Monday, January 31, 2011

Philosophy, Torah or Science?

As mentioned last week, I want to explore classical views on what human life actually is - a topic with ramifications for both evolution and determining the time of death. As a starting point for this discussion, we will begin with Ramban's commentary on the creation of man. The problem with Ramban's comments is that they are so richly packed with ideas that it's difficult to explore them in a blog format. So what I want to do is to isolate different aspects of Ramban's comments and dedicate a separate post to each aspect.

In Ramban's commentary to Bereishis 2:7, we find the following remarkable paragraph:

Know that of those who investigate philosophical inquiries regarding the components of man, some of them say that man is composed of three souls: a vegetative soul with the power of growth... an (animalistic) soul with the power of motion... and the third is the soul of the rational intellect. And others say that all these three forces are found in the soul that is contained in man from the Mouth of the High One.

In the version of Rambam's commentary that I have on my DBS Torah database, there are parenthetical comments indicating that the first view was held by Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Avraham b. Chiyya, and the latter view was held by Rambam. But these were not who Ramban was referring to. In fact, he was referring to an ancient dispute between Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s view was that the human soul is a single indivisible entity, comprised of a vegetative-like power of growth, an animalistic life-force, and a rational intellect. Aristotle, on the other hand, took the position that these three components are distinct; in other words, a human being contains the growth-nature of a plant, the animate life of an animal, with a rational intellect superimposed on top of that.

Ramban proceeds to note that while the simple reading of the pesukim would indicate that Plato's view is correct, Onkelos and Chazal side with the other view, of three souls mixed together (for fascinating reasons that we shall discuss in future posts), and this is the view that Ramban seems to favor.

The aspect that I would like to focus on today is the very nature of the question regarding whether the human soul is tripartite or indivisible. It is a question which affects our reading of the Chumash, and which Rishonim had differing views on. Yet Ramban also notes that this is an ancient dispute in natural philosophy - which would indicate that it can theoretically be resolved via natural philosophy. Note that this is not the only time where Ramban says that natural philosophy can alter our understanding of Chumash; Ramban also relies upon Greek science to reject traditional understandings of the rainbow (see Bereishis 9:12) and Chazal’s understanding of human conception (Vayikra 12:2).

So, the question of whether the human soul is divisible is not only a Torah question, but also a question of natural philosophy. Now, science is certainly a far more powerful method for attaining facts than natural philosophy. It would thus seem that according to Ramban, science would theoretically be able to resolve this question and tell us how to understand the Torah.

To be continued...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Missing the Obvious

Did it ever happen to you that something suddenly occurs which is so obvious, you wonder how you ever missed it? Then you wonder how everyone else is missing it! And then you start to worry and think, well, it can't be that everyone missed it, so I must still be missing something!

I had this feeling on Friday night, going over the Gemara which Poskim use as the primary source for determining death. The Gemara discusses a building which has collapsed on Shabbos, trapping people in the rubble. Rubble is muktzeh, but it can be cleared away in order to save lives. Upon discovering a person trapped in the rubble, a determination must be made as to whether the person is still alive; if he is, then all the rubble can be cleared off him, but if has died, then one may not clear any more rubble off him. The Gemara establishes that if one is uncovering him from the top down, then one may only proceed as far as his nose. If breath is detected at his nose, one may continue extracting him. But if no breath is detected at the nose, then he is certainly dead and one may not clear any more rubble.

The Gemara relates this to the passuk which says, "Everyone that had the breath of life in his nose." It is the formal halachah brought down in the Shulchan Aruch. And Chassam Sofer famously stated regarding this that "Once his breathing ceases, one may no longer violate Shabbos. This is the general principle for all who die, and this has been the accepted criterion in our hands ever since God’s congregation became a holy nation, and even if all the winds in the world were to blow, they would not budge us from the position of our holy Torah."

Now, for a while it has been known that even if respiration has ceased, it is often possible to restart it via cardiopulmonary resuscitation - CPR. It is therefore commonly stated that the Gemara was not referring to a person whose breathing has merely stopped, but rather to a person whose breathing has irreversibly stopped. Of course, Chazal did not know about CPR, but, it is claimed, their words did not rule it out.

On Friday night, I realized that this is not true. Furthermore, I realized that everyone is very clearly overruling Chazal in this.

Why? Because in order to do CPR, you need access to the person's chest. Which means that you are clearing more rubble away! But the Gemara is completely unambiguous that if there is no respiration at the nostrils, it is forbidden to clear away any more rubble. The Gemara forbids clearing away any more rubble, and yet every single Posek would say that this is mandatory!

This is significant on several fronts. First of all, it refutes those who say that Chazal never erred in science. Second, it refutes those who say that even if they did err in science, it is forbidden to change the halachah. Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer claimed that "we are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings," and approvingly cited Rav Aharon Soloveitchik that he would have put Rav Yitzchok Lampronti in cherem (!) for saying that halachos based on belief in spontaneous generation should be changed. There are others who take a less aggressive line, but still maintain that, following the Chazon Ish's concept of "law being established in the Talmudic Era," any halachos established by Chazal cannot be changed. But the fact that we clear away the rubble to do CPR shows otherwise.

At this point I was wondering not only why this hadn't occurred to me beforehand, but also whether it had occurred to anyone else - and if not, then perhaps I was missing something! Fortunately I eventually came across a reference to this exact point in R. Nuriyeh Gutel's Hishtanut HaTevi'im, p. 77. He quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as saying that Talmudic prohibitions against violating Shabbos in an attempt to save someone who is not breathing, no longer apply now that we know how to save such people via CPR. And he notes that this specifically means that the Gemara's ruling about not clearing any more rubble does not apply.

Furthermore, this case arguably shows that Poskim today - even those who rely on respiratory death - are not following Chazal's exegesis. Chazal understood the passuk to mean that respiration equals life, and lack of respiration equals death. But these Poskim are understanding the passuk to mean instead that permanent lack of respiration means death. (This point can, however, be debated. But I think it's valid.) R. Gutel quotes Rav Shaul Yisraeli as pointing out that this means that our determination of the moment of death itself has changed since Chazal, with various other potential halachic ramifications. Chazal ruled that as soon as a person has stopped breathing, he has died. All Poskim today, on the other hand, rule that a person has not yet died until the period in which CPR is possible has elapsed.

Now, of course you can say that if Chazal would have known that pushing the chest can restart respiration, they would have interpreted the passuk differently and certainly they would have ruled differently. But, once you are going down that path, then you have to wonder what Chazal would have said differently had they understood the role of the brain and lived in a world where brain-dead people can have their heart and lungs maintained in operation for a while. Likewise, you have to wonder what we should infer from Chazal's words in light of their not having known those facts and not having lived in such a world.

So there's a can of worms which has, by virtue of the rubble-case, already been opened.

(On a different note - next Sunday I will be in New York, and I currently have no plans for that day. If anyone is interested in hosting a Rationalist Judaism get-together, and can arrange transportation for me - I'll be in Woodmere - please be in touch!)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is a Human?

There are some tremendously important statements by the Rishonim concerning the creation of man, which have ramifications both for reconciling evolution with Torah, and for the brain-death debate.

The fundamental question is: What is a human? This can be addressed with other questions: What differentiates a human from animals? At which point in the Torah's account of the creation of man does he become human? What is animal life, and what is human life?

The ramifications of this for reconciling evolution with Torah are obvious. But there are also ramifications for the brain-death debate. Dr. Noam Stadlan and others have made an excellent case for saying that a brain-dead person is not alive at all - not even to the extent that an animal is alive. But even if one considers that a brain-dead person is alive, is that which remains considered a human life? Can there be life in a human body, without it being considered human life?

This, to my mind, will get us to an authentic, tradition-based Jewish approach to brain-death, much more than making inferences from the Gemara about victims of collapsed buildings. Nishtaneh hateva - the difference between the medical possibilities - means that we cannot possibly deduce that when Chazal told us to check for breathing in a body, they meant to say that brain-death is not death. After all, given the medical possibilities available to Chazal, what else could they possibly have said?

To deduce the view of Chazal and the Rishonim regarding the modern reality of people that are brain-dead and yet with a beating heart and lungs, we should look instead at their views on what it means to have an animal life, and especially what it means to have human life. I have only started thinking about it from this angle, and I haven't yet reached any conclusions - but I can already see that the results of tackling it this way will be very interesting. To be continued next week!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What the Firmament Really Is

With apologies for how long it took to get to this post!

The story so far
: A few months ago, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a solid dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

Then, I pointed out that Chazal's belief in a firmament was not merely of halachic interest to them, but was also how they interpreted the Torah itself, in its mention of the rakia and Shamayim. In a follow-up post, I brought a number of sources which elaborated upon Chazal's view of the firmament, as well as showing how they derived these ideas from the pesukim. For example:

Rabbi Yudeh ben Pazi said: ["Let there be a rakia" means] "Let the rakia become like a cloth." This is just as it is said, "They flattened out (וירקעו) sheets of gold" (Shemos 39:3).

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The thickness of the firmament is as the width of two fingers. But the words of Rabbi Chanina dispute this, as Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: It says, "Can you help Him tarkia the heavens, firm as a mirror of cast metal?" (Iyov 37:18) - Tarkia means that they were made as a thin sheet of metal (i.e. less than the width of two fingers). I might think that they are not strong - therefore it teaches us, "firm"; I might think that they sag with time, therefore it teaches us "like a mirror of cast metal" - that every moment they appear as freshly cast.

Rabbi Yochanan says: Ordinarily, when a person stretches out a tent, it sags after time; but here, "He stretched [the heavens], like a tent in which to dwell" (Yeshayah 40:22), and it is written "firm" (Iyov ibid.) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Ordinarily, when a person casts vessels, they eventually rust; but here, "like a mirror of cast metal" - that at every moment, they appear as freshly cast (i.e. as beautiful as when originally made).

Now, all this was deeply problematic for those who oppose the belief in the universe developing over billions of years and evolution due to these notions going against Jewish tradition. For aside from the fact that Jewish rationalist tradition was clearly to interpret Genesis in such a way that we do not need to deny scientific facts, the topic of the rakia presented another argument: That even these staunch traditionalists are going against Jewish tradition in their acceptance that there is no firmament and that Chazal's and the Rishonim's view of the rakia was incorrect.

Their response was to claim that there was no mesorah about the nature of the firmament. Rather, different figures amongst Chazal had different ideas, based on some sort of combination of science and their understanding of Torah, but there was no mesorah about it. In another post, I showed how this was wrong; there was an unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament - that is to say, a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substantial matter (i.e. not air or space), on the surface of which the sun travels, and which obscures the sun when it passes behind it. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע.

And now for the climax: What actually is the rakia?

The answer is that Chazal were absolutely correct. Unlike the anti-rationalists, who (ironically) take the position that Chazal did not know how to learn Tenach and were interpreting the pesukim incorrectly based on mistaken speculation, I think that Chazal were absolutely correct in their interpretation of the pesukim. The etymology of rakia reveals that it clearly refers to a flattened, solid surface. The pesukim in Iyov 37:18 and Yeshayah 40:22 are likewise unequivocal. The Rishonim who defined the etymology of the word rakia, such as Radak and Ibn Janach, also explain it in this way. Finally, I strongly recommend that people read the definite study on this topic which can be freely downloaded, Paul Seely: "The Firmament and the Water Above Part I: The Meaning of raqiaà in Gen 1:6-8," from the Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991) 227-240.

As to how to reconcile this with the fact that there is no dome - this is exactly the same challenge as the Scriptural descriptions of the kidneys and heart housing a person's mind, of the dew descending from the heavens, and of the universe developing over six days. The solution is to say that "the Torah speaks as in the language of men," according to how that principle was explained by certain authorities. This approach is not without its own difficulties, but it is necessary and it can be understood in different ways. A full explanation can be found at the end of my monograph on the kidneys. Meanwhile, here is a brief quote from Rav Hirsch:

Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)

Elsewhere, Rav Hirsch explicitly notes that although there is no actual solid layer surrounding the earth that could be called a firmament, Scripture nevertheless uses that term because that is how the sky appears to man; as a dome over and around the earth (Commentary to Genesis 1:6; cf. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his note to the phrase u’vokeya chalonei rakia in Siddur Otzar HaTefillos p. 672, and Maharzav to Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 6:8).

I have no doubt that many people will insist that the word rakia can be understood in a scientifically accurate manner. But as far as I am concerned, they are simply not evaluating the text honestly, due to their religious convictions that nothing in Tenach can be scientifically inaccurate. I discussed this in my post "Modern Orthodox Charedim." I will conclude with a quote from Rav Kook:

It is already adequately known that prophecy takes its metaphors to guide mankind according to that which was then well-known in the language of men at that time, to direct the ear according to that which it is able to hear in its time… The intellectual truths of the depths of Torah are elevated and exalted far beyond these; the human illustrations—whatever they may be—with regard to the nature of existence, certainly also have a particular path in the ethical development of mankind… in each generation, according to his way of framing things, which constantly changes. (R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Adar HaYekar, pp. 37-38)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Upside-Down World

The following mind-boggling story appeared on Bechadrei Chadarim, and was reported and translated on the Daas Torah blog:

The Voice is the Voice of Yaakov - Gathering with the Rav.

After a long absence, Rabbi Leib Tropper arrived in Israel. He got chizuk (encouragement) from Gedolei Yisroel and met with tens of alumni of Yeshiva 'Kol Yaakov'. Photographer Yosi Pormansky

By Shmuel Klein.


[Photo: Rabbi Tropper lectures]

Tens of people gathered motzei Shabbos Shira in a bais medrash in the Bucharan section Jerusalem with the founder of yeshiva 'Kol Yaakov' Monsey, Rabbi Leib Tropper from New York.

It's hard to believe that all the participants at the event, bnai Torah in full, are baalei teshuva. One was a doctor, another a sportsman - and so on. All had been far from Torah and mitzvos. Until they got to yeshiva 'Kol Yaakov', where their Jewish spark was ignited.

Two events brought Rabbi Tropper to visit Israel: He came to visit the fresh grave of his father Rabbi Yehuda Tropper z"l who died about two months ago and upon the completion and publication of the sefer [book] of the 'Taharas Yisroel' with the added commentaries of Rabbi Tropper.

Rabbi Lipa Yisraelzon, grandson of Rav Elyashiv, affirmed before the students, as one who has accompanied Rabbi Tropper on his Israel trip, on the warm connections he has merited in the homes of Gedolei Yisroel.

So, on his trip, Rabbi Tropper came to the homes of Gedolei Yisroel. Aside from the Halachic questions that he placed before Gedolei Yisroel, he received their blessings for his holy work.

At the main lecture Rabbi Tropper conveyed, that he expanded the importance of prayer as preparation for greeting our righteous Moshiach.

Putting this together with some other recent stories, the following picture emerges:

- You can have a history of manipulation and arayos, culminating in using your power in gerus (attained by bribing Roshei Yeshivah) to bribe/blackmail potential converts into sexual perversion which is then exposed on the Internet in perhaps the greatest chilul Hashem of all time, but still be showered with praise and blessings from the Gedolim;

- You can lead a cult of physical child abuse resulting in one child being put in a coma for life, but by virtue of your being a marbitz Torah the Gedolim will attest that you are righteous and innocent;

- You can be convicted of terrible sexual abuse against your children, but the Gedolim will visit you in prison to give you chizzuk and declare you innocent of all charges;

- You can molest hundreds of children over decades, but the Gedolim will not publicly name you and shame you;

But, on the other hand - if you write books presenting the rationalist views of the Rishonim, if you write the historical truth about Rav Aharon Kotler, or if you throw a concert of modern-style Jewish music in Madison Square Gardens - the Gedolim will publicly condemn you in the harshest way!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Methodologies for Interpreting Chazal

When Chazal make a statement, how do we know whether to interpret it literally or allegorically? I would like to describe different methodologies, with reference to the Gemara's statement that the kidneys give counsel, presenting four different approached. I will begin with my own methodology (which I shall call "Approach #1"), which involves asking three questions:

1) What light does the textual context shed upon it?

In the case of the kidneys, the surrounding statements about the function of the tongue, mouth, esophagus, windpipe and so on, are all literally true. This means that, absent overwhelming evidence otherwise, the description of the liver causing anger and the kidneys giving counsel is also intended literally.

2) What light does the historical context shed upon it?

Some people assume that if Chazal's statement is obviously incorrect at a literal level, then it must have been intended allegorically. Yet the question to ask is not whether it appears incorrect to us, but rather if it would have appeared correct back then. Now, we know that in Aristotle's view and other prevalent views in the ancient world, all thoughts and emotions were thought to take place in one's heart, kidneys and liver. Thus, when Chazal make such statements, they were presumably speaking literally - especially since people at that time would naturally interpret Chazal literally, and Chazal would surely not have been deliberately misleading them.

3) How do the Rishonim interpret it?

In general, the Rishonim were closer to Chazal's cultural worldview than were the Acharonim. Furthermore, they were not biased by an attempt to make Chazal conform with modern science - since modern science did not exist yet. So I place far greater weight on the interpretation given by the Rishonim than on that given by the Acharonim. (Incidentally, the Rishonim themselves, in deciding when to interpret Chazal literally and when to interpret them allegorically, were probably using the first factor that I discussed, as well as being influenced by the second.) In the case of the kidneys, the Rishonim all interpret Chazal literally - although Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who had already accepted Galen's discovery that the brain is used for thought, had to make a curious hybrid of Chazal and Galen, in which thought begins in the brain but is "actualized" in the heart and kidneys, which send instructions to the rest of the body.

Now, let us turn to the approach of those who interpret Chazal allegorically. The case of the kidneys is particularly interesting, since there are two ways of interpreting it non-literally: that it literally refers to the kidneys, but does not literally mean that they give counsel; or that it literally means that something give counsel, but does not literally refer to the kidneys.

The former approach (Approach #2) argues that, of course, Chazal were literally talking about the kidneys, just as they were literally talking about the tongue, mouth, esophagus and windpipe. But, of course, Chazal did not literally mean that the kidneys advise the heart on what to do; what they meant is that the kidneys filter the urine, or that the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys can affect serotonin in the brain which causes depression, or some other such minor function. (Those who adopt this approach do not explain why the Gemara is so misleading, why it omits any mention of the brain, why it says that the right kidney gives good counsel and the left kidney gives negative counsel, and what Scripture means when it says that God judges a person by examining his heart and kidneys rather than his brain.)

The latter approach (Approach #3) argues that of course Chazal are talking about actually giving good and evil counsel from which a person much choose, but of course Chazal were not actually talking about the kidneys, which do no such thing; rather, they were obviously talking about a spiritual component of man's soul which is merely allegorically described as being the "kidneys." (Those who adopt this approach do not explain why the Gemara is so misleading and misled all the Rishonim, nor do they give any reason as to how we actually know that the Gemara is referring to "spiritual kidneys.")

Then, of course, there are those who insist that Chazal were speaking entirely literally, and that they are actually correct. (This is really just a variation on Approach #1, but I shall number it approach #4 for convenience). This was the approach of many Rishonim, and also of certain Acharonim and recent figures (such as Chida, notwithstanding Rabbi Bechoffer's absurd reinterpretation of Chida).

What methodology lies behind these latter three approaches? What techniques do they use to determine when Chazal are speaking literally, and when they are speaking allegorically - and which components of their statements are literal, and which are allegorical? Simple. They use whichever interpretation gives the desired result: That Chazal are correct. If they feel that science supports Chazal, then they say that Chazal were speaking literally. If they feel that science partially supports Chazal, then they interpret Chazal's statement about "giving counsel" figuratively. And if they feel that science does not at all support Chazal, then they say that Chazal were "of course" not literally referring to the kidneys at all.

How do I know that this is their technique? Well, first of all, it's just obvious. This is exactly why, when I agreed to debate Isaac Betech about the scientific accuracy of Chazal's statements, I insisted that he first discuss the methodology for determining when Chazal are speaking literally, and when they are speaking allegorically. Needless to say, the debate did not materialize.

Second of all, it can be demonstrated by the fluid ease with which they slip from one approach to another, the way in which they are enthusiastic about all the other approaches apart from Approach #1, and the way in which they reinterpret earlier approaches. Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer (RYGB) gives some superb illustrations of this. He claims that Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya are actually saying that the kidneys and innards merely transfer information from the brain. This despite their clear words that, although thought is conceived in the brain, the kidneys and innards are actually responsible for the machshavah of a person's actions, for the actualization of these thoughts. And as for the Gemara's statement that the kidneys give counsel - RYGB makes an incomprehensible statement about Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya not referring to this Gemara. And as for the scientific inaccuracy of saying that the kidneys transfer thought from the brain, and its incompatibility with the Scriptural accounts of God judging a person by examining his heart and kidneys - RYGB suggests that it is supported by the idea of the adrenal glands affecting serotonin levels! RYGB likewise claims that the Chida is talking about the adrenal glands affecting serotonin, even though the Chida plainly understands that the heart and kidneys are actually determining a person's actions in general. And he finds the approach of R. Yekusiel Kamelhar credible - a recent apologist whose approach is to say that the Gemara is allegorically referring to the "spiritual kidneys," which are so named because just as the actual kidneys serve "good eitzah" by filtering urine, so too the spiritual kidneys give good counsel (and bad counsel too, but this is not reflected in the nimshal, for unexplained reasons). RYGB seems to like all of these approaches, and only strongly protests my own approach, based on the careful three-stage analysis above, which he deems "flippant." In other words, he has no methodology at all - he just likes whatever approach will give the desired result of Chazal being correct.

There's a description of that: it's called "intellectual dishonesty." Now, I really don't get offended by people engaging in intellectual dishonesty. And I don't get my kicks by putting people down. But what irks me no end is when they use that as a podium from which to condemn others.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Seriously and Literally.

Several weeks back, I received an email from a prominent scholar. He sent me this link, with the following note:

Is this guy Betech insane? I am asking the question seriously.

Yesterday, a different person, in response to the discussion at this link, sent me the following note:

I am beginning to suspect that Dr. Ostroff is literally (and I use the word "literally" in its literal sense) mentally ill.

It's quite painful to wade through the linked discussions, but those who are willing to torture themselves may find it interesting. The parallels between Isaac Betech and Jonathan Ostroff are quite remarkable. It's not about weird beliefs - after all, one person's weird belief is another person's obvious fact. Rather, it's about the way in which they are incapable of having a sane discussion. When challenged with a simple question, they constantly change the subject to their favorite topic, like a broken record, and yet they claim that they have answered the objection. It's hard to describe; you have to read it to believe it.

But unlike my correspondents, I don't think that this is actually a clinical condition that's somewhere in the DSM-IV. I think it's just a very extreme case of cognitive dissonance - the same condition that makes Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer claim that when Rabbeinu Bechaya describes the kidneys as tools of etzah (which are therefore responsible for sin), this has absolutely nothing to do with the Gemara saying that the kidneys give etzah.

I'd be interested to hear any insights into such people and how to deal with them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New York Lectures for the Public

On Sunday, February 13th I will be speaking at the Bridge Shul in Washington Heights:

4pm (Real time, not Jewish time): How to Become a Heretic: Defining the Boundaries of Faith
5.10pm Mincha-Maariv
5.45pm Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions
Entrance donation: $10 for one presentation, $15 for both.

The previous Sunday, February 6th, is the Superbowl. As an Englishman I'm not even sure what that is, but apparently it is something of great importance to Americans which prevents me from giving a lecture that evening. However I am open to giving lectures in the morning or afternoon. If someone is interested in arranging it, please email me at Alternatively, I can arrange it myself for Queens or Brooklyn, if someone wants to be my driver for the afternoon (I will be staying in Woodmere).

One more thing - if there are any reptile enthusiasts living in the Teaneck region, please be in touch!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rambam on Man in the Garden of Eden

I've decided to release my notes on Rambam's understanding of the story of Man in the Garden of Eden. (Note: it's not as polished as my usual writing.) It's valuable not only in terms of understanding Rambam's view of this topic, and how he approached it in a thoroughly non-literal manner, but also for how to approach the Guide to the Perplexed in general. When reading the notes, observe how it is only possible to deduce Rambam's view by studying his comments in several different parts of the Guide, and analyzing how they shed light on each other. (This is similar to how the subject of his comments about the mistaken belief in the sounds of the spheres only becomes clear in a different place in the Guide.) Note too how Greco-Muslim philosophy provides the framework for Rambam's discussion.

Download the notes at this link

Monday, January 17, 2011

Popular Misconceptions and My Mistake in Enabling Them

My perennial mistake, which was especially prominent in the current brain-death controversy, is to assume that if I write something carefully, people will read it carefully. I should not have been surprised that many people are strongly condemning what I wrote based on a careless reading of it - because this sort of thing has happened many times before. And I should not have considered it adequate to make important points once - if something is important, it should be repeated again and again and again. In this post I would like to highlight, address and dispel the most common misunderstandings of my approach and criticisms thereof. The examples of the misconceptions about my views are from comments on R. Maryles' blog and elsewhere.

1. Misconception: That I judge brain death as death

Example: "My main issue with his approach is that who says that the body's life does not have intrinsic spiritual value on its own even if one says the neshama has left and only a nefesh remains (since the nefesh is in the blood, and the blood is pumping, I assume it remains)? By allowing one to "kill" a brain-dead person, it is treating the human body without a mind as an animal."

What My Position Really Is: Indeed, it could well be that one may still not kill a nefesh without a neshamah (although I strongly suspect that Chazal and the Rishonim would judge otherwise). My point was not that brain death is death; it is that those who rule on the matter without considering the significance of Chazal's knowledge and options available have not performed a proper analysis.

2. Misconception: That I believe halachah to be necessarily based upon science

Example: "R. Slifkin's error lies in his apparent assumption that the halacha is based on scientific facts - or more correctly, on the conclusions scientists might draw from a given set of factual circumstances. To me, this assumption is rather unfounded, and is quite inconsistent with our notion of the halacha as a system of law - a system with its own internal logic and its own internal philosophical system for viewing the world and its phenomena."

What My Position Really Is: I have repeatedly stressed that halachah is often independent of the scientific reality, for a variety of reasons. One example is the laws of bishul, where it is possible to cook something and not transgress bishul, and it is also possible not to cook something and yet to transgress it. Even in the case of defining death, halachah is clearly not identical to science; as I pointed out, science defines bacteria as being alive, whereas halachah doesn't. But sometimes, the halachah is built upon a certain understanding of the natural world - such as Chazal's ruling that one does not transgress Shabbos to save the life of an 8-month fetus, because it is not viable, and their ruling that one may kill lice on Shabbos, because they spontaneously generate. I argued that Chazal's understanding of physiology, and all the more so the medical options available to them, are likely to have affected their rulings on this issue, and therefore those who analyze it without taking this possibility into account have not performed a proper analysis.

3. Misconception: That I believe halachah should change in response to our greater scientific knowledge - which leads to Conservative Judaism

Example: "the obvious conclusion of RNS's approach is the wholesale elimination of much of Hilchos Tereifos... this is the line between Orthodoxy and Conservatism"

What My Position Really Is: If RYGB wants to condemn this position as being Conservative, then it is others that he is labeling this way, not me. His claim that "we are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings" is a condemnation of many great Acharonim and modern Poskim, who do indeed believe that halachah should change in response to our greater scientific knowledge - with examples being those such as Rav Lampronti, who forbade killing lice on Shabbos for this reason (as does Rav Nissim Karelitz and Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg), and most Gedolim today,who forbid eating worms found in fish, against the Gemara. But unlike them, I personally do not believe that in general, our greater scientific knowledge warrants changing halachah. However, in cases of potential pikuach nefesh, virtually all Poskim do not rely on Chazal's formulations, but rather follow modern medicine - with the case of the 8-month fetus being a potent example of this. In fact, this case is much less problematic than that of the 8-month fetus. In that case, everyone simply overrides Chazal's formulation and effectively acknowledges it to be wrong. In this case, Chazal's formulation was absolutely correct, given the circumstances - if I went back in time 1500 years, and was checking signs of life in a body buried under rubble, I would also be looking to see if the person is breathing, not doing a scan of brain activity!

4. Misconception: That I am advocating working outside of the halachic system in this case.

What My Position Really Is:
We need to do the same in this case that we do in similar cases of medical halachah, such as with Chazal's ruling on the 7 vs. 8 month fetus. We look at Chazal's underlying value - in that case, that Shabbos is only transgressed for saving a life that is viable - and take into account that their particular application of that value may have been influenced by either their misunderstanding of fetal viability or the limited medical options available to them. So, too, here: Chazal's underlying values were the preservation of human life. But when considering their application of this value - their ruling that when checking a person buried under rubble, one checks his breathing (which some see as an indication of pulse), we must take into account the possibility that their particular application of that value may have been influenced by either their misunderstanding of physiology, or by the limited medical options available to them. Now, ignoring Chazal's application of their values is not the conventional way of following Chazal, which is why I don't believe that it should be done in the case of lice, or worms in fish - unlike many Poskim. But in cases of pikuach nefesh such as the 8-month fetus, this is the approach that most Poskim take.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Response to RYGB - UPDATED

Over at R. Harry Maryles' blog, he has posted a critique of my Summary on the brain-death issue by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhoffer (henceforth RYGB). It seems as though R. Maryles wasn't reading my posts too carefully; he describes my goal as defending R. Tendler, whereas in fact I was doing no such thing.

Basically, RYGB's criticism is the same as much of those that appeared during the ban, and reflects a point of view which is sharply different from that of many of the Rishonim - and quite a few Acharonim, too. Except that in the case of medical halachah, this sort of posturing is not only ignoring a dominant trend amongst the Rishonim, but is even ignoring common halachic practice. I quote:

We are accustomed to assume that Chazal are the final arbiters of Halachah regardless of whatever thought process under-girded their rulings.

So am I - but not in the case of medical halachah. And nor are any Poskim. We don't follow Chazal's ruling that Shabbos can only be violated for a 7 month fetus and not an 8 month fetus. We know that an 8 month fetus is more viable, not less viable. And in cases not relating to human life, I am actually more Chazal-oriented than many Poskim. I follow Rav Herzog that we should follow Chazal's ruling on lice; others, such as Rav Lampronti and Rav Nissim Karelitz, say that since this was based on mistaken beliefs that lice spontaneously generate, we should not kill lice on Shabbos (what does RYGB have to say about them?). And I am fully aware that halachah is sometimes independent of the scientific reality. But in a case where Chazal's understanding of physiology - and the medical possibilities available to them - did inform their halachah, with life-and-death consequences, virtually no Posek would ignore that.

We assume that those thought processes are those of human beings far greater than ourselves – of rishonim k'malachim – and are very reticent to second-guess them, ever.

Who's "we"? The chareidi world indeed professes to believe that; but as has been amply documented, many Rishonim and Acharonim held that in scientific matters, Chazal had no advantage. And when it comes to medical matters, few people really believe that Chazal knew more than us. Nishtaneh hateva is the euphemism employed to explain why we don't follow Chazal's suggestions for refuos - but no doctor will say that those refuos worked 1400 years ago, either. Nor were 8-month old fetuses less viable than 7-month old fetuses back then.

Rabbi Slifkin is quite bold in his assertions. He purports to know – and to tell us – when an aggadic legend intended to be understood metaphorically. And he informs us categorically that these prooftexts are (notwithstanding their Midrashic sourcing!) not metaphorical. But who designated my friend the arbiter of these matters? ...It is therefore curious that Rabbi Slifkin neglects to inform us of Rabbi Kamelhar's detailed explanation of the metaphorical meaning of the Gemara in Berachos...

RYGB is plainly unfamiliar with my monograph on the kidneys (and it is rather foolhardy of him to critique my summary without familiarizing himself with my full treatment of the topic). I am well aware that many recent rabbinic authorities interpreted the Talmudic account of the kidneys' function metaphorically; I cited several in my monograph. However, this was clearly an exercise in apologetics, motivated by the desire to maintain Chazal as being correct, rather than an honest assessment of what they really meant. As I pointed out in my monograph, the Rishonim - such as Ramban, Tashbatz, R. Yehudah HaLevi, and various talmidim of Rashba - were very clear that Chazal were speaking literally. So were many early Acharonim. There are no Rishonim (that I could find) who explain Chazal allegorically. Furthermore, the context of Chazal's statement indicates that it was intended literally, as does the fact that it is identical to the standard beliefs of their time and place. So who has more credibility - the Rishonim, or the late Acharonim who clearly just wanted to make Chazal look correct? On what basis does Rabbi Bechhoffer dismiss the Rishonim as being a less reliable (or unreliable - he doesn't even quote them) interpretation of Chazal?

At the very least, it is intellectually dishonest to not disclose that one's position is by no means definitive.

In my monograph, I discussed all the different interpretations that I found, and explained why I felt that the view of the Rishonim was far more credible. I look forward to RYGB publicly criticizing those who only cite the views that Chazal were infallible (or allegorical) and ignore all the Rishonim and Acharonim who say otherwise. Come on, RYGB: let's have a public statement about whether Gedolim such as Rav Moshe Shapiro are intellectually honest.

RYGB criticizes me for making a judgment on such a serious matter as brain death based on one particular interpretation of Chazal and not acknowledging other views. In fact, I explicitly discussed the other views, and explained my reasons for rejecting them. On the other hand, the Poskim who have ruled against brain death (and even those who accepted it) did not acknowledge the literalist interpretation of Chazal by the Rishonim and early Acharonim, and they did not explore its ramifications for this topic. I did not issue a formal ruling on brain death; I merely pointed out that those who do, must take into account the potential implications for this topic of Chazal's view of physiology and the medical options available to them, just as we do in other topics of medical halachah (and as some do even in non-medical matters). RYGB would apparently prefer instead that poskim completely ignore the potential implications of Chazal's view of physiology and the medical options available to them! RYGB's description of me is most apt for the Poskim he prefers:

To respond that one has not done the research is even more inexcusable... they have built a house of cards upon which they continue to be dan dinei nefashos.

I will finish off with a comment on RYGB's post by a friend of mine, R. Joseph Faith, which appeared on R. Maryles's blog - it is slightly edited here, but less so than there!

Sorry, but this post is logically problematic. We DO override Chazal in this very case - when we perform CPR on someone we find under a pile of rocks on Shabbos, when Chazal say that you leave such a person for dead! We override Chazal when we are mechalel Shabbos for an eight month old baby. According to this post's approach we should seemingly do neither.

Chazal's science is actually in many respects less sophisticated that the best science of their day, which was being done in the Greco-Roman world. Not only that, but the Yerushalmi shows clear evidence of (limited) familiarity with Greco-Roman scientific concepts, whilst the Bavli shows clear influence of Akkadian/Persian medical traditions. I struggle to understand R. Bechoffer's contention that this should not impact the halachic process at all - clearly halachic means have to be found in this case, but they have been found in other cases (such as the 8-month old baby).

Circulation was not generally understood until AFTER the Shulchan Aruch was published, we should remember to read the sources quoted by Rabbi Bechoffer and others in their historical contexts.

And here is a comment that I received from Rabbi Dr. RMH (Rationalist Medical Halachist):

I have said whatever I wanted to about this issue, and I have no strength right now to join this debate between R Slifkin and RYGB. However, R' Slifkin and I have been corresponding quite a bit, and I must say that I have been at least partly responsible for his taking on this matter in his blog. This is a very important issue, and I think RYGB was off the mark for many reasons.

#1 the attempt to explain the Gemara like Rav Kamelhar in HaTalmud Umadaey hatevel (HTUH) (and numerous similar attempt to explain chazal according to modern science) has been discussed so many times in this debate and reviewed so many times by RNS and the others, that I find it quite surprising that RYGB feels that this approach is ignored by RNS. The fact is, that further attempts to squash chazal into modern scientific understanding are becoming more and more untenable by the hour as science advances. A much more reasonable approach to this problem is the approach of RNS. If RYGB wants to disagree with this approach, that is his right, but to claim that RNS is disingenuous in not quoting HTUH this time relating to brain death is really kind of ignoring the volumes upon volumes of articles that RNS has already written on the subject. The same applies to the quote from the Chassam Sofer. The metaphorical vs. literal understanding of Chazal has been the subject of so much debate ad nauseum that I think RNS has said enough. He is only "guilty" of applying his consistent approach to the topic of brain death. If you want to disagree with him, fine, but to start throwing around the old stuff again about metaphorical vs literal, and did chazal know vs didn't they know yada yada? Those lines in the sand have already been drawn years ago when the RNS debacle broke loose. Now RYGB has found two more sources that he happened not to mention this time? what exactly is that going to accomplish?

RYGB writes: "Thus, it is untenable to assert – unilaterally and unequivocally! – on the basis of such questionable sources that Chazal believed in a certain medical system and that their positions are hence faulty."

I will assert just that, and I spent a month writing up those assertions in my blog. Ayein sham. Is it that "untenable" to say that chazal believed in the same medical system that everyone else did in those days, especially when repeatedly throughout shas they voice those very same beliefs? I don't believe so. If you would like to assume that Chazal knew the double helical structure of DNA and that thoughts occur in the brain, that is your right, but to claim that what they actually said is the same as what they actually believed is untenable? I'm sorry, the burden of proof lies on the one who wants to claim that they meant something else other than what they said.

RYGB also writes, "There is no definite evidence that Chazal believed that the heart and kidneys house the mind." I would refer RYGB to the seminal Teshuvah of the Chacham Tzvi #77 where he traces in page after page after page hundreds of sources in Chazal and the Rishonim and early Acharonim in excruciating detail how Chazal were of the belief that life and thought come from the heart. He also quotes in excruciating detail the medical theories of Aristotle and Galen that Chazal were based upon. The Chacham Tzvi does a much better job than I can on this matter. If that is not evidence enough, I don't think anything would ever be enough. Incidentally, the Kreisi Uplaysi dismisses the entire Chacham Tzvi by simply speaking to scientists at the University of Halle to find out the real function of the heart. With that, he slips every last word of the incredibly erudite rendition of the Chacham Tzvi under the carpet. he just says that all that stuff about the heart was just plain wrong, as proven by William Harvey (who discovered the true function of the heart and circulation in the mid 17th century). I quote the exact sources in my blog, ayen sham.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Summary of the Life/Death Issue

This is an attempt to sharpen and summarize the posts of the last few days regarding determining life and death, as well as adding some new insights. I want to convert this into an article for publication, so if people can contribute suggestions of how to sharpen it even more, that would be helpful. I will be constantly refining this post based on the feedback in the comments.

The overall point of this discussion is to show that Chazal's views and rulings on life and death were fundamentally related both to the mistaken beliefs of the era about physiology as well as the limited medical possibilities. Thus, any halachic analysis of this topic must take this into account in order to be valid. Furthermore, our own understanding of physiology, together with the medical possibilities available to us, mean that brain death should be defined as halachic death.

1. Chazal believed that the heart and kidneys are the seat of the mind and free will.

At least some of Chazal - probably most or all - believed that the heart and kidneys are used as the mind and for making decisions (free will). Prooftexts are as follows:

The Rabbis taught: The kidneys advise, the heart considers, the tongue articulates, the mouth finishes, the esophagus brings in all kinds of food, the windpipe gives sound, the lungs absorb all kinds of fluids, the liver causes anger, the gallbladder secretes a drop into it and calms it, the spleen laughs, the gizzard grinds, the stomach [causes] sleep, the nose [causes] wakefulness. (Berachos 61a; similarly in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 4:4)

This is not an aggadic legend intended to be understood metaphorically. The descriptions of the functions of the tongue, mouth, esophagus, windpipe, lungs, stomach and nose are all clearly scientific descriptions intended to be interpreted literally. The account of the liver causing anger is also consistent with standard belief in the ancient world. Thus, the account of the function of the kidneys and heart are thus also clearly intended to be literal descriptions - and there is no important role ascribed to the brain. This, too, is consistent with standard Aristotelian belief in the ancient world. The Rishonim and Acharonim agree that Chazal were speaking literally, as discussed in my monograph, The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel. Elsewhere, the Gemara relates halachos pertaining to the kidneys of animal offerings to the kidneys' function in man of providing counsel. Other Midrashim likewise echo this understanding of the role of the various organs:

" 'And God said to Moshe: Pharaoh's heart has become heavy (kaveid)' - He was angry. Just as the liver is angry, so too the heart of this one became a liver (kaveid), without understanding, as a fool. (Midrash Shemos Rabbah)

"That is to say, the heart of Pharaoh was turned into a liver (kaveid) -- just as a liver has no understanding to understand and comprehend, so too there was no understanding in his heart to understand and comprehend. Therefore, his heart was hardened and was stubborn for him." (Midrash Lekach Tov)
Like everyone else in the ancient world, Chazal thus likewise interpreted all Scriptural references to the heart (which most people today take as referring to the mind and thus the brain) literally. Scriptural references to the heart having various emotional states, to it housing wisdom and cognition, and to God judging a person based on examining his heart and kidneys, were all taken literally by Chazal.

2. Chazal were mistaken in this regard.

That should be self-evident. We now know that it is the brain that is used for all cognitive processes and for making decisions. The heart and kidneys have no such role. In fact, the heart can be replaced by an artificial pump, and the kidneys can be replaced by a dialysis machine. Doing this does not impair a person's mind in any detectable, significant way.

3. There is a fundamental connection between the mind/ free will, the soul, and the presence of a live person - and thus the mistaken belief that the heart and kidneys house the mind has fundamental ramifications on the question of determining death.

This is the part that some people were disputing. So I will explain it as clearly as possible, incorporating Dr. Stadlan's valuable observations.

The word "soul" is a vague term that has been interpreted differently by various figures over the ages. Some identified it as the intellect, some as consciousness, and some as a kind of metaphysical entity. The first two clearly relate to the mind. The third is essentially unspecified and incomprehensible, but as best as we can ascertain, it fundamentally relates to the mind, which is after all the part of us which absorbs Torah, exercises free will, and guides our actions. Jewish tradition has always maintained that the soul is involved in free will, and acquiring knowledge of God and Torah. Everyone agrees that these functions are accomplished in the brain. If one wants to claim that there are other aspects to the soul, which are housed elsewhere in the body, then what are they? Thus, as best as we can determine, the soul is housed in the mind. And the presence of a soul is certainly linked to the idea of an alive human being. Thus, not only is a functioning human brain the home of the mind, but if we are going to use the concept of the soul, then both the mind and the soul are housed in the brain.

There is further evidence that the soul is not housed elsewhere. The possibility of transplants and artificial organs sheds much light on the fundamental connection between the mind/ free will, the soul, and the presence of a live human being. In all such cases there are no halachic ramifications, such as murder, or transferring financial or other obligations from donor to recipient. One can replace someone's arm with a prosthetic, without being guilty of murder, and without changing the person's halachic status in any way. Clearly, then, the arm does not determine the presence of a person or of a soul. The same goes for many other body organs. Most significantly, one can do so with a heart. There are artificial hearts which have been successfully used for extended periods. Nobody would say that replacing someone's heart with an artificial heart means that you have killed them. This is further evidence that the soul resides in the mind - the one organ that cannot be replaced by an artifical substitute.

As Dr. Noam Stadlan points out, further evidence that the soul is housed in the brain comes from consideration of conjoined twins. "The only time halakhah or modern society even considers whether one or two humans have been born is when the newborn has more than one head. The duplication of every other organ (including the heart) does not raise any question of multiple identities or souls. Therefore, it appears that the universally accepted halakhah regarding issues of organ removal, substitution and transplantation, consciously or not, is based on the brain, and only the brain, being the seat of the soul."

We have to determine, which organ is it that fundamentally defines the presence of a person? Clearly it is the organ which houses the mind and thus the soul. Whichever organ that is, the presence and functioning of that organ will be the fundamental determinant of life. If the heart houses the mind, as Chazal thought, then if the heart is still beating, the person is still alive; if it stops, he is dead. But if it is the brain which houses the mind, then a person dies at brain death. Chazal lived in a world where a person's mind and soul were mistakenly thought to be housed in the heart and to thus be measured via a pulse and respiration, rather than to be housed in the brain, and thus to be measured via neural activity.

Now, it's certainly theoretically possible that there are additional factors which mean that a person is still rated as alive while the heart is beating. But nobody has proposed what they might be, or offered reason to believe that such factors even exist. Furthermore, since it is clear that a mistaken belief that the heart houses the mind would certainly cause one to define death based on the pulse and respiration, we know that Chazal's definition would have been, at least in part, based on an error.

We thus need to re-evaluate the determinant of death based on modern knowledge, rather than solely deducing it from Chazal. We know that a functioning human brain is the home of the mind, and it is the sole organ that needs to be present and cannot be replaced by an artificial substitute. For both of these reasons, we can deduce that the brain is the home of the soul and the sole determinant of life.

4. Even aside from all the above, the fact that maintaining a brain-dead person's circulation and respiration was impossible in Chazal's time, means that drawing inferences to today from Chazal's statements and rulings is fundamentally in error.

If Chazal say that a person is considered alive as long as he is breathing or has a heartbeat, it has to be taken into account that in their day, this was certainly the case, and there are no ramifications for how brain death is rated. Even with someone who considers brain death to be death, if he were to go back in time to Chazal's era and were to forget how to do CPR, he would agree that life and death, in that time, depends on pulse and respiration! So we cannot draw inferences from Chazal's statements about gauging life, which were entirely reasonable for their era, to the modern era.

To put it another way; even if Chazal were to theoretically have known about brain death and rated it as death, they would not have expressed their rulings any differently. So we cannot infer from their words that they did not rate brain death as death.

5. The problems involved in diverging from Chazal and reassessing the halachah are serious, but they have already been overcome in other contexts.

It's no small matter to re-evaluate halachah based on modern science. Some people justly fear that it means sliding towards Conservative Judaism. I myself follow Rav Herzog that in general, canonized halachah in the Talmud should not be changed even if based on scientific error, such as with Chazal's license to kill lice on Shabbos due to their mistaken belief that lice spontaneously generate.

Yet others do indeed say that we should change halachah based on our increased knowledge of science - such as Rav Lampronti in the case of lice. And even Rav Nissim Karelitz and Rav Elyashiv say that one should be stringent due to Rav Lampronti's view (sources to follow this week).

But even according to Rav Herzog's approach, this case is very different from that of lice, for two reasons. One is that we are not necessarily undermining the Talmud at all. The Talmud does not say "brain death is not death"! Rather, it makes some statements about determining the condition of a person buried under rubble, and other such statements, which were perfectly valid given the medical possibilities of the era. It can thus be presented as a case of nishtaneh hateva without having to bring in Chazal's misunderstanding of physiology.

Another difference is that if we accept brain death as death, then organ donation is viable and lives can be saved. It is thus a matter of pikuach nefesh, which always overrides everything. The Talmud gives a formal ruling that one can transgress Shabbos to save the life of a 7-month fetus but not that of an 8-month fetus, because (in Chazal's view) only the former was viable. Forget nishtaneh hateva; this was never true. And nobody follows Chazal's ruling in this.

Finally, we see that virtually all the Poskim today are willing to diverge from following Chazal in cases where they recognize that Chazal were scientifically mistaken and especially in cases of life and death. Virtually nobody follows Chazal in ruling on kidney transplants. Nobody follows Chazal, as explained by Chasam Sofer, that a person who is not currently breathing will never breathe again and is considered dead - everyone would do CPR. And nobody follows Chazal that an 8-month fetus is not viable. It is always presented in a (sometimes intellectually dishonest) way that avoids the idea that we are undermining Chazal, such as by invoking "nishtaneh hateva" even where that is clearly not the case. The same can be done here - and in fact, this really is a case of nishtaneh hateva - of medical possibilities.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dismissing Rashi, Undermining the Chasam Sofer

The poskim who discuss brain death analyze such sources as Rashi's commentary to the Gemara in order to reach their conclusions.

I'm not going to bother discussing Rashi's view, because he wasn't aware of the correct scientific reality as discovered by modern science.

Now, many people reading that last sentence will see it as further evidence of my unacceptable approach. How could I have the audacity to dismiss Rashi? Rashi was written with ruach hakodesh!

But that sentence in bold is not mine. It was the statement of no less an authority than the Chasam Sofer, discussing Rashi's commentary on a different matter relating to physiology:

"What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna - even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this." (Chasam Sofer to Nidah 18a)

If Chasam Sofer recognized that we can't use Rashi's explanations if they are affected by his lack of medical knowledge, why can't Poskim today?

Even more ironic is that the Poskim also analyze the Chasam Sofer's statements about death in order to reach their conclusion. But Chasam Sofer also did not have the modern understanding of physiology, nor the modern possibilities for maintaining organs and physiological systems.

Now, some will immediately point to the statement of Chasam Sofer rejecting any alternative to the Gemara's rule of declaring death based upon the absence of respiration. He claims that this must have been based on the superior scientific knowledge of the ancients and/or on Scripture. As Chasam Sofer famously stated:

"All the winds of the world will not move us from the standards established by our Torah." (Teshuvos Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 338)

Yet the fact is that nobody follows the Gemara's rule in this regard. According to the Gemara, if the person is not breathing, he is considered dead. That was a reasonable position for Chazal to take. But nowadays, we would do CPR! Some people attempt to argue that the Gemara is talking about someone who has irreversibly stopped breathing. But this is sticking a contemporary position into the Gemara - it's not what Chazal said or meant. Yes, if Chazal would have known about CPR, they would have formulated their ruling differently. But by the same token, if they would have known that the heart is nothing more than a blood-pumping organ, and that all cognitive action takes place in the brain, and that a brain-dead person can have his organs used to save others, they would have said many things differently.

Dismissing Rashi due to his lack of knowledge of anatomy? Chasam Sofer already did it. Undermining the Chasam Sofer's principle? Every posek has already done it. So why when it comes to brain death, all the Poskim - on both sides - are reaching their conclusions by analyzing the positions of Chazal, the Rishonim and Acharonim? Especially since when it comes to kidney donation, most Poskim freely ignore Chazal, where Chazal likewise based themselves on Scripture.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Two Distinct Problems with a Chazal-Based Determination of Death

In yesterday's post, I did not make it sufficiently clear that there are two distinct problems with applying the traditional style halachic approach, of drawing inferences from Chazal and Rishonim, to the topic of brain death.

One is that Chazal mistakenly believed the heart (together with the kidneys) to house the mind, and consequently, the soul. (I know that some people argued that the mind and soul are not necessarily seated in the same place. I think that they can quite definitively be proven wrong, but that is not the topic for now.) Chazal lived in a world where a person's mind and soul were mistakenly thought to relay their force and influence from the heart, via blood and breath, rather than from the brain, via neurons and nerves.

A second and distinct problem is that in Chazal's time, there was clearly no medical possibility of differentiating between the functioning of different organs and systems. Rabbi Breitowitz notes that in the ancient world there was no practical situation in which there was a differentiation between brain death and cardiac death. All vital systems - respiratory, circulatory, and neurological - would fail at approximately the same time, and there was no way of keeping one system going while another had failed. Thus, the failure of any one of them would be a satisfactory indicator of death. As such, any argument that the Gemara demonstrates Chazal to have conditioned death on a particular one of these systems is missing the point. As Dr. Noam Stadlan puts it:

The definition of life based on the presence of circulation achieved widespread acceptance both in halakhah and in the secular world at a time when the body could be considered an indivisible whole. This definition fails to yield logically cogent results in an age when the body is no longer seen and treated as an interdependent structure. It also conflicts with the halakhic definition of life that is applied in the cases of conjoined twins as well as decisions regarding transplantation.

Now, if you are of the view that Chazal's words on anything are sacrosanct, infallible and timeless, none of this is relevant. But if you are of that view, then you should also prohibit donating or receiving kidneys, which Chazal say provide counsel. Since pretty much nobody takes that approach, certainly not the RCA, then an analysis which does not take the aforementioned two factors into account is fundamentally flawed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Critical Ramifications of Correctly Identifying a Scientific-Halachic Issue

Continuing from yesterday's post, I would like to illustrate two applications of the need to correctly differentiate scientific-halachic issues from halachic issues, and of the fact that incorrect scientific data invalidates the halachic conclusion, to the extent that it is relevant, and barring overriding factors.

The first application is kidney transplants. As I noted in my monograph, The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, the famed Tzitz Eliezer and posek for Shaarei Tzeddek Medical Center, had severe reservations about the halachic permissibility/ advisability of kidney transplants. His reason was based on the clear and unequivocal position of the Gemara that the kidneys provide counsel to the heart; hence, there is a danger of the donor’s kidneys counseling the recipient in a harmful manner. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef discourages receiving kidneys from a non-Jew for this reason.

To most of the readers of this website, it will be clear that the kidneys do not in fact counsel us. Since the halachic rulings of Rav Waldenberg and Rav Ovadiah were based on this mistaken belief, they are therefore invalid. My presumption is that it is for this reason that in the RCA's recent document about organ transplants, it does not mention these views of Rav Waldenberg and Rav Ovadiah in the section on kidney donation.

Now let us turn to the most important application of this principle: brain death, and its resultant ramifications for organ donation. Most (but not all) of those who reach conclusions about the halachic status of brain death, whether for or against, do so by examining the words of Chazal and the Rishonim, from which they draw various inferences. This is the usual halachic procedure - but how is it valid in this case? Chazal had a very, very different understanding than us as to the nature of various aspects of the human body, and they lived in a world in which the medical possibilities were very different. They believed that a person's mind resides in his heart. This is undeniable to any reasonable, honest student; in the same way as the Rishonim and early Acharonim universally acknowledged that Chazal believed the kidneys to provide counsel, they believed the heart to house the mind - after, it is the very same section of the Gemara, discussing the functions of different parts of the body, which describes the heart as receiving the kidneys' counsel and making decisions. See too this fascinating post by R. Josh Waxman concerning the Midrash's explanation of kaveid lev Pharaoh - that his heart became like his liver. Chazal lived in a world where there was no such thing as heart transplants, but if there were, they would have said that the person's identity is transferred with the heart. Chazal lived in a world where circulation was an excellent and sufficient indicator of life, but we live in a world where you can have blood circulation in a person who is quite definitely dead according to all views. Chazal lived in a world where a person's mind and soul were mistakenly thought to relay their force and influence from the heart, via blood and breath, rather than from the brain, via neurons and nerves. That sentence cannot be emphasized enough.

As a result, the very idea of drawing halachic conclusions about brain-death from Chazal's statements relating to life and death is just as mistaken as drawing halachic conclusions about kidney transplants from Chazal's statements about kidney function. Dr. Noam Stadlan said it best, in the second paragraph of a two-paragraph comment on the Hirhurim blog (I have highlighted the most important parts):

At least two shitot exist that have been “rationalized, squared and equated in any fashion with the criteria of death set forth in the Talmud, Rishonim and Acharonim“, namely 1. relying on the Gemara’s determination that the irreversible cessation of breathing, under the proper circumstances is the criterion for death (brainstem death, which is the position of the Chief Rabbinate) and 2. extending the Gemara’s discussion of decapitation, which is the physiological decapitation position. (There are actually others, such as the Rambam’s approach to human treifot where he relies on the medical determinations of the doctors of the time, and the position of Rav Azriel Rosenfeld (found in Tradition in the late 60-s early 70′s) where he states simply that the brain is the seat of the soul and absent a brain there is no life).

A different approach which I alluded to is to realize that the non-neurological circulation based definitions of death do not produce coherent results in this day and age, and in fact with modern techniques circulation is actually rarely irreversibly absent (as long as arteries are present circulation is a possibility). With this realization, it is necessary to go back and try to understand not the details of the positions of the Rishonim and Acharonim, because the details no longer make sense, but the underlying rationale and concept of what it means to be alive or dead, and come to some conclusions with that in mind. For example, you would have to look at what Rashi wrote, and say to yourself, Rashi’s medical knowledge told him that when the heart stopped, everything else in the body ceased to function as well. Doctors told him that a stopped heart never restarted. Since these are no longer a true assumptions, what would Rashi say under these different conditions? Would he still have the same position? One hint is that it seems that most if not all of the poskim in the past used the science of their day (see Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman’s excellent article on the definition of death in the light of medical history).

Thus, the entire halachic section of the controversial RCA document on brain death and organ donation is fundamentally in error. Without mentioning any of the aspects that I pointed out, the document simply engages in the traditional approach of analyzing inferences from statements of Chazal and the Rishonim, and quoting Poskim who engaged in such a procedure. Yet this is no different from Rav Waldenberg deducing that kidney transplants are problematic since the Gemara says that the kidneys provide counsel. I understand that this is the halachic methodology in the charedi world (except when it is blatant to them that the science of Chazal is incorrect), but a centrist/modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, which accepts the Rishonic view that Chazal were not infallible in scientific matters, should incorporate the ramifications of that principle into our approach to this topic - just as Rav Yitzchak Lampronti and other halachic authorities incorporated it into their analysis of Chazal's ruling about killing lice on Shabbos, and just as the RCA itself would do regarding kidney transplants.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Scientific, Halachic, and Scientific-Halachic Issues

There are different types of issues that confront Orthodox Jews. In this post, I would like to launch a discussion of three categories of such issues.

1. Scientific Issues which I mean issues concerning physical reality. An example would be the topic of the age of the universe. The question of how to treat someone who believes that the universe is billions of years old may be a halachic issue. But the question of the age of the universe itself is clearly, and solely, a scientific issue. An anti-rationalist might insist that the universe is 5771 years old, but he is not denying that it is a scientific issue; rather, he believes that a literal reading of the Torah is a more reliable and authoritative source of information than modern science.

2. Halachic Issues

These are issues which do not involved any determinations about the physical world. An example would be the laws of lashon hara.

3. Scientific-Halachic Issues

These are halachic issues in which the halachic discussion is built upon certain determinations about the physical world. And this is the category that I want to discuss in detail.

One example would be the issue of killing creatures on Shabbos. It's not solely a scientific issue, because the scientific division of life from non-life is not relevant from a halachic standpoint; bacteria are alive from a scientific standpoint, but not from a halachic standpoint. On the other hand, it's not solely a halachic issue, since Chazal made the prohibition contingent on sexual reproduction, and science is used to determine which species reproduce sexually.

Now, here are the two crucial points:

1. It is important to correctly determine whether an issue is a halachic issue, a scientific issue, or a scientific-halachic issue. And the reason for this is as follows:

2. To the extent that a statement utilized in resolving a scientific-halachic issue is based upon a relevant misunderstanding of the physical reality, this undermines the innate validity of the halachic conclusions. This does not necessarily mean that the halachah should be changed; in my book Sacred Monsters, I explained Rav Herzog's view of why there are other reasons to uphold Chazal's ruling about lice, despite it being based upon mistaken science. But, absent such reasons, the halachic conclusions are invalid.

For example, the issue of using electricity on Shabbos or Yom Tov is a scientific-halachic issue. If someone were to make a ruling on this topic based upon a misunderstanding of what electricity is, this would undermine the ruling (to the extent that the misunderstanding is relevant).

Coming up next: A very important application of these principles.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pseudo-Scientific Muslim Fundamentalists at Bar-Ilan University

Bar-Ilan University, the second largest university in Israel, is a very fine institution. It has produced many outstanding scholars and academic publications, and has nearly 27,000 students. There is also a kollel and midrasha on campus.

On the Torah and science front, however, there have been some disturbing developments. Now, since Bar-Ilan has a strong religious component to it, I'm not expecting them to, say, host a conference on the Documentary Hypothesis at the kollel. But certain events are so antithetical to science and scholarship that one has to be distressed at their taking place. Recently, Rabbi Zamir Cohen, whose material on how Chazal knew modern science is by far the most nonsensical of anything in the field, gave a presentation at Bar-Ilan. But at least he was only invited by a student's group; much more troubling is an event due to take place next week. Here is the email that I received:


DATE: Wednesday, January 12, 2011
TIME: 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm
LOCATION: Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Chemistry Building # 211, Hall # CMT 10

How the Theory of Evolution Breaks Down in the Light of Modern Science
by Dr. Oktar Babuna, M.D. & Dr. Ali Sadun Engin, Ph.D.
With the contributions of Prof. Doron Aurbach

Ms. Seda Aral (Science Research Foundation)
Personal representative and media contact of Mr. Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya)
Turkey, Istanbul
Tel: +90 530 609 26 32

There are two aspects to this event which are disturbing. One is that a science division is hosting a pseudo-scientific lecture against evolution. The common ancestry of all species is accepted scientific fact; even scientists associated with the Intelligent Design movement, such as Michael Behe, do not dispute it. If someone wishes to refute it, let them follow the scientific process of doing research, publishing papers, and so on. Religious propaganda masquerading as a "scientific" refutation of evolution has no place being presented in a chemistry building. Would the geology department host a "scientific" refutation of the sphericity of the earth, or would the history department host an "academic" refutation of the Holocaust?

Second, hosting such an event by Jewish Biblical literalists would be bad enough on its own, but hosting this group of Muslim Koran fundamentalists is appalling. Oktar Babuna and Ali Sadun Engin are followers of Harun Yahya, a.k.a. Adnan Oktar; indeed, the event at Bar-Ilan is being advertised as a "Harun Yahya Conference." According to the Wikipedia entry about him, Harun Yahya's Islamic fundamentalism has also led him to antisemitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial, and there are numerous other disturbing reports about him. Is this the kind of person whose movement should be speaking at an Israeli university which in its mission statement "regards the sacred principles of Judaism as the manifestation of the Jewish people's uniqueness... supporting the safeguarding of these principles out of love and with the purpose of training and producing scholars, researchers and men of science knowledgeable in the Torah and imbued with the original Jewish spirit and love of one's brethren"? Is whoever arranged this conference so Jewishly motivated to refute evolution that he is willing to have these sorts of people speak about it?

While the Harun Yahya group has managed to present its propaganda at several universities in England and the United States (read more about this here), one would hope that the additional antisemitic aspects would be enough to prevent it from coming to Israel. I know that many faculty members at Bar-Ilan were disturbed to hear of this event. One can only hope that wisdom will prevail and it will be canceled, so as not to mar the reputation of such a wonderful institution.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Big Picture of the Firmament

When I teach about the antiquity of the universe, one point I always stress is how irrelevant it is to get bogged down on the details of carbon dating or other such things. Anti-rationalists seem to think that if you can show that one scientist believes the universe to be 13.4 billion years old, whereas another scientist believes it to be 16.7 billion years old, then you have shown that there is no consensus of evidence for the universe being more than 5771 years old. The folly of this line of reasoning should be self-evident.

A while back, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

I then moved on to a discussion about how this view of the sky (rakia) found in the Gemara is Chazal's view of the firmament as described in Tenach. And in a subsequent post, I pointed out that this means that the mesorah was reinterpreted in light on modern science. Hence, we can do the same with regard to the mesorah about the nature of creation.

Now this, of course, was anathema to my anti-rationalist opponents. So, the ones whose public mission is based around invalidating me, decided to challenge this chain of logic as follows: Throughout the Talmud and Midrash, we find a number of disputes amongst Chazal as to the precise nature of the firmament. Some held it to be very thin, while others believed it to be very thick. Some held it to be made of a form of congealed water, while others believed it to be composed of a mixture of fire and water. Some believed it to have two layers, while others believed it to have seven layers. Then, much later in the medieval period, it is possible that some Rishonim did not believe the spheres to be solid at all; indeed, there is much academic discussion about the nature of the Ptolemaic spheres.

My opponents conclude from all this that there was no mesorah about the nature of the firmament. Rather, different figures amongst Chazal had different ideas, based on some sort of combination of science and their understanding of Torah, but there was no mesorah about it.

Now, their position is already unacceptable according to many of the Gedolim who banned my books, who are of the view that is heretical to say that any statement in the Gemara or Midrash is a scientific statement made in error. But aside from this, they have entirely failed to make their case.

Their argument is like saying as follows: There was a huge dispute between Rambam and other Rishonim as to which parts of the Gemara are Sinaitic in origin. So there is no mesorah that there is an Oral Torah from Sinai! Or, even more appropriately: There are numerous different views amongst Chazal as to what exactly happened during the six days of Creation. So there is no mesorah regarding creation!

To be sure, there was much dispute about the nature of the firmament. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament - that is to say, a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substance (i.e. not air or space), on the surface of which the sun travels, and which obscures the sun when it passes behind it. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע. The Torah had always been understood as describing the firmament as in the following illustration:

Now, much later, during the time of the Rishonim, Ptolemaic cosmology had already become widely accepted, and some of the Rishonim reinterpreted Tenach to suit it. It is possible that some of them did not believe the rakia to be a substantive firmament (the best general discussion that I have found on this topic is Edward Grant's paper "Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages"). But all this would mean is that the Rishonim were ignoring Chazal (as Rambam and Ibn Ezra did on several occasions) and reinterpreting Torah in light of science. None of the Rishonim claim that the Chachmei Yisrael did not believe the sun to be concealed behind the sky at night, or that Chazal's descriptions of the rakia in the Bavli, Yerushalmi and Midrash are not literal. Chazal's mesorah was clear and uncontested.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rav Shlomo Miller Denounces Perversion and Corruption

Yesterday's discussion about Rav Shlomo Miller of Toronto reminded me of something else. Recently, I praised Mishpacha magazine for its brave attempt to broaden the boundaries of discourse in the Charedi community. Back in 2008, in the April 30 edition, they ran an article in which they interviewed leading poskim, including Rav Miller, about the "burning issues" facing Charedi Jewry. Now, that was at a point where many people were up in arms about all kinds of terrible things that were revealed to be going on the frum community. An article in New York magazine reported that Rabbi Yehuda Kolko had sexually molesting students for decades, and that the principal of the yeshivah where he taught, Rabbi Lipa Margulies, knew about it and covered for him. The revelation of this did not prevent Rabbi Margulies from being considered an appropriate authority to sign the condemnation of Lipa Schmeltzer. And there had also been numerous cases of frum people involved in financial corruption without the Gedolim saying anything about it. So, Mishpachah magazine posed a tough question to Rav Miller:
"Why don't rabbanim take a firm stand on developments in frum life, such as denouncing perversions and corruptions, wrong agendas, wrongdoers?"
A very tough question, and kudos to Mishpachah magazine for being brave enough to ask it. But Rav Miller responded that rabbanim have indeed taken a firm stand on such issues, and have indeed denounced perversions and corruptions, wrong agendas, and wrongdoers:
"Charedi rabbanim opposed the views espoused by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, and rejected him speaking in the name of Orthodoxy."

I kid you not. Those were his exact words, in response to that exact question.

He then went on to admit that "Other issues come to a point where things have to be dealt with. Certain improper acts have happened in a yeshivah and were covered up when they shouldn't have been." Yet in that case Rav Miller never saw a need to circulate a public statement denouncing the perpetrator and the cover-up, and in the Mishpachah article he does not even mention any names. Pedophiles and those who cover up for them are not to be named and disgraced in the public denunciation of perversion and corruption - only those who dare say that Orthodoxy can accommodate evolution, or those who write halachic articles arguing that there is a limmud zechus on all the great Jewish women of the past who did not cover their hair!