science and do not perceive the situation correctly. I have therefore written a summary of the topic, which will (hopefully!) be my last post on the matter. You can download this summary as a PDF at this link.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Irrefutable Proofs

I know that many people are sick of the Betech business, but due to various public declarations being made (see R. Gil Student's comment on the previous post), I have to finish up. Hopefully this will be the penultimate post on this topic. Besides, there are some important lessons here.

There is an important concept in modern science of falsifiability. For a theory to be scientific, it has to make predictions that could potentially be falsified. If it can make many such predictions, then as long as these are not falsified, it gives the theory more credibility.

One of my questions to Dr. Isaac Betech was that since he claims that his belief in recent creation is based on scientific as well as religious grounds, I asked him to provide falsifiable predictions that his model makes. He didn't respond, but he did offer to explain how his non-acceptance of evolution could be falsified:

I do not know any scientific proof that there was evolution of the species. My position would be falsified very easily if someone presents me just one irrefutable proof; in that case, I would say: I accept that I was mistaken.

Earlier, I noted that this statement is so meaningless as to be ludicrous. Saying that one's position could be falsified by an "irrefutable proof" does not mean anything at all, if one does not specify what such a proof would be!

But there are further ridiculous aspects to Betech's statement, which is brought into sharper focus with his continuation:

So I ask to NS, please define how your position could be falsified. For example: NS says: There are compelling reasons to accept the evolution of the species. His position would be falsified if he or his appointed representative fails to present to me even one irrefutable proof, in that case, NS would have to say: I accept that I was mistaken.

According to Betech, if I cannot present irrefutable proof of evolution, then it is mistaken for me to claim that are compelling reasons to accept it. Now, this is simply nonsense. Outside of mathematics, there is no such thing as irrefutable proofs. If someone is determined to counter a proposition (such as if he is fundamentally religiously opposed to it), he can always find something to say in response. If he is stubborn, he can continue an argument endlessly, and if has more sticking power than his opponent, he will get the last word and can claim to have refuted the proposition. Thus, there is nothing in the real world that has "irrefutable proofs." God might have made things look other than how they are, for inscrutable reasons! But the absence of "irrefutable proof" for a proposition does not mean that there is not evidence and compelling reasons for accepting it!

(Note that many of the Rishonim accepted Greco-Muslim philosophical arguments and principles as sufficiently proving truths, and even diverted from the Mesorah to explain various pesukim accordingly; and modern science is vastly more powerful than Greco-Muslim philosophy.)

It was in this vein that I readily agreed to make the following statement to Dr. Betech:

I, Natan Slifkin, admit that I do not know of any irrefutable scientific proof supporting the evolution of the species, neither the mechanisms of evolution, nor the common ancestry (the so called “fact” of evolution).

Dr. Betech gleefully took this to show that I myself had agreed to the weakness of the science that I reconcile with Judaism. But I wasn't conceding any weakness at all. I don't know of anything, anything that can be irrefutably proved. Previously, I gave the example of the moon landing. There are many people, including a sizeable number of Orthodox Jews, who insist that it was a hoax. One cannot irrefutably prove that the moon landing took place; in theory, all the evidence could be part of the conspiracy. But, from where I'm standing, I would certainly say that there is compelling evidence for it!

In my book, I presented a brief overview of the overwhelming convergence of evidence for evolution (in terms of common ancestry) that is described in the scientific literature. That is more than sufficient reason to accept it. But the sort of person who demands "irrefutable proofs" is the sort of person who will refuse to accept any of the evidence.

One final point. In general, Dr. Betech gave the strong impression that he believes that if I cannot present irrefutable proof of evolution, then this means that evolution is disproven, and his model of recent creation is correct. But, since the absence of "irrefutable proofs" does not rule out the existence of compelling evidence, kal v'chomer it doesn't mean that the alternate view is correct! Does Dr. Betech have any "irrefutable proofs" that the world was created 5771 years ago? I don't think so...

I Accept Dr. Betech's Proposal!

I know that many people here have already had enough of Dr. Betech, the Mexican pediatrician who claims 25 years of 100% success in disproving evolution even to scientists and insists that everyone must reject evolution, yet is strangely uninterested in actually accomplishing this objective by publishing articles in scientific journals, writing a book, or even explaining what his view of the history of life on earth actually is. Nevertheless, there are still one or two more things to take care of, and I must first recant something that I said.

When Dr. Betech declared himself willing to explain and defend his view of the history of life on earth, even though this was (for reasons that I never understood) conditional on my first doing the same with evolution (which Dr. Betech had heard me repeatedly refuse to do), I realized that the good doctor had taught me something about how to phrase and present our positions. So, adopting Dr. Betech's approach, I hereby declare myself willing to discuss the scientific value of evolution of the species in an intellectual, multimedia, respectful, protocolized, neutral, public forum, as per his request!

I only have two minor preconditions, just as he had a precondition to explaining and defending his view of the history of life on earth. Moreover, while I think nobody here understood his reasons for his preconditions, I think that everyone will appreciate mine, especially since they are consistent with Dr. Betech's own values.

The first is that Dr. Betech must show that he is being honest when he claims that he is willing to draw the necessary conclusions based on the evidence. Now, Dr. Betech has a reputation for being a Torah-observant Jew. And I am sure that he would agree that the Torah prohibits believing certain things, such as that Jesus is divine, etc. So before debating evolution, Dr. Betech must declare that he is not Torah- prohibited from accepting evidence for evolution - i.e., he must declare that there is nothing theologically critically problematic about evolution, and that the Gedolim who declared otherwise are mistaken.

The second precondition relates to Dr. Betech's communication to me several years ago when I proposed debating the halachic/ hashkafic issues of my books, i.e. whether evolution is theologically problematic, and whether it is theologically acceptable to say that Chazal erred in some of their statements about the natural world. Dr. Betech responded that, as a medical doctor, he is not qualified to have such a debate. This is similar to the approach of the Charedi Gedolim who refuse to debate this with me because they consider me to be insufficiently qualified. Based on Dr. Betech's values in this, I request that Dr. Betech suitably qualify himself before debating evolution. That is to say, he must either receive formal qualifications in paleontology, evolutionary biology, etc., or publish papers on these topics in recognized scientific journals. (Alternatively, he can nominate somebody else, who has these qualifications, to take his place.)

So I regret and recant my earlier refusal to debate with Dr. Betech. I hereby accept! I look forward to his confirming his desire for this, and fulfilling the preconditions, and then we can begin!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Other Rationalist Jewish Blogs

I'd like to recommend two other blogs that deal with the rationalist approach to Judaism. One is ParshaBlog, by Rabbi Josh Waxman. He analyzes many issues relating to rationalist Judaism, always with great thoroughness and levelheaded analysis.

Another is a new blog on the block: RationalistMedicalHalacha. I know the author, and he is an outstanding person, so I am very much looking forward to reading whatever he is going to write!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Clever Jew

There’s a very, very lot of treachery and trickery in the Torah, especially in Genesis. And it usually pays off! One type of deceit occurs in three episodes – two with Avraham, and one with Yitzchak. It is the “passing off the wife as the sister” routine.
"And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was severe in the land. It came to pass, when he came near to enter to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that you are a pretty woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you, that they shall say, This is his wife; and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, I beg you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall live because of you." (Genesis 12:10-13)

Avraham’s strategy works as planned. Instead of killing him, the Egyptians shower him with gifts while taking his wife for Pharaoh.

Abarbanel pulls no punches in his formulation of the question. “What kind of noble person chooses to live via such a terrible disgrace, seeking advantage and benefit from his wife being taken by others?! It is more befitting to choose death rather than committing such a disgrace!” Cassuto notes that the approach of some Christian scholars was that Avraham did indeed commit a repulsive act. Avraham was the prototypical Jew, engaging in sneaky maneuvers for personal profit, at the cost of others. Christians saw this episode as providing a Biblical justification for the antisemitic stereotype of the “clever Jew.”

These are disturbing questions. The answer to them is in an essay that you can freely download (and distribute) at this link.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Anti-Evolution Heretics?

What do the events of the Purim story, the lottery via which the Land of Israel was divided, the survival of the Jewish People over millenia of persecution, the weather in Israel, and the creation of the State of Israel, all have in common?

The answer is that they are all events which secular scientists/ historians would attribute to the random, unplanned, circumstantial luck of history, but which religious Jews perceive as being orchestrated by God. (Exactly how this happens is difficult to understand - I devote a chapter to various possibilities in my book - but the religious viewpoint is unequivocal that this happens.) In the words of Malbim:

"There are things that appear given to chance but are actually providentially determined by God… “the lot is cast in the lap,” hidden from the eye of man, handed over to chance, but nevertheless the eye of God’s providence is displayed in it, and the verdict that the lot brings up is not chance but is from God; just as with the apportioning of the land and so on, where the lot was under God’s providence." (Malbim, Commentary to Mishlei 16:33)

Now, I cannot see any difference - any difference at all - between the above cases and the neo-Darwinian evolutionary mechanism of random genetic mutation plus natural selection, which most scientists see as explaining how life evolved.* All that scientists can do is say that in the physical world as we see it, there is no providence involved - which is exactly what they say with all the other phenomena. Religious people can perceive God behind it, just as with the Purim story, the lottery of Israel, the creation of the State of Israel, etc.

Amazingly, even Thomas Henry Huxley, the principle defender of Darwinism, acknowledged that "…there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution… The teleological and mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely a mechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume a primordial molecular arrangement of which all the phenomena of the universe are the consequences and the more completely is he at the mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove that this primitive molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve the actual phenomena of the universe… Evolution has no more to do with theism than the first book of Euclid has." ("On the reception of the Origin of Species," in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ref. 160, Vol. 2, p. 179)

It is surprising, therefore, to find anti-evolutionists insisting that Darwinian evolution is ultimately blind and unplanned and denies God. Are they saying that if these processes were really responsible for evolution, then God could not be involved? This is certainly kefirah - rank heresy. And once one takes that approach, it means that God's role in the Purim story, the Israel lottery, and the State of Israel would also be denied, chas v'shalom. How ironic that the opponents of my work should be the ones to be the genuine kofrim!

There is another possibility. Maybe these anti-evolutionists are not saying that God could not work via Darwinian mechanisms of evolution. Maybe they agree that God certainly could work through these evolutionary mechanisms, but they are simply saying that, according to the scientists who propose evolution, God was not involved.

Now, that may well be true for many (but certainly not all) scientists, but what difference does it make? After all, these same scientists would say that God was not involved in the events of the Purim story, the lottery via which the Land of Israel was divided, the survival of the Jewish People over millennia of persecution, and the creation of the State of Israel. But we do not see that as reason to deny the existence of these phenomena, or the historical/ scientific processes via which they occurred! We simply say that the physical, material processes are as described by scientists and historians, but we see God behind it. If there are scientists/ historians who claim that their material explanations of these phenomena rule out a Creator, then we dispute their metaphysical conclusions, but not their explanations of the physical phenomena!

All this is explained at great length in my book The Challenge Of Creation. Which the anti-evolutionists have surely read. So are they heretics, or did they simply not understand what I wrote, or are they deliberately disingenuous?

* Note: As I have made clear on numerous occasions, while my studies of zoology have led me to the conclusion that the evidence for common ancestry is overwhelming, I do not have this personal conviction regarding the adequacy of random mutation plus natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. I have many questions on it, but have never researched it carefully to discover if answers exist, for two reasons. One is that I just don't have the time to attain the necessary expertise to make an adequately informed judgment. The second reason is that it is simply irrelevant to me whether it is true or not, since there are no theological ramifications. But what is significant, and disturbing, is that despite my repeated statements that I have no personal conviction in the truth of these Darwinian explanations, several of my opponents (such as R. Coffer and Dr. Ostroff) repeatedly attribute this position to me. Perhaps this is to be relegated to the same shortcomings mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Concert Ban

It now seems that there is a blanket ban on all concerts, signed by Rav Elyashiv and many others:

Some points to ponder:

As pointed out by Rabbi Sedley at Life in Israel, this is dated from before Rav Elyashiv is reported as refusing to sign this ban. So what is going on?

The poster speaks about the severe issurim involved. Which issurim are they, exactly?

Are those who insist that one must follow the Gedolim, and that Rav Elyashiv is the Posek Acharon (whatever that means), going to be consistent and insist that people must follow them in this too?

Cynic that I have become, I wonder if it's all a matter of competing interests amongst different askanim.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Wisdom of Rav Hirsch

In 1873, just fourteen years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains how it does not conflict with Judaism. Especially significant is that Rav Hirsch did not even consider evolution to be true. He described it as “a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact.” For anti-rationalists today, that's all that need be said. But Rav Hirsch declared that while certain stated implications of the theory were wrong (such as that there is nothing special about humans), the essence of evolution is by no means incompatible with Judaism:

Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (“The Educational Value of Judaism,” Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)

Rav Hirsch's criterion for reconciling a scientific theory with Judaism is not that he personally should consider it proven true. He provides the reconciliation even while he considers it “a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact,” and even before it was accepted by the scientific community. He also states that the obligation for Jews to relate to God differently - as the ultimate engineer of an ingenious process, rather than the craftsman who made each species separately - will occur when evolution "gains complete acceptance by the scientific world." He did not say that this occurs when it is "scientifically proven," but rather when it gains complete acceptance by the scientific community.

There are two possible reasons for him to have said this. It may be that he considered this to be the best way of determining scientific fact. Alternately, it may be that he did not consider acceptance by the scientific community to mean that something should be considered true, but rather that it means that it is reasonable for other people to consider it true, and therefore something that Judaism should deal with. I don't know if he would deny individuals the right to personally dispute the scientific world. But when something has attained complete acceptance by the scientific world (and there is no issue of anti-religious bias involved, since many of these scientists are themselves religious), people are understandably going to accept it, in the same way as they rely on doctors and aeronautical engineers for medicine and aeronautical engineering. It is therefore the responsibility of the rabbinic establishment to reconcile it with Judaism (if this can be done).

This is an elaboration of one of the several reasons that I gave for not debating evolution with Isaac Betech. Even if he could out-argue me with regard to evolution, and even in the extraordinarily unlikely case that he could convince me that it is false - it is irrelevant. Evolution (at least in terms of common ancestry, and all the more so for the antiquity of the universe) has met Rav Hirsch's criterion of gaining complete acceptance by the scientific world. Software engineers, aeronautical engineers and pediatricians are not part of this scientific world.

One of the Gedolim who banned my books told a friend of mine that he couldn't understand why people should need the approach of Rav Hirsch, when there are "scientific experts" such as Dr. Betech who render it unnecessary. This is a tragic example of the disastrous effects of utter naivete. Rabbanim rely on the greatest experts in medicine and technology, even for paskening halachah such as breaking Shabbos - why would they be mystified when people do the same with geology, paleontology and biology? The scientific world has not been convinced by the objections of people such as Dr. Betech. People who are scientifically knowledgeable have not been convinced by Betech's objections. And even many people who are not scientifically knowledgeable are nevertheless, for entirely understandable reasons, going to trust the scientific world rather than some non-scientists with a clear religious agenda.

That is just one of the many reasons why I will not debate evolution with evolution-deniers. It doesn't make a difference if Natan Slifkin can prove or even believes in evolution. I don't care if evolution is a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. That's exactly what Rav Hirsch thought of it, and that's more or less what it was in his day. But he still realized that it was essential to point out that it does not conflict with Judaism. Over a century later, when evolution has gained complete acceptance by the scientific world, this is all the more essential.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Questions on the Young Earth Model of Special Creation

When I first thought of challenging Dr. Isaac Betech to live up to his claim that he is interested in truth and that debates between us advance that cause, and to explain his model of the development of life and to subject it to the same critical scrutiny that he was demanding to apply to evolution, I jotted down some of the questions that I would pose to him. Inexplicably (given his claims about the value of debates), Dr. Betech is refusing (in the absence of my agreeing to debate evolution with him) to actually explain his model and subject it to critical scrutiny. But I am presenting my list of questions anyway.

Note that depending on what Dr. Betech's model actually is, some of these questions might have been different. Despite the fact that (unlike me) he believes his model to be obligatory for every Jew, he won't explain what it actually is. How many times did the earth rotate on its axis during the six days of creation - six times, or billions of times? How many times did it revolve around the sun - a fraction of a revolution, or millions of revolutions? When did the dinosaurs live? Everyone knows the precise details of the model that I present, but nobody has any idea about Dr. Betech's model! If I knew what his model actually is (and I'm not even sure if he's thought about it), I would be able to ask more precise questions. But since he won't explain what it is it that he insists every Jew must believe, I'm just going to have to make do with the list of questions that I have.

1. What is your evidence that the universe is 5771 years old, and not five thousand, fifty thousand, or five hundred thousand years old?

2. Scientific hypotheses make testable predictions and are thus falsifiable. For example, evolution predicts that all animals descend from a common ancestor and thus fit into a family tree, and thus Rashi's description of a mermaid - a creature that is half human and half fish - will never be discovered and cannot exist. What testable predictions does your model make, and how could it be theoretically proven false?

3. What experiments have been done/ are being done to test the validity of your model?

4. Rambam, Sefer HaChinnuch and Malbim state that no types of animals ever become extinct. Do you agree with this - does your model include extinction, and what are the causes?

5. From when to when did Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs, respectively, live?

6. Did the original process of creation, via which dirt transformed into mammals, function according to some sort of scientific laws, or was it entirely supernatural? Does it still continue after the end of the six days - in other words, can dirt still transform into mammals? If yes, is the much smaller process of one type of mammal turning into another type of mammal also possible - and if not, why not?

7. (The precise formulation of the following question depends very much on the exact nature of Dr. Betech's mysterious approach.) Various mineral companies, oil companies, etc., find geologists to be essential. How are they at all effective, if the processes by which various substances and layers in the earth appear are not at all those which are described by geology?

(Before asking the following questions, I want to stress that I am interested in the big picture, not minor exceptions that are themselves debated. For example, when discussing whether dinosaur fossils are found in the same areas as human fossils, one hotly debated set of footprints is not significant, in light of hundreds of thousands of regions where dinosaur fossils have been found without any traces of humans or indeed any contemporary species.)

8. Why are all living marsupials (with the exception of possums) found in Australia, and no placental mammals are found there apart from bats?

9. Why do animals fit into a nested hierarchal system of classification, rather than there being all kinds of chimeras - e.g. whales are fully mammals, and have no homologous analogies with fish? This is especially intriguing in light of the fact that this hierarchy is different from the classification system in the Torah - e.g., bats are mammals, not birds.

10. How do you account for the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists - including many who believe in the Torah - rejected your model? In fact, the first scientists to reject the young-earth model of creation were themselves devout Christians. Why is it that today only those who believe in the Torah/ Bible - and not even all of them - subscribe to it?

Feel free to add more questions to the list in the comments.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Suppression of Scientific Dissent?

This week, the Israeli Education Ministry's chief scientist, Dr. Gavriel Avital, was fired, for challenging evolution and global warming. I was amused to see that some people saw this as the "suppression of dissent from the scientific orthodoxy." In other words, "here's a scientist who presented a scientific case against evolution, but he was suppressed for political reasons!"

Of course, the facts are entirely different. Dr. Avital is an aeronautical engineer, not a biologist. And he did not present any evidence against evolution. Rather, he revealed himself to be a religiously motivated person who is unfamiliar with the situation (or distorts it). Dr. Avital is quoted as saying the following:

"If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct."

Yes, there indeed many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct. However, that is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether there are scientists in the relevant fields who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct. And there aren't. Even those few scientists aligned with the Intelligent Design movement who argue against the neo-Darwinian explanations of evolutionary mechanisms fully agree that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of common ancestry - i.e. that people and monkeys share common origins. You might find one or two scientists in the relevant fields who even deny common ancestry, but they will be obvious Christian fundamentalists who also insist that the evidence shows Jesus to be the son of God.

Dr. Avital continued:

"There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula."

Yes, there are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. However, that is not how evolution came to be accepted in the scientific community. (I myself originally denied evolution, and it wasn't religious beliefs that led me to change my mind!) More to the point, people such as Avital who challenge evolution clearly do so because of their own religious beliefs. They are fully entitled to those beliefs, but they are entirely unsuitable to have a position as chief scientist in the Education Ministry. The great Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rav Kook and Rav Herzog, would have been more suited to this role! They didn't have any problems with evolution.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Exposing "Scientific" Anti-Evolutionists

With my earlier post, "The Case of Dr. Isaac Betech," some people were wondering why I was wasting my time and stooping beneath my dignity with a closed-minded zealot. The answer is that I thought it instructive to show how to deal with such people and to how to expose them.

Dr. Betech wanted to debate the scientific merits of evolution with me. I refused, for several reasons. One reason was that it really doesn't make a difference to my book if evolution is true or not. While I personally am convinced that the evidence for common ancestry is overwhelming, I don't understand how evolutionary mechanisms work and I have many questions on it. But what difference does it make? I haven't studied it all that much and I'm not a biologist. More fundamentally, the fact is that it does NOT contradict Torah, and many people will believe in it regardless or what either I or Dr. Betech say. So it doesn't make a difference what I believe about evolution; what matters is whether it contradicts Torah - and there is no reason to believe that it does.

Another reason why I refused to debate evolution with Dr. Betech was that such a debate is a charade, since it is a religious issue for him, not a scientific one. In science, one draws conclusions from the evidence, regardless of one's religious beliefs. In response, Dr. Betech was forced to say that he would agree to draw the requisite conclusions. But as I pointed out, of course he has to say that, but the question is whether he is trying to fool other people or himself. Perhaps he is like those people who, for religious reasons, refuse to accept that man landed on the moon, and find a way to wriggle out of any evidence for it.

Personally, I think it's clear as day that he is exactly like that. In his latest comments, to the earlier post, Dr. Betech has the following to say on the topic of falsifiability: "My position would be falsified very easily if someone presents me just one irrefutable proof; in that case, I would say: I accept that I was mistaken." Of course, this is a statement that is so meaningless that it becomes ludicrous. A moon-landing denier would say the same thing. The point is that they would claim to have refuted any and every argument.

So is Dr. Betech like a moon-landing denier, or not? Is he truly willing to draw honest conclusions from the evidence, even if the evidence is in favor of evolution, or will he just wriggle out of it? One way to clarify this is to ask him what those conclusions would actually be. After all, one indication that he is fundamentally religiously opposed to those conclusions would be that he is unwilling and/or unable to spell out what those conclusions actually are. If the evidence is in favor of evolution, would this mean that evolution can actually be reconciled with Torah? Or would it mean that Torah is not from Heaven, and that his religious self-identification is baseless? Dr. Betech has been noticeably reluctant to answer this. He has also not addressed the issue of the moon-landing deniers.

This is a strategy that I used previously with other evolution-deniers. But Dr. Betech also led me to something new. He insisted that he searches for truth, and that such scientific debates are a way to attain it. It occurred to me that while debates about the scientific merits of evolution can be found all over the internet (and Dr. Betech has apparently never published anything new on the topic), Dr. Betech's own model of recent special creation has never been critically analyzed or even explained in detail. So I proposed that Dr. Betech explain his model in detail, and subject it to critical appraisal. And I even offered him the advantage of having the final word (which I doubt he would offer to me in a debate about evolution).

And what was the response? For a long time, there was silence. He hasn't accepted my proposal and hasn't refused. If I understand his latest comments correctly, he realizes that refusing to reply is effectively refusing to have the debate, so he is on a strategy of pushing it off. Dr Betech has come up with all kinds of excuses as to why he cannot discuss anything with me until he has debated evolution with me, knowing full well that I will never debate it with him, for the reasons that I gave.

Of course, all of his excuses have no bearing whatsoever on the debate regarding his model of creation. According to the statements that Dr. Betech had previously made, he should have leaped at the opportunity to debate his model, regardless of any shortcomings that he alleges me to personally have. After all, he believes that his model is the truth; why not teach it? Most people are entirely unfamiliar with his model; even I am unsure as to the exact nature of it (are physical processes speeded up, or was the world created to look old? When did the Jurassic dinosaurs live, and when did the Cretaceous dinosaurs live? Etc., etc.) It has never been discussed and analyzed, as evolution has been endlessly discussed and analyzed. Dr Betech also professes to believe that public debate on these topics is a way to attain truth, and that attaining truth is one of his main goals in life. And here I was presenting him with a forum to present his True Approach, to subject it for the very first time to critical appraisal (which according to him, it should surely stand up to perfectly), and to let him have the final word!

So why did he refuse? I think that his refusal is for several reasons. One reason is that, especially when dealing with complicated topics, it is always much easier to throw out a list of objections to one's opponent's view than to subject one's own view to objections. Another reason is that he probably really hasn't thought very much about his own model in the first place, and how it addresses the available evidence. I don't know of anything in writing anywhere, from Dr Betech or anyone else, which discusses his model in detail and explains the various aspects of the history of life on earth in light of it. As a former evolution-denier myself, I know the mindset. One obsesses over the shortcomings and difficulties with the evolutionary model, rather than figuring out one's own approach and subjecting it to scrutiny, working with the assumption that if there are unanswered objections to evolution, this means that recent creation is true. Of course, there is no basis for this; the question is not whether there are unanswered objections to evolution, but rather whether evolution or recent creation better addresses the available evidence. But this would mean developing a theory of recent creation and subjecting it to critical scrutiny (just as a detailed theory of evolution was developed and subjected to critical scrutiny).

That's why Dr. Betech is terrified to do it.