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!

33 comments:

  1. How do you expect him to read a book banned by his rabbis? Or better yet, one which is out of print and goes for exhorbitant prices on amazon?

    :-(

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  2. Oy, Discovery. This is certainly not the only proof they present that can be verified as false.
    I think that you're also overlooking a third type of presenter. One who knows that what he is presenting is false, but believes it's best to draw in as many people as possible, who will work out the details for themselves once they're frum.
    I'm not sure how much time though Discovery has left, as more and more people can check these claims via wikipedia and other sites in real time on their smart-phones.

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  3. "Telling over"??? You are not in a Yeshiva any more.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  4. The lack of intellectual honesty and the outright deception that goes on at these seminars galls me as well, but to uninformed reader of this blog, this could be seen as an attack on the Divine origin of the Torah. Since R' Natan is by now too tired to repeat disclaimers, I'll do it for him: We frum rationalists also believe that Hashem created the world, miraculously freed our ancestors from slavery, and gave us a Toras Chaim, which we live by and will die for. However, we do not think these things can be be easily proven the way the Aish lecturers glibly assert. I realize I do not speak for everybody here, but I believe this is Rationalist (Orthodox!) Judaism.

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  5. I have a more profound philosophical problem with the entire idea behind the Discovery Seminars:

    If you accept that the Torah is amenable to empirical proof, you automatically accept that it is amenable to empirical disproof. Wouldn't that make someone a kofer? I can't see how the Discovery Seminar people can be considered Orthodox.

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  6. bunny, many people have the book in their home library. One merely need ask a variety of MO types to find someone who will lend it. As to reading banned material, that presents no problem if you have the objective of being able to counter it.

    The real issue is that some of the Aish presenters appear to have no interest in determining the truth of their assertions. After all, they get paid to make their presentations of alleged proofs of the torah's divinity.

    I became sensitized to this issue upon hearing Aish presentations on the alleged torah codes. The presentations were superficial and glossed over some real problems in methodology. In the end, I found their most detailed presentation in that Statistical Science article to be arbitrary and totally unconvincing.

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  7. I have a PhD in biostatistics and the Torah Codes is absolutely the most complex problem I've ever seen in my career. It would take me quite a bit of review to even be able to explain it.

    But I frankly don't understand why it would matter to a believer.

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  8. We have a big frum tent that accommodates Intellectuals, Non-Intellectuals, and Anti-Intellectuals (same breakdown as political Zionism). Generalizing, these groups respectively Read, Ignore, and Ban works like _Hyrax_.

    Though we should all sing zemiros together at each other's houses, it's pointless to argue an Intellectual point in a non-Intellectual presentation.

    Rabbi Slifkin, count me in as a likely e-book purchaser. Kindle works - smartphones have apps for it.

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  9. Prof. Hall, I'm a chemist rather than a statistician so I won't venture a comment on the statistical probability of finding related words in a concocted rectangular array (the basic torah codes scheme)- particularly when dealing with a highly ordered text. My main objection to the Witztum-Rips methodology is their rather peculiar and arbitrary means of assigning a measure of the "relative closeness" of pairs of related words in the Genesis text. Using their scheme, only words containing 5 to 8 letters are admissible. They then use this methodology (in their article in Statistical Science) to compare a paired listing of famous rabbis and their dates of birth/death vs. a million (or 10 million) permuted pairings. The correct pairing is then shown to be among the top ranked in "relative closeness". The more obvious questions are, then, why isn't the correct paired list the top scorer if the torah really intended to provide information about people and events in the distant future? More importantly, if one permutes a paired listing to arrive at some measure of the credibility of a code, why bother with the permutation of letter placement in the equidistant letter sequence (ELS) words (the names or acronyms of the rabbis)? The fact that the codes people have never published the results of such a simplified procedure despite the strong criticism of their methodology tells me that their scheme isn't robust. That is, it works only if done in a certain arbitrary way.

    The very notion of coded information in the torah on the details of people and events in the future runs into the theological problem of free will vs. predestination. While one could accept the notion that we can't understand the nature of divine knowledge. Spelling it out in coded form in the torah is another matter.

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  10. Charlie Hall: Why do you categorize the Torah Codes as a "problem"?

    If you agree that (at least part of) the uniqueness of the Torah Codes is statistically significant, then it is only a "problem" for non-believers. For believers it IS a valid confirmation that the Torah is not a normal document produced by human minds.

    And then it obviously DOES matter to all of mankind.

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  11. Again about Torah Codes, Charlie Hall writes that he doesn't understand why it would matter to a believer.

    We are commanded not just to "believe," but to "know" G-d to the best of our ability, and also to know how to reply to non-believers. If the Torah Codes are valid, they are very important in these regards -- aside from the Discovery goal of using Torah Codes as an aid to be mekarev Yidden to Yiddishkeit. Is none of this important to you?

    In addition, the commandment of Talmud Torah does not end at just reading TaNaCh, Talmud and Halachic works. The study of Torah Codes, Gematrias, Roshei Teivos, etc., are also integral parts of our obligation of Talmud Torah.

    All of this definitely should matter very much to a "believer."

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  12. I have a more profound philosophical problem with the entire idea behind the Discovery Seminars:

    If you accept that the Torah is amenable to empirical proof, you automatically accept that it is amenable to empirical disproof. Wouldn't that make someone a kofer? I can't see how the Discovery Seminar people can be considered Orthodox.


    Not really. Any system that that is not purely mathematical is going to have to be subject to empirical disproof: it is going to assert facts about the real world. The Torah asserts that various historical facts have occurred and many (perhaps not all, such as the ones interpreted by the Rambam to be dreams rather than actual events) are considered central to the faith. An example would be the Jews leaving Egypt via a miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf. By asserting that this is a central belief (an Ikkar, if you will), you are asserting that such an event really did happen and thus your system is subject to empirical disproof (if you could prove that it didn't happen that way).

    To bring another example, I think that it is central to the faith that the Jewish people will not be completely lost as a faith or nation (at least until certain events happen such as the coming of the Mashiach). If this ever happened, it would "disprove" the truth of the Torah. Thus, this is an assertion subject to empirical disproof.

    Which is why I think that people should be very circumspect about what they claim is a belief central to Judaism. As soon as you make the claim that it is central to Judaism that, say, the earth is less than 10,000 years old, you risk implying that the system you are supporting is false, if it turns out the facts are not as you believe.

    That said, the various proofs associated with Aish, such as the Torah Codes, are not very convincing to me.

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  13. The Discovery seminar may want to borrow the following disclaimer used by a popular illusionist/entertainer before his shows:

    "What you're about to see is a mixture of suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship".

    i.e. No science here, no facts, no proofs - just trying to persuade you guys to learn some Torah and start keeping Shabbos. Fair enough??

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  14. I actually just encountered this problem.
    Here in San Diego, CA we had a discovery seminar recently where the animal signs "proof" was given with the statement "if you ever found a single animal that had one kosher sign that is not one of these four, then the Torah is false and you can throw it away". I think this is outright dangerous to the audience of fry college students, two of which knew of some of the issues.
    I had to give an impromptu crash course in the issue (based mainly on your book) to a small group of the students who gathered around afterwards.
    I think it is a shame that Discovery would still use this as positive evidence when it is fact a challenge that needs to be addressed and understood. It makes their other arguments (some of which are, in my opinion, valid) seem to those who investigate this, suspect at best.

    I was also dismayed to find in our shul handout parashah summary this last Shabbos, the statement that the kosher signs are a "established proof of the Divine origin of the Torah".

    At what point does the value of truth outweigh the desire to have people be frum?
    Should one go around and tell everyone about the issues, taking the risk that some are just barely believers and will latch onto it as a tool to go OTD in belief?

    Or should one sit quiet?

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  15. "yasher koach" is a corruption of "yeyasher kochacha"

    just a friendly comment. :)

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  16. I also use the term "bald eagle," even though it's a corruption of "piebalde eagle."

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  17. At what point does the value of truth outweigh the desire to have people be frum?
    Should one go around and tell everyone about the issues, taking the risk that some are just barely believers and will latch onto it as a tool to go OTD in belief?

    Or should one sit quiet?
    =============================
    1)are there absolute priorities(i.e. make people frum by whatever means)?

    2)what are the tradeoffs (e.g. if i can use a method which will stick for 90% should i not use it because it wll turn off 10%)?

    3)do i have a responsibility to engage in high level analysis, or if it was a good enough claim for a rishon, should that suffice?

    4)going back to 2-what if i believe , as iiuc did r'ybs, that the only proof is "experiential", how(should) I convince a mass audience to return (other than making torah more beautiful to them-which isn't usually a quick hit or an easy entrance point)?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  18. One more comment on Charlie Hall - who theoretically should be intelligent enough - but nevertheless doesn't have enough common sense to understand why it would matter to a believer if the idea of Torah Codes is true or not.

    With his attitude, why should ANYTHING matter to a believer? Why should the scientific perspective matter? Why should "Rationalist Judaism" matter? Why should any question in a Tosfos or on a Tosfos matter? Just believe in G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah, have blind faith in the wildest, most miraculous tales, don't question anything, and chas v'sholom DON'T EVER use your mind.

    For a supposedly educated and advanced intellectual, your attitude represents one step backward for man, and one giant leap backward for mankind, all the way back to the dark ages.

    But good for you, keep on promoting the idea that as long as one is a "believer" he is doing fine. I'm sure you will find many unthinking, brainwashed people who concur with you.

    You are only one small step away from taking the next "logical" step, by proceeding to persecute anyone who dares to question and who dares to use his or her mind.

    Pathetic.

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  19. Discovery is about inducting people into clonehood, not about learning to think.

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  20. I think the people who are critical of Aish and their methods, need to understand the basic "Aish philosophy".

    It doesn't matter how or why you get them to be frum, just do it - QUICK. The potential problems will either never formulate, or will work themselves out with time.

    Truth is defined by a Jew keeping the Mitzvos. All other "Truth" is illusory. To be "Honest" with a person in a way which will inhibit their acceptance of the Torah, is the greatest possible manifestation of falsehood. To lie (or conceal a truth) in a way which brings one to Torah, is pure and perfect "emes".

    (It's this way of thinking which allows them to specifically place pretty women at booths publicizing Torah classes, shabbatons, and other Jewish events, so that men are drawn to see what it's about.)

    Although I can't say I totally agree with this mentality, there is definitely SOME truth to it. But like everything else in this world, precise moderation is essential.

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  21. רמב"ם הלכות תשובה פרק י
    הלכה א
    אל יאמר אדם הריני עושה מצות התורה ועוסק בחכמתה כדי שאקבל כל הברכות הכתובות בה או כדי שאזכה לחיי העולם הבא, ואפרוש מן העבירות שהזהירה תורה מהן כדי שאנצל מן הקללות הכתובות בתורה או כדי שלא אכרת מחיי העולם הבא, אין ראוי לעבוד את ה' על הדרך הזה, שהעובד על דרך זה הוא עובד מיראה ואינה מעלת הנביאים ולא מעלת החכמים, ואין עובדים ה' על דרך זה אלא עמי הארץ והנשים והקטנים שמחנכין אותן לעבוד מיראה עד שתרבה דעתן ויעבדו מאהבה.


    Perhaps a source for the Discovery/Aish approach?

    KT

    Joel Rich

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  22. "I have a more profound philosophical problem with the entire idea behind the Discovery Seminars:

    If you accept that the Torah is amenable to empirical proof, you automatically accept that it is amenable to empirical disproof. Wouldn't that make someone a kofer? I can't see how the Discovery Seminar people can be considered Orthodox."

    What about the Rishonim who belived in emunah through chakirah, or investigation? Are they not Orthodox?

    The real issue is how solid popular kiruv methadology is. I know little to evaluate it, but I sometimes wonder why the people involved do not engage the academia(or whatever would be the current equivalent of the haskala, eg, Daat Emet) directly, as there were indeed Gedolim in Europe who did so.

    In defense of popular kiruv methodology, they would argue that they are not in the business of "engaging" the haskalah, but simply trying to enable Jews who wish to discover their heritage, to have a rational or semi-rational basis for doing so. Also, there is no one single kiruv method, and I would imagine that some are better than others.

    (I recall R. Shteinman having been quoted as saying that the best kiruv is Mesechta Bava Kama; for those who think that there is a dearth of people who have openly engaged and destroyed the haskalah, perhaps Bava Kama may be the best bet. )

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  23. Yaacov,

    The tactics you are describing sound very much like a cult to me. As you describe it, Aish has no interest in truth. The main thing is to get people to join and stay. I find it to be quite disturbing.

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  24. Mo,

    I think that you are somewhat correct in your describing the method as "cult-like", but before you let it disturb you too much, remember that there is a VERY significant distinction that needs to be made between Aish and other 'groups' who think in this manner.

    What Aish believes and what the rest of Orthodox Judaism believes regarding the truth of the actual conclusion, are identical. The difference lies solely in the METHOD used to bring people to Judaism.

    You cannot compare cults - whose legitimacy itself is the problem, to Aish - whose METHOD of benefitting Jews in the greatest way possible, is arguably problematic.

    To see things better from their view, one should imagine his own child has R"L left the path, and can be brought back if some level of dishonesty is cleverly used.

    Sure there are folks out there who would say "If it ain't 100% truth - then his coming back isn't real, and is worthless, so don't bring him back that way", but I would guess that most people would say that if it's the only choice then it's better than nothing.

    So too, every Jew is G-d's child, and we must do WHATEVER it takes to save his or her life.

    Again, I'm not advocating it, I'm just saying understand them and where they're coming from, and you'll see they're not so bad after all.

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  25. imagine the following:

    I am a member of the Rechadi Sect.

    I believe our leaders our infallible and cannot be questioned

    I want people to shun their former lives, dress like us, follow our strict rules, look down on family members who are not Rechadi and try to convince family and friends to join us.

    To get people in I claim that Rechadi beliefs are provable, and use arguments that I myself don't believe in.

    What would you think of

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  26. The last sentence was cut off

    Should read:

    What would you think of this sect?

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  27. Mo - It depends on the nature and philosophy of the sect. If the nature of the sect was based on what I believed to be true and just principles then I would not necessarily be so concerned about the methods used to convince others to join.

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  28. Wow.

    To my mind a group that believes in infallible leaders, seeks to drive a wedge between people and their families and uses dishonest means to accomplish these goals, by definition cannot be true and just

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  29. "Wow.

    To my mind a group that believes in infallible leaders, seeks to drive a wedge between people and their families and uses dishonest means to accomplish these goals, by definition cannot be true and just"

    What you basically just wrote, is that parenting children is never true or just... interesting take on life!

    (Parents often have to explain to kids that what is appropriate with some family members is not with others etc etc.)

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  30. Amateur wrote:

    "What you basically just wrote, is that parenting children is never true or just... interesting take on life!"

    This is precisely the problem: Aish adopts a paternalistic attitude to grown people treating them like children. It is completely unjust to treat adults like we treat children.

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  31. What Kant wrote over two hundred years ago is just as true today:

    "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity."

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  32. Jenny writes:"I think that you're also overlooking a third type of presenter. One who knows that what he is presenting is false, but believes it's best to draw in as many people as possible, who will work out the details for themselves once they're frum."

    Jenny, are you going to name names, or are you just exaggerating what is merely a problem into a sinister problem?

    And Garnel, get real, please. Discovery is a lot more than the problematic codes. Remember, for instance, the 5 levels of pleasure? When I heard that discussion for the first time, the last thing I thought of was "this isn't about learning how to think."

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  33. "This is precisely the problem: Aish adopts a paternalistic attitude to grown people treating them like children. It is completely unjust to treat adults like we treat children."

    At what point does this injustice occur? It's not 18, because kids in college are still treated this way...
    Universities and even some governments, are extremely paternalistic.

    Treating adults like children is often required, (as doctors, and social workers are aught to do)

    If Aish consider's itself an education facility, I would assume it has a paternalistic role. Perhaps outside the classroom or 'school' environment they go overboard? I don't know... but education by its very nature is a pateral activity.

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