Friday, December 30, 2011

The Charedi Reaction

The reactions to the events in Bet Shemesh have been interesting and revealing. They also show how Jews in the US are out of touch with Bet Shemesh.

The OU and RCA issued an unequivocal condemnation of the kanna'im, along with urging everyone to recognize that "the vast majority of Charedi Jews find these actions abhorrent."

The Agudah also condemned the kanna'im, and claimed that "the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews." (Though they also spent even more words stressing that the cause of tzniyus is of great importance, inevitably leading many to wonder about the sincerity of their condemnation.)

The local Bet Shemesh charedi weekly newspaper Chadash, which effectively represents the Mayor and his council (it is owned by their spokesman), had a very different reaction.

On the front page, in a gigantic headline, it screamed "THE BLITZ." Under that, it stated that the Charedi residents of Bet Shemesh have become a target of "redifah" (persecution), "the likes of which have never been seen."

Really? Have they been spat on? Have they had stones thrown at them? Have they had their flags stolen? Have they had their cars vandalized? Have they had their social activities broken up? Have they had their businesses threatened if they don't put up certain signs? Have they had their kids beaten? No; that's only happened to hundreds of non-charedim here.

The entire "special issue" of Chadash contained article after article about the terrible, evil secular campaign against the Charedim, with each article including a graphic captioned "The city under attack!"

Especially ironic was a half-page article about a Haaretz journalist who allegedly spat on a little girl (which he entirely denies). This is in a newspaper which never prints articles about the countless spittings and acts of vandalism and physical violence committed by local charedim against the national-religious. Even when there was a mob beating of kids which resulted in my neighbor's child requiring stitches in his head, the newspaper claimed that it was all the dati-leumi kids' faults! Likewise, in the early days of the violence against Orot, Chadash falsely claimed that there was no vandalism against the school, and claimed that the persecution was of the National-Religious against Charedim, who were "setting dogs on them" (which was completely false).

The lead editorial rants on and on about the terrible, baseless persecution of the charedi population. It denounces the kippa-wearing people who brought the Orot situation to the attention of the wider public. It does not issue a single word of condemnation against the charedi thugs. Not one word!

A later article in Chadash asks why the charedi population should be held responsible for the actions of a few extremists.

I'll tell you why the very people behind Chadash should shoulder some of the blame. Because the people behind Chadash never, ever report about charedi wrongdoings or condemn them. Instead, they demonize and slander National-Religious people.

In light of all this, the claims being made about how the actions of the kanna'im are entirely abhorrent to the vast majority of Charedi Jews are a little misleading. To the local Israeli charedim in Bet Shemesh, the actions of the kanna'im aren't anywhere near as abhorrent as the protests against them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spitting on Girls is Not the Main Problem

Charedi zealotry has been a hot topic in Israel over the last few weeks, and Bet Shemesh is the hotspot this week. Today, a huge rally will take place, sparked by a moving interview that aired on television last week. It featured an eight-year-old girl who was traumatized from going to her school, Orot, due to charedi extremists who scream at her and spit on her.

Now, I do not mean for one moment to minimize the awful nature of the situation with the Orot girls. I am extremely upset by it, and I was at several rallies to protest what has been happening there. However, I am concerned that there is an excessive focus on that particular situation which distracts from the larger problem and even plays into it.

The vast majority of charedim are horrified and disgusted at the thought of screaming at girls and spitting on them - or indeed at anyone. These are the actions of a fringe lunatic element that are detested by everyone. But as such, it's easy for charedim, including Mayor Abutbol, to give television interviews protesting their behavior. This neatly enables them to avoid the more general problem, which is this: At every level in charedi society, there is a certain degree of intolerance towards non-charedim, which is never protested by those to their left in charedi society.

That formulation is a little technical, so allow me to illustrate it. The rabbonim and residents of RBS-B (the area where the hooligans are based), and some extreme Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A (such as Rav Perlstein, and certain people in the Kupa Shel Tzedakah in RBS-A), do not support these acts of thuggery against women and children. However, they don't think that it's all that terrible, they agree with its ultimate aims, and they will not actively protest it. And they do support less extreme forms of physical/verbal opposition to non-Charedim - e.g. "encouraging" stores into putting up signs about tzniyus, and incidents such as when Rav Perlstein led a group to break up a concert in RBS-A due to it mixing charedi and non-charedi elements of the population.

The mainstream Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A, such as Rav Kornfeld and the Chadash newspaper, are utterly disgusted at the idea of any physical violence or verbal intimidation of non-charedim - it's so obviously criminal to them that they don't even see a need to make it clear that they oppose it. And they do not support the approach of the RBS-B rabbonim and the extreme Charedi rabbonim. But they will not speak out against them. They will not show any support for the Orot girls. And they do support milder attempts to impose Chareidi mores on the rest of the city and to oppose non-Charedim (which is how non-Charedim were driven out of Betar). Examples include signing notices against women dressing in a non-tzniyus manner, prohibiting the dati-leumi charity organization LeMaan Achai from fundraising in their shuls (which long predates the dispute over how to handle child abuse), hostility to TOV (the non-Daas Torah neo-charedi party), and occasional displays of opposition to achdus with non-charedim - when some people tried to arrange an achdus shiur after some tragic deaths of children, these shuls would only co-operate if the speakers were all charedi and the event was not called an achdus event!

The moderate Charedi rabbonim and residents of RBS-A dislike any form of opposition to non-charedim. But they won't protest the actions of the previous group, because they see themselves as being on the same general team. Furthermore, due to their interest in furthering their own desires for the city, they vote for charedi parties which strengthen more right-wing charedim and which implement changes (such as destroying green areas to make room for cheap housing) that end up driving away non-charedim. And the moderate charedim generally won't even protest the crazy lunatics. Virtually none attended the rallies in sympathy of Orot. One Rav, for whom I generally have the greatest respect, said that to protest the crazy lunatics would strengthen the mistaken impression that he and they are in any way part of the same community. But it's not an entirely mistaken impression. There is a continuum in the Chareidi community. A borderline/ moderate Charedi rav is not obligated to protest the lunatics to the same degree that a mainstream or extreme Charedi rav should protest them, but since he is affiliated with the mainstream and even extreme elements, he does have an obligation to protest to a much greater degree than an entirely non-charedi person.

The end result of all this is that while the crazy violent extremists are indeed only a fringe element, there is a much wider problem of charedi intolerance to non-charedim at many levels, and a general attitude of not protesting unacceptable intolerance that allows it to endure and proliferate. Furthermore, there is a general charedi belief that, once they are in the majority, the neighborhood should conform to charedi sensitivities; and they are generally working to increase the charedi percentage of the population (to bring the city in line with their spiritual ideals)!

Jonathan Rosenblum claimed in The Jerusalem Post that "There is no place for attempts to impose haredi mores on others." For someone who claims to be speaking for the mainstream charedi population (and who is a disciple of Rav Aharon Feldman), this is disingenuous. Many charedim might not consciously intend to impose charedi mores upon others, but this is certainly and inevitably what happens. It happened in Beitar and it's happening here. As a resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh for over a decade, I can attest to a continued attempt to "charedize" the city, which has driven many non-charedim away to Modiin and other towns. Those who engage in violent means to accomplish this are a fringe minority that most charedim detest - but there is a general charedi effort to accomplish this via non-violent means.

The fate of the city will be determined in the next election, two years from now. Anyone who votes for political parties such as Gimmel and mayoral candidates such as Abutbol is part of this problem.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Anti-Charedi, not Anti-Semitic

On Shabbos, I was at an informal kiddush, and a neighbor of mine got up to speak. Before I report what ensued, let me say that he is a really, really, terrific person - idealistic, dedicated to helping people, great personality, and I really like him - notwithstanding what ensued.

I can't remember the Chanukah tie-in, but he somehow got onto the topic of the inconsistency of Hillary Clinton criticizing Israel's oppression of women via Charedim, when Saudi Arabia beheaded a woman and Clinton remained silent. Okay, I can hear that this is a reasonable case for alleging antisemitism.

But he then moved on to the topic of Ramat Bet Shemesh Gimmel, the new, huge neighborhood being constructed a few hundred yards from where I sit. He claimed that anyone who is against the Charedim taking over RBS-Gimmel is an antisemite who hates Torah and mitzvos.

That was the part where some of us got into an argument with him.

I won't record the entire discussion, but the main part went essentially like this:

Us: Why is it unthinkable to be against the Charedi takeover of RBS-Gimmel? The Charedi population pays much less in city taxes, they cause many non-Charedim to end up leaving Bet Shemesh, and they enable kanna'us such as harassing children, stoning buses, and placing restrictions on businesses in the area (e.g. no tables outside pizza stores, placards insisting on dress codes)!

Him: They have a democratic right to live their lives the way that they want to!

Us: First of all, to the extent that they do have such a right, we equally have a legitimate right to oppose such changes to the city in which we live. Second, what kind of "democratic right" are you referring to, in their dictating to businesses how to operate?

Him: They just tell businesses that if they don't co-operate, they will lose customers.

Us: No they don't! They threaten them with the store being trashed!

Him: Well, all that stuff is just a handful of crazy people.

Us: But it's in Charedi towns that such people have power!

Him: Well, it's just because the mayor and other charedim are afraid of the kanna'im; they don't really support them.

Us: Agreed! But since the end result is that in charedi towns, kanna'us effectively takes place, why isn't it legitimate to be against a town becoming charedi?

Him: Look, if a bunch of secular women wearing nothing but bikinis came to use our shopping center, wouldn't you be in favor of having them <i>physically</i> thrown out?

Us: No... and how exactly is that relevant?

Him: A Beis Din has the power to physically inflict lashes of someone who sinned in the privacy of their home!

Us: ??!!! What's that got to do with harassing little girls for wearing short sleeves?

Him: Well, that's just a few lunatics who should be thrown in prison. Anyway, it's a minor issue that affected one school, there's no general charedi problem like that. You don't see problems like that in Beitar.

Us: In Beitar, some people tried to build a gym for teenagers to work out their energy in a healthy way, and the extremists had it shut down on the grounds that it was Hellenism!

And so on, and so forth. And we didn't even get on to the economic issue, of how the charedi population has a very large proportion of people who do not work and thus result in the city being poorer, with its multitude of effects on everyone else.

What struck me is that this is a nice, normal guy, and a great mechanech, but to whom The Charedi Cause is so important that he can't bring himself to see how other frum Jews might have a legitimate reason to be against the direction that Bet Shemesh and Ramat Bet Shemesh have been taking in the last few years.

(See too this post at Life in Israel)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom

I am pleased to make available a free sample chapter from my forthcoming work The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. The chapter is about the leopard and strongly relates to Chanukah. You can download it at I would greatly appreciate it if people would circulate it as widely as they can. I also plan to print this sample chapter in full color this week, but I am not yet sure how it will be distributed.

This is a project that I began over ten years ago (and although I have revised the material, readers will notice that it is quite different from my writing style today). But then I was sidetracked with the ban on my books, with their subsequent republication, and with my MA. However, I was able to return to it here and there, and now I am able to devote more time to it. Baruch Hashem, the first volume (on Chayos - wild animals) is nearly complete, but I cannot give an estimated date of publication.

Incidentally, my website is clearly long in need of a thorough overhaul, but I lack the resources (time and financial) to devote to it. If anyone would like to volunteer to do it, please be in touch!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Interpretations of Maimonides: The Visual Guide

(This was helpfully contributed by a reader. If you can't see the picture, visit Yes, I know that this chart is an over-simplification. That's what charts are.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gevalt! The Jerusalem Post!

(This article was published today in The Jerusalem Post)

On November 26th, Agudath Israel of America held its 87th national convention. One of the speakers was Rabbi Shimshon Sherer, son of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the legendary builder of Agudath Israel of America. His address, conveniently posted on YouTube, focused on my first op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, which appeared a few weeks ago, on “The Making of Post-Haredism.” That essay was about the development of Haredi Judaism in the twentieth century, and about how its development of various excesses and problems have caused many people, including myself, to become post-Haredi. The article was picked up by the very popular haredi news-aggregation website Vos Isz Neias (Yiddish for “What’s The News?”) where the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Some very well-known personalities from within the haredi world wrote to tell me how much it resonated with them (making it clear, of course, that I was to keep their identities confidential).

But Rabbi Sherer was not one of those people. He read out extracts from the essay in tones of horror, and was especially appalled at my allegations of certain problems in the Haredi world. “Es reiss de hartz” – “It tears the heart,” he exclaimed in Yiddish, that I could write such things “for the whole world to see in the Jerusalem Post!”

His distress is easy to understand. It’s hideously discomforting for us to see the world media discussing Katsav’s conviction; imagine how much more frustrating publicity is for an Agudah spokesman who believes that the problems that I described do not even exist. Indeed, I myself would much rather have published my essay in a Haredi publication, where it would reach much more of the people who would benefit from it. But, obviously, no Haredi publication would dream of publishing such a piece. And so I published it in the Jerusalem Post, which, in today’s internet age, is also read by many in the haredi community.

There was a great irony in Rabbi Sherer’s dismay at my publishing in the Jerusalem Post. In my essay, I pointed to some positive signs of change in the haredi world, such as new magazines that—albeit very delicately—engage in some criticism of the haredi world. Rabbi Sherer denounced such publications. He thundered, “The first of the bill of rights for the frumme yidden is not freedom of speech. It’s not freedom of religion. It’s not freedom of the press. The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha! …There is no freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution of Anokhi Hashem Elokecha! …Let it be said very clearly: Total subservience to Torah, total subservience to Daas Torah, is not a democratic right: it is Divinely ordained!”

Agudas Yisrael is entitled to insist that there is no freedom to express criticism of haredi policies in the haredi press. But then how can they be shocked at someone discussing these problems in a non-haredi media source?

Orthodoxy in general, and haredi Orthodoxy in particular, is defined by its struggle with modernity. In general, Orthodoxy has been extremely successful, certainly compared to Conservative or Reform. And, at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all.

But there are always new challenges. As an observant Jew, and as a parent, I am greatly troubled by the influence of modern society. The television shows that I watched in England as a child weren’t so pernicious, but the same can hardly be said for the culture presented today. Anybody who doesn’t believe that the Internet poses a danger to their children is either na├»ve or is deluding themselves. And in an era of unprecedented personal autonomy, it is hard to maintain and teach respect for parents, elders and tradition.

How is one to react to these new challenges? Do we continue to build the walls ever higher, or do we try to accommodate the new culture? In my view, there is no single “right” way for a religious Jew to deal with modernity; whether one seeks to grapple with its challenges or to build up the walls, each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. For these and other reasons, I have always found it very difficult to claim that haredi Orthodoxy is the wrong approach compared to modern or centrist Orthodoxy.

Yet some battles have clearly been lost, at least as far as most people are concerned. And controlling information is one of them.

The haredi public is not what it is believed to be by both Agudah spokesmen such as Rabbi Sherer and by the non-haredi public—as is clear from the very positive response to my article from within the Haredi world. They are not all mindless masses who will read only what they are told to read and who will faithfully follow whatever they are told to do when no explanation is given.

In the 21st century, even many haredim have the internet. The Agudah itself posts its convention speeches on YouTube—albeit with the option for submitting comments hastily disabled after a link to my blog was posted! If haredim are bothered by a leadership decision, they will not just accept it on trust, as Rabbi Sherer demanded – they will discuss it, and compare it with views of others that are better explained. If they feel that haredi media sources are not presenting accurate or relevant information, they will turn to other media sources. If they feel that their voices are not being heard, they will write blogs.

While all this results in much terrible negativity and irresponsible mud-slinging, it also has its benefits. For example, it is clear that certain problems in the haredi world are only now starting to be solved due to people publicizing them in non-haredi media outlets. As many people in the Haredi world are well aware, the Haredi world needs the non-Haredi media, the blogosphere, and the perspectives that these present.

Those who protest them the loudest may be those who need them most of all – as a punching-bag, an enemy to justify their own existence. Rabbi Sherer spoke about how Agudath Israel was founded in Kattowitz in 1912 in order to counter Reform and secular Zionism, and about how today, there are new movements to fight, such Centrist Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, Post-Haredism, and blogs. What would he have to speak about without us?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Part Two of my review of "Must a Jew Believe Anything?"

A while ago, I began my review of Menachem Kellner's Must A Jew Believe Anything? (Read part one at this link). I mentioned how the first six chapters of the book are a superb analysis of the role of dogma in Judaism, showing how Rambam's emphasis on dogma was an aberration from normative Judaism. The seventh and final chapter of the book forms a separate unit; it is Professor Kellner's personal view as to what to do with this information.

Professor Kellner's idea is as follows. Once one realizes that defining "being a Jew in good standing" based on adherence to Maimonidean dogma is an aberrant and problematic definition, then we are left with defining a good Jew based on halachic observance. But nobody keeps absolutely every halachah, and nor is there anyone who does no mitzvos at all. Thus, we have a continuum of observance, extending over Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. While we do not agree with the theology of Conservative and Reform, we can increase our cooperation and unity with them via this insight.

Here is where I must part company with Professor Kellner (notwithstanding my tremendous respect for him and his superb books). My critique is very similar to that raised by Daniel Statman, which Prof. Kellner himself cites and discusses in the afterword to the second edition of his book, but to which he does not, in my opinion, present an adequate response. It seems to me that traditionally, Judaism did not define "being a good Jew" either in terms of adherence to Maimonidean-style dogma or in terms of counting how many mitzvos one performs. Instead, it was based upon commitment and loyalty to the halachic community.

There may well be a continuum of halachic observance amongst all the different flavors of Jews. But there is nevertheless a clear difference between someone who is, in principle, committed to the traditional halachic community (albeit with various lapses) and someone who is not committed to it. (This is not affected by a gray area surrounding the extreme left-wing of Orthodoxy. The gray area simply means that people disagree as to where to draw the line. But all agree that the line itself revolves around commitment to the halachic community.) If a person lapses in his personal observance, he is not undermining the community. But if he supports a rival system (such as the Sadducees and Karaites in ancient times, or Conservative and Reform in modern times), he is undermining the community, and is thus appropriately rejected.

This also applies to the realm of belief. While Judaism as a religion is certainly based upon certain beliefs, and many Torah scholars have discussed what those beliefs should be, we have never cared that much either about the precise parameters of these beliefs, or about what actually goes on inside a given person's head. That is between man and God; we have never grilled people and nor would we ever administer a lie-detector test to people. Instead, what Judaism demands is loyalty to the community and not undermining it. If one expresses beliefs (or lack thereof) in such a way as to undermine the community, he is ostracized. Otherwise, no matter what the person believes privately, he remains a member in good standing.

Kellner sort of acknowledges all this in his discussion of Statman's critique on pp. 136-140, but maintains that there is much to be gained by defining membership in terms of behavior rather than belief, and that excluding people based on their being "public enemies" is untrue to the teachings of Rabbinic Judaism. I disagree - I think that this is how Judaism always operated, either consciously or subconsciously. As for his claim that the new challenges in the modern era require a different sort of response than that given to Sadducees and Karaites, I remain unconvinced.

On a related note, Kellner discusses the critique of Rabbi Dr. David Berger, who insists that Judaism was always defined by dogma. Kellner responds by citing the example of Chabad. He points out that Berger has satisfactorily proved that the extreme strain of Messianism in Chabad is heretical, and yet the rest of Orthodoxy has not excommunicated these people; all members of Chabad are still members of good standing in the community of Israel. Kellner argues that this shows that, at least subconsciously, everyone agrees with him that mitzvah-observance is the true definition of membership in good standing, not theology.

I disagree. The reason why the theological aberrations of the extreme Messianists of Chabad are tolerated is that these people are not still members of good standing in the community of Israel; instead, they are members of good standing in the community of Chabad. Chabad is so isolated from the rest of Orthodoxy that the extreme Messianists can simply be ignored. I guarantee that if Chabad were to start missionary work with the rest of Orthodoxy, they would be banned faster than you can say Slifkin.

All this is not to say that I believe Kellner's efforts in the first six chapters to be wasted. On the contrary; I think that they are extremely useful, and I think that every reader of this website should read Must A Jew Believe Anything?. But in my view, the concepts of the first six chapters are useful in a different way than Kellner proposes. I have briefly mentioned my ideas above, and I plan to discuss them in more detail on a future occasion.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Guest Post: Revisionism and the Rav Revisited

In 1999, Professor Lawrence Kaplan published an article entitled Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy, in which he discussed the misrepresentation of Rav Soloveitchik's views by figures on both the right and left, but especially by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. A few months ago, I wrote a post in which I pointed to a further instance in which Rabbi Meiselman distorted the Rav's views, this time with regard to the development of the universe.

Recently, Rabbi Meiselman claimed that all this is "absurd." While not offering any counterargument to my own demonstration of his distortion of the Rav's views, he claimed that Professor Kaplan's case has been refuted by the publication of Rabbi David Holzer's book The Rav: Thinking Aloud. I asked Professor Kaplan if he would write a formal response to be published on this website, and he kindly consented. It is a little too lengthy to put into a blog post, so it is available for download as a Word document at this link.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Return of the Monsters

I am pleased to announce that a new edition of Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash has just been published. There are only a few changes from the previous edition: a few small updates and minor corrections in various places, and a thorough reorganization and revision of the material regarding rabbinic authority in the final chapter, including a discussion of the view of Rav Glasner (which you can find here). However, if you only own Mysterious Creatures, it's definitely worth upgrading - there is an enormous amount of additional material not found in that book.

"Sacred Monsters delves into topics (especially “monsters”) in the natural history of the Jewish sacred sources (hence, “sacred” in the title). The book combines competence in more than one field: the history of ideas and of science, the modern biological disciplines, and rabbinic literature of all periods... Slifkin’s book has much to offer folklorists, while catering to a composite public: scholarly or ordinary readers, Jewish or gentile, devout or secular, steeped in Western culture or committed to ultra-Orthodox doxa... a delightful book. Slifkin has achieved the rare feat of writing a book that would appeal to a broad readership, and at the same time will also satisfy discerning scholars." - Review, Fabula 52 (2011) 

The book is 394 pages and the retail price is $29.95. This book is now being distributed by Gefen Books (who are also distributing Perek Shirah: Nature's Song and The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax). It should reach stores in Israel over the next few weeks, and North America in about two months. (Unfortunately there is no distribution in England, South Africa or Australia.)

You can also buy the book online now directly from me using the form below, using either a PayPal account or a credit card. The discount online price is $26.95 plus $10 international shipping or $5 shipping within Israel.

Use this button if you are ordering from outside Israel:

If you are ordering from within Israel, use this button:

Orders will be mailed within a few days of being received. Alternatively, you can pick it up directly from my home in Ramat Bet Shemesh! If you make a reservation, you can also do the Zoo Torah Experience:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Note On Nits

In light of the discussion on the previous post regarding lice, I thought it would be appropriate to post something that I wrote for Hirhurim a few years ago and subsequently incorporated into Sacred Monsters (of which a new edition came off the press yesterday).

The Gemara says that one is permitted to kill lice on Shabbos because they spontaneously generate:
Rabbi Eliezer said: One who kills a louse on Shabbos is like one who kills a camel on Shabbos (and has violated Shabbos)… Rav Yosef said: The Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer in the case of lice, which do not reproduce… (Shabbos 107b)

The Rabbis believed that lice “do not reproduce” – that is to say, they do not hatch from eggs laid by other lice. The medieval and later authorities explain that lice are instead generated from sweat.[1] Accordingly, they are not considered to be life-forms like other animals and they may be killed on Shabbos. The Talmud proceeds to question this, based on a statement that seemingly acknowledges the fact that lice hatch from eggs:
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the eggs of lice to the horns of aurochsen?” (which shows that lice come from eggs)?

The Talmud responds that this statement should be understood differently and does not in fact mean that lice reproduce in the “eggs of lice”:
– That refers to a species which is called “eggs of lice.”

There are many questions and controversies surrounding this passage, which I deal with at great length in my book Sacred Monsters. Here, I want to focus on one question: the strange nature of the last line of the Talmud cited above. As usually understood, it means that the Talmud is responding that the statement about God sustaining the “eggs of lice” does not actually refer to eggs of lice, but rather to a type of insect which is called “eggs of lice.” This seems extremely strange, to say the least! Why would an insect be called “eggs of lice”? Wouldn’t it be much more reasonable to assume that the phrase really does refer to eggs of lice? Furthermore, the beginning of that statement speaks of the God sustaining “the horns of aurochsen,” which are appendages of an animal rather than a type of animal. Accordingly, the last part of the statement would also be describing the appendages of an animal rather than a type of animal. It thus seems very strange for the Talmud to claim that “eggs of lice” are a type of insect!

Another question that people have on this topic is that nits – lice eggs – are not all that tiny. Certainly they can be seen with the naked eye, albeit with some difficulty. Did people really not know about them?

The truth is that if we look at another section of the Talmud, we find an explicit discussion about nits. In a section relating to the law that a nazir may not have a haircut, the Talmud seeks to determine whether hair grows from the tip or from the root. One argument is based on the position of something called “inba” on a hair as it grows:
Does a hair grow from the root or from the tip? …Let us bring a proof from a live inba, which remains at the root of the hair [as it grows]; if you were to say that a hair grows from its root, then the inba should end up at the tip of the hair!
No, one could still say that it grows from the root, and because the inba is alive, it keeps moving down [as the hair grows].
Let us bring a proof from a dead inba, which is at the tip of a hair; if you were to say that a hair grows from its tip, then the inba should be at the root of the hair!
No, one could still say that it grows from the tip, and because the inba has no strength [to grip], it slides along it. (Nazir 39a)

This inba is clearly a nit, and we thus see that Sages of the Talmud had observed nits. So why did they state that lice spontaneously generate? And why did they redefine “eggs of lice” to refer to a species of insect?

In order to answer these questions, let us take a look at what people in the ancient world thought about lice. Aristotle has a fascinating discussion in which he makes it clear that he had seen nits, and he even knew that lice laid them. What he did not know was that lice also hatch from them. Rather, nits were thought to be merely the useless result of two spontaneously-generating lice mating with each other:
But whenever creatures are spontaneously generated, either in other animals, in the soil, or on plants, or in the parts of these, and when such are generated male and female, then from the copulation of such spontaneously generated males and females there is generated a something – a something never identical in shape with the parents, but a something imperfect. For instance, the issue of copulation in lice is nits; in flies, grubs; in fleas, grubs egg-like in shape; and from these issues the parent-species is never reproduced, nor is any animal produced at all, but the like nondescripts only. (Aristotle, History of Animals, Book V, Part 1)

If this is how people thought of lice, then our questions are answered. Rashi states that the “eggs of lice” of tractate Shabbos are the inba of tractate Nazir[2] Accordingly, when the Talmud explains that the statement, “God sits and sustains from the eggs of lice to the horns of aurochsen” refers to a species called “eggs of lice,” it does not mean that there is a species of insect called “eggs of lice.” Rather, it is referring to nits – actual lice eggs. It is stating that they are a distinct entity, that are laid by lice, but not from which lice actually hatch. The Talmud is saying that they are called “eggs of lice” because they are egg-shaped organisms that are laid by lice – but they do not hatch into lice, and thus, according to the Talmud, it is still correct to state that lice spontaneously generate.

Some people have a hard time accepting this, because to their minds, it seems absurd to recognize that lice lay eggs but do not hatch from them; to attribute this belief to Chazal is, in their view, accusing Chazal of being "foolish," heaven forbid. However, they are committing a common error of anachronism. That which seems "obvious" to us today is not at all necessarily "obvious" to people in different eras. Examples of this are legion. But in this case, there's a simple rejoinder to be made: Aristotle was certainly a very, very intelligent and knowledgeable person, and yet he believed that lice lay "eggs" but do not hatch from them.


[1] Ba’al Halachos Gedolos; Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 11:3; Rashba, Commentary to Shabbos 12a; Mishnah Berurah 316:38.

[2] Rashi to Avodah Zarah 3b, s.v. beitzei kinnim, and Rashi to Nazir 39a.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rav Schachter on Chazal and Science

I've been inundated with emails in the past few days, linking to this recent shiur from Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, on the topic of "When Science Contradicts The Talmud." Since I'm already backed up with e-mail, I decided to write a post about it, which will hopefully save me time with e-mails!

If you're looking for a close talmid of the Rav who has a more rational approach to these topics than that of Rabbi Meiselman, then this is the shiur for you! Rav Schachter does not shy away from acknowledging that some things are impossible from the perspective of modern science. Nor does he pretend that rabbinic thought on this topic is monolithic; he freely discusses the diversity of opinions that exists. (Those who were at the shiur tell me that there was also a lot of "body language" that is lost in the audio recording.)

Having said that, I should probably note that I did not entirely agree with the presentation:
  • I personally side with the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog (that Chazal's authority is binding even if based upon mistaken beliefs), which Rav Schachter rejects. 
  • It wasn't clear to me if Rav Schachter was saying that it is permissible to kill lice on Shabbos because even though Chazal's reason of spontaneous generation was incorrect, the fact that such eggs are microscopic means that they are halachically irrelevant, or if he was saying that Chazal themselves actually meant that the eggs are microscopic and thus halachically irrelevant. I don't agree with the latter, for reasons explained in Sacred Monsters.
  • Rav Schachter seemed (though this was not entirely clear) to take the position that Chazal discussed cases of spontaneously-generating creatures and chimeras not because they believed in their existence, but rather because they were laying the ground for future scientific experiments. While in Sacred Monsters I discussed how new scenarios can be resolved via such discussions in the Gemara, I do not believe that Chazal had this in mind; rather, they believed that such creatures existed, as did everybody back then. But again, Rav Schachter's position is not clear to me from the recording.

Notwithstanding these reservations, the shiur is very valuable, for the reasons stated earlier. Perhaps someone should inform Eytan Kobre and Mishpachah magazine that other leading talmidim of the Rav have very different views on these topics from that of Rabbi Meiselman.

On a different note, my forthcoming lecture tour to the US in February is almost entirely booked up, except for Shabbos February 4th. If you would like to arrange a program for your community, please write to me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Nothing But The Truth"?

Last week's Mishpachah had a feature story, by Eytan Kobre, on Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. He was pictured on the cover, with the title, "Nothing But The Truth." In the part of the article dealing with his forthcoming book on Torah and science, we find the following:
"Through a systematic discussion of the views of all the Rishonim, he demonstrates their consensus on a foundational tenet of Torah: that Chazal's halachic pronouncements, including those that implicate scientific matters, were based on a deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah, the blueprint of that reality. This is a truth that was acknowledged even by the non-Jewish scientists of Chazal's time. The Rosh Yeshivah points out that 'even in regard to areas of pure halachah, of course, Chazal sometimes said, "Teiku," and left the matter unresolved; but where they spoke unequivocally, their word is definitive and binding. What emerges very clearly from every Rishon, bar none, is that Chazal don't make mistakes'."


If it is a "foundational tenet of Torah" that Chazal's halachic pronouncements were never based on incorrect beliefs about the natural world, then how is it that so many outstanding Torah scholars, such as Rav Yitzchak Lampronti (author of Pachad Yitzchak and rebbe of Ramchal), Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner (author of Dor Revi'i), Rav Aharon Marcus, and Rav Yitzchak Herzog (described by Ridvaz as the world’s outstanding Talmudists) thought differently? Rabbi Meiselman is entitled to disagree with these Torah scholars - but would it not be appropriate to acknowledge that several great Torah scholars disagree with his "foundational tenet of Torah"?

If Chazal had a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world," then why are there dozens upon dozens of statements in the Talmud that seem to reflect ancient erroneous beliefs about the natural world, while claims about "advanced scientific knowledge" in the Talmud invariably turn out to be things that Chazal didn't say, things that aren't actually true, or things that non-Jews also knew?

If Chazal's "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world" is a truth that was "acknowledged even by the non-Jewish scientists of Chazal's time," then why do we find so many instances of Chazal consulting non-Jewish experts on various matters? And why do we find Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi conceding that the non-Jewish astronomers were correct (and the Jewish sages incorrect) about a very basic fact of cosmology?

What proportion of even frum physicians today would say that Chazal's statements about the human body and about medicine are based upon a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world"? Rav Sherira Gaon didn't think so! Most people to study the topic (without a charedi agenda) would say that Chazal's statements about physiology and medicine pretty much reflect standard beliefs in the ancient world.

At this point I want to retract a claim that I made previously. I had written that the Rashba's claim regarding Chazal's inerrancy was limited to terefos. Checking it again, I see that it was in fact more broad. But I still don't see him claiming that “all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true.” And to reiterate, Rashba does not represent the unequivocal (or even normative) view. Which brings us to the statement by Rabbi Meiselman that leaves one breathless: "What emerges very clearly from every Rishon, bar none, is that Chazal don't make mistakes." I know that Rabbi Meiselman claims the famous words of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam to be a forgery (as unreasonable as that may be). But what about Rambam himself?
"It is one of the ancient beliefs, widespread among both the philosophers and ordinary people, that the motions of the spheres produce mighty and fearful sounds... This belief is also well-known in our nation. Thus the Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its sphere... Aristotle, however, rejects this, and explains that they produce no sound... You must not find it far-fetched that Aristotle differs from the opinion of our Sages in this. For this theory — that is, of the sounds of the spheres — stems from the belief that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it]; and you already know that in such matters of astronomy, the matter has been decided in favor of the gentile scholars over the Sages. Thus, it is explicitly stated, “The wise men of the nations have defeated them.” And this is appropriate; for with speculative matters everyone speaks according to the results of his own investigation, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof." (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8, translated from Schwartz edition)

In fact, most of the Rishonim followed the straightforward meaning of the Gemara, that the Chachmei Yisrael were mistaken in their beliefs about the basic structure of the universe. I documented this in my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night," (which, in my view, is the most fundamental topic for understanding the Chazal/ science issue and how approaches to it change over time). Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman would claim that in this case Chazal were only speculating and not speaking definitively. But they seemed pretty definitive about it; note that this Babylonian cosmology was also derived by Chazal from pesukim (see Bava Basra 25a-b, discussed in the monograph). And how does the belief in a flat earth that is covered by an opaque dome behind which the sun travels at night, supported from pesukim, reflect "a deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah"?

So in the topic of cosmology alone, we have R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon , Rambam, R. Shmuel ibn Tibbon, R. Yitzchak b. Yedaiah, R. Yeshayah di Trani, R. Eliezer b. Shmuel of Metz, Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, Ritva, R. Manoach b. Yaakov, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Menachem ben Aharon ibn Zerach, R. Todros ben Joseph Abulafia, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar and Radvaz, all of whom say that the Chachmei Yisrael were incorrect. In the view of all these Geonim and Rishonim (as well as plenty of Acharonim), Chazal's view on this basic matter clearly did not stem from a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah."

"Nothing But The Truth"? It's the dictionary definition of a puff-piece.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Response, and Further Response, to Rabbi Meiselman

(In this week's edition of The Five Towns Jewish Times, I present the following response to Rabbi Meiselman's article. He presents a rejoinder, and my response to his rejoinder is at the end of this post.)

Teaching Torah and Science

Is it legitimate to distort Judaism in any way for the purpose of outreach to secular Jews? As reported in a front-page article in last week’s issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times (“Genesis: Allegory or Fact?” by Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow), Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Toras Moshe and author of a forthcoming book on the subject of Torah and Science, stressed that this should not be done, and he is absolutely correct. We should never distort Torah and rabbinic thought in order to win popularity. We have a responsibility to teach Torah honestly. If that does not gain us popularity with certain secular Jews, so be it.

Of course, this cuts both ways. We may also not distort Torah and rabbinic thought in order to win popularity with contemporary frum Jews. Sometimes, the Rishonim and Acharonim voiced opinions that are unpopular in some circles. Indeed, some legitimately feel that such views may well not be appropriate to teach in every context. However, we cannot distort these views or pretend that they were never uttered, even if some people are uncomfortable with them. In the famous article “Revisionism and the Rav,” (Judaism, Summer 1999) Lawrence Kaplan documented how even some close students and family members of Rav Soloveitchik distorted his views in order to bring them in line with their own beliefs.

Rabbi Meiselman is also correct that great expertise in Torah is required to address the sensitive topic of Torah–science issues. But we need to define the situation more precisely. As Rabbi Meiselman notes, even great Torah scholars do not necessarily possess expertise in all areas. Someone might be the world’s greatest Talmudist, but this does not mean that he is knowledgeable in hilchos gittin. As with any field in Torah, it is expertise in the particular topic that is required. Furthermore, there are different schools of thought within the boundaries of our mesorah.

Likewise, Rabbi Meiselman is absolutely correct in stressing that expertise in science is required when addressing Torah–science issues. But here, too, we need to define the situation more precisely. If someone is merely quoting and relying upon a widely accepted scientific view—for instance, that the earth orbits the sun—one does not need to be an astronomer. At the other extreme, if one is disputing the entire scientific establishment in a particular field, then even distinguished academic qualifications are entirely irrelevant if they are not in that particular field. We would not assign credibility to an astronomer who disputes the entire medical establishment about matters concerning the human body! Would a mathematician have credibility if he were to dispute astrophysicists regarding cosmology or paleontologists regarding dinosaurs?

Let us begin with the topic of Creation. To be sure, there have been many Torah scholars throughout history who insisted that the account of Creation is to be interpreted entirely literally. But it is simply not accurate to state that no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal. Rambam explicitly writes that “the account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts” (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:29). According to the explanation of Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, Rambam was of the view that the “Six Days” are not time periods at all. Here is how Akeidas Yitzchak explains Rambam’s view:
“...the mention of an order of Creation is not describing the sequence of days; rather, [the days are simply serving] to differentiate the status of [the elements of creation] and to make known the hierarchy of nature. This was Rambam’s major esoteric doctrine concerning Creation as those who are understanding can discern from that chapter which is devoted to this extraordinary account.”

Ralbag was of the identical view, and explicitly stated that the six “days” of creation are not six time periods at all, but instead represent the hierarchy of the natural world. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in a little-known series of lectures on Genesis, stated, “Evolution and creation can be reconciled merely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite.” It is no wonder that Rav Yitzchak Herzog (a rebbi of Rav Elyashiv, who was eulogized by Rav Aharon Kotler as being a “prince of Torah”), wrote, “It is well to bear in mind that already our ancient sages, to say nothing of our medieval theologians, would not seem to have insisted upon literalness in such transcendental matters as the account of Creation.”

Let us now turn to the topic of the Deluge. Rabbi Meiselman is entirely correct that the Great Flood was understood by all Geonim and Rishonim to be a literal description and record of events that occurred thousands of years ago. However, it is also true that the Scriptural description of the earth standing still was also understood by all Geonim and Rishonim as being a literal description (which is why most early Acharonim denounced Copernican heliocentrism as heresy). Of course the Rishonim understood it that way; they had no reason to think differently!

The more relevant question is, how did recent Torah authorities—who were aware that there is overwhelming evidence for the continuity of civilization and animal life throughout that period in many parts of the world—explain this topic? Nobody denies that there was a devastating flood several thousand years ago; indeed, there is much evidence of it. But to what extent is the Torah’s account literally correct in all its details? Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman wrote that the Mabul did not cover the entire planet, but only the “world” of the Torah. This was also the view of Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of the Chazon Ish), who brought some excellent proofs from the Gemara that “olam” does not always refer to the entire planet. My own mentor in these matters, Rav Aryeh Carmell, z’l, told me explicitly (based upon conversations that he had with his own mentors) that, just as Rambam stated regarding Creation, the account of the Deluge need not be literally true in all of its parts.

These are sensitive and complex topics that really require much lengthier discussion than is possible within this forum. But as a general guiding principle with regard to conflicts between modern science and traditional interpretation of Scripture, we can adopt the view of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who stated in his Genesis lectures that “the Torah is not interested in disclosing any scientific data to man. Revelation was only the revealing of the will of G‑d and not the wisdom of G‑d... Therefore, if the Bible employed the Ptolemaic description of the cosmos, it was only to present to the people of its time and not to present the true scientific view.” This is an approach that Rav Kook specifically legitimized for the early chapters of Genesis. Of course, others are free to dispute this approach—but not to deny that there were Torah giants who legitimized it.

Let us turn now to the topic of Chazal and science. To be sure, there have been many authorities, mostly in recent times, who insisted that Chazal’s statements about the natural world are all correct. On the other hand, we also find dozens upon dozens of Rishonim, Acharonim, and contemporary Torah scholars who held otherwise—for example, virtually all the Rishonim were of the view that Chazal incorrectly believed the sun to travel behind the sky at night. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch expresses his approach as follows:
“In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G‑d’s law—the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine—except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.”

Even some of those rumored to have held that Chazal were infallible in all such matters are often seen not to have been of such a view. For example, Rabbi Meiselman cites Rashba as stating that “all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true,” and that anyone who says otherwise is a “melagleg al divrei chachamim and subject to serious penalty.” Yet Rashba himself states that Rabbi Yochanan and the judges of Caesarea erred in a mathematical matter (Eruvin 76b) and doubtless did not consider himself to be melagleg al divrei chachamim! In fact, Rashba’s strong words about the correctness of Chazal’s science are specifically limited to hilchos tereifos, which are halachah l’Moshe miSinai. He was making no blanket statement about all statements of Chazal regarding science.

To his great credit, Rabbi Meiselman acknowledges that there is no such thing as a mouse that is generated from dirt, despite the Gemara’s discussion of it. In this, he is adopting the view of Rav Hirsch, notwithstanding the fact that many distinguished gedolim today, such as Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, consider such a view to be heretical. However, Rabbi Meiselman is not correct in claiming that “Chazal never stated unequivocally” that such spontaneously generating creatures exist. At the end of Maseches Sanhedrin, Rabbi Ami asserts that such a spontaneously generating mouse exists. Rabbi Akiva likewise asserts that salamanders are generated from fire, and in several cases Scriptural exegeses were understood as referring to spontaneously generating insects.

Building upon Rabbi Meiselman’s point that it is forbidden to distort Torah for the sake of popularity, a teacher must likewise be very careful when attempting to “prove” that Chazal knew things that were unknown before modern science. As Rambam writes, if someone discovers that an argument is flawed, they lose their faith in the entire position. If a person finds out that he has been misled, he will understandably lose respect for his teacher, and potentially for Judaism entirely. In such cases of “proving” Chazal to have supernatural knowledge of modern science, it is unfortunately often the case that (a) the Gemara means something quite different, (b) it is something that non-Jews also knew, or (c) the Gemara is not in fact consistent with modern science. Regrettably, the cases that Rabbi Meiselman cites, of hemophilia and liver regeneration, fail on not just one but multiple counts.

Let us consider hemophilia, which Rabbi Meiselman claims the Gemara knew to be hereditary via the mother centuries before non-Jewish doctors discovered it. But there are three points to bear in mind here. First is that this can result from simple prudence: you don’t circumcise babies if their two brothers died from it! Second is that Chazal apparently reached this conclusion fortuitously due to their inaccurate belief that “The man provides the white from which the bones and sinews grow... the women provides the red from which the skin, meat, and blood come.”

Third is that in fact, the Shulchan Aruch rules that the law applies equally to a man whose two sons died from circumcision—even if they are from a different wife. Furthermore, the halachah states that for the third child one must wait until the child gets older and stronger before performing the circumcision. If they understood hemophilia, they would know that it would not help to wait for this.
With regard to liver regeneration: First, Chazal do not explicitly state that the liver regenerates. Instead, they use an ambiguous phrase that was never interpreted that way until a 20th-century figure, seeking to prove the existence of modern scientific knowledge in the Gemara, claimed that it carries such a meaning. Second, although some believe otherwise, many claim that the ancient Greeks already knew about the regeneration of the liver, as seen in the account of Prometheus. Third, the Gemara claims that the animal can survive even if there are only two olive-sized pieces of liver present, but medicine tells us that such an animal cannot survive; in fact, at least a quarter of the liver must remain. We do the cause of Torah no honor when presenting “proofs” of Chazal’s scientific knowledge that do not withstand scrutiny.

This leads us to the topic of tereifos and the difficulty that the Gemara’s list of mortal difficulties in an animal does not correlate with the knowledge of modern science. As already noted, there is a problem with regard to the Gemara’s statement about the liver. Another problem is the Gemara’s statement that the absence of kidneys in animals is not a mortal defect. Rabbi Meiselman attempts to resolve this based on the claim that “ruminants have an excretory system that excretes into the rumen and can thus survive even if their kidneys are removed.” However, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Sternberg, in Bar Ilan’s journal BDD vol. 4, demonstrates that this is a short-term solution, and such animals will nevertheless die within a month. Thus, the Gemara is still inconsistent with our knowledge regarding the necessity of kidneys.

Rabbi Meiselman asserts that it is not an option to posit that Rambam believed Chazal to have been mistaken in their scientific assessments. Yet Rambam writes explicitly in the Guide for the Perplexed that the Sages’ knowledge of science was not Sinaitic in origin and was thus occasionally incorrect (and indeed he also disputed their statements about certain metaphysical matters, such as astrology and demons). What, then, is his view about tereifos? Let us see Rambam’s words: “With anything which they enumerated as a tereifah, even if with some it is seen not to be fatal based on modern medicine, such that an animal [with such an injury] might sometimes live, we have only what the Sages enumerated, as it says, ‘According to the law that they direct you.’”

As explained by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, in Dor Revi’i, as well as my own mentor, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, z’l, Rambam is saying that the laws as established by the Sages were canonized, and are thus unaffected by later discoveries of inaccuracies. Rambam was not denying that certain tereifos can indeed live! As for tereifos being halachah l’Moshe miSinai, Rabbi Asher Benzion Buchman, in “Rationality and Halacha: The Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai of Treifos” (Hakirah, vol. 4) points out that different sources list different numbers of tereifos. According to Rambam, only the root principles of tereifos were halachah l’Moshe miSinai, and it was up to Chazal to flesh out individual cases. Chazal’s final rulings on this are indeed authoritative—but this need not mean that they are correct from a scientific perspective.

Following Rambam, Rav Glasner, and Rav Herzog, we accept the authority of Chazal, regardless of the basis for their rulings. But this does not always apply to medical halachah. Rabbi Meiselman claims that “many halachic statements made by Chazal based on their understanding of the underlying medical situation are authoritative.” This is generally true, but not with cases where there is danger to human life.

For example, no halachic authority in the world follows Chazal’s principle that a fetus born after eight months is less viable than one born after seven months (on the basis of which Chazal prohibit desecrating Shabbos to help such a baby). Some claim that “nature has changed,” but physicians do not believe that eight-month fetuses were ever less viable that seven-month fetuses; it was simply one of the erroneous beliefs that existed in antiquity. Likewise, as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach points out, Chasam Sofer’s definition of death (based on the Gemara), that a person who is not breathing is declared dead, is clearly no longer acceptable, now that we know how to perform resuscitation. The story that Rabbi Meiselman brings regarding Rav Soloveitchik is where he delayed doing a b’ris against the doctor’s advice that it was safe to do it earlier. Rav Soloveitchik did not advance doing a b’ris against the doctor’s advice that it was dangerous!

If someone is teaching Torah–science issues to students who have been entirely insulated from the modern world, then it may well be legitimate to simplify matters and accept every statement about the natural world by Chazal, Rishonim, and Acharonim as being correct. But if someone is working in the broader arena of people who are more knowledgeable in either science or Torah, this approach can dangerously backfire. It is very, very important for all such writings on Torah and science to bring kavod to Torah—by being thoroughly researched, and by being honest, accurate, and professional with regard to Torah sources as well as the scientific enterprise.

* * *

(Rabbi Meiselman's response can be found at this link. Here is my rejoinder to his response.)

Rabbi Meiselman addresses very few of my points in his response. He states that "if R’ Slifkin wishes to answer the content of my book, he should wait until the book appears and then give a complete rebuttal;" that "to do so in a newspaper article clearly does not enable me to give full demonstration of my positions." I have every intention of giving a complete rebuttal of his book when it appears. But meanwhile, he put forth his views on numerous topics in a newspaper article, and it is to these that I responded in a newspaper article.

With regard to the charge of revisionism on Rav Soloveitchik's views, Rabbi Meiselman says that "either Slifkin or Kaplan would have to be privy to a deep insight into my rebbi’s views based on closer contact than all of us. Whereas this is clearly not true, one can only wonder why they believe that there is any credibility to their opinion." In fact, we do not need closer contact; our opinions are credible based on direct evidence from Rav Soloveitchik's explicit writings and recorded lectures. In my post on this topic, I showed how Rabbi Meiselman selectively quoted from Rav Soloveitchik and thereby completely distorted his position, as can be seen from looking at the full quote and at Rav Soloveitchik's writings elsewhere.

In response to my points about the credibility of people who air views on these topics, Rabbi Meiselman stated that "My credentials lie within the book. If the book shows competence, then I am competent. If it doesn’t show competence then I am not competent." I couldn't agree more. But if so, why is Rabbi Meiselman having his PhD in mathematics from MIT trumpeted as giving him credibility? Why did he tell the Jewish Press that the value of his book lies in his "unique background" which gives him "very broad scientific knowledge"?

Rabbi Meiselman charges me with appealing to authority rather than demonstrating my positions. It's hard to know what to make of this, since much of this is indeed about what the authorities (Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim) held about matters. If he wants to demonstrate that he understands Rambam better than Abarbanel, Akeidas Yitzchak, Shem Tov, and Ralbag, as well as all modern academic scholars, he is free to do so. However, it would be appropriate for him to clearly state that he believes Abarbanel, Akeidas Yitzchak, Shem Tov, and Ralbag to be confused, rather than stating that he believes "Slifkin" to be confused.

Rabbi Meiselman says that he has "extensive quotes from internationally famed zookeepers who claim that only someone ignorant of zookeeping would think that a local flood is scientifically tenable." Indeed, I also think that positing a local flood is also scientifically untenable, unless other details of the Deluge are taken non-literally. But I am astounded that Rabbi Meiselman is quoting from "internationally famed zookeepers" as to what is scientifically tenable. Is he interested in what internationally famed zoologists, geologists, and archeologists have to say about whether a global flood is scientifically tenable?!

With regard to the Greeks possibly knowing about the regenerative ability of the liver, Rabbi Meiselman claims that I have never substantiated that claim. In fact, one need look no further than Wikipedia to discover that Prometheus seems to discuss it - see Chen T and Chen P (1994), "The Myth of Prometheus and the Liver". A counterargument is provided by Power C and Rasko J (2008), "Whither Prometheus' Liver? Greek Myth and the Science of Regeneration." However, as I noted, even if the Greeks did not know about liver regeneration, it is far from clear that Chazal knew it either (and furthermore, an animal cannot live with a liver reduced to the amount that they specified). Rabbi Meiselman did not respond to either of these points.

With regard to the Rashba, Rabbi Meiselman rather rudely asserts that I have "again showed an inability to understand Rishonim." However, he does not provide the slightest argument to back up this claim, merely a reference to his forthcoming book.

On the topic of the mud-mouse, Rabbi Meiselman claims that I "again misunderstand the Gemara" and that Chazal did not in fact believe it to exist. Since my misunderstanding is apparently shared by every Rishon, Acharon, and contemporary Torah scholar to have addressed the topic, I seem to be in good company, although once again Rabbi Meiselman prefers to refer to me rather than to them. To be sure, Chazal often answered heretics on their own terms; but, given the wider context, it is more reasonable to propose that they described the mud-mouse to heretics (as evidence for resurrection), and discussed its halachos in the Mishnah, because they actually believed it to exist (as Rav Hirsch says, due to it being standard belief in those days). It is unreasonable to propose that while Chazal shared everyone else's belief in the spontaneous generation of insects from fruit and sweat, and in the spontaneous generation of salamanders from fire, they did not share the belief of others in the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt. Why would they have rejected that belief while accepting the others - and meanwhile talking about the mouse in such a way as to give the distinct impression that they believed it to be an actual creature?

With regard to Prof. Sternberg pointing out the flaws in suggesting that animals can survive without kidneys, Rabbi Meiselman asserts that Professor Levi Rabbi Gershon Weiss "demonstrated that Sternberg’s comments were without merit." In fact, Prof. Levi (in Torah and Science, p. 213), in a book that strives mightily to reconcile the Gemara with science, suggests that it is "conceivable" that the animal "might" survive. This hardly counts as a firm reconciliation of the Gemara.

Rabbi Meiselman concludes by saying that he "awaits everyone’s critique once the book appears in a final and complete form." I am not sure whether this means that he has any intention of responding to such critiques. Several years ago, I sent him a letter, regarding his series of lectures regarding my books. In that letter, I pointed out that almost every single claim that he made about my personal history and the contents of my books is demonstrably false, as anyone can check merely by listening to his lectures and looking at my books. I still await a response. Surely the Torah demands nothing but the truth.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Agudah Follow-Up

I. Who Should be Issuing a Retraction/ Clarification?

Following my earlier post about Rabbi Sherer's mention of my article at the Agudah Convention, in which he failed to read out an important phrase when quoting from my article, a number of people wrote to the Agudah to register their protest. The Agudah responded by pointing out that the phrase which Rabbi Sherer had omitted was only parenthetical. The Agudah also claimed that it is in fact I who owes Rabbi Sherer an apology, for calling his speech “despicable in its dishonesty.”

In fact, I had already retracted that, but I will reiterate: I apologize for referring to Rabbi Sherer's speech as "despicable in its dishonesty." I had not realized that the Jerusalem Post had put my phrase in parentheses.

And now it is Rabbi Sherer's turn to issue a clarification. The Agudah claimed that Rabbi Sherer's omission "did not in any way change the meaning of the sentence." I think that it is not Rabbi Sherer's prerogative to make that judgment. Someone put it very well: Rabbi Sherer was reading directly from the article. If a Rabbi is going to verbally attack a person publicly for a statement that the person supposedly made, then the statement should be quoted in full - especially since what was in parenthesis would have been in the author's favor.

There is another important point to be made. There is not a single reader of my blog who is under a mistaken impression as to what I wrote or what Rabbi Sherer saw and said. On the other hand, there are plenty of attendees of the Agudah conference who, as a result of Rabbi Sherer's speech, think that I wrote something quite different from what I actually wrote. I have already issued a retraction and have clarified matters. It's time for Rabbi Sherer to do the same.

Rabbi Sherer should also clarify that what I wrote was one of several reasons that I gave for becoming post-Charedi, and not - as he implied - the sole reason.

II. On Anonymity

Agudah spokesmen also pointed out that Rabbi Sherer had taken pains not to mention me by name. It doesn't really make a difference to me either way, but this seems absurd. If Rabbi Sherer had not wanted me to be identified, he could simply have read out the part of the article that deals with the reasons for being post-Charedi. It did not add anything to his speech for him to read out the part of the article in which I describe how three of my books were banned seven years ago. But it did mean that everybody knew exactly who he was talking about!

III. On Context

A standard reply that the Agudah sent out to letters of protest included the following:
What is more, Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude toward Gedolim – which was Rabbi Sherer’s focus (although he took pains not to mention Rabbi Slifkin’s name) – is well evident in other writings of Rabbi Slifkin. For example: “How are [Gedolim] suited,” he wrote on March 23 of last year “for leadership positions? The fundamental belief of charedi society, that total dedication to Torah is what makes the ideal leader, is… exposed as hopelessly wrong.”

Strong words, indeed. I was curious to see in which context I had written them, and I was especially curious about the ellipsis (that's the "..." in the quote). So I googled it and discovered the original post. I saw that the ellipsis served to replace a single word: "thereby." And what was the "thereby" to which I referred? It was to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky having signed a letter attesting to the innocence of the monster Elior Chen, and subsequently defending his signature on the grounds that he signs whatever his rabbis sign. As I wrote in the original post:
"I have always tried to write respectfully about the Gedolim, even when disagreeing with them strongly. But now I am honestly not sure if one should be respectful about the signing of this letter, especially when it is defended on the grounds that other rabbis signed it. The best limmud zechus I can think of is that, due to their intense dedication to staying in the Beis HaMidrash, the Gedolim are simply naive about the world and/or easily manipulated. But if that is the case, and it results in them signing letters such as this, then how are they suited for leadership positions? The fundamental belief of charedi society, that total dedication to Torah is what makes the ideal leader, is thereby exposed as hopelessly wrong. And even with this limmud zechus, one has to wonder how a Rav could attest with certainty to the innocence of someone who has been indicted for such terrible crimes, with one child suffering permanent brain damage and in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, merely because other rabbis say that he is innocent. With the publication of the letter supporting Elior Chen, is there any way to justify the system of leadership in the charedi world?"

Technically speaking, the Agudah did not distort what I had written. However, I think that it would have been more appropriate if, when quoting that sentence, they would have revealed a little more about the context in which I wrote it. Especially when the entire topic here is one of reporting people's positions accurately. So, for example, they could have written, "he wrote on March 23 of last year, in the context of Rav Kanievsky defending Elior Chen." Surely that is at least as relevant as the date!

(I subsequently engaged in a bizarre and fruitless discussion with the Agudah as to how it was justified or understandable for Rav Kanievesky to attest to the innocence of Elior Chen on the grounds that "other rabbis did so," and how this fits in to the notion of Daas Torah. But it was presumably forbidden to even ask this question, since according to Rabbi Sherer, we may not ask the Gedolim to explain their Daas Torah decision.)

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