Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scientific and Philosophical Mistakes

There's a certain mistake that I used to make all the time, out of ignorance, but which now I only make when I'm writing sloppily. It's to describe Chazal as making "scientific mistakes." I now know that Chazal did not make scientific mistakes.

Not every mistaken belief about the natural world is a scientific mistake. A scientific mistake is when one engages in the scientific process and, for whatever reason, emerges with a mistaken conclusion. To quote one definition, science is systematized knowledge derived from observation, and experimentation carried out in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied. But a mistake which did not involve engaging in the scientific process is simply a mistaken belief about the natural world.

I think it could be argued that the steady-state theory of the universe held until the Big Bang became accepted was not a scientific mistake. To my knowledge, it wasn't as though the steady-state theory was based upon any experimentation. Rather, it was simply a holdover from the beliefs of antiquity.

Likewise, Chazal rarely engaged in what we would call science. Statements about the sun going behind the sky at night, or about mice being generated from dirt, are not scientific mistakes; they are simply mistaken beliefs about the natural world. (But it is sometimes cumbersome to write that, which is why I sometimes takes the sloppy shortcut and write "scientific mistakes.")

I noticed a similar error in a different context. I once challenged a certain protege of YBT (a very unusual yeshivah which teaches that Maimonidean-style philosophy is the sole legitimate and traditional path of emunah) to account for Rav Moshe Taku, a Tosafist who believed that God is corporeal. He replied that Rav Moshe Taku "made a philosophical mistake."

For the last few months, I have been working on a translation of Rav Moshe Taku's Kesav Tamim. I'm about two-thirds of the way through, and one thing that I can say for certain is that Rav Moshe Taku did not make a philosophical mistake. That's not to say that I agree with Rav Taku's position that God is spatially located vertically above us in heaven and that God has substance and appears in a variety of human forms; with my education, it's impossible for me to subscribe to such a view. But his corporealist view is a mistake about a theological matter, not a philosophical mistake.

Rav Moshe Taku did not engage in philosophy. He was far more familiar with philosophy that many of his predecessors in Ashkenaz, who had probably never even read Rav Saadiah Gaon's "Book of Beliefs," and certainly did not actively engage in dispute with philosophy as he did. In fact, the early scholars in Ashkenaz were barely aware of philosophy at all. In Prof. Avraham Grossman's article "Rashi's Rejection of Philosophy - Divine and Human Wisdoms Juxtaposed," he writes as follows:

It is generally agreed that Rashi's work contains no direct reference to philosophy, a field that exerted no apparent influence on his writing. Scholarship has customarily held that this is due to a lack of knowledge of the subject on Rashi's part. While interest in philosophy was not prevalent in the Christian Europe of Rashi's time, among the Jews in Moslem lands it enjoyed widespread appeal thanks to the significant role played by science and philosophy within Moslem society. This fundamental statement is certainly true. Apparently, however, although Rashi had no intimate knowledge of philosophical study and its nature, he did possess a general knowledge of it, which generated in him an aversion to the subject. He indirectly urged people to keep their distance from it... I wish to emphasize that Rashi was not familiar with any philosophical works, nor was he acquainted with philosophers in his environment or had read their work. Nevertheless, as someone whose entire literary activity was infused by a rare intellectual curiosity he was exposed to this field, if only by way of general knowledge.

Rav Taku actively engaged those who wrote about philosophy. But he did not engage in philosophy. And thus he did not make a philosophical mistake.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Puzzled at Passaic

Although I have visited the United States on countless occasions, I am not American. And I've never been to Passaic, except for one quick stop to visit an old friend. Nevertheless, my understanding is that while Passaic is a somewhat yeshivish neighborhood, it's no Lakewood or Boro Park. The Passaic Torah Institute advertises itself as "a yeshiva for working people... many, if not most, did not have the chance to be nurtured in Yeshivos growing up."

I'd wager that many of these people believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, however they reconcile it with Torah. I'd also wager that many of them would follow Rav Hirsch in rejecting the existence of spontaneously generating mice. And I'll bet that many of them heard about the notorious ban on my books, and were greatly distressed by it.

I was therefore greatly puzzled to discover that the Passaic Torah Institute, for its Chanukah party this Wednesday, has as its guest speaker none other than Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer!

Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer was one of the main zealots behind the ban of my books, along with Rabbi Leib Pinter and Rabbi Leib Tropper. It was he who marked up various pages from the books, jotting down comments describing me as a “thoroughly evil person,” “idiot,” “shaygetz,” “low-life,” “animal,” and “sick man,” and sent copies of these notes to various Gedolei Torah to obtain their signatures on the ban. And it was Rabbi Schmeltzer who authored the infamous work Chaim B'Emunasam, in which he actually had the gall to edit the words of Rambam - deleting and re-arranging words - in order to completely distort Rambam's positions. The goal of Rabbi Schmeltzer's work is to show that anyone who denies the truth of any statement in the Gemara about the natural world is a heretic who should be put to death by any means possible. (You can read my critique of Chaim B'Emunasam at http://zootorah.com/controversy/chaim.html.)

How can such a person be honored as a guest speaker in a place like Passaic? And how is it that nobody is protesting? I did write to the heads of the PTI, but I did not hear back from them. Is it that people do not know what kind of a person Rabbi Schmeltzer is, or is it that they don't care?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Firming and Flattening of the Firmament

This is a long post, but a very important one, so please bear with me!

The story so far: About two weeks ago, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a solid dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

Last week, I pointed out that Chazal's belief in a firmament was not merely of halachic interest to them, but was also how they interpreted the Torah itself, in its mention of the rakia and Shamayim. This was especially significant for those who oppose the belief in the universe developing over billions of years and evolution due to these notions going against Jewish tradition. For aside from the fact that Jewish rationalist tradition was clearly to interpret Genesis in such a way that we do not need to deny scientific facts, the topic of the rakia presented another argument: That even these staunch traditionalists are going against Jewish tradition in their acceptance that there is no firmament and that Chazal's and the Rishonim's view of the rakia was incorrect.

Now, I've been at this game long enough to realize that one can never, ever use arguments to convince anti-rationalists that they are wrong; they are always creative enough to come up with something. But I was curious to know what it would be. Would they resort to saying that all the Rishonim and numerous Acharonim misunderstood Chazal?

They came up with something else instead. In the comments on this blog, as well as on one of the anti-Slifkin blogs (it's a strange sort of honor to have websites that are singularly dedicated to opposing one's views), they came up with the following: True, Chazal mistakenly believed the rakia to be a solid dome. However, this is not part of the mesorah, since this was not their Torah tradition. Rather, it was a case of their using contemporary scientific knowledge to shed light on the Torah. And Rambam says that astronomical matters were matters for which there was no mesorah.

To this, I responded as follows: Throughout the Gemara, we find countless examples of Chazal using Torah to shed light on knowledge of the natural world. But we never (to my knowledge) find them using knowledge of the natural world to explain the words and concepts of Tenach! Furthermore, since in the ancient world everyone believed that the sky is solid, there is no question that when each of the Sages received their Torah education from their parents and teachers, they were taught that the rakia is a solid firmament - as were their parents and teachers in turn.

As for quoting Rambam that there was no mesorah on astronomical matters - first of all, the idea of my opponents taking Rambam as the final word on mesorah is quite funny. Rambam, who claims that the mesorah of Judaism is largely identical to Greco-Muslim philosophy?! In any case, Rambam's statement is with regard to astronomical matters that Chazal had to figure out in order to create and apply halachos, not with regard to cosmology - the basic structure of the world and the meaning of basic words and concepts in the Torah.

But let's learn a little more about Chazal's view of the rakia. As we will see, it is definitely a case of their using Torah to shed light on science, not the other way around. Please note that this post is not discussing yours or my view of the meaning of rakia, which will be the subject of a future post, but rather Chazal's view of the meaning of rakia - and please keep all comments on that point.

The main discussion is in the Talmud Yerushalmi, at the beginning of Maseches Berachos. After discussing how the sun passes through the thickness of the firmament after sunset (before circling around behind it), the Gemara quotes a range of views about how thick the firmament actually is. It then discusses the distances between the land and the firmament, and between the firmament and the "upper waters" (I will discuss the nature of the "upper waters" in a future post). Then, since it cited the verse "Let there be a firmament," it brings the following discussion about that verse (and a similar version is found in Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 4:2):

Rav said: The heavens were fluid on the first day, and they congealed on the second day, as Rav said: "Let there be a rakia" means "Let the rakia become solid, let it become congealed, let it become encased, let it become taut."

The commentaries explain that Rav is addressing the difficulty that if the heavens were already created on the first day, what exactly happened on the second day when God created the firmament - which the Torah identifies as being the heavens? Rav is thus answering that the heavens were only created on the first day in fluid form; it was on the second day that they solidified into the firmament.

But how did Rav know this? The Perush Charedim says that he is deriving it from "Let there be," which implies giving it substance and strength. A different explanation is given by Radal (on the Midrash), who explains that Rav is deriving it from the actual word "rakia" (which is only introduced on Day Two). Rakia refers to something solid, as we see in the passuk, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18).

The Yerushalmi and Midrash also bring another answer to the question of what exactly happened to the heavens on the second day:

Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi said: ["Let there be a rakia" means] "Let the rakia become like a cloth." This is just as it is said, "They flattened out (וירקעו) sheets of gold" (Shemos 39:3).

The commentaries explain that Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi is following the view that the heavens were created on Day One as a single drop. Thus, what happened on Day Two is that they were stretched out flat like a cloth. He derives this from the passuk which shows that rakia, as a verb, refers to flattening out gold i.e. taking a lump and stretching it out in two dimensions.

The Gemara continues:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The thickness of the firmament is as the width of two fingers. But the words of Rabbi Chanina dispute this, as Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: It says, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18) - Tarkia means that they were made as a thin sheet of metal (i.e. less than the width of two fingers). I might think that they are not strong - therefore it teaches us, "firm"; I might think that they sag with time, therefore it teaches us "like a mirror of cast metal" - that every moment they appear as freshly cast.

The Gemara then cites some related exegeses:

Rabbi Yochanan says: Ordinarily, when a person stretches out a tent, it sags after time; but here, "He stretched [the heavens], like a tent in which to dwell" (Yeshayah 40:22), and it is written "firm" (Iyov ibid.) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Ordinarily, when a person casts vessels, they eventually rust; but here, "like a mirror of cast metal" - that at every moment, they appear as freshly cast (i.e. as beautiful as when originally made).

From all this, a few things are evident. First of all, Chazal used derashos to derive knowledge about various aspects of the firmament - how it was made, its dimensions, and so on. Now, some people might define mesorah as being "that which was received since Sinai," and they might further claim that such derashos do not fall into that category. But I find it hard to believe that my traditionalist opponents are ready to write off so many of Chazal's derashos (and there's no reason why it would be limited to only these) as being "not part of the mesorah." (When Chazal make a derashah that the four animals with one kosher sign are the only such species, can this also be simply written off as "not part of the mesorah"? I look forward to Rav Shlomo Miller suggesting that!)

The second point is that, while Chazal used these derashos to derive knowledge about specific aspects relating to the firmament, it was obvious to them all that the basic nature of the firmament is something hard and flat; after all, there are numerous explicit pesukim describing the nature of the firmament, as well as other pesukim which shed light upon the basic etymology of the word. That's not to claim that there aren't those in recent times who explain these sources differently. But Chazal's traditions were clearly in accordance with the straightforward meaning.

In a future post, I will bring further pesukim which shed light on the nature of the rakia, as well as a variety of other sources. But it's clear that Chazal's mesorah was that the rakia is a solid body that is stretched in two dimensions - otherwise known as a firmament. Does this cause a religious problem? If you're a traditionalist, it certainly does, which is why they have to find a way to weasel out of this. But following the rationalist approach of certain Torah authorities, this does not pose a problem at all, as I shall later explain.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ridiculing Chazal? UPDATED

When writing my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night," I realized that the discussion in the Gemara would be quite foreign to most people. In order to facilitate comprehension, I illustrated the view of Chazal with the following diagram:

To my surprise, Rabbi Zvi Lampel, author of the excellent work The Dynamics of Dispute, publicly accused me of "choosing a cartoonish graphic to depict the ancient theory of the sun's path" with the intention "to increase incredulity and ridicule."


This claim was astonishing. After all, a similar diagram appears in Shas Lublin Mehaduras Vehagisa, published by Machon HaMaor, a card-carrying charedi publishing house:

Obviously, they are not "choosing a cartoonish graphic" with the intention "to increase incredulity and ridicule." So on what basis does Rabbi Lampel claim that I engaged in such a nefarious act? This is nothing less than motzi shem ra, as well as a contravention of the mitzvah to judge a fellow Jew favorably (although there wasn't even a situation here that was questionable!).

Still, the point of this post is not to highlight the moral shortcomings of my opponents in how they express their disagreements with me. (If I wanted to do that, I'd be busy for a long, long time.) It's to suggest an important insight.

I've often heard the claim that demonstrating Chazal, or Rishonim, to have been mistaken in a scientific matter is "ridiculing them." Allegedly, if Rashi believed in mermaids and I say that there's no such thing, this is "ridiculing" Rashi; if Tosafos believed that elephants jump, and I say that they don't, this is "ridiculing Tosafos."

To me it appears that people who make such claims have no sense of historical and cultural context. As I wrote in the introduction to Sacred Monsters:
If we conclude that a given creature described by the Talmud does not exist, what are the implications for those who believed that it does exist? Some fear that concluding that the Sages believed in the existence of fictional creatures implies that they were overly credulous, gullible or even foolish. But the belief of earlier generations in creatures that have now been determined to be fictional does not mean that our ancestors were at all gullible or foolish. Gullibility has to be measured against the knowledge that one already possesses. The test of gullibility is not, “What is the likelihood of such a creature existing?” but rather, “What was the perceived likelihood of such a creature existing according to the state of scientific knowledge in those days?”

For example, consider how people would respond if they were told about a lizard with three eyes on its head or with three tails. The average person might be skeptical. However, a zoologist, who possesses a thorough knowledge of the animal kingdom, would not be so skeptical; there actually are lizards, called tuataras, that have a third rudimentary eye, and if a lizard’s tail fragments in two places it can grow an additional two tails. But if someone were told about a lizard with three toes on each foot, there would be no particular reason for the average person not to believe it, and he would not be considered gullible for accepting the report as true. The zoologist, on the other hand, would have reason to be skeptical, for there have been no three-toed reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs.

Thus, gullibility has to be measured against the information that one already possesses. Since in ancient times there was very little information on hand about the natural world, it was not ridiculous to believe in bizarre creatures.
Why do so many people in the Charedi world make this error of judgment? One possibility is that it might stem from the black-and-white attitude towards historical figures in general that is taught in the Charedi community. The good people in Tenach are not merely righteous; they are superhuman figures whose stature we cannot remotely even begin to start to grasp in the slightest way at all - and that's an understatement. Conversely, the bad guys are not just people with some shortcomings - they are utterly evil rogues whose every act is intended to cause maximal harm. With such an education, it's hard for people to grasp that a scholar may be very, very incorrect about something, and yet still worthy of great respect.

On the other hand, the problem might stem from a lack of sensitivity to intellectual history in general; failing to understand how that which seems obviously factually correct in one era and culture, seems absurd in a different era and culture. Today, the idea of the world being flat is the ultimate nonsense, believed only by cranks. But in the ancient world - inhabited by people who were just as smart as people today - it was a belief held by many. And even those who believed it in the 19th century, while very different from those who believed it in antiquity, were not crazy, ignorant or stupid, as Christine Garwood's fascinating book Flat Earth demonstrates so well.

The only way to solve this perception of ridicule is to give as much historical context as possible. But there will always be those who are not sophisticated enough to grasp this; and there will always be those whose ideological opposition to the rationalist approach is so passionate, that it causes them to engage in character defamation.


Now this is what I call a cartoonish illustration (but I won't hazard a guess as to the motives):

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another Reformation of Judaism

To the Editor,
Five Towns Jewish Times

Rabbi Yair Hoffman claims
that there is a popular YouTube video that "makes light of the Gemorah in Yuma 28b" that the Avos fulfilled the entire Torah. In fact, the video was not addressing the Gemara, but rather one particular maximalist interpretation of the Gemara, which is that the Avos actually kept all the mitzvos as given on Sinai, such as writing a Sefer Torah. It was not mocking the minimalist interpretation, which explains the Gemara to mean that the Avos were outstanding people, in a way that today would be expressed by keeping the entire Torah. And while I cannot condone disrespect toward any Torah authority, it seems to me that Rabbi Hoffman's disrespect to Torah authorities is far more egregious.

Rabbi Hoffman himself acknowledges that various versions of the minimalist interpretation are proposed by Radak, Ramban, Ramah, Tosafos, Seforno, Chezkuni, Ibn Ezra, and R. Yosef Karo. To this list can be added Rambam (in Hilchos Melachim 9:1 and in his letter to R. Chasdai HaLevi) as well as Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and Meiri (in his introduction to Pirkei Avos). Such a view was undoubtedly normative amongst the rationalist Rishonim of Sepharad, and it even had adherents beyond those circles. It is only Rashi and various Acharonim that Rabbi Hoffman reports as subscribing to the maximalist view (although the literalist rishon R. Moshe Taku could certainly also be added to the list). Rabbi Hoffman writes that "no less an authority than the Maharsha" interpreted the Gemara literally, but this is hardly surprising, as Maharsha was consistently a literalist, even with the fantastic stories in Bava Basra about Rabbah bar bar Chanah - which I presume Rabbi Hoffman would not interpret literally.

Astonishingly, despite the illustrious list of prominent Rishonim presenting the minimalist view, Rabbi Hoffman claims that "the overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold of the maximalist position, and this is the general position that should be taught in our Torah institutions." How on earth can he simply dismiss the views of so many prominent Rishonim as not even worthy of being taught in Torah institutions, and only suitable for an outreach context? This is an astonishing show of disrespect towards these Rishonim, coming not from some anonymous blogger on the internet, but from a prominent rabbi in a serious publication! Ironically, it is precisely this kind of delegitimization of the rationalist approach which leads to people reacting with anger and mockery.

Rabbi Hoffman claims that "an analysis of the video reveals that the agenda of the Youtube video producer was to push some of the left-of-center aspects of the Yeshiva University Hashkafa and to undermine the lessons taught in the more Yeshivish circles." I would say that an analysis of Rabbi Hoffman's article reveals that his agenda is to push the non-rationalist approach of certain Ashkenazi Rishonim and various Acharonim, and to undermine - indeed, to write out of history! - the more rationalist approach of many prominent Rishonim that is taught in centrist circles. Rabbi Hoffman's essay is a model of how the mesorah gets rewritten, and it is an appalling demonstration of disrespect towards those Rishonim.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh

(Note to my readers: Observe the similarities to the situation with the views of the Rishonim regarding Shiluach HaKein and Chazal's knowledge of science!

The 772nd Yahrzeit

Tonight is the 772nd yahrzeit of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. He was a fascinating figure with many dimensions, but of particular relevance to this website is his Maamar Al Derashos Chazal, where he discusses the Sages' knowledge of the natural world:

...we are not obliged, on account of the great superiority of the sages of the Talmud, and their expertise in their explanations of the Torah and its details, and the truth of their sayings in the explanation of its general principles and details, to defend them and uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy, or to believe them [in those matters] as we believe them regarding the explanation of the Torah, which they had completely mastered and which it was their role to teach, as it says, "According to the Torah that they teach you" (Deuteronomy 17:11).

You can see the full section in Hebrew and English at this link. Actually, it's a pity that the idea that Chazal were not infallible in science has come to be known as "Rabbeinu Avraham's view," since, as shown in my monograph "The Sun's Path at Night," this was a normative view amongst the Rishonim. Labeling it as "Rabbeinu Avraham's view," as Rav Aharon Feldman does, downgrades it from a normative view amongst Rishonim and Acharonim to the minority view of an obscure figure. The probably cause of this attribution is that Rabbeinu Avraham's discussion of this idea is so explicit and well-known.

Another assault upon the treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham has been to claim that it is a forgery(!). This claim was made by Rav Moshe Shapiro and will soon be published by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman in his book "The Torah of Science" (along with some spectacular revisionism of the Rav). Again, it is strange that anti-rationalists take this strategy, since even getting Rabbeinu Avraham out of the way does not help with the fact that the fallibility of Chazal in scientific matters is a perfectly normative view held by dozens and dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. But, since these rabbonim are apparently unaware of this fact, they see it as valuable to dismiss Rabbeinu Avraham's treatise as a forgery.

Needless to say, there are absolutely no serious grounds for considering it to be a forgery. In the past, I have been in touch with Professor Paul B. Fenton, who is probably the world's greatest expert on Rabbeinu Avraham, about this. Today, I noticed that he recently published a seminal article entitled "Maimonides—Father and Son: Continuity and Change" in Traditions of Maimonideanism (Ed. Carlos Fraenkel), where a footnote reveals that additional genizah fragments of the Kifâyat al-‘abidîn (Rabbeinu Avraham's original work from which the treatise on Aggadah was extracted) are continually coming to light:

One particular chapter of the Kifâya, that dealing with the interpretation of the Midrash, came to be considered as a separate composition and was thrice translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages and in the sixteenth century, with the title Ma'amar al ha-aggadôt.(39) In recent times fragments from the original Arabic have been discovered in the genizah.(40) Let us not forget that Maimonides also intended to compose a special work on the interpretation of the midrash from a philosophical standpoint, but this desire too remained unfulfilled. Perhaps this chapter by Abraham is to be also perceived as the son’s realization of his father’s wish, although, as we shall see presently, in a specific paragraph of this section, Abraham inveighs against philosophy.

39 An ancient anonymous translation is to be found in ms. Neubauer 1649, copied in Poland in 1465. It was published and printed several times from this manuscript, for example in Kerem Hemed 2 (1836), pp. 7–61; Maimonides, Qôbez II, pp. 40–43, and recently in R. Abraham Maimonides, Milhamôt ha-shem, pp. 81–98. A second translation was made in the East in the sixteenth century by Abraham Ibn Migash (See A. Harkavy, Hadashim gam yeshanim 10 (1896), p. 87) and a third, in the same century, in the Maghreb by Vidal Sarfati of Fez in the introduction to his commentary on the Midrash rabba, Imrey yôsher, Warsaw, 1874.

40 See E. Hurwitz, Ma'amar al ’ôdôt derashôt Hazal, Joshua Finkel Memorial Volume, New York, 1974, pp. 139–168. To the fragments discovered by the latter scholar, can be added the following two Genizah fragments we have identified: Westminster College, Arabica II.39 and AIU, Paris IIA 1, which originally belonged to the same manuscript.

If you haven't yet studied Rabbeinu Avraham's treatise, the 18th of Kislev would be a great day to do so!

(Thanks for Menachem Butler for inspiring this post and showing me various source material.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Arguing the Absurd - and Winning

At the moment, I am in the middle of reading a fascinating book entitled Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. I purchased the book in order to read what it says about flat-earth belief in the ancient world. As it turns out, only the first chapter discusses that topic, albeit with much fascinating information about all the different ancient cultures which subscribed to such a belief. The next few chapters turn to a later period - a much, much later period.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that as late as the nineteenth century, when science had certainly dismissed the notion of a flat earth with ample evidence, and people had even sailed around the world, the belief in a flat earth was still being publicly presented and disputed. There were a number of interesting people who made it their life's work to argue for the truth of a flat earth - and were considerably successful at it. Reading the account of these events gave me an overwhelming sense of deja vu, due to the overwhelming parallels with the young-earth anti-evolutionists that I have run into on occasion (such as Dr. Isaac Betech).

Consider this: the strategy of the flat-earthers was to engage in public lectures and seek public debates with scientists. And they were very, very successful at it! While professional scientists knew that the flat-earth position was utterly fallacious, even educated people were impressed at the ingenious arguments and rhetoric of the flat-earthers, and thought that they had proved their case. There is no better illustration of how public debates in front of non-specialists is certainly not the way to determine scientific truth!

When an experiment was finally performed, with both sides present, the flat-earthers claimed that it vindicated them! The experiment was to see how much of a light-house fourteen miles away would be visible through a telescope. The scientists predicted that only the lantern would be visible, due to the curvature of the earth. But on the day of measurement, unusual weather conditions caused refractive effects which exaggerated the effects of the earth's curvature and made even less of the top of the lighthouse visible. Whereupon the flat-earthers declared that the result, which caught the scientists by surprise, demonstrated that the whole system of the scientists was incorrect! It is exactly like how young-earth anti-evolutionists point to various unresolved difficulties in science as "proof" that that the entire enterprise is mistaken.

Another strategy of the flat-earthers was to quote-mine scientists out of context, to claim scientific support for their conclusions - exactly as young-earth anti-evolutionists are fond of doing. This was one topic that I once debated them on, showing how they were distorting the views of those that they quoted, but eventually my opponent pulled out.

Especially interesting was how the flat-earthers would claim that "there is no scientific proof whatsoever" for a spherical earth, and would offer large sums of money as wagers on that fact. One scientist, Alfred Wallace, took up the flat-earther John Hampden on such a wager. It was only because there was a referee that the results of the experiment were decided in favor of Wallace; Hampden insisted that the results had proven the earth to be flat! It is exactly like how the young-earth anti-evolutionists insist that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever for evolution, and demand irrefutable proof--whereas, of course, anyone sufficiently determined to reject a proof can convince himself that he has refuted it.

Also of interest was that Wallace regretted his involvement in this debate. In general, scientists generally preferred not to engage the flat-earthers in debate, since they knew that in public debates it is oratory skills and ingenuity of technique that wins over spectators who are not themselves expert in science. Of course, the flat-earthers pointed to this as showing that the scientists knew themselves not to have any evidence that the world is spherical!

Unsurprisingly, the flat-earthers were not motivated by their scientific research; they never submitted any papers to scientific journals for publication. Rather, they were fundamentalist Christians, motivated by religious beliefs. But they successfully convinced themselves as well as other people that it was on scientific grounds, too, that the spherical-earth model was mistaken.

There's much to learn from history.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How the Firmament was understood by our Sages

From the sources in my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, we see that all the Rishonim, without exception, as well as many Acharonim, accepted that Chazal believed that the universe is a solid dome above the earth. (Most of the Rishonim themselves adopted the Ptolemaic view that the universe is in fact a series of nested crystalline spheres surrounding the earth, while some maintained Chazal's view.) There are other passages in the Talmud where Chazal discuss the thickness of this dome and other aspects of it, which, again, all the Rishonim, without exception, accepted as a literal discussion of the physical universe.

From where we're standing, there is no reason not to believe that all these Rishonim and Acharonim were correct in their understanding of Chazal. I won't say that it is "incontrovertible and irrefutable" that Chazal believed the universe to be a dome, because nothing is incontrovertible and irrefutable, even the idea that the world is round - there are always people who will controvert it and convince themselves that they have refuted it. But I will say that I do not believe that such an approach is at all rational. The fact that some later authorities were uncomfortable with the idea of Chazal having such beliefs is not reason to say that all these Rishonim and Acharonim were incorrect.

But here's where we move to stage two. Chazal's belief that the universe is a solid dome was not merely their understanding of the universe. It was also their understanding of the Torah. Throughout Tenach, there is mention of the rakia - the firmament. It was this that Chazal explained to be a solid dome. R. Yehudah HaNasi only rejected the idea that the sun passes behind this dome at night - he did not reject the idea that there is such a dome. Even those Rishonim who rejected the Babylonian cosmology still subscribed to the notion of the heavens as a solid dome over us - it was just that they understood the heavens to be a sphere rather than a hemisphere. And this is not just a matter of how Chazal translated words in the Torah, but also how they understood phrases and descriptions in the Torah, such as the account of the luminaries being placed in the firmament, and of the heavens being stretched out over the earth, of the windows in the firmament through which things enter, etc., etc.

In a later post, I will discuss what these Pesukim mean from a modern perspective (please wait for that discussion, and do not raise this topic in the comments). The important point to recognize for now is that Chazal (and most of the Rishonim) universally interpreted various words in the Torah to be describing the heavens as a solid firmament above us. And yet, nobody today believes that such a structure exists.

Malbim was sensitive to this problem. In his commentary to Bereishis 1:6, Malbim rejects the view that the rakia is a solid firmament. He argues that it refers to the atmosphere - an argument that we shall analyze in a later post. Malbim acknowledges that all the Rishonim believed it to be a solid firmament, and declares them mistaken. However, he claims that the Sages were also of the view that there is no solid firmament, citing R. Shimon bar Yochai as saying that the stars move through the air. But this is deeply problematic. First of all, Malbim does not adequately deal with all the passages in the Talmud which speak of a solid firmament (his novel explanation of Pesachim 94b is not shared by anyone else at all). Second, the words of R. Shimon bar Yochai cited by Malbim do not exist in our version of Bereishit Rabbah 6:8, which reads quite differently; apparently Malbim had a corrupted text. Third, even if R. Shimon bar Yochai did speak of stars moving through the air, this in no way denies the existence of a solid firmament.

Chazal and the Rishonim believed in a solid firmament. People today do not believe in a solid firmament. Thus, people today interpret the Torah differently from how Chazal interpreted it, based on the discoveries of science.

There are many ramifications of this, but there is one in particular that I wish to highlight. Many young-earth anti-evolutionists are fond of speaking about "How the Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages," arguing that Chazal and the Rishonim did not believe that the universe was billions of years or that life evolved. In this, they are absolutely correct. However, there are two critical points that they miss. First was that many of the Rishonim certainly saw it as their duty to interpret the Torah in accordance with what science or philosophy had proven - even if that meant going against Chazal and against the literal reading of the Pesukim. Second is that even these young-earth anti-evolutionists are going against Chazal and the Rishonim in how they explain all the citations in the Torah about the rakia and shamayim. Our ba’alei mesorah have always understood and insisted that the rakia is a solid firmament, and yet these people disagree.

Oh, the irony!

(At this point I would like to express my appreciation to all those who made a donation for my monograph The Sun's Path At Night, and to issue a request to those who downloaded it without making a donation, to please make a donation.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Revolutionizing Rambam's Revolutions

When I was in yeshivah gedolah in England nearly twenty years ago, I was taught that the Rishonim never said anything that they didn't receive as a mesorah from Chazal. (The basis for that claim was - you guessed it - mesorah.) The most obvious difficulty with such a claim is, of course, Rambam.

Rambam has always been known as a revolutionary, controversial figure - and with good reason. I am always amused at the reaction of certain non-Charedim when, after they express derision at Charedi intolerance of Rambam-type views, I inform them of Rambam's views on topics such as providence, the World-to-Come, and reward and punishment. Suddenly they're not so tolerant themselves!

Traditionally, the traditionalist response to Rambam's revolutionary ideas has been to write them off as influenced by Greek philosophy and therefore not kosher, to explain that he only taught these ideas for outreach and did not subscribe to them, or to claim that his writings must actually be interpreted as referring to mysterious mystical concepts (always a fail-safe last resort!).

But recently I have noticed a new approach by anti-rationalists. It is to claim that, properly understood, Rambam never actually said anything controversial! Furthermore, the claim is that Rambam never accepted anything from Aristotle against the mesorah! I kid you not.

The fact is that not only were Rambam's philosophical views heavily influenced by Greco-Muslim philosophy, but, as Dr. Marc Shapiro has demonstrated at length in Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters, so was the Mishneh Torah. And it's not only the view of modern academic scholars that Rambam's worldview was, to a large extent, the product of Greco-Muslim philosophy rather than a tradition from his rebbe'im. The Vilna Gaon famously commented that Rambam was “led astray by the accursed philosophy” to deny the existence of demons and other such phenomena. Rav Hirsch observed that Rambam's "trend of thought was Arab-Greek... Approaching Judaism from without, he brought to it views that he had gained elsewhere, and these he reconciled with Judaism." (The Vilna Gaon and Rav Hirsch were also influenced by non-traditional sources, but not quite as blatantly as Rambam.)

All this is fairly obvious to any honest and serious student of Rambam and history. But I just noticed that Rambam himself explicitly notes that his approach to Maaseh Merkavah (Ezekiel's chariot) - one of the major topics in the Guide for the Perplexed - was not based on any received tradition, but rather he developed it himself, based on his philosophical studies:

No divine revelation came to me to teach me that this was the intent of the matter, nor have I received my belief in this respect from any teacher; rather, I have been informed by what I learned from Scripture and the utterances of our Sages, together with the philosophical principles which I have adopted, that the matter is as such, without doubt. But it is possible that the matter is otherwise, and the meaning is different. (Introduction to Part III of the Guide, translation based on Schwartz edition)

As Chaim Kreisel writes in an article that can be freely downloaded, Rambam's subsequent discussion "does not leave the slightest doubt that the Chariot of Ezekiel is a parable for the structure of the heavens as depicted by scientists and philosophers" - including the Ptolemaic spheres and the four elements.

Now, Rambam himself truly believed that this is what Yechezkel was talking about. He may have also believed that Chazal knew this; I'm not sure. (In some cases, such as his denial of demons and astrology, he knew full well that he was going against Chazal, but here it's not so clear.) But he was certainly aware that he was reconstructing the original intent based on what he had absorbed from Greek philosophy - not transmitting a mesorah from his rebbe'im. And does anyone today believe that this is what Maaseh Merkavah was really about - the Ptolemiac spheres and the four elements?

This is not to denigrate the Rambam, G-d forbid. He was trying to understand things as best as possible, just as we all do. But there is a valuable lesson that he taught in general and specifically with this topic: that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes - even from outside our community.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Our World, Their Universe

As demonstrated in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night, the unanimous view of the Rishonim was that the Sages of Israel believed that there is a firmament, a solid dome over the earth, upon which the sun and stars move. And I see no reason to think that the Rishonim were mistaken.

Incidentally, this sheds light on the word olam. When studying or translating rabbinic texts, people often wonder whether to translate olam as "world" or "universe," and are puzzled as to why the same world is used for both. The answer is that, in the view of Chazal, they were one and the same. Only with modern conceptions, when the Earth is a small planet floating in the vastness of space along with countless other planets and stars, is the "world" significantly different from the "universe." But in the ancient Babylonian cosmology, where the entire universe is a dome over the earth, they are one and the same structure.

This leads to the final part of Mishpachah magazine's Kolmus supplement that I had not yet discussed. The lead article on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism features a sidebar entitled "The Position of Chazal Regarding the Nature of the World." It lists four purported examples of Chazal disagreeing with the "science" of their era and eventually being proven correct. Let us examine each in turn:

1. It contrasts the non-Jewish beliefs in the world resting on pillars, water, elephants or turtles with the verse in Iyov 26:7 stating that the Earth is suspended in an empty void, citing Rashi that "the Earth is suspended in the air, held by Hashem's power." (Although note that this is not what Rashi actually says, ayin sham, v'ain kan makom leha'arich.)

Yet there are numerous other pesukim which do describe the world as resting on something - "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved" (Tehillim 104), "For the pillars of the earth are God's, and he set the world upon them" (1 Samuel 2:8), "He shakes the earth from its place and makes it pillars tremble" (Job 9:6), "He spreads the earth out over the waters" (Berachos). Thus, there are a range of descriptions in Tenach, just as there are a range of descriptions in other cultures, some of which fit with modern science, many of which do not. So what system is being used here to determine when something is meant literally, and when it is meant allegorically?

2. It claims that, in contrast to other ancient scientists who thought the world to be flat or shaped like a drum or arch, the Yerushalmi and Midrash note that the earth is in the shape of a sphere.

In fact, the ancient Greeks knew full well that the earth is a sphere. Certainly most of Chazal believed the earth to be flat, as documented in my monograph and many other sources. The Yerushalmi and Midrash, at best, represent a minority of Chazal who shared the same view as the Greeks. In fact, even those sources speak about the earth being "like a ball in a dish of water," which hardly fits with the earth as we know it. Furthermore, as R. Josh Waxman notes, these sources seem to say more about Greek beliefs (perhaps subsequently adopted by Jews) than they say about Chazal's beliefs.

3. It says that while the ancient Greeks believed the celestial bodies to be made out of an unearthly quintessence, Chazal knew them to be composed of the same material substances that we have on earth.

I haven't looked into this thoroughly yet, but I'm not at all sure that the citation from Chazal (unfortunately no source is given) means what it is claimed to mean. And certainly most of the Rishonim agreed with the Greek view.

4. It cites a Midrash and Zohar which attest to people living on the other side of the world.

Yet in fact, the Midrash is referring not to Australians, but to the two-headed denizens of the subterranean netherworld (see Sacred Monsters pp. 210-212). And as for the Zohar... well, as Chasam Sofer would have said, that's not exactly evidence of what Chazal held!

In summary, since we have clearly seen that Chazal subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology of the earth as a flat or near-flat disc with the rest of the universe as a dome above it, it is ludicrous to talk about Chazal being ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe.

Now, I happen to have inside info that this sidebar in Kolmus was not part of the original article, but was later added following instructions from the editor, who was concerned that the article was too maskilic and that they needed to show their True Charedi credentials. Since that is the case, and since Mishpachah is doing a very valuable job, I can't criticize them for doing their job.

But I have to do my job, too. And claiming that Chazal were ahead of their time with regard to understanding the nature of the world and the universe is not only false, but also dangerous. Creating such a false image can lead to severe disillusionment and bitterness when people discover the truth. We should be respecting Chazal as great Torah scholars who produced an astounding compendium of debate, laws and ethics - not as modern scientists.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Back to Kolmus

I would like to return to discussing Mishpachah magazine's Kolmus supplement, which I first introduced last week. The lead article, on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, is, on the whole, quite good. It contains a vast amount of information about the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe. Furthermore, it explores a range of rabbinic responses to the Copernican revolution. Presenting such a wide range of views about a scientific topic is quite unusual for a charedi publication. (This is a good example of what I was referring to in describing Mishpachah as a positive force.)

There are some unfortunate errors. The article was originally written in Hebrew, and whoever translated it mistranslated a key term. Bedolach--the substance of which the Ptolemaic spheres were thought to be made--is crystal, not ether (ether is the substance that was thought to fill outer space). The article describes Ralbag as "completely disproving" the Ptolemaic model, but in fact, while Ralbag did raise several difficulties with Ptolemy’s geocentric model, he rejected the heliocentric model (which had already been proposed much earlier) in favor of a modified version of the Ptolemaic system. And when describing the responses to Copernicus, the article presents an even number of authorities who opposed and accepted it, but in my survey of over thirty rabbinic responses to Copernicus in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, I found that the response was overwhelmingly negative. (I have finished an article on this topic and will publish it at some point.) Even Rav Yaakov Emden, who is cited in the article as noting that some find support for Copernicus in Chazal, elsewhere made it clear that he himself subscribed to the geocentric model, and writes extremely derogatorily about the modern science of astronomy in general and Copernicus in particular.

But the most serious problem with the article is in its treatment of Chazal's cosmology. In discussing the Gemara in Pesachim, which is the key source for Chazal's view of the universe, the article only mentions the mystical interpretation of Maharal and Ramchal! It makes no mention of the view that Chazal were speaking literally and subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology, even though this was the universal view of the Rishonim!

For all the excellent information in the article - and I know the author to be a very fine, honest and rational person, who certainly did not intend to distort anything and was probably constrained by editorial considerations - this is a very serious deficiency. How can one discuss the "Torah view" on the Ptolemaic model and the Copernican model, while concealing Chazal's own rejected view of the Babylonian model? In any discussion about cosmology, such a fundamental misrepresentation of Chazal and the Rishonim is not only innately problematic, but also empowers those who believe that there is no traditional view that Chazal were wrong in any of their beliefs about the world. I have notified the author and I can only hope that there will be some kind of correction printed in a future issue.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Reformation of Traditional Judaism

In a previous post, "Forcing the Opposition," I commented on how the problem of arguing my case too effectively is that it results in the parameters of Torah discussion being changed. This was all too well illustrated in the comment thread to the previous post. Here's a paraphrase of how this dialogue has developed over the last six years, culminating in the response to my monograph on The Sun's Path At Night.

Us: Chazal were occasionally mistaken in their statements about the natural world.

Them: - This is kefirah.

Us: But it was said by Rambam and his son.

Them: - It's an aberrant view.

Us: But it was said by many, many Rishonim.

Them: - They were working without the revelations of kabbalah.

Us: But even after the revelations of kabbalah, many Acharonim maintained this view. Besides, we see that ALL the Rishonim, without exception, understood Chazal's statement about the sun going behind the sky at night to be a description of the physical reality. Can ALL of the Rishonim really be fundamentally wrong in their understanding of Chazal? Furthermore, what evidence is there that the Gedolim were even aware of these sources? Several of them claimed that no such sources could exist!

Which brings us to the ultimate conclusion, vital for anyone operating with the basic premise that the Charedi Gedolim must be right:

Them: "The Gedolim must have secret reasons for declaring this view to be kefirah. Furthermore, even if they are not fluent in this topic, they have Divine guidance to say the correct ruling, and even if this means rating the approach of countless Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah."

What we have here is the overturning of the traditional halachic process. It used to involve analyzing the views of Chazal, the Rishonim and Acharonim in order to reach conclusions. Dominant views were given greater weight, barring extenuating circumstances. Claims of prophetic inspiration were generally not a valid method of overturning other opinions - Lo BaShamayim Hee. Rulings were expected to be based on halachic expertise and correct information - if those were lacking, the rulings were deficient.

Now all that has changed. When a pashkevil is issued - even if the engineers of the verdict are confirmed crooks and are confirmed to have lied in this very case - the Gedolim are declared to be correct, due to their supernatural guidance. This quasi-prophetic inspiration can overturn the approach of all the Rishonim and dozens of Acharonim, and effectively declare them to have been fundamentally mistaken in their understanding of Chazal. No halachic or hashkafic justifications are required; indeed, it is acknowledged that they might not even exist, in the traditional sense! Mesorah in its true meaning - the views of the Rishonim and Acharonim throughout the generations - counts for nothing. All it takes is for people who are accomplished Talmudists (following a very particular derech in becoming Talmudists) to channel God's will as to how traditional Judaism should be reformed. And this is presented not as a social policy, but as a halachic and hashkafic pesak.

Truly frightening.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Key to Everything

(Well, not everything, but everything of relevance to this website.)

Taking a break from my review of Kolmus, I am pleased to announce the publication of a new monograph, probably one of the most important things that I have ever written. It is a comprehensive study of a very short section of Gemara, just five lines in Pesachim 94b, a passage which is so obscure that most people just skim through it with little comprehension. Yet when the terms used in the Gemara are clarified, and the views of Rishonim and Acharonim over the centuries are surveyed, the results powerfully illustrate the radical transformation that has taken place with regard to how Jews view the Sages of the Talmud. Furthermore, the positions of Chazal about cosmology which emerge from this discussion prove critical to certain other topics that I shall be raising in the future, as well as to my review of Kolmus.

Extensive efforts went into the research and writing of this monograph, and as a result, I am not making it available for free; I ask that all those who download it make a donation via PayPal at this link:

The recommended donation is $5, but if you would like to take this opportunity to support this website and my writing in general, that would be appropriate and appreciated.

You can download the essay at this link:


With my monograph on Shiluach HaKein, I only made the download link accessible to those that made a contribution (which resulted in a far higher number of contributions than I received for my Kezayis essay). The reason why I am not doing that in this case is that I do not want anyone to avoid downloading it because they don't wish to make a contribution, for whatever reason (such as that they do not want to reveal that they read my material). It is important to me that this essay is read as widely as possible; the sources that I have accumulated powerfully show how the views of legitimate approaches to Chazal and mesorah that are held by the Charedi Gedolim who banned my works are completely at odds with the facts of Jewish history. Furthermore, this monograph shows how the Charedi misunderstanding of the "mesorah" evolved. If you ever find yourself confronting someone who insists that there was never a traditional view that Chazal's statements about the natural world were human and fallible, then this brief section of the Gemara, with all the sources in this monograph, is all that you need to demonstrate their error. One of my greatest regrets is that I had not adequately researched this section of Gemara at the time of the controversy over my books; had I done so, I would have been able to present a much more powerful case!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Positive Force

It occurred to me that before proceeding further with my critique of Mishpachah's Kolmus supplement, I should clarify some things about Mishpachah in general. Make no mistake about it: in the general battles over the issues of concern to readers of this website, Mishpachah is very much one of the good guys. That's not to say that I agree with what they write (in fact, they once printed something about me that was so appallingly bad, it was actually funny). But in terms of engineering a revolution in the charedi world, Mishpachah has enormous positive effect.

Beneath the black hat, Mishpachah is part of a revolution in charedi society. They print articles from Jonathan Rosenblum about how the Gedolim are manipulated by kanna'im to do harmful things, and about how the desire to have young men supported in kollel has led to money being the most important factor in shidduchim. They feature interviews with all kinds of people who would never be profiled in Yated or HaModia (although I'm not expecting them to feature me ever again!) The Hebrew edition of Mishpachah recently discussed, very positively, all the new programs to help charedim enter the workforce. Furious condemnations from the Gedolim followed, after which Mishpachah offered a profuse apology. But a wise friend of mine reckoned that they knew in advance that they would have to do this, but felt that it was worthwhile in order to get the information out there.

Is Mishpachah having an effect? I think so. Just look at how many horrified letters appear all the time! (My personal favorite is from a reader who was appalled at the description of Ramchal as a playwright; the reader insisted that Ramchal was a mekubal who used theater to spread kabbalistic teachings.) The hardcore charedim are furious with Mishpachah, but it's too successful for them to do anything about it; Mishpachah already put the Jewish Observer out of business.

(At this point, I have to share a funny story. When the ban on my books came out, I spoke to Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, editor of the Jewish Observer, with whom I was very friendly. He said, "As soon as I saw you on the cover of Mishpachah this summer, I knew that "they" would come after you!")

Some people are so frustrated with problems in the Orthodox community that they can only think of addressing these problems with a sledgehammer, which inevitably means that their campaign is entirely ineffective. But the path of Mishpachah - staying within the charedi framework, while gently and apologetically getting a new message across - is likely to be far more effective. I wish them great success!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dangers of False Inspiration

This past week, the popular magazine Mishpachah included Kolmus, their journal of Torah thought. This particular issue of Kolmus was dedicated to the topic of science in general, but with a particular focus on astronomy and cosmology. The editor writes in the introduction that whereas science evolves, Torah is immutable, and the articles in the journal present examples of how "some of the 'revelations' of modern science have actually been around for centuries, known only to those who study our Torah."

Predictably, the journal includes nothing of the sort. There is some very useful information in the journal, and some discussion that comes as a breath of fresh air to find in such a publication, but the alleged examples of how modern science was known to Chazal are woefully wrong. As with the alleged examples of this phenomenon offered by Rav Aharon Feldman, all the examples given in Kulmus are either things that were known throughout the ancient world, things that Chazal did not actually say but are instead being "stuck in" the Gemara, or things that are not actually true. The examples are produced by selective citations of the Gemara, selective choices of which Rishonim and Acharonim to quote, selective citations from within the chosen Rishonim and Acharonim, as well as misunderstandings of Torah, science, and history.

But the question is, should I be publicly discussing and analyzing such things? Many people would object to it. Why does it matter if Kolmus makes these mistakes? Isn't it beneficial for people to be inspired? What good will come of showing the journal to be mistaken, and what could possibly be the motive for destructive criticism?

I have a lot of sympathy for such objections. It's always easier to knock things down than to build things up, and my mentors taught me that it is generally not the appropriate path in life. Too many blogs simply become places for people to vent. I know several unfortunate souls who were bothered by intellectual errors and distortions that they saw in various places, decided to set people straight, and simply became consumed by negativity. It destroyed them, and their relationships with other people. This is something that I always fear will happen to me; indeed, some people believe that it already has.

Furthermore, personally (and I know that many readers will disagree with me on this), I do not believe in telling the truth at any cost. As Chazal said, "Educate the child according to his way" - and that applies to adults, too. Not every truth is going to be helpful for everyone. Generally speaking, I don't object to people being falsely inspired, if that inspiration helps them lead better lives.

On the other hand, there are some opposing factors, especially in this case. First of all, I'm not kidding myself about my relative lack of influence. In contrast to the many thousands of readers of Mishpachah, there are only a few hundred readers of this website, and many of them are people who are in any case already skeptical of this sort of thing and turned off by it.

Second, educating everyone to believe that Chazal were scientific geniuses way ahead of their time is going to cause problems when people encounter statements in the Gemara that simply can't be reconciled with modern science. The subsequent emunah crisis becomes much greater.

Third, we live in an era of great hostility towards those who follow the rationalist approach of the Rishonim in these matters. Spreading the idea that Chazal, in their pronouncements about the natural world, were millennia ahead of their time, assists the campaign of those who condemn the rationalist approach.

Fourth, I think that in general, such shtick is simply the wrong approach to take for inspiring people. Classically, Judaism sought inspiration in the wonders of nature, in God's guidance of the Jewish People over history and in our daily lives, in the moral wisdom of the Torah, not in shtick such as claiming modern science to be found in the Gemara.

There is one final reason why I want to address this topic, and it is something that I will have to be somewhat vague about for now. There are a number of extremely difficult intellectual challenges for Orthodox Jews that have not yet been widely dealt with in a satisfactory manner. I have some thoughts on how to effectively deal with these topics, but there is much groundwork that needs to first be laid. A proper understanding of Chazal's discussions concerning astronomy and cosmology is crucial to this discussion, and the myths and falsehoods perpetrated by Kolmus need to be corrected.

I am inclined, therefore, to cautiously proceed with discussing the errors in Kolmus. But, as always, I am open to hearing what others have to say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our Boys in Captivity

"Our boys in captivity need help! They need our tefillos! And they need financial contributions to assist in efforts for their release. Please open your hearts, for this critical mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim!"

That was the gist of a full-page ad on the back page of Mishpachah magazine that I just saw. Who are "our boys in captivity"? It was referring to the unfortunate yeshivah bochrim that are imprisoned in Japan for smuggling what they thought were antiquities but which turned out to be drugs.

It's certainly a terrible situation. But let us indulge in a thought-experiment. Japanese prisons are certainly not fun places in which to be incarcerated, but imagine if these students were, Heaven forbid, being faced with torture and execution. Can you imagine how much greater would be the outcry in the frum community?

Now, imagine if these boys were not even guilty of knowingly smuggling anything at all. Wouldn't we feel even more sympathy for them?

And imagine if, not only were they not guilty of smuggling anything, but at the time of arrest they were on a dangerous mission on behalf of the frum community. Imagine how much more we would be up in arms over the fate of such heroes!

Well, there is such a person in such a situation. Gilad Shalit is being held by Hamas, captured while on duty in the IDF, protecting Israel. And how much do we hear about him in the Charedi media, in the charedi yeshivas, in the charedi shuls?

Virtually nothing!

No articles in the newspapers. No major fundraising/lobbying campaigns. No Yom Tefillah. No learning in his zechus. No mishberachs in shuls. (In the non-charedi shul where I usually davven on Shabbos, they say a misheberach for him, whereupon the one charedi mispallel religiously takes out a book and sits down to read it.)

Sure, there is the odd exception. In the Aish Kodesh shul in Ramat Bet Shemesh, the very special Rav spoke about Gilad Shalit before ne'ilah on Yom Kippur. But he is an unusual person, and very much the exception. Amongst American charedim, you might hear Shalit's name mentioned here and there, but nowhere near as much as the celebrity captives such as the boys in Japan, Sholom Rubashkin, and, in the past, "Reb" Martin Grossman. Amongst Israeli charedim, you virtually never hear Shalit's name. Why?

Now, I have heard it argued that the cases are different in that with the bochrim in Japan, it is clear what needs to be done and how to use the money raised to accomplish that. With Shalit, on the other hand, it's not clear what to do. Should we be pressing the Israeli government to exchange terrorists for his release, or not? Many people are against such a trade, or are simply confused as to what is best.

But that argument is insufficient. First of all, there are plenty of ways that funds could clearly be used for his good - such as lobbying in the international media, which puts pressure on Hamas to, at the very least, keep him alive and in good health. Second of all, aren't we religious Jews? What about prayer, performing mitzvos in his merit, keeping his fate in the public consciousness - showing that we care?

The answer is that the yeshivah students in Japan are seen as "our boys." Shalit, a secular Israeli soldier, is not "one of us."

Now, to a certain extent, that is understandable. Human beings always care more about those with whom they identify more, and they identify more with those in their community. Countries care more about their own citizens. You care more about your family and neighbors than someone you don't know.

Yet while that is somewhat of a limmud zechus, it is not a justification. Everyone should be striving to care about the fate of every Jew - certainly someone in such a terrible situation, captured while serving the people. Furthermore, one must wonder by what measure exactly the yeshivah bochrim in Japan are seen as being "our boys," but not Shalit. Certainly many American charedi Jews are no closer culturally to chassidishe Israelis from Mea Shearim than to a secular Israeli. And it's not just a matter of religion; if Shalit were dati-leumi, I don't think it would make a difference. How religious was Martin Grossman? But his "teshuvah" led him to be adopted by the charedi community and subsequently his fate was identified as being a charedi cause. I suspect that the problem with Shalit is not that he's not shomer mitzvos; it's that he's in the IDF. God forbid to show that we care about an IDF soldier - it might send the wrong message to the community, and before you know it, our young men will be going to hesder!

This sort of phenomenon was one of the factors in my dissatisfaction with being in the charedi community (even before the ban on my books). There are good reasons for insularism, but when it comes at the cost of identifying with klal Yisrael (or rather, redefining klal Yisrael as "the charedi community"), then I think that something is seriously wrong. To be sure, there are exceptions, such as Uri Lupolianski and Yad Sarah, etc. But, in general, and as highlighted by the inequality between the concern for "our boys in Japan" and the lack of concern for Gilad Shalit, the charedi community simply does not adequately see itself as being part of the Jewish nation.

Ironically, it is this sort of attitude that caused the tragedy of the yeshivah boys in Japan. As Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, editor of the late Jewish Observer, once told me, lack of respect for civil law is a great problem in the charedi community. But what is the cause of this? In part, it's probably a cultural hangover from Europe, where the government really was the enemy. But that's not all of it; another component is the very insularism which characterizes the charedi community. When you don't see yourself as being a citizen of a country, you have less respect for civil law. There was a notorious Kupat Ha-Ir campaign which told the "inspirational" story of how someone decided to donate money to Kupat Ha-Ir, and as a result managed to smuggle items into Israel without being caught! And I once saw a cartoon in a Charedi magazine which showed a Chareidi schoolbus, overloaded with children, outwitting a policeman by having them hide on the floor - silly chiloni! With such an attitude being prevalent, is it any wonder that it was so easy to bribe some young men into smuggling?

We need to appreciate the importance of not just being a part of our micro-community, but also members of Am Yisrael and citizens of the State of Israel, as well as inhabitants of planet earth. We need to care about all our boys in captivity - but most of all for those who are innocent heroes, and who are in the worst situation.

(To find out more about Gilad Shalit, see this website)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Deja Vu

Check out this link to see a discussion about an article in the International Journal of Cardiology, concerning how verses in Scripture demonstrate a knowledge of the function of the heart and blood that would not be discovered by science until thousands of years later.

The catch is, this is not the Jewish Scriptures, but rather the Islamic Scriptures! It's all the same themes of wishful thinking that we have (unfortunately) seen in the Jewish world.

(Thanks to Mordy Ovits for sending this in)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Sound of the Spheres

In his fascinating post at the Seforim Blog, Dr. Marc Shapiro (to whom I am indebted for supplying me with the source in Shevilei David that I sent to Rav Feldman), refers to Rambam's discussion about the sound of the spheres in the Guide to the Perplexed 2:8. This is a topic which many people find cryptic, so I would like to discuss it, and also raise a point that I have not seen discussed before.

According to ancient views of the universe, the universe is comprised not of inconceivably gigantic tracts of outer space, but rather of crystalline spheres, nested like the layers of an onion. (I will soon be e-publishing an essay which discusses this in more detail.) In chapter 2:8 of the Guide, Rambam makes reference to the Pythagorean view that just as small objects make a sound when moved through the air at high speed (think of the noise that a yo-yo would make if you whirled it around your head), so too the spheres make noise as they revolve around us at great speed. Rambam says that Chazal were also of this view. He continues to note that Aristotle has disproved this notion, and adds that one should not be surprised that the Sages were mistaken, since they themselves acknowledged that the gentile scholars knew more about these astronomical matters than they did. (Elsewhere, Rambam indicates that even Yechezkel had this mistaken understanding, which was reflected in Maase Merkavah.)

I've started looking into this, and I am not at all sure that when Chazal spoke about the celestial bodies making sounds, they were talking about the same thing as the Pythagoreans, for two reasons. First, contrary to how Aristotle describes it, the Pythagorean concept of Musica Universalis (the music of the spheres) is usually explained to relate to the mathematical significance in the distances between the various celestial spheres, being more of a symbolic harmony rather than an audible noise. Second, even if it was an actual noise, where exactly did this noise come from? Reading Rosemary Wright's Cosmology in Antiquity, I am unsure. It seems that it was thought to be a noise caused by the actual spheres revolving through the air, whereas Chazal, on the other hand, spoke about the sound of the sun boring its way through the firmament (Yoma 20b, Bereishis Rabbah 6:7). As Rambam himself notes, this appears to have been based on their belief that the sun is not embedded in a sphere, but rather is a distinct body that travels through the surface of the crystalline firmament that encompasses the earth, making noise as it tunnels through it.

It thus appears to me that while Rambam was correct in describing Chazal as mistaken in believing the sun to make sound, I am not so sure that this was identical to the Pythagorean belief of Musica Universalis. And I think that if this is so, possibly Rambam himself may have noted this, since he describes Chazal as believing that the sun makes noise due to its moving across the sphere. But I have only just begun to explore this topic.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Ever-Increasing List

Mon, Oct 25, 2010

Lichvod HaRav Aharon Feldman, shlita,

Shalom u'vrachah, I hope that this letter finds the Rosh Yeshivah well. I was recently referred to a source that I think the Rosh Yeshivah will find interesting. It is Shevilei David, by the nineteenth-century rav in Hungary, R. David Yehuda Leib Silverstein. He notes that R. Yehudah HaNasi had conceded that the Sages of Israel were mistaken in their view that the sun slips under the firmament at night to pass behind it (and points out that Rashi in several places seems to have followed this incorrect view). R. Silberstein also notes that while R. Yehudah HaNasi was correct to concede to the view of the gentile scholars, his reasons for doing so (regarding bodies of water being heated by the sun passing below the earth) were incorrect and were based on his not knowing about the existence of continents on the other side of the world. He also adds that some of the Talmud’s earlier discussions of the cosmos are also based upon their original, mistaken view of the firmament. (Shevilei David, Orach Chaim (Jerusalem 1862) no. 455, p. 96b, which can be viewed at this link.)

R. Silberstein doubtless did not think that he was saying anything radical; after all, his contemporary and colleague, Maharam Schick, wrote similarly. And he was simply following the straightforward understanding of the Gemara, which was also the approach of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham, Tosafos Rid, R. Eliezer b. Shmuel of Metz, Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, Ritva, Mizrachi, Akeidas Yitzchak, Abarbanal, Maharam Alashker, Radvaz, Remak, Lechem Mishneh, Chavos Ya'ir, Pachad Yitzchak, and Rav Hirsch, and later endorsed by Ben Ish Chai, Rav Hertzog, and my own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell. And, as I previously noted, there are many other Rishonim and Acharonim who wrote in other contexts that the Sages were
incorrect in some of their views about the natural world.

In light of this ever-increasing list of Rishonim and Acharonim to maintain this view, does the Rosh Yeshivah still maintain that this is "a minority opinion" which has "fallen by the wayside in the course of the centuries" and which is a "perversion of the correct approach to the Torah" (The Eye of the Storm, p. 160)? Had it already fallen by the wayside in the nineteenth century, and if so, how could R. Silberstein and the others follow it? When, and how, did it become a perversion of the correct approach to the Torah?

As the Rosh Yeshivah knows, questions such as these are greatly disturbing not only for me, but also for many thousands of sincere Torah Jews and talmidei chachamim.

Natan Slifkin