Monday, November 14, 2011

Rebellion in the Ranks of Rav Moshe?

One of the most intriguing Torah scholars in the world today is Rav Moshe Shapiro. He is utterly brilliant and, in certain ways, has a breadth that is not often seen in the Charedi world. On the other hand, he is single-minded about the Maharal's approach to Chazal - according to which Chazal were always speaking about metaphysics rather than the material world - and considers it to be the only legitimate and authentic approach to ever have existed, rather than a peculiar and unique 16th century invention. As a result, Rav Moshe Shapiro was one of the most outspoken opponents of my books (see his letter of condemnation, and my response, at this link).

Rav Moshe's disciples - many of whom teach in various American yeshivos and seminaries - were thrown into confusion. The weaker of them decided to be mevatel da'as to him. Others broke away from him. Still others simply opted to remain with their bewilderment. Then, when my critique of the notorious Chaim B'Emunasam was released, illustrating how Rav Moshe had warmly endorsed a book that literally re-arranges the words of the Rishonim in order to distort their meaning, this was a source of great embarrassment to Rav Moshe's disciples.

And now for the latest update. A reader directed me to this interesting journal entry of an avreich in a kollel of which Rav Moshe Shapiro is the nasi. The kollel was studying the Gemara which speaks of there being two channels in the male genital organ, one for urine and one for semen (whereas in fact there is only one channel). Chazon Ish responded by claiming that nishtaneh hateva, people have evolved. Rav Moshe Shapiro disputed this and also vehemently objected to the notion that any Torah scholar could ever have been mistaken about the physical reality. Instead, he adopted a Maharal-style approach (though the Maharal never, to my knowledge, explicitly applied his approach to halachic topics) in which the Gemara is talking about the metaphysical reality.

This radical approach took the kollel by surprise. The Rosh Kollel apparently realized the astounding ramifications of such an approach - בסופו של הדיון אמר ראש הכולל שהוא חש אבוד ונבוך בשאלות המעשיות הנובעות מהגישה של רבי משה ואינו יודע כיצד להתקדם. After all, if one refuses to acknowledge that Chazal possessed incomplete knowledge of the natural world, and one refuses to say nishtaneh hateva, then what does one do with, for example, the Gemara which says that one can violate Shabbos to save the life of a fetus born after seven months, but not one born after eight months?

(Incidentally, the claim that "no intelligent person could ever have been mistaken about the number of channels in the male genital organ" is anachronistic. My friend Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman has an excellent discussion of this topic in his article, "The Rabbinic Conception of Conception: An Exercise in Fertility." Misunderstandings about the number of channels in the male genital organ were widespread in earlier eras; even Leonardo da Vinci, in his careful illustrations, got it wrong. And great people did, and still do, make errors in matters that should be easily verifiable, such as the number of teeth that people have.)

I'm glad that people are starting to realize that, as creative and brilliant as Rav Moshe's approach is, it cannot be used as a methodology for understanding what Chazal were actually trying to say, let alone rated as the sole legitimate authentic approach.

38 comments:

  1. If you don't mind my asking, why do you say that he is quite brilliant?

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  2. Because he is?

    I attended his shiurim, both public and private ones, for many years, and have had numerous conversations with him. He is razor-sharp, immensely knowledgeable, and very creative.

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  3. I know nothing about Rav Shapiro, so I'm just curious about this quote of yours.

    "On the other hand, he is single-minded about the Maharal's approach to Chazal - according to which Chazal were always speaking about metaphysics rather than the material world - and considers it to be the only legitimate and authentic approach to ever have existed, rather than a peculiar and unique 16th century invention. "

    Is that his actual position, or is his position more nuanced? It seems reasonable to me that someone might suggest that the only proper way to learn gemora today is to take the approach of the Maharal and to apply the Maharal's approach to all other mephorshim as well. This might indeed be the only long-lasting meaningful approach to Judaic studies while maintaining a link to the past 2000 years of galut.

    Are you certain his position is one of 'reality of history' rather than 'ideal way to move forward'? I have no idea who this rabbi is so I am purely curious.

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  4. Well, if you look at his teachings and those of his talmidim (e.g. in the set of sefarim "MiMaamakim"), they often reinterpret the Rishonim in order to make them variants of Maharal.

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  5. the truth is that even the Chazon Ish's approach poses difficulties in the Halachic realm. The best approach is to say that Chazal relied on the science of their time and therefore wrote what they wrote. But to say that the Gemara talks about a metaphysical reality? That's something impossible to deal with on the Halacha L'maaseh level.

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  6. R. Moshe Shapiro seems to have left the reservation. Now he's even arguing that contemporary Charedi gedolim (e.g. the Chazon Ish) are no longer 'part of our beis hamedrash'.

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  7. R' Slifkin;

    Knowing Rav Moshe, is it really possible he spoke like that about the Chazon Ish? I have heard him many times and I can't believe he would do so.

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  8. It's totally in character. I have heard first-hand reports of him saying very strong things about famous Torah personalities.

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  9. "(Rav Shapiro) has a breadth that is not often seen in the Charedi world."

    Was that dig about the Charedi world necessary? One can say such a thing about every single sector of Judaism, depending on just who you count (leaders/laymen/etc).

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  10. Eh? I didn't think that I was making a dig. The charedi world is often proud to be narrow.

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  11. Rav Moshe Shapiro is an idiot. I spoke to him about your books and he had no idea what he was talking about. I then spoke to other Charedi Rabbis who told me (in these words) - that he is an idiot.

    He is the main reason I am no longer religious.

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    Replies
    1. Why you swine!

      You call gedolim such names?

      A person usually attributes his own defects and throws it on the world.

      Nicholas D. Kristoff NY Times columnist (Sep 23, 2012) wrote,
      “The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.”

      I see you joined his club.

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin: I wouldn't say "Rebelion in the Ranks of Rav Moshe," but "Perplexity in the Ranks of Rav Moshe." Perhaps, though, that was why you were carful to put in a question mark.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  13. Pardon me if I misunderstood, but the article on the urology of Da Vinci seemed to imply that he eventually understood the number of canals in the penis. When he drew two canals it was simply his drawing what the ancients believed.

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  14. Some of you may not like what I am going to say, but I say it with very best and sincere intentions.

    The Talmud should only be viewed as a repository of knowledge from a particular time, place and perspective.

    It should not be seen as an end all be all book of knowledge in any matters, including Torah interpretation, philosophy or secular knowledge. It is foolish to believe in the past 1500-2000 years major mutations occurred in our organs and pretend the Talmudic Rabbis were right or speaking in Meta-Physics. Please!

    We should use the Talmud in a historical sense and if certain concepts hold up today, great, if not learn them as any other historical material.

    This blog is proof of the hardship and soul reaching some people go through as they discover what was once believed true, is actually false. I'm sorry for that, I happen to be like many of you, but I got over the hump and tell it like it is now. You can still be religious, have values, belief in God, do mitzvahs. You can just use modern knowledge and common sense and free yourself from ignorance.

    To keep protecting false truths and concepts and calling people who protect the non-sense Gedolim and great geniuses is just plain wrong. Many believe that kind of cult like thinking caused more harm then good to the Jewish people.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  15. In fairness to Chazal the idea that Urine and semen should be carried though the penis is intuitively obvious. Semen, after all, is produced and stored in the testes, while urine is produced in the kidneys and stored in the bladder. Further the female reproductive system is completely separate from the urinary system, so it is not illogical to extrapolate that the male reproductive system would similarly be anatomically separate.

    The kollel was studying the Gemara which speaks of there being two channels in the male genital organ, one for urine and one for semen (whereas in fact there is only one channel).

    This is not so clear cut (pardon the pun). It all depends on what you mean by "in the male genital organ". Sperm is carried to the penis via a specialised vessel called the Ductus deferens It joins the Prostetic urethra via the ejaculatory duct. The prostatic uretha then passes through the urogenital diaphragm as a common vessel, forming the membranous urethra. Thus, the single membranous urethra is a fusion of two separate vessels. It would not be hard to imagine that this single urethra did evolve over time from two separate vessels. (Although I suspect that the Chazon Ish and I have two very different perspectives of how long ago this happened and in what species.)

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  16. But it's still true of every other sector (though admittedly, they wouldn't be proud of that.)

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  17. Yossi, Chazal are clearly referring to the penile urethra (the part of the urethra that passes through the male genital organ. This can be seen from several statements in Yevamos 75b and in Bechoros 44b. You said "the single membranous urethra is a fusion of two separate vessels." I don't think that's an accurate description. I'm no scientist, but it seems that the ejaculatory ducts just open into the pre-existing urethra when the urethra passes the prostate. So it's not a "fusion of 2 vessels". Rather one "vessel" opening into the other.

    regarding the evolution of the male organ, I think it's clear that already in Chazal's time the urethra wasn't divided in 2. This can be extrapolated from the chimp's urethra (and all other primates, I think) which is also not divided in 2. Again, I'm no scientist and I might be mistaken, but as far as I can tell this is the reality.

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  18. Yeedle,

    regarding the evolution of the male organ, I think it's clear that already in Chazal's time the urethra wasn't divided in 2.

    Quite, I thought I had explicitly stated otherwise. I was commenting on two points.

    (1) Absent evidence to the contrary it is not unreasonable to assume that there are two vessels, given the disprate anatomical origins of urine and semen.

    (2) Indeed, unboubtedly a single vessel conduction evolved from a single two vessels.

    (we could, sort of test this by (a)looking at the ebriological development of the urthra and the ductus deferens and (b) identifying in nature the organisms that have to vessels, a urine conducting one and a ejaculatory one... as I think about it, the coaloca would suggest two evolved from one...).

    Supporting the nishtaneh hateva idea of the Chaxon Ish, albeit in a manner he did not intend.

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  19. "Semen, after all, is produced and stored in the testes, while urine is produced in the kidneys and stored in the bladder. Further the female reproductive system is completely separate from the urinary system, so it is not illogical to extrapolate that the male reproductive system would similarly be anatomically separate."

    It's not illogical, it's simply obviously wrong.

    By the way, chazal believed semen was produced in the brain.

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  20. > This blog is proof of the hardship and soul reaching some people go through as they discover what was once believed true, is actually false. I'm sorry for that, I happen to be like many of you, but I got over the hump and tell it like it is now. You can still be religious, have values, belief in God, do mitzvahs. You can just use modern knowledge and common sense and free yourself from ignorance.

    This is precisely why R’ Slifkin’s approach is deemed so dangerous by right-wing Orthodoxy. R’ Simon, treating the Gemara as a book of its time written by fallible though great people is all well and good, but why stop there? “Modern knowledge and common sense” say similar things about Tanach.

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  21. "Well, if you look at his teachings and those of his talmidim (e.g. in the set of sefarim "MiMaamakim"), they often reinterpret the Rishonim in order to make them variants of Maharal."

    So it seems I was correct when I wrote "and to apply the Maharal's approach to all other mephorshim as well."

    But how does that mean that they feel that was the historical reality, verses them feeling that is the correct way to learn Torah today?

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  22. Rabbi Simon,
    I could not agree with you more. You took the words right out of my mouth.

    I wish there were more like Rabbis Slifkin and Simon.
    o

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  23. which followers of RMS rebelled against him?

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  24. offthederech:

    I do not understand why you think that belief that Rav Moshe Shapiro is an idiot (I'm not saying that he is) is incompatible with being frum.

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  25. Shaull Shapira

    did you see the link RNS provided? R. Moshe Sofer, Rosh Kolel of a halacha kolel where R. Moshe Shapiro is nasi, said in a public form to the chavrei hakolel that he has no idea how to approach halacha questions with R. Moshe's approach to Chazal. That's called rebelling in R. Moshe, or at least in his approach

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  26. R' Slifkin, I know you don't post everyone's comment, and for good reason, so I'm surprised you posted offthederech's insult.

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  27. If he would just have said "Rav Moshe Shapiro is an idiot" I would not have let it through. But the continuation added some valuable information. It's important for it to be known that there are people who are no longer religious and who blame Rav Moshe.

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  28. Blaming others is easy, isn't it.

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  29. G3 Wrote,

    ....This is precisely why R’ Slifkin’s approach is deemed so dangerous by right-wing Orthodoxy. R’ Simon, treating the Gemara as a book of its time written by fallible though great people is all well and good, but why stop there? “Modern knowledge and common sense” say similar things about Tanach....

    Yes I know how they feel, but many would argue they are the one's who left normative Judaism far behind. They engaged in dangerous cult like behavior, put down knowledge and reason, indoctrinate their communities with superstitious thinking, and engage in horrible social pressures to keep people in line. This is not the correct derech!

    Your other point is a good and I have addressed it many times before.

    It doesn't matter if the Torah is true or false, God given or man made. The Torah is the source of the Jewish people, provides us an identity, provides us with a proud heritage, makes us a nation, a great nation at that. Jews have given much to humanity, and we can be proud of who we are regardless of the Torah's origin.

    That being said, does it matter if someone does not believe what some Gedolim belief or disagree with previous and outdated Rabbinic decrees. Does that make anyone less of a Shomar Mitvoth and God fearing man. Not at all!

    I constantly make the point that there is a spectrum of reasonable and legitimate ways to learn Torah and practice Judaism. No one is all right or all wrong.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  30. > It doesn't matter if the Torah is true or false, God given or man made. The Torah is the source of the Jewish people, provides us an identity, provides us with a proud heritage, makes us a nation, a great nation at that. Jews have given much to humanity, and we can be proud of who we are regardless of the Torah's origin.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your comment, but I don’t understand this part. How could it not matter? Certainly we can be proud of being Jewish and of Jewish accomplishments whether or not the Torah is divine, and certainly the Torah has a place as the great foundational literature of the Jewish people. But if it is not divine, then halacha loses all meaning beyond tradition.

    In truth I think that the Chareidi approach is the best one for what they are trying to do: preserve the divinity of Torah and halacha. Once you allow the real world to encroach on the Torah’s territory, your left trying to allegorize problematic pashios and figuring out where to draw the line. It’s much simpler to say that ALL torah, from the chumash through the latest d’var torah by a rosh yeshiva, is divine.

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  31. Yeedle said... "the truth is that even the Chazon Ish's approach poses difficulties in the Halachic realm."

    Please elaborate what the problems are.

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  32. reject, according to the chazon ish, any man-made נקב that reaches the penile urethra, even if the person can still procreate normally, it renders that person a פצוע דכא. Most Rishonim and poskim say that as long as the person can procreate normally he can't be considered a פצוע דכא since the only reason רב פפי prohibited עובדא בפומבדיתא is because במקומה מבשלה שלא במקומה לא. but as long as we see that even with the נקב it is מבשלה the person will not be considered a פצוע דכא. Numerous poskim have relied on this היתר to allow surgery for someone with hypospadias.According to CI, surgery on hypospadias will turn person into a פצוע דכא. for more details and for other problems with the chazon ish's approach see שו"ת חשב האפוד, חלק ב', סימן ה

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  33. "what does one do with, for example, the Gemara which says that one can violate Shabbos to save the life of a fetus born after seven months, but not one born after eight months?"

    I heard a shiur (I'd rather not say who it was for now) where the rabbi explained that "a seven month fetus" is not the same as a regular (nine-month) fetus that is born prematurely after seven months.

    I realize that it would be nearly impossible (or actually impossible) to determine which kind of baby we're dealing with.

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  34. Gemara is how one builds scaffolding for his brain. I feel bad for those who feel like they have to be able to understand every single thing in the Gemara that seems backward. G-d created the human brain, it is a limited organ. If you don't understand something, daven and "go vieter"

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  35. The Rambam speaks about both issues, that of chazal and science and about how to understand chazal that are not clearly factual.
    The Rambam in Moreh 2:12 brings the gemora in psachim about הודו חכמי ישראל לחכמי אומות and says that we see from this that chazal didn't have a better knowledge of science than anyone else. The Rambam says that to determine the truth in matters of science המופת יורה את האמת.
    The Rambam in pirush mishnayon in perek chelek speaks in length about those who understand things that chazal said that don't appear to be factually true to be according to derech ha'pshat. he says that they are כסילים that also make a mockery of torah. He says that a chochom understands when the intent was to speak factually and when the intent was to speak metaphorically.
    The Ramchal has a short sefer about this inyan called מאמר על האגדות where he explains the purpose of those agadohs that are not al derech ha'pshat, and why chazal chose to comvey their message in that cryptic form.

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  36. Its amazing how slifkin started off charedi and even taught in chareidi institutions and then once he was no longer accepted in the charedi world he began bashing everything they stood for. Whatever happened to intellectual honesty? I know slifkin will probably not let this go through but I if I were you I would strongly question slifkins motives...

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  37. Was Rabbi Shapiro the same one as Rabbi Ari-e-h ben Rafael of V-o-l-o-z-h-in's son who was Rosh Yeshiva in B-e-e-r Y-a-a-k-o-v with Rabbi W-o-l-b-e as M-a-s-h-g-I-a-c-h please ?

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