Saturday, July 23, 2011

Leviathan and Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Louis Jacobs, was to say the least, a controversial figure. However, no matter what one thinks of his deviations from traditional Judaism, he was surely a brilliant scholar. I was thus surprised, while doing some research on whales, to come across the following elementary mistake from him:

It is interesting to note that whale meat and whale oil are forbid­den not because the whale is a forbidden fish but because the whale is a mammal that, obviously, does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud. (Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, p. 124)

Actually, this is not at all why whale meat and whale oil are forbidden. They are forbidden because the whale lacks fins and scales. If you were to find an evolutionary offshoot of the whale which had cloven hooves and chewed the cud (but was fully aquatic), it would not be kosher.

I recently read an absolutely fascinating book entitled "Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature." Back in the nineteenth century, there was a court case regarding whether whale oil should be subject to the same taxation as fish oil. The question hinged upon whether or not the whale is a fish.

This was not at all a simple question to answer. There is no right or wrong answer! It wasn't a matter of people being unaware of the mammalian features of whales. Everybody agreed that whales give birth to live young and nurse them on milk. But does this mean that they should be termed "fish"?

As I discuss in the new edition of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, there is no “right” or “wrong” method of classification. A system of classification has no independent reality. It is simply a means by which man measures and describes the animal kingdom, depending upon his purpose:

From a scientific standpoint, folk-biological concepts such as the generic species are woefully inadequate for capturing the evolutionary relationships of species over vast dimensions of time and space… This does not mean that folk taxonomy is more or less preferable to the inferential understanding that links and perhaps ultimately dissolves taxa into biological theories. This “commonsense” biology may just have different conditions of relevance than scientific biology: the one, providing enough built-in structural constraint and flexibility to allow individuals and cultures to maximize inductive potential relative to the widest possible range of everyday human interests in the biological world; and the other, providing new and various ways of transcending those interests in order to infer the structure of nature in itself, or at least a nature where humans are only incidental. (Scott Atran, “Folk Biology and the Anthropology of Science: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (1998) pp. 547-609)

The question in the nineteenth century was as to who should answer the question of whether a whale or a fish - theologians, whalers, naturalists, or the common man? This, too, had no simple answer.


In any case, the bottom line is that the Torah adopts a system of folk-taxonomy in which animals are classified according to their overall form and habitat rather than their physiology. Bats are listed with birds, and whales would certainly be rated as fish, part of the creation of the fifth day, not chayos or behemos. There is nothing "right" or "wrong" about this. But one thing is clear: whale meat and whale oil are forbid­den not because the whale does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud, but rather because the whale is a forbidden fish.

36 comments:

  1. Rabbi Slifkin, we can argue semantics about whether a system is right, wrong or merely "is". But we can agree on whether one is useful and grounded in facts. The whole history of taxonomy from Aristotle to the cladists to modern genetic distance and molecular clocks is an exercise in the development of changing the system to reflect better understanding and information.

    My problem with the supposedly Torah-based classifications is the way they can reify assumptions and encourage intellectual dishonesty.

    Consider kosher animals. Those with an anti-science prejudice will say "There have been no kosher animals found which our ancestors weren't aware of. So Torah understanding of science is perfect." If you counter that there are many kosher animals not so mentioned - the pronghorn and the musk ox, not to mention huge taxonomic swathes of fish - they will reply those are "really" deer or cows or "just fish".

    By what standard? Why, the standard of we said so.

    Abraham Lincoln was fond of saying "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?" When people answered "Five" he replied "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one."

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  2. Louis Jacobs was not just 'controversial'as you say. Rather, he remains the only real apikores of our generation to date. He was, as you say, very knowledgeable, yet still he questioned the idea of Torah Min Hashomayim. Therefore, unlike other secular Jews who may unfortunately deny TMH, he cannot be considered a 'tinok shenishbar'!

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  3. But we can agree on whether one is useful and grounded in facts.

    What is useful to a zoologist is not necessarily useful to the average Joe. Did you read the quote from Scott Atran?

    Those with an anti-science prejudice will say "There have been no kosher animals found which our ancestors weren't aware of. So Torah understanding of science is perfect."

    As I'm sure you know, I don't say that. The fact that some people do does not mean that the very concept of a Torah-based classification is wrong.

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  4. >>>> Louis Jacobs was not just 'controversial' as you say. Rather, he remains the only real apikores of our generation to date.

    Eli: What are you talking about. There are hundreds of jewish scholars, mostly among Reform and Conservative and even a few “frum” jews who do not believe the traditional view of the Torah as TMS.

    >>>>> He was, as you say, very knowledgeable, yet still he questioned the idea of Torah Min Hashomayim.

    He didn’t just “question the idea”. He concluded with his God-given intellect that the evidence is overwhelming against the traditional view of TMS.

    >>>> 'tinok shenishbar'!

    In case its not a typo on your part, know that there’s no “r” in the expression

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  5. Eli, before you start condemning people as apikorsim (and..."the *only* real apikores"? You need to get out more), why don't you learn some Hebrew? "Nishbar?"

    R' Slifkin, the United States Supreme Court ruled on this issue in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden). The United States then imposed tariffs on vegetables, not fruit. So an importer sued, claiming that tomatoes were fruit (which, of course, they are) and thus not subject to the tariff.

    The Supreme Court ruled that people call tomatoes "vegetables" and therefore they are. The legal principle still holds.

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  6. Then why not adopt the folk-measure of the size of an olive? Which raises the questions: which folk? when folk?

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  7. According to Steven J. Gould, after a lifetime of studying fish, he determined (or at least said) that there is no such thing as a fish.
    For a funny discussion about it, check out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdNEN4rUOTA

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  8. Todd writes: "Those with an anti-science prejudice will say ..."

    Those with an anti-religious prejudice will say, "Those with an anti-science prejudice...". Someone with less prejudice would say, "Those with an anti-what-they-consider-questionable-science prejudice...".

    If you're going to call someone anti-science, make sure the person is anti-all science first, OK?

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  9. "from Aristotle to the cladists to modern genetic distance and molecular clocks is an exercise in the development of changing the system to reflect better understanding and information."

    In other words... For those who have a prejudice to say that Science is perfect, no new discovery can sway you from that opinion.

    Just because you've re-classified something as a new species, when before it was a sub-species, doesn't mean it is. Abraham Lincoln's quote can be used as an attack on Taxonomy just as well as a defense of it... because there is no right or wrong when it comes to arbitrary systems.

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  10. @Ameteur:
    They are not necessarily arbitrary. There is a rational reason to classify based on daily experience (all swimming things in water) as well as to classify based on DNA (more suited to the scientists). Simply because we use more science in one case (DNA sequencing) doesn't mean that daily experience is not rational. I can even "rationally" choose different taxonomies at different times depending on circumstances.

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  11. Sorry, yes, it was a typo, I meant 'tinok shenishbah'(as in the Hebrew word for captured) rather than(sorry Nachum-please keep it civil next time though) nishbar-I wrote it late at night and it was a typo. I would appreciate if RNS would kindly modify my original comment to reflect the typo. The point of my post was not to state definitively that he was the ONLY apikores. Rather I wanted to point out that it was inappropriate to call Jacobs 'controversial' seeing as though his views placed him completely outside the spectrum of what is considered to be orthodox judaism. You wouldn't call Geiger controversial. One should just call a spade a spade. One could, for example call, Rav Kook controversial in a way, because he was a gadol baTorah, who was strictly orthodox in viewpoint, yet his views(on many things) differed quite a bit from many of his contemporaries.

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  12. It is interesting how we just take facts for granted until someone challenges them. I never thought about this before...

    Questions:

    1. Did R. Louis Jacobs footnote his claim, or explain his reasoning?

    2. And, in the other direction, is there an unambiguous halachic source that indicates a whale is a fish in terms of kashrut?

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  13. Thanks for the post! Honestly, the question of fins/scales vs. split hoof/ruminant simanim for sea mammals (or flying mammals) never occurred to me!

    But you're right that if bats are classified as 'ofei shamayim' then it also suggests that whales are probably 'd'gei yam' as far as halachic simanim are concerned.

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  14. Eli, I suppose the fact that he was completely shomer mitzvot- and that there was a great amount of controversy about him- makes him "controversial." Just because some- or all- Orthodox Jews are settled on someone doesn't mean the whole world is.

    Related: Do I recall correctly that humans are, strictly speaking, kosher- as, halakhically, they are not animals? I think human milk is treated under this rule.

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    Replies
    1. No. Gemarah says human mother's milk is pareve. (Note current controversy regarding 'ben pekuah' and claimed pareve status.

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  15. Rabbi Slifkin,

    As a daily reader of your blog,I generally enjoy your writing and oftentimes agree with you. However, I must object to your claim that "there is no “right” or “wrong” method of classification. A system of classification has no independent reality. It is simply a means by which man measures and describes the animal kingdom, depending upon his purpose".

    As I'm sure you are aware (I'll just mention this for the benefit of your other readers), the Torah-based classification of living things is essentially a phenotypic classification (ie. based on some sort of observable characteristic such as "aquatic lifestyle"). Although this type of classification system was the scientific standard for centuries (and is unfortunately still used by many biologists, mostly zoologists), it is now known to be an inherently flawed system of classification. Meaning, yes, it often puts things in the wrong categories. If you acknowledge the fact of evolution (which I am aware you do), and the theory of common descent, then it follows that all living things can be correctly grouped in one and only one way - according to their DNA sequences.

    Grouping bats with birds and whales with fish is simply incorrect. Having said that, of course religious groups possess the right to classify things for their own purposes, but don't try to claim that a system based upon an incorrect and antiquated understanding of the natural world shares equal legitimacy with evolutionary systematics.

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  16. Garnel IronheartJuly 24, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    This is all so irrelevant. Even if you could prove the whale is a mammal where would you find a knife big enough to schecht it?

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  17. Shlomo, please read this article and then explain why taxonomy is not arbitrary.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbitrariness


    You can be rational and still make arbitrary decisions... The whole field of 'naming things' is IMO seemingly arbitrary by definition.

    BTW, I think if people talked about arbitrary mutations instead of random mutations, there would be a lot less debate about evolution :)

    And then some enterprising research team could probably get funding to discover the boundaries of the arbitrary mutations.

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  18. But one thing is clear: whale meat and whale oil are forbid­den not because the whale does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud, but rather because the whale is a forbidden fish.

    Why did you declare the whale as a "fish" according to the Torah's classification (and thereby expose it to ridicule by science enthusiasts who will consider it ignorant and ignore the point of this post)? Maybe its really a Tanin?
    And in fact, didn't you yourself identify the great whale as the the biblical Tanin?
    http://www.zootorah.com/essays/whale.html

    So what gives with the "fish" label, Rabbi?

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  19. it is now known to be an inherently flawed system of classification. Meaning, yes, it often puts things in the wrong categories.

    Not true. It is just not useful from the point of view of zoology. But there's no such thing as "wrong" categories. When a zoo effectively "classifies" animals according to how they are housed (e.g. "small animal house") there is nothing "wrong" about this.

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  20. Why did you declare the whale as a "fish" ... Maybe its really a Tanin?

    Tanin is a generic term. A whale is a tanin and is also a fish. It's certainly not a behemah or chayah! You could argue that it is chayas hayam (see the discussion of the Acharonim on the Stincus marinus), but even so it would be treif due to the lack of fins and scales, not hooves and cud.

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  21. Garnel writes:
    "This is all so irrelevant. Even if you could prove the whale is a mammal where would you find a knife big enough to schecht it?"

    Here you go:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_x2XUMl9-VGk/ScOuSKTerzI/AAAAAAAAA8c/8DQH87HWXYw/s1600-h/3022609161_5335a86d75-704667.jpg

    You'll have to go elsewhere for the fork, however:

    http://sigmatwiomega.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/newsflash-forks-outsell-knives/

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  22. R' Natan's view is consistent with the language of the torah. The torah delineates what land creatures are kosher; what sea creatures are kosher; and what flying creatures aren't kosher. "..these are the living things that you may eat of all the land animals" (Lev. 11:2). "This may you eat of all that are in water, all that have fins and scales.." (Lev. 11:9). " These shall you reject (consider gross) from the flying creatures..."(Lev. 11:13). The torah provides an operational distinction between classes of creatures based on lifestyle rather than on anatomy. A whale may or may not be considered a fish in the torah. However, a whale is clearly considered a sea creature because that's where it lives.

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  23. " then it follows that all living things can be correctly grouped in one and only one way - according to their DNA sequences. "

    What an obsurd statement.
    You can classify living things into "tasty, and not tasty", "poisons, neutral, beneficial"
    You can classify them by affordability, maintenance cost, or geography.

    There are 1,001 ways you can classify anything!

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  24. A question that occurs to me... What about pinnipeds (fin-footed mammals) like seals and walruses?

    If we found one that was split-hoofed/ruminant, would it be kosher, or does the fact that its main habitat is the water require it to have aquatic simanim?

    I realize it's a strange question, but is it possible a seal could be considered "dag" for purposes of halachic classification? What is the halachic criteria to determine "dag" vs "chaya/beheima"? Presumably it's not just a question of morphology but also of habitat. Just curious - thanks.

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  25. There is no question that the whale is considered a fish in the torah, because of the use of a folk classification. However, chazal recognized that the whale was an anomaly, since they give all kinds of rules for determining whether a fish is nonkosher, e.g., based on its eggs and its skeleton which correctly apply to sharks and catfish, but not to whales.

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  26. To Ameteur:

    "What an obsurd statement.
    You can classify living things into "tasty, and not tasty", "poisons, neutral, beneficial"
    You can classify them by affordability, maintenance cost, or geography.

    There are 1,001 ways you can classify anything!"

    And we could classify the elements alphabetically, but then we would lose all of the relevant information we obtain from structuring them in the correct way - by their atomic masses. Of course it is possible to classify things any way you choose, but that doesn't make them all correct.

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  27. They are all neither correct nor incorrect. The only way of classifying incorrectly is to make a mistake within the system being chosen - for example, to adopt the modern system but to classify platypuses as birds. But there is no "correct" or "incorrect" about the system. If an encyclopedia of animals lists them in alphabetical order, this might not be useful to some people (although it would be MORE useful to others), but it is not incorrect!

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  28. There is no question that the whale is considered a fish in the torah, because of the use of a folk classification.

    Again, how do you know this? maybe the whale is a sea creature that is in a class all by itself? Who said it must be placed into a larger category called "fish"? Is it coming from "Jonah and the Whale" type of translations?

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  29. There are no other categories. And from studying many halachic discussions in this area, it is clear to me that there is nothing about whales that would disqualify them from being fish.

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  30. Is an octopus also called a "fish" because there is no other category? sea otters and seals and walruses? clams and sea turtkes? all must be "fish"?
    For heaven's sakes, why? Why must every single sea creature be placed in a larger category in the Torah's classification?? Is there a halachic necessity? If so, what is it?

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  31. A Camel, Hare and Hyrax marched into my house this afternoon! The new book has arrived. I am happy and ready to chew the book in the days ahead.

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  32. Wouldn't the fact that the whale is an endotherm, rather than a poikilotherm impact on peripheral Kashrut laws?

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  33. "And we could classify the elements alphabetically, but then we would lose all of the relevant information we obtain from structuring them in the correct way - by their atomic masses"

    Again, that is just wrong.
    Firstly, organizing elements by their atomic weight does not tell you 'all the relevant information'. It doesn't tell you which ones are naturally solid or liquid or gas at room tempature, it doesn't tell you which ones are 'nobel'.. THe periodic Table is FAR from a straight ordering of atomic weight. IT's a great table because it organizes the data by different criteria and puts them into different labeling systems.

    An alphabetical listing would be very useful, if you were looking to create a children s books based on the element names. I wouldn't want to have to sort through the periodic table for such an task, I would much rather get the elements sorted by spelling, and the atomic weight of the elements would be completely irrelevant and 'wrong' for that task.


    "Is an octopus also called a "fish" because there is no other category? "

    No, an octopus is called a "fish" because it lives in the water, and is a water based creature. It fits exactly into the category that the halacha cares about. It further falls into the category of "unkosher fish.", or "unkosher fish that isn't a chilazon"

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  34. If Steven J Gould says there's no such thing as a fish, then that's good enough for me. (said semi-sarcastically).

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  35. Several times I heard Rabbi Jacobs zl say (not as you have misquoted) "It depends what you mean by Torah,what you mean by Shamayim and most importantly, what you mean by min."

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