Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Maarava - Not Enough, Or Too Much?

Maarava Machon Rubin is a charedi yeshivah high school in Moshav Mattityahu. It was famously put in cherem by Rav Schach for teaching secular studies - although, according to some reports, Rav Schach himself was manipulated/pressured into this, and maintained that Maarava was a valuable bedi'eved solution for olim. Rumor even has it that Rabbi Baruch Chait, the musical legend and founder of Maarava, used to carry a gun as protection against harassment from kanna'im! In this post I would like to discuss two mistakes that relate to Maarava.

The first mistake is made by many of my nice-but-naive neighbors in Ramat Bet Shemesh who have made aliyah from the US. They think that because Maarava is a high-level academic institution that offers bagruyot (high school matriculation exams in secular studies), sending their children there means that they will end up in professional careers, just like in America. But in Israel, you can generally only go to college, and be employed "on the books," if you have served in the IDF. And Maarava is a charedi school; most students are not going to break with the hashkafah of their teachers and peers in order to go to Hesder. Furthermore, the new vocational training schools for adults are also going to be an unlikely option, since in Maarava there is increasing pressure from teachers and peers - which usually outweighs influence from the home - of standard Israeli charedi values: that long-term kollel is the "right" way, and working for a living is only for people who are failures. To end up in a professional career, you have to want to get one - it's not enough just to have bagriyot! As a result of all this, there has been a steady decline in the number of Maarava graduates who end up in professional careers, and today it is only a tiny fraction that do so.

The second mistake relating to Maarava will come as a tremendous shock to many. I just discovered that Rav Zev Leff shlita, who was the mashgiach of Maarava for many years, now tells people that Maarava itself is the wrong approach! And it is not for the reasons that I wouldn't send my children there. Rather, he now believes that the entire notion of teaching secular studies to teenagers is fundamentally wrong!

This was reported to me by someone who attended a talk that Rav Leff gave at a parlor meeting on behalf of a local yeshivah ketanah in Ramat Bet Shemesh. (There was an attempt to create a local charedi yeshivah high school, but the kanna'im managed to torpedo it.) According to my source, Rav Leff said that yeshivah high schools in America were a necessary concession in light of the assimilated culture of Orthodox American Jews. But in Israel, he said, no such concession is necessary, and the formative years of a person's life should be spent solely immersed in Torah.

Now I will not claim that there is a definitive, single authentic Jewish approach to secular studies. Throughout our history, there have been many different approaches. But it is certainly the case that there were schools of thought which valued secular studies as innately essential, not a less-than-ideal concession. The Rishonim of Sefarad saw secular studies as important areas of knowledge for every Jew to learn throughout his life (and it was not just something that they did "once they became great Rishonim"). So did Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and many later figures, who saw Torah im Derech Eretz as an ideal - contrary to recent revisionist attempts to cast it as a hora'as sha'ah. And even many figures at the other end of the spectrum, such as the Vilna Gaon and Chasam Sofer, considered studying the sciences to be important for understanding Torah, and engaged in such studies themselves - though in the case of Chasam Sofer, his studies of the arts and sciences during his teenage years has been expunged from popular charedi biographies. (Many more sources along these lines can be found in Yehudah Levi's Torah Study.)

Thus, there have been different schools of thought with regard to secular studies. There were those who valued them and incorporated them into their education, and there were those (such as the Rishonim of Ashkenaz) who did not. But the contemporary Israeli charedi system, where children go from Talmud Torah to yeshivah ketanah to yeshivah gedolah to kollel, is a complete innovation without any precedent in our mesorah. For although there were those in our history who did not value secular studies, they nevertheless always saw some sort of vocational training and employment as essential! They never abandoned Chazal's dictum that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade, they never abandoned the value that a person should strive to be self-sufficient, and they never had a system of mass kollel where entire societies would raise their children to have neither the education, skills nor desire to work for a living. Contemporary charedi society innovated all these, which has led to a severe economic crisis and many resultant societal problems.

For a long time, I have been critical of Maarava for not going far enough to instill Chazal's values. It was very disturbing to discover that one of its pivotal founding figures is critical of it for going too far!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Attack of the Nazi Midgets

One of the most bizarre stories I've ever heard of came to light via the research of Dr. Jan Bondeson, whose fascinating and scholarly books on unnatural history, medical oddities and premature burial have been exceedingly useful in my research. His latest book documents how the Nazis had a program for training dogs to be Nazis - in terms of their actually espousing Nazi ideology! The Nazis believed that dogs were intelligent enough to be trained to talk, and claimed that they had successfully trained one dog to refer to Hitler, yemach shemo, as "mein Fuhrer"! Other dogs allegedly expressed their dislike of the French, which has led some modern commentators to note that the program was not a complete waste of time.

This strange Nazi story reminded me of something amusing that happened back in 2005. Immediately following the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Gardens, a friend of mine told that Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, mashgiach ruchani of Lakewood, had condemned me in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people as being a "Nazi midget." I quickly investigated, and it turned out that my friend was embellishing events - but not by much! Rav Mattisyahu did not call me a "Nazi midget." He just described me as a midget who was undermining that which the victims of the Nazis died for.

In his address, Rav Mattisyahu spoke about the connection between the Holocaust and conflicts between Chazal and science. I didn't know that there were any connections, but apparently I was mistaken. According to Rav Mattisyahu, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust died for their faith that every word in the Gemara is true. And, he said, those who provide "makeshift answers" to questions are making a grave mistake:

Shas is faith-based knowledge. When faced with the most difficult questions, we don't take the easy way out. We would rather wait for Eliyahu to come! Why settle for a makeshift answer, if we will be handed the reliable solution at a later date? Teyku is the answer! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity, Abaya and Rava, emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation. (From a transcript in Mishpachah)

Now, much earlier, I had heard from a colleague of Rav Mattisyahu that he would not be signing the ban against my work. Eventually, however, he did sign. Still, Rav Mattisyahu was sufficiently unhappy with the way that the whole ban went down that in February 2005, following Rav Aharon Feldman's visit to Rav Elyashiv in which he clarified that my books were not actually kefirah, Rav Feldman recruited him to add his signature to a letter clarifying this. (Of course, that was before various pressures were exerted and Rav Feldman ended up changing his mind and endorsing the charge of kefirah.) Yet in this speech, given shortly after the ban was publicized, Rav Mattisyahu was going out of his way to condemn my approach.

But this was a slap in the face to Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, one of the Gedolei HaDor of America, who had written a haskamah to Mysterious Creatures - and who was the ultimate target of the entire Kalmanovitch/Tropper/Pinter/Wachtfogel-orchestrated campaign in the first place. And Rav Mattisyahu found out that in Philadelphia, they were Not Happy with his speech. So he rushed over to Philly to explain that in fact he had not been referring to my books at all, but rather to Rav Moshe Tendler, due to the latter's stance regarding metzitzah b'peh. (Apparently it's okay to refer to Rav Tendler as a midget who attempts to repudiate the irrefutable truths of Avaya and Rava.) Nobody believed him.

As it happens, I was more amused than offended by Rav Mattisyahu's condemnation of me in front of twenty thousand people. And with regard to the general idea of accepting to remain with questions - currently being discussed over at Torah Musings - I happen to think that approach has a very valuable place in Torah study, as I discussed at length in Sacred Monsters (where I also happily cited Rav Mattisyahu!) We should not expect, with our limited knowledge and experience, to be able to resolve all difficulties in the Talmud. I myself still have many questions and difficulties. Often, the most honest, accurate and suitable response is to simply admit and accept that one does not have the solution. No matter who we are, we never have all our questions answered. At such times, there is an important Yiddish expression to bear in mind: Fun a kashya shtarbt mon nisht — “From a question, a person doesn’t die.” It conveys the advice that we should not be overly distressed when we do not find answers for all our questions.

Nevertheless, this approach is widely misused and abused. It is legitimate to adopt this approach for oneself whenever one wants. It is unreasonable, however, to always expect other people to accept it. All too often, this approach is used to brush off important questions that should be answered and for which great authorities have already provided answers.

Telling someone that “you don’t die from a question” carries serious risks and should be avoided wherever possible. The great Torah scholars of history did not generally use this approach with people who were struggling with faith-challenging issues. When Rambam encountered people who were grappling with the questions raised by Aristotelian philosophy, he did not simply say, “You don’t die from a question.” Instead, he worked hard to write his Guide for the Perplexed, and provided answers wherever possible – even though these answers were not popular with many segments of Jewry.

Avoiding the risks involved in less-than-ideal answers carries its own risks. All too often, telling someone “You don’t die from a question” is accompanied by the implicit message that the questioner should not be asking such questions. But the unwillingness to seriously deal with questions can itself lead to a crisis of faith, as Maharal explains:
A person should not reject something which is against his own views… especially if it is not presented as an attack on religion but is simply an honest expression of the other person’s beliefs. Even if it is against his own religious beliefs and faith, he should not say, “Be quiet and shut your mouth,” because there will not be a clarification of that person’s religious understanding. In fact, in such cases we should tell a person to speak his mind freely and fully express how he feels, such that he should not feel that he has not been able to fully speak his mind. If sincere questions are silenced, this is indicative that the religion is weak, as discussed earlier. This attitude is the opposite of what some people think. They mistakenly think that forbidding people from discussing religion strengthens religious faith, but this is not the case. Suppression of dissent and prohibiting people from speaking is a weakening of religion. (Maharal, Be’er HaGolah 7)

Maharal himself strongly attacked Azariah de Rossi for responding to difficulties in the Talmud with answers that Maharal deemed unacceptable. But — and this is a point that some people miss — Maharal provided alternate solutions! He did not simply dismiss the questions and leave the questioner with no answers.

Of course, the importance of giving answers does not justify giving any kind of answer; we cannot be dishonest, and we cannot compromise the integrity of Torah. And even legitimate answers sometimes require difficult adjustments and can involve certain risks. In some cases, they should be presented only to those who are sincerely bothered by the questions. But where answers have been given by authoritative Torah scholars - as is the case with the questions discussed in my books - we should not insist that the questioner remain with his questions. You don't die from a question, but you can get very sick!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Revisionism and the Rav Strikes Again

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, also known as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or simply "the Rav," was one of the seminal rabbinic figures of the twentieth century. He was also a thorn in the side of Charedim, since he was a Gadol B'Torah by any standard, and yet espoused many views that were at odds with Charedi norms. This problem is particular acute for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who is a nephew of the Rav, but who moved very much to the right and is now staunchly charedi. His solution is to simply convince himself that the Rav was entirely misunderstood and was in fact a true Charedi--and to attempt to convince others of this, asserting that he possesses an "insider's view." But as Professor Lawrence Kaplan, in his famous article "Revisionism and the Rav," points out, this is a grave distortion:
First, R. Meiselman's "insider's view" is, at many points, clearly contradicted by the insider views of other distinguished members of the Rav's family who were also his close disciples... Second, and even more important, wherever it is possible to check R. Meiselman's claims against the Rav's writings, it turns out that those claims are clearly and explicitly contradicted by clear and explicit statements of the Rav.

Professor Kaplan documents R. Meiselman's revisionism in the context of the Rav's positions on the value of philosophy, the nature of Daas Torah, universalism, and Zionism. To this list, I would like to add another item, based upon R. Meiselman's article in Dialogue that I have been critiquing over the last few days: the Rav's position on the age of the universe.

At the conclusion of R. Meiselman's article, he discusses the view of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan that Rav Yitzchok of Acco, a medieval Kabbalist, wrote that the universe is fifteen billion years old. R. Meiselman argues that Rav Yitzchak of Acco does not actually support this view. In this, he is quite correct. In fact, in The Challenge Of Creation, I gave additional reasons as to why Rav Yitzchak does not support such a view - as well as citing a report that Rabbi Kaplan later acknowledged his error and retracted his claim.

But there are two deeply disturbing problems in R. Meiselman's presentation. One is that he claims that when R. Kaplan described this approach as being "very different than that of many frum Jews who see Torah and science at loggerheads with each other," he was "specifically referring" to Rav Soloveitchik and making a "barb" at him. As evidence for this accusation, R. Meiselman notes that Rav Soloveitchik gave a presentation to the rabbinic alumni of Yeshiva University in 1971 in which he spoke about Judaism being "at loggerheads with modern science."

Now, unless there is something that R. Meiselman is not telling us, this seems like an extraordinarily slim reed on which to pin an accusation that R. Kaplan was making a "barb" at Rav Soloveitchik. R. Kaplan uses this phrase after discussing how R. Yisrael Lifschitz (the Tiferes Yisrael) was thrilled about the discovery of dinosaurs and sees it as vindicating the kabbalistic belief in previous worlds. The full paragraph reads as follows (and you can download the entire lecture as a PDF here):

This approach is very different than that of many frum Jews who see Torah and science at loggerheads with each other. Many of us feel that whenever science makes any statement with regard to paleontology or geology, we must get our bristles up and fight it. The Tiferes Yisroel, on the other hand, sees it as a vindication of an important Torah shitah.

The phrase "being at loggerheads" is surely not so unusual that one can assert that R. Kaplan must have been referring to Rav Soloveitchik - especially since Rav Soloveitchik's speech was not published and took place eight years earlier!

Furthermore, there is additional reason to believe that R. Kaplan was not referring to Rav Soloveitchik, which brings us to the second problem with this part of R. Meiselman's article: Rav Soloveitchik was not saying that the scientific view of the age of the universe is at loggerheads with the Torah view! He was talking about the creation of the universe, not the age of the universe. (As noted in the first part of this critique, R. Meiselman has already blurred the two in order to claim that that latter is a fundamental of faith for which the mesorah may not be reinterpreted.) Let us look at Rav Soloveitchik's words:
We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation. We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me’ayin... Science has no right to say anything because it is not a scientific problem; it is a metaphysical problem... But again we are still at loggerheads... We have something which the goyishe world has not understood.

The issue here is briyah yesh me’ayin - creation ex nihilo. Modern science does not in fact deny this - it says nothing about what caused the Big Bang - but there certainly have been those, especially in the past, who denied creation ex nihilo. It is this view which the Rav is placed at loggerheads with Torah, not the idea of the universe being billions of years old! If we look at a more extensive quotation from this lecture by the Rav which I transcribed from an audio recording, as opposed to R. Meiselman's truncated citation, this becomes even clearer:

The foundation on which our emunah rests is Briyat HaOlam... ex nihilo, yesh me’ayin. You see here we are at loggerheads… from antiquity, with Greek philosophy, Greek science. We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict, or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation. Because, science absolutely has no right to make a certain statement about briyah. We believe in creation ex nihilo, which means that there was nothing before, there was only HaKadosh Baruch Hu… We had a lot of trouble with Greek philosophy… We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me’ayin. We are in the same situation and the same condition nowadays. No matter, whatever, it’s completely irrelevant what theory of evolution science accepts – whether the big bang theory, or the instantaneous birth of the universe, or it is the slow piecemeal emergence of the universe, whether it is the emergent evolution or the instantaneous so-called birth of the universe. But science will always say, as far as matter is concerned, particles were always here. Of course, science has no right to say anything, because it is not a scientific problem. It is a metaphysical problem. And in my opinion, it is just as good as the opinion of Einstein about everything. But again we are still at loggerheads... We still have something which the goyishe world has not understood. Yesh me’ayin! Yesh me’ayin is our Jewish heritage... HaKadosh Baruch Hu created everything from nothing.

The Rav makes it absolutely clear that his objection is to those who deny creation ex nihilo. It is creation ex nihilo which Torah demands - but it is irrelevant how the universe developed after that. In fact, in a series of lectures on Genesis that is currently being edited for publication, the Rav explicitly states that one can interpret the six days as referring to long periods of time, or even as stages or sefiros:

Indeed, one of the most annoying scientific facts which the religious man encounters is the problem of evolution and creation. However, this is not the real problem. What actually is irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of a divine image and the idea of man as an intelligent animal in science. Evolution and creation can be reconciled merely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite. However, our conflict is man as a unique being and man as a friend of the animal. (Genesis Notes, Lecture XII)

And the Rav's subsequent resolution of this conflict with evolution is to explain that man is indeed a part of the animal kingdom, but with the power to ascend beyond it. Man’s unique identity as possessing the “image of God” does not refer to a metaphysical, other-worldly entity housed in his body, but rather to the application of his evolved intelligence. This is elaborated upon at great length, and with plentiful use of the word "ontic," in The Emergence of Ethical Man.

It is true that Rav Soloveitchik did not believe that the development of the universe was entirely naturalistic - he did insist on ten points of creative intervention by God, following the Mishnah in Avos which speaks of ten utterances with which the world was created. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not object to this development taking place over billions of years, and he forcefully argued for the Torah authenticity of the view that man was fundamentally created as part of the animal kingdom. In these areas of modern science - precisely those that Rabbi Meiselman is declaring to be at loggerheads with Torah, and invoking the Rav as support - the Rav did not see science as being at loggerheads with Torah at all.

I will conclude with another citation from Professor Kaplan's article, which is equally applicable to this case:

...The fact that a distinguished rabbinic scholar like R. Meiselman, despite his having been a close disciple of the Rav and despite his having been "privileged to be part of his family and household," could write such a flawed article, an article that presents such a narrow, distorted, and almost unrecognizable picture of his uncle, only serves to underscore the dangers of the revisionist drive on the part of the "right" and the impossibility of refashioning the Rav to fit a Haredi mold.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Presumptions or Conclusions?

This post continues my critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article in Dialogue regarding the age of the universe. Yesterday, I began a two-pronged explanation of why Meiselman's theory does not even work from a scientific perspective, by showing how the countless generations of animal life must surely have lived in a vast stretch of time. Today, I will give a precise explanation of why Meiselman's theory is utterly wrong from its very conception.

To be honest, this whole exercise is bizarre, since Meiselman's theory was already neatly been refuted in my book The Challenge Of Creation several years ago. Now, Meiselman might well disagree with my refutations. But surely he should at least address them! Anyway, I will present them here again, at more length. Let us first quote Meiselman's theory:

One of the main points of this article will be that all current tools for measuring the passage of time presume stability in the relationships between natural processes, similar to what we observe today... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture.

No, no, no! Meiselman has it exactly backwards! The notion of stability in the relationships between natural processes is not a presumption of modern science by which it deduces the antiquity of the universe. It's a conclusion.

This relates to the topic of the very first post that I ever wrote on this website. Prior to the eighteenth century, geology did not exist as a historical science. The world was universally agreed to have been created several thousand earlier by God, using a dramatic process that could not be fathomed by mortal man - just as in Meiselman's theory. Additionally, just as in Meiselman's approach, it was assumed that the Deluge had wreaked havoc upon the world subsequent to creation.

But in 1793, a canal digger by the name of William Smith made a startling discovery, as described in the superb book The Map That Changed The World. He found that the same strata of rock are always found in the same order of superposition, and they always contain the same fossils. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Certain types of rock contained certain types of fossils that were unique to those beds. The layers of rock always appeared in the same order. This pattern held true everywhere that Smith checked.

And thus the Meiselman theory was abandoned, and the modern science of geology was born. Geology is an extremely useful science; it's not an ivory-tower philosophy. All kinds of industries and activities, as well as those investigating natural disasters, employ geologists. Because geology works. The patterns that are found in the rocks, the processes that are inferred from them and are still seen happening today, can all be relied upon to be applicable universally - throughout the planet, and throughout history. Billion-dollar industries prove it so! The constancy of nature over long periods was not an assumption - it was a discovery.

The flip side of the coin is also the case: Meiselman's model can be positively disproved. Meiselman's model predicts that the historical sciences will break down beyond 5771 years - in fact, beyond the Mabul, 4000 years ago. He alleges that because the natural order was entirely different before creation, as well as during the catastrophe of the Mabul, it simply isn't possible to use the tools of science from our own era for those periods, where everything was different.

But it wasn't different. We see that it wasn't different. The very same ice layers that are laid down each year in Greenland continue uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years into the past. The very same sedimentary layers that are laid down each year in lakes continue uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years into the past. The very same layers of bark that trees grow every year, which can by synchronized between living and dead trees to produce longer chains, continue to produce chains stretching 12,000 years into the past. And all these processes, as well as many more, synchronize with each other. Fossil pollen and volcanic ash gets trapped in ice layers and provides ways of cross-checking with radioactive dating. Ice layers record past climate changes which correlate with discoveries in astronomy. In short, geologists don't find that the physical history of the world changes dramatically past 4000 years ago - they find precisely the opposite. The same processes that occur in the last 4000 years are seen to continue in the same way as we look further back in history.

No pseudo-scientific theory by a religious figure is complete without a quote from a scientist that is completely distorted. To support his theory, Meiselman alleges that there is support for it from great scientists:

The assumption of the constancy of natural processes throughout the ages has been disputed by some of the greatest names in science.

Meiselman's usage here of the terms "natural processes" and "throughout the ages" is very slippery; he is either being deliberately disingenuous, or entirely misunderstanding the topic. Let's see who he invokes for this claim:

In 1939 the English physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Dirac wrote, “At the beginning of time the laws of Nature were probably very different from what they are now. Thus, we should consider the laws of nature as continually changing within the epoch, instead of holding uniformly throughout space-time.”

That is indeed what Dirac said, and it is something that has had somewhat of a resurrection in recent times. But what does it mean? It does not mean that a few thousand years ago, there was a completely different natural order! Rather, it means that there was an extremely minor change in some extremely subtle aspects of the natural order over an extremely long period (and more of a change during the first moments of the formation of the universe, billions of years ago). The very same methodology and techniques used to show this, also show that there is overwhelming stability for the vast majority of the natural order for most of history!

This article from Scientific American, by John Barrow, gives a good overview. The scientists report that they found an average increase in the fine-structure constant,, of close to six parts in a million over the period from six to twelve billion years ago (in the lat six billion years, there was no significant change). Others found no increase at all. None of this has anything to do with the billions of years on planet earth in which there were countless generations of prehistoric life. As John Webb notes in this article, "the geological results do not conflict with the quasar results or the atomic clock experiments because they probe very different epochs in the history of the universe." For Meiselman to claim great scientists in support of his approach is rather like someone claiming that Redak's view of kri/ksiv (that they were not both given at Sinai) means that he held that there is no textual integrity to the Torah and provides support for the Documentary Hypothesis.

It is astonishing - and a great chillul Hashem - that a Rosh Yeshivah can publish a view on the age of the universe which is presented as the definitive view, and claimed to be consistent with true knowledge of the scientific enterprise, and yet which reveals such utter ignorance of the natural sciences.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Denying the Dinosaur Eras

Two days ago, I began a critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article in Dialogue regarding the age of the universe. In part one, I pointed out that he blurred the distinction between the age of the universe and its creation - thereby enabling him to claim that those who accept the antiquity of the universe are acting unacceptably in departing from the mesorah on a fundamental of faith. In part two, I showed how his approach to this topic, in which science cannot possibly measure the age of the universe since the laws of nature as know them did not exist during creation, results in the concept of "six days" being utterly meaningless. Today, I will begin a two-pronged explanation of why Meiselman's theory does not even work from a scientific perspective. (Please note that I am departing from my usual practice and instead adopting Meiselman's protocol of referring to older rabbis by their last name alone.)

Before doing so, however, there is one point that I am forced to address. I have heard a popular and entertaining rabbi claim in a public lecture that I am unqualified to dispute Meiselman's science, since he has a PhD in physics from MIT whereas I lack any formal scientific qualifications beyond high school. And Meiselman himself told a mentor of mine that, unlike himself, I lack the scientific competence necessary to discuss these matters.

Now, aside from the fact that scientific theories are evaluated by their content rather than by the qualifications of those presenting them, it simply isn't true that Meiselman has qualifications in this area. Contrary to that which is claimed about him, his doctorate is in mathematics, not physics. Mathematics is not part of the natural sciences. In fact, my father, of blessed memory, who had not only a PhD in physics but also a DSc (higher doctorate, awarded for work resulting in international distinction), and who was described by Prof. Cyril Domb as possessing exceptional breadth in different scientific disciples, and who necessarily mastered mathematics to a very high level, used to tell me that devotion to pure mathematics can actually be a deficiency in a person making a statement about the natural sciences. The reason for this is that mathematics accustoms one to thinking in abstract, imaginary frameworks that are divorced from the real world. (Perhaps this is similar to Brisker lomdus not being helpful in paskening halachah?) As we shall see today and tomorrow, Meiselman's theory is very much divorced from reality. And it goes without saying that the global community of scientists would dismiss his approach as sheer nonsense. In fact, I heard about a former colleague of Meiselman's from MIT, who is every bit as charedi as him but whose doctorate was in physics, who was furious at the incompetence of Meiselman's article.

Of course, I don't have any qualifications in the natural sciences either. But I have studied them in my spare time for many years. More significantly, what I say on this topic is agreed upon by the global community of paleontologists, geologists, physicists, and everyone else in these fields. You won't find them dismissing what I write as nonsense. Furthermore, my arguments can be evaluated on their own merits. If you're not qualified to do so, I suggest that you consult with someone who is qualified.

Let us quote Meiselman's theory once more:

One of the main points of this article will be that all current tools for measuring the passage of time presume stability in the relationships between natural processes, similar to what we observe today. In fact, our entire outlook on time reflects this presumption... The presumption of stability in the oscillations of the cesium atom underlies all notions of time measurement today, as well as their projection into other epochs.

This paragraph gives the impression that the scientific assessment of the universe being billions of years old are all based on the oscillations of the cesium atom. And most people are not very familiar with cesium atoms, which we can't even see, so he can get away with saying that cesium atoms used to act differently.

But what about the dinosaurs? And the therapsids? And the woolly mammoths?

Forget abstract talk about events taking place on a molecular level. Think about something tangible and familiar, such as animal life. The fossil evidence clearly shows that there were dinosaurs and all kinds of other creatures which lived before people (since no fossils of contemporary creatures are found in the same strata). These animals lived and died and fought and ate and bred - we even find dinosaur nesting sites. Did all that happen in the space of twelve hours? Did it happen in a universe in which the laws of gravity, the speed of light, and everything else - the very fabric of natural law - was drastically different from what we see today?

And it's not as though there was only one period of prehistoric creatures. The fossil record shows beyond doubt that there were numerous distinct periods. The therapsids lived before the dinosaurs; the dinosaurs lived before the mammoths. And even amongst dinosaurs, different layers of rock reveal distinct eras. Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Allosaurus are never found in the same layers of rock as Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. The conclusion is that each existed in a different period; the former lived in a period which has been termed the Jurassic, while the latter lived in the Cretaceous period. This is not part of some evil conspiracy by scientists, nor the result of mistakes on their part. Any paleontologist could win instant fame by finding a Tyrannosaur Rex fossil in Jurassic rocks - but nobody has ever done so, which shows that T-Rex lived much later, in the Cretaceous.

So there are countless generations of all kinds of animals, living in distinct periods, leading ordinary animal lives. This is clearly a process that takes many thousands, even millions of years. To describe it as all occurring in one day is simply ridiculous, unless one is taking the word "day" to mean something other than "day."

I was going to be dan le'kaf zechus (after a fashion) and assume that Meiselman simply never even gave any thought to any of this. After all, he's a mathematician, not a scientist. But then I noticed that he does seem to address it. This is in the context of his explaining that aside from it being impossible to use science to date creation, when there were no laws of nature as we know them, the Mabul also prevents any historical analysis from taking place:

...Although it is possible that prior to the Mabul the world was subject to the same system of natural laws as afterwards, the details of the world may have been very different. We view a world reconstructed from chaos. The laws of physics and chemistry may be the same, but features such as weather patterns and the natural characteristics of the flora and fauna may be radically different from what they once were.

In a footnote, he adds the following:
Note also the change in animal behavior indicated by Bereyshis 9:5; cf. the Ramban’s discussion thereon.

BereIshis 9:5, which speaks about God holding animals accountable for killing humans, doesn't really indicate anything remotely definitive, but Ramban suggests that it might mean that before the Mabul, animals were all herbivores. That might have been a reasonable suggestion in Ramban's time, but it's simply laughable to propose it seriously today. Is Meiselman claiming that Tyrannosaurus rex, veloceraptor, and saber-toothed cats all ate grass and leaves?! Aside from the fact that their physiology clearly shows that they were carnivores, we actually have fossilized remnants of their stomach contents and excrement, which show that they were carnivores - as well as a famous fossil of two dinosaurs that died locked in combat.

Contrary to Meiselman's claim, we know that the natural characteristics of the flora and fauna of prehistory were not radically different from today. We know a tremendous amount about them. We know what they ate and how they reproduced. We even have whole mammoths, frozen in ice, from which DNA has been extracted and sequenced - and it shows (unsurprisingly) that they are not too different from elephants. Their basic bodily processes functioned in the same way as that of modern animals. They lived in a world that was fundamentally the same as ours - not some bizarre scenario in which the very laws of nature were different, and in which complete lifecycles occurred in a nanosecond.

There are no indications that animal and plant life used to be fundamentally different. There is, however, an overwhelming mass of evidence that animal and plant life used to be fundamentally the same. And that there were countless generations of it. To denounce the claim of the world's antiquity as being mere "conjecture" predicated upon baseless assumptions, is arrogant nonsense.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nothing Gained, Everything Lost

Yesterday, I began a critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article in Dialogue, in which I pointed out that he blurred the distinction between the age of the universe and its creation - thereby enabling him to claim that those who accept the antiquity of the universe are acting unacceptably in departing from the mesorah. Today, I will begin to address the explanation of Bereishis that he proposes. Rabbi Meiselman argues that science simply cannot measure the duration of creation:
One of the main points of this article will be that all current tools for measuring the passage of time presume stability in the relationships between natural processes, similar to what we observe today. In fact, our entire outlook on time reflects this presumption... The presumption of stability in the oscillations of the cesium atom underlies all notions of time measurement today, as well as their projection into other epochs... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture. Our Mesorah has always rejected them and there is no justification for changing that stance now.

I will devote several posts to explaining why Rabbi Meiselman's approach fails in three ways. In reverse order: The third post will explain why his approach can be scientifically disproved very simply, and rests upon a fundamentally mistaken premise about the development of science. The second post will explain why his approach is incoherent when one contemplates how prehistoric life fits in to it. Today's post will explain why his approach has no theological advantage over other approaches, and suffers all their disadvantages.
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Before discussing his approach, it is helpful to discuss a similar approach, put forth by Rav Shimon Schwab, which I analyzed in The Challenge Of Creation. He posited that billions of years during the era of creation were equal to six regular days today. His explanation for this is that all the events of those fourteen billion years were sped up such that they took place in only six days. An instant difficulty with this, and its resolution, is discussed by Rabbi Schwab:
...It is obvious that if all motion were uniformly multiplied all radiation, for instance, would become lethal. The accelerated speed would turn every particle into a deadly missile. Also a multiplication of the rapidity of all motion would upset the balance of mechanical forces which function differently at different speeds. Therefore, we should rather think of a uniform nexus of changes in the entire system of the natural order which is observable today, a uniform variation in all functions within the framework of natural law in conformity with the new universal velocity, not upsetting the intricate balance of all physical phenomena and the orderly cooperation of all parts within the whole.

Although this solves the technical difficulties, it now raises another type of difficulty—if the entire system has sped up, in what way is it significant to say that any of it has sped up? Again, Rabbi Schwab raises the question, and proposes an answer:
In fact, without having at least one exception somewhere in the universe, the simultaneous uniform acceleration of all motion is in itself a meaningless concept. The fixed reference point which might give meaning to this whole concept is the Creation Light.
However, the Creation Light, even with Rabbi Schwab’s understanding that it had a physical manifestation, is an insignificant point of reference in comparison to the revolutions of the earth, the movement of the planets and suchlike. If the earth is rotating on its axis billions of times, the sun rising and setting billions of times, and countless millions of generations of animals are living their lives, then how is it meaningful to speak of this taking only six days? Imagine if last week was sped up by God so that it only took five minutes on the Cosmic clock—would this be detectable or even meaningful in any way? If fourteen billion years equal six Creation days, then it is fourteen billion years as we understand it, and the six days are being understood differently from the simple understanding. If virtually everything is being sped up, then effectively nothing is being sped up.

Now, Rabbi Meiselman appears to be at least somewhat sensitive to this problem. He writes as follows:

When we extrapolate backwards in time we are tacitly assuming that throughout the period of the extrapolation all natural processes maintained the same relationships. If, for example, they were all to speed up by a factor of ten we would have no way of measuring or perhaps even detecting the phenomenon.

In fact, it is not just that we could not measure or detect the phenomenon; it is that there would not be a phenomenon. But let us see his continuation:

On the other hand, if one process remained constant we would then have to decide whether the others sped up or that one slowed down.

That is correct. And it would be a fairly easy judgement to make if only one or two processes were different, and all others remained the same. But Rabbi Meiselman proposes that everything was different during creation - that there was simply no such thing as the laws of nature as we know them:

...During the six days of Creation the world was governed by a system of laws that was totally different from the one operative today... Once one accepts the Torah’s version of history—that during certain epochs current natural law was not operative—there is no contradiction at all between the Torah’s chronology and science... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture. Our Mesorah has always rejected them and there is no justification for changing that stance now.

In Rabbi Meiselman's approach, since the laws of nature were completely different during Creation, there is simply no way that science can use its ordinary tools to measure its duration. Yet even if what Rabbi Meiselman writes were to be true - and over the next few days, we will prove that it is not true - all that it would mean is that the age of the universe cannot be precisely measured as being exactly 13.8 billion years, as modern science argues. Now, it's clear that it is appealing for him to discredit the modern scientific enterprise. But what is he proposing in its place? In what sense is it remotely meaningful to describe the formation of the universe as taking six days? If the laws of nature and physical processes were completely different, then in what meaningful sense can one say that it lasted six days? It is no more six days than it is six eras or six levels of a hierarchy.

Now, one might counter that the earth turned on its axis six times ("And there was evening, and there was morning"), by which it can be described as six days. But is that really significant? It's six rotations; not six days in any meaningful sense. Furthermore, if sunrise and sunset is all that matters, then you might as well say that the world is billions of years old, and you can accept everything that modern science has to say, with the exception of saying that the rotation of the earth on its axis was drastically slower for all those billions of years.

The particularly strange thing is that in an earlier part of the article, Rabbi Meiselman appears to recognize that some standard of measurement is required, and argues that it exists, but completely fails to explain what it is:

[There are] two distinct conceptions of time measurement — one paralleling our own for use when current relationships are operative and another completely different conception to be used when they are not — both expressed in the same terms. In order for them to work complementarily, however, the existence of a unifying conception applicable in all epochs must be posited. It is this that serves as the true measure of time. Whenever the world is operating in accordance with ordinary natural law the true measure coincides with human convention, making it possible for us to employ the latter and ignore the former. But during those epochs when natural law is not in effect, the true measure ceases to bear any resemblance to our own and it alone has meaning.

But what is this "unifying conception"? What is this "true measure"?! Rabbi Meiselman does not elaborate. Because there is none! And it cannot be posited that God has some Cosmic clock outside of the universe, for two reasons. First of all, it would still be completely meaningless in our terms. Second, elsewhere in the article, Rabbi Meiselman himself endorses Rambam's view that the concept of time presupposes motion, which in turn presupposes a physical world. And so Rabbi Meiselman has not only failed to explain how the universe can be proposed to have developed in six days; he has even made it meaningless to speak about such a timespan.

Furthermore, many of the theological objections that have been raised against those who accept the antiquity of the universe would equally apply to Rabbi Meiselman's approach. In his approach, the flow of time during creation, and also during the deluge (when he claims that the laws of nature were likewise completely different), were completely different from the flow of time at other times. In his words: "...there is an extra-cosmic concept of time which is operative independently of scientific time... this operates at times when scientific time is not applicable." But it has been objected that this undermines the Jewish calendar, as well as legal documents that are based upon it. And others, such as Rav Schwab and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, argued that any explanation in which the six days were not six ordinary days as we have them would completely undermine the concept of Shabbos:

…The attempt to “reinterpret” the text of the first section of Bereishis to the effect that it speaks of periods or eons, rather than ordinary days… is not only uncalled for, but it means tampering with the Mitzvah of Shabbos itself, which “balances” all the Torah. For, if one takes the words, “one day” out of their context and plain meaning, one ipso facto abrogates the whole idea of Shabbos as the “Seventh day” stated in the same context. The whole idea of Shabbos observance is based on the clear and unequivocal statement in the Torah: “For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested”—days, not periods. (Rabbi Menachem Scheerson, Mind Over Matter, p. 110)

Now, I certainly think that such objections can be countered; I did so in my book. But once one is taking such an approach, what has been gained? If you're going to have others condemn you as an apikorus, then you might as well at least be offering a proposal which makes some sort of sense. According to Rabbi Meiselman's approach - the approach that he deems the sole theologically and scientifically legitimate approach - the creation of the universe did not take six days in any remotely meaningful sense of the term, and the universe was not created 5771 years ago in any remotely meaningful sense of the term.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Innovation of Fundamental Beliefs

The new journal ironically named Dialogue includes an article by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Yeshivas Toras Moshe. Before discussing it, I will acknowledge from the outset that I certainly did not approach this article without bias. Of all the people involved in the notorious campaign against my books, Rabbi Meiselman acted by far the most disgustingly. He attributed to me positions and statements that he had completely fabricated, and engaging in vile slander about me on a personal level, which was picked up and repeated by others. I wrote to him about this, but he did not respond - you can read about it at this link. So, I will admit that I detest him; nevertheless, I ask that people evaluate my critique of his article on its own merits.

This post is the first part of a series addressing Rabbi Meiselman's article, "A Question of Time," which presents an approach regarding the age of the universe. Ordinarily I wouldn't bother responding to such theories, no matter how many scientific and theological inaccuracies they contain. But R. Meiselman's article does not just present itself as a suggestion. Rather, he entirely denies the legitimacy - not just the technical correctness - of alternatives.

R. Meiselman begins his discussion with the following claim:

The issue [of the age of the universe] is not a new one. It was first discussed in our sources in medieval times. Ever since Aristotle, science had claimed that the world had no beginning... Neither the philosophic/scientific proofs of Aristotle, however, nor the scientific proofs of Newton and Laplace moved our Mesorah (transmitted tradition). None of the chachmei hamesorah who confronted the issue ever suggested that the received position be re-evaluated. Creation ex nihilo always remained a fundamental belief. The scientific approach was simply rejected, even in the face of so-called proofs.

R. Meiselman claims that the issue is not a new one - thereby blurring the distinction between the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is. But these are as different as chalk and cheese. The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief. As Rambam states:

The belief in eternity in the way that Aristotle sees it - that is, the belief according to which the world exists by necessity, that nature does not change at all, and that the ordinary course of events cannot be modified in any aspect - this uproots the Torah from its foundation, and utterly denies all the miracles, and erases all the hopes and threats that the Torah assures. (Guide For The Perplexed 2:25)

But Rambam makes it clear that received traditions which are not fundamental beliefs can be reinterpreted. He proceeds to say that the Platonic (as opposed to Aristotelian) view of the eternity of the universe could be accepted, and the Torah reinterpreted to match it - and that the only reason not to do so is that this theory has not been scientifically substantiated:

If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above, and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion; this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. (Guide for the Perplexed ibid.)

Furthermore, there have indeed been cases where traditional interpretations were re-evaluated as a result of scientific proofs. One example of this is the rakia. Received tradition, from Chazal through all the Rishonim, based on pesukim, was that the rakia is a solid covering to the world. But once it was discovered that there is no such solid covering, the concept was reinterpreted.

Thus, when Rabbi Meiselman compares the topic of the age of the universe to its creation, he is ignoring and negating the very distinction that Rambam stressed and which makes all the difference in the world. It is precisely due to this very distinction that there were indeed Torah authorities who diverged from the received tradition with regard to the age of the universe. Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz, the "Tiferes Yisrael," argued that there were previous epochs before that described in Bereishis - an approach that was endorsed by Maharsham. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman argued that a "day" can mean an "era." And Rambam himself, as explained by Abarbanel, Shem Tov ben Yosef, and Akeidas Yitzchak, along with Ralbag, believed that the "six days" need not refer to a period of time at all. Rabbi Meiselman does not engage in any "Dialogue" with these views, and does not even make any reference to them. In fact, it seems that he considers them religiously unacceptable. Why?

To be continued...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Diatribe + Monologue = "Dialogue"

A new journal has just appeared, by the name of "Dialogue." Its rabbinic board consists of Rabbi Aharon Feldman from Baltimore, Rabbi Shlomo Miller from Toronto, and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman from Jerusalem. I will be publishing a detailed rejoinder to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article, and others will be responding to the other articles. For now, I would like to simply address the editors' preface, which contains some astounding and deeply disturbing statements. The first paragraph raises the question of what need there is for such a publication, and the second paragraph provides the justification:

...this journal hopes to fill a void which exists in the present Torah observant world. There is presently no platform for the intelligent, Torah-oriented discussion of important contemporary issues and ideas by writers who are both steeped in Torah knowledge and committed exclusively to its values.

What?! What about Tradition and Hakirah? The preface continues:

The existing Orthodox magazines are either family magazines which by definition are not dedicated to such serious discussions, or else they are intellectual journals that, in their perspectives and language, seem to be directed exclusively to an academic readership and often espouse opinions which, from a Torah standpoint, are problematic.

I don't think that either Tradition or Hakirah could be said to exclusively address an academic leadership in either their perspective or language. Thus, I assume that they "fail" on the last point. So in the very second paragraph of this new publication, we are told that Tradition and Hakirah - two popular and respected publications in the Orthodox Jewish community - are not "Torah-true" publications. Indeed, this sets an accurate tone for "Dialogue," as the articles in the inaugural issue demonstrate: It is a journal whose primary objective is to discredit and disqualify others.

Later in the preface, we are told the following:
DIALOGUE hopes to be true to its name and will welcome dissenting opinions as well, whether submitted as full articles or as letters to the editor.

That sounds promising - living up to its name, seeking dialogue between those with dissenting opinions. But, lest one receive the wrong impression, the editors immediately clarify matters:
There is one limitation which DIALOGUE will place on itself, the limitation imposed by the verse from Malachi (3:16) whose beginning appears on the masthead: “Then the fearful of God spoke to each other...” This means that the dialogue in this journal will be conversations of yirey Hashem, i.e., those who consider the truths of the Torah and the interpretations given by its teachers throughout the ages until our day to be immutable and fully binding. Its pages will be open to anyone, regardless of which grouping he belongs to, whose ideas are based on these premises, and who are able to present fresh ideas and perspectives for modern-day Jewry.

This paragraph is quite disingenuous. Pay attention to the all-important phrase "the interpretations given by its teachers throughout the ages until our day" - and note especially the last few words. Now, Rav Feldman is well-known for claiming that a view espoused by dozens and dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim - that Chazal were not infallible in scientific matters - can now be termed kefirah, since it has been paskened unacceptable by Rav Elyashiv and other Charedi gedolim. The interpretation of virtually all the Rishonim, many Acharonim and innumerable contemporary Torah scholars on Pesachim 94b must be rejected from Torah-true discourse. In other words, the Torah "interpretations given by its teachers throughout the ages" count for nothing at all - the only thing that counts is that legitimized by the Torah teachers of our day - by which they mean a particularly extreme sub-set of the Charedi world.

Furthermore, claiming that DIALOGUE's standards of Torah-true discourse, by which widespread views of Rishonim and Acharonim can be termed kefirah, and respected Orthodox journals such as Tradition and Hakirah are not considered acceptable, are all simply the standard imposed by the verse from Malachi - peshat in the passuk! - is nothing less than perverse.

We live in an upside-down world, where sexual perverts and predators are honored by the Gedolim's cohorts for publishing sefarim on taharas Yisrael; where the followers of Daf Yomi are given short shrift at its siyum, in favor of those who disdain it; where those crying about the fate of the yeshivah boys in Japan are simultaneously sending more people to prison (I'll be posting about these last two points in due course). But perhaps there is no greater irony than that a journal such as this, built upon a foundation of delegitimizing anything that doesn't fall within its incredibly narrow standards of acceptability, calls itself "Dialogue."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Wrestling with Demons

There are countless references in Tenach and Chazal to sheidim - demons. But how were these understood by Torah scholars throughout the ages? Amazingly, there has not to date been any comprehensive study of rabbinic attitudes to this challenging topic. So I am pleased to announce the e-publication of a new monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons.

The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal account or with a credit card. The recommended donation is $5, but if you have gained from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise and would you would like to take this opportunity to express your appreciation with a larger donation, it would be gratefully appreciated.

You can make a donation by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.


As always, feedback is appreciated, and those who purchased the monograph will be notified via e-mail if a substantial update is released.

(And if you want to see something really scary, just read all the inane comments at Yeshiva World News coffee room's discussion of this topic.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Changing World of Jewish Scholarship

Several days ago, Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish began publishing his doctoral dissertation, The Book of Abraham, on this website. This was an unusual and innovative move, which attracted some criticism. Rabbi Dr. Kadish has written the following guest post in response, which delves into the same issues that I grappled with in deciding where to publish my own monographs. I think that his post is an important discussion of the changing world in which we live.


When I published the first chapter of my revised dissertation at this blog a couple of weeks ago, it led to an interesting discussion among some people in the field about whether I really should have done it that way. One person initially suggested that I remove the book from the internet and have it published the traditional way in order to ensure broad readership, because otherwise it is not likely to be broadly read. If not, he suggested adapting the chapters for publication in academic journals, or in high-quality Orthodox ones like Tradition.

The discussion helped me clarify my own thoughts about publishing, which resulted in the following reply to the above suggestion:

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I've thought quite a lot about this for many years. To put it in perspective, I'm a person who owns an awful lot of books (so many that it drives my wife insane!), but probably not as many as you do :-). I once subscribed to Tradition and some other journals. For some years before the internet became ubiquitous, when I felt cut off in the boondocks of northern Israel from the Anglo-Jewish world I came from, that even provided a sort of cultural lifeline. I still have a whole collection in piles from the years until about 2000.

And yet, over the past decade, I've begun to find that things have changed dramatically. There is so much to read and to do, and so much of it very high quality, that publishing articles in journals is truly a letdown today. Nowadays, if a high-quality article is published in Tradition that is a disappointment, because had it been published at Text & Texture or at the Seforim Blog it would have had a much larger readership and promoted a far more valuable discussion. I don't search out Tradition any longer except in the rare case that I have serious need of a specific article. Otherwise, whatever appears there will just be added to many hundreds of articles that I won't ever read.

Of all the journals you mention, the only one that has a truly wide readership today is Hakirah, and for one very specific reason, namely that they put their full content online for download after an appropriate interlude (which to my mind is a far better model than that of Tradition). As for books, I don't buy them at all anymore unless I am certain that I'll really want to read them cover to cover (which is a very small minority). Other books that I might otherwise skim or read parts of if they were online, I don't, unless I really need them for something and then seek them out in the university library.

In 1997 I published a book called Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer. It wasn't meant to be an academic work, but rather an attempt to use scholarship (both yeshivah and academic types) in ways that might be valuable to the public. When it was published, that made it available to a wide range of people at a time when the internet was still not central. And it was very "cool" and impressive to hold the published product in my hands. But in hindsight, its hardcover form is now very disappointing: That book would have benefited immensely from serious, ongoing corrections and improvements, feedback and updates over the past decade. It's also a bulky and expensive book, so having it online would meant a lot more people reading it and using it. But none of that was realistic anymore once it had already been published the traditional way... In 1997, having it published made it possible to reach a broader group of readers. But today its having been published both limits its readership and compromises its quality.

For individual articles, I truly believe that publishing them in academic journals is already an economic anachronism that limits their value rather than enhancing it. Even the issues of peer-review and prestige, which are legitimate and important, can be fully and easily addressed today without depending on that economic model. But I don't think the same is fully true for full-length books. Depending on the author and what kind of book it is, a well-published book the traditional way still has certain kinds of intrinsic value that an online publication does not. But it also limits things other things. So the author needs to decide what is most appropriate, and there may not be one simple answer.

For example, the next chapter of The Book of Abraham is heavily based on primary sources. There isn't much secondary literature on the topic. When I wrote the dissertation, I had to seek out hard-to-find books and even manuscripts, spend time and money copying them in very inconvenient formats (such as double-size paper in huge folders), and put great effort into transferring them into digital formats. But today in 2011, all of these primary sources are suddenly available online for free including download, some of them in much better and more convenient new editions than the ones I had access to just a few years ago. Thank God the scanners of the old editions and the editors of the new editions didn't go for traditional publication! What I hope to do for the next chapter is to post links to the available online primary sources, and even ask for people's help ("crowd sourcing") in linking my references directly to the original texts. (Since the open license turns the book into public property, anyone who contributes in this way knows that the results of his efforts will also belong to the public.) That is something that cannot be done the traditional way.

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I asked Professor Menachem Kellner for his take on the above text. He replied tongue-in-cheek: "It would be good if this were read by my colleagues who sit on promotion committees..." and that I should stick to my guns because this is the wave of the future.

One more point: I would still like to make a digital version of my 1997 Kavvana book available for free online under an open license. But I have no idea how to go about doing so, or whether there is a reasonable way to accomplish it. I would be grateful if there is anyone reading this who knows the publishing industry, both the legalities and the financial aspects, and could suggest what it might take to "free" a book of that sort with the blessing of the publisher. Feel free to contact me privately with ideas or suggestions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Gedolim's Authority is Tested

Over the last few years, we've seen the Charedi Gedolim issue a number of bans. Making of a Godol, zebu, One People Two Worlds, my books, Indian sheitels, Lipa, and probably others that I've forgotten. But the latest is particularly significant: a ban on Mishpachah and similar weekly magazines.

You could see this one coming a mile off. As I wrote on a previous occasion, while there's much to criticize about Mishpachah, it's certainly dramatically pushing the envelope of acceptability in Charedi circles. They feature positive articles on people who are not Charedi, as well as indicating that it's acceptable lechatchilah to work for a living. The English edition has printed all kinds of subversive articles, such as Jonathan Rosenblum's "Bans are not Chinnuch." Of course, it's always written in such a way as to be superficially loyal to the Gedolim, and Mishpachah has many fawning articles and obedient declarations about them, but it's not hard to see the underlying agenda to transform the charedi world.

Still, as usual, there are also other factors at work. According to this article at B'chadrei Charedim, the ban was orchestrated by Yated Ne'eman, who are panicking at losing readership and advertising revenue to the competition. But Yated has apparently shot themselves in the foot; they printed Rav Nissim Karelitz's signature even though he (allegedly) specifically asked them not to print it if Mishpachah was being named. So much for obedience to the Gedolim!

Nevertheless, the ban have several signatures, and the main victory for them is getting Rav Elyashiv's signature. Which leaves the charedi world in a quandary. With previous bans, everyone always folded. The only exception was me, but in my case I was anyway leaving/ being thrown out of the Charedi world. You can't stay in the Charedi world and yet overtly reject the authority of the Gedolim. Mishpachah has always officially said that we charedim follow the Gedolim. So what happens now that the Gedolim say that Mishpachah is forbidden?

I don't think that Mishpachah itself will fold. They'll weather the storm. But will people stop buying it? Probably not too many. Most people know how these things go down; that it's all about power and control. But how can Mishpachah continue to write about the Gedolim as authoritative Daas Torah, while ignoring what the Gedolim have specifically said about them? And how can the people who in other cases (such as mine) said that we have to follow the Gedolim, continue to read Mishpachah?

Many people realized a long time ago that the Emperor has no clothes. Yet they continued to act as though he did. But now, it's going to get much more difficult to pretend that everyone still believes him to be clothed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Secret Letter of Chasam Sofer

A few days back, I published a post entitled "Was Chasam Sofer Actually Correct?" This was in reference to Chasam Sofer's famous ruling to ignore recommendations to wait three days before burial amidst concerns that people were being buried alive. I noted that this ruling was bizarre in light of Chasam Sofer himself suggesting that Chazal took their definition of death from the gentile physicians of their era; if so, why shouldn't Chasam Sofer follow the medical science of his era? In order to account for the strangeness of his ruling, I suggested that Chasam Sofer was motivated by meta-halachic considerations involving reacting to Reform - similar to Maharam Schick's opposition to any compromise on metzitzah b'peh, which involved arguments and claims that are simply false, but can be understood in light of it being a meta-halachic issue.

Now, some people saw it as unacceptable to claim that Chasam Sofer was being either deliberately or unknowingly dishonest in his responsum. I can understand that objection (although, without an explanation of how his responsum is coherent, I don't think it helps save Chasam Sofer.) Fortunately, subsequent to writing the post, I discovered that Chasam Sofer had a follow-up letter which was not published along with his original responsum - in which he explicitly admits that his statements were incorrect from a strict halachic perspective and in which he justifies saying them due to meta-halachic considerations!

The original responsum was written to Maharatz Chayes. Maharatz Chayes responded to Chasam Sofer's claims regarding the Biblical weight of the prohibition against leaving the dead unburied, insisting that these claims were simply not true. And Chasam Sofer replied that, technically speaking, Maharatz Chayes was absolutely correct, but in light of the fact that nowadays many people are not concerned about rulings that are "only" rabbinic, one should elevate their status and claim that they are min ha-Torah. (I had long been aware that this was Chasam's approach in general, but I never previously knew that he stated it specifically with regard to this issue.)

It is not surprising that when Chasam Sofer's responsa were published, this letter was left out. Fortunately, Maharatz Chayes printed it in his own work, and you can read it here. Pay attention to the footnotes, where Maharatz Chayes sharply disputes the notion that one can make incorrect claims about the status of halachos in order to motivate people to keep them.

(Personally, I can sympathize with both points of view. But in the long run, I think that Chasam Sofer's approach backfires. This is especially true in the modern era where there is more access to information. Sooner or later, people will find out that they are being deceived - and this deals a devastating blow to their confidence in rabbinic authority.)

The letter does not address the question of why Chasam Sofer attributes final authority to Chazal's definition of death even if they took it from gentile physicians. But it seems most reasonable to say that, either consciously or subconsciously, the same factors were at work. Because in matters of life and death, no posek would ordinarily rely on the physicians of antiquity over those of today.

The only remaining puzzle that I have is why so many halachic authorities incorporate this responsum of Chasam Sofer into their position on brain death. Of course, my primary objection is the fact that Chasam Sofer was not saying anything at all about whether the presence of respiration (and/or a pulse), in the absence of brain function, is sufficient to rate a person as being alive. But aside from that, the revelation of the extreme meta-halachic aspects of his position should surely weigh against utilizing his stand, for those who feel that such meta-halachic considerations should not play a role today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Favorite Opponent

NOTE: Due to technical problems with Blogger - the service that hosts this website - the previous post disappeared for a day, along with the comments. It's back now. Another peculiar ramification of the Blogger outage was that, for those who receive these posts by e-mail, Blogger sent out a random post from the past - and it chose the Purim post! Hopefully these technical problems will not happen again. And now, for today's post.

During the Great Science and Torah Controversy, I unfortunately managed to develop many opponents. Even more distressingly, the majority of those who voiced their opposition to my approach acted in a very unpleasant way. This unpleasantness ranged from issuing harsh condemnations without any explanation or willingness to discuss their objections, to slandering me at a personal level with sheer nastiness. Some of these people are just generally not very nice; others are ordinarily decent people, but felt so threatened by my approach that they reacted viscerally.

Of all my opponents, one stands out from the rest in consistently acting like a superb mensch. Rabbi Simcha Coffer of Toronto might keep some unsavory company and have some very strange views (of course, he thinks the same of me), but the way in which he has conducted himself is admirable and a lesson for us all. He is unfailingly polite and respectful, explains his objections in detail rather than issuing arguments from authority, and even allows open comments on his blog.

The more I learn about how deep is his opposition to evolution, the more impressed I am that he manages to remain courteous. True, in his primary post about evolution, he was forced to concede that theistic evolutionists also legitimately see God's presence in creation, and had to content himself with arguing that they are irrational for seeing direct design in the laws of nature but not in the specific features of the animal kingdom (check out the comments to this post). But this did not stop him from seeing evolution as being the greatest intellectual threat to Judaism that exists.

Lately, Rabbi Coffer has been responding to my critique of Ami magazine's article about the Orthoprax. He himself sees a simple solution for those who lack emunah in God or Torah miSinai: Just give them the books and shiurim of Rav Avigdor Miller. (No, I'm not kidding, you can see his claim here.) Rabbi Coffer's latest post responds to my previous post (the one that temporarily disappeared) in which I lamented the Orthoprax Posek's wife being unnecessarily devastated that her husband attended a conference on evolution. Rabbi Coffer makes the incredible claim that attending a conference on evolution is equivalent to attending "a conference on Bible criticism and atheism combined," and is even worse than going to a brothel!

I know that many of my readers will simply be laughing at this, but think about it from his perspective: This is how terrible he thinks evolution is, and yet he still manages to always be polite and respectful in his critiques of me! Every person, at every end of the religious spectrum, should take a lesson from this.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Orthoprax Vs. Off-The-Derech

There is a letter in the latest edition of Ami Magazine from the wife of the "Orthoprax" (goodness, I hate that term) Posek who was profiled in their notorious article "The Imposters Among Us." But before quoting the letter, I would like to differentiate between two categories: Orthoprax and "Off The Derech." There is certainly some overlap between these two categories, but they generally refer to two different phenomena.

The term "Orthoprax" (OP) usually refers to people whose departure from classical Judaism involves intellectual objections which have led them to a lack of faith, to a lesser or greater degree. While this may well lead to emotional strain, that is a result rather than a cause. They appreciate the Orthodox lifestyle and community and are still shomer Torah u'mitzvos.

The term "Off-the-Derech" (OTD), on the other hand, usually refers to people whose issues are primarily emotional. This may in turn stem from feelings of rejection which may be connected to questions that they asked, but their intellectual objections to Judaism, even if present, are secondary. Such people are often deliberately trying to break away from the conventions and standards of the Orthodox lifestyle and community. They are also usually younger than those of the previous category; in my neighborhood, these people often end up dressing as provocatively as possible and involved in substance abuse. (Note: I am not referring to well-adjusted people who have simply altogether abandoned the Orthodox community and way of life solely due to intellectual reasons, who I would refer to as "post-Orthodox." But such people seem to be a rarity, I think.)

Now, to the letter from the wife of the Orthoprax posek:

Dear Editor,

I read the article you printed about the so-called Orthoprax population with great interest, mainly because my husband, the posek (decisor), was interviewed. (If I ever envisioned myself becoming famous, this was not the way.) It was this past Tisha B’Av that he informed me that he was no longer a believer. At least the timing was perfect. Of course I noticed the telltale signs. I watched with great concern as my kollel husband no longer resembled his peers. I inwardly cringed as books, radio, Internet replaced the Talmud, Chumash, sefarim. Watching this, I remained silent as the warning of my mechanchot (teachers) echoed in my ear, “Do not be your husband’s mashgiach.” How I cried when my husband told me that he was attending a conference on evolution with his kiruv partner. I would have cried a lot harder if I knew that it were that night that he threw away the yoke of Torah.

Surprisingly, my husband had no urge to leave his yeshivish lifestyle. In fact, he felt great comfort in maintaining his outward appearance, thus joining the ranks of the Orthoprax. He no longer feels alienated now that he socializes with this eclectic group of people. People using drugs, wearing white socks and shtreimels or yeshivish hats, or having multiple ear piercings, are all embraced by this colorful group. These men and women have one thing in common: they wonder why their fellow apikorsim aren’t as emotionally healthy and normal as they are themselves.

I’m glad that he has support. However, I wish I could find my place as well. There are many programs and great awareness concerning children at risk. However, I guess most people feel uncomfortable believing that someone who dedicates his life to learning in kollel can go off the derech... that emunah is so fragile. Friends and relatives always mention how inspired they are by our yeshivish, sheltered lifestyle. Little do they know what goes on behind closed doors. If not for those special individuals guiding me, I would be lost. Those mentors all agree that with patience and unconditional love he will eventually be able to rekindle his inner spark. However, as the sole audience of his anti-religious diatribes, I wonder where that spark will emerge from. I know that he was essentially a broken person on the inside before his belief began to dwindle. Perhaps if I had provided him with sufficient fulfillment from our marriage his emotional emptiness would have not reached rock bottom. Now it’s too late. I feel as if I lost the husband that I married.

Yes, I would love to kick and scream, and would relish the opportunity to tantrum and let it all out, but I know as a religious person that life is a test. The spiritual future of my family lies in my hands. I can choose to either have joint custody with a nonreligious person or channel my inner anguish into creating a home that will make Hashem proud. I feel that I am being personally summoned by Heaven to work on my emunah. It is my hope that sometime in the future I will look into the mirror and smile at the person I have become, that I will hold my frum grandchildren close and think... it was all worth it.

I would love to be in touch with those who are living through a similar situation. You can email me at husbandoffderech@aol.com.

Mrs. “Aharon Gutberg”

Now, is she describing someone who is OP or OTD? It's not clear. Is he actually part of the multiple-body-piercings and drug-using group, or just friendly with some such people, or just theoretically open to being friendly with such people? Did he truly have emotional issues before his intellectual issues - and if so, what were they? Is he an OP that she is misinterpreting as an OTD, or is he actually OTD? The article seemed to indicate that he is an OP, but if he is an OTD, then he is out of place in the article altogether.

The situation with this husband and wife is, of course, sad. But what I personally find especially painful is how some of this tragedy is so unnecessary and possibly made worse by the wife. Was it such a tragedy that he brought secular books into the home? (I'll bet she doesn't know that Rav Dessler studied Uncle Tom's Cabin.) She cried so terribly when he attended a conference on evolution? Goodness, it's not as though it was a conference on Bible criticism or atheism! There are many fine, frum, OrthoDOX people who attend conferences on evolution, which is not at all incompatible with Torah. Perhaps if she hadn't been so unnecessarily distraught at this, her husband would not have thrown away the yoke of Torah on that day?

Rejection turns even ordinary Orthodox Jews into OTDs - it can certainly have that effect on OPs.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Was Chasam Sofer Actually Correct?

The responsum of Chasam Sofer regarding the delayed-burial controversy is probably the most-discussed and analyzed of all his responsa (see one recent example here). Yet, amazingly, it seems that nobody has ever discussed the most basic question: Was he correct?

Background: In the eighteenth century, there was widespread fear that people were being buried alive due to doctors mistakenly diagnosing them as dead before they had actually expired. (I strongly recommend Dr. Jan Bondeson's riveting book, Buried Alive, for an extensive history and analysis of this fear.) Due to these concerns, the Duke of Mecklenburg decreed that the allegedly deceased should be kept under watch for three days before burial.

Moses Mendelssohn reacted with a two-pronged approach. In a letter to the Duke of Mecklenburg, he argued that the Jews should not have to abide by this requirement. And to the Jewish community, he argued that it was not problematic to abide by it. Claiming precedent from a Mishnah, he argued that the absence of respiration is not conclusive evidence that a person has died, and thus one should wait to be certain.

A similar case arose a few years later, regarding whether a kohen could be the doctor to examine a corpse and certify that death had taken place. R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes ruled that it was permissible, invoking arguments similar to those of Mendelssohn, that the absence of respiration did not conclusively mean that the person was dead and thus the doctor could potentially be saving a life. Chasam Sofer, on the other hand, firmly opposed the idea that a person who was not breathing could be considered even doubtfully alive. He famously wrote that "even if all the winds in the world were to blow against us, we would not move from the determination of death established by Chazal."

Today, we know that the concerns about being buried alive, so widespread in the eighteenth century, were largely misplaced. They stemmed from the fact that corpses, during the process of putrefaction, do strange things, including making noise and changing position. It is thus easy for people to assume that Chasam Sofer was altogether correct in his opposition to accepting the recommendation of physicians. But was he inherently correct in his approach, or just fortunate that the physicians happened to be mistaken?

According to Chasam Sofer, from where did Chazal derive their determination of death? He presents three possible sources. One is that it was derived from a Scriptural exegesis; another is that it was received as a tradition from Moses at Sinai. But the first, primary suggestion of Chasam Sofer is that it was learned by Chazal from ancient non-Jewish physicians!

Now this raises an obvious question. If Chazal's determination of death came from the gentile physicians of antiquity, why shouldn't people in the 18th century rely upon contemporary physicians who assert that the allegedly deceased may still be alive and should not yet be buried? All Chasam Sofer says with regard to this is to say that Chazal relied upon the verse of "Lo Sasig Gevul Re'acha Asher Gavlu Rishonim" - that we follow the ancients in scientific matters. Now, that is invoked in the Gemara on Shabbos 85a regarding agricultural matters. But, given the notion of scientific progress, it is extremely difficult to justify - and to say that it applies to life-and-death situations is astounding!

As discussed on a previous occasion, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (in Shulchan Shlomo, vol. II) notes that despite Chasam Sofer’s famous declaration that all the winds in the world will not sway us from following Chazal’s ruling that a person who is not detectably breathing is considered dead, new techniques in restoring respiration result in it now taking longer to determine that respiration has irreversibly ceased, and thus the determination of death has certainly effectively changed since the times of Chazal (and indeed, even the idea of respiration having irreversibly stopped is a change from Chazal’s definition). Even today, in cases of people who have overdosed on certain medications and then suffered exposure to extreme cold, respiration cannot be detected even if they are still alive. In such a case, physicians would not permit burial; instead, they attempt to gradually restore bodily functions, sometimes successfully—and it seems unlikely that any halachic authority would object. Likewise in the case of the 8-month fetus, regarding which Chazal said that Shabbos may not be desecrated since (unlike a 7-month fetus) it has no chance of survival; no Posek says that one must follow Chazal's reliance on medicine due to Lo Sasig. Note that R. Avraham Portaleone (d. 1612), author of Shiltei Gibborim, requested that his corpse be watched for three days before burial, and freely admitted that this was following a different approach than that of his ancestors (see here).

With regard to matters of life-and-death, poskim never usually rely on Chazal's reliance on the medical opinion of antiquity. Nobody invokes Lo Sasig! The question thus remains as to why Chasam Sofer saw fit to ignore the medical opinion of his day. Was he convinced that they were mistaken — or did it have more to do with Mendelssohn’s suggestion that the traditional Jewish practice of immediate burial could be changed to accommodate the new scientific discoveries, and with the fact that the Duke was led to his decree by an anti-Semitic convert to Christianity, Olaf Gerhard Tychsen?

Today, we have the luxury of knowing that the eighteenth-century concerns were misplaced (which is, I think, the reason why people make the mistake of thinking that Chasam Sofer was altogether correct). But back then, they had no way of knowing that. A study of Bondeson's book shows that they had grounds to be concerned. Chasam Sofer's firm opposition to accepting their recommendations is astounding, especially in light of his own suggestion that Chazal themselves derived their determination of death from gentile physicians. And, as Rav Shlomo Zalman points out, the idea that we rely on Chazal in such situations is simply not true. It seems similar to Maharam Schick's opposition to any compromise on metzitzah b'peh (see here) - something primarily motivated by incipient Orthodox concerns rather than the ordinary halachic arguments.

There are clear implications for those who base their verdict regarding brain-death on the Chasam Sofer.

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah . Many news outlets this week were reporti...