Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Halachic Reality and Empirical Reality

The latest volume of Techumin has a terrific article by Rav Shlomo Dichovsky entitled "Halachic Reality vis-a-vis Empirical Reality" (מציאות של הלכה בצד מציאות עובדתית). I was pleased to see that he follows the approach of Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner and Rav Yitzchak Herzog, recently ignored by Rav Bleich. That is to say, he openly admits that Chazal's rulings are occasionally based on beliefs that are refuted by modern science, but argues that this is irrelevant for halachic purposes. Thus, lice may be killed on Shabbos, and worms in fish may be eaten, even though Chazal based these rulings on the mistaken belief in spontaneous generation.

Rav Dichovsky's way of presenting his case uses an interesting strategy that had not occurred to me before. He points out that even within halachah (i.e. regardless of science), there are times when there are conflicting realities. For example, if a man is lost at sea, he is presumed to be alive vis-a-vis his wife (who thus may not marry someone else), but presumed to be dead vis-a-vis his heirs. An even more potent example is from a case in the Gemara regarding two pathways, one of which contains tum'ah, but we don't know which one. If two people walk on the two pathways, and separately inquire if they have become tamei, we reply to each that they are tahor - even though one of them certainly walked on the tamei pathway. Halachic reality is sometimes independent from empirical reality.

It's an excellent article. Note that as well as buying the book on Techumin's website, it is also possible to purchase the individual article as a download for 15 NIS.

30 comments:

  1. One of my teachers once said that if one is interested in magic, they should take up halacha.

    Only halacha can turn a piece of meat from a non-kosher animal into a kosher piece of meat from a kosher animal by merely placing said meat in a different neighborhood :)

    Ironically, a c++ instructor said a similar statement about programming.

    Apparently educators like to make their students believe in the magic of what they are teaching.

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  2. imho neither of those cases are defining reality (birur) but are giving us practical guidance as to how to act (hanhaga) vis a vis others when the actual reality is unknown to us. this is imho not the same as saying halacha was determined based on a not accurate birrur. (which doesn't necessarily mean halacha changes-could be it doesn't anyway for process reasons)
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  3. I'm not sure I hear those examples. Seems to me that the paths and death cases show a flexibility within the halachic system to deal with lack of information. So long as it's not an open contradiction (as when both pathgoers ask together), the system allows us to ignore the contradiction and treat each as a separate case; or to be concerned for a living husband vis-à-vis one din, but not another.

    The case of lice on Shabbos, however, doesn't relate to the system itself, but the information we feed it. Chazal apparently held conclusively that lice do not reproduce, whereas we have concluded that they do. Thus, they were feeding bad input into the system.

    Whether the system takes this into account (by retaining the definitions of Chazal) is a different question.

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  4. What's with the picture?

    It relates to the halachah about a man being lost at sea. "Castaway" was based on the true story of a man who actually survived. In the movie, he is presumed dead, and his wife remarries.

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  5. Rabbi,

    Some applications of the concept of bitul would seem to me to be similar to the two cases you mentioned. After all, if you lose some chopped ham in a pot of chopped meat, under certain conditions, the whole mixture is kosher. Yet anybody who eats it is actually eating the meat of a swine. Seems to me to be quite analogous.

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  6. To me the difference seems logical. We use Chazakah when in doubt. Hence, a married woman remains married and a Tahor person remains Tahor.

    As for why Yerusha may be different, money can always be returned if we made a mistake, but Mamzerim can not be undone.

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  7. What happened with your letter to Tradition?

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  8. Don't know. I understood from my correspondence with them that they were going to print it, but it didn't appear.

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  9. > Halachic reality is sometimes independent from empirical reality.

    Is halachah attached to empirical reality at all? For instance, is tummah a thing, like, say, infection, or radiation, that negatively affects a person? If so, it would seem in the case of the two paths that we should err on the side of caution and make both people toivel, much like we start rabies treatments immediately after an animal bite, even before confirming that the animal is sick.

    Or is halachah a set of rules in a divine game that we’re all supposed to play? Perhaps Hashem tallies up our points and demerits, and treats us accordingly, but the rules have no direct relationship to empirical reality. If so, then the case of the two paths makes good sense. Neither person violated the rules by taking a tammei path, so the game doesn’t require them to make up for it by going to the mikvah.

    If the second scenario is true, then it doesn’t matter what is empirically true. The game, while influenced by the real world – and the real-world perceptions of the rule-makers – is independent from it. So we may kill lice on Shabbos because that is how the rules were decided, and we may not change the rules once they are decided. That the decision to make the rules that way was influenced by a mistaken understanding of empirical reality is irrelevant to how we are supposed to play the game.

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  10. For instance, is tummah a thing, like, say, infection, or radiation, that negatively affects a person?

    That's a dispute between Rambam and Ramban. See Kellner.

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  11. Listen, to be a master in halacha you need to find 150 ways to declare a sheretz pure.
    There are countless examples where halacha ignores reality. Why, one of the famous ways in which a kohen, the husband of a raped woman, is allowed to stay married is by simply declaring that he does not believe his wife - regardless of what we know to be the truth. The shas is filled with many such examples. And that's even without getting into formal legal fictions, like eruvin or dofen akuma.

    A. Schreiber

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  12. I don't think Cast Away was based on a true story, by the way. I mean, it could theoretically (have) happen(ed), but the story itself was an original screenplay.

    Just thought you should know...

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  13. I think it was based on Alexander Selkirk.

    http://listverse.com/2008/10/06/10-incredible-real-life-castaway-tales/

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  14. > "I was pleased to see that he follows the approach of Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner and Rav Yitzchak Herzog, recently ignored by Rav Bleich."

    Ignored? Or missed? (It's easier to judge favorably if the latter is meant.)

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  15. I'm afraid we are confusing here rebuttable presumptions and legal fictions.

    Both of the quoted examples hold water only as long as there is a serious doubt about the objective reality. The Safek is a crucial condition. For the conflict between science and halacha, the opposite is true.

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  16. I have had a longstanding concern about Bore-al-gabi-Bore mikvot. I had been told by several Chabad Rabbis that such mikvot were superior to any other mikvot since rules of gravity prevented the Myim Chiam from mixing with the water in the tevila bore. Most if not all mikvot that I have seen are heated and filtered (i.e. the water recirculates through a pump). Based on my poor knolwedge of physics, the idea that the water in the two borim will not mix is preposterous.

    I have asked many Rabbis about this. Predicatably their responses fell into three categories. (1) All Chabad Rabbis harkened back to the idea that the Rebbe was an engineer and could not possibly have made a mistake about the physics of the water mixing. (Notably this answers concedes that if in fact the waters do mix then the mikvah will be pasul.) (2) Litvack types are always ready to accept that Bore-al-gabi-bore mikvot are teif. (3) The issue is frought with danger and we should not investigate questions that would lead large numbers of families violating Taharat mishpacha laws.

    One time I asked a Rabbi; his answer to me was that it was halachic magic. Remarkably, this answer was the most satisfying response that I had heard.

    Please note, my purpose hear is not to begin a debate on mikvot. I was merely sharing an anecdote about halacha and empirical knowledge.

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  17. ""Ari said...
    Rabbi,

    Some applications of the concept of bitul would seem to me to be similar to the two cases you mentioned. After all, if you lose some chopped ham in a pot of chopped meat, under certain conditions, the whole mixture is kosher. Yet anybody who eats it is actually eating the meat of a swine. Seems to me to be quite analogous.
    =====================================
    Ari,it is absolutely not analogous,because in the case of the ham falling into a pot of kosher meat,the reason we are permited to eat the whole pot of meat,is not because we somehow deny the fact that there is a piece of ham in there,it is permited because of the concept of BITUL BEROV,the TORAH permited us to eat this piece of ham,in order not to render the other 59 pieces of kosher meat un edable

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  18. My favorite example of the "magic" of the halacha comes straight out of the text of the Torah, ch 14 of Vayikra. The house that has symptoms of "tzara'at" infection on the walls must be inspected by a Kohen in order to ascertain if it is indeed infected. The Torah says explicitly to remove all the articles (furniture, utensils, clothing, etc) from the house BEFORE the Kohen gets there, because if it is ultimately determined that it is tzara'at, the items will become tamei (ritually impure). If they are taken out before, they remain tahor (pure). Thus, the "objective" fact that the house has tzara'at does NOT make the items tamei, only the positive determination of the Kohen makes it that way!
    Another halacha that is interesting is the one that says if there are 3 pieces of meat that are all exactly the same size, and we know for a fact that two are kosher and one is treif, but we don't know which is which, we can eat all three! (the majority-rov-is what determines it). This is similar to the case of the two men walking in two paths, one of which is tamei but we don't know which it is, but the example I brought is about possibly eating non-kosher food.

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  19. a while ago, while reading through ancient Greek science (Galen and the like), I discovered that they actually maintain bittul as a scientific idea, for lach belach. there is a dispute between the continuum theory of matter and the atomistic theory of matter. in the continuum theory, all matter has (hot, cold, wet, dry) properties. wine mixed into water will take on enough of the properties of the water that it *becomes* water. add more and more drops, and eventually, there is even a scientific חוזר וניעור.

    so bittul in 60X (or such that there is no longer taste) is not necessarily the best example of halachic fiction at odds with what Chazal knew to be reality. rather, it *might* be something Chazal thought (incorrectly) was scientific reality.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  20. Bittul b’shishim might make sense from a scientific standpoint. Not because the ham disappears, but because it becomes harmless when diluted.

    The EPA maximum limit on arsenic in drinking water is ten parts per billion. Not because arsenic turns into water at that level of dilution, but because no one is consuming enough of it at once for it to be harmful. If, as is often claimed, treif food is poison for our neshamos, perhaps it is diluted to safe levels at one part per sixty.

    On second thought, that wouldn’t work for a solid like meat, would it?

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  21. Another halacha that is interesting is the one that says if there are 3 pieces of meat that are all exactly the same size, and we know for a fact that two are kosher and one is treif, but we don't know which is which, we can eat all three!
    ==================================Not agreed upon by all rishonim - particularly one person eating all 3 at the same time. (cites available upon request)
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  22. How about examples of halachic fictions not based (presently) on a Safek:

    a. 2nd day Yom Tov (its teffilos, bittul tefillin etc.)

    b. Saying "asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu" on mitzvos d'rabbanan" (see Rambams explanation).

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  23. So Dr. Shroedinsky puts a person in box with a vial of poison gas. He puts the box in a Kohen's living room. A completely random event undetectable from the outside will determine whether the vial breaks, killing the person and rendering the house tammei....

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  24. Some readers have already pointed out the flaws in the cited examples of the alleged magical or unrealistic assumptions in halacha. I wish to add my objection to the basic thesis of the post. It's not that halacha necessarily trumps reality. Each such case must be examined on its own antecedents, assumptions, and merits. Nor is the halacha necessarily dependent on the rationale given in the talmud. An example is killing lice on shabbat. A mishna in T.B. Shabbat brings the ancient debate of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai on the issue. Centuries later, the Amora, Rav Yosef, adduced a reason for Bet Hillel's lenient view - that lice supposedly don't reproduce sexually, i.e., a lower form of life. That given reason need not be the original rationale, and his response to Abaye's citation involving 'betzei kinim' seems artificial (he invented a hitherto unknown species). In this case, I would argue that the halacha is correct despite an erroneous rationale.

    The case of worms in the flesh of fish is another cited instance of incorrect assumptions about nature. However, the gemara in T.B. Hulin which permits the Durni worm may not be referring to the Anisakis. It may be referring to a sea louse. In the latter case (as opposed to the anisakis worm) the infecting larval worm may be microscopic and therefore treated as if it were formed inside the fish. In such case we might well use the rationale of the gemara to prohibit anisakis infested fish.


    This is not to say that rationales in talmud may not be wildly incorrect. An example is the rationale for the conclusion that the kukiani worm is forbidden when found in sundry organs since it is presumed to have invaded the lungs followed by other organs. That rationale is somewhat difficult when referring to animals, but fish?? Yet, Tosafot has a strong argument that this is what the gemara intended. Here the rationale is clearly wrong, while the halacha is correct (the mechanism of entry into the fish is different).

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  25. Some readers have already pointed out the flaws in the cited examples of the alleged magical or unrealistic assumptions in halacha. I wish to add my objection to the basic thesis of the post. It's not that halacha necessarily trumps reality. Each such case must be examined on its own antecedents, assumptions, and merits. Nor is the halacha necessarily dependent on the rationale given in the talmud. An example is killing lice on shabbat. A mishna in T.B. Shabbat brings the ancient debate of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai on the issue. Centuries later, the Amora, Rav Yosef, adduced a reason for Bet Hillel's lenient view - that lice supposedly don't reproduce sexually, i.e., a lower form of life. That given reason need not be the original rationale, and his response to Abaye's citation involving 'betzei kinim' seems artificial (he invented a hitherto unknown species). In this case, I would argue that the halacha is correct despite an erroneous rationale.

    The case of worms in the flesh of fish is another cited instance of incorrect assumptions about nature. However, the gemara in T.B. Hulin which permits the Durni worm may not be referring to the Anisakis. It may be referring to a sea louse. In the latter case (as opposed to the anisakis worm) the infecting larval worm may be microscopic and therefore treated as if it were formed inside the fish. In such case we might well use the rationale of the gemara to prohibit anisakis infested fish.


    This is not to say that rationales in talmud may not be wildly incorrect. An example is the rationale for the conclusion that the kukiani worm is forbidden when found in sundry organs since it is presumed to have invaded the lungs followed by other organs. That rationale is somewhat difficult when referring to animals, but fish?? Yet, Tosafot has a strong argument that this is what the gemara intended. Here the rationale is clearly wrong, while the halacha is correct (the mechanism of entry into the fish is different).

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  26. Is anyone aware of any work that lists all the cases where halacha is based on mistaken science/understanding of reality?

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  27. Shimon, the problem is that there would be no agreement at all on what should be on the list. Those with an anti-rational and literalist bent would say that there are no mistakes at all. Period.

    For others it would depend at what time you are looking. By the time of Classical Greece people knew the Earth was a sphere and had calculated its circumference with precision. Stuff based on a Chaldean understanding written after that time would be incorrect based on the best understanding at the time.

    Still others would say that it's moot since a scientific and textual model of reality are based on two very different epistemologies.

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  28. Todd,

    It didn't even cross my mind that there would be a list (or anything else for that matter) that would reflect some universal agreement. Subjective work of one author is the best we can get.

    I'm not interested in a post-modern relativistic analysis of ancient texts. I'm looking for a work systematically comparing halacha of Chazal (that is based on claims about physical reality) with present day scientific consensus.

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  29. I don't think halacha changes or defines reality - rather, it dictates how we should act, where the actual reality is known or not known.

    So for example in the case of R Eliezer and the stove, the Rabbis proclaim the Rabbis proclaim "lo bashomayim hi", and we might think that this actually creates a reality (for us and even for G-d!) where the stove is unclean (as per the hachamim). But actually, I think that in reality the stove might well be clean, it's just that despite that reality we still practically follow the majority view that it is unclean. As far as practical halacha - lo bashamayim hi. But reality itself, might be different.

    That there exists a separate (objective) reality outside of the 'halachic reality' is, I believe evident from places such as the following mishna in Yevamos :

    A husband is told that his wife was dead and he marries her sister, and has children with her. If afterwards his first wife comes back alive, any children born while the first wife was still alive are mamzerim.

    Even though the husband presumably acted according to halacha (in marrying his wife's sister when told of his wife's death), we see that halacha did not change the objective reality - one where his wife was still alive. When the wife comes back alive, this objective reality (existing outside halacha) becomes known, and we must acknowledge it.

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