Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rationalist Rishonim: Riaz

During the great "Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy" of 2004-2005, one of my opponents' favorite sources was the following Gemara:

Rabbi Yochanan sat and expounded, "The Holy One is destined to bring precious stones and pearls that are thirty by thirty (cubits) and hollow out of them an area ten by twenty and stand them at the gates of Jerusalem." A certain student scoffed at him: “Now that we do not even find such things in the size of a small dove’s egg, can ones of such size be found?!” After some time, he set out to sea in a ship, and saw ministering angels that were sitting and carving precious stones and pearls that were thirty by thirty and hollowing out ten by twenty. He said to them, “Who are these for?” They said to him, “The Holy One is destined to stand them at the gates of Jerusalem.” He came before Rabbi Yochanan and said to him, “Expound, my rebbe, it is fitting for you to expound; just as you said, thus I saw.” Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Empty one! If you hadn’t seen it, then would you not have believed it?! You are a scoffer at the words of the sages!” He gave him a look and he became a heap of bones. (Talmud, Bava Basra 75a)

At face value, this Gemara certainly appears to be an indictment of the rationalist approach. However, there were plenty of rationalist Rishonim, and they also knew about this Gemara. In my article Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists (freely available here) I showed how they understood the Gemara in a rationalist manner; ironically, they saw it as a condemnation of anti-rationalists!

I recently came across another authority who took a rationalist approach to such discussions in the Gemara. Rabbi Yeshayah of Trani II (known as Riaz, 1235-1300), grandson of Rid, was a prominent halachist. He was also of a strong rationalist orientation (although not to the same degree as, say, Rambam). In his introduction to Perek Chelek of Sanhedrin (which you can see here) he describes three approaches to take with outlandish aggadic material.

The first category are statements that were said by way of exaggeration. He says that there are many examples of this in the Talmud, and gives the Rabbah bar bar Chanah stories as an example. Presumably these exaggerations were given for dramatic effect, and/or to grab people's attention. This would be similar to Rashba's claim (in his commentary to Berachos 54b) that a Sage would sometimes insert outlandish statements in his derashah in order to prevent people from dozing off. (See too R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes in his Introduction to the Talmud, ch. 26 - and thanks to Dr. Marc Shapiro for the reference.)

Riaz's second category is that of accounts that happened by way of miracles, which God performs for the righteous. (This is why I mentioned that Riaz was not as much of a rationalist as Rambam, who would never say such a thing.) Curiously, Riaz again gives the example of the Rabbah bar bar Chanah stories, which he earlier claimed were said by way of exaggeration - apparently he felt that there aspects of both.

The third category given by Riaz is exceptionally interesting. He writes that "There are those Midrashim with which the intent of the Sages was to expound Scripture in all possible ways." Riaz first gives the following example:

See what one of the sages expounded in the first chapter of Taanis (5b), where he said, "Yaakov Avinu did not die." And another sage responded, "But was it for nothing that they eulogized him and mummified him and buried him? And he responded, "I am expounding a verse." By which he meant to say, I also know that he died, but I am expounding Scripture in any suitable way. And if this exegesis cannot be in accordance with its plain meaning, then it has a hidden meaning, according to which we can say that he did not die, just as they said that "the righteous are called 'living' even in death," as their name and memory and deeds exist forever.
Riaz then cites another Gemara which is very similar to the story at the beginning of this post:
Rabban Gamliel sat and expounded: [In the Messianic Era] the Land of Israel is destined to grow fresh bread and garments of fine wool, as it states, “May there be an abundance of grain in the land” (Ps. 72:16). A certain student mocked him, saying. “There is nothing new under the sun!” Rabban Gamliel said to him, Come and I will show you an example in this world, and he went and showed him mushrooms and truffles (as an example of instant bread-like food); and regarding the garments of fine wool, he showed him the fibrous growth around young palm-shoots. (Shabbos 30b)

Many people take this to mean that Rabban Gamliel was using these examples from today to help the student accept that one day there will even be food and clothing growing on trees. But Riaz explains that Rabban Gamliel did not mean any such thing:

He informed him that one should explain the Midrash in a way that is close to it. And the verse is coming to teach us that the Creator is destined to innovate great good in the world.

In other words, Rabban Gamliel's point was that in the Messianic era, sustenance will be remarkably easy and plentiful. (Which we see happening!)

Riaz later makes a fascinating statement, which is difficult to translate:

ועוד אמרו בתלמוד ארץ ישראל, בפרק שביעי של נזיר [ה״ב] וכי המדרשות אמנה הם, דרוש וקבל שכר, הא לך הדבר מבואר שלא אמרו חכמים המדרשים על דרך אמנה ועיקר, אלא להרבות טעמים למקרא, ולדורשו בכל פנים, ואולי יש בהן רמז.
And they further said in the Talmud of the Land of Israel, in Chapter Seven of Nazir: "But are midrashos a matter of emunah? Rather, expound and receive reward." Thus it is made clear that the Sages did not say Midrashim by way of dogma and fundamentals, but rather to increase insights into Scripture, and to expound them in every way, and perhaps (emphasis added) they contain an allusion.

Riaz later stresses that one must not scoff at such expositions. But neither should one take them literally, or as dogma.

(By the way: I have a great source to post on the topic of learning vs. working, but it is extremely long to translate, and I just don't have the time. If anyone is interested in volunteering, please be in touch.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Defending Shechitah

Today, the Dutch parliament voted to ban shechitah. This is just one part of an ongoing battle against shechitah in several countries.

As far as I am aware, the only approach used by Jewish groups to defend shechitah is to argue that it is painless. I don't know if that is true or not. (Some of the "scientific" defense of shechitah seems rather dated and biased. On the other hand, I have seen various quotes from Temple Grandin saying that shechitah can be done without undue pain, and that the main issue is how the animal is treated beforehand.)

But what I do feel is that an alternative strategy should be considered. Because I know of no theological reason why shechitah should necessarily be entirely painless. Furthermore, if you defend shechitah on the grounds that it has "scientifically" been proven painless, then you are effectively conceding that if science proves otherwise, then shechitah should not be done.

Instead, I think that shechitah should be defended on the following grounds: that to the extent that pain is caused to the animal, this is justified for religious benefits.

No country rules that no pain may be caused to animals. All legal systems allow pain to be caused to animals for human benefit. Medical experimentation is one example. Even farming animals for food usually involves some level of distress to the animals. Yet it is permitted, because people are entitled to eat meat.

Of course, this is not unlimited. The pain caused to animals must be commensurate with the human benefit. Many countries prohibit various blood sports in which the pain caused to the animal is not considered justified by the pleasure of hunting. But when there is substantial, legitimate benefit to humans, all legal systems permit causing pain to animals.

Shechitah is the only means by which Jews can eat meat. Eating meat is a legitimate human need, and Judaism is an ancient way of life which deserves respect. Even if shechitah does cause pain to animals, it is justified - especially since the suffering is likely not of long duration. I think that this is ultimately the correct defense (although I will admit that I am not certain if, strategically speaking, it is the best defense to use).

At the same time, the kosher meat industry certainly could improve a lot in terms of how the animals are treated before shechitah. I'm always amazed at how people who are makpid about every minutiae of rabbinic chumra are often entirely unconcerned with the d'Oraisa of tzaar baalei chaim. As Rabbi Aryeh Carmell ztz"l wrote:
It seems doubtful… whether the Torah would sanction “factory farming,” which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. (Masterplan, p. 69)

Many halachic authorities are of the opinion that minor benefits and financial benefits, such as those obtained via factory farming, do not warrant causing pain to animals. It is true that the majority opinion is in the other direction. Still, considering that many people are fastidious to meticulously fulfill the laws of kashrus according to all opinions, such punctiliousness should surely also apply to the laws of tzaar baalei chayim. That is to say, since there are opinions which state that financial benefits (such as those enabled through factory farming) do not justify the suffering thereby caused to animals, those who are meticulous to follow all opinions should surely be consistent and refrain from consuming animals farmed in such a manner. Additionally, they should be working to ensure that farmed animals suffer as little as possible, whether they are farmed for food or fur. Aside from the innate importance and value of that, I'm sure it would assist in the general campaign to defend shechitah.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hyper-Rationalism and Segulos

In the comments to an earlier post regarding the Silver Segulah Ring, someone referred approvingly to a discussion of segulos which claims that the rationalist approach to segulos is normative in Judaism and was the view of Rashba:

"it is clear from the Rashba that the framework within which Segulos work is the framework of science and nature; we simply are not privy to all of the workings of science and nature...  If we take the attitude that empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles, then we are relating properly to Segulos; if, however, we think that they are some type of magical force, then we have dangerously crossed the border into a non-Torah perspective...."

However, not only is this not "clear" from Rashba; in fact, he says nothing of the sort.

Rashba (a.k.a. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderes, 1235–1310) discussed this matter in the context of his disagreeing strongly with Rambam's across-the-board dismissal of all magic (and similar phenomena for which there is no rational explanation) as being nonsense and thus prohibited. Rashba points out that the Gemara is full of such things, which (unlike Rambam) he takes authoritatively, and he stresses that these practices are endorsed even though there is no rational explanation for them. Rashba later delivers what he believes to be the coup de grâce:

עוד יש לי מקום עיון בדברי הרב ז"ל שכתב אמרו בפי' כל שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי. רוצה בזה כל מה שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי הוא מותר וזולתו אסור. ע"כ. ואני שואל כמסתפק בדברי הרב ז"ל מהו הדבר שיקראוהו הרב ז"ל שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי. אם מה שיגזרהו עיון חכמי' שחברו ספרים בטבע כאריסטו וגאלינוס וחבריהם שחברו ספרים בטבע הסמים והמסעדים המועילים לפי עיונם וכל מה שלא השיג עיונם הוא בכלל איסור דרכי האמורי. לפי שעיון חכמים אלו שהשתדלו בחכמת הטבע כולל כל מה שאפשר להיות פעל כל בעל טבע בטבעו. ואצל עיון חכמים אלו יפסק מאפשרות העיון הטבעי. זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. (שו"ת הרשב"א חלק א סימן תיג)

Here, Rashba argues that it is impossible to claim that only phenomena for there is a rational explanation are real and permitted. His reason is that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah. Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Now, I myself, in my monograph on demons, argued that one cannot simply assert that those who believed in demons and suchlike were not rationalists. Things looked different in the medieval period, and some people believed in such things for rational reasons. Nevertheless, there is still an enormous gulf separating the rationalist Rishonim of Spain from the mystical Rishonim and from the non-rationalist Rishonim in Ashkenaz.

Superficially, Rashba's discussion appears not too far removed from that of Ralbag. Ralbag was an extreme rationalist, yet he likewise asserts that magnets can only be explained in terms of being a segulah. However, the term segulah as used by Ralbag (and Rashba) has been borrowed from pharmacology, where it refers to peculiar properties which cannot be explained in terms of its constituent elements (see Y. Tzvi Langermann, "Gersonides on the Magnet and the Heat of the Sun"). In applying it to magnets, Ralbag is claiming that the nature of the magnet cannot be grasped by the science of his day; but he is not explaining it to be a supernatural phenomenon, and he did not see it as reason to accept the validity of magic.

For Rashba, on the other hand, there is no distinction between that which science cannot currently explain, and that which it will never explain. Rashba's point is not that there are "empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles." On the contrary; his view is that there are principles other than laws of science and nature that operate. Unlike Rambam, who realized that magnets are a solely naturalistic phenomenon, Rashba believed that magnets operate in a different realm - that of segulah. According to Rashba, the framework within which segulos work is precisely not the framework of science and nature. He therefore sees magnets as reason to accept belief in magic and all such phenomena. The lack of any conceivable scientific explanation for a phenomenon is no reason whatsoever to doubt its existence.

Now, it is true that even today, we don't really understand what magnetism, or gravity for that matter, actually is. We can measure and describe how it works, but we still don't know what it fundamentally is. Nevertheless, we are fully confident that it is a natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon. Rambam and even Ralbag felt the same way, which is why their inability to comprehend magnetism or other phenomena did not prevent them from dismissing other phenomena as clearly false. The line between science and pseudo-science is not always clear, but there are nevertheless many things that we confidently dismiss as non-existent. Rashba, on the other hand, did not believe that we can ever dismiss phenomena as scientifically impossible and false - and saw magnets as evidence for this.

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that the person claiming Rashba to be a scientific rationalist is Rabbi Saul Zucker, an alumnus of YBT (Yeshivah Bnei Torah). In the past, I disputed Rabbi Zucker regarding his belief that all Rishonim, including those of Ashkenaz, were Maimonidean-style philosophers and logicians. I have also pointed out his error in claiming that Rashi believed in magic for rationalist, scientific reasons. Other graduates of YBT have gone so far as to claim that Rashi did not believe in magic, and some have even claimed that he did not believe in demons.

YBT is a very fine institution; some of my best friends learned there. But YBT stresses that the Maimonidean rationalist/ philosophical/ logical approach to emunah and theology is the correct, authentic and traditional approach. And along with such an extreme, hyper-rationalist approach, comes the belief that such an approach was held by all great people in Jewish history.

I strongly identify with the rationalist approach. But I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that all great Torah scholars in history must have been rationalists. That is no different from Charedim claiming that all great Torah scholars in history were Charedim, or from Kabbalists claiming that all great Torah scholars were secretly kabbalists, or from Rav Moshe Shapiro claiming that all great Torah scholars were Maharalniks. Just because you strongly identify with a certain approach, it does not mean that all great people felt the same way!

(See too the post entitled "Modern Orthodox Charedim.")

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gedolim, Tzaddikim, and Leaders

A long time ago I posted about two related and curious phenomena.

The first is that there is a common assumption that if someone excels in one area of Torah knowledge, it means that he excels in all areas. The most common manifestation of this error is that it is assumed that if someone is a great lamdan, then he is also a great theologian. Yet this is clearly not the case.

The second phenomenon is the common, but baseless, assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must be a tzaddik, and often vice-versa. I don't think that this is entirely baseless, but there certainly is not a firm correlation.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is another related phenomenon. There is a common, but baseless, assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must be a great leader.

This last misconception is especially odd because Tenach is replete with the idea that the two are not necessarily connected. First of all, with some obvious exceptions, the greatest Torah scholar (or other such person connected with Hashem) was not necessarily the leader of the Jewish People. Second, there are people who, at least in the Charedi view, are understood to be Gedolei Torah (e.g. Korach's group) and yet were clearly not suited to be leaders.

Furthermore, throughout history, there was usually a divide between the political leadership of the Jewish People and the rabbinic elite. And it's pretty obvious that there have been some great Torah scholars who were thrust into leadership roles and yet were/are very poor leaders. Leadership requires very different skills than Torah scholarship, and there is no reason why brilliance in the latter should automatically qualify one for the former.

This seems rather obvious, so why the widespread misconception? In many circles, it's unthinkable to point out that a person is an outstanding Torah scholar, and even a tzaddik, and yet a very poor leader. It probably has to do with the general simplistic, black-and-white view of things that is so prevalent.

(Please try to keep the comments constructive, to the extent possible with a topic such as this.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Return of the Hyrax

I am thrilled to announce that, due to a fortunate confluence of factors, a new edition of The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax is going to press next week! This new edition contains much new material throughout the book and has been fully revised. Click here to go to the book's webpage where you can pre-order it at a steep discount.

B'ezras Hashem, the book will be printed in time for me to bring a number of copies to the US at the end of July. However it will probably not reach the stores in the US until September. Daf Yomi is getting to this topic in mid-August.

Below is a video of a hyrax engaged in the mysterious behavior that certainly looks like rumination. What it is actually doing, nobody knows.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rav Sternbuch Clarifies... Or Does He?

Rav Moshe Sternbuch, head of the Bedatz - Eidah Charedis, is an interesting figure. On the one hand, during the controversy over my books, he condemned any attempt to reconcile Bereishis with science. On the other hand, he openly voiced his endorsement of Rabbi Nosson Kamenetzky's banned book Making Of A Godol.

The "Silver Segulah Ring" advertisement, that we discussed yesterday, cited Rav Sternbuch as endorsing it. But in this week's Mishpachah, Rav Sternbuch clarifies his stance (courtesy of the Daas Torah blog):

But what does this actually mean? There are several possibilities.

It superficially appears to mean that he firmly believes that the true silver segulah ring works, but he has not ascertained if this is the real McCoy.

But it could be that he doesn't believe in such segulos, yet of course cannot say so in public, and so this is how he avoids endorsing it.

Alternatively, it could be something in the middle - he does believe that segulos work, but is uncomfortable with the excesses of the silver-segulah-ring advertisement, and wants to disassociate from it.

I have no idea which of these is what he meant.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Ring of Power

There has been much discussion about a large ad in last week's Mishpachah for a segulah ring; you can see the pages of the advertisement here and here. R. Josh Waxman has discovered more information about the ring and has some valuable analysis here and here. (And thanks to the Jewish Worker for alerting me to this.)

Many have observed that this ring has certain resemblances to the One Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings. However, there are also certain differences; here is a table listing both similarities and differences: 

Silver Segulah Ring The One Ring
Crafted by G-d fearing Yidden in purity Crafted by the Dark Lord, Sauron, in evil
Made from pure silver Made from pure gold
Immersed in a mikvah Immersed in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom
Must be double-wrapped at all times Must be secured as tends to escape its bearer
Engraved with special holy Sheimos HaKedoshim Engraved with Sauron's incantations
Cannot be manufactured by anyone other than Mr. Avraham Leib Schwartz Cannot be manufactured by anyone other than Sauron
Possesses special powers Possesses special powers
Can be purchased Not generally available

Contrary to what some might expect, I don't make a habit of scoffing at segulos on this website, for several reasons. One is that it's all too easy for blog to descend in scoffing; I try to engage in the more difficult task of constructing a school of thought rather than destructing others. It's not as though any of my readers are going to be buying it, anyway.

Furthermore, one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? True, one can draw distinctions, but the efficacy of petitionary prayer may be difficult to justify on a solely rational level. In fact, it seems that according to Rambam, while petitionary prayer is of great religious importance, it does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests. (See Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, for extensive discussion of this.) Of course, even according to this approach, there are still much better reasons for engaging in petitionary prayer than in segulos!

However, segulos can be helpful on a psychological level. In Making Of A Godol, Rabbi Nosson Kametzky describes how the whole Amukah-shidduch-segulah was invented a few decades ago by an enterprising tour operator. Yet Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was not in favor of revealing this to the public, since he believed that it was comforting for people to go there.

On the other hand, the "segulah ring" seems to be an attempt to extract money from gullible people via highly misleading claims, which makes it more dangerous. A few years ago, I was horrified to find that our cleaner was giving all the money we paid her to a person who claimed to have special powers of prayer. And when my father z"l was dying, the segulah-hawkers quickly came out of the woodwork. Last year, in Israel, there was a news report about a "kabbalist" who had taken a fortune from gullible people (can anyone provide the link?). And the tactics of Kupat Ha'Ir in Bnei Brak for preying upon people's emotional weaknesses, are simply disgusting (although at least in that case, the money is for charitable purposes, albeit debatably).

So, in light of the particular excesses of the segulah ring - its extreme promises and its requirement for payment - I think it certainly should be criticized. However, it is important to be thoughtful about this, rather than to have a knee-jerk reaction to scoff at anything that doesn't meet one's own personal standard of rationality.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Heaven's Sake

On Shabbos, I heard a dvar Torah from someone whom I know to have a decidedly anti-rationalist orientation. I'm not sure if it was reflected in his dvar Torah. He asked why the spies, who were Gedolei HaDor, would have wanted to make the Bnei Yisrael miserable at the prospect of entering the Land of Israel. His answer was that the spies saw that the Bnei Yisrael were excited about going into the land, which was a deficiency in the purity of their motives; by dampening their enthusiasm, their goal was to make the Bnei Yisrael want to enter solely l'shem Shamayim.

To back this up, the speaker told a story about how when Rav Chaim of Volozhin originally decided to open a yeshivah, he went to the Vilna Gaon, who told him not to do it. A year later he asked again, and the Gra gave him the go-ahead. He asked the Gra to explain his change, and the Gra replied that on the first occasion, he saw that Rav Chaim was excited about it; a year later, he saw that he was less excited, and so it would be l'shem Shamayim.

Now, I'm not sure exactly what the speaker meant. He might have simply meant that sometimes excitement is an inappropriate substitute for genuine good motives. For example, charity campaigns sometimes have some sort of shtick to excite people into giving, which, while better than their not giving, is still not as good as people giving out of genuine altruism. That's a fair point.

On the other hand, the speaker might have been saying something along the lines of a chassidishe maaseh that a friend told me, about a rebbe who stopped giving charity for a month. His reason was that he enjoyed giving charity; he therefore wanted to stop, and train himself to be miserly, so that when he went back to giving charity, it would be l'shem Shamayim.

Now, non-rationalists don't necessarily take such a viewpoint. However, such a viewpoint is only found with non-rationalists.

As I noted a while back, Rambam explains that all mitzvos serve either to inculcate a truth, to improve one's character, or to improve society. To be sure, we can't always figure out how the mitzvos do this - with chukkim, we are obedient to God's instructions even without understanding what they accomplish, since we can be confident that He must have good reasons - but they definitely serve to accomplish something in this world. And with many mitzvos, it's very clear what they serve to accomplish. As such, to give charity out of compassion, and thereby to feel satisfaction from fulfilling one's compassionate drive, is not any kind of deficiency in the mitzvah; it's the whole point of it. (Rambam himself was very extreme in the rationalist approach, believing that such character improvement serves only to prepare one for philosophical perfection, but a more mainstream rationalist approach would agree that identifying with the rationale for the mitzvah is in no way a deficiency.)

Netziv, on the other hand, representing a non-rationalist viewpoint, says that “...all the 'reasons' for mitzvos are only to make them appealing to the intellect... but Heaven forbid to think that they are actually the main intent of the Giver of the Torah…” According to this approach, one should ideally not emotionally identify with the "alleged" reasons for the mitzvos, since they are not the true reasons; they are only an incentive for the weak.

Like I said, I'm not sure what the speaker was saying. But, either way, there is an important point here to appreciate. To be sure, we are obligated to observe the mitzvos whether we identify with them or not. But it's certainly preferable to identify with them - and that means identifying with the sentiments of the mitzvah. As a rebbe of mine once told me: When you do a chessed, you should be happy at helping someone; not smiling only superficially, and internally being focused solely on God. That's exactly what the mitzvah is all about, for Heaven's sake.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mussar From Movies?

Back in my super-charedi yeshivah days, I used to argue with a non-charedi acquaintance of mine about getting mussar from movies and secular books. He was a big proponent of it, while I insisted that Torah bagoyim - al ta'amin! Fifteen years later, I have matured, and I recognize that one can draw both inspiration and valuable lessons from every culture and medium. Nevertheless, I still have grave reservations about presenting movies as vehicles for mussar. In this post, I will discuss one movie which I think presents a powerful lesson, and another movies which teaches harmful lessons.

The Lion King is one of the most amazing animated films I have seen. But I think that it is a movie which teaches bad lessons! More precisely, I think it is a movie which teaches precisely the opposite of the valuable lessons that it purports to be teaching.

There are two lessons that The Lion King presents itself as teaching. One is the importance of everything in the ecosystem. The spectacular opening sequence shows everything from tiny ants to majestic elephants, all being part of  "The Circle of Life."

Except that in the world of Disney, there are "good" animals and "bad" animals. Good animals are majestic lions, cute meerkats and amusing warthogs. Bad animals are ugly lions that speak with a British accent, and especially hyenas. Hyenas, apparently, aren't part of the Circle of Life. They don't appear in the opening sequence, despite their prominent role on the film, and they don't live amongst the other animals.

Yet in reality, there is no such thing as good animals and bad animals. Hyenas are an essential part of the ecosystem. Their scavenging habits are invaluable not just from an ecological perspective, but also from a Jewish perspective, as you can read about in Perek Shirah: Nature's Song. Hyenas are a very important part of the Circle of Life - they are the chevra kaddisha!

The second message purportedly taught by The Lion King is the importance of responsibility. The story of the film is all about how young Simba initially wants to just have fun and live a carefree life, but ultimately has to learn to take responsibility as king of the Pridelands.

Except that in practice, the movie teaches exactly the opposite lesson. It spends much more time, and far more engagingly, teaching about abusing power ("I just can't wait to be king!") and evading responsibility (Hakuna matata - no worries!). That's what kids are more likely to remember from it!

I could write volumes on similar cases of Disney teaching bad lessons, often the opposite of the lessons that it claims to be teaching, but I'll leave them for future posts. For now, I'll turn to a little-known old film from about twenty years ago that I think is very inspirational. (It also features one of the greatest animal actors of all time - a fifteen hundred pound grizzly bear - which is another reason why I like it!)

The Edge is about two people, played by Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who are stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. They face all kinds of challenges, including getting back to civilization, finding food, surviving attacks by a killer bear, and dealing with each other. The story powerfully illustrates how the way in which we use our free will, when challenged with adversity, transforms us. Baldwin constantly makes self-destructive bad choices, while Hopkins rises to the occasion almost every time, even when he has every excuse not to.  Interestingly, the writer of the film, David Mamet, was in the news recently for being chozer b'teshuvah not only in his affiliation to Judaism and Israel, but also in his political views.

In general, though, movies are about entertainment, not education. To my mind, the written word is a vastly superior educational medium than the talking picture.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Yesterday, I noted how Chasam Sofer was of the view that the Sanhedrin may be mistaken in their rulings, and yet they must be obeyed, due to the importance of a centralized rabbinic authority. In this, he was following the approach of Sefer HaChinnuch (and, arguably, some others). Rav Yosef Caro, as explained by Rabbi Shlomo Fisher, takes the same approach to Chazal. Chazal could indeed be mistaken; nevertheless, we never dispute their rulings. This is because the Jewish People canonized the Gemara; we accept its binding authority, regardless of whether or not Chazal were correct. (Cases involving matters of life and death are an exception to this, as discussed previously).

In my book Sacred Monsters, I noted that Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog applies this approach to the famous case of lice. The Gemara permits killing lice, on the basis that they (were believed to) spontaneously generate. Rav Herzog acknowledged that spontaneous generation had been rejected by modern science, and understood that the ruling permitting lice to be killed on Shabbos was based on this belief. Yet he nevertheless ruled that it is still permissible to kill lice on Shabbos:
…It is permissible to kill a louse on Shabbos, due to it not reproducing, as explained in Tractate Shabbos 107b, i.e. that since a louse does not come from a male and female but rather from sweat, it is not considered a creature such as to prohibit killing it on Shabbos… Although modern science, as far as I know, does not acknowledge the existence of spontaneous generation, for halachic purposes we have nothing other than the words of the Sages. (Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 29)

Until now, while I thought that this was also implicit in earlier sources, Rav Herzog was the only authority that I knew of to explicitly apply this approach with the case of lice. But I recently found another such source. Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924) was chief rabbi of Klausenberg in Hungary, who was widely celebrated for his extraordinary commentary on Chullin entitled Dor Revi'i. He writes as follows:

Due to the canonization of the Oral Torah in writing, the statement that “[According to the law that they direct you… you shall do…] even if they say right is left” — by which the Torah instructed that the minority of a given generation is bound by the decision of the majority — applies now, after the completion of the Mishnah, Talmud, and the like, also between generations. This means that if a generation subsequent to the finalization of the Mishnah discovers that the authors of the Mishnah erred, or similarly, if a generation subsequent to the completion of the Talmud finds that the authors of the Talmud erred, we remain with the consensus of the earlier ones, whether this result in stringency or leniency. This is just as the Sefer HaChinnuch writes, that it is better to tolerate one error in one law, than to destroy, God forbid, the entire edifice. We cannot deviate from that which they established as law in the Mishnah or Gemara even regarding something based on science or other disciplines... Consider also that we rule that one is not liable for killing a louse on Shabbat (Orach Chaim 316:9), and that it is permissible to eat fruit and cheese that have developed worms, provided the worms have not separated from the fruit (Yoreh De’ah 84). These laws are founded upon the consensus of the Sages (Shabbat 107b) that these insects spontaneously generated rather than through sexual reproduction… Now in truth, the scientific consensus today is that there is no insect that does not procreate by means of eggs. Nevertheless, we shall not overturn the law, even in the name of stringency, against the ruling and consensus of our Sages… Once compelling need necessitated that the Oral Torah be canonized for future generations, we do not have the authority to change even the slightest detail which they decided and agreed upon, whether with regard to the explication of verses or matters relating to science, for all their Torah is holy to us, and one must not deviate from it… (Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Dor Revi’i, Chullin, Introduction)

I don't know how I missed this source, all these years, but it's going to be in the next edition of Sacred Monsters! Thanks to Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman for bringing it to my attention.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unorthodoxy of Chasam Sofer

R. Moshe Sofer, better known as Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) is considered to have launched Orthodox Judaism. In response to the Reform movement, which sought to undermine the importance of various halachos and minhagim, Chasam Sofer adopted the approach of building up their status in order to render them inviolable. It therefore comes as a surprise to find him adopting a somewhat unorthodox approach to the question of rabbinic fallibility regarding the Sanhedrin.

Let us begin with a passuk which is a foundation for rabbinic authority:

"According to the law that they direct you and the judgment that they will say to you, you shall do; you should not deviate right or left from the verdict that they instruct you." (Devarim 17:11)

This verse is taken to specifically refer to the zaken mamre, the sage who must conform to the ruling of the rabbinical court even if he disputes them. There is an intriguing halachic Midrash on this verse, often quoted by advocates of Daas Torah (despite the fact that it is referring to court decisions), which states as follows:
"Even if it appears to you that they are telling you that right is left and left is right, you must listen to them." (Sifre)

Now, there is a contradictory statement in the Jerusalem Talmud, which states that one must not follow them if they say that right is left and left is right. There is extensive discussion regarding whether this can be reconciled with the Midrash, with most taking the view that the two are referring to different circumstances. In any case, there is clearly a traditional idea that, given certain circumstances, the zaken mamre must conform to the Sanhedrin even if they appear to be mistaken. One might presume that this is because even if they appear to be mistaken, they are actually always correct, due to their being the majority of Sages, or due to their receiving divine assistance. That is usually the approach of Orthodox apologists. But Chasam Sofer says otherwise.

Chasam Sofer raises, and then rejects, the idea that the Sanhedrin receive divine assistance to ensure that they are never mistaken - despite the fact that this was proposed by no less a figure than Ramban. His reason for rejecting it is that, as seen in the Talmudic story of the Achnai oven, no form of divine intervention is permitted in the halachic process — “[The Torah] is not in Heaven.” The Sanhedrin are human beings, and they are thus, by definition, fallible. Chasam Sofer concludes that one is obligated to accept that the Sanhedrin can make mistakes. He further points out that the zaken mamre may be wiser than all the rest of the Sanhedrin, and may even have the majority of non-Sanhedrin scholars on his side. Nevertheless, he is obligated to adhere to the ruling of the Sanhedrin, due to the importance of having a system of authority. Chasam Sofer gives the powerful example of a lone judge on the Sanhedrin who is of the view that a certain food is not kosher, and is actually correct — yet if the rest of the Sanhedrin rules that it is kosher, and he refrains from eating it, then he is deserving of the death penalty! The ruling of the majority must be followed due to the importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy - not because they are necessarily correct.

Here is the relevant section, from שו"ת חתם סופר חלק ה - השמטות סימן קצא

ועוד דמסיים שם אפי' יאמר לך על ימין שהוא שמאל וכו' ומכ"ש שאומר לך על ימין שהוא ימין ועל שמאל שהוא שמאל, דבר זה אין לו שחר, מאי כ"ש הוא זה, הרי הממרא יטעון ימינו ימין צדק וימינם שקר, ומי יברר שיהי' זה כ"ש, וצע"ג לכאורה. אבל הפי' הברור הוא כך, דהנה זקן ממרא וחבריו המה גדולי עולם המחלוקי' עם ב"ד, ואף על גב שהמה גדולי ישראל היושבי' לפני ה' בביתו אין מזה הכרח שיהי' סברתם אמת, ואפשר הבנת הזקן בקרא יותר אמיתי, ולא המקום מכבד וכו', ואפי' יהי' הם רוב טבא חדא פלפלא חריפתא ממלא צני קרי, ועוד אפשר יהי' הזקן וכת דילי' אלפי' ורבבות, והסנהדרי' בכלל אינם אלא ע"א. אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא גזר ואמר שעל פי הבנתם בקרא יוחתך הדין וההלכה, יען כי השורש לא בשמים היא, ואין משגיחי' בבת קול, ואם יבוא נביא ויאמר כך נאמרה הלכה זו בשמים אין משגיחי', ועוד שחייב מיתה כנבי' שקר, שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר כן לנביא, ואפי' ליב"נ לא אמר ההלכות ששכח עד שהחזירן עתניאל בן קנז בפלפולו, והנה מי יודע שכיון עתניאל בן קנז האמת בפלפולו, ודיעות אנשי' משתני' בהבנת הקרא הנכתב ובסברות ק"ו וכדומה. אלא שהקב"ה נתן התורה עפ"י הבנתם כדי שלא ירבה מחלוקות בישראל, דא"כ אין לדבר סוף. וע"כ ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאם ח"ו יארע מקרה מקרה לא טהור שקמי שמי' גלי' שחלב שעל הדקין חייב כרת, והסנהדרי' שבאותו הדור לפי קוצר שכלם אינם מבינים האמת, ואחר שעיינו היטב לשם שמים ודנו זה נגד זה נכשלו הרוב, ואמרו על האסור מותר, ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא, וכל ישראל ישמעו ויראו ויאכלו אותו החלב ואין להם עון אשר חטאו בזה, כיון שב"ד הגדול טעו בזה הקדוש ברוך הוא ויתר בזה. ולא עוד אלא הזקן ממרא בעצמו, אם מחמיר על עצמו ואינו אוכל מטעם שחושש לדבריו הראשונים, אעפ"י שקמי שמי' גלי' שהדין עמו, וכן כ' להדי' רמב"ם ריש פ"ד מממרים שאפי' הם מקילי' והוא מחמיר חייב מיתה, ואולי אעפ"י שחייב מיתה אין ממיתן על החומרא דהוה שב ואל תעשה, מ"מ חייב מיתה. וזהו תיקון גדול שלא ירבה מחלוקות בישראל. נמצא אין להזקן הזה לדאוג כלל איך אוכל החלב הזה ואיך אעשה מלאכה זו בשבת, אל תדאג, כי אפי' לו יהי' שאומרי' לך על ימין דגלי קמי' שמי' שהוא שמאל לפי טעות הבנתם, הרי הוא ימין, כי הקדוש ברוך הוא ויתר. ושוב אומר סברא אחרת, מאחר שהנחנו כנ"ל, ממילא יש לנו להאמין שבודאי אומרי' על ימין ימין באמת ולא טעו, אלא כיוונו כוונת נותן התורה ית"ש, כיון שהקב"ה נתן התורה על דעתם והבנתם של אלו, ושני הכתות כוונתם לשם שמים לכוון האמת, וכשיטעו אלו הרי כל ישראל מוטעי' באונס', חזקה על הקדוש ברוך הוא שרגלי חסידיו ישמור ולא תצא כזאת מלפניו להטעות כל ישראל כשהם חפצים לעשות רצונו. והיינו דמסיים מכ"ש שאומרי' על ימין ימין פי' שהרי אפי' כשבאמת טעו, מ"מ כיונו האמת לדעתם, והקב"ה מסכים לטעותם, ומכ"ש שיש לנו להבין שלא טעו. ומיהו בטעם זה האחרון, לא סגי לומר חזקה על היושבי' לפני ה' שלא יטעו כי הקדוש ברוך הוא לא יניחום לטעות, זה אינו, כיון דלפי טבע האנושי יכולים לטעות, ורק מצד קדשת המקום נבוא על הזקן ממרא, דהוא בכלל לא בשמים, אפי' בת קול ואפי' נביא לא יכול להכריע. ע"כ עיקור הסמיכה הוא על סברא ראשונה, שאפי' טעו ח"ו, ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא טעותם, וממילא לא נחשד את הקדוש ברוך הוא ית"ש שהניחום בטעותם להכשיל כל ישראל. זה פי' הברור בספרי. והמעיין בנימוקי רמב"ן על החומש יבין לאישורו כי לזה נתכוון גם הוא, אבל לומר ח"ו שיהיה להם רשות לשנות דבר קטן אלו דברי צדוקים ומיאוני' הראשונים:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chazal Were Correct - And The Facts Prove It

There are some statements by Chazal which have recently been challenged by people who claim to be Orthodox Jews. These people don't come out explicitly and declare Chazal to have been mistaken, but they do make it very clear, by their policies, that they are disputing Chazal. They seem to think that Chazal were wrong, or that the social conditions of our time have made Chazal's declarations obsolete, or that when Chazal made blanket statements they intended there to be numerous exceptions.

This is very disturbing. There is no reason not to think that Chazal were correct in these cases. Furthermore, recent evidence clearly shows that Chazal were indeed correct.

I am referring to the following statements of Chazal:
"Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a)
"Any Torah that is not accompanied by work, will end in neglect [of Torah] and will lead to sin." (Avos 2:2)

Yet in most parts of the Charedi world, they act otherwise. After all, official educational policy is not to teach their children a trade, and not to accompany the study of Torah with work. They clearly demonstrate that they do not believe these words of Chazal to be true.

But Chazal were correct! From the graves of these giants of wisdom and purity emerges the truth that can never be repudiated by the midgets of our generation. Ve’ain leharher achar divrei haGemara.

These rules of which Chazal spoke rest not upon transient psychological behavioral patterns, but upon permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depths of the human personality, which is as changeless as the heavens above. It is based not upon sociological factors; it is an existential fact. It was true in antiquity; it is still true, and it will be true a thousand years from now.

And the facts prove it.

Last year: Police: Haredim embezzled millions in ID fraud
This year: 10,000 yeshiva students allegedly defraud Education Ministry

(This post was inspired by Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitvchik ztz"l, and, yibodel lechaim, Rav Mattisyahu Solomon shlita and Rav Uren Reich shlita. And while the tone of the post is satirical, the underlying point is very serious. Chazal made these statements for a very good reason. Living in Israel, I see the catastrophe of people who ignore Chazal's words, and I am horrified to see well-meaning Anglos who think that it is the derech haTorah to bring up children in a system that discourages working.)

On a different note: I still have openings in my summer lecture tour in the US. Please be in touch ASAP if you would like to arrange Shabbos or weekday lectures in your community - you can write to me at

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Invention of the Kollel

A recent book, The Legacy of Maharan Rav Aharon Kotler, states as follows:

There was a major difference between the situation in Europe and the situation the Rosh Yeshiva found in America. In Europe the groundwork for Harbotzas Torah (Torah dissemination) was there. The concept and ideal of studying Torah "Lishmoh" - Toras Hashem for its own sake - because of its inherent value as the word of Hashem - was ingrained in European Bnei Yeshiva from the time of Reb Chaim Volozhin, the Vilna Gaon and before... Not so in America, however.. The concept and, all the more so, the practical possibility of devoting many years in Yeshiva and in Kollel to total absorption in Torah lishmoh... just didn't exist. If one did study longer than the norm in Yeshivos it was in preparation for a career in Rabbonus or Chinuch... What [Rav Aharon] brought about was a spiritual revolution both in the American yeshiva world itself, as well as in the minds of American philanthropists, to whom the entire idea of authentic yeshivos on American soil, particularly the novel idea of studying Torah lishmoh after marriage, was outlandish. (pp. 12-13, 40)

But it wasn't just 20th century Americans who would have considered the Lakewood kollel model to be outlandish. Contrary to the impression given, that Rav Aharon brought the classical, traditional, authentic kollel model to America, he actually invented it.

Historically, the term “kollel” referred to communal bodies or to communities. But in the nineteenth century, it was given to a new type of institution, in which married men were paid a stipend to continue their Torah studies. The first such institution was founded in 1879 by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter) in Kovno, with the support of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor. But it differed from the modern kollel in several significant ways.[1] The studies were focused on halachah rather than Talmud and culminated in rabbinic ordination.[2] The students also apprenticed to community rabbis, learning how to deal with halachic questions and procedures. There was a three-year limit to the program, by the end of which the student was to have acquired a rabbinical post; some were being prepared to be rashei yeshivah, but most to be community rabbis. The students were spread amongst different study halls and supplemented their studies with local adult education, so as to strengthen the local communities and gain experience in “practical rabbinics.”[3] The network of Noveradok kollels later established by Rabbi Yosef Yoizl Horowitz was likewise specifically oriented towards training rabbis and strengthening Torah study in local communities. Similarly, in the Slabodka kollel that was established after World War I, members had to make a commitment from the outset that after five years they would gain ordination and fill a rabbinical post.[4]

In marked contrast to all these was the type of kollel first established by Rav Aharon Kotler in 1943, in Lakewood, New Jersey. There was no time limit placed upon studying there, because its purpose was fundamentally different from all those kollels that preceded it. Its goal was to have the study of Torah being performed “for its own sake,” as per the innovative definition of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.[5] This differed sharply from how the Rishonim defined Torah LiShmah.[6] Furthermore, the students were specifically not to involve themselves with the local community, and not to be preparing for a role in the rabbinate or the wider community. But the wider community was expected to provide financial support for this and similar institutions, based upon the new concept of the innate value of the Torah study. All this in turn also required innovations regarding the halachic permissibility of such financial support, and of people not preparing themselves for an occupation; for while some precedent could be found in isolated opinions, it certainly went against the normative approach. The Hazon Ish is alleged to have invoke the emergency clause of “A time to act for God; overturn the Torah,” in light of the destruction of Torah Judaism in the Holocaust. This remained operational even after the number of Torah students vastly exceeded anything in pre-war Europe. The ultimate step in the evolution of the kollel, which spread in the latter part of the twentieth century, was its presentation as an expectation of every young man in the Haredi community. None of this was a resurrection of European tradition; it was an innovation.


[1] Adam S. Ferziger, “The Emergence of the Community Kollel: A New Model for Addressing Assimilation,” (Bar Ilan University 2006), pp. 16-19; Rabbi Nathan Kamenetzky, Making of a Godol, pp. 343-357.

[2] It is unclear, however, to what extent this was motivated by a desire to avoid Russian demands for rabbinic training in government-sponsored seminaries, and also to assist in fundraising purposes.

[3] This term was used by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, as cited in Making of a Godol p. 357.

[4] Yonsaon Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov, p. 90.

[5] See Norman Lamm, Torah LiShmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries.

[6] See this post on "The Goal of Torah Study" and this post on "The Rishonim on Torah Study." See too this post on "Is the Kollel rooted in Yissacher/Zevulun?"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Status Report

I sometimes receive questions about what I'm doing, and the status of various projects, so I decided to post a status report.

At the moment I am enrolled in the Jewish History department at Bar-Ilan University. I am currently finishing my hashlamot (which were required because my MA was in תורה שבעל פה rather than history) so that I can begin my PhD this coming year. My plan is to write my doctoral dissertation in the field of nineteenth century explorations of Biblical and Talmudic zoology.

This year I have also been working on a translation of Ketav Tamim which I have nearly finished. I don't know if and when it will be published; I was hired by an individual to translate it for his own interest and projects. And, of course, I spend a lot of time working on this website!

Current and Imminently Forthcoming Books

The Challenge Of Creation - In print, currently at the third edition.

Sacred Monsters - Out of print (though I have some copies left at home). I have finished the revisions for a new edition, but I can't print it until I finish raising sponsorship. So far I have raised half the funds required. In terms of reviving and spreading the rationalist approach of the Rishonim, this is probably the most effective way of doing so, since the subject matter is popular, the scientific reality is near-undeniable, and the sources are as incontrovertible as you can get. If you are interested in being involved with this project, please email me at

Sacred Monsters Hebrew Edition - (מפלצות מן האגדה) - The Hebrew translation is nearly finished, after which I will need to raise funds to publish it. It will be interesting to see the reaction when my first banned book makes its entrance in the Hebrew-speaking world!

Perek Shirah: Nature's Song - In print. Great for people who love nature, and for those with an anti-rationalist obsession with segulos. Also invaluable in terms of showing that I'm not just interested in writing on controversial topics.

Man & Beast - Out of print (though I have some copies left at home), but I might reprint it at some point.

Longer Term Book Projects

The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax - I need to revise it, but I really hope to republish it sometime in the not-too-far distant future. It would be great if I can do so before Daf Yomi arrives at this topic again.

Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions - I've prepared most of the material for this already, but there's still quite a bit for me to do.

Studies in Rationalist Judaism - A compilation of most of the monographs that I published on this site, along with other material that I have yet to write.

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom - It's painful when people ask me about this. I put in a vast amount of work for years, completing significant parts of several volumes. Then I was sidetracked with the ban, and then with republishing my books, and then with academia. I really hope to get back to it next year, and then publish the first volume (on wild animals) within two years.

Worlds in Collision (tentative title) - A full documentation and analysis of the ban on my books.

Other Long Term Projects

  • Completely re-doing the Zoo Torah website
  • Improving the Rationalist Judaism blog, making into a website with different sections
  • Figuring out the best way to publish my books as e-books.

Very Long Term Dream

A Torah Zoological Gardens and Museum in Bet Shemesh. This would feature live animal exhibits, zoological artifacts, and a strong emphasis on education, all presenting a Biblical and Talmudic perspective on the animal kingdom. I've been dreaming about this for years, and I have some unique ideas for it. You can dedicate it for just twenty million dollars! (Dedicating Sacred Monsters is much cheaper.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Fractal Unity of Torah

About fifteen years ago, I was extremely mystically rather than rationalistically inclined. Related to this was my desire to see patterns in everything - especially fractal patterns. These are patterns that repeat at different scales, which appear in various forms in nature (such as fern leaves), and in a mathematical construct known as the Mandelbrot Set - which I eventually used for the cover of The Science of Torah.

I was therefore thrilled when, at that time, I came across an obscure and difficult book by Rabbi Yehoshua Honigwachs called The Unity of Torah. This work set out to answer a question that, to my astonishment, nobody had ever asked before: What is the overall structure of the Torah? Rabbi Honigwach's answer was that the structure of Torah reflects a five-stage approach to its central goal: Taking man from the extremes of egotism, in which society is an anarchy of selfish elements, towards a state of unity between all men and God. This pattern, argued Rabbi Honigwachs, is found in each of the five commandments on the Tablets of Law; it is also found amongst the five books of the Torah; within these books; within each fifth of these books; and so on - although, he noted, there are some places where a different version of this pattern is found, and there are others where it is not found at all.

Needless to say, I was very much taken with this fractal pattern. I figured out a way to diagrammatically illustrate it in ways that made it easier to comprehend; I sent my illustrations to Rabbi Honigwachs, who was pleased at the result. In my book The Science of Torah, I made much use of fractal patterns, and I decided to include an overview of Rabbi Honigwach's approach in an appendix. You can freely download the appendix at this link, and it is also aided with the following schematic:

But my mentor Rabbi Aryeh Carmell was very unhappy with my interest in such patterns, being skeptical of this sort of pattern-seeking in general. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with it! We worked out a compromise, whereby I clearly restricted such discussions to distinct parts of the book, and he made it clear in his approbation that he was not supportive of those parts.

Today, I realize that pattern-seeking is both one of man's greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses. In evolutionary terms, it was a helpful skill to learn; it enabled man to spot a camouflaged predator, and to discover causal relationships in the natural world. But, as a result, people also have a powerful propensity to see patterns even when none exist, and to ascribe causality even where there is none (as in much religion, and alternative medicine). And the thrill of discovering patterns can easily hamper one's objectivity. Of course, there are also those who deny patterns and causality even where they really exist (such as liberals with regard to Islamism, and smokers with regard to the dangers of smoking); but the former problem seems more innate and pervasive.

So what about this fractal pattern in the Torah? I don't have the time, or the objectivity, to study it all again and re-evaluate it. For a variety of reasons, I am certainly inclined to be skeptical. Nevertheless, I remain impressed at how Rabbi Honigwachs freely admitted that his pattern does not work in all places, which indicates a high degree of objectivity, and presented it as a model to be further refined. I was also interested to discover an article in Jewish Bible Quarterly that also discusses it.

Furthermore, with regard to the more limited suggestion of the pattern appearing in the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, it appears much more straightforward. As I noted in The Challenge Of Creation, a similar structure has been observed in the Six Days of Creation by scholars from across the theological spectrum. There is even more reason to expect it in the Ten Commandments, which from the outset are presented in two parts. I present an illustration of this pattern here (I hope it displays properly in different web browsers). Chag sameach!

Beginning with: Selfishness; Isolation; Focus on the Individual
Manifestation between Man and God
Manifestation between Man and Man
Accepting God
Acceptance of God’s existence
Acceptance of others’ existence
Do Not Murder
Other people’s right to exist; Value of life
Do Not Worship Idols
Accepting God’s ownership of the entire universe
Acceptance of their domain
Do Not Commit Adultery
Accepting the other person’s domain
Do Not Take God’s Name in Vain
No unlawful use of God’s Name
No unlawful use of property
(lawful coexistence)
Do Not Steal (Kidnap)
No unlawful use of another’s being, person or property
Observing Shabbos
Testifying to God’s authority
Readiness to cooperate
(particularly through speech)
Do Not Testify Falsely
No destructive talk; hence, cooperate
Honoring Parents
Unity with one’s source
Total unity
Do Not Covet
No resentment of others

Climaxing with: Selflessness; Unity with God and man; Integration into the Community

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Founding of Agudas Yisrael

From The Politics of Torah: The Jewish Political Tradition and the Founding of Agudat Israel, by Alan L.Mittleman, in reference to the 1912 founding conference of Agudas Yisrael in Kattowitz:

The movement presented itself as an event of world historical proportions: the true core of the Jewish people, led by the sages of Israel, were rousing themselves from their exilic passivity to organize and act in the name of Torah on the stage of history.

The idea that the sages of Israel orchestrated this renaissance of the Jewish people, was another piece of symbolism. The reality, known to rabbis and laymen alike, that the movement was largely organized and led by activist laymen, was veiled behind the deference and ritualized humility of the laymen. Thus, the provisional committee which drafted the invitation, for example, explicitly states that they have not acted in their own name, but only as agents of the true representatives of Torah and therefore the leaders of klal Israel.

The issue of the relationship of rabbis to laymen became an underlying problem in the early phase of the movement. On the one hand, the laymen needed the rabbinate for symbolic purposes... On the other hand, the rabbinate clearly got its directions from the laity... The "political" orientation of the laymen deferred to the administrative orientation of the rabbis. Yet such deference could not be complete when crucial constitutional matters were at stake.

Such a constitutional crisis arose at the very moment of Agudah's birth in Kattowitz... Rosenheim (the lay leader - N.S.) was involved in a daunting conflict with Rabbi Breuer over the so-called "Hungarian demand" that only Jews belonging to separatists congregations could have standing in the movement... Who has the right to decide on the criteria? The problem touched upon the issue of the respective spheres of rabbinic versus lay competence... The solution, so typical of Jewish political life, was a consensual compromise based on each side getting less than it hoped for but more than it would have achieved had the other side prevailed.

From Isaac Breuer, Darki (Jerusalem: Mossad Yitzhak Breuer, 1988), p. 170 (reference from Prof. Lawrence Kaplan):

[From its inception through to the Second World War, the Council of Torah Sages was a council] which never enjoyed any real existence.

From Gershon Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Israel in Poland, 1916-1939:

...There were two notable failures of organization which cast doubt on the ideological pretensions of the Aguda and exposed some severe political weaknesses. These were the failure to maintain a functioning rabbinical supervisory council, and the minimal political success of the Aguda outside the boundaries of former Congress Poland...

The Council of Torah Sages first met only on January 30, 1922, although Agudah ideology had stressed from the outset that the rabbis were supposed to be the final arbiters in all party affairs. Even at this first meeting, the full planned contingent of rabbis and rebbes was not present. At that meeting, however, the rabbis did perform their advisory function... After this auspicious beginning, the council appears not have functioned on any regular basis. Instead, it emerged at infrequent intervals with some kind of proclamation or decision, usually in connection with upcoming elections or party conventions. The rabbinic stamp of approval given to the policies and candidates of the Aguda enabled the party to present itself to the public as the upholder of tradition.

In a footnote:
Retrospective accounts of the Aguda movement stress the rabbinic element practically to the exclusion of all other factors. See e.g. J. Friedenson, "A Concise History of Agudath Israel," in Yaakov Rosenheim Memorial Anthology (New York: Orthodox LIbrary 1968) pp. 1-37.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Letter to Tradition

To the Editor:

In Rabbi J. David Bleich’s “Survey of Recent Halachic Literature: Piscatorial Parasites” (Tradition 44:1, Spring 2011) he presents a lengthy and erudite discussion of a variety of halachic positions regarding whether fish infested with anisakis worms is permissible to be eaten. Much to my surprise, however, he did not discuss the position of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner to such topics which is, to my mind, by far the most salient and cogent. Furthermore, as I shall endeavor to demonstrate, this assists with confronting the Gemara in a way that is more accurate from a historical perspective.

Rabbi Bleich observes that the Gemara’s reason for permitting worms that are found in the flesh of the fish “certainly appears to reflect reliance upon a notion of spontaneous generation. Whether that statement is to be understood literally and, if so, whether rejection of that concept by modern science has any bearing upon Halakhah, or whether the Gemara’s statement should be understood as expressing a concept that is compatible with contemporary scientific theory are intriguing questions. Resolution of those questions is, however, irrelevant to the points that have been made herein.” I beg to differ; I would argue that resolving these questions is extremely relevant.

There is certainly no reason to think that the Gemara’s statement is not intended literally. And spontaneous generation was an absolutely normative belief in antiquity. The Gemara discusses several other such cases, including the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt, that of salamanders from fire, and that of lice (where the Gemara specifically rules out the possibility that there could be any such thing as lice eggs). Before modern times, nobody ever claimed that the Gemara in these cases was referring to anything other than spontaneous generation. An honest reading of all these topics in the Gemara results in the clear conclusion that the Gemara is referring to a belief in spontaneous generation, which has since been discredited.

Rabbi Bleich spells out his objection to such an interpretation of the Gemara as follows: “…If the notion of spontaneous generation is rejected and the various theories advanced to reconcile the apparently contradictory talmudic statements with contemporary science are rejected, the resulting conclusion that, contra unequivocal dicta and precedents spanning more than two millennia, all worms and piscatorial parasites found in the flesh of fish are forbidden is compelled. To date, no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites.” Yet surely even if R. Bleich were correct that this would result in two millennia of error, this is simply an appeal to consequences; it would not mean that this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. The claim that no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites is likewise not a reason why this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. It is also misleading; as Rabbi Bleich acknowledges in a footnote, R. Isaac Lampronti did indeed posit such an approach in the case of lice (where he argues that the Gemara’s permission to kill lice on Shabbos is based on an erroneous belief and should not be maintained), and there is no reason to think that he would not posit the same approach here. This approach was also taken by Rabbi Yosef Kappach (commentary to the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 11:4).

In any case, there is another approach that Rabbi Bleich does not mention, which both acknowledges that the Gemara is recording an erroneous belief regarding spontaneous generation, and yet avoids concluding that Jews were sinning for two millennia. It is the approach of Rav Herzog (Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 29) and Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Dor Revi'i, Chullin, introduction), as stated with regard to the case of lice. They acknowledge that the Gemara is relying upon an erroneous belief in spontaneous generation to permit killing lice on Shabbos, but they maintain that the halachah remains valid, due to the authority of Chazal. In my book Sacred Monsters I explained at length why this position is both cogent and important. As Rabbi Shlomo Fischer explains, based upon Kesef Mishnah to Hilchot Mamrim 2:1, we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority (Derashos Beis Yishai 15).

In Rabbi Bleich’s concluding observations, he lists several approaches for dealing with confrontations between the Sages and modern science. Conspicuously absent from this list is the possibility that the Sages were simply mistaken—despite the fact that scores of Rishonim and Acharonim were of the view that the Sages were not infallible in such matters. Instead, Rabbi Bleich presents an explanation according to which the blanket license given in the Gemara (and Shulchan Aruch), that worms found in the flesh of the fish are permitted without qualification, does not actually apply in an overwhelming number of cases. Furthermore, if the Gemara is not permitting anisakis parasites, then what exactly is it permitting? Some say that it is permitting species that actually do spontaneously generate in the fish—but we know that no such species ever existed. Others say that it is permitting parasites that were ingested from outside of the fish but which were too small at that time to be halachically significant—yet this is anachronistic, hardly seems to be the meaning of the Gemara or the Rishonim, and is an obvious apologetic being performed in order to attempt to avoid a conflict with science.

Ironically, although many avoid saying that Chazal erred in science in order to uphold their authority, it can have precisely the opposite effect. Aside from sounding unconvincing, there is a potential for drastic halachic consequences. For example, it could be argued that the Sages only permitted the consumption of honey on the premise that it is only nectar and does not contain anything created by the bee; but now that we see that bees inject enzymes into it, then it must be that the Sages were referring to a different kind of bee honey, and our honey should be prohibited! And so on. We should be extremely wary of diverging from Chazal's rulings based on science, even under the guise of upholding their authority.

Surely in a scholarly discussion, we should never avoid adopting a historically accurate understanding of the Gemara, such as that taken by R. Isaac Lampronti. And with the approach of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner, we can avoid the unappealing consequences.

Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dealing with Crises of Faith

For about ten years, I've been dealing with people suffering from challenges of faith, to a lesser or greater degree. This ranges from simple questions about dinosaurs, to serious questions about fundamental aspects of Torah, to full-blown crises where the person is seriously struggling with their faith, to people who have decided that they just don't believe but want to survive in the Orthodox community.

The number of such people approaching me for help with this matter increases each year. Lately, however, I have been turning most of these people away, for several reasons. The main reason is these sorts of things really need a face-to-face discussion, and so geographical separation rules out most people. But there are other reasons, too. These discussions require more time than I have available. And such sensitive topics require confidentiality, especially because people often misunderstand what I've said. I have learned, to my dismay, that often people that I thought I could trust, end up repeating what I've said - which wouldn't be so bad if they repeated it accurately, but they often don't.

However, I don't want to just turn people away empty-handed, or leave emails in my burgeoning inbox unanswered. These people are unhappy, and I might be able to help them. So I have decided to outline my approach for dealing with such cases, in a (non-consecutive) series of posts. For the reasons given above and below, I won't be as specific as I am in a one-to-one conversation. But I hope it will provide some useful help in this area, both for people suffering from crises of faith, and for others who interact with such people.

The very first thing that I do in any such conversation, is to learn about the person speaking to me. First of all, I want to know what is bothering them. But, depending on what they answer, and before responding to those concerns, I will ask some or all of the following questions: How old are they? Are they single or married? What is their social framework? What is their educational background? Do they enjoy and appreciate the Orthodox lifestyle, in terms of both mitzvah observance and the community? How do they ideally picture themselves in ten or twenty years from now? I also try to understand their personality as much possible.

The relevance of some or all of these questions may not appear obvious. But my reasons for asking these questions are simple: Chanoch lena'ar al pi darko. There are many people, whether Charedi or Modern Orthodox or atheist, who are so obsessed with what they see as the Truth that they want to impose it upon everyone. But I think that this can be thoughtless and narcissistic. A person is not necessarily helping others by attempting to force his own idea of the truth on them. Let me illustrate this with two extreme examples, at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Suppose I am approached by an adult who is happily settled within the charedi community. This person is not tormented by a crisis of faith; he is just bothered about dinosaurs and the age of the universe, and is unwilling to toss science out of the window. He's fine with every other aspect of charedi Judaism, and he is not especially intellectually sophisticated.

This person is not ready to accept the approach to Bereishis that I present in The Challenge Of Creation. Even discussing it would be more likely to confuse and harm him rather than to help him. Now I despise the approach of saying that the six days were actually six eras, and in my book I explain at length why that approach is entirely unsatisfactory and unworkable. But this is all that this person is capable of accepting. It will enable him to accept modern science without unsettling his religious worldview. So I grit my teeth, and say, "Well, there are those such as Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman who explain that six days could be six eras. It's not my personal approach, but I think that you'll find it helpful."

On the other hand, suppose I am approached by someone who is single and who barely believes in Judaism, if at all. He also does not especially value the Orthodox lifestyle. This person sees no reason or value to keeping mitzvos if he isn't convinced that the fundamentals of faith are true. His personality is of a skeptical, cynical mindset.

I see a great danger in trying to convince such a person to stay Orthodox. The reason is that even if I am successful in convincing him to do so, he is very likely to decide, further down the line, that he doesn't want to stay in the Orthodox community after all (since he doesn't appreciate the lifestyle). And by that time, if he is married (and especially if he has children), this can cause immense problems for other people as well as for himself. So instead, I tell the person that while there is much to be gained by being part of the Orthodox community, there are serious risks in his marrying an Orthodox girl. I don't tell him or even advise him what to do, but I try to make him aware of the risks and benefits in each direction.

However, both of the above examples are extremes that I rarely encounter. Far more common in my personal range of experience is people who are somewhere in between. For the many people who have questions Bereishis, rabbinic authority or suchlike, I wrote my books. But the more serious cases, who contact me with a crisis of faith after having already read my books and who are already aware of the general state of scholarship on the issues that concern them, are usually quite similar. The typical person who approaches me is male, in their late twenties or thirties, and usually married with children. This person finds keeping mitzvos to be meaningful and rewarding, and he values being part of the Orthodox community. But he is bothered by severe questions of faith, or has even lost it already, and wants to know what to do.

This is the type of person that Ami magazine described as "Orthoprax" and seemed to recommend declaring as the evil enemy and flushing out of society. My approach for such people is different. I shall elaborate upon it in future posts (though I don't yet know when; it could be tomorrow, it could be a month from now). Don't forget that you can subscribe to these posts by submitting your email address in the form at the top right of this page.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Of Worms and Rabbinic Authority

Yesterday, a new ban against fish containing anisakis worms was published (reproduced below). This one has Rav Elyashiv and Rav Wosner signed on to it.

I posted about this topic last year on three occasions. In my first post, I argued that although Chazal permitted such fish based on a misunderstanding regarding how these worms are generated, their ruling is nevertheless binding. In my second post, I analyzed Rav Belsky's responsum permitting such fish, and I argued that those rabbonim who prohibit it are effectively undermining Chazal due to their acceptance of science - which is odd, because that is exactly what they condemned me for doing! Finally, I posted a (fake) kashrus alert about honey not being kosher, which illustrated the logical corollary of prohibiting fish containing anisakis worms.

But whether one thinks that anisakis worms are permitted or prohibited, this latest giluy da'as is notable for perfectly illustrating the innovative charedi approach to rabbinic authority. Traditionally, halachic verdicts were given in the form of responsa - detailed explanations of how the verdicts were reached. But today we have verdicts with no explanations. Furthermore, traditionally, different places, and certainly different countries, each followed the decisions of their own halachic authorities. Yet here, the signatures of Rav Dovid Feinstein, Rav Feivel Cohen and Rav Aharon Schechter appear under a letter in which their prohibition is apparently based upon their endorsement of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Wosner as being the senior Gedolim of our era, instead of as a result of they themselves having researched the topic and concluding that this fish is prohibited. This is a novel and disturbing approach, and one can only hope that the OU will maintain the courage and integrity to stay with the traditional approach to halachic authority.

(Note: Due to this topic being immediately relevant, I removed the post "Dealing with Crises of Faith" that I put up earlier, which will appear tomorrow instead.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Jerusalem Matters

The importance of the fight to keep Jerusalem from being divided is something that many Americans don't understand. As it's often said, almost nobody goes to East Jerusalem anyway, and we're not even supposed to visit the Temple Mount. So why fight so hard against world opinion to keep it?

Here's one very important reason. There is a new trend in the Arab world of "Temple Denial" - denying that there ever was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and correspondingly denying that there ever was a historic Jewish presence in Israel. (See Dore Gold's important book on this.)

The consequences of this are immense. After all, if there was never a historic presence of Jews in Israel, then we really are stealing the entire land from the Arabs. As Rashi on the first verse in the Torah quotes the nations as saying, Listim atem! You stole our land! Since this is what the new generation of Arabs has been taught to believe, then peace is impossible - for, from their perspective, their cause is just.

Now, the presence of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is simple historical fact, which is completely accepted in the Western world. So one would expect that Western political leaders would have no reason not to say so. But when Barack Obama gave his Cairo speech a while ago, he made no mention of it. Instead, he spoke only of the horrors of the Holocaust as a justification for Jews to be Israel.

Clearly, Obama felt that it would cause trouble to mention the historical connection between Jews and Israel - that it would be counter-productive to the goal of peace. But this is getting things exactly the wrong way around. Peace will certainly never be achieved if the Arab world believes that we have no right to be here. The Holocaust is not enough; if Jews were never historically in Israel, then why should the Palestinians pay the price for the Holocaust?

Temple Denial, as insane as it is, should not be underestimated. There is an increasing tendency for journalists to write as though the presence of a Jewish Temple is not a matter of historic fact, but is instead the subject of "competing narratives." This is extremely dangerous for the future of Israel.

It's rare to find something that all Jews, of all denominations and sects, can agree on. We don't all agree even on basic things, such as the significance of the State of Israel, the origins of the Torah, or the existence of God. So when there is something that all Jews agree on, despite others in the world who dispute it, it's something special. And all Jews agree that, thousands of years ago, there was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Yom Yerushalayim is more important now than ever before.

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

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