Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chazal Were Right (At Least, According To Me)

Few pages of Gemara are more significant to the Torah/science debate than Bechoros 7b/8a, which Daf Yomi reaches this week. We have already discussed the inaccuracy of the statement that bats (or owls) lay eggs and nurse their young. There are several other statements on that pages that are inaccurate, such as those describing the gestation periods of various animals, the statement that camels copulate back-to-back (which probably stems from the fact that, at all times other than during copulation, the camel's member is directed posteriorally; see too this post), and Rashi's account of mermaids and of how kosher fish sit on their eggs to keep them warm. However, there are other statements on that page which are accurate - at least, according to me, but not according to others.

Let's start with the following statement:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the bat, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)
In my view, aside for the inaccurate statement about the bat, the general rule expressed here is correct. Now, you might be wondering as follows: But what about the duck-billed platypus and echidna? They lay eggs, but nurse their young! Don't they show that Chazal's statement was mistaken?

You might ask a similar question about the continuation of the Gemara, which states that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish. As far as I am concerned, this is a valid statement. Yet the more zoologically knowledgeable of you might be wondering: What about the bonobo and stitchbird?

But as far as I'm concerned, platypus and echidnas and bonobos and stitchbirds do not present a problem. They are obscure animals from remote regions. Chazal never in the first place meant to be giving an absolute statement covering all species in the universe. True, Chazal did not know about the platypus or echidna or bonobo or stitchbird, but if you were to go back in a time-machine and tell them, they would justifiably shrug them off as irrelevant.

This is something that I explained at great length in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. It is based on the Gemara's own principles that one does not need to concern oneself with rare cases (miyuta d’miyuta), and the principle that ain lemedin min haklalos, “we do not take general rules as being absolute,” and they can have exceptions. On numerous occasions, the Rishonim themselves observed that there were exceptions to the Talmud’s seemingly absolute statements about factual reality. They pointed out that such minor exceptions do not undermine these rules because they were not intended to be absolute in the first place. And R. Yonasan Eybeschitz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg make precisely this point about the Talmud’s seemingly absolute rule that all fish with scales have fins.

I applied this principle to further cases. The Gemara states that there are only four animals with one kosher sign; I argued that there are further types, but these do not undermine the Gemara's statement. Likewise, I argued that the principle of psik raisha velo yamus would not be undermined by discovering a headless chicken that survives.

But there are those who are vehemently opposed to my approach. They insist that if the Gemara states a principle, it is absolute and can have no exceptions. According to them, when Chazal said that there are four animals with one kosher sign, there cannot be any others; when Chazal said that every fish with scales has fins, this is an absolute principle that demonstrates confidence in supernatural wisdom. For these people, then, the platypus, echidna, bonobo and stitchbird contradict Chazal's principles. How ironic!

27 comments:

  1. > "Few pages of Gemara are more significant to the Rationalist Jewish enterprise than Bechoros 7b/8a, which Daf Yomi reaches this week. "

    Careful. Those who aren't so interested in these pages might not, therefore, be so interested in the Rationalist jewish enterprise.

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  2. You're right - plus, I overstated matters. I changed it.

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  3. In the first paragraph a euphemism might be more appropriate for this forum. Just a thought.

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  4. Going off my premise that, localized animals only available to people in Israel and Babylonia are a problem for thousands of years worth of Jews who did not live in those countries I will state reply to the following:

    "For these people, then, the platypus, echidna, bonobo and stitchbird contradict Chazal's principles. How ironic!"

    Those animals become relevant when Jews live in those places in large numbers. They are not relevant if no Jews live there though.

    Meaning, that Jews how have no lived in the middle east for the past 1,000 years, need to find meaning and relevancy in the Talmud beyond Israel and so they must interpret the Talmud as being applicable world wide. (Or at least as far as where large populations of Jews are found. )

    Of course, the more we learn about various animals, the better argument you have to suggest Jews move back to the Middle East so as to not have these problems.

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  5. In the first paragraph a euphemism might be more appropriate for this forum.

    (Sigh.) OK, fixed.

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  6. ameteur, why should the author(s) of BT be concerned with those who will read their work 100s of years later? And more importantly, what is your evidence that they were indeed concerned?

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  7. I might sneak in an answer to Yeedle's question.
    Since the canonizers of the Tanach chose only those prophets whose message would be useful to Jews til the end of time (or so I've read), this probably implies that Chazal were concerned about the Jews of the distant future, too.

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  8. "ameteur, why should the author(s) of BT be concerned with those who will read their work 100s of years later? And more importantly, what is your evidence that they were indeed concerned?"

    Yeedle,
    I have no idea what you are asking in relation to this post, or why you think what you are asking has anything to do with what I wrote.
    What do the authors have to do with anything? Nobody is talking about the authors, only how people read and understand what is written.

    The point is, if the Talmud is to be of any value to Jews living in Australia, it's information has to apply to Jews living in Australia. If general statements only apply to the natural world and Jews in or around Israel, then what are all these people doing practicing Judaism in completely different environments, climates, and cultures?


    However, since you asked... the writing down of the Mishna was done exactly so that 100s of years later Jews would know what the law is. Otherwise the Oral law would have remained oral. Secondly, the Talmud itself was redacted and edited and compiled over hundreds of years, so clearly they were concerned with the information being preserved for hundreds of years. Especially after the point where it was decided that the Talmud was 'closed' and would not be edited further.

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  9. When Chazel say "everything" can we qualify that to everything they were aware of?

    It is obvious they were not aware of the whole world, other continents etc...

    Many have come to believe the Mabul was the Mediterranean basin, not the whole world, rather the whole known world to the people who lived in that area.

    As example, the Tevah could not have carried all the worlds land creatures known today, it was much too small. But maybe it would have been able to hold animals from that region.

    Thoughts?

    Shalom

    Rabbi Simon

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  10. I disagree that Chazal would have shrugged these exceptions as irrelevant. I think had they known of them, they would have rephrased their language.

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  11. "What do the authors have to do with anything? Nobody is talking about the authors, only how people read and understand what is written."

    are you saying that people are supposed to read the Talmud without any regard for the author's original intention?

    "The point is, if the Talmud is to be of any value to Jews living in Australia, it's information has to apply to Jews living in Australia. If general statements only apply to the natural world and Jews in or around Israel, then what are all these people doing practicing Judaism in completely different environments, climates, and cultures?"

    I disagree. The Talmud wants its information to apply to Jews living anytime anywhere, that's pretty much clear. But why does it follow that their statements about phenomena in the natural world would apply anytime anywhere as well? They just trusted people to understand their intent. (Just as Chazon Ish writing that there is no Rshut Harabim D'oraita nowadays. Does this meant that there won't ever be one? And if it doesn't mean so, does it mean that CI didn't intend to write for later generations? Of ourse he did! But he respects the reader enough to understand what he is referring to. Same with Talmud. They write generalizations and trust the reader in 2011 to understand why they didn't say חוץ מפלייטיפוס.)

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  12. Yeedle Wrote...

    "....However, since you asked... the writing down of the Mishna was done exactly so that 100s of years later Jews would know what the law is. Otherwise the Oral law would have remained oral. Secondly, the Talmud itself was redacted and edited and compiled over hundreds of years, so clearly they were concerned with the information being preserved for hundreds of years. Especially after the point where it was decided that the Talmud was 'closed' and would not be edited further....."

    That is nothing but preservationism and controlling statements Vs. the TRUE intent of the Oral Law, "Listen to the Judge in Your Day (Shoftim)" The Oral Law was never meant to preserve itself, for its own sake.

    What the law was centuries ago may or may not matter today. Each and every generation must decide the law and it's application for their time and place. That is True Oral Law.

    Rabbi's who preserve past out date laws or concepts of the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulcan Orech, etc. are not true Rabbis and should not be followed.

    True Rabbi's adapt the law to meet the needs of the people. The people don't meet the needs of the Rabbi's. Rabbis who teach deny progress and put their position, status, power, control, money, greed, etc... over the Torah are not real Rabbis.

    Just think about it.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  13. It is based on the Gemara's own principles that one does not need to concern oneself with rare cases (miyuta d’miyuta), and the principle that ain lemedin min haklalos, “we do not take general rules as being absolute,” and they can have exceptions...
    ...I applied this principle to further cases. The Gemara states that there are only four animals with one kosher sign; I argued that there are further types, but these do not undermine the Gemara's statement. Likewise, I argued that the principle of psik raisha velo yamus would not be undermined by discovering a headless chicken that survives.


    But you fail to acknowledge that not all absolute statements are worded the same way at all.
    How many absolute statements of Chazal are prefaced with the phrase "The One Who rules His world knows"?
    (Sure, you could point out that in other contexts "olam" clearly does not refer to the enitre earth, but other contexts --like when referring to God's unlimited attributes, i.e. Adom Olam--it means the ENTIRE WORLD.)

    And decapitation makes every animal halachicly dead. It eminates the tumah of a carcass no matter how alive it is biologically. Decapitation is-- by halachic definition נטילת נשמה on many halachic levels and can tolerate no exceptions.

    You've taken this principle and run with it to places that precise talmudic scholarship doesn't allow you to go.
    Your halachic theories may satisfy you, but not any accomplished talmudist who actually has expertise in the field.

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  14. If I were a scientific philosopher, I would try to say something about the limits of inductive reasoning here -- I'm reminded of the famous discovery of black swans. But I'm just a scientist who tries to do the best with the data I have in front of me. Chazal had never seen nor even heard of a platypus or an echidna, so there is no reason why they would be expected to comment on them. They did nothing I would not in this matter and I would not fault them!

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  15. Except in History, Geography, Math, Astrology, Medicine, Women's Anatomy & Zoology Chazal were always right.
    After the Rambam took care of some superstitious beliefs, that is.

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  16. You've taken this principle and run with it to places that precise talmudic scholarship doesn't allow you to go.
    Your halachic theories may satisfy you, but not any accomplished talmudist who actually has expertise in the field.


    That's funny. No less a person than Rav Moshe Sternbuch, who thinks that I'm a kofer for believing that the world is billions of years old, thinks that what I wrote about psik raisha is absolutely correct and a davar pashut. I guess you don't consider him an accomplished Talmudist!

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  17. "You've taken this principle and run with it to places that precise talmudic scholarship doesn't allow you to go."

    Ok, so where would YOU go with the unquestioned existence of the platypus and the bonabo?

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  18. For those interested, here's a picture of the stitchbird mating: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zealandia/4344568998/
    Now, all we have to do is figure out how this trait evolved, and we'll be all set. :-)

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  19. I find this a bit humorous.

    Yeedle says,
    "are you saying that people are supposed to read the Talmud without any regard for the author's original intention?"

    To which I answer, most definitely!

    And why would one do such a thing? Two reasons.

    1. Because of Rabbi Shalom's criticism to me: (Which I find ironic here)

    "What the law was centuries ago may or may not matter today. Each and every generation must decide the law and it's application for their time and place. That is True Oral Law.

    Rabbi's who preserve past out date laws or concepts of the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulcan Orech, etc. are not true Rabbis and should not be followed. "

    To which I will respond, exactly correct. However if you want to have any connection to other Jewish people, you need to use the same text as a basis of communication. And so you must find a way for those texts to have meaning to you. No matter how you end up interpreting it in the end.

    2nd reason. Only a crazy Charedi person can say that they ever know or knew the true intentions of what was written 1500 years ago. It is beyond reason to suggest that based on a few inductions of assumptions of what people did and did not know. Or based on assumptions of what people did or did not intend to relay, that you can know exactly what the intention was behind a statement. Especially when those people are no where nearby to help explain, and even if they are, they might have some psychological barrier to know what they truly intended. It's irrelevant.

    This is literature 101. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorial_intent


    "When Chazel say "everything" can we qualify that to everything they were aware of?"

    Rabbi Simon, generally, it is my understanding that when we read chumash and say that the flood was local, we say so not because of the meaning of the word "everything", but because of the meaning of the word "eretz". During the 10 plagues, there is a verse which says that the "all the eretz was covered" (I can't remember with what) but clearly there it is only talking about Mitzrayim and everyone understands it that way. So in the flood they say that "eretz" just means the "known world" at that time.

    "Earth" can mean the planet, or it can mean the dirt around you. "Everything" is less open to interpretation.

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  20. "That's funny. No less a person than Rav Moshe Sternbuch, who thinks that I'm a kofer for believing that the world is billions of years old, thinks that what I wrote about psik raisha is absolutely correct and a davar pashut"

    This statement makes no sense... Jewish Observer's comment about psik raisha doesn't contradict your statement, he is just saying it's obvious because it's a general rule. So Rav Shterbach would agree with you that even if the animal was a live it would be dead, not because of your application of the general statement, but because of the way psik raisha is always used!

    Why are you conflating the issues here and pretending that people are saying something they aren't?

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  21. Ameteur, at first you said that "Jews how have no lived in the middle east for the past 1,000 years, need to find meaning and relevancy in the Talmud beyond Israel and so they must interpret the Talmud as being applicable worldwide."
    Most people would take this to mean that you think that Jews in Australia have to interpret the Talmud's statements in Australian terms; otherwise it has no meaning to them.
    I thought that you were basing this on the premise that the Talmud was authored with the intent that it should be used by the Jews in Australia and therefore it follows that the authors had Australian reality in mind. So I asked you: "what is your evidence that they were indeed concerned?”
    So you clarified that although this is not what your premise was, you’re pretty sure that Chazal wanted the Talmud to be used in Australia. I must note that (at least for me) it follows from this that they surely wouldn’t use any term that wouldn’t be understood by the Jews in Australia. But obviously you don’t think so.
    What you do think is that: “if the Talmud is to be of any value to Jews living in Australia, it's information has to apply to Jews living in Australia.” I don’t see how you helped matters by writing this. When you’re talking about the information found in the Talmud and that it “has to apply to Jews living in Australia”, my mind is translating this to mean that the Author meant it should be applied to Jews living in Australia. But since you took such translation out of the picture, I asked “are you saying that people are supposed to read the Talmud without any regard for the author's original intention?”.
    To what you answered: “most definitely!”. You give 2 reasons. I have to admit that I have no clue how Rabbi Shalom’s (I think you meant Simon’s) words support your case.
    But your second reason was “ Only a crazy Charedi person can say that they ever know or knew the true intentions of what was written 1500 years ago.”
    To which I reply: A. We may not know their true intentions, but we must definitely know that certain interpretation WERE NOT their true intention. For example, we can be certain that when they said “the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish” they NEVER EVER meant to imply that the bonobo and stitchbird do NOT copulate face-to-face. B. If we can never say that we understand their true intentions, it means that their words are up for interpretation. You say that for an Australian Jew to find relevance in the Talmud he has to interpret the Talmud so that its information applies to him. I say that interpreting the Talmud to be talking about Middle-East reality makes it more applicable to the Australian Jew. It’s literature, right?
    One more note. You wrote “"Earth" can mean the planet, or it can mean the dirt around you. "Everything" is less open to interpretation.” I wont argue with you on this. But I think וימח את כל היקום cannot mean “dirt around you.

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  22. ...I disagree. The Talmud wants its information to apply to Jews living anytime anywhere, that's pretty much clear...

    You say the Talmud wants the information to be timeless, yet it is not rationally possible.

    Chazel would be very nieve to believe what they wrote in theri time is without boundries and limits of time and place. So I do not beleive they believed that. I believe later generations wrongly make that claim.

    The Chazal were products of ther era, as we are today. No one can ever claim what we know today will be true forever.

    Therefore educated Jews must not overly rely on Chazal to dictate Judaism in any generation. Take what is useful from them as we should and regard the rest as historical information of the past.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  23. The irony that the ignorant “frum” majority who seek to glorify Chazal actually degrade them, and defame Torah and make a chillul Hashem in the process, was already noted by the Rambam who wrote as follows in his introduction to Perek Chelek:

    “Concerning the works of the Sages, people fall into three groups:

    “The first group – and they are the majority of those whom I have met, and whose works I saw, and of whom I have heard – understand [the Sage’s words of agadata] according to their literal interpretation, and they do not explain them at all. For them, all that is impossible has become necessary. They believe this because of their ignorance of wisdom and their distance from knowledge, and they lack the perfection which would have made them aware of this on their own… . This unfortunate groups is to be pitied for their ignorance, because, in their own opinion, they have elevated the Sages, while they in fact lower them to the ultimate depth, and they are unaware of it. I swear by G-d that this group destroys the glory of the Torah and tarnishes its radiance, and they pervert G-d’s Torah into the opposite of what it was intended to be. …

    “The second group also numbers many, and they are those that saw the words of the sages or heard them and understood them literally. They thought that the intention of the Sages was only the simple literal meaning of the words, and consequently they made light of it and defamed it, and considered strange that which is not strange. They frequently mocked the words of the Sages and considered themselves wiser than them and possessed of greater clarity of thought. [They considered the Sages] unintelligent and foolish, ignorant of all reality and totally lacking in understanding… They are an accursed group who revolt against people of lofty stature, whose wisdom is known by the wise….

    “The third group, by G-d, they are few in number…. They are the people to whom the greatness of our Sages and the excellence of their intelligence is clear, because their words show great truths… Furthermore, the impossibility of that which is impossible, and the existence of that which must exist is also clear to them. They know that [the Sages] did not talk nonsense. It is clear to them that among their words are some that are meant literally and [others] with hidden meaning, and that everything they said which is impossible, is only by way of riddle or parable. Such is the way of the very wise…. Why should we wonder that they composed their wisdom by way of parable, and compared it to lowly, common matters? They themselves interpret the verses of Scripture and remove them from their plain meaning, and turn them into a parable; and [indeed] this is correct. Similarly, one of them said that the entire book of Job is a parable, but did not explain what the moral was. In a like manner, one said that the incident of the dry bones at the time of Ezekiel (Ez. Ch. 37) is a parable, and there are many such instances.”

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  24. ....When Chazel say "everything" can we qualify that to everything they were aware of?"

    Rabbi Simon, generally, it is my understanding that when we read chumash and say that the flood was local, we say so not because of the meaning of the word "everything", but because of the meaning of the word "eretz". During the 10 plagues, there is a verse which says that the "all the eretz was covered" (I can't remember with what) but clearly there it is only talking about Mitzrayim and everyone understands it that way. So in the flood they say that "eretz" just means the "known world" at that time.

    "Earth" can mean the planet, or it can mean the dirt around you. "Everything" is less open to interpretation....

    Interpretation is everything, the winner is the one that sounds best, goes through some level of scrutiny, and the one people can live with.

    People were able to live with the idea the world was flat for sometime until it became common knowledge it was round. After that anyone who believed the world is flat, would be considered an idiot, not put on a pedestal as a great thinker.

    The question is what exactly were Chazal aware of and what were they not aware of. I think the answer is, we do not really know. We can only measure their words at some point by standards of current knowledge and conclude their accuracy or the probability of their accuracy.

    Again I feel compelled to mention, the Chazal are only a partial link in the chain of Judaism, not the chain itself.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  25. To Rabbi Slifkin:

    1)Please clarify exactly what Rav Shturbuch conceded to you about your position about p'sik reisha--namely, did he agree that there could be exceptions to this rule and that decapitation would not always result in halachic death via נטילת נשמה?
    Do you have Rav Shturnbuch's concession in writing that we can view?

    2) You have not yet addressed my critique of your first misapplication of "every rule has an exception" principle.

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  26. did he agree that there could be exceptions to this rule

    Yes

    and that decapitation would not always result in halachic death via נטילת נשמה?

    I don't know about that - but I never took a position on that, either.

    Do you have Rav Shturnbuch's concession in writing that we can view?

    No, but R. Daniel Eidensohn reported it on his blog (he knows him personally).

    2) You have not yet addressed my critique of your first misapplication of "every rule has an exception" principle.

    As I mentioned in my book, it could well be that the terminology here means that Chazal thought it was an absolute rule. But if they would have known about exceptions in Australia, then they would just have changed the way that they expressed the rule, not the rule itself.

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  27. I don't know about that - but I never took a position on that, either.

    But that is precisely what constitutes chillul Shabbos when you decapitate something!
    The rule is addressing the chillul Shabbos. How can you claim the rule has exceptions if you aren't sure about the ramifications of it to chillul Shabbos? This rule is *about* chillul Shabbos--not about biological death!

    But if they would have known about exceptions in Australia, then they would just have changed the way that they expressed the rule, not the rule itself.

    Is this approach confirmed by any accomplished talmudist? Just rewrite the gemara to fit your preferences?
    Chazal knew how to express a rule that would be subject to exceptions. But they clearly thought this rule--based on a drasha-- had no exceptions. That's why they phrased it differently. Do you think they just gave a dramatic flourish and didn't really believe this is what the Torah itself was conveying on the drash level?

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