Thursday, July 28, 2011

There Are No Kangaroos In Tehillim

The following letter was sent in Hebrew to Rabbi Amitai Ben-David (author of Sichas Chullin), Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Levinger. (The Hebrew version can be downloaded at this link.)

Greetings! I was surprised to see a letter in which you decided to identify the shafan of the Torah as the rabbit instead of the hyrax. I would like to make several points in this regard:

There is no doubt that Rashbatz, Rashba, and the various other authorities who discussed the shafan were referring to the rabbit. But how is this at all relevant? They lived in Spain, and were thus familiar with rabbits, but not with hyraxes! This is no different from how the Rishonim in Ashkenaz mistakenly thought that the tzvi is the deer, and were therefore confounded by the Gemara which states that the horns of a tzvi are not branched. The reason was that that they were unfamiliar with the gazelle, which does not live in Europe, and so transposed the name tzvi to the deer. Only Rav Saadiah Gaon, who was familiar with the animal life of the Middle East, correctly identified the tzvi as the gazelle and the ayal as the deer—and he likewise correctly identifies the shafan as al-wabr. While some scholars believed the wabr to be the jerboa (a long-eared, long-tailed jumping rodent), this cannot be the shafan, since jerboas do not hide in rocks. As other experts on ancient Arabic point out, wabr is actually the hyrax. The opinion of Rishonim who never knew of the existence of hyraxes, only rabbits, is not relevant.

Second of all, rabbits do not live anywhere near Eretz Yisrael (European rabbits are only native to south west Europe and northwest Africa, and other African rabbits are only in central and southern Africa). It is thus unreasonable to the point of absurdity to posit that the rabbit is the shafan of Tanach. Would the Torah, and David HaMelech in Tehillim, and Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei, have described the natural habits of an animal that none of the Jewish People knew of? Would they ever have described kangaroos leaping in the Australian bush, or penguins waddling upon ice floes?

Third of all, rabbits escape threats by running away or entering tunnels that they have excavated in earth, rather than hiding in rocks as the shafan is described as doing. The only rabbits which hide under rocks are the African rock hares, which only live in Southern Africa, and are in any case so similar in appearance to the hares of Israel (the arneves) that it is hard to imagine that they would be rated as a separate min.

With regard to the objection that the hyrax is a sheretz – I do not see this as any reason to disqualify the hyrax. First of all, Mishlei 30:24, 26 explicitly says that the shafan is a small animal. Second, hyraxes measure twenty inches in length, weigh up to ten pounds, and walk with their bodies held much higher from the ground that do mice and lizards. Furthermore, if one is going to consider the hyrax as a sheretz, then kal v’chomer that the rabbit, which is much smaller and moves with its body even closer to the ground, is a sheretz!

Finally, with regard to the question of the shafan chewing its cud, there are several explanations for this which are no more problematic than that regarding the hare. In fact, the hyrax appears to be more of a maaleh gerah than the hare; I have recently filmed a hyrax apparently in the act of regurgitating food, chewing it, and swallowing it again.

When David HaMelech describes how “the high hills are for the ibex, and the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim,” and when Shlomo HaMelech refers to the shafan as a small animal that hides in rocks, there is no doubt that they refer to the small animal that hides in the rocks in the exact region of the ibexes—the animal identified by Rav Saadiah as al-wabr — the hyrax. I explain all this at much greater length in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, which has just been republished in a new, expanded edition.

(There are still some spots left on this Sunday's Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo. Write to if you want to sign up.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where Did Those Haskamos Go?

Readers of the new edition of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (which, for those who ordered it online, should be coming any day now) may notice that the three haskamos (rabbinic approbations) from the first edition no longer appear. There are different reasons for the absence of each of them, and so I thought it worthwhile to explain why they are missing.

One was retracted out of deference to the Gedolim who banned the books. I don't have any complaints against the Rav who did so; he is a personal disciple of one of them, and therefore it was probably appropriate for him to do so.

Another was not retracted, but I myself no longer respect its writer as any kind of authority in such topics. A haskamah is not only an approbation from its writer to the book's author; it is also a testimony that the author has great respect for the judgment of the haskamah-writer. But this particular Rav considers it perfectly reasonable to say that the Chumash and Nach discusses animals from lands far distant from Eretz Yisrael, as well as making many other claims that are decidedly at odds with a rationalist approach.

The third haskamah was not retracted, and I maintain my respect for its writer. However, he and I have agreed that it's for the best to no longer include haskamos in my books, and thus to make it clear that they are not directed at insular charedim. Those people who won't read books without haskamos probably shouldn't be reading my books anyway!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Leviathan and Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Louis Jacobs, was to say the least, a controversial figure. However, no matter what one thinks of his deviations from traditional Judaism, he was surely a brilliant scholar. I was thus surprised, while doing some research on whales, to come across the following elementary mistake from him:

It is interesting to note that whale meat and whale oil are forbid­den not because the whale is a forbidden fish but because the whale is a mammal that, obviously, does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud. (Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, p. 124)

Actually, this is not at all why whale meat and whale oil are forbidden. They are forbidden because the whale lacks fins and scales. If you were to find an evolutionary offshoot of the whale which had cloven hooves and chewed the cud (but was fully aquatic), it would not be kosher.

I recently read an absolutely fascinating book entitled "Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature." Back in the nineteenth century, there was a court case regarding whether whale oil should be subject to the same taxation as fish oil. The question hinged upon whether or not the whale is a fish.

This was not at all a simple question to answer. There is no right or wrong answer! It wasn't a matter of people being unaware of the mammalian features of whales. Everybody agreed that whales give birth to live young and nurse them on milk. But does this mean that they should be termed "fish"?

As I discuss in the new edition of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, there is no “right” or “wrong” method of classification. A system of classification has no independent reality. It is simply a means by which man measures and describes the animal kingdom, depending upon his purpose:

From a scientific standpoint, folk-biological concepts such as the generic species are woefully inadequate for capturing the evolutionary relationships of species over vast dimensions of time and space… This does not mean that folk taxonomy is more or less preferable to the inferential understanding that links and perhaps ultimately dissolves taxa into biological theories. This “commonsense” biology may just have different conditions of relevance than scientific biology: the one, providing enough built-in structural constraint and flexibility to allow individuals and cultures to maximize inductive potential relative to the widest possible range of everyday human interests in the biological world; and the other, providing new and various ways of transcending those interests in order to infer the structure of nature in itself, or at least a nature where humans are only incidental. (Scott Atran, “Folk Biology and the Anthropology of Science: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (1998) pp. 547-609)

The question in the nineteenth century was as to who should answer the question of whether a whale or a fish - theologians, whalers, naturalists, or the common man? This, too, had no simple answer.

In any case, the bottom line is that the Torah adopts a system of folk-taxonomy in which animals are classified according to their overall form and habitat rather than their physiology. Bats are listed with birds, and whales would certainly be rated as fish, part of the creation of the fifth day, not chayos or behemos. There is nothing "right" or "wrong" about this. But one thing is clear: whale meat and whale oil are forbid­den not because the whale does not have cloven hooves and does not chew the cud, but rather because the whale is a forbidden fish.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Most Fascinating Rabbi You've Never Heard Of

Rabbi Dr. Baruch Yaakov Placzek (1835–1922), rabbi of Brno and chief rabbi of Moravia, is probably the most fascinating rabbi you've never heard of.

As the last Chief Rabbi of Moravia, Baruch Placzek succeeded his father Rabbi Avraham Placzek (1799–1884), who in turn succeeded Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Like Hirsch, the senior Rabbi Placzek was a staunch opponent of Reform, although his gentle disposition and peaceful nature enabled him to be respected by all. The junior Rabbi Placzek was curator at the Rabbinical and teachers' seminary in Vienna. He was described as "a man of wit and humor... one of the best orators of his time." He was honored with the title "Knight of the Order of Franz Joseph."

Rabbi Placzek wrote a novel and other works that were translated into English, French, and Hebrew. But the only writings of his that I have been able to obtain are several articles on natural history. Rabbi Placzek was fascinated by the natural world, and conducted his own observations and experiments in ornithology and botany. His articles include the results of these observations, as well as drawing extensively upon rabbinic writings. In the words of Rabbi Placzek: "The most ancient literature of the Hebrews is eminently a rich and inexhaustible treasury of observations of nature and inquiries into it."

In an article entitled, "Why Birds Sing," he is remarkably anthropomorphic in his answer to this question:
"While we may regard the ordinary vocal utterances of birds as expressions of their moods and wants, signals of intelligence, notes of warning, or calls for help, their song proper must be supposed to describe their more deep-felt emotions and anxieties, and to be related to their common expressions of sound as art is related to the handicrafts that minister to the necessities of life... The majority of ornithologists agree in ascribing an erotic character to the songs of birds; not only the melting melodies, but also those of their tones that are discordant to the human ear, are regarded as love-notes. Darwin finally, saving some reserves, came to accept this view. To be able to speak critically of the love-song, one should pay especial regard to the love-life of birds. It would be to throw water into the sea to add to what ornithological writers have advanced concerning the exceeding vital worth and cosmical significance of love. Nevertheless, I venture the opinion that the origin of the song-habit is to be found in other sources as well as in this important factor, among which is the joy of life, manifested in an irresistible determination to announce itself in melody..."
Rabbi Placzek describes how he once overheard his captive thrush imitating the crowing of a rooster, and attributes feelings to it that few zoologists today would consider credible:
"The curious fact about this circumstance was, that the bird would not crow in my presence, and would always stop when any one appeared to witness his exercise. There is no evidence that he had ever had an unpleasant experience in connection with crowing. His conduct must therefore be attributed to a kind of feeling of shame, or to a sense of the unfitness of that method of expression to a bird of his character and standing. Have we not in this another proof of the possession by animals of a psychical quality which it has been usual to regard as peculiarly and distinctively human?"

Rabbi Placzek was a close friend of Gregor Mendel, widely renowned as "the father of genetics." (UPDATE: By a beautiful coincidence, after putting up this post just now, I noticed that Google is commemorating Mendel's birthday today!) Although Mendel's work eventually turned out to be an essential solution to unanswered questions of evolutionary theory, Darwin himself was unaware of Mendel, and scientists in general completely missed the significance of Mendel's work for many decades. Placzek was reportedly the first to really understand and appreciate Mendel’s genius.

Mendel was unknown to Darwin, but Rabbi Placzek wasn't. The two of them corresponded. In 1878, Rabbi Placzek wrote a letter to Charles Darwin, praising his work and offering to send him a book of his. Darwin replied that he would be unable to understand the German, but added that he knew of another Orthodox Jew who saw no contradiction between evolution and religion. Two years later, Rabbi Placzek again wrote to Darwin, this time about how pigeon behavior has evolved since that described in the Midrash Rabbah. (I am in the process of obtaining a copy of this letter from the Cambridge collection.) Rabbi Placzek's article on "Anthropoid Mythology," published in Popular Science Monthly, seeks to demonstrate a common thread between evolution and rabbinic thought with regard to the similarities between apes and men:

"We may say, in general, that wherever men have come into close contact with monkeys they have acquired the same impression of them, that they are a caricature of man, and the idea that they are a not-yet man or a no-longer man, a human likeness of a more primitive design or one that has suffered deformity... The shape which the idea of a community of the two principal families of primates has taken... can be followed, from divination to empiricism, from superstition to scientific description, and it is not strange that among all the theories of the doctrine of development the so-called "monkey theory" has spread most rapidly and widely... We meet, among the more ancient peoples who made the anthropoid apes the subjects of scientific disputes or invested them with religious or ritual interest... important expressions of a supposed relationship of those creatures with man."

Rabbi Placzek was extremely close with his grandson George, whom he inspired with a fascination for science and nature. George Placzek grew up to be one of the world's leading physicists and worked as a member of the British Mission on the Manhattan Project. All because of a rabbi's love for God's creation!

(Thanks to S. for starting me on this investigation)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Murex Expedition

Today is my thirty-sixth birthday (please, no "happy birthday" wishes in the comments), and I celebrated in true "Zoo Torah" fashion - by going snorkeling to search for Murex trunculus, the sea-dwelling snail from which techeles is made. With my friends Victor Ofstein and Rafi Goldmeier (of Life in Israel fame) we went to Chof Dor, near Zichron Yaakov.

Sure enough, it did not take long before we found some -- or so we thought. Upon closer inspections, we saw that the shells were from snails that were dead, and the empty shells had been taken over by hermit crabs. But eventually, I managed to find some that were still inhabited by the snails from which the techeles dye is made.

I have not yet studied all the vast amount of literature on techeles. However, I have read a fair amount from both advocates and opponents of Murex trunculus. And although I do not wear techeles (for reasons that I will explain in a future post), I am convinced that Murex trunculus is indeed the chilazon of old. Beyond weighing up the individual clues and pieces of evidence regarding Murex trunculus, I have two different reasons for believing this to be the case.

One is that I see this as being similar to the case of the shafan. The hyrax is not as perfect a candidate for the shafan as many would like, due to its not being a true ruminant. Some people therefore claim that the shafan is an unknown, extinct animal. But in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax I devoted an entire chapter to explaining why positing the existence of an extinct and unknown  animal that is small and yet a true ruminant, and which lacks split hooves but is not a camelid, and which lived in the Middle East in the last 4000 years yet disappeared without trace, is entirely implausible, from the perspective of animal physiology and from the perspectives of zooarcheology and paleontology. Whatever difficulties may exist with the hyrax are vastly less than the difficulty in proposing that the shafan is an unknown creature.

With the chilazon, those who oppose its identification as Murex trunculus are not proposing a more viable candidate. But it has to be something. We know that Murex trunculus was harvested for its dye in ancient times. Positing that the chilazon is an unknown creature raises far more difficulties than positing that it is the Murex trunculus.

The second factor involved in my conclusion is that it appears that those objecting to the Murex trunculus argue that it does not match the criteria for the chilazon as explained by various Rishonim. But there is no reason to believe that the Rishonim were familiar with the chilazon!

It was a great thrill to find the Murex trunculus in its natural habitat. I was also thrilled to discover the rotting carcass of a gigantic sea-turtle (although, strangely, my companions were not as thrilled at that discovery). I brought back the jawbone as a souvenir; I figured that if Samson used the jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines, then the jawbone of a sea-turtle might also come in useful.

All in all, with the exception of the jellyfish stings (pictured right is an elderly Sabra who kindly poured vinegar on them), it was a terrific birthday expedition. I couldn't have wished for a better gift - although some things on my Amazon wishlist come close!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Was The Hyrax Banned?

As everyone knows, a ban was placed on some of my books by around thirty leading charedi rabbinic figures back in 2004/5. There was some confusion about whether the ban was just on The Science Of Torah and Mysterious Creatures, or also on The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. While the pashkevil that went out mentioned all three books, the article in the Israeli English edition of Yated only mentioned the first two. Furthermore, while it was obvious (to some) that the first two books conflicted with Charedi approaches, this was far from clear with The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. References to the antiquity of the universe and the scientific errancy of the Talmud were fleeting and tangential; the thrust of the book was to show that the Torah and Talmud's statements on this topic were, in fact, correct (when understood properly), despite claims of errancy by others.

Indeed, no less a figure than Rav Aharon Feldman of the Mo'etzes Gedolei HaTorah told me at the time that he was mystified as to what people could object to about that book. He himself had written a haskamah for it, and only decided at the last minute not to have it printed in the book because he thought that the book should only be read by charedim, and I could not guarantee that that would happen!

Nevertheless, the ban was indeed on all three books. And as Rav Feldman told me some months later, after speaking with Rav Moshe Shapiro, he understood the opposition to it - as did I. In fact, the problem could even be seen in the subtitle of the book (which, ironically, I did not come up with, but was instead written by one of the rabbonim who wrote a haskamah!). The subtitle is, "The laws of animals with one kosher sign in light of modern zoology." That encapsulates the problem with this book.

In extreme charedi culture (i.e. not the more moderate kind that you find in many parts of the US), one does not "evaluate" statements in the Gemara "in light" of modern science. One approaches Torah with awe, reverentially -- and unquestioningly. One does not ask, How is this statement of the Gemara true in light of modern science, and answer that the statement is to be understood differently than done in yeshivos.

I understand this objection, especially after reading Samuel Heilman's "People of the Book." Nevertheless, it reflects the particular norms of charedi society, not an unequivocal approach to Torah throughout history. The rationalist Rishonim of Sefard, for example, had a very different approach to their discourse in these areas. Such attitudes are a function of particular sub-cultures. Thus, while the book was heretical for some, it is not heretical for others.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Day of the Hyrax

Mazeltov! I just picked up the new edition of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. Israel/UK online orders will be sent out right away. US orders will be mailed from the US at the end of next week or the beginning of the following week.

Here is a rough list of the main changes from the first edition:

  • Better explanation of the difference between the Torah's classification system and that of zoology
  • Analysis of whether the list of ten kosher animals is exhaustive
  • Different presentation of the nature of the Talmud's "proof."
  • Discussion of potential arguments against the hyrax being the shafan
  • Much more extensive discussion of how the hyrax (and hare) can be described as chewing the cud, with a change of emphasis for my preferred explanation
  • Discussion of whether proboscis monkeys chew the cud
  • The topic of whether every fish that has scales also has fins has been given its own chapter with further discussion
  • More extensive discussion regarding exceptions to the Talmud's rule regarding animals with and without upper teeth
  • More detailed analysis of whether the "world" of the Torah and Talmud refers to planet Earth or a limited region.

The book should appear in stores in Israel over the next few weeks, but will probably not reach stores in the US until the end of August, which is after these topics have been covered in Daf Yomi. If you want to order it from me directly at a steep discount, do it now at this link:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Accepting Gedolim's Positions

I am a big believer in accepting Gedolim's positions. In fact, I am a much bigger believer in this than many people in the charedi community.

I'm not talking about accepting their positions as binding on me; after all, there is no reason, halachic or otherwise, for me to do so. Rather, I am talking about accepting that Gedolim have certain positions, even if it's uncomfortable to acknowledge it.

When the first ban against my books came out, many people, including myself, were flabbergasted to see the letter by Rav Yitzchok Sheiner. He cursed me for my belief that the world is millions (actually, billions) of years old. What?! We all thought that this was something that had been settled years ago. As one extremely chareidi Rav said to me that day in astonishment, "Aren't there about twenty different terutzim for that?"

For many people, it was simply too hard to accept that the Gedolim deemed such a basic fact to be heresy. It meant that either Gedolei Torah were not what they believed them to be, or that they themselves had heretical views - both of which were too disturbing. Much easier was to convince oneself that their objection were specifically to my books - the nebulous problem with the "tone."

Yet the Gedolim, most of whom did not read any of my books and were not in a position to evaluate the "tone," were very clear about their objections. As noted above, Rav Sheiner considered it absolutely unacceptable to believe that the world is billions of years old. At an EJF conference, Rav Nochum Eisenstein reported that Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur. Even if Eisenstein is not the most reliable person, I don't think that there can be any question that Rav Elyashiv strongly opposes such a a view. The same goes for Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who is reported as saying that someone who believes the world to be millions of years old may not be accepted as a convert. And even Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz"l writes about how modern science textbooks have heretical statements about the development of the universe. There's no doubt that the vast majority of Charedi Gedolim are of the view that belief in an ancient universe is, at best, deeply wrong both factually and theologically, and at worst, heretical.

I mention all this because of a statement made by Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who has been disputing my critique of Rabbi Avi Shafran's anti-evolution article which spoke about modern science being driven by atheist bias in its stance regarding evolution. I responded that while bias certainly exists in the scientific community, it is even stronger amongst Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Menken, on the other hand, insisted - incredibly, to my mind - that “ad hominems, hysteria and ridicule in lieu of rationale are more common from evolutionists then of Orthodox Jews who oppose evolution." And in response to people claiming that charedi Jews are biased against modern science in these areas, Rabbi Menken made the following statement:
[There is] a phenomena that does not exist, to my knowledge: a Gadol HaDor who claims the belief in evolution is in direct conflict with belief in G-d. In fact, all of the arguments claiming religious bias depend upon something similar, and the experience of actual Ba’alei Teshuvah contradicts this absolutely. To become observant, one must accept that there is a Creator, that he gave us the Torah, that we are expected to observe it, etc. There are many fundamental precepts (13, according to Maimonides) which we must accept as true. But one of them is not that the universe appears to be less than 6000 years old, or that it does not appear that we have evolved by chance.

Now Rabbi Menken may well truly believe that the Gedolim are not theologically opposed to the antiquity of the universe or evolution. And the experience of actual Ba'alei Teshuvah is indeed that Charedi Judaism and its Gedolim are not opposed to modern science. But that is because the kiruv yeshivos work very hard, and often duplicitously, to give this impression. Nevertheless, as demonstrated above, this is clearly not the case. Charedi Gedolim are, by and large, firmly opposed to the idea that the world is billions of years old, and all the more so to the idea that life evolved.

With regard to the bias issue, however, I agree with Rabbi Menken that presumptions of Gedolim opposing modern science do not create a bias against evolution in the Baal Teshuvah community. But  this does not mean that they approach the evolution/ ID/ creation controversy without bias. Instead, there are two other, powerful biases. One is to show that evolution is mathematically impossible and thereby to intellectually justify belief in God. The other main bias is a social bias; siding with one's home team against the liberal left/ secular community. And that's why they care so much about this issue.

(See too my post "And Man made Godolim in his image.")

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Lecture Schedule (Updated)

Here is my schedule so far for the summer. If you are interested in coming to Philadelphia for the weekend of July 23, I can arrange accommodations and payment for gas, if you can drive me there from Woodmere!

Philadelphia Weekend - contact for more details:
Shabbos July 23: Congregation Bnai Israel, Philadelphia. Books available for purchase after Shabbos and on Sunday morning.
Sunday July 24: Afternoon: Torah Tour of the Philadelphia Zoo - download flyer here.
Evening at 7pm: Presentation on Dinosaurs/ Creation - Univ Of PA Hillel, 215 S. 39th St., Philadelphia. Entrance donation $10.

New York Weekend

Shabbos July 30: Young Israel of Jamaica Estates. Topics include the animal kingdom, evolution, and rationalism.
Sunday July 31: Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo (Download flyer here)
8pm lecture at the "Einstein Shul": "Radically Rethinking Brain Death." 1925 Easchester Road, 1B, Bronx, NY 10461. Suggested Donation: $5.

Beverly Hills/ Los Angeles
Shabbos August 6th: Young Israel of North Beverly Hills
Sunday August 7th - Kehilla Academy of Los Angeles - "Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions"
Wednesday August 10th - Kehilla Academy of Los Angeles -"How (not) to Become a Heretic: What Must a Jew Believe?"
Sunday August 21st - Details forthcoming

I still have some openings for weekday engagements - if you are interested in arranging something in your community, please write to me at

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Rav and the Immutability of Halachah

The current issue of Jewish Action recounts a famous address by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in 1975 in which he vehemently opposed a position suggested by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman. The latter had proposed that the Gemara's chazakah that a women would prefer any kind of marriage to being single was based on the socio-economic status of women in antiquity, which had since changed. Rabbi Soloveitchik insisted that the chazakos of Chazal are instead “permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depth of the human personality, in the metaphysical human personality, which is as changeless as the heavens above.”

A problem with this is that there are several examples of chazakos in the Gemara that Poskim rule to no longer be true. For example, there is a chazakah that a woman would not be so bold as to declare in the presence of her husband that he had divorced her unless it was in fact true. But the Rema (Even HaEzer 17:2, citing others) states that nowadays, when chutzpah and pritzus are prevalent, that chazakah is no longer fully valid. Apparently, they did not consider this chazakah to be a permanent ontological principle rooted in the very depths of the human personality which is as changeless as the heavens above.

It may be possible to draw a distinction between these cases. Rav Soloveitchik explicitly stated that the reason why the chazakah regarding a woman wanting any kind of marriage is a "permanent ontological principle rooted in the very depth of the human personality" is that the Gemara bases it on a verse in the Torah - the curse of Eve in which it is stated that her desire shall be for her husband. Thus, perhaps only where a chazakah is based on a Scriptural exegesis is it timeless and sacrosanct.

The problem with this resolution is that the rest of Rav Soloveitchik's speech doesn't mention anything about such a qualification. It certainly gives the implication that all of Chazal's chazakos, and indeed all their statements, are timeless and sacrosanct. The Rav writes about how historicizing any of the rulings of any of the baalei mesorah over the ages is unacceptable. So how are we to reconcile this with the fact that historically, Poskim did not view Chazal's chazakos in that way? Furthermore, many people (and especially historians) find it very difficult to accept that Chazal were not in any way ever influenced by the world in which they lived - yet the Rav described this view as heresy!

Even more strangely, the Rav seems to describe such as an attitude as falling under the Rambam's rubric of makchish maggideha - denying the authority of the bearers of Torah. Yet Rambam surely used this term in a very limited sense - to those such as Tzaddok and Baytus who denied the very fundamental nature of the Oral Torah. As Dr. Marc Shapiro has documented at length, Rambam himself modified numerous concepts in the Gemara that were originally superstitious in nature. And authorities from Ramban to Vilna Gaon to Rav Hirsch felt no compunction in pointing out in turn that Rambam was influenced by the Greco-Muslim philosophical world in which he lived!

Perhaps the answer is as follows. Rav Soloveitchik's main concern was that, as he explicitly stated in that speech, once one starts to tamper with Talmudic halachah, this will end up destroying Judaism:
"Entertaining the possibility of revising Talmudic halachah at a rabbinical conference is as nonsensical as discussing the adoption of communism at the Republican National Convention. It is a conversation about suicide for the Orthodox community, the self-destruction of halachic Judaism."

This statement is, of course, entirely correct, and it perhaps provides a better reason for understanding the difference between the chazakah discussed by Rav Soloveitchik and that discussed by Rema. In Rema's day, there was no concern about the wholesale reform of halachah. But in the twentieth century, this was a very legitimate concern.

One way to counter the problem of reform is along the lines of Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner - to note that the Gemara has been canonized, either formally or de facto. As for the counter-argument that Rema's ruling shows that it was not canonized so firmly, one could respond that since that time, and in light of wholesale reform, it has been canonized more absolutely. But Rav Soloveitchik instead took a different approach, claiming that chazakos were always timeless ontological principles. Did he really believe this to be the case about all chazakos, even that described by Rema? I don't know.

(Over a decade ago, an extremely charedi Rosh Yeshivah mentioned to me, as an example of nishtaneh hateva, that in his view, the chazakah that a women would prefer any kind of marriage to being single was no longer true, in light of the increased financial and social independence of women. He was masiach lefi tumo; he had absolutely no idea that this was something that Rav Soloveitchik had described as heretical. Had he been aware of this, or of the situation with Rabbi Rackman that caused it, he would certainly have said the same as Rav Soloveitchik. It's all about context. The view that Chazal were mistaken about science can be tolerated in a footnote in the Artscroll Shas, or in a restrained, apologetic manner in Yehudah Levi's books - but not overtly, as in my books.)

I once discussed this with a rabbi and historian who was a disciple of Rav Soloveitchik. He told me that Rav Soloveitchik's vehement opposition to the idea that some of Chazal's views and rulings were the result of their historical circumstances was a result of Rav Soloveitchik's historical circumstances!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Limits of Rationalism

A number of people have written to ask me about the limits of rationalism:

"I am bothered by a certain aspect to the approach that we are taking as rationalists... We analyze our religion rationally only within the acceptable area. For example, we will never entertain the idea that our religion is fabricated and that it is all for naught because that would violate a tenet of our religion. However, in an analysis of history or science there are no walls that are taboo to cross. Why should our analysis of our religion be limited by boundaries if we seek truth? As rationalists, if we were G-d forbid presented with evidence that our religion got it all wrong would we not be forced to accept it? I guess I am struggling with the fact that unwavering belief in anything is not truly rational."

It's difficult to deal with such a topic within the confines of a blog post. I will touch on related aspects of it on other occasions. But I want to make a start, and hopefully thereby be able to clear several emails from my inbox in one fell swoop!

In my view, although some of the Rishonim applied the rationalist approach to Judaism without limitations, we cannot do so. This is for both practical and theoretical reasons.

Practically speaking, there is considerable conflict between 21st century academic scholarship and 21st century Orthodox Jewish ideology. I'm not talking about matters such as evolution, which are not at all theologically problematic; rather, I am talking about the much more difficult challenges from Biblical scholarship, philosophy of religion, archeology and so on. Now, some people consider those challenges to be without merit, or to be outweighed by historical or other arguments in favor of Orthodox Jewish ideology. But others see there as being serious problems here. They either choose to live with the difficulty, or have to significantly modify their understanding of Judaism to suit it, in a way that might be satisfactory for them, but is unsuitable and/or unacceptable for wider Orthodox society.

I don't see this as reason to entirely discard the rationalist approach. Besides, it's just not possible to do so; you can't make people shut their minds off, and Judaism does not expect people to do so. The rationalist approach is well-grounded in tradition and is of great value in how we relate to Torah and mitzvos. Nevertheless, I think it should be accepted from the outset that there can be limits to this approach.

On a theoretical level, I think that there is an irreducible conflict between the very nature of emunah and rationalism. Perhaps there can be a rational basis for faith (depending on how one defines those fundamentals). But if rationalism means that beliefs are always subject to re-evaluation based upon the open-minded evaluation of new evidence and arguments, then I don't see how this is compatible with emunah, which requires absolute commitment to God and does not even permit one to seriously consider alternatives (although, as Rabbi Norman Lamm argues in Faith & Doubt, a certain degree of doubt may be acceptable; emunah being loyalty-to rather than belief-that). Frankly, I think that many Jews today have been dangerously misled by Discovery-style presentations and books into thinking that Judaism unequivocally requires emunah to be based only on logical, scientific considerations; and they have been likewise misled into thinking that religion only has legitimacy and value if based on such methodology. Sure, the rationalist Rishonim thought that, but we're not living in 13th century Spain anymore, and it was rather an aberration in that regard.

All this is in reference to ideologies and approaches, not to people. There are, inevitably, people who attempt to apply a rationalist approach all the way. Some of them believe that the results support the tenets of emunah. Others believe that they do not - which itself does not necessarily mean anything about whether and how they continue to live their lives as Orthodox Jews. More on that topic on another occasion.

(See too this post: Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How I Came To Accept Evolution

As my books Focus and Second Focus attest, I used to be a staunch opponent of evolution. I don't think that I ever considered it to be heretical, or even severely theologically problematic; I hadn't actually given much thought to the theological issues. Furthermore, I was aware that Rav Kook held of it, and although Rav Kook didn't count for much as far as I was concerned back then, I figured that it precluded rating evolution as kefirah. But most of all, refusing to declare it kefirah enabled me to make a statement that I thought was very impressive: "I'm not against evolution for religious reasons - I'm against it for scientific reasons!"

I had read the anti-evolution books by Michael Denton and Phillip Johnson, and they seemed extremely convincing. But, looking back now, I realize that there were more powerful, subconscious reasons for me to oppose evolution. I had "flipped out" in yeshivah, and I wanted to show why the Torah True Worldview that I had absorbed was so vastly superior to everything else out there. I was joining a social group which had a siege mentality, where we had to show how wrong the rest of the world was in order to feel good about ourselves. But I had to feel sophisticated, so it was important to convince myself that I was objecting to evolution solely on scientific grounds.

It was approximately in the fall of 1999 that my views on the topic changed. I don't remember exactly what the sequence of events was, but I remember the various factors that were involved.

One factor was that I was studying Daas Chochmah U'Mussar by Rav Yerucham Levovitz. He had some chapters about how it is more important and impressive for Hashem to work through natural law than through supernatural miracles. This was an astonishing chiddush to me, but I found his presentation persuasive. It took a while to internalize it, but it eventually was to make all the difference between wanting to find a scientific explanation for phenomena (as the rationalist Rishonim preferred), and wanting to find problems with any scientific explanation (as I had been taught to do until then).

At about the same time, I was contemplating evolution, and I thought about it in some critically important new ways. Until then, all I had focused upon were the problems with evolution. But now, I started to think about what had actually happened instead. I always accepted that the world was billions of years old; it was clear that there many eras of life. So, if evolution was false, then what was happening? Were new creatures popping out of the ground every few hundred years? I had no problem with supernatural miracles - I was hardly a rationalist at the time. Still, while I readily accepted supernatural events in the context of such extraordinary periods as the Exodus, it seemed incongruous for them to be taking place throughout millions of years of dinosaurs and early mammals. Furthermore, based on what I had learned in Daas Chochmah U'Mussar, it seemed that Hashem would have much preferred to use pre-existing animals as the raw material with which to make new animals, then to start entirely from scratch each time, which would require more supernatural intervention.

Another critical aspect in the evolution of my thought was that I was getting in the hang of breaking down complex issues into their components. With evolution, this meant distinguishing between common ancestry and evolutionary mechanisms. I realized that these were two very different things, and that most of the anti-evolution arguments I had were against the latter, not the former.

The final critical component was my realization that I was looking at the entire topic in the wrong way. As mentioned earlier, I had solely focused on the problems with evolution - the kashyas. This was exactly what Denton and Johnson had done in their books. As far as I was concerned, the existence of these problems showed that evolution was bogus. But I realize that this wasn't the correct way of looking at things. The correct way was to ask whether the existing evidence better supported evolution or special creation. And this radically changed my perspective on it.

For example, previously, I had only thought about the fossil record in terms of hoaxes (such as Piltdown man), and in terms of missing links. But now I realized that the fossils that we do have - primitive hominids, and the remains of millions of extinct species that are intermediate in form to surviving species - fit far, far better with the evolutionary model than with the special-creation model. The missing links were much less significant than the present links!

Wherever I looked in the animal kingdom, things made so much more sense in light of common ancestry than in light of special creation. Emu wings, goose bumps, whale and bat physiology, archeopteryx - sure, the anti-evolutionists could always contrive some sort of ad hoc just-so story, but it seemed forced. Common ancestry was a simple principle that neatly explained everything. Just look at the picture of the bat skeleton. Why make a creature that functions as a bird, and is even classified with birds in the Torah, yet is physiologically similar to mammals? Bats did not share any fundamental similarities with birds; contrary to what Chazal thought, bats do not lay eggs. Why make whales that function as fish, but with the anatomy of land mammals and without the extremely useful (sometimes life-saving) ability to breathe underwater, like fish? Either Hashem made bats and whales from land mammals, or He was really out to fool us!

I still had, and still have, plenty of questions about evolutionary mechanisms. In an early draft of The Science Of Torah, I wrote about them at length. But one of the rabbonim that I showed it to for a haskamah (ironically, he retracted his haskamah as a result of the ban) made me take that part out. He told me that even if the Darwinian mechanisms were inadequate, presumably Hashem had some sort of means of transforming creatures via natural law, which science would eventually discover. Dissing the neo-Darwinian explanation would mislead people into thinking that it necessarily happened in a supernatural manner.

Together with further contemplation of the topic, in which it occurred to me that the "random" nature of Darwinian evolution was no more theologically problematic than the "random" nature of the events of Purim or of a lottery, I realized that it didn't make a whit of theological difference which mechanism powered evolution. As a result, I lost all interest in whether the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism made sense or not. It was no more relevant to me than any other obscure problem of science. (And it's pretty clear that the reason why it's so relevant to Rabbis Shafran, Menken and Rosenblum is that it is anything but a solely scientific issue for them.)

Eventually I came across all kinds of other evidence for evolution, which I outlined in The Challenge Of Creation. A lot of people are clearly interested in my take on this topic, yet, strangely, have not read that book. I recommend it!

Turning Things On Their Head

Cyberspace moves quickly, but the comment moderation at Cross-Currents doesn't always keep up; my comment to Rabbi Adlerstein's article took a week to appear. So, since Rabbi Menken just wrote a post in response to my response to Rabbi Shafran, I am going to post my response here (slightly expanded) rather than to wait for it show up in the comments.

Rabbi Shafran said that many scientists are, like all people, subject to bias. He suggests that nowhere is this so evident as it is with evolution, which, to some, has been elevated to the status of an unquestionable article of faith. Try as Rabbi Slifkin might, it’s hard to dispute either of those relatively obvious contentions.

This is a strawman. I didn't try to dispute either of those. That wasn't the point of my article. The point was that it is hypocritical to talk about this, when religious people are just as motivated by bias, if not more so.

Nonetheless, and contrary to Rabbi Slifkin’s assertions, it is true that a theist is capable of an impartial view of evolution, while anyone unwilling to entertain the idea of a Creator is incapable of the same.

That is not contrary to my assertions. In fact, it is entirely consistent with what I wrote. But theists who truly have an impartial view of evolution all accept that the evidence supports it! My assertion was that, in general, bias is just as powerful in the religious community as in the scientific community.

Rabbi Slifkin takes an obvious indicator of bias and turns it on its head: “it should be pointed out that amongst the ranks of those who do believe in evolution, you will find both atheists and devoutly religious people… but amongst those who declare evolution to be false, you will only find religious people.” Bias is found in the beholder, not the concept, and thus the same facts should rightly be said as follows: “you can find devoutly religious people who do or do not believe in evolution, but to a one, atheists profess belief in evolution.”

With all due respect, I think that you are the one turning things on their head. To be sure, atheists must believe in evolution; I never claimed otherwise. But since even those without any atheist bias believe in evolution, this indicates that the evidence supports it. Which means that those who deny it are motivated by bias and are mistaken, whereas atheists, even if sometimes having the wrong motivations, are nevertheless ultimately correct vis-a-vis evolution.

Bias against evolution does not only exist with those who formally consider it to be heresy. It also exists with those who consider it to be part of a general value system which they entirely reject - Obama, global warming, etc., and who very much see the world in terms of "us" versus "them." Is there any major issue about which you are comfortable with saying, "The Gedolei Torah/ charedi community were wrong, and the liberal secular left are correct"? Of course not. In general, all the articles by you and Rabbi Shafran are about how "we" are right and "they" are wrong. You might not formally consider evolution to be theologically unacceptable (though I'd be interested to hear your detailed explanation of how it is acceptable), but you are certainly uncomfortable with "them" being right and "us" being wrong.

By the way, if you have evaluated the evidence for evolution and found it lacking, then I assume this means that you considered the question of why marsupials are concentrated in Australia, why whales are not able to breath underwater like fish, and why every species that is discovered, live and extinct, can be neatly fitted into a nested hierarchal family-tree taxonomy - (for example, there are numerous species with characteristics of dinosaurs and birds, but no intermediates between birds and mammals). Can you share with me the answers that you came up with?

I find it particular interesting that you mention Intelligent Design. Those who subscribe to it do not suffer from the atheist bias, right? And yet those scientists who do subscribe to ID all accept that all life evolved from a common ancestor. What does that tell you about the evidence for common ancestry - and about those who deny it?

Yes, we believe the world is 5771 years old, however this may be defined (there are multiple schools of thought on this point). Yet I am unaware of even one Orthodox person with an education in the hard sciences who believes that, from a scientific perspective, the world appears to be 5771 years old rather than roughly 15 billion.

Agreed. Now I challenge you to write an article for Mishpachah or Ami or Dialogue elaborating on this - that the scientific evidence itself clearly shows the world to be billions of years old, and that nobody with an education in the hard sciences would reasonably say otherwise. (And you can add your detailed explanation of why evolution, although being scientifically unfounded, is not at all theologically problematic.) Then we'll see if the Orthodox community is really okay with this. But in any case, the fact that someone accepts the more undeniable evidence for one thing does not mean that they are honestly evaluating the evidence for something else.

As to your claim that evolutionists react to their opponents "with ad hominems, hysteria and ridicule in lieu of rationale" - as with Rabbi Shafran's article, the irony is remarkable. Do you really, truly think that this is more true of evolutionists than of Orthodox Jews who oppose evolution?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You'll Never Guess

Oh, the irony! Today, I picked up a book of insights on the parashah, to see what it had to say about this week's parashah, Balak (my barmitzvah parashah). It turned out to discuss evolution, and to say almost exactly the same as what Rabbi Shafran said about it (in the article that I critiqued yesterday):

...The end of parashas Balak tells of the sin of the Bnei Yisrael in attaching themselves to the idol worship of Baal Pe’or. Unlike traditional, good-old-fashioned idol worship, which involved prostration, animal slaughter, and human sacrifice, Baal Pe’or was worshipped by relieving oneself in front of it...

The process of expelling waste products from the body is the lowest function of man. It is the one function in which man is indistinguishable from animals. This lowly, animalistic function was not merely the means of worshipping Baal Pe’or; rather, it signified the purpose of the worship itself. For if man is nothing more than a lowly animal, then he need not act any better than a lowly animal. The concept of man being no better than an animal is the license for immorality and self-indulgence that a would-be sinner will worship.

A recent parallel to Baal Pe’or was the fanatical blind allegiance with which much of the world attached itself to Darwinism. Darwin postulated a scientific theory which relegated man to being nothing more than an intelligent ape. And apes don’t need to live up to a moral standard. In referring to the physical rise of man from animal, evolutionists are licensing his spiritual descent back to animal.

But you'll never guess who wrote this.

Jonathan Rosenblum?

Simcha Coffer?

Rabbi Avigdor Miller?


Scroll down for the answer....

It was written by me!

It's part of an essay that I published in my 1999 book, Second Focus. Elsewhere in the book, I criticize evolution on scientific grounds. (Needless to say, I was a very different person back then.)

There is some truth to what I wrote. Many people do indeed accept evolution without evaluating the evidence, and their motivation is that considering oneself to be no more than an animal can be seen as a justification for avoiding moral behavior.

But there are also those people who accept evolution simply because they think that the evidence supports it, not because of any atheist or immoral bias. Francis Collins comes to mind. So does Rav Gedalyah Nadel. And my own acceptance of evolution came during a spiritual "high" in yeshivah, after it finally dawned on me that there no theological problems with it, and that it represented an extremely elegant method for God to create the natural world.

And as for the notion that accepting evolution necessarily leads to immorality, an entirely different perspective can also be taken. As I explained in The Challenge Of Creation, there is considerable conceptual basis in classical Jewish thought for the idea of man emerging from the animal kingdom. Ramban and others state that man was made from a two-legged being that was qualitatively absolutely no different from an animal. The point is, as Abarbanel explains, that "man's perfection is not actually born with him. He has choice in his deeds; he can be drawn after his intellect, to be like the uppermost beings, or after his physicality, and be like the animals and beasts." Rabbi Joseph Hertz makes an allusion to Darwin’s book on human origins, The Descent of Man, and beautifully expresses the idea that man’s soul makes all the difference:

"…It is not so much the descent, but the ascent of man, which is decisive… it is not the resemblance, but the differences between man and ape, that are of infinite importance. It is the differences between them that constitute the humanity of man, the God-likeness of man. The qualities that distinguish the lowest man from the highest brute make the differences between them differences in kind rather than in degree; so much so that, whatever man might have inherited from his animal ancestors, his advent can truly be spoken of as a specific Divine act, whereby a new being had arisen with God-like possibilities within him, and conscious of these God-like possibilities within him." (Rabbi Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch, Additional Notes to Genesis p. 194)

Rav Kook embraced evolution as expressing the idea that creation is always striving to reach new heights. It's not where you come from that matters - after all, we all come from a tipah seruchah - but rather, what matters is where you are going.

Shallow rebuttals of evolution are not the only flaws in my book Second Focus. It also includes essays extolling the virtues of black hats, the mystical approach, and the chareidi version of Daas Torah. I actually discovered a large stash of copies of the book, which are currently sitting in my storeroom. I don't want to sell them, because there's so much that I disagree with! But maybe one day I will produce a companion volume, critically re-appraising what I wrote in Second Focus, so that I can sell them together. I could call it Re-Focus.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Religion, Blinded

I try not to get upset about Charedi/ religious opposition to evolution. It's never been my mission to convince everyone that evolution is true. And I don't think that it's especially damaging for people not to accept it. On the contrary; I think that many of them are better off not being exposed to it. That's why I put a warning at the beginning of "The Challenge of Creation," stating that the book is not appropriate for those with little exposure to science and who are opposed to the Maimonidean approach. Besides, while recent special creation is not a core belief of Orthodox Judaism, there are other genuine core beliefs that really are challenged by modern science, so it's hardly appropriate for me to insist that people accept modern science!

If people say that they couldn't care less about what scientists say, and all that matters to them is faith, that's fine with me. Even if they've convinced themselves that the scientific evidence disproves evolution, I don't care. If that's what they think, then, gezunteheit, live and be well.

But when you have an articulate, worldly spokesperson for the charedi community like Rabbi Shafran, and he posts an article on the Internet entitled "Science, Blinded," claiming that those who subscribe to evolution do so out of religious faith, whereas tzaddikim reject it out of objectivity... well, that calls for a response. First of all, it's a public attack on those of us who do accept evolution. Second, it's a chillul Hashem for an article with such nonsense to appear in public, which can be partially rectified by a demonstration that not all Orthodox Jews agree. Third, when articles like this come out, I receive all kinds of emails from people screaming in anguish, and my response appears to be therapeutic for them.

I completely agree - as do scientists themselves - that scientists are subject to bias. And those who are uncomfortable with the idea of an omniscient God certainly have a bias towards accepting naturalistic explanations for the development of life. But Rabbi Shafran has nevertheless gravely distorts matters.

First of all, and most obviously, the idea that religious figures who oppose evolution "can truly perceive the world with clarity," as a result of having "overcome the preconceptions, desires and imperfections of character to which we all play host," is ludicrous. Overcoming imperfections of character is a fine thing, but it does not assist one in evaluating evolution. On the contrary; since those who oppose evolution inevitably subscribe to a religious worldview in which evolution is theologically problematic at best and usually entirely unacceptable, they are overwhelmingly, critically biased against any evidence supporting it.

That is why it is futile to get into an allegedly "scientific" argument with a religious opponent to evolution. I was once challenged by some such people to have a debate on the merits of evolution. I responded by asking what kind of evidence, hypothetically speaking, would make them accept it. They dodged and hedged and would not answer the question. This was because no evidence would make them accept it - for them, evolution is a religious issue.

In the same vein, it should be pointed out that amongst the ranks of those who do believe in evolution, you will find both atheists and devoutly religious people (who are presumably free of the atheist bias that Rabbi Shafran describes). But amongst those who declare evolution to be false, you will only find religious people. And it is hardly the case that they have done so after a careful consideration of the evidence!

And consider the matter of the antiquity of the universe. That is something which Rabbi Shafran's charedi community officially rejects. And yet those scientists who initially proposed it certainly did not have a bias towards it; they were all deeply religious Christians who reluctantly accepted it due to the overwhelming evidence. On the other hand, those charedim who reject it clearly do so out of loyalty to the plain meaning of Bereishis, not out of an impartial consideration of the evidence. So who is more biased, scientists or religious figures?

Thus, to write an article accusing evolutionists of bias, and claiming tzaddikim to be free from it, without acknowledging that religious creationists have biases that are just as powerful (if not more so), is unfair and dishonest in the extreme. It so utterly distorts the reality as to be plain ridiculous.

There are some other errors in his article that are also important to point out. First of all, Rabbi Shafran makes the common error of dismissing evolution as "just a theory." In so doing, he is oblivious to two points. First is that there is a world of difference between common ancestry, which is often referred to as the "fact of evolution," and the neo-Darwinian explanations for the mechanism that powers it - the "theory of evolution." Second, the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than it does in colloquial English. In science, a "theory" refers to a hypothesis corroborated by observation of facts which makes testable predictions. Would Rabbi Shafran dismiss gravitational theory as "only a theory"?

Then there is Rabbi Shafran's sole "scientific" objection to evolution - that "the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species... has never been witnessed or reproduced." First of all, that's not actually true. Second, evolution takes place over many millennia, so we would not expect to see such dramatic changes in the few years that we have been watching for such things.

Most ironic is Rabbi Shafran claiming that there is no observational evidence for "an organism emerging from inert matter," which he refers to as “spontaneous generation." (In fact, the origins of life don't really have anything to do with evolution, but let's ignore that for now.) But it is vastly, overwhelmingly more reasonable to accept that an extremely primitive life-form developed from primordial soup, than to accept that lice spontaneously generate from sweat, that mice spontaneously generate from dirt, that worms spontaneously generate from fruit and fish, and that salamanders spontaneously generate from fire. And yet the latter are all accepted as unquestionable fact by Rabbi Shafran's charedi religious authorities - along with numerous claims of nishtaneh hateva that are more extreme forms of evolution than anything ever proposed by scientists. Is this due to their evaluating the evidence objectively after having overcome their preconceptions, desires and imperfections of character? Or maybe it has more to do with their religious commitment to upholding the truth of all Chazal's words (despite the fact that scores of Rishonim and Acharonim saw no need to do so)?

Finally, we have Rabbi Shafran's description of evolutionists employing "militant insistence on its truth." Surely he can't be serious. "Militant insistence"? Like banning books by their opponents from being purchased, and using positions of authority to condemn their opponents, without even reading their material or allowing them any opportunity to defend their viewpoint?

"Science, Blinded"? Pot, meet kettle.

(See too my post "The Seven Principles of Bias.")

Monday, July 4, 2011

Interpretations of Maimonides: A Guide for the Perplexed

Are you perplexed by all the different approaches to Rambam's theology? The solution is here! This handy-dandy chart explains the differences between the various schools of thought. (If you are reading this via e-mail, please note that you might have to visit the website for the chart to display properly.)

School of Thought Sample Representatives Was Rambam similar to Aristotle? Did Rambam accurately reflect traditional Judaism? Was Rambam's theological approach correct?
Traditional Non-Orthodox Rashba; Vilna Gaon; Hirsch Mostly Mostly not No
Orthodox Hyper-rationalist Jose Faur; YBT Mostly Entirely Yes
Traditionalist Ultra-Orthodox Charedim Partially Mostly not No, but he didn't say it, didn't mean it, he could say it but we can't, etc.
Traditionalist Orthodox
Benzion Buchman
Barely Entirely Yes
Esoteric Academic Strauss Entirely Not at all It's a secret
Mainstream Academic Kellner, Shapiro Mostly Mostly not Partially

Bear in mind that, as with all summaries, this chart is necessarily a simplification, and thus rough around the edges. But note the similarities between the first group and the last!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Old Wive's Tales and Double-Blind Tests

This post is a follow-up to my post on Hyper-Rationalism and Segulos. In the comments thread, a number of questions and challenges were raised about my categorizing Rashba as non-rationalist in his approach to these topics. In order to explain this further, it is useful to discuss the general idea of empirical testing.

How do we know if a remedy works? There is a broad spectrum of possibilities.

1. The most basic stage is to accept that it works based on one person's say-so. As far as some are concerned - and this approach was prevalent in antiquity - if that one person is an authority figure, or dead, then his/her words carry much greater weight. (See Shabbos 66b for Abaye's description of remedies that he learned from his nursemaid. This is literally an "old wife's tale" - the word "wife" in that aphorism is from the Old English wif and refers to any woman, rather than specifically to a married woman. The aphorism refers to unverified welfare-related beliefs, often superstitious in nature, that are passed down from the women of an older generation to a younger generation. However, the aphorism today has derogatory overtones, especially with those who lack an appreciation for how epistemologies change over time. Needless to say, not all old wive's tales are false!)

2. The next stage up is to require more than one person's attestation. The Gemara rates an amulet as being effective if it has worked on three occasions.

3. The next stage is to require a much larger number of attestations - ten, a hundred, a thousand.

4. The next stage is to realize that one also needs to assess if all the people who recovered would have done so anyway - and so one needs to also look at those people with the same condition who did not use the remedy.

5. The next stage is to realize that the placebo effect is very powerful, and to counteract it by having a control group - a group who is receiving something that looks exactly like the remedy, but has inactive ingredients.

6. The final stage is to realize that those administering the remedy/ test may themselves be consciously or subconsciously influencing the results. It is thus necessary to have double-blind testing - where neither the subject nor the experimenter knows which is the remedy and which is the placebo, until the survey is complete.

Now, there is also another spectrum of people, ranging from those who strongly believe in all kinds of supernatural events, to those who are methodological naturalists (denying any kind of supernatural event). There is a strong, although not absolute, correlation between the people on this spectrum, and the people on the first spectrum that we discussed. Generally, those who freely believe in supernatural phenomena have lower standards for accepting that a given remedy works.

Rashba was towards the non-rationalist end of the spectrum. He did not see the lack of a naturalistic explanation as being any reason to doubt the validity of a remedy, since he believed that supernatural processes are just as common. And he had low requirements for accepting the efficacy of a remedy - a claim of it working a few times was sufficient empirical confirmation for him.

Rambam, on the other hand, was towards the other end of the spectrum. He was extremely reluctant to accept the existence of supernatural phenomena. And he was skeptical of remedies based on supernatural explanations, even if there were a few claims of their having worked. The reason for this skepticism is that he was well aware of the power of the placebo effect (see Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:11).

Rashba writes that he is puzzled by Rambam's stance. On the one hand, Rambam says that all allegedly paranormal phenomena are false and therefore forbidden. But on the other hand, Rambam permits one to go out on Shabbos carrying a nail from a gallows, and a fox's tooth, because they are believed to have proven beneficial as remedial items!

The explanation of Rambam, put forth by Dr. Marc Shapiro in Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters, is that Rambam believed these items to be beneficial as placebos. He did not think that they could genuinely work, since there is no naturalistic explanation for them, and he did not consider the "thrice tested" standard to be sufficient. In Rambam's view, one may carry these items on Shabbos because they are believed to be therapeutic.