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...

27 comments:

  1. One more time: Don't argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference between you.

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  2. From Tikkunei HaZohar:
    בראשית דאיהו שבת בראשית דהא שבע שבתות אינון ולכל חד אית ליה שית ימי המעשה וכל יומא דקודשא בריך הוא הוא אלף שנים הדא הוא דכתיב כי אלף שנים בעיניך וכו' ושבת בראשית שית יומין דיליה אינון אלפים תהו שני אלפים תורה שני אלפים ימות המשיח.

    My translation: The word "Bereishit" hints at "Shabbat Bereishit." Now, there are seven Shabbatot and every one of them has six working days. Every day of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is a thousand years, as is written: "A thousand years in your eyes [is like yesterday (Tehilim 90:4)]." The six [working] days of Shabbat Bereishit are 2000 [years] of Tohu, 2000 [years] of Torah, and 2000 [years] of Moshiach. End of translation.

    What this does is compare the time of this world's existence to the Omer period, seven Shabbatot. According to the old Mekubalim (sefer Temuna), the days of the last of these weeks are the millenia counted in our calendar. Further, rabbi Yitchak diAkko explains that during the earlier weeks the principle "one day is a thousand years" mentioned in the above Tikkunei HaZohar applies twice, recursively as it were. That is, the 42 days preceding the last week are really 42000 years, and each of the days of these 42000 years is a thousand years.

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  3. Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco's view does not help with this issue, for reasons explained in my own book, as well as other reasons explained by R. Meiselman in his article. To be discussed on another occasion.

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  4. don't have the article to read, but from your quote of the article

    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.

    I'd like to note that I'm pretty sure Newton wasn't a believer in an old earth, and calculated the age of the earth from tanach.

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  5. To add to your point: the Rambam explicitly says the reason he rejects Aristotle's position is not because of what it says in the Torah about creation--because had there been proof he could have reinterpreted the text as he did regarding corporeal depictions of God. The only reason the Rambam doesn't accept eternity is because the proof isn't good and because it destroys the Torah (Guide 2:25). Reinterpreting Bereishis is therefore more similar to the Rambam's explanation of scriptural anthropomorphisms than to his rejection of Aristotelian eternity of the world.

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  6. Newton's biographer, (John Kenneth Galbraith?), remarked that Newton's overall beliefs were very similar to 'Pharisaic Judaism'!

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  7. The brief citation from the article about Newton doesn't indicate much knowledge about that savant other than what one might obtain in basic physics and mechanics courses. The fact is that Newton was a deeply religious man as well as an extremely gifted mathematician and physicist. He was also a serious student of the bible (he could read tanach and talmud in the original). He certainly did not believe that the universe had no beginning. The following citations from the Wikipedia article should suffice:

    "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."

    "I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity". He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: "Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice". But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities.

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  8. "The only reason the Rambam doesn't accept eternity is because the proof isn't good and because it destroys the Torah (Guide 2:25). Reinterpreting Bereishis is therefore more similar to the Rambam's explanation of scriptural anthropomorphisms than to his rejection of Aristotelian eternity of the world."

    This is a strange line of reasoning. Does this mean that if you could convince the Rambam that reintrepreting Bereshit did destroy the Torah then he wouldn't reinterpret?

    If so, the question is not what is the age of the earth, the question is, where do you draw the line about what does and what does not destroy torah! This puts you firmly in charedi land.. or atleast the quotation from the Rambam does.

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  9. wfb said:

    "the Rambam explicitly says the reason he rejects Aristotle's position is not because of what it says in the Torah about creation--because had there been proof he could have reinterpreted the text as he did regarding corporeal depictions of God. The only reason the Rambam doesn't accept eternity is because the proof isn't good and because it destroys the Torah."

    Can you clarify how it destroys the Torah apart from what it says in the Torah about creation?

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  10. 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..."

    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.


    It's interesting that you first insert your own words into brackets within the quote from R. Meiselman and then you turn around and claim he is blurring the line between your inserted words and an uncreated universe.

    Maybe there is more consistency in the article than you are letting on?

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  11. I was sent a free copy of Dialogue. I had not read your critique and did not either remember or ever know of Meiselman's mal-treatment of you. In fact, I was looking forward to reading a preview of a book titled The Science of Torah [from which A Question of Time is excerpted]. So I didn't have any prejudice against this article based on the author.

    I will not be buying the book. This is a poorly edited text. But I can live with that.

    The real problem is that the author continually embarrasses himself as a science lightweight of the first order. The text is nothing but a series of the most obvious logical fallacies. Meiselman demonstrates a complete ignorance of any science or logic principles. And his knowledge of basic Judaism is reduced to whatever can be conveniently cherry-picked.

    R. Slifkin, don't waste your time critiquing this disgraceful publication. By only criticizing a few ideas, it makes the rest appear as if they may have some validity. It is shocking that a grown man, which I assume Meiselman is, has learned so little about subjects that he professes to have mastered.

    I would rather you spend time arguing with drunks. At least, the next day, the person will not be drunk. This Meiselman fellow is sotted in undeserved self-congratulation. He will not change.

    Disgustedly,
    Gary Goldwater

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  12. It's interesting that you first insert your own words into brackets within the quote from R. Meiselman and then you turn around and claim he is blurring the line between your inserted words and an uncreated universe.

    I only inserted those words because I had not quoted the previous paragraph, which says that the age of the universe is the topic being discussed.

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  13. R' Mieselman is a Harvard and MIT educated. It would seem surprising then that he is making and such elementary logic and scientific mistakes. What is pshat?

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  14. That will be explained in the next post!

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  15. @yitznewton:

    Eternity of the world = existed alongside God = God has no control over its functions = God can't interact with things in it by changing its functions = no Torah, no miracles

    Also, eternity of the world = determinism = no free will = no reward and punishment

    Does that make sense?

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  16. One more time: Don't argue with a fool

    R. Slifkin, don't waste your time critiquing this disgraceful publication.


    It's a prominent publication, and R. Meiselman's article is the precursor to a book. It's important to spell out the reasons why he is mistaken. I see that many people, even those who recognize that he is wrong, don't fully understand the reasons why.

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  17. Ten Jew Very MuchMay 25, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    R' Mieselman is a Harvard and MIT educated.

    An MIT degree in mathematics does not qualify one as an expert in cosmogony.

    Arthur Butz is also MIT-educated and teaches at Northwestern University ... and is a Holocaust denier. Members of the faculty there described that as "an affront to our humanity and our standards as scholars." (See
    Northwestern's newspaper 2/17/2006)

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  18. That's funny, right now I am writing tomorrow's post in which I make that point!

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  19. Ten Jew Very MuchMay 25, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    What would R' Meiselman say if Stephen Hawking were to spend a year or two writing a book reconciling the Torah's account of creation with contemporary science?

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  20. wfb, you wrote the following: To add to your point: the Rambam explicitly says the reason he rejects Aristotle's position is not because of what it says in the Torah about creation--because had there been proof he could have reinterpreted the text as he did regarding corporeal depictions of God. The only reason the Rambam doesn't accept eternity is because the proof isn't good and because it destroys the Torah (Guide 2:25).

    Can you please explain how rejecting it because "it destroys the Torah," would be different from rejecting it "because of what it says in the Torah about creation?"

    Either you are confused, or I am confused.

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  21. Student V, see what I say above.

    Basically, if an eternal world existed, it would be outside of God, and therefore it would be deterministic, following its own set of laws. Miracles would not be able to take place in such a world, which means there's no hashgacha pratis at all. Also, there wouldn't be any free will, so no reward and punishment.

    Now, if you take the Torah as literal until reality shows you that that position is untenable, then that doesn't destroy the essence of what the Torah is trying to teach, which is to fulfill some purpose, through our free will.

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  22. To all confused persons: please read the first three paragraphs of the Guide 2:25 available here: http://press.tau.ac.il/perplexed/chapters/chap_2_25.htm
    The Rambam explains that the account of creation is no more of an obstacle to reinterpretation than the anthropomorphic depictions of God. In the case of anthropomorphism, the Rambam reinterpreted the text for two reasons: there is proof that God is incorporeal, and belief in an incorporeal God does no harm to Torah principles. In contrast, the eternity of the world is both not proven, thus there is no reason to reject creation, and belief in eternal, unchanging matter uproots the foundations of religion, thus there is reason to reject eternity.
    The issue of the age of the universe is like the issue of God's incorporeality in that it has no effect on fundamental principles; it is just an issue of authority (albeit, not even of an explicit biblical text). As such, the "young earth" position is similar to those who insist that God has a body because that is the literal meaning of the text. To such people, the Rambam says: אמונתנו שהאלוה אינו גוף אינה הורסת לנו דבר מיסודות התורה ואינה מכחישה טענת שום נביא ואין בה אלא מה שהבורים טוענים שיש בזאת ניגוד לכתוב

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  23. R' Mieselman is a Harvard and MIT educated. It would seem surprising then that he is making and such elementary logic and scientific mistakes. What is pshat?

    One possible p'shat is that it was ghostwritten by FKM.

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  24. "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."

    See also the quote from RYBS in the last footnote that Torah and science are irredeemably at loggerheads with each other. Science denies Briah Yesh M'ayin....

    All RYBS is talking about (unless an important part of the quote was carelessly omitted) is scientific denial of CREATION ITSELF as understood by the Torah. It has no bearing on the age of the universe. Here too RMM blurs the distinction between the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is.

    For the record, however, it might not be RMM's oversight but Rabbi Kaplan's.

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  25. Jim, you're stealing my thunder. I have a whole post planned about Meiselman's distortion of RYBS. And he seems to be issuing a false accusation against Rabbi Kaplan.

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  26. Just to be clear, modern science does not think the Earth is infinitely old, just *VERY* old. 4.3 GYears to be exact.

    The first person to try to work out a physical age of the Earth separate from human history was Edmund Halley (after whom the comet is named). Actually Halley is in many ways the real hero of early modern science, but that is a different story.

    Epur Si Muave

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  27. Point of information. I see some new figures here for the age of the earth and universe. I had understood that the earth and solar system was 4.5 billion years old - based on radiometric data on meteorites, and that the universe was 13.7 billion years old - based on data from the small temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background and the recent measurements of the Hubble constant. Here figures of 4.3 and 13.8 billion years are cited. Is this based on new data (scientific references would be appreciated) or are they errors?

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