Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You'll Never Guess

Oh, the irony! Today, I picked up a book of insights on the parashah, to see what it had to say about this week's parashah, Balak (my barmitzvah parashah). It turned out to discuss evolution, and to say almost exactly the same as what Rabbi Shafran said about it (in the article that I critiqued yesterday):

...The end of parashas Balak tells of the sin of the Bnei Yisrael in attaching themselves to the idol worship of Baal Pe’or. Unlike traditional, good-old-fashioned idol worship, which involved prostration, animal slaughter, and human sacrifice, Baal Pe’or was worshipped by relieving oneself in front of it...

The process of expelling waste products from the body is the lowest function of man. It is the one function in which man is indistinguishable from animals. This lowly, animalistic function was not merely the means of worshipping Baal Pe’or; rather, it signified the purpose of the worship itself. For if man is nothing more than a lowly animal, then he need not act any better than a lowly animal. The concept of man being no better than an animal is the license for immorality and self-indulgence that a would-be sinner will worship.

A recent parallel to Baal Pe’or was the fanatical blind allegiance with which much of the world attached itself to Darwinism. Darwin postulated a scientific theory which relegated man to being nothing more than an intelligent ape. And apes don’t need to live up to a moral standard. In referring to the physical rise of man from animal, evolutionists are licensing his spiritual descent back to animal.

But you'll never guess who wrote this.

Jonathan Rosenblum?

Simcha Coffer?

Rabbi Avigdor Miller?

No.

Scroll down for the answer....














It was written by me!

It's part of an essay that I published in my 1999 book, Second Focus. Elsewhere in the book, I criticize evolution on scientific grounds. (Needless to say, I was a very different person back then.)

There is some truth to what I wrote. Many people do indeed accept evolution without evaluating the evidence, and their motivation is that considering oneself to be no more than an animal can be seen as a justification for avoiding moral behavior.

But there are also those people who accept evolution simply because they think that the evidence supports it, not because of any atheist or immoral bias. Francis Collins comes to mind. So does Rav Gedalyah Nadel. And my own acceptance of evolution came during a spiritual "high" in yeshivah, after it finally dawned on me that there no theological problems with it, and that it represented an extremely elegant method for God to create the natural world.

And as for the notion that accepting evolution necessarily leads to immorality, an entirely different perspective can also be taken. As I explained in The Challenge Of Creation, there is considerable conceptual basis in classical Jewish thought for the idea of man emerging from the animal kingdom. Ramban and others state that man was made from a two-legged being that was qualitatively absolutely no different from an animal. The point is, as Abarbanel explains, that "man's perfection is not actually born with him. He has choice in his deeds; he can be drawn after his intellect, to be like the uppermost beings, or after his physicality, and be like the animals and beasts." Rabbi Joseph Hertz makes an allusion to Darwin’s book on human origins, The Descent of Man, and beautifully expresses the idea that man’s soul makes all the difference:

"…It is not so much the descent, but the ascent of man, which is decisive… it is not the resemblance, but the differences between man and ape, that are of infinite importance. It is the differences between them that constitute the humanity of man, the God-likeness of man. The qualities that distinguish the lowest man from the highest brute make the differences between them differences in kind rather than in degree; so much so that, whatever man might have inherited from his animal ancestors, his advent can truly be spoken of as a specific Divine act, whereby a new being had arisen with God-like possibilities within him, and conscious of these God-like possibilities within him." (Rabbi Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch, Additional Notes to Genesis p. 194)

Rav Kook embraced evolution as expressing the idea that creation is always striving to reach new heights. It's not where you come from that matters - after all, we all come from a tipah seruchah - but rather, what matters is where you are going.

Shallow rebuttals of evolution are not the only flaws in my book Second Focus. It also includes essays extolling the virtues of black hats, the mystical approach, and the chareidi version of Daas Torah. I actually discovered a large stash of copies of the book, which are currently sitting in my storeroom. I don't want to sell them, because there's so much that I disagree with! But maybe one day I will produce a companion volume, critically re-appraising what I wrote in Second Focus, so that I can sell them together. I could call it Re-Focus.

48 comments:

  1. Is there hope then, that in another 12 years you might do Teshuva and renounce your current Hashqafa? :-)

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  2. Its wonderful to see you describe your evolution (heh) in learning and Torah. There is precedent for this type of "hodor beih" [changing one's mind] in rabbinic literature going all the way back to talmudic times. In that vein, I dont think you should surpress your first book. Mishna rishona lo zoza mimkoma. Just republish it with a big disclaimer or introduction. Picasso had his Blue Period, you can have your Frum Period.

    [I have some personal experience with this. I wrote a commentary of Tanach that I make available to individuals who request it through on-demand publishing. Some of the commentary I wrote 10-13 years ago would never see the light of day from me today. But I keep it in there as a milestone towards charting growth. Besides, occasionally I get nostalgic for that period.]

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  3. > It is the one function in which man is indistinguishable from animals.

    As opposed to eating, sweating, urinating, salivating...

    You know what would be neat? Let's build a TARDIS and take you back to meet yourself back then. That's a debate I'd like to see!

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  4. Wait... R' Nosson Slifkin and R' Natan Slifkin are the same person?! ;-)

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  5. Wow, talk about punctuated equilibrium!

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  6. Despite your current "disagreements" I enjoyed both Focus books a lot (read them multiple times) and still think the thoughts expressed are quite original and refreshing as opposed to nearly all the d'var torahs out there that are repeated everwhere and all time.

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  7. Please do write the companion piece so scholars don't debate which one you retracted!
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  8. I am curious - do you know of any example of this type of retraction in the reverse? Meaning, a younger person writing a Torah work with a rational bent, and then later becoming and writing something more mystical/charedi? I'm not talking about ballei teshuvah or people who originally wrote with no Jewish background. I'm talking about people who were rational beshittah, but then became mystical beshitah. has it ever happened?

    A. Schreiber

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  9. I doubt that such a thing happens often, if at all. But I know several examples of mystics becoming rationalists!

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  10. Sorry, but I disagree with your interpretation of your dvar torah. At least in the part you quote, there is no rejection of evolution--only an argument against the view of man as no more than an animal, which is often supported by appeals to Darwin. I would hope that you would still agree with the critique of materialism which you presented then.

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  11. I do still agree with the critique of materialism. But, trust me, there was indeed a rejection of evolution there!

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  12. "I doubt that such a thing happens often, if at all. But I know several examples of mystics becoming rationalists!" Scholars like to point to the fact that R. Moshe de Leon had a copy of the Moreh Nevukhim transcribed for him as evidence of an early "rationalist" phase. The Shelah's father was a philosopher who was attacked by mystics, but this did not prevent his son from becoming the author of one of the most prominent mystical works. Another good example would be R. Yehuda Halevi, who rejected the Aristotelianism on which he was raised for his Jewish particularism. According to some (e.g., C. Manekin), the Rambam himself became increasingly "conservative," and thus less of a rationalist, over the course of his life. I'm sure there are many more.

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  13. Garnel writes:

    As opposed to eating, sweating, urinating, salivating...

    I'm can't think of a single biological function from the Krebs Cycle to sleeping in which humans can be distinguished from other animals.

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  14. "Meaning, a younger person writing a Torah work with a rational bent, and then later becoming and writing something more mystical/charedi?"

    I don't know all the details, but Rabbi Avigdor Miller z'tz'l went to YU and later rejected just about every aspect of the Torah u Maddah hashkafah.

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  15. I would like to point out the difference between the denial of evolution and the denial of other scientific theories that appear to contradict the words of the Torah. Evolution is counterintuitive. This means that when we see life forms that are so utterly different, we are unlikely to believe that they are descended from a common ancestor. Of course, with the development of modern biology, microbiology and other sciences, the evidence of the common ancestry is extremely strong. However, unless one is educated in these sciences or inclined to believe scientists, one is not inclined to believe in evolution. In contrast, the evidence that the age of the earth is many times greater than that given by the Jewish calendar, is much more intuitive, since we can easily imagine that rivers and glaciers cut through land forms over millions of years. For that reason, you will find that many who deny evolution do not deny the antiquity of the earth.

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  16. Nathan Slifkin writes:
    There is some truth to what I wrote. Many people do indeed accept evolution without evaluating the evidence, and their motivation is that considering oneself to be no more than an animal can be seen as a justification for avoiding moral behavior.

    To which I reply with a quote from the Haploid of Nazareth: "Physician heal thyself." If you're going to apply a standard which amounts to personal attacks to others you have to be willing to turn its harsh gaze on your own beliefs. Does the faith of most religious people come from a deep examination of its foundations and the evidence for and against it? Or does it come from social pressure, emotional connection to community members and fear of death and the unknown?

    Begging the question, special pleading, moving the goalposts and so on need not apply.

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  17. Does the faith of most religious people come from a deep examination of its foundations and the evidence for and against it? Or does it come from social pressure, emotional connection to community members and fear of death and the unknown?

    The latter, obviously. As well as a desire to enrich one's life with added meaning.

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  18. The problem with words like "mystical" is their very slippery meanings. I know plenty of very rationalist people who are mystics. But it's not in the sense of magic, superstition, OCD number crunching on sacred texts, shofar blowing at odd hours or fiddling with amulets. They see the world in a way which encompasses the circle of reason and moves past its borders to get a larger, clearer view. Real mystics, in my limited experience, are found in many religions or none at all.

    The Fundamentalist (any religion's fundamentalist) sees only himself and evil. Mystics of whatever stripe recognize each other and wave companionably in passing.

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  19. A. Schreiber,

    Benny Brown claims this re: the Chazon Ish in his new biography, showing that some early writings of the Chazon Ish showed philosophical (Moreh Nevuchim) leanings and even some haskala type language whereas later in life he took a more negative view towards such expression/explanations of Judaism (while not becoming overtly mystical but the shift to literalism or fundamentalism was there).

    Eric

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  20. You note that you allowed yourself to accept evolution after you realized there were no theological problems with it. If you could, at some time, expand on that phrase it might really help people like me understand what's going on here.
    For example, if a person realizes validity in a well documented scientific theory, what is it abut theological problems that would cause him to deny the validity? And I would really be interested to know what it is about a yeshiva training that one could immerse himself in a life of understanding theological problems and arguments on one hand while requiring there to be no such problems in other areas of knowledge.
    Realize that I don't have a yeshiva training & I can't figure out what's going on here.

    Gary Goldwater

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  21. Perhaps it's time to consider a buy-back program? :)

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  22. "And as for the notion that accepting evolution necessarily leads to immorality..."

    Did someone use the word "necessarily"? Perhaps those who say that accepting evolution is "a license for immorality" really mean to say "most likely" and not "necessarily"?

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  23. Ten Jew Very MuchJuly 7, 2011 at 4:29 AM

    One lesson here is that we should not assume that a dead rabbi's views today would necessarily be the same as he expressed during his life. WWRS (what would the Rav say?) is a guessing game. I would think that the greater the mind, the greater the openness to new understanding.

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  24. I know it isn't related to the topic of the post, but speaking of books, I reminded myself... I was wondering if you already started mailing out the Camle, the Hare and the Hyrax. I paid almost two weeks ago and still no sign...

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  25. It is still in the process of being printed. It should be ready in a week or two.

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  26. anonymous- I was going to ask a very similar question to the one you raised. Since RNS states that he only accepted evolution after deciding there was no theological problem with it, he seems to be admitting that he has an apriori belief in the torah's truth and divinity. And his implication is that absent a way to reconcile evolution with the torah to his satisfaction, he could or would not have been able to accept it for the reality which it is. And so I ask RNS....

    How can you call your blog "Rationalist Judaism" when you have such a non-rational approach?

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  27. First of all, as I wrote, I was a very different person back then. My blog does not reflect my approach of 12 years ago.

    Second of all, in contrast to how some of my opponents like to lampoon me, I have never claimed to be a perfect rationalist!

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  28. So, 12 years later, would you be willing to accept evidence (if it existed) that the torah wasn't written when it was claimed to be? Or that events described in the torah never took place? Or more generally, any evidence that couldn't honestly be reconciled with the idea that an inerrant god wrote it?

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  29. What is the goal of your question?

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  30. Considering the name you chose for your blog as well as the content of this post, I think it's a very reasonable question. Obviously you may choose not to answer, but I think it would shed some light on how far your rationalism extends.

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  31. The name of the blog is explained in the subtitle.

    As for how far my rationalism extends - people should draw their own conclusions on that, based on what I write.

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  32. I would like to understand that answer from what you write, but I'm having difficulty. Earlier you wrote,
    I was a very different person back then. My blog does not reflect my approach of 12 years ago....

    which implies that you now have a different mindset. And that you look at things more rationally now. But then you wrote,

    Second of all, in contrast to how some of my opponents like to lampoon me, I have never claimed to be a perfect rationalist!

    and this implies that your answer would still be less than "perfectly" rational.

    I hope you see how one could be confused.

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  33. There's no contradiction, but it still doesn't pinpoint your position. Assuming both implications are correct, you could be more rational than before while still not being "perfectly" so. Since you haven't defined "perfect rationalism", there is no way to draw any conclusion.
    My question ,however ,would allow readers to gain accurate insight as to where your rationalism extends. Why are you hesitant to answer? I think it's the most important and relevant question on the subject of jewish rationalism.

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  34. Somewhere, Leo Strauss is grinning.

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  35. ah-pee-chorus - I'm reading the comments here, and I have no idea what you're driving at.

    Btw, are you the same guy from shmarya's blog who didn't know what tefillin were, yet uses a very Jewish-sounding moniker and has all manner of critique of Judaism and Jews (even though not even knowing what some basic things like tefillin are)? Or was that someone else there?

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  36. Rabbi Slifkin, if I were you, I would ignore Ah-pee-chorus. At FailedMessiah, he slammed your approach (based on a complete misunderstanding of it), and said that a certain skeptic's critique of your book was "fair and balanced," but later was forced to admit that he had never actually read your book!

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  37. D, shadow man: At least the discussion is useful and mind-expanding. Before I came here I never would have thought that paleontology, The Lord of the Rings, Chaldean astronomy, magnets and amulets could all be used to illustrate important theological questions in Talmudic metaphysics.

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  38. The latter, obviously. As well as a desire to enrich one's life with added meaning.

    Give the man a cigar!

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  39. I still don't quite understand the hava amina how developing from animals is qualitatively worse than being formed from dirt.

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  40. I saw a copy of the first "Focus" for sale on Keren Kayemet Street the other day. I was tempted...

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  41. "the torah wasn't written when it was claimed to be"

    When does the Torah "claim" to have been written? The Gemara says it was written by Moshe, of course. The Torah, interestingly, never does. (It says *parts* were written by Moshe, and quotes Moshe extensively, especially in Devarim, but never says it was written by Moshe.)

    Just thought I'd point out that your question makes no sense on its face.

    Following up on my last post, I remember that Second Focus was still widely available only a few years back, but I remember you discouraging people from buying it (or was it your book on Yaakov?). I know see I bought it, probably because I have every other book you wrote. (I remember you autographing Science of Torah as a "fossil.")

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  42. I don't know anything about ah-pee-chorus at all - he may be downright evil for all I know. But I am intrigued by his question. I think it is a fair one to ask, and would love if you could address it. I have no preconceived notion as to what your answer would be. I think that whatever the answer is, it would be of value to us who follow your writings, since we look to you as a model of reconciling Torah and science. Realising that there are no right or wrong answers here, whatever you answer would be part of your teachings to us as to an approach in the whole reconciling issue.

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  43. shadow man and d
    Yet I do think ah-pee-chorus's questions are important though maybe this is not the time or place.... I will answer for myself and not for Rabbi Slifkin. What we choose to believe (in the sense of hold to be true) is a deeply personal and for most of us evolving thing. I am not sure any of us can be considered 100% rational as we always bring biases to the discussion and it is very difficult to step outside of ourselves and truly weigh sides of an argument the way you might weigh two stones and declare which is heavier. Someone may think that if really looked at objectively, the evidence argues against tenents of Orthodox Judaism but may not be ready to accept (let alone declare) this to be true. That person may be ready in 12 years or may never be ready (I am not saying this is the case with R. Slifkin). Does this mean the person is not "rational"? I am not sure. If the person says "rationaly x appears to be true but for whatever reason I choose to not personally submit to the conclusion - is this not a rational approach?" If evidence could be quantified and leaned 65% to 35% and for some reason a person sided with the 35% while <> with the 65% evidence (meaning the person does not deny or reinterpret the evidence) is this necessarily irrational? 35% is still 35% and maybe it is correct? Is this person necessarily written out of the rationalist camp?

    I am not a philosopher so I dont know the answer but it seems to me that unless a person has 100% submitted to a viewpoint and will not accept any evidence to the contrary, that person is in a legitimate and evolving process. Why anyone would think that a person's viewpoint would not or should not change over 12 years I do not know.

    Again I am not speaking for R. Slifkin - these are my thoughts

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  44. I hope to post about that topic at some point - although I think that some of this stuff is, and should remain, private. But it's not the topic of this post.

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  45. I think it's rude for people who don't post comments under their real name to ask deeply personal questions of those who do.

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  46. ah-pee-chorus,
    I'm not looking for a "gotcha" moment. I really think RNS has hit something on the head and would like, in some other column, to learn exactly what's going on there.

    I grew up completely secular and enjoyed learning about science well before I became observant. Yet,in the observant world I see people have absolutely no problem with the mutually exclusive approaches to Torah.

    So, for example, it may be that talmidim see that biology has no need for divrei Torah & so it is frustrating for them [as divrei Torah is their language] to assimilate modern biology. & it may be that the reaction to this frustration is to give the approach of "you have no need for my specialty so it is intellectually equivalent for me to declare that Jews have no need for your specialty".

    I don't really know the answer...but it seems that exploring this phrase might yield some very useful insights. In particular, it could open us to a sensitivity that would allow communication between more people on both sides of the equation.

    Gary Goldwater

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  47. I would argue that an observant Jew could never be a "perfect rationalist". Why? For the Greeks, the beginning of wisdom was curiosity (or doubt). What this means practically is a completely unrestrained attempt to apply a finite understanding (i.e., man's) to both a finite universe that is almost certainly beyond the grasp of his understanding - and to an infinite being, his Creator, which is without a doubt beyond the grasp of his understanding. For a Jew, however, the beginning of wisdom is the awesome reverence (i.e., fear) of G-d. What this means practically is that a G-d fearing Jew approaches his understanding of everything with the humble recognition that his intellect is finite/limited - and is not merely different in degree, but in kind, from that of his infinite and unlimited Creator. Whereas a student of Greek philosophy might try to contemplate what was before there was anything - a G-d fearing Jew will recognize that this is well beyond the scope of his limited understanding and a fruitless endeavor (in addition to being an issur).

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