Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Discovery is More Bad News for Discovery

From LiveScience:

The first monkey that acts like a cow has been discovered — one that regurgitates to give its food another chew, just as cattle do.

Cows, goats, sheep and other ruminants chew plants, let their meals soften in their stomachs, and then throw up the larger bits into their mouths to munch on this cud some more. This chewing helps them break down their food and get at all the nutrients within.

Primates such as humans and monkeys seemed to cover the full gamut of all dietary strategies seen in the animal kingdom, save rumination. Now scientists find the proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) on the island of Borneo apparently chews its cud, too.

Investigators used video cameras and binoculars to monitor about 200 proboscis monkeys, which lived off fruit and leaves along a tributary of the Kinabatangan River in Malaysia. These primates get their names from the males' large noses, which are thought to be used in attracting females.

The researchers saw 23 monkeys chew their regurgitated food at least once. The monkeys apparently suck in their abdomens and stick out their tongues before they regurgitate, keeping all the cud in their mouths.

The scientists continuously observed one adult male for 169 days and watched him chew his cud for 11 days. This rumination usually happened when he spent more time eating, suggesting that regurgitation helps the monkeys deal with more food and possibly helped them eat more.

Gorillas and even people have been known to chew regurgitated food, but this is regarded as pathological behavior — these monkeys, on the other hand, seem to do it as part of their diet. Future research can investigate whether other monkeys, such as langurs, ruminate as well, said researcher Marcus Clauss, a wildlife physiologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

The scientists detailed their findings online March 30 in the journal Biology Letters.

(Discovery would doubtless respond that this behavior is not exactly the same as what ruminants do. That is true; but why would it not suffice to qualify as ma'aleh gerah? Furthermore, the vast majority of rabbinic authorities and religious zoologists are willing to classify much lesser behaviors as qualifying for the description of ma'aleh gerah, in order to solve the problem that the hare and hyrax - for which there is overwhelming evidence that they are the arneves and shafan - are described as ma'aleh gerah. For example, R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg say that the way that a hare chews is sufficient to qualify it as ma'aleh gerah, while Torah Shelemah and Sichas Chullin say that its habit of sometimes eating fecal pellets is sufficient; with the hyrax, the possibility that it very occasionally engages in minor regurgitation and rechewing was welcomed by everyone I spoke to as definitely qualifying as ma'aleh gerah. On what basis does Discovery insist that they are all most definitely wrong - and make Judaism critically depend on their all being wrong?)

The moral of the story: Don't make the validity of Judaism depend on the truth of a 19th-century interpretation of the Torah which goes against all reasonable interpretations. Outreach workers who declare that "If another cud-chewing animal is discovered, then you can throw Judaism away, and I'll take off my kippah and eat on Yom Kippur!" - which they do indeed say! - are grossly wrong and irresponsible.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Do The Gedolim Hold?

Since I have been accumulating more and more sources from Rishonim and Acharonim who clearly say that Chazal made various incorrect statements about the natural world, especially vis-a-vis basic cosmology, some have reacted by insisting that the Gedolim couldn't possibly believe differently. But I have in my possession a manuscript of a book that has not yet been published; I don't know if there are plans to publish it. I obtained it from someone that I know who was in touch with both the kanna'im who engineered the ban on my books, as well as being in touch with some of the Gedolim who signed on the ban. I don't know exactly who put this manuscript together; I suspect it was a joint effort of the kanna'im. It is a collection of sources to oppose my books, similar to Chaim B'Emunasam. But it also includes the following:

שאלנו בע"פ לכמה גדולים שליט"א בנוכחות מו"ר ר יוסף יגן שליט"א מה דעתם בקשר למקור הידיעות במדע ובטבע שבחז"ל. וכך תשובתם:

(הכל רוח הקודש (הגאון הרב מיכאל יהודה לפקוביץ שליט"א

הכל רוח הקודש ( הגאון הרב חיים קנייבסקי שליט"א

הכל רוח הקודש, ואם משהוא נראה אחרת יכול להיות שהשתנו הטבעים (הגאון הרב חיים גריינמן שליט"א

הכל אמת, אפילו דברי רפואה ומדע (הרב הגאון זונדל קרוזר שליט"א, מחבר פירוש אור החמה על הש"ס

כל מה שאמרו בתלמוד זה (ע' למשל סנהדרין מח על פודגרא) 1. סוד ה' ליראיו 2. גמירא גמירי (קבל מרבותיו) 3. חקירה עצמית. בשלושת האפשריות לא יכולים לטעות, ואם רק, רק הוא מכם (הגאון הרב דב לנדו שליט"א) והוא הוסיף שכך משמע מהגר"א על יו"ד.

כמובן לא נעלם מאתנו מקורות אחרי שמשתמע אחרת, ובחלקם הגדול פלפלנו בדבריהם באריכות, והצלחנו בס"ד להוכיח שאין הכרח שזוהי מסקנתם, ובמקום שנראה מפורש אחררת הארכנו והבאינו דברי המאירי בהקדמתו למסכת אבות, ע"ש ותנוח דעתך. כ"ז נמצא מלוקט אצלינו בקונטרוס בפני עצמו. וכידוע שהלכה נפסקת כהרוב מול המיעוט, כמו שכתוב אחרי רבים להטות, וכמקובל בכל הדורות כולם שהלכה למעשה היא כהרבים.

There is also a long letter from Rav Scheinberg in which he says the same thing. He adds that, with regard to the ma'amar of Rabbeinu Avraham b. HaRambam, "since such things are not in accordance with our tradition, one may not believe that he said them."

Frankly, I'm a little amazed that anyone is challenging the fact that this is what the Gedolim believe. It's a pretty standard belief in the Charedi world, and one can find numerous statements to that effect from Rabbanim of the last few centuries. In fact most Charedim even believe this with regard to Rishonim, and even Acharonim - kal v'chomer with regard to Chazal! My monograph on Sod Hashem Liyreyav shows how this belief evolved, culminating in the following statement from the Leshem (Rav Elyashiv's grandfather) which expresses the normative Charedi view:

The main thing is: everyone who is called a Jew is obligated to believe with complete faith that everything found in the words of the Sages, whether in halachos or aggados of the Talmud or in the Midrashim, are all the words of the Living God, for everything which they said is with the spirit of God which spoke within them, and “the secret of God is given to those who fear Him.” This is just as we find in Sanhedrin 48b that even regarding something which has no application to Halacha and practical behavior, the Talmud asks regarding [the Sage] Rav Nachman, “How did he know this?” and the reply given is [that he knew this because] “The secret from God is given to those who fear him….” (Leshem Shevo Ve-achlama, Sefer HaDe’ah, Sec. II, Derush 4, Anaf  19, Siman 7 p. 161)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chalk Up Two More

I recently discovered two more Rishonim to chalk up to the list of the alleged "minority view" that Chazal were not infallible in their statements about the natural world - a list now numbering around fifty Rishonim and Acharonim. Both relate to the topic of Chazal's statements about astronomy.

First is R. Todrus ben Yosef Abulafia (Spain, ca.1225 - ca.1285) - not to be confused with his cousin Todrus b. Yehudah Abulafia (and if we were to judge people by their relatives, then Yitzchak Avinu and Yaakov Avinu would be in serious trouble!). He was an important rabbi in Castille, and he was also a kabbalist. In arguing how the esoteric knowledge of sod ha-ibbur could not refer to astronomy, he points out that gentile scholars were more accomplished in this field than the Sages of Israel, as evinced by their triumphing over the Sages with regard to the dispute in Pesachim 94b regarding the spheres and constellations (Sefer HaKavod to Kesuvos 111a). In a particularly sharp comment, R. Abulafia adds that “anyone who has tasted even a little knowledge knows that there is not a fool in the world [today] who believes that the sphere is stationary."

Second is a better known figure - Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher. In his commentary to Bereishis 1:14, he also notes that the Sages of Israel had to concede to the gentile scholars regarding the stars being fixed in the spheres. Significantly, he adds that the passuk itself supports the view of the gentiles - in other words, he believes that Chazal were not previously able to deduce the correct understanding from the passuk.

It's abundantly clear to me that the Gedolim who rate it as heretical to believe that Chazal had any mistaken beliefs about the natural world, are entirely unaware of how many Rishonim and Acharonim subscribed to this view.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hyrax Redux

Here's an extraordinary story from a friend of mine, who was attending the Discovery seminar in Jerusalem a while ago, and was surprised to hear the lecturer telling over the animal argument.

"He finishes his presentation of the 4-animals proof and he concludes this is rock-solid proof that God gave the Torah. He doesn't mention any of the glaring problems with the theory and he doesn't mention your book [The Camel, the Hare and Hyrax.]

When I asked him to address some of the issues raised in your book he simply dismissed my question by saying there are zoological (i.e. factual) problems with the claims in your book. I asked for an example and he said he couldn't think of one on the spot but that he would email them to me later. [He never did even though I emailed him repeatedly asking for them.] Then I said to him: It sounds to me, from the way you are characterizing Slifkin's book, that you never actually read it. Did you?

Unbelievably, he says no. I said to him, in front of the whole class: Your whole job in life is to prove the Torah is divine using the 4 animals proof. Rabbi Slifkin writes a book that shows the proof is faulty and you don't even bother to read the book?! Forget about your lack of intellectual honesty, where is your curiosity?

Later, a senior Discovery person told me that they had an in-house Aish seminar for Discovery lecturers and they decided that Slifkin's book was problematic."

Needless to say, Discovery has never published any kind of rejoinder to my book, nor have they ever published any comprehensive study of the topic and explanation of how it works as an argument. Unless you count the two-page discussion in "Eye of a Needle," which, as I showed in my book, is rife with errors and distortions from beginning to end. I challenge them to find a single zoological or other factual error in my book, let alone one that undermines its conclusions!

I want to conclude by noting that one should not extrapolate from some Aish educators to others. I have been contacted by other Aish educators who congratulated me on my work and promptly stopped using the animal argument. Yasher koach to them!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax

The pesukim about the camel, the hare and the hyrax, which appear in this week's parashah, have been used by many to argue for the Divine authorship of the Torah, based on the claim that these are the only animals with one kosher sign; while others use it to argue against the Divine authorship of the Torah, claiming that these verses contain biological errors. My book on this topic, The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, is long out of print. I am too busy with fundraising for other projects, and so I have no plans to work on republishing that book; I may e-publish it in Kindle format or suchlike. But meanwhile, I will post the summary, from the final chapter.


1. The Torah lists four animals that possess only one kosher sign.

2. The Talmud, following its own principles of drawing additional meaning from words in the Torah, infers that the Torah’s list is exhaustive.

3. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that this topic argues for the Divine origins of the Torah, but the meaning of this is disputed:

Approach A: The simple reading of Rashi is that the argument refers to Moshe being familiar with the physiology of the four animals in the list.

Approach B: Alternately, one can argue that it refers to Moshe knowing all the local animals that possess one kosher sign.

Approach C: Tosafos explains that it refers to Moshe knowing about an animal called the shesuah, but this is a difficult explanation, as the simple reading of the verse does not indicate that the shesuah is a type of animal.

Approach D: Beginning in the eighteenth century, it was claimed that the Talmud’s argument refers to the Torah saying that there are no other such animals in the entire world. This argument rests upon (a) the boldness of the claim and (b) the veracity of it (as per point 2 above).

4. Making an argument from the boldness of the claim is fundamentally flawed, as there is no claim in the Torah that there are only four animals in the world possessing one kosher sign. Simply speaking, they are presented merely as examples from the region of the Land of Israel that were a particular dietary risk for the Jewish People. The idea that the list is specified as being exhaustive would only be accepted by someone with an a priori belief in the divine origins of the Talmud.

5. The lamoids and peccaries from South America also possess only one kosher sign. To posit that they are of the same min as camels and pigs (respectively) can only be done with a novel definition of min that grants a high degree of unspecified flexibility in categorizing new species under the Torah’s preexisting range of types. Accordingly, making an argument out of the exclusivity of the list is greatly weakened.

6. There is overwhelming evidence (discussed in chapters six and seven) that the shafan and arneves are the hyrax and the hare, and there are no alternative candidates. Positing the existence of extinct and unknown species is not viable in this case, for reasons explained at length in chapter four.

7. According to all evidence, the hare does not bring up the cud. To resolve this problem, we must say that the term ma’aleh gerah is an idiom that refers to such phenomena as ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy, and perhaps to invoke the concept that "the Torah speaks as in the language of men." These approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

8. There are conflicting reports as to whether the hyrax regurgitates its food. Based on my own extensive observations of hyraxes, I believe that they do sometimes regurgitate small amounts. It is likely that the hyrax practices merycism, which can be defined as ma’aleh gerah without too much difficulty. If it does not practice merycism, then it can only be defined as ma’aleh gerah on the basis of its complex gut or manner of chewing, and perhaps requiring us to invoke the concept that “the Torah speaks as in the language of men.” As with the hare, these approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

9. Since we are forced to define characteristics such as merycism, ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy as ma’aleh gerah, then there are still further types of animals that possess only one kosher sign, even with our novel flexible definition of min.

10. These further examples of animals with one kosher sign raise a problem with the Talmud, which apparently claims that the Torah’s list is exhaustive. However, there are two approaches which explain the Talmud in a way that avoids this problem:

• The Talmud is only making a statement about the exclusivity of the camel (due to it being the only ma’aleh gerah animal that is domesticated, or that lacks upper teeth, or that is a true ruminant); but the hare and hyrax may indeed share their characteristics with other animals. This only leaves the problem of the lamoids, which can perhaps be rated as a type of camel, albeit with some difficulty.

• The Talmud is only giving a rule for the general region surrounding the Land of Israel, but there may indeed be other such animals in remote regions of the world.

(Note to my website readers: If you are interested in sponsoring the republication of this or any of my other books, please be in touch!)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Of Potatoes and Olives

The OU Guide to Pesach 2011 is here, and already people are complaining that it lists potatoes as kitniyos. In fact it does no such thing; in the article, on page 17, it specifically says that the traits of kitniyos "are not absolute, and certain exceptions are made, prohibiting items that do not share these characteristics, and permitting others even though they fall under these categories... it is customary to use potatoes and cottonseed oils (except in Jerusalem) despite the fact that they are ground into flour." But it is somewhat confusing and misleading that in the chart on the bottom of the page, it lists potatoes as a category of kitniyos.

I was more bothered by the article on shiurim on pages 12-14, which gave several different halachic opinions on the size of a kezayis, but gave the minimum as being 26 cubic centimeters. It's a pity that it didn't acknowledge the minimum as being 4-6 cubic centimeters, which, as acknowledged by many Poskim, and has no arguments against it that I know of, is actually the size of a zayis. If you haven't yet read my essay on the evolution of the kezayis, I can tell you that it's by far the most popular essay that I have ever written! If you have read it, please pass it around, it's free. You can download it here.

If anyone has the book with pictures of a kezayis of different foods, can they tell me if it has a picture of olives - and if so, how many olives it shows as being the size of an olive?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Purim Highlights

I hope that you all had a great Purim! Mine was terrific. I was very impressed at the creativity of some costumes that I saw. One yeshivah guy who came collecting was dressed as the famous chassidic legend "Chayah Suri," although he didn't have a schvimgleide. I had two friends from the Mir come to my seudah, one dressed as a Hellenist (complete with myrtle-wreath-hat and toga), and the other as an interfaith minister, complete with a genuine certificate of ordination! Personally, I shaved my beard, put on a wig and beret, and wore very elegant frilly clothing for my costume as a famous rabbinic figure - Ramchal.

One reader sent me the following pictures of his Rambam costume. He really looks authentic! Note the books that he is holding. If any readers have good pictures to send in, I'll add them to this post.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Junior goes to a Charedi-Leumi gan, where the truly wonderful ganenet (she teaches Midrashim to the kids, but stresses that they are not peshat!) is an Israeli Sephardi. Today, she gave out a red thread to each parent, along with a page of segulos, with an earnest description of how these are invaluable segulos for our child's chinnuch. I present the page to you; be sure to read the second part.

Words fail me.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reckoning with Rabbeinu Tam

(A technical follow-up to earlier material. Skip it if you want to!)

On a number of occasions, particularly in my monograph "The Sun's Path at Night," I referred to Rabbeinu Tam's endorsement of the view of the Chachmei Yisrael that the sun, upon setting, changes direction to travel horizontally through the firmament, whereupon it changes direction again, traveling up and behind the sky. Since this is clearly incorrect, some people wanted to know if this means that following Rabbeinu Tam's view - with its ramifications regarding the time of the departure of Shabbos - has no basis.

There are some authorities who make this argument, such as Maharam Alashkar. And Prof. Shlomo Sternberg argues that Rabbeinu Tam was only offering a hypothetical explanation and that his view was never followed lehalachah until a few centuries ago (see his fascinating article here - 33 meg PDF).

On the other hand, a number of Rishonim and Acharonim adopted Rabbeinu Tam’s view regarding two stages of sunset, and many of them explicitly noted that this did not mean that they believed the Sages of Israel to have been correct regarding the sun’s path at night. See, for example, R. David ben Shlomo ibn Zimra, She’eilos U’Teshuvos Radbaz, Part IV, #282; R. Hezekiah da Silva, Kuntrus Binah Ve’Da’as (also known as Kuntrus D’vei Shamsha), pp. 5b-6a; and R. Avraham Cohen Pimentel, Minchas Kohen, Sefer Mevo HaShemesh 1:10.

But if they disagree with Rabbeinu Tam's cosmological model, why are they following his view? Some, such as R. Pimentel, give no explanation. Others say that the observations of stars behind Rabbeinu Tam's view are still valid, even if the conceptual astronomical framework was incorrect, and therefore his view is still correct. (See R. Gil Student's useful summary here.)

One may therefore wonder why I said recently that Ramban adopts Rabbeinu Tam's mistaken cosmology. A few people argued that he was just adopting Rabbeinu Tam's halachah, based on his observations, not the astronomical model. But a careful reading of Ramban shows that he actually speaks about the sun traveling through and behind the firmament -
כלומר משעה שנשקעה ברקיע והיא עדיין כנגד חלונה, ולפי שלא עברה חלונה ועדיין אינה מהלכת אחורי כיפה פני הרקיע מאדימין כנגד מקומה של חמה
In light of these words, it's difficult to argue that Ramban rejected this cosmological model, without his mentioning anything about that.

Nevertheless, I still have two remaining questions. First is that R. Nissim of Gerona also follows Rabbeinu Tam and likewise refers to the sun passing behind the firmament:
 חדושי הר"ן על שבת דף לד ע/ב
 ותירץ ר"ת ז"ל דשתי שקיעות הן משתשקע החמה דשמעתין היינו מסוף שקיעת החמה כלומר משעה שנשקעה ברקיע והיא עדיין כנגד חלונה ולפי שלא עברה חלונה ועדיין אינה מהלכת אחורי כיפה פני רקיע מאדימין כנגד מקומה ומשקיעת החמה דתניא בפסחים היינו מתחילת שקיעה שהתחילה ליכנס ברקיע,
Now, I can just about accept that Ramban had not accepted the Ptolemaic cosmology, since his education was Tosafist-style. But  RaN received a Spanish education, and moreover was an astronomer - which surely means that he accepted the Ptolemaic cosmology. So how could he have believed that the sun passes behind the firmament at night - or is there something else going on in his endorsement of Rabbeinu Tam's view?

My second question is with regard to R. Eliezer of Metz (who, incidentally, was a disciple of Rabbeinu Tam). His ruling regarding mayim shelanu is explicitly based on the premise that the Chachmei Yisrael were mistaken about the sun passing through and behind the firmament at night. But in his ruling regarding the time of bein hashmashos, he explicitly bases it upon that very mistaken cosmological worldview! What accounts for this seeming contradiction?

If anyone can suggest answers to either of these questions, I'd be indebted.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Jews and Palestinians

In the wake of the horrific murders at Itamar, many people are pointing to it as illustrative of the sick nature of Palestinian terrorists. Others claim that Jews can be just as bad, as demonstrated in the genocial mitzvos of the Torah and Baruch Goldstein. To my surprise, even a commentator on this website, Todd, argued that we are no better than Muslims, probably worse, and that it's only the lack of opportunity that keeps our fanatics at bay (see his comments here and here).

Now, clearly there are moral questions raised by some mitzvos in the Torah. I can think of ways of resolving them, but I'm not sure that it's relevant here. I really can't see that it's relevant to compare accepted norms of today with an unclear situation of three thousand years ago. The point is to compare Jews of today with Palestinians of today.

There's no doubt that Jews can sometimes do terrible things. There are plenty of extremely violent lunatics in my own neighborhood, who act in the name of Torah, and there are even some Jewish terrorists. Conversely, there are many, many fine Palestinians who are appalled at the Itamar murders. And this is even though the Palestinians have the lower hand in the overall conflict.

Nevertheless, I think that it's abundantly clear that, as a general truth, the Palestinian culture is one of violence and death, and Israeli culture is one of peace and life. As a Hamas MP infamously said, "We desire death like you desire life!” In Judaism, warfare is only ever a regrettable but necessary means to an end, never something in which we revel.

Some people will point to counter-examples. But a few counter-examples do not disprove a trend. Terrorism by Jews is an aberration that is widely condemned, whereas terrorism by Palestinians is a norm that is widely acclaimed. Baruch Goldstein was roundly condemned in Israeli circles, and even those who consider him a hero, do so because they believe he was trying to avert an immediate greater catastrophe, or that his mind snapped as a result of the trauma that he saw. Contrast that to various Palestinian terrorists, who are widely acclaimed as heroes and have streets named in their honor. In Gaza, they celebrated the Itamar massacre, while an editorial in a Palestinian newspaper claimed that the "real murderers in Itamar are the zealous settlers and anyone who burned a tree, vandalized the cemetery in Awarta, forced out the residents of Khirbet Yanun, took control of a plot of land or robbed an olive harvest."

I will never forget the video of hundreds of Palestinians cheering on the lynching of two soldiers who accidentally entered Ramallah. Such a scene would be inconceivable with Jews. There were SS guards who were lynched by concentration camp survivors, but aside from the vastly different nature of that situation, such lynches were rare events with little support - and no Jews gleefully bathed their hands in the blood, as the Palestinians did. Contrary to Todd's claim, it's not Jews who are restrained by lack of opportunity, it's Palestinians.

So many alleged similarities between Israelis and Palestinians are facile. It is popularly argued that plenty of Palestinian children have been killed by the IDF - but plenty of German children were killed by Allied forces. There is a world of difference between inevitable civilian deaths in a war, and the deliberate targeting and hands-on murder of children, rachamana liztlan. And the idea that the side inflicting more casualties is in the wrong is especially bizarre - does anyone apply that reasoning to WWII?

Todd argues that Jews have a tendency to make fine distinctions with their own, and to paint their opponents with a broad brush. I have no doubt that that is often the case. But I think that even a careful analysis will reveal a vast cultural difference. Cultures are not all the same. British culture is different from American culture, and even more different from African culture. And Israeli/Jewish culture is very, very different from Palestinian culture.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rav Schechter's Error

The post "When The Gedolim Came To Teaneck" generated this thoughtful comment by someone called Alex, with regard to the video of Rav Aharon Schechter's diatribe:

I was put off by the method of delivery, an over-the-top fairly angry rant, but I didn't take offense at the message, which I think had a clear point -- that one ought to know Shas a little better, and worry more about what one is clearly chiav al pi Torah to know and to do. I tend to gravitate more to my Slifkin books rather than study of Shas, so I don't mind the chizzuk in that area.

I greatly admire Alex for his ability to look past those parts of the presentation that offended him, and to find useful messages to take from it. But Alex is very much the exception. Most people are simply going to find it offensive, and reflecting very poorly upon Rav Schechter - and with good reason.

To be sure, the most important part of Judaism is to observe halachah. And there are more basic parts of Torah to learn than maaseh Bereishis.

Yet the fact remains that there are many sincere frum Jews who are bothered by conflicts between Torah and science. Now, I can appreciate that certain topics, such as the Deluge, bother relatively few people, and the answers require pushing the boundaries of faith to their very limits, and it is therefore not worth opening that can of worms in public. But questions regarding the age of the universe and evolution are extremely basic and are of great concern to countless thousands of people, and there have long been approaches proposed by authorities with impeccable credentials.

Screaming at people with these questions that they shouldn't think about such things is not going to be very helpful. In fact, it is likely to cause great harm. As Faranak Margolese writes in "Off The Derech":

Despite the history and importance of debate, we seem to have a hard time with questions today. Sometimes we do not accept them at all. At other times, we accept them only if they are “within the system,” as long as they don’t challenge the fundamentals of Torah. Students repeatedly express frustration and sometimes bitterness about this reality, and some go off the derech (the path of observance) because of it. (Faranak Margolese, Off The Derech, p. 234)

If a more choshuve source is required, then we have Rabbi Chaim Friedlander ztz"l from Ponovezh:

We are frequently faced with a dilemma in these topics: Is it worthwhile to enter into discussing them, and to know and understand what it is possible to understand and what it is not possible to understand, or to leave it all as a matter of simple faith? But on the other hand, it is likely that a person will raise the question and not know how to answer it, so it is appropriate to raise the question and the answer—especially in our generation, where there are many that are confused and have erred in their path. (Sifsei Chaim, Emunah VeHashgachah vol. I, p. 337)

Not many people are going to stop worrying about these questions just because Rav Aharon Schecter said so. Rebuffing people for their questions has the effect of making them feel invalidated, lacking confidence in Judaism, and resentful towards the rabbinic establishment.

Rav Schechter's diatribe is especially ironic because I know of people in his very own yeshivah, Chaim Berlin, who have been immensely bothered by these issues and never dared raise their concerns with him. And who can blame them? Instead, these people have turned to my books, which have been helpful to them. And thus Rav Schechter has no idea that even within the pure environment of his own yeshivah, there are people who desperately need guidance with these topics. On a personal level, I find it immensely frustrating that he is publicly slamming me for dealing with these issues, when his own talmidim are turning to me rather than him for help!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thank God I'm Not A Moslem

In the news this week:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists. (Scientist Imam threatened over Darwinist views)

Whew! I never had to deal with anything like that! True, Rav Moshe Shapiro's star talmid Reuven Schmeltzer did write that people who believe that Chazal wrote incorrect statements about the natural world should be put to death by any means possible, but I don't think that anyone is likely to take him seriously. Thank God I'm not a Moslem!

Also, check out this discussion on a British Moslem forum (this is the Google cached version, as the original has a virus). Now I know what it must be like for non-Jews who come across

(Thanks to everyone who sent this in.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Where You Least Expect To Find It

Last week, I posted about my surprise in discovering that Ramban subscribed to the ancient belief in the sun passing behind the sky at night. But I also made a surprising discovery in the other direction.

R. Eliezer Lipmann Neusatz of Magendorf was one of the leading disciples of Chasam Sofer, who referred to him as his “son, pupil and bracelet” in his 1839 approbation to his book Betzir Eli’ezer. Kesav Sofer called him "the one of a kind and unique" of Chasam Sofer's talmidim. That should firmly establish his Orthodox credentials!

But sounding just like Rambam, R. Neusatz observes that the Sages were mistaken in their belief about the sun’s path at night, and that they accepted the opinion of the gentiles, just as “one accepts the truth from whoever says it.” It should be noted that another of Chasam Sofer's disciples, Maharam Schick, also accepted that Chazal were mistaken in this regard. But R. Neusatz also notes that this was not the only instance of their making statements about the universe which are now known to be incorrect, and explains that the Sages were simply putting forward their own beliefs, which they occasionally attached to Scriptural verses by way of asmachta. And even more interestingly, he says that there are pesukim in the Torah that are scientifically inaccurate, but "the Torah spoke as in the language of men" - an approach which was also developed by Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook in this context, but which I was not expecting to see proposed by a disciple of Chasam Sofer. This is a theme that Dr. Marc Shapiro has been discussing in a recent series of fascinating posts at the Seforim blog (see the latest installment here), and he informed me that he is also planning to discuss R. Neusatz.

All this is in Mei Menuchos (Pressburg 1884), pp. 36a-39a. You can see the sefer online at

Monday, March 7, 2011

When The Gedolim Visited Teaneck

A few years ago, some of the charedi Gedolim visited Teaneck. According to my sources, the background was that a certain Rabbi G., who was related to one of the Gedolim and a close talmid of one of my prominent opponents in Israel, was very upset about how the controversial ban over my books had brought ridicule upon the Gedolim. He therefore decided to arrange this event, in which the Gedolim would address the Modern Orthodox and answer some (carefully pre-screened) questions, in order to restore honor to the Gedolim.

Many people, including myself, found it patronizing and offensive. The tone of the event was one of outreach, of the great Charedi gedolim deigning to visit the poor Modern Orthodox, who should give them adulation. Yet these rabbonim are people who disdain everything that Teaneck stands for. In a personal conversation with one of these Gedolim many years ago, he had some extremely harsh criticisms for Teaneck. I can understand the idea of building bridges between communities, but not in such a one-sided manner; it wasn't even as though they were speaking on a joint panel with rabbis from Centrist and Modern Orthodox communities.

In an extraordinary confirmation of this understanding of them, Rav Schechter used the podium for an angry rant against people such as myself who seek to reconcile Bereishis with science:

Many people found the event extremely offensive, and were disappointed in the Modern/ Centrist Orthodox shuls that supported the event. But an interesting flyer appeared on the internet, announcing a corresponding event:

Of course, this was a satire (and consider it in light of yesterday's post on the pros and cons of satire). Some misinterpreted it as a mockery of these RIETS rabbanim, who would never be invited to Lakewood. But this was not the intent. The intent was to highlight the offensiveness of how the Charedi gedolim were being honored with an invitation to a Modern Orthodox community, and yet the invitation would never be reciprocated. I know what the intent was, because I was the one who made it.

By the way, one of the RIETS roshei yeshivah featured in this flyer told me that he thought it was hilarious!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Healthy Humor or Inappropriate Mockery?

During the eighteen months or so surrounding the controversial ban over three of my books, an enormous amount of satire appeared. But is such humor always, sometimes, or even ever appropriate? This is a question that needs to be considered by people engaging in any sort of Adar humor. I can think of arguments in both directions.

1. Laughing is a healthy way to relieve tension.

Many people were immensely stressed by the ban on my books, which placed them in a religious crisis. Being able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation helped them; it is a medical fact that humor relieves stress in several ways. On a personal note, I will add that I myself was under immense psychological and emotional strain; nobody can imagine what it was like (with the possible exception of Rabbi Nosson Kamenetzky). I can look back on that episode now with a wry smile, but for 18 months I was a complete wreck. But at the time, being able to laugh at some of the satire that was generated certainly helped me get through it.

2. Humor is often a way to make powerful points.

From Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart, people have used satire as a very effective way to make a point.

3. The targets of the jokes often deserve to be laughed at.

Rabbis have a responsibility to act and speak in a responsible, intelligent way that does not show Torah Judaism in a poor light. If someone uses their podium at a major conference to say that "these same scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened sixty-five million years ago – ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two weeks' time!" perhaps they deserve to be satirized. If a rabbi writes a public letter that includes false and defamatory personal slurs against his ideological opponents, maybe he deserves to be mocked, and such mockery will dissuade others from engaging in similar behavior.

4. What's the big deal? It's just harmless fun.

This is a common argument, but there are usually more consequences than the person realizes.

These are the arguments in favor of satire. But on the other hand...

1. Satire is rarely entertaining for the target.

Ona'as devarim, the sin of hurting someone's feelings, is a very serious matter.

2. Poking fun at figures in authority, even if they deserve it, harms the very concept of authority in general.

The mockery of former President George W. Bush by his ideological opponents had the unintended effect of lowering the status of the presidency of the United States - with negative consequences for President Barak Obama. Mocking rabbinic leaders can harm the very concept of rabbinic authority.

3. Humor can sometimes be a way to avoid having reasoned arguments.

I once attended a yeshivah where the Rosh Yeshivah would endlessly use sarcasm to mock positions that he disagreed with, to great effectiveness. But this concealed the fact that he really didn't have any cogent , defensible arguments against those positions.

4. Mocking others is often a crude and unhealthy way to boost one's ego.

The justifications for satire that I listed above are often just a smokescreen of rationalizations. The person issuing the satire is often motivated by a desire to have others laugh at his cleverness, and thereby feel respected or appreciated. He convinced himself that he is pursuing a noble social or intellectual goal, but in reality he is just filling his own emotional needs in a very unhealthy way - building himself up by putting others down. The same can be true for those entertaining themselves with the satire issued by others.

5. The facelessness and often anonymity of the internet prevents a person from properly evaluating the consequences of their actions.

If nobody knows how you are, it's easy to shed that which would ordinarily restrain you. And even if you're not anonymous, the impersonal nature of online communications often means that one does not properly evaluate the consequences of what one writes.

6. Engaging in sustained mockery is a way to avoid being constructive.

It's all too easy to criticize and mock other people and their ideas. It's much more difficult to construct one's own ideology and successfully develop it and transmit it. Sustained mockery of others, put forward as "constructive criticism," can be a way of blinding oneself to the fact that one is not actually interested in being constructive oneself.

I plan to post some examples of different humor, for entertainment and evaluation!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Just When You Think That You Know Somebody

I had a big shock yesterday.

Readers will hopefully be familiar with the basic story described in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night. Many of Chazal subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology in which the universe is a dome, and when the sun sets at night, it does not continue to orbit the far side of the earth; rather, it changes direction, passes through the firmament, and circles up and behind the sky. This model was challenged by the Greek Ptolemaic model, in which the earth is a sphere, and the sun orbits the earth in a circular path. R. Yehudah HaNasi acknowledged that the Greek model appeared correct.

Virtually all the Rishonim accepted R. Yehudah HaNasi's acceptance. The sole exception that I knew of was Rabbeinu Tam, who states that R. Yehudah HaNasi only conceded that the gentiles had better arguments, but insisted that the truth lay with Chazal and the sun really does travel up behind the sky at night. It was remarkable that Rabbeinu Tam, living in the twelfth century, had still not accepted the Ptolemaic model, but it is well-known that the Tosafists of Ashkenaz had virtually no exposure to the Greco-Muslim science that was widespread elsewhere.

But yesterday I discovered another Rishon who sides with Rabbeinu Tam. And it was just about the last Rishon that I would have expected to take such a view. Ramban! In Toras Ha-Adam, he argues for the correctness of Rabbeinu Tam's view that the sun travels through the firmament and then up behind it.

Ramban?! This was most unexpected. Despite his being a prominent mystic, Ramban had a clear rationalist bent; he was no Arizal or Leshem. Ramban was a physician. He was very familiar with philosophy. He argues that the Greeks proved rainbows to be a natural phenomenon, and hence we must reject the (traditional) interpretation of the Torah that rainbows were created after the deluge. He presents Greek understandings of physiology as an alternate way to explaining Isha Ki Tazria from that of Chazal. So Ramban would presumably not have been unwilling to accept R. Yehudah HaNasi's acknowledgment that Chazal having had an incorrect belief; could he really have been unaware that the belief in the sun passing behind the sky at night had long been firmly discredited?

Apparently so. I found an article by Y. Tzvi Langermann in which he notes that Ramban's formative education was under the Tosafists, and he had no training in the sciences. It seems that while he later picked up some scattered knowledge of Greek science, he was not thoroughly schooled in it. And apparently he was insufficiently aware, or insufficiently convinced, of the very basics of Greco-Muslim astronomy.

Just when you think that you know somebody! Next week (amidst some posts that will be very different from the norm) I plan to describe how I came across another source from someone who I might have expected to insist that Scriptural and Talmudic statements about astronomy are correct, but who turned out to be surprisingly rationalistic in this area. Historical context is sometimes more complicated than it first appears.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Invention of a Gemara

Recently, a chassidishe tzedakah-collector came to my door, collecting for a young man getting married. I asked him what the young man does, and the meshulach looked a little surprised at my question; the young man is in yeshivah, of course, a fine ben Torah. So I asked how he can possibly spend all his time in yeshivah, when he cannot afford to get married and has to send people to collect money for him? Does it not say in the kesubah that the husband has an obligation to support his wife? Is it not his duty to at least attempt to earn some money himself?

The collector was taken aback at my audacity, or at my novel suggestion, I'm not sure which. But he sagely told me that the Gemara says that if a person devotes himself to learning Torah, it is the obligation of the community to support him.

"Really?" I said. "I have a Shas right here. Can you show me where the Gemara says that?"

He started to splutter that he didn't remember exactly which Daf it was on.

"There's no such Gemara!" I said. I really don't know if he was aware that he was entirely fabricating a Gemara or not. But I find it amazing that people are so entirely out of touch with what Chazal really said about this sort of thing, and with what Jews traditionally did, until just a few decades ago.

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The  nesher , king of...