Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Accepting Gedolim's Positions

I am a big believer in accepting Gedolim's positions. In fact, I am a much bigger believer in this than many people in the charedi community.

I'm not talking about accepting their positions as binding on me; after all, there is no reason, halachic or otherwise, for me to do so. Rather, I am talking about accepting that Gedolim have certain positions, even if it's uncomfortable to acknowledge it.

When the first ban against my books came out, many people, including myself, were flabbergasted to see the letter by Rav Yitzchok Sheiner. He cursed me for my belief that the world is millions (actually, billions) of years old. What?! We all thought that this was something that had been settled years ago. As one extremely chareidi Rav said to me that day in astonishment, "Aren't there about twenty different terutzim for that?"

For many people, it was simply too hard to accept that the Gedolim deemed such a basic fact to be heresy. It meant that either Gedolei Torah were not what they believed them to be, or that they themselves had heretical views - both of which were too disturbing. Much easier was to convince oneself that their objection were specifically to my books - the nebulous problem with the "tone."

Yet the Gedolim, most of whom did not read any of my books and were not in a position to evaluate the "tone," were very clear about their objections. As noted above, Rav Sheiner considered it absolutely unacceptable to believe that the world is billions of years old. At an EJF conference, Rav Nochum Eisenstein reported that Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur. Even if Eisenstein is not the most reliable person, I don't think that there can be any question that Rav Elyashiv strongly opposes such a a view. The same goes for Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who is reported as saying that someone who believes the world to be millions of years old may not be accepted as a convert. And even Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz"l writes about how modern science textbooks have heretical statements about the development of the universe. There's no doubt that the vast majority of Charedi Gedolim are of the view that belief in an ancient universe is, at best, deeply wrong both factually and theologically, and at worst, heretical.

I mention all this because of a statement made by Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who has been disputing my critique of Rabbi Avi Shafran's anti-evolution article which spoke about modern science being driven by atheist bias in its stance regarding evolution. I responded that while bias certainly exists in the scientific community, it is even stronger amongst Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Menken, on the other hand, insisted - incredibly, to my mind - that “ad hominems, hysteria and ridicule in lieu of rationale are more common from evolutionists then of Orthodox Jews who oppose evolution." And in response to people claiming that charedi Jews are biased against modern science in these areas, Rabbi Menken made the following statement:
[There is] a phenomena that does not exist, to my knowledge: a Gadol HaDor who claims the belief in evolution is in direct conflict with belief in G-d. In fact, all of the arguments claiming religious bias depend upon something similar, and the experience of actual Ba’alei Teshuvah contradicts this absolutely. To become observant, one must accept that there is a Creator, that he gave us the Torah, that we are expected to observe it, etc. There are many fundamental precepts (13, according to Maimonides) which we must accept as true. But one of them is not that the universe appears to be less than 6000 years old, or that it does not appear that we have evolved by chance.

Now Rabbi Menken may well truly believe that the Gedolim are not theologically opposed to the antiquity of the universe or evolution. And the experience of actual Ba'alei Teshuvah is indeed that Charedi Judaism and its Gedolim are not opposed to modern science. But that is because the kiruv yeshivos work very hard, and often duplicitously, to give this impression. Nevertheless, as demonstrated above, this is clearly not the case. Charedi Gedolim are, by and large, firmly opposed to the idea that the world is billions of years old, and all the more so to the idea that life evolved.

With regard to the bias issue, however, I agree with Rabbi Menken that presumptions of Gedolim opposing modern science do not create a bias against evolution in the Baal Teshuvah community. But  this does not mean that they approach the evolution/ ID/ creation controversy without bias. Instead, there are two other, powerful biases. One is to show that evolution is mathematically impossible and thereby to intellectually justify belief in God. The other main bias is a social bias; siding with one's home team against the liberal left/ secular community. And that's why they care so much about this issue.

(See too my post "And Man made Godolim in his image.")

34 comments:

  1. " One is to show that evolution is mathematically impossible and thereby to intellectually justify belief in God. "

    I'm really impressed with how you so easily take a concluding observation, and turn that into a pre-existing bias. I guess that you will happily admit that you have a bias towards there existing a common ancestor to thereby justify your belief in the correctness of Taxonomy?

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  2. You seriously don't think that intellectual justification for one's religious beliefs is a bias?

    I don't think that anyone challenges the correctness of taxonomy. But you could reasonably claim that I have a bias towards naturalism.

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  3. "Moshe Feinstein ztz"l writes about how modern science textbooks have heretical statements about the development of the universe."

    Do you know what he meant by this? For example, my textbook had statements in there about the universe being always in existence and never created, with a constant cycle of expansion and contraction. I think this would count as a heretical statement. But has no bearing on the topic you are talking about.

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  4. "You seriously don't think that intellectual justification for one's religious beliefs is a bias?"

    Since I know of many people who only became religious after learning science, I think you have this issue backwards.

    Or rather, this issue can go in either direction. The religious belief can be an outgrowth of the intellectual observation, or the intellectual observation can be an outgrowth of the religious belief.

    Why does somebody have to challenge the correctness of an idea for you to have a bias towards it? The less people who challenge it, the more bias you have! Who would bother to self verify something which 'everybody knows' is correct?

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  5. I think one can consider R' Shternbuch as one theologically opposed to evolution.

    kt,
    josh

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  6. "For example, my textbook had statements in there about the universe being always in existence and never created, with a constant cycle of expansion and contraction. I think this would count as a heretical statement."

    The law of conservation of energy is not heresy. It's not a "belief" -- it's a physical fact. Not a religious fact or a spiritual fact, but a scientific fact that can be proven through physical means. Creation ex nihilo is a belief. Ma inyan shmitta etzel har sinai?

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  7. I think that evolution is strongly opposed by many religious leaders because it makes God unnecessary for explaining the apparent design of the world. The Argument from Design is one of the most intuitive religious arguments, but a mechanism that can explain complexity without resorting to a creative intelligence ruins the argument. If evolution can be discredited as a viable alternative, then what’s left to explain the world’s complexity is deliberate intelligent creation by God.

    Framing the debate this way pits evolution and God against one another. For a religious person, God is a given, so evolution MUST be false.

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  8. it makes God unnecessary for explaining the apparent design of the world.

    As I showed at length in The Challenge Of Creation, evolution only superficially seemed to remove the argument from design. It doesn't alter the more fundamental argument from design, that from the laws of nature.

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  9. > As I showed at length in The Challenge Of Creation, evolution only superficially seemed to remove the argument from design. It doesn't alter the more fundamental argument from design, that from the laws of nature.

    Maybe so, but the traditional form of the Argument from Design goes hand-in-hand with the Argument from Pretty Trees: Look at how beautiful the trees are! Hashem put them here for us to enjoy, and He knew just how to make them so that we could get the most enjoyment from them! It’s as much about a sense of wonder as it is about rational persuasion. Newton’s Laws just aren’t as intuitively inspiring as pretty trees.

    More importantly, evolution turns the traditional way of looking at things on its head. As a little kid, I was taught how Hashem had made the world perfectly suited for humans. How awesome! But evolution shows that the world was not made for us, we evolved to fit the preexisting conditions of the world.

    Lastly, the fact is that the debate often IS framed as evolution vs. God, to such an extent that atheists are commonly accused of worshipping Darwin.

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  10. @Josh I have a hard time saying, based on the link you provided, that R' Shternbuch has a theological problem with evolution.

    He has a theological problem with saying that People evolved from monkies, but since that is not evolution, he doesn't (per that link) have a problem with evolution.


    "The law of conservation of energy is not heresy. It's not a "belief" -- it's a physical fact. Not a religious fact or a spiritual fact, but a scientific fact that can be proven through physical means. Creation ex nihilo is a belief. Ma inyan shmitta etzel har sinai?"

    Huh? Please show me who still believes this theory is true despite all the evidence that it is false? There is no evidence that the universe ever contracted before expanding again. Most theories postulate M-branes with voids which create new universes, but there is no evidence for contraction. It's an old theory that text books mention before explaining that its wrong.


    "Maybe so, but the traditional form of the Argument from Design goes hand-in-hand with the Argument from Pretty Trees:"

    This brings up an minorly interesting point. I am curious if people have looked at the midrashim explaining how Avraham came to know of G-d. They seem to be to be arguments from design, but do not fit any of the arguments you commonly find on the web today.

    For example, Avraham is quoted as saying, "If there is a house and there is a fire burning, does it not have a master?" (I'm seen some that say the house is on fire, and others say that the house has a "light on", I'm not sure what the original says)

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  11. "Lastly, the fact is that the debate often IS framed as evolution vs. God, to such an extent that atheists are commonly accused of worshipping Darwin."

    I think that is the crux of the issue. Athiests like to say evolution proves that god doesn't exist, so those who know nothing about evolution retort that Evolution doesn't exist.

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  12. He has a theological problem with saying that People evolved from monkies, but since that is not evolution,

    That IS evolution. Not modern-day monkeys, but ancient lemur-like monkeys. It's a red herring to say that people who reject the idea that man descended from apes/monkeys don't understand evolution. They're making a technical error, but it's irrelevant to their objection.

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  13. "Charedi Gedolim are, by and large, firmly opposed to the idea that the world is billions of years old, and all the more so to the idea that life evolved."

    I went to a chareidi seminary and this was definitely true in my experience. And in regard to dinosaurs, one teacher said flat-out that they never existed and the fossil evidence is just a test from Hashem. I know that's not necessarily the normative response in the chareidi community, but it was one of my first moments of serious discomfort. It was a topic brushed under the rug rather than something talked about honestly, and I didn't (and still don't) understand the motivation behind such strong opposition to something I have never been able to see as theologically problematic. To me, that kind of reactionary response is much more problematic in that respect.

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  14. "That IS evolution. Not modern-day monkeys, but ancient lemur-like monkeys. It's a red herring to say that people who reject the idea that man descended from apes/monkeys don't understand evolution. They're making a technical error, but it's irrelevant to their objection.
    "

    Philosphically, its much more than a technical difference. One is saying that these animals you see today, are your granparents, the other says that back then nothing you see today existed, and nothing that existed then is seen today, other than in fossils.

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  15. " They're making a technical error, but it's irrelevant to their objection."

    Also, there is more that they are assuming which modern evolution theory does not say. I'd like to see a rejection of evolution from someone who describes it accurately and not how it was described in pop culture in the 60s.

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  16. One is saying that these animals you see today, are your grandparents,

    It's the difference between saying that the monkey ancestors of today's monkeys are your grandparents and saying that the lemur-like monkey ancestors of today's monkeys are your grandparents. There is no relevant theological/ philosophical difference.

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  17. Rabbi Slifkin if you do not see an us versus them, mock and silence opponents of Evolution, attitude you either are blinded or naive or both. At the very least both sides are operating with the same basic strategy against opponents. The Evolutionist ones cannot admit that but Dawkins is a prime example, a poster child for it on the Evolutionary side. This isn't a matter of whose right. These are just social facts. Bias neither equals truth nor demonstrates falsehood.

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  18. To Ameteur and R' Slifkin, perhaps this quote might settle one particular dispute you're having:

    The late George Gaylord Simpson, former professor of paleontology at Harvard University, wrote:

    On this subject, by the way, there has been too much pussyfooting. Apologists emphasize that man cannot be descendant of any living ape–-a statement that is obvious to the verge of imbecility–-and go on to state or imply that man is not really descended from an ape or monkey at all, but from an earlier common ancestor. In fact, that earlier ancestor would certainly be called an ape or monkey in popular speech by anyone who saw it. Since the terms ape and monkey are defined by popular usage, man’s ancestors were apes or monkeys (or successively both). It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise (1964).

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  19. It's important to notice how folks like R. Menken try play both sides of the fence by using one very important word; "appear". Saying they have no problem that the universe "appears" to be billions of years old gives them all the wiggle room they need not to commit. In reality, most people who use that word fully believe that the world is actually only 5771 years old and the appearance of an ancient world is some form of Godly test or trickery.

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  20. Where, when, how did Rav Scheinter curse RNS?

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  21. It seems that my latest comment didn't go through.

    This picture illustrates the pop-culture understanding of human evolution.

    http://ablebrains.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341ca86d53ef0133f1a5f4f5970b-800wi


    This picture illustrates the scientific understanding of human evolution.

    http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/cms/dn13620/dn13620-1_300.jpg



    But I'll spell this out more plainly. If a person suggest that monkeys which are seen today, existed for X million years, and then humans evolved from them, and now in existence we have both the monkey and the human, and the human must give karot Hatov to the monkey... this is something that many would find theologically problematic. It would also be mostly unbelievable to any thinking person, as it raises more questions than it answers about evolution and how it works.

    However, if you say that there are creatures, that no longer exist, which at one time split creating the monkeys you see today, and the humans you see today then you have no theological problems for a couple reasons. 1. There is no karot hatov to current monkeys or animals 2. It does not sound so unbelievable and inane. (as that quote you provided stated) 3. You can argue about "previous worlds" and the dinosaur debates. You can use the word "appears" without consequence.

    Also, just a note, a quote about evolution from 1964 is about as useful as a quote about evolution from the 1700s. The theories and field have changed drastically since then. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_evolutionary_thought

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  22. "In reality, most people who use that word fully believe that the world is actually only 5771 years old and the appearance of an ancient world is some form of Godly test or trickery."

    Most people I have met who hold this view do not suggest it is trickery or a test, but rather a necessity/ byproduct. (unless they are talking to kids, then they just say its a test)

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin: I think you have hit the nail right on the head. There is a real disconnect between what is often presented in kiruv settings, and what is presented in the real haredi (and to an increasing extent, in the dati) world. I believe this is what is causing many ba'alai tshuva to seriously question the intellectual honesty, or lack thereof, among many of the rabbis trying to straddle those settings. Moreoever, the rabbis and their followers who oppose the findings of science are increasingly painting themselves into a corner, because if they ever did allow themselves to take scientific findings seriously, and to retract their earlier positions, they will be admitting to their own falibility. It was a sad day for Judaism when rabbis considered gedolim started trying to pasken on science. To me, the only solution is to consider that any rabbi that bans material with which he has not studied and is in no way familiar has disqualified himself from being taken seriously as a posek, at least with regard to the subject matter in question.

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  24. Here is an interview (in Hebrew) with Rav Nosson Kaminetsky, the author of the famous book about his father and his geneneration "The Making of A Gadol". I have the priviledge of having him as one of my teachers in yeshiva and it was through him that I first heard about Rav Slifkin, who was a fellow victim of extremism for writing the truth.

    http://news.ep.walla.co.il/?w=/2/1840163

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  25. Pliny:
    "It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise"

    Indeed, and that would support R' Slifkin.

    However, what R' Shternbuch presented was more than just 'my zeide was not a monkey!' While it is indeed likely that he would similarly object, the construction of his theological objection, set up in that article, was somewhat predicated on the conception of evolution as a ladder, rather than as a branching tree. Thus, for example, the paragraph beginning with the word 'Scientists'.

    It is not necessarily true that older creatures must be worse-off than present creatures. Different environments can lead to different mutations yielding better chance of survival. A monkey is better at swinging on a tree than a human, and given a specific environment, would be considered better than a more-intelligent animal incapable of swinging from trees. Smaller might be 'better', larger might be better, the ability to breath on land, on water, might be better. There could be a time (pre-meteor impact) that being a dinosaur was better than being a small mammal.

    So it is not that they take all examples of primitive to advanced which they see alive in their own days and assume that each was a further step in the evolutionary ladder, which is a direct contrast to yeridas hadoros.

    Ameteur [sic]:
    Despite this, I don't think your typical chareidi fellow is going to analyze the specific words of Gedolim, realize and declare that they are wrong about the details of the science, and then more forward without religious bias because this Gadol has not condemned (actual) evolution.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  26. R. Josh, come one! Do you really think that the non-progressive idea of evolution, whereby a monkey is not considered to be less advanced than a human being, is any the less theologically problematic for these people? That's not the kind of yeridas hadoros they are talking about!

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  27. "Also, just a note, a quote about evolution from 1964 is about as useful as a quote about evolution from the 1700s."

    I agree in most cases, but not this case, since the quote has nothing to do with more advanced research.

    "Indeed, and that would support R' Slifkin."

    That's odd; when I recalled the Simpson quote, I thought it was a critique of R' Slifkin.

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  28. "Do you really think that the non-progressive idea of evolution, whereby a monkey is not considered to be less advanced than a human being, is any the less theologically problematic for these people?"

    I agree that in fact it *would* be just as theologically problematic for him. But he would not be able to use the same formulation, and blast the scientists in the same precise manner. I am sure he could, and would, refine it, and find another reason to oppose it. Maybe even a similar reason.

    And I think that the driving force behind it is not so much yeridas hadoros as that it contradicts Bereishis, especially as understood / canonized by the standard Rishonim.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  29. "Ameteur [sic]:
    Despite this, I don't think your typical chareidi fellow is going to analyze the specific words of Gedolim, realize and declare that they are wrong about the details of the science, and then more forward without religious bias because this Gadol has not condemned (actual) evolution."

    Maybe not, your typical haredi fellow likely only does what his neighbor does. However, I do know of two families who live in Har nof and are charedi who exactly took this approach. (they happen to have a copy of challenge of creation which they have only "mostly read")

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  30. "And the experience of actual Ba'alei Teshuvah is indeed that Charedi Judaism and its Gedolim are not opposed to modern science."

    As a baal teshuvah, I can tell you that this is false. (at least for me it is). It's very obvious to me, and it was obvious to some of my classmates in yeshiva, that the gedolim are opposed to modern science and are opposed to an ancient world as "heretical." Of course, you also know who my rabbi is, and I can't speak for baalei teshuva under the influence of "kiruv professionals" who are desperately trying to make them believe otherwise about the gedolim.

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  31. Recently I was learning Mishna Shabbos with my son and I came upon the issue that 8 month gestated infants were not viable and therefore we would not be allowed to violate Shabbos to perform a bris on such a child. Putting aside the problem of determining the gestation time with such accuracy, could it be that Chazal really believed that children born after 7 or 9 months of gestation were viable, but 8 month infants were not? Thank goodness in the world today no one would hold by this, and all Jewish males get a bris on Shabbos if that is the eigth day and all other criteria are met.
    BUT,,,aside from our Gedolim questioning the findings of science in certain areas, how are we to deal with other scientific issues and information as put forth in the gemara that are clearly untrue? One resolution that has been proposed to me is that the physical world has changed in the last 2000 years and in the times of the gemara infants born after only eight months of gestation routinely died. Oh really? Based on what evidence? I find that position to be intellectually disingenuous. Wouldnt it be more honest to say Chazal were wrong in this instance?

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  32. >>>> BUT,,,aside from our Gedolim questioning the findings of science in certain areas, how are we to deal with other scientific issues and information as put forth in the gemara that are clearly untrue?

    By coincidence we just read in last week’s parsha:
    (Deut 27:17) “……. and let the Assembly of Hashem not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

    Sadly, this defines our generation.

    As for the argument “nishtyana hateva” (nature changed), it’s just plain ridiculous.
    Whoever put this forward to you should be told in no uncertain terms (and that includes any so called Talmidei Chachomim) that it’s an outright chilul Hashem and an embarrassment for Yiddishkeit for anyone to spout such patent nonsense as representing traditional Jewish thought.

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  33. whoops that's a type...the quote is from Num. 27:17

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  34. "Chazal really believed that children born after 7 or 9 months of gestation were viable, but 8 month infants were not? "

    I was told to interpret the mishna as follows.

    If a person thinks that the baby was born after 7 months they are wrong. Instead, they miscounted, and it must have been 9 months. (some detaled halchacic explanation of nidda was given for the reason of the miscount, which I can't remember)
    If they counted 9 months, this is normal and we assume they are correct.

    If they counted 8 months, then this means that child is born early, because 10 months would be impossible, and so the baby would have been at risk.

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