Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mighty Mouse Struggles

Earlier this week, Daf Yomi reached the topic of the mud-mouse - the mouse that is (allegedly) generated from dirt. I have a chapter dedicated to this mythical creature in my book Sacred Monsters (and my views on it are part of why my books were put in cherem). The people that encountered this topic fall into three categories, two of which are of little interest to me, and one of which fascinates me.

One group is aware that there ain't no such critter, and acknowledges that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) shared the mistaken beliefs of everyone else in these things. They follow the approach of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, who wrote as follows:

"Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he had found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half-earth and half-flesh and his report was accepted by the world as true, would we not expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of Tum'ah and Taharah apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the second Beis ha'Mikdash was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day."

This group of people has the correct approach, and is thus of little interest to me.

The second group consists of people who are entirely unaware that no such creature exists, and are completely confident in the absolute factual truth of everything in the Gemara. The weekly booklet Me'oros HaDaf Yomi took it for granted that such a creature exists, and happily cited R. Yom Tov Lippman Heller's view that it presents evidence for creation ex nihilo.

This group of people has an incorrect approach, but it doesn't bother me or interest me that much. In some ways, I am jealous of their simple faith; I have little desire to change their minds.

The third group of people is the one that intrigues me. These are the people who are pretty sure that no such creature exists, but cannot bring themselves to say so - either because they are genuinely uncomfortable with the notion that Chazal could be mistaken, or because they are afraid to publicly say so. And so they have a mighty struggle with this mouse.

One person told me this week that he had heard of a certain Rabbi in Bar-Ilan's Beis HaMidrash program (i.e. not the academic departments) who claimed that the Gemara was, in fact, referring to a type of snail. Leaving aside the question of how a snail can be part dirt and generated from dirt, there is the rather obvious problem that there is a perfectly good word for snail, chilazon, rather than achbar, which always refers to a mouse.

When Rav Aharon Feldman from Baltimore switched sides regarding the controversial ban on my books, and decided to insist that Chazal were infallible in science, I asked him if he really believes that there is a mouse that is generated from dirt. I knew that he was a worldly person, and so I wanted to see his response. Rav Feldman replied that scientists are constantly discovering new and amazing phenomena - why shouldn't it be true? I received the impression, though, that he was trying to convince himself rather than me.

I posed the same question to one of the rabbis that had endorsed one of my books but was retracting his haskamah out of deference to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who insisted that Chazal were infallible. "Do you really believe that there is a mud-mouse?" I asked him. He paused for a while, and then said, "I don't know." I argued that he wasn't being honest with himself, but what I should have pointed out was that Rav Moshe Shapiro demanded that people believe that there definitely was such a thing, not that they do not absolutely deny it!

If anyone here attends a Daf Yomi class, can you post a comment informing us what the maggid shiur said about this topic?

43 comments:

  1. Here's a daf shiur that R. Aryeh Lebowitz gave on the subject:
    http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/765077/Rabbi_Aryeh_Lebowitz/Chullin_Daf_127_-_Mouse_From_the_Ground
    He explicitly takes the rationalist approach - although it may not be that interesting, it's good to know that this approach is still being transmitted!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wasn't at the Daf for this blatt of gemara, but I recently heard a shiur from the Rav of my shul in which he spoke totally unironically and uncritically of lice generating from dirt, as we know pursuant to the gemara in Shabbos. (I won't say which Rav or which Rav, but suffice it to say it's a shul in Queens and, though not a Young Israel, certainly a balabatish, working-man shul -- i.e., a shul in Queens.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Where is the quote from Rav Hirsch found?

    ReplyDelete
  4. >>>> This group of people has an incorrect approach, but it doesn't bother me or interest me that much. In some ways, I am jealous of their simple faith; I have little desire to change their minds.

    WADR, I disagree. While I don’t expect anyone to undertake a campaign of educating them, they do create a Chillul Hashem whenever they interact to any degree with the rest of the world, jew and non-jew alike. as such we do have some responsibility.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rav Hirsch:

    http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006/04/rabbi-shamshon-raphael-hirsch.html

    ReplyDelete
  6. I give the daf shiur and took the rationalist approach. I quoted Rav Hirsch and used Sid Leiman's article for a reference.
    See http://www.leimanlibrary.com/texts_of_publications/73.%20R.%20Israel%20Lipshutz%20and%20the%20Mouse%20That%20is%20Half%20Flesh%20and%20Half%20Earth.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  7. When Artscroll discusses the half flesh-half dirt mouse in its commentary they noted that Tiferes Yisrael's reference to Link is a mistake according to "modern scholars," "modern scholars" meaning "Dr. Shnayer Leiman."

    ReplyDelete
  8. But compare the Hebrew Artscroll Gemara, which mentions Tiferes Yisrael and omits noting that he was mistaken in his reading of Link (even though I had told them about it, which is why it appeared in the English!)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I agree with Elemir. It's not alright for big rabbis to have this simple emunah. They're leaders of communities and they should be dealing with the issues instead of hiding away. How did Jews ever get the idea that these people should be their leaders?

    I don't learn Daf Yomi, but yesterday I was learning the first daf of perek hacheilek where the mouse from dirt also comes up. My chavrutra thought it was fantastic and couldn't understand it. I told him him the rationalist approach and told him it's a bit of a controversy. I don't think he liked the rationalist approach so much and responded maybe there are such mice around the world that we haven't discovered yet. I just left the conversation at that.
    Afterwards he told the rav of the program (a young guy) about the mighty mouse and his was response was to have a look at the Maharal or Maharsha and that there were deep sodot in the words of chazal and they use deep mashalim to teach lessons. I didn't respond to the rav either.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You should give the Rav a copy of my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night."

    ReplyDelete
  11. "But compare the Hebrew Artscroll Gemara, which mentions Tiferes Yisrael and omits noting that he was mistaken in his reading of Link (even though I had told them about it, which is why it appeared in the English!) "

    That could be deliberate, and it won't take much imagination to think of why, but on the other hand the Hebrew and English were worked on by different people, and is not simply a translation of one and the other. As an aside, at least one person who works on Artscroll Hebrew gemaras is certainly very literate in academic sources, and likely several are. What's the fun in being Maimonidean if you can't conceal knowledge from the masses? I'm not sure if he did Chulin though.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm just curious as to why this has to prove that chazal were mistaken. Does the gemarah say that such a thing exists and has been seen by the rabbanim who are discussing it?

    Is it not possible for them to simply be talking about a halachik construct based on the discoveries of others? If I were to bring a posek a story of a 3-header monster that was documented in a credible scientific journal, would he not be able to discuss its halachik impact without asserting whether or not he believes it exists?

    This is similar to what R' Hirsch was saying but I don't see why this is the great undoing of chazal.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I take it that you haven't seen the Gemara... it presents the mouse as something that gives evidence for techiyas hameisim.

    They did believe that it exists. But this is not "the great undoing of Chazal"!

    ReplyDelete
  14. The rabbi of my shul gives the daf shiur - he took the standard rationalist approach (he actually mentioned your book). I think, believe it or not, that Artscroll gives the rationalist approach as an option in their notes. They mention, if my memory serves me well, that what might have been observed was a mouse that was not born fully formed, and the disfigured part looked like earth.

    The maggid shiur did make an interesting point. we shouldn't simply write off the halachos about tum'ah of "dirt-mice" as based on the quaint but misguided understanding of Chazal - rather, if the understanding that these mice spontaneously generate, their hilchos tum'ah may have applicability to cloned animals today, if a cloned sheretz can be considered birthed "mai ayin".

    ReplyDelete
  15. In a daf yomi shiur given by a well known rav in flatbush 2 days ago, he pointed out that the phenomenon of a chetzyo achbor v'chetzyo adamah is readily explainable in view of the well known fact that lice can be generated by dirt!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Rabbi Dov Linzer is the magid shiur for my daf yomi. Here are the actual videos of the shiurim:

    http://www.justin.tv/yctorah/videos

    ReplyDelete
  17. How can someone who denies that mice can generate from dirt still believe that people once lived to be 900 years old and that the sun stood still for Yehoshua? I wish I had that "simple faith" you talked about. It's very difficult to be Orthodox when you start down this road.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Aryeh L., your beef is with your childhood Rebbeim who either didn't know or didn't care that as a rule, we are not required to accept Chazal’s pronouncements about science as immutable fact; that we are not required to understand every medrash as a telling of a literal ma'aseh she'haya; that the Torah does not require that we live at odds with scientific observation. Had you (had everyone) been taught these things, it wouldn't be so crushing to hear it in your adulthood. As it is none of this discussion has any impact whatsoever on 99.99999% of your knowledge of Torah.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Why is this little mouse the parade example of obviously mistaken scientific statements made in shas? There are countless examples of such statements. In Bechoros there are statements about the gestation length of animals that are way off base. The same Gemara speaks of dolphins [and no, it is not meant "as an allegory", it is in a sober halachic discussion.] In Niddah, and I am no OBGYN, but in Niddah there are many medical assertions about the source of various blood and milk that are wildly off target. Truly, there are scores and scores of examples.

    So why the hoopla over the mouse?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Gestation periods are not known to the average person.
    The Gemara doesn't say anything inaccurate about mermaids or dolphins; the inaccuracy is only in Rashi.
    There are other examples, but the mouse is very relevant because it's something that even a basic education today tells us that it doesn't exist.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "Gestation periods are not known to the average person."

    Maybe. I'd say most people are aware that lions do not gestate for three years.

    "The Gemara doesn't say anything inaccurate about mermaids or dolphins; the inaccuracy is only in Rashi."

    How do you figure? The Gemara says some creatures lay eggs and some give birth live. It then says "dolfins" - using that exact word - give birth like human beings, and the Gemara proceeds to define dolfins as "men of the sea". That's not rashi, that's black-on-yellow gemara.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I agree with DF. It's impossible to go through any tractate in Shas without encountering examples of scientific "facts" that are contradicted by modern science. And they are obvious even to such an uneducated person as myself. Here are some examples:

    -Meteorology (Brachos 59a)
    -Spontaneous generation (shabbos 107b, chulin 67b)
    -Healing a sprain by washing with cold water (Shabbos 147a)
    -Male anatomy (Yivamos 75b)
    -Medicine (Gittin 68b-70a, Avoda Zara 28, Bave Kame 82a, Bave Metzia 107b)
    -lots of olive oil makes a person smart (Minachos 85b)
    -female anatomy (Niddah 17b)

    I can go on and on, but I think you get the point.

    ReplyDelete
  23. First things first, I love Mighty Mouse, great picture.

    Time and time the same basic theme is at the crux of the matter regarding Chazal.

    We have no reason in any logical or critical sense to claim Chazal were on some great superior level. Further Judaism is not a religion that places people on pedestals beyond reproach or question, and putting people up there may amount to some type of forbidden worship.

    The Rambam makes it clear and logically so, that the generations increase in wisdom and knowledge vs. the backwards claim that they decrease as we move away from Sinai. This Rabbinic claim has been so detrimental to correct thinking it can not be understated how it keep people down and under control.

    The Talmud is chock full of so many things that by today standards and past standards prove beyond any doubt we were not dealing with men of infallible ability or superior human intellect. Rather we see just ordinary men, maybe, often superstitious, often seemingly with some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, arguing points of plain nonsense just to trying to best each other in a game of mental gymnastics. Everyone likes a good debate, but make them about something that matters in people lives. So much to do about nothing so often, that can only mean some had nothing really better to do.

    I hope sooner rather then later, all Jews realize that Judaism can not truly grow and move into the light as long as they remain overly tied to the past. We do need to absorb good lessons from the past, keep beautiful traditions that connect us to the past but we need move forward and deal with today.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

    ReplyDelete
  24. There are two groups of people who interest me: Those who say:

    "This group of people has the correct approach, and is thus of little interest to me."

    and those who say:

    "This group of people has the correct approach, and is thus of most interest to me."

    ReplyDelete
  25. "This group of people has an incorrect approach, but it doesn't bother me or interest me that much. In some ways, I am jealous of their simple faith; I have little desire to change their minds."

    Really? It doesn't bother you that at a time when the traditional beliefs of your religion are so challenged, its accepted leaders, almost to a man, declare that to be within the pale one is absolutely required to believe in obvious stupidity? If so, I have to wonder how seriously you really take these issues.

    ReplyDelete
  26. "Aryeh L., your beef is with your childhood Rebbeim who either didn't know or didn't care that as a rule, we are not required to accept Chazal’s pronouncements about science as immutable fact;"

    The gemarah treats halacha and science similarly. To the extent that you think their science was wrong, logic would dictate that their halacha is equally suspect. The idea that these realms are distinct is necessary for the Modern Orthodox (and Rambam) but not supported by the gemarah.

    "that the Torah does not require that we live at odds with scientific observation."

    Well of course not, the Torah assumed its "science" correct. Aryeh's problem is not one of "requirement", it's that when you realize people believed in lots of wildly incorrect things, you start wondering exactly where the line is drawn.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I find it entertaining that some of the same Rabbis who insist that there are only 3 animals with one kosher sign could simultaneously insist that maybe there are mud-mice out there because maybe we haven't discovered them yet.

    ReplyDelete
  28. "It's impossible to go through any tractate in Shas without encountering examples of scientific "facts" that are contradicted by modern science. "

    You can read the most prestigious scientific journals, published just decades ago, and find "facts" that are contradicted by more recent discoveries. That Chazal didn't get everything right is no embarrassment; they used standard methodology for their times.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Yeedle, thanks for the examples….

    here’s a substantially more comprehensive list.

    http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006/04/sources-indicating-that-chazal-did-not.html

    ReplyDelete
  30. , >I am jealous of their simple faith;

    What makes you say that? Why would you be jealous of a deficiency? I never understood how a rationalist can say that.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I did qualify it by saying "in some ways." It makes for a simpler, happier life!

    ReplyDelete
  32. Charlie: That Chazal didn't get everything right is no embarrassment; they used standard methodology for their times.

    I never argued with this. I just pointed out that I agree with DF that "the Mighty Mouse" isn't anything outstanding when it comes to science in chazal.

    Elemir, thanks for the link. That list is defintely more substantial, but surprisingly, of the 11 sources I gave only 2 are cited there. Which only goes to show how right I was when I said that you can't learn any tractate without encountering scientific facts contradicted by modern science.

    ReplyDelete
  33. RE: Snail from dirt.

    Couold he be refering to Dictyosteliida? Dictyosteliida, is a slime mold that can form together into a motile slug-like form.

    ReplyDelete
  34. (RNS - I understand your point that it was only Rashi who defined "dolphins" as "mermaids". But rashi's explanation seems to be, in fact, the simple meaning of the Gemara, which does, after all, refer to the "dolphins" as "men of the sea". Thus, it is indeed the Gemara, and no tmerely rashi, which makes the strange statement, in a halachic context, of mermaid birth.)

    ReplyDelete
  35. Dolphins were known as "men of the sea" in ancient times.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Rabbi Silfkin, et al,

    I see this blog and the posters as mostly very open minded, thinking people. I also really like most of the posts, they keep people thinking.

    At the risk of spitting in the wind, I have a serious question. I find in nearly impossible to get answers from the frum world because they mostly avoid even thinking along certain lines.

    Why the preoccupation with trying to protect the efficacy of the Chazel when we know they were not always correct and in fact quite fallible or rather simply human.

    The Jewish world will not come to an end, neither will learning, mitvot or Torah study.

    Does this behavior not seem to be the antithetical to Judaism and learning? It appears very irrational for the so called rationalists to cover up the obvious. I believe a rationalist would or should investigate the facts and adjust their beliefs and practices accordingly, to the best knowledge of the day. Which means Judaism would always be in flux, motion, changing and growing with a broad spectrum of normative practices.

    I personally believe that is how Judaism was meant to be.

    Thoughts?

    Shalom

    Rabbi Simon

    ReplyDelete
  37. "The gemarah treats halacha and science similarly. To the extent that you think their science was wrong, logic would dictate that their halacha is equally suspect."

    The first sentence is correct, the second sentence is wrong. Scientific methodology has dramatically improved since Talmudic times. Not so halachic methodology. We haven't followed Chazal's science since Gaonic times, but the Talmud Bavli is still the basis for our halachah.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Raphael Kaufman writes: "Could he be refering to Dictyosteliida? "

    Whether yes or no, thanks for informing me about a really interesting creature!

    ReplyDelete
  39. For a video of that creature, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpdIvlSochk Wow!!

    ReplyDelete
  40. "I'd say most people are aware that lions do not gestate for three years."

    If I had to guess, I would certainly guess less than three years- but until I saw this post, I never thought about the matter one way or the other!

    ReplyDelete
  41. The Rambam makes it clear and logically so, that the generations increase in wisdom and knowledge vs. the backwards claim that they decrease as we move away from Sinai.

    The Rambam seems to put Chazal on a very high pedestal indeed, and fully embraced the concept of yeridos hadoros quite explicitly in his Introduction to his commentary on the Mishna:

    הקדמת הרמב"ם למשנה
    לכן צריך שנקבע בלבנו אמתותם, ונעיין בהם היטב, ואל נמהר להרחיק שום דבר מהם, אלא כל מה שירחק בעינינו משהו מהם נרגיל את עצמינו במדעים עד שנבין כוונתם באותו הענין אם תוכל דעתינו להבינו, לפי שהם ע"ה על אף שהיו שוקדים על הלמודים וטובי שכל ומוכשרים ונתחברו לאנשים גדולים ופירשו מתאות העולם וכל אשר בו, היו מיחסים חסרון לעצמם בהשואה לקודמיהם, והוא אמרם לבן של ראשונים כפתחו של אולם ושל אחרונים אפילו כמחט סדקית אינו. כ"ש אנחנו שעם אבדן המדע והחכמה מאתנו כמו שיעד לנו יתעלה לכן הנני יוסיף להפליא את העם הזה הפלא ופלא ואבדה חכמת חכמיו ובינת נבוניו תסתתר, נתיחדו בכל אחד ממנו ארבעה דברים, חולשת שכל, והתגברות התאות, והעצלות מללמוד, והחריצות לרדיפת עניני העולם הזה, ארבעת שפטי הרעים, והיאך לא ניחס החסרון לעצמינו בהשואה אליהם. ובידעם ענין זה ושכל דבריהם נקיים מכל סיג, חסו עליהם והזהירו שלא לזלזל בהם ואמרו כל המלעיג על דברי חכמים נדון בצואה רותחת, ואין צואה רותחת חמורה מן הסכלות שגרמה לו להלעיג. ולכן לא תמצא לעולם מרחיק דבריהם אלא אדם רודף התאות, מעדיף החושניות, מי שלא הואר לבו בשום אור בהיר. ובגלל ידיעתם אמתות דבריהם כלו בהם את חייהם וצוו לשקוד עליהם בשעות הלילה ובקצוי היום ועשאוהו התכלית, וכך הוא באמת,

    ReplyDelete
  42. I'm from that 3rd group.

    I recognize fully, that according to all visible logic, such a creature does not exist, and more importantly CANNOT exist.

    Yet, Chazal are pretty clear that they believed it DOES (or did at one point) exist. So as far as I'm concerned, that's enough.

    The real question you have to ask is, would G-d create a scenario where his creations would seem to see something clearly, and then go and instruct them to believe otherwise.

    Even a most basic education on the purpose of out world and the illusions we live within should be enough to make the answer quite clear. But for those who for some reason cannot trust witnesses to this truth such as Rashbi, the Arizal, the Ramchal, the Bal Shem Tov, one sweeping look at our world and its history should be more than enough to give you your answer.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.