Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Look Before You Leap

(This article appears in today's Jerusalem Post)

This November, two individuals, both thought to have been consigned to history, unexpectedly reappeared and promptly leaped to fame. Coincidentally, both were frogs.

One was Kermit the Frog. Back in the 70s and 80s, Kermit entertained us on The Muppet Show, which in the 1970s was the most widely watched television show in the world, and he even spawned (if you’ll excuse the pun) several Muppet movies. But the television show’s ratings eventually declined, and it was ultimately cancelled. It looked like the end of the Muppets; everybody thought that Kermit had croaked. And yet one determined Muppet fan has now brought Kermit and his friends back to life in a new movie, The Muppets, which is proving surprisingly popular.

The other frog to make a surprising comeback recently is the Israel painted frog, Discoglossus nigriventer. It was thought to be extinct since the 1950s when its native habitat of the Hula swamp valley was drained and no more frogs were to be found. Yet a single painted frog was just found in the newly re-flooded Hula nature reserve, restoring hope for the species.

It is my hope that Kermit the Frog and the Israel painted frog have more in common than just being frogs that simultaneously and unexpectedly returned from extinction. Perhaps they both denote a societal improvement – or rather, society retreating from that which was previously and mistakenly thought to be advances and improvements.

Why did the Muppets disappear? The muppets were all about innocence; singing, dancing, gentle humor, and always ultimately transmitting messages about loyalty, love and friendship. The only “edge” to them were Statler and Waldorf, the two cynical old men in the gallery who were constantly derisive (although even their taunts were restrained).

But as audiences became more “sophisticated”, the television and movie industry changed. Adults (and even children) were no longer interested in fabric hand-puppets; they wanted animatronic robots and 3-D computer-generated wizardry. The wide-eyed innocence of singing-and-dancing muppets became less popular. Audiences became Statler and Waldorf. They wanted entertainment that was sophisticated, by which was meant racy, biting and cynical. Eventually, even children became too advanced for cheery puppets. The Muppets were replaced by The Simpsons and eventually the horrible South Park.

Why did the Israel painted frog disappear? Because its native habitat of the Hula valley was thought in the 1950s to be nothing more than a malaria-breeding “wasteland.” In the mid-twentieth century, mankind was drunk with its powers in technology and engineering, and decided to refashion such wastelands into more productive terrain. The JNF decided to transform the Hula for agricultural use, and its drainage was trumpeted as a great national achievement.

Both Kermit and the Israel painted frog disappeared as a result of mankind deciding to become more advanced. But you have to look before your leap. The “accomplishment” of draining the Hula, like other mid-20th century ideas about “improving” the natural world, turned out to be a disaster. Stripped of natural foliage, the soil blew away. Water carrying chemical fertilizers began to pollute Lake Kinneret instead of being absorbed by the swamp. And the peat in the dried-out swamp often ignited into underground fires.

Eventually, people realized that they should have more respect for God’s world. There are no “wastelands.” The natural environment has developed with exquisite balance, and while we are able and entitled to develop it further, we should do so with tremendous respect and caution. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was thus formed, and the Hula was carefully re-flooded. It is now an outstanding nature reserve which serves as a stopover for millions of migrating birds each year. And maybe the Israel painted frog will now be able to make a comeback.

The return of Kermit the frog may perhaps likewise signify, and help people realize, that the more “sophisticated” forms of popular culture do not represent a positive improvement. People are starting to wonder whether advancement is always progress.

When I began teaching about the animal kingdom in Jewish thought, I was surprised and disappointed to discover people assuming that my presentations were for children. Adults had been conditioned to believe that they were too advanced for animals and zoos, which are “just for kids.” Yet when menageries were first introduced in the 19th century, they were very much seen as being for adults. Why should an adult not marvel at the wonders of the natural world? Why is it considered more sophisticated to have outgrown such things?

Or consider technology. We have more technology flooding our increasingly busy lives than ever before, but is it always an improvement to our lives? Do the drawbacks of being addicted to emails and Twitter and Facebook perhaps outweigh the advantages? Are our children enriched by being plugged in? Are we really happier by always rushing to upgrade to the latest computer or smartphone? These questions deserve serious consideration. As Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted recently, we live in consumer society, where everyone always wants to advance their lives by accumulating more technology and possessions, but it does not necessarily help their lives be any more enriched.

On a broader scale, we have often had to learn the hard way that technological innovation can have harmful consequences. Several years back, a fascinating book was published entitled “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” It brought numerous examples of how people assumed that advances in technology would prove beneficial, and yet backfired. This is not, of course, to say that technology should always be avoided. Rather, the point is that great caution should always be exercised. Instead of just getting excited about what we could do, we should think about what we should do.

Kermit the Frog sung a famous and beautiful song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” about his learning not to be jealous of more spectacular creatures, and instead being happy with being a frog. Ultimately, the song was about learning to appreciate one’s lot in life. Perhaps the return of both of these frogs, Kermit and the Israel painted frog, signifies that society is internalizing that message: that not every advance is an improvement.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Left Arm Hurts

I am currently finishing my trip to London. It's been jolly spiffing, but extremely busy. As a result, I have not had time to write posts, respond to comments, or reply to the flood of emails that have arrived lately. Plus, my left arm hurts, due to my spending yesterday learning more about Rabbeinu Tam's activities:


(If you're reading this post via RSS feed or email, you might have to visit www.rationalistjudaism.com in order to see the picture.)

Thanks to Allan Engel for taking the photo!

I hope to catch up on things soon! Meanwhile, I am currently planning my February lecture tour to the US. If you are interested in having me visit your community for a Shabbos scholar-in-residence program or Sunday lecture, please write to me.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Omitting Parenthetical Statements

Yesterday, I objected to Rabbi Sherer quoting me as having written that "When rabbinic authority is invested in yeshivah deans who are isolated from wider society, abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable." What I had actually written was that "When rabbinic authority is invested in yeshivah deans who are isolated from wider society, and often “handled” by various assistants, abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable."

However, I subsequently discovered that the version of my essay which appeared in The Jerusalem Post had been edited such that this phrase had been placed in parentheses. I still personally feel that Rabbi Sherer should have quoted it, as do others. But I can understand that still others feel that he was thereby entitled to omit it. And so I would like to retract my accusation that he deliberately set out to falsify my words. My words were falsely reported, but he is not necessarily culpable.

Of course, I expect him to likewise clarify that his error was due to my words having been altered by others, and that what I actually wrote in my unedited article was very different from what he quoted me as saying. And none of this relates to his other distortion of my words, in claiming that this is THE reason that I gave for being post-charedi, instead of the third reason.

Incidentally, several people wrote to me to tell me that even without the (parenthetical) phrase, my statement was absolutely true.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My (Second) Starring Role At The Agudah Convention (UPDATED)

Seven years ago, at the Agudas Yisrael Convention, I was honored to be mentioned by Rabbi Uren Reich, in a now-legendary speech. Yesterday, November 26th (my anniversary!), I was honored to be mentioned once again, this time by Rabbi Shimshon Sherer.

He read out from my Jerusalem Post article on Post-Charedism. There wasn't much substantial criticism; he seemed to feel that merely reading out extracts of my article, with expressions of horror, would suffice to show how wrong it was. If only he knew how many people in the audience identified with it!

But his speech misrepresented what I wrote. He asked the audience to "Listen to what he writes!" as he introduced the reasons that I gave for rejecting Charedi ideology. First of all, he entirely omits the first two reasons that I gave, and instead begins with the third reason. And he read out from my article: "When rabbinic authority is invested in yeshivah deans who are isolated from wider society, abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable." Rachamana litzlan! he added.

When I heard that, I was somewhat taken aback myself. Had I really written such a thing? I went back and checked what I had written. And I found that I hadn't written that! What I had written was:

"When rabbinic authority is invested in yeshivah deans who are isolated from wider society, and often “handled” by various assistants (emphasis added), abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable."

He had missed out the crucial phrase!

(UPDATE: I subsequently discovered that the edited version of my essay which appeared in Jerusalem Post had placed the emphasized phrase in parentheses. Personally I still don't think that it was justified for Rabbi Sherer to omit the phrase, but I can understand that others might see it differently.)

Does anyone seriously deny that Gedolim are manipulated by askanim? Jonathan Rosenblum even said so explicitly in Mishpachah! Did Leib Tropper not manipulate Gedolim?! Was it not due to manipulation that Lipa Schmeltzer's concert was irredeemably treife one year and suddenly kosher the next year? Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank wrote about how "young writers who frequent the home of the ancient Rav Yitzchak Yeruham Diskin (may his light shine), for this old man is under the influence of young secretaries... they manipulate him whichever way they please and obtain his signature for all their antics." Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and other Gedolei Torah recently wrote a letter where they admitted to having signed a letter of condemnation due to being manipulated and fed false information! Rav Aharon Feldman, sitting next to Rabbi Sherer, even wrote a letter in which he attested that Rav Elyashiv had said that about various other Gedolim!

But even if one does personally believe that Gedolim are not manipulated - how is it legitimate to allegedly be quoting my words, and yet to omit a crucial phrase?

Rabbi Sherer: You should do the right thing and apologize for falsifying my words.

(Incidentally, he then quotes, with horror, another sentence from my article: "And a siege mentality developed in which any criticism of haredi society, even coming from the inside, was to be fought or silenced." Little does he know that I learned the phrase "siege mentality" about 15 years ago from none other than Rav Aharon Feldman, sitting next to him, who made this precise point in a criticism of the Israeli Yated!)

To my readers: If you would like to register your displeasure with Agudah, please write to convention@agudathisrael.org.

(Follow this link to see the video on YouTube, at the time when he starts speaking about me.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

"The Perfect Torah-Science Authority" - Fact or Fiction?

A reader asked me to respond to the puff piece by Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow in the Baltimore Jewish Life and Five Towns Jewish Times about Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and his forthcoming book on Torah and science. I didn't want to, because I've already posted plenty on this topic and I'll be giving a more comprehensive treatment when his book comes out. But when more emails came in with the same request, I decided to respond, point-by-point.

1. "Rabbi Moshe Meiselman is the perfect Torah scholar to tackle this subject."

This is a very strange statement. Rabbi Sebrow backs it up in two ways. First, he notes that Rabbi Meiselman attended college courses on science and has a PhD in Mathematics from MIT. However, as we have noted previously, mathematics is entirely irrelevant to expertise the natural sciences, and may even be detrimental to it. And as for the college courses on science, Rabbi Meiselman goes against the entire consensus of scientists in the natural sciences, who would consider his approach regarding the world being only 5772 years old to be ludicrous. Would we trust the credibility of a self-styled medical expert who did college courses on medicine but is deemed to be a crank by the entire medical establishment?

Rabbi Sebrow then states that Rabbi Meiselman was a nephew of the Rav and one of his foremost talmidim. However, other family members of the Rav and foremost talmidim believe that Rabbi Meiselman engages in extensive revisionism of the Rav to bring him in line with Charedi mores. Thus, not only is Rabbi Meiselman not the "perfect Torah scholar to tackle this subject," he is actually someone of whom there is great basis to be suspicious from the outset.

2. "Rabbi Meiselman posits that no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal."

Then Rabbi Meiselman is wrong. Rambam explicitly writes that:
The account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts. (Guide For The Perplexed, 2:29)

Furthermore, according to the explanation of Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, Rambam was of the view that the "Six Days" are not time periods at all. Here is what Akeidas Yitzchak says:
"The Rav, the Guide, gave the reason for the mention of days in the Beginning by explaining the statement of the Sages, who said that “all the products of Creation were created in their full form” (Talmud, Chullin 60a); in other words, everything was created at the first instant of creation in their final perfect form. Thus the mention of an order of Creation is not describing the sequence of days; rather, [but the days are simply serving] to differentiate the status of [the elements of creation] and to make known the hierarchy of nature. This was [Rambam’s] major esoteric doctrine concerning Creation as those who are understanding can discern from that chapter (Guide For The Perplexed 2:30) which is devoted to this extraordinary account."

Ralbag was of the same view:
"You already know from the preceding that God’s generating the universe did not occur in time, since [its generation] was from nothing to something. Likewise, our Rabbis agreed that the heavens and the earth were created simultaneously. In the chapter “One Does Not Interpret,” they said, “Both were created as one, as it is said, ‘My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand up together’ (Isaiah 48:13).” It is therefore apparent that the description of creation as being completed in six days is not in the sense that, for example, the first day was [prior] to the second as one [whole] day. Rather, they said this in order to show the priority amongst various created things."

So much for the claim that "no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal."

3. "The Great Flood was understood by all Geonim and Rishonim to be a literal description and record of events that occurred thousands of years ago. The world was indeed flooded."

Of course the Rishonim understood it that way; they had no reason to think differently. The question is, how did recent Torah authorities - who were aware that there is overwhelming evidence for the continuity of civilization and animal life throughout that period in many parts of the world - explain it?

Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, who (if I recall correctly) was on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, said that the Mabul did not cover the entire planet, only the "world" of the Torah. This was also the view of Rav Gedalyah Nadel, who brought some excellent proofs from the Gemara that "olam" does not always refer to the entire planet.

4. "The accuracy of the Midrash about the dimensions of the Ark being optimally seaworthy has been confirmed many times, even in contemporary maritime engineering laboratories."


I can't for the life of me understand the relevance of this. If this is indeed a known fact amongst boat-builders (although others claim that the Ark would not be viable under ordinary natural means), then how is it significant that Torah says it, too?

5. Is The Mud-Mouse Claimed To Exist?

According to the article, participants at the meeting with Rabbi Meiselman challenged him on the mud-mouse (good for them!). Rabbi Meiselman responded by claiming that "Chazal never stated unequivocally that such a creature exists. There were reports of such a creature, and Chazal discussed the halachic ramifications of its theoretical existence." With this, Rabbi Meiselman has classified himself as a heretic according to Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Moshe Shapiro and many others. However, his Talmudic scholarship is flawed. Chazal DID state that such a creature exists, at the end of Sanhedrin:

A certain sectarian said to Rabbi Ami: You say that the dead will live again—but they become dust, and can dust come alive? He replied... Go out to the field and see the rodent that one day is half flesh and half earth, and on the next day it has transformed into a creeping creature and has become entirely flesh.

How is someone the "perfect person to tackle questions of Torah and science" if their approach ignores basic source texts on the topics that they discuss?

6. Rambam and the Science of Chazal

Rabbi Meiselman makes the following astonishing blanket assertion:
"when a statement is mentioned in the Gemara as a fact, it must be accepted. The Rambam, when confronted with a contradiction between what Chazal said was possible and what contemporary medical knowledge of his time said was impossible, opted for Chazal. For almost all interpreters of the Rambam, this is implicit in his statements about treifos. Not one of the classic interpretations of the Rambam says that he was of the opinion that Chazal made a mistake. This is not an available option."

In fact, Rambam believed that Chazal's statements about science (as well as their statements about certain metaphysical matters, such as astrology and demons) were not Sinaitic and were mistaken, as he says explicitly in the Guide. What, then, is his view about terefos? Let us see Rambam's words:
With anything which they enumerated as a terefah, even if with some it is seen not to be fatal based on modern medicine, such that an animal [with such an injury] might sometimes live, we have only what the Sages enumerated, as it says, ‘According to the law that they direct you’."

As explained by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Dor Revi’i, Chullin, Introduction, and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, BDD vol. 6 pp. 60-61, Rambam is saying that the laws as established by the Sages were canonized, and are thus unaffected by later discoveries. He was not denying that certain terefos can indeed live!

7. Rashba and the Science of Chazal

Rabbi Meiselman claims that "Similarly, the Rashba stated that all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true. If anyone were to suggest that they were less than authoritative, that would classify him as a melagleg al divrei chachamim and subject him to serious penalty."

In fact, Rashba states that Rabbi Yochanan and the judges of Caesarea erred in a mathematical matter (Commentary to Eruvin 76b).

8. Medical Halachah


The article claims that "many halachic statements made by Chazal based on their understanding of the underlying medical situation are authoritative." For life-and-death cases, this is absolutely NOT true. As Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach says explicitly:
With regard to the fundamental words of Chasam Sofer, in my humble opinion it appears that just as with regard to the law that an eight-month fetus is like a stone and one does not transgress Shabbos on its behalf, certainly the rule has changed in our time, and forfend to rule in that way (of the Gemara)… and one is forced to say that only in the times of Chazal was the fetus given the status of a stone, because at that time they did not know how to enable it to survive, unlike in our time… So, too, in my humble opinion it appears clear that in our time, it is impossible to decide that someone as already died except via the latest techniques which establish the boundaries between life and death. And forfend to rely in our time just on the signs of breathing and suchlike, more than other checks, and to rule with someone under a collapsed building on Shabbos that if his breathing has stopped, and his heart has stopped beating, that he should be left under the rubble and Shabbos not be transgressed on his behalf… (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Shulchan Shlomo II, pp. 34-35)
The story that Rabbi Meiselman brings regarding the Rav is where he delayed doing a bris against the doctors saying it was safe to do it earlier - not when he advanced doing a bris against the doctors saying it was dangerous!

9. "We do find knowledge of medicine in the Gemara that was far ahead of its time."

No, we don't.

The example that Rabbi Meiselman gives is hemophilia, which he claims the Gemara knew was hereditary via the mother centuries before non-Jewish doctors discovered it. But as Rabbi Josh Waxman has explained in detail, there are two points to bear in mind here. First is that this fact can be discovered via simple observation. Second is that Chazal reached this conclusion fortuitously due to their mistaken belief that "the mother supplies the semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair, blood and the black of his eye."

10. The Regenerative Power of the Liver

Rabbi Meiselman claims that "The regenerative powers of the liver are part of hilchos treifos. This was unknown in the ancient world."

In fact, the ancient Greeks knew that the liver regenerates, long before Chazal.

Furthermore, as Rivash points out, the measurements that Chazal give for the quantity of liver that can regenerate are not scientifically correct and poses a great problem! Far from bring a proof for Chazal's superior knowledge of science, the liver presents the opposite!

11. The Necessity of Kidneys

Rabbi Meiselman (or Rabbi Sebrow? it's not absolutely clear) discusses the Gemara's statement that the absence of kidneys in animals is not a mortal defect. He quotes Rabbi Levinger's claim that "ruminants have an excretory system that excretes into the rumen. Hence, in fact, these animals can survive if their kidneys are removed.” However, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Sternberg, in Bar Ilan's BBD journal, vol. 4 presents arguments that they will nevertheless die within a month. Thus, the conflict between the Gemara and our knowledge of kidney requirements remains.

Furthermore, to cite the kidneys as an example of how Chazal knew physiology beyond what others knew in the ancient world, is very strange; after all, Chazal believed that the kidneys serve not to produce urine, but rather to provide counsel to the mind.

12. Jumping Elephants

According to the article, those present at the meeting with Rabbi Meiselman challenged him about Tosafos and jumping elephants. Rabbi Meiselman conceded that perhaps Tosfos had never seen an elephant and was under the impression that they could jump. Finally, the right answer! Of course, I had already put this explanation forth several years ago.

13. Concluding Thoughts

The great tragedy of all this is not that Rabbi Meiselman is insisting upon positions that scientists would laugh at. It is not even that he is distorting rabbinic thought. Rather, the great tragedy is that there are so many people who lack the tools and knowledge to recognize this, and are taken in by a long beard and a PhD from MiT. It is important for those who also possess long beards and/or expertise in science, but who actually know what they are talking about in the field of Torah and science, to make themselves heard.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chareidi Redux

A Guest Post by Rabbi Zundel Heimish

I wonder if the creator of Rationalist Judaism ever imagined that it would be such a vital forum for addressing the critical issues facing the Orthodox world. The present dialogue on the form and trajectory of Charedi Judaism – and the broad range of comments that have been put forward – are a testament to the success of this venue. Perhaps most impressive of all is the tenor of the discussion. Rabbi Slifkin has shown us all how to have discourse without disrespect, leaving polemics and acrimony by the wayside. There are some thoughts and ideas of my own that I would offer for consideration.

R. Ploni has identified the core dispute to be the question of whether the “Far Right” (FR) is or is not “seeking to leave the halachic community”. He states they are not and avers “the crux of the issue [is] they steadfastly insist on deferring to the judgments of the askanim who dominate the community and deny the need for sanction from Rishonim to make the changes they recommend”. I would suggest R. Ploni understates the issues. Let me refer to the controversy initiated by Rabbi Schmeltzerfogel over the view of Chazal, Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim that Chazal could err in scientific matters.

In his article R. Schmeltzerfogel writes:

“I know of course that plenty of Rishonim and Acharonim, and indeed Chazal themselves, stated that Chazal could err in science. But by its plain meaning, and by the simple smell test, this view has the effect today of undermining rabbinic authority, and of affirming for us that Rabbis do not always possess the knowledge that scientists do. In our specific time, given our specific challenges, this view hurts us. We thus find ourselves today in a halachic “sha’as hadchak”, an “urgent circumstance”, the sort of circumstance that justifies utilizing a dishonest stratagem to effectively drop this view from our mesorah.”

Clearly, R. Schmeltzerfogel’s goal from the start is to remove this view as it offends modern Charedi sensibilities. His suggested hashkafic maneuvering is simply a clever means to a pre-determined end. Moreover other pashkevillim coming from charedi gedolim directly affirm the premise that they seek to employ the Daas Torah process to attain congruity with contemporary Charedi mores, no matter how forced or convoluted the “stratagem” might be. Such candor in identifying how they use rabbinic authority is refreshing – but it ought not be mistaken to be an honest search for truth in Torah scholarship.

Perhaps more than the actual opinion by R. Schmeltzerfogel to delete a major view from the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim for the sake of Charedi sensitivities is the attitude that permeates his writing. Simply put, he is embarrassed by the Rishonim. Their views smell bad and offend today’s charedi who has limited scientific understanding and little knowledge of intellectual history. But might it not be more worthwhile to encourage study of the Rishonim for charedim so that the complexity of the mesorah could be appreciated and accepted rather than altering centuries of tradition?

Additional statements by R. Schmeltzerfogel vis-à-vis the Rishonim’s views on working for a living and other comments where he challenges the authenticity of their writings and practices in view of charedi sensibilities seem to be at odds with R. Ploni’s own formulation of the criteria for Agudah membership: “The Orthodox community, and the Charedim specifically, ought to welcome into its tent anyone who professes loyalty to the theology of Jewish belief endorsed by Rishonim and Achronim as historically and halachically understood, and whose conduct is governed by classical Jewish law”.

Is condemning – and even deleting – the view of the Rishonim for not conforming their theology to the contemporary zeitgeist consistent with classical Jewish law?

At the risk of over-reaching I will take this critique one step further. Conservative Judaism in this country took root as an attempt to keep Jews Jewish, believing as the movement did, that Orthodoxy was too rigid and rejecting of New World realities. A number of Conservative clergy had Orthodox smicha and some were recognized scholars. The “tshuva” written to permit driving to shul on Shabbos and similar policies were efforts to redefine halachic principles to fit the perceived needs of the people (“sha’as hadchak”?) and give sanction to extrahalachic behaviors so as to maintain a façade of religious adherence. Today it is evident to all how poorly that strategy has played out.

I don’t question the sincerity of Rabbis Wachtfogel, Shapiro, et. al. and their conviction that they are serving Hashem and Klal Yisroel. I believe R. Ploni when he says they are all well-meaning ma’aminim. However, that isn’t the dispute and focusing on personalities obfuscates the real problem.

Hachachom einay berosho”. One who has eyes sees the chasm opening up between the FR path and that of mainstream Orthodoxy. Certainly, this critique may be wide of the mark and all that will evolve from the FR activity is some expansion of what becomes acceptable within the realm of Orthodoxy. Yet truth requires one to acknowledge that the fears R. Slifkin expresses have substance and are grounded in historical precedent. Can we agree that there are real dangers that ought to be faced as potential threats to the Klal and respected accordingly? In the opinion of many in mainstream Orthodoxy, some breaches have already come to pass: Piskei halachah on people and books have been issued without meeting the baalei din or reading the books; Tefillos such as Hanosein teshuah lemelachim have been exorcised from the siddur; The notion that working for a living is a bedi'eved; A demand that known manipulators and crooks be accepted in positions of authority by the frum world. I fear Jimmy Durante was correct when he said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

After making the case for the “big tent” approach to Orthodoxy R. Ploni in fact turned his attention to the “Far Right” and movingly admonished the group for their intemperate excesses and apparent unwillingness to draw some boundaries of their own – a curious rebuke given his reluctance to concretely define where he would place his own borders. While his reproach is welcome, I wonder why it only came in response to R. Slifkin’s essay and not at the very start of “this current firestorm” – i.e., the campaign by R. Wachtfogel and R. Shapiro. Further, putting it at the very end of his response to R. Slifkin seems to suggest that in the spirit of even-handedness R. Ploni must address both sides of the debate, almost pro-forma not to be taken too seriously. The Rav was not timid or time-sensitive in criticizing Rabbi Rackman loudly and clearly. Is that not the model for this discussion?

In reviewing the comments to both articles and the clarifications offered by both R. Ploni and R. Slifkin, I believe it’s worth asking “How far has the Far Right taken us already?” It is not only the practices they advocate that are at issue. By setting the boundary of acceptability further and further to the conservative extreme we are all pulled away from the standards of the past, both in personal practices and in our worldview. How many in the Charedi community presume the Modern Orthodox to be beneath them for their lack of black hats? Did Chasam Sofer look down upon his Western European peers with disdain because they had no yeshivishe shprach supplementing their Torah greatness? R. Ploni is eloquent in his description of Charedi Orthodoxy as combining the best of the Rishonim with modern Charedi hashkofah. Yet where is the balance point between those two sources of knowledge and what influences where the set point is established? The Far Right always exerts pressure on our thinking and behavior. Some – the Far Left – pull fiercely in the opposite direction to countervail a rightward tilt, sometimes with undesirable consequences. Unfortunately, many in the Charedi world take no notice of this drift, subtly reframing their perceptions, allowing it to erode their commitment to Chazal and Rishonim and diminishing their regard for those who choose a more traditional Torah way. I don’t live like the yid in Teaneck, Engelwood, Riverdale, etc. but I recognize there are characteristics of such a lifestyle to admire and even elevate above my own - combining Torah with derech eretz, contributing to the national economy, being self-sufficient and teaching their children to likewise be self-sufficient, following dina d'malchusa, expressing hakaras hatov to their host nation, being honest about the theological views of the Rishonim. Can the Charedim do the same, respect someone whose adherence to many aspects of tradition surpasses one’s own without denigrating their actions or motives?

I would add one final observation. There are many who dismiss the debate over the acceptance or rejection of the Far Right as “same old, same old” and see it as simply a recapitulation of familiar Jewish infighting. Maybe so; maybe not. There is a psychological phenomenon known as the Normalcy Bias. It’s the cognitive process by which we seek to diminish the prospect of danger by identifying elements of an event or trend as something we’ve seen or been through before and survived without needing to take drastic action. It’s been used to explain for example why people stay in their homes even when confronted by imminent disaster like a flood or a hurricane – or a Holocaust. “I got through something just like this before and I can do it again”. There are some challenges to the future of our continuity that may call for extraordinary responses.

(Note: The purpose of this satire is not to challenge the campaign against the deviations of the Far Left, but rather to question why there is no similar campaign against the deviations of the Far Right.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Wisdom of ArtScroll

Some of you may have done a double-take upon reading the title of this post. But this post really is about the wisdom of ArtScroll. And I'm not being sarcastic.

Of course, like many others, I have my criticisms of ArtScroll's revisionism in some places, and I am deeply disappointed at their having omitted Rav Hirsch's critical letters on Aggadata from Shemesh Marpe. But they handle mermaids with great wisdom.

Today, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of "the people of the sea," which I discuss at length in my book Sacred Monsters. In brief: The Gemara provides a perfectly accurate account of dolphins. Rashi, however, for reasons that I discuss in my book, (mis)understood the Gemara to be referring to mermaids. Which, in the view of most (but not all) people, do not exist.

Now, Rav Aharon Feldman, in his much-criticized defense of the ban on my books, claimed that it is only Chazal (the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud) that have divinely-acquired infallible knowledge about the natural world, and not the Rishonim (the scholars of the medieval period). And Dr. Marc Shapiro recently suggested that "that the opponents of Slifkin do not assume that together with Hazal the greatest rishonim are also infallible on scientific matters."

But it is abundantly clear that for many, many people in the charedi (and even non-charedi) world, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim erred in anything. Rishonim k'malachim! I remember only too well how furious many people were at my pointing out that elephants don't jump, contrary to the statement of one of the Tosafists. And when it comes to Rashi, the most beloved of all Rishonim, who is said to have written with ruach hakodesh (however one understands that), people recoil in horror at the notion that he could have been wrong about anything,

But on the other hand, the Gemara is obviously talking about dolphins. It even calls them dolphins.

So let's see how Artscroll handles it in their footnote:
“There are marine animals,” writes Rashi, “half of whose bodies are of human form, and half in the form of a fish. They are called sereine in French.” Rashi clearly refers to mermen (the French sereine derives from Latin siren, meaning mermaid), whose existence was widely accepted in the ancient and medieval world and indeed until recent centuries. (According to Raavad in his commentary to Toras Kohanim 3:7, sirens are mentioned as well in Toras Kohanim ibid.) As understood by Rashi, then, the Baraisa teaches that humans and mermen can interbreed.

Others suggest that the dolphins of the Baraisa are none other than the familiar dolphins of the order Cetaceans. These endothermic (warm-blooded) air-breathing mammals “reproduce as do humans” (following the variant kbnei adam) in that they copulate ventrum to ventrum (the manner ascribed to humans later in the Baraisa), bear live young, suckle their calves, and rear them intensively for six or seven years, to near adulthood. Dolphins were known by very similar names in the milieu of the Baraisa: Latin delphinus, from Greek delphis. Delphis is related to delphys, meaning womb, so that the genitive delphinos probably denoted [a sea creature] possessed of a womb; the very name dolfinin thus suggests that the animals in question “reproduce as do humans.” Rav Yehudah may have called dolphins sons (or people) of the sea because of their affinity for humans (they commonly approach and accompany boats), and because they often evince humanlike intelligence in their behaviors and social interactions.

Brilliant! They manage to make it clear to more enlightened readers that the Gemara is actually referring to dolphins, while not offending traditionalists by explicitly pointing out that Rashi's explanation is not correct.

Now, some people might be asking why I don't manage to emulate ArtScroll and have a more circumspect "tone." The answer is twofold. First of all, they are writing a very brief footnote. I wrote a full-length book on such topics; when discussing something in so much detail, it's impossible to remain ambiguous. Second, we are writing for different audiences. I am writing for enlightened people who want a thorough discussion of a topic in which the author says it straight rather than using weasel words and ambiguity. ArtScroll, on the other hand, is writing for a much broader audience, including many who are much further to the right, and must be more careful.

And so, while it's not the way that I deal with this topic, I congratulate ArtScroll on the way that they handled it. I would be grateful if readers who attend Daf Yomi can tell me what their maggid shiur said about this topic, as well as what he said about egg-laying bats and gestation periods.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Snake Gestation

(This is a post from a while back which is now greatly revised and re-released in time for Daf Yomi reaching this topic tomorrow).

An oft-cited example of the ability of the Sages to extract scientific knowledge from the Torah is the case of snake gestation.
(The gestation period for) a snake is seven years… How do we know this? Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav…: As it says, “You are cursed from all the domestic animals and from all the beasts of the field” (Bereishis 3:14). If the snake is cursed more than all the domestic animals (which have a gestation period of at least five months), then surely all the more so it is cursed more than the wild animals (whose minimum gestation period is only 50 days)! Rather, it tells you that just as a domestic animal is cursed seven times more than a wild animal – namely., the donkey (which has a gestation period of one year) and the cat (whose gestation period, according the Gemara earlier, is 52 days) – so too is the snake cursed seven times more than the domesticated animal, which results in seven years. (Talmud, Bechoros 8a)

There is a different version of this story in a later source:
A certain philosopher sought to know the gestation period of a snake. He saw some mating, captured them, placed them in a vessel, and fed them. When the elders arrived in Rome, they saw Rabban Gamliel, and asked him, After how long does a snake give birth? He was not able to answer them, and his face fell. Rabbi Yehoshua met him, and asked him why he looked so down. He replied, I was asked one question, and I was not able to answer it. Rabbi Yehoshua asked, What was it? He replied, After how long does a snake give birth? Rabbi Yehoshua said, After seven years. Asked Rabban Gamliel, How do you know? Rabbi Yehoshua replied, The dog is an impure wild animal, and gives birth after fifty days, and an impure domesticated animal gives birth after twelve months; and it says, “You are cursed from all the domestic animals and from all the beasts of the field” – just as a domestic animal is cursed seven times more than a wild animal, so too is the snake cursed seven times more than the domesticated animal. Towards evening, Rabban Gamliel went out and told them. [The philosopher] began to bang his head against a wall, and said, I worked and exerted myself for seven years [to discover this], and this one comes and holds it out on a cane (i.e. answers lightly). (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 3, os 30)

There are several questions to consider here. First of all, was Rav Yehudah/ Rabbi Yehoshua entirely deriving the information about snake gestation from the Torah, with no previous knowledge about this, or was this an already widespread belief? And was the exegesis his own invention, or something that he received as a tradition? There has long been much dispute amongst Rishonim and Acharonim as to the ultimate source of such Talmudic exegeses, with no less a figure than Chasam Sofer (to Beitzah 5a; also Rambam, Introduction to Commentary to the Mishnah) claiming that they are of human rather than divine origin. (Cf. the Talmudic exegeses about the nature of the firmament, which is not correct, and is thus surely not a Sinaitic tradition.)

Second of all, how does the idea of deriving facts about the natural world from the Torah fit in with the myriad of cases in the Gemara where Chazal did not have any such expectations? As I noted in my monograph on Sod Hashem Liyreyav, the Gemara does not generally believe that the Sages had any special source of knowledge about the natural world. The Talmud states that the rabbis learned agricultural information from the descendants of Seir; Rav relates that he spent eighteen months with a shepherd in order to learn about the blemishes that affect sheep; R. Shimon ben Chalafta is described as having performed experiments to discover information; Rabbi Zeira stated that his lack of knowledge of the natural sciences rendered him incapable of rendering rulings regarding menstrual blood; and we also find that Rebbi considered that the sages were proven wrong in fundamental matters of astronomy by the gentile scholars. Indeed, in the version of the snake story given in the Yalkut, we see that the Sages were not all able to derive whatever biological knowledge they wanted from the Torah. Yet on the other hand, it does seem to show that they considered themselves able to do so in some cases.

But is it actually true that a snake's gestation lasts seven years?

It has been confirmed that female snakes sometimes give birth several years after mating. In general, this seems to be due to their ability to store sperm. It has been suggested that in some extreme cases, it resulted from long term “mummification” of embryos instead.[1] In other cases, snakes have been known to reproduce via parthenogenesis, i.e., without a male.[2] Some scientists suggested in the past that all cases of isolated females giving birth are due to parthenogenesis rather than storing sperm or embryos from an earlier mating,[3] but recent genetic research has shown that in at least some cases, sperm has been stored from earlier matings.[4]

Yet although Rav Yehudah’s statement seems to be an astonishing example of scientific information being extracted from the Torah, there are some serious difficulties with it.

First of all, although in one instance it was recorded that an Arafura file snake laid eggs exactly seven years after mating,[5] this was in one case alone. The maximum on record is nine years, with a garter snake,[6] and the majority of snakes do not store the sperm at all; even with those that do, it is usually for far less than seven years. There is no type of snake that has a seven-year gestation - instead, individual snakes can give birth for any number of time after mating, from several weeks to nine years or more.

Second of all, the source for the Talmud's statement is an exegesis based on the ration of snake gestation to donkey gestation being the same as that of donkey gestation to the gestation of a cat (or, in the Yalkut version, a dog) - seven times greater. But whereas the gestation period of a donkey is indeed one year, the gestation period of cats is 61-69 days and that of dogs is 59-65 days - quite a bit more than the 52 and 50 days stated in the Gemara. In which case, the data about animals used as the very basis for the exegesis is incorrect.

In conclusion, then: It would seem that in general, Chazal did not expect themselves to all be able to extract desired information about the natural world from the Torah, but there are cases when such an ability is proposed. The Gemara engages in some polemics about how the Sages were smarter than the gentiles - while elsewhere it takes it as a matter of course that this was not necessarily the case. But even in cases where some Sages are presented as being able to extract such information from the Torah, this is not (according to many Rishonim and Acharonim) a matter of them conveying a Sinaitic tradtion or utilizing Divine inspiration, but rather their own ingenuity. In the case of snake gestation, while this initiative resulted in a claim about snakes that is sometimes valid, it is not ultimately correct, and the data used as the basis for the calculation was not correct.


NOTES

[1] R. Shine, P. Harlow, J. S. Keogh, and Boeadi, (1995), ‘Biology and Commercial Utilization of Achrochordid Snakes, with Special Reference to Karung (Achrochordus javanicus),’ Journal of Herpetology, 29 (3): 352-360.

[2] Parthenogenesis has been documented in some lizards, insects, and other species including domestic turkeys.

[3] University of Arizona herpetologist Gordon W. Schuett, in “Snake Birth An Unlikely Feat,” The Detroit News, Monday October 6th 1997.

[4] Warren Booth and Gordon W. Schuett, "Molecular genetic evidence for alternative reproductive strategies in North American pitvipers (Serpentes: Viperidae): long-term sperm storage and facultative parthenogenesis." See http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228355.200-snake-stores-sperm-for-five-years-before-giving-birth.html

[5] Magnusson, W. E. (1979), “Production of an embryo by an Achrochordus javanicus isolated for seven years,” Copiea: 744-745.

[6] Robert T. Mason, Department of Zoology, Oregon State University.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chazal Were Right (At Least, According To Me)

Few pages of Gemara are more significant to the Torah/science debate than Bechoros 7b/8a, which Daf Yomi reaches this week. We have already discussed the inaccuracy of the statement that bats (or owls) lay eggs and nurse their young. There are several other statements on that pages that are inaccurate, such as those describing the gestation periods of various animals, the statement that camels copulate back-to-back (which probably stems from the fact that, at all times other than during copulation, the camel's member is directed posteriorally; see too this post), and Rashi's account of mermaids and of how kosher fish sit on their eggs to keep them warm. However, there are other statements on that page which are accurate - at least, according to me, but not according to others.

Let's start with the following statement:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the bat, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)
In my view, aside for the inaccurate statement about the bat, the general rule expressed here is correct. Now, you might be wondering as follows: But what about the duck-billed platypus and echidna? They lay eggs, but nurse their young! Don't they show that Chazal's statement was mistaken?

You might ask a similar question about the continuation of the Gemara, which states that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish. As far as I am concerned, this is a valid statement. Yet the more zoologically knowledgeable of you might be wondering: What about the bonobo and stitchbird?

But as far as I'm concerned, platypus and echidnas and bonobos and stitchbirds do not present a problem. They are obscure animals from remote regions. Chazal never in the first place meant to be giving an absolute statement covering all species in the universe. True, Chazal did not know about the platypus or echidna or bonobo or stitchbird, but if you were to go back in a time-machine and tell them, they would justifiably shrug them off as irrelevant.

This is something that I explained at great length in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. It is based on the Gemara's own principles that one does not need to concern oneself with rare cases (miyuta d’miyuta), and the principle that ain lemedin min haklalos, “we do not take general rules as being absolute,” and they can have exceptions. On numerous occasions, the Rishonim themselves observed that there were exceptions to the Talmud’s seemingly absolute statements about factual reality. They pointed out that such minor exceptions do not undermine these rules because they were not intended to be absolute in the first place. And R. Yonasan Eybeschitz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg make precisely this point about the Talmud’s seemingly absolute rule that all fish with scales have fins.

I applied this principle to further cases. The Gemara states that there are only four animals with one kosher sign; I argued that there are further types, but these do not undermine the Gemara's statement. Likewise, I argued that the principle of psik raisha velo yamus would not be undermined by discovering a headless chicken that survives.

But there are those who are vehemently opposed to my approach. They insist that if the Gemara states a principle, it is absolute and can have no exceptions. According to them, when Chazal said that there are four animals with one kosher sign, there cannot be any others; when Chazal said that every fish with scales has fins, this is an absolute principle that demonstrates confidence in supernatural wisdom. For these people, then, the platypus, echidna, bonobo and stitchbird contradict Chazal's principles. How ironic!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rabbi Adam In Eden

Take a look at this fascinating picture, of Adam in the Garden of Eden, that my middle daughter brought home from gan (those who are reading this via email subscription may have to visit www.rationalistjudaism.com in order to see it):

Now, there is a diverse readership here, but let's allow them a traditional reading of Genesis, that there was a man in the Garden of Eden. Let's not even ask why animals from central Africa are there. What struck me is the number of ways in which this picture contradicts traditional Jewish views on the matter, as well as explicit statements in the Torah! Let me count the ways:

1) Why is wearing clothes? He is supposed to be naked!
2) Why he is wearing a kippah? He wasn't Jewish!
3) Why does he have such a long beard? Isn't he supposed to be twenty years old?

I presume that the artist's mind works as follows: Adam=Biblical figure who was not evil=venerable rabbi.

(My daughter is clearly out of touch by coloring his clothing pink. Only Modern Orthodox males wear pink shirts.)

But I'm not in such a strong position from which to criticize. People often ask me how to teach Maaseh Bereishis to children. My reply: I have a hard enough time teaching it to adults! I really don't know how to successfully teach it to children. My feeling is that one has to adopt a gradual approach, while always making it clear to them that their understanding will still undergo further refinement.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Bats Get My Goat

My post on Bat Responsa generated astonishingly diverse feedback. Some people thought that it was one of my best posts ever, while others, who are fundamentally in agreement with my approach, were nevertheless very distressed at its perceived inappropriate disrespect (or even at its perceived appropriate disrespect). Eventually, due the accumulation of criticism from those with the same worldview as my own, I decided to revise it. But I would like to explain why I wrote it in the first place, and why I think it resonated so strongly with some people.

As everyone knows, I went through a very rough time a few years ago when my books were banned. While it's mostly died down, it's not completely extinct; I still occasionally suffer from its effects. The main issue which started the entire controversy is my stating that in some cases, Chazal's statements about the natural world were not correct, such in their description of spontaneous generation of mice from mud, in their describing the sun as going behind the sky at night, of bats laying eggs, and so on.

Now, if someone were to say, "Chazal were correct; there really are mice that are generated from dirt, there really are bats that lay eggs, and Chazal never claimed that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and I reject the views of all the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim who say otherwise," then it wouldn't bother me. At least they would be making it very clear that they are operating within an entirely different worldview and approach to Torah.

But what really gets my goat is that those who condemn me refuse to ever get into specifics. They issue platitudes about how "there are cogent answers to all these problems," about how "on a certain level, these statements are always true," about how "every seeming contradiction can be shown to be of no consequence to a seasoned mind," and about how they are teaching "The Torah of Science." But they do not ever get into the nitty-gritty of the actual cases discussed in the Gemara, and of the actual statements of the Rishonim and Acharonim!

Rav Aharon Feldman claimed that there are cogent answers to all these problems which he will address in a future essay. He wrote that six years ago, and nothing has been forthcoming - despite the fact that these are the problems which led to what Rav Feldman considers to be "probably the public issue most damaging to the honor of Torah and to its leaders in recent memory." And he refuses to address the statements of many Torah authorities who adopt the rationalist approach in these areas.

Rav Moshe Shapiro was vehement in his condemnation of me, insisting that there is no authentic Torah view that Chazal erred in science, and turned several of my colleagues against me. But he never gets into detail about the actual cases that I dealt with! He adopts the Maharal's view as a general approach, that Chazal were always speaking about metaphysics, but does not address the fact that ALL the Rishonim and plenty of Acharonim felt differently (see my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night.") A friend of mine recently approached Rav Moshe and tried to get him to address the opinions of the Rishonim and Acharonim on the topic of the sun's path at night. Rav Moshe replied with typically cryptic platitudes and wouldn't give a straight answer.

The same can be said for all the others that jump on the ban-wagon. They are so eager to condemn the rationalist approach as being the aberrant approach of young Natan Slifkin, and to proudly espouse platitudes about Chazal's knowledge. You'd think that if that's the case, they would go through all the cases that I discuss in my books, and all the sources that I discuss, and explain what they believe to be the correct approach - but they don't.

Why do I bring all this up now? Because next week, Daf Yomi is reaching several discussions in the Gemara and Rishonim that are not scientifically correct. Bats laying eggs, mermaids, super-long gestation periods, and so on. Many, many people experience spiritual turmoil upon encountering these passages. I've actually provided an approach to dealing with them, which I received from my own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, and which is in turn well-grounded in the Rishonim and Acharonim. But few are they that even dare even mention my name. Instead, people display allegiance to Rabbonim who condemn me and who claim to have the "right" answers to these cases but who never actually address either the Gemara's cases or the Rishonim and Acharonim that deal with them!

That's what really gets my goat. I apologize if I spoke out of line. But I'm only human, after all.

(See too this very important post: The Mystique of Silence.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World

(A rather poorly-edited version of this article appears in today's edition of The Jerusalem Post.)

Since ancient times, cultures have perceived significance in the number seven. In antiquity, a list was compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the nineteenth century, lists were compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages and the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind. Mohandas Gandhi made a list of the Seven Blunders of the World. And disappointment reigned amongst many supporters of Israel this week, when the Dead Sea did not win enough votes to make the new list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Meanwhile, the Israel Tourism Ministry is arranging a vote for the Seven Wonders of Israel. But I would like to propose a different list: The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World, with “world” not being a geographical location, but rather the full realm of the Jewish experience.

1. Monotheism

There is an old ditty which says, “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.” One of the many rejoinders is “It’s not so odd; the Jews chose God.” Yet it is that very choosing of God which is odd and remarkable! As Henri Frankfort, archeologist and Egyptologist, wrote: “The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God. God is not in nature. Neither earth nor sun nor heaven is divine; even the most potent natural phenomena are but reflections of God’s greatness… it needs an effort of the imagination to realize the shattering boldness of a contempt for imagery at the time, and in the particular historical setting, of the Hebrews.” Aside from its role in shaping religion, monotheism also laid the foundation for the rise of science; as several historians of science have noted, the idea that disparate phenomena all follow fundamental “laws” flowed from monotheism. And the billions of adherents of Christianity and Islam are all adopting a monotheism initiated by the Jewish People.

2. The Land of Israel

The land of Israel, promised to Abraham, is small. It does not host the greatest waterfalls or the tallest mountains. But it is nevertheless remarkable within the natural world. Geographically, the land of Israel is at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Within its tiny area, it houses an incredible diversity of landscapes: snowy slopes, tropical beaches, arid deserts and green forests. As a result of all this, the land of Israel is home to an astonishingly diverse range of flora and fauna. It is the southernmost range of many northern species, the westernmost range of eastern species, and the northernmost range of southern species. As the Midrash states, Israel is the center of the world.

3. Torah

Literally meaning “teaching,” the word Torah is often used in the narrow sense of referring to the Five Books of Moses. But in its broadest sense, it refers to the entire gamut of Jewish teachings. This marvelous body of literature chronicles a nation’s efforts over millennia to connect with the Divine, to improve the individual, to regulate society and to stretch the mind. Scripture, Talmud, midrash, philosophy, mysticism, law, ethics—it encompasses every intellectual taste and every aspect of our lives.

4. The Calendar

The wonder of the Jewish calendar is not limited to the way in which it manages to synchronize three entirely unrelated natural phenomena: the rotation of the earth on its axis, the revolution of the moon around the earth, and the revolution of the earth around the sun. The very contents of the Jewish calendar are so much richer than in the joke which describes it as consisting of two types of events: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” and “They tried to kill us, we didn’t win, let’s not eat.” We celebrate national salvation and religious freedom; we observe days of solemnity, repentance and introspection; and we mourn the loss of people and precious elements of our heritage. Most wonderful of all is Shabbat, during which, miraculously, I am able to resist checking my e-mail for a full twenty-four hours.

5. Jewish Survival

The Jewish People, never large in number, have been faced with hatred for over three thousand years. We have been exiled from our home and forced into servitude and exile amongst hostile nations. We have suffered persecution in every one of the numerous countries in which we have lived. Nations faced with far fewer existential threats have disappeared, and yet we have survived. Mark Twain famously asked, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then... passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts… What is the secret of his immortality?” And we made it back to our homeland after two thousand years of exile, an event completely unparalleled in world history.

6. The State of Israel

Like every citizen of Israel, and especially like every oleh, I could rant endlessly about the shortcomings of the State of Israel (though unlike the citizens of our neighboring countries, I could do so without fear of being thrown in prison). But this would be a small-minded perspective that does not take into account the incredible challenges that the state overcomes. Despite having to absorb an enormous number of immigrants in a short span of time, and having to devote a ridiculously large amount of resources to national defense, Israel has managed to create a vibrant democracy, an oasis of prosperity, producing astonishing accomplishments in every field, all while successfully repelling repeated attempts at annihilation.

7. Global Significance

Although numbering only 0.2% of the total world population today, and never having numbered much more than that, the Jewish People have always had an inexplicably large impact upon the world. The spread of monotheism is the most significant example, but we have also made disproportionate contributions in every sphere of knowledge and endeavor. Meanwhile, the United Nations are obsessed with Israel, condemning it more than every other country put together (!). If anything, we are too significant for our own good.

Those are the Seven Wonders of the Jewish World as I see them, which I think are much more wonderful than the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Colossus, schmolossus.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bat Responsa (revised again)


Next week, Daf Yomi reaches a challenging passage in the Gemara:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the bat (atalef), which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)

In contrast to the Talmud’s statement, modern zoology asserts that none of the 950 species of bats lay eggs. It cannot be a platypus or echidna (which lay eggs and nurse their young), since these animals do not fly and the atalef is listed in the Torah as a flying creature. Even if one is to posit that the atalef is a bird, which does lay eggs, there would still be a problem in that the Talmud describes it as nursing its young, which no bird does.

It is likewise not reasonable to address this conflict by arguing that the Talmud is speaking metaphorically. The statement about bats is not aggadata (homiletic discourses), but rather part of a discussion about the natural world. No commentator has ever suggested that it is not meant as a factual statement.

Nor can one solve this conflict by positing that nature has changed. Modern science asserts not only that bats do not lay eggs today, but that they have never laid eggs. The only egg-laying mammals, the duck-billed platypus and echidna, live in Australia and are very physiologically unusual creatures. They are on an extremely remote branch of the mammalian family tree, both geographically and physiologically. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom - and amongst all the millions of known species, no such exceptions have ever been found.

How, then, is one to solve this problem? Here is a guide to a range of different approaches that have been proposed. In some cases I am quoting directly, and in those cases there are quotation marks; in others, I am extrapolating from what they have written elsewhere:

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: "In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal's statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God's law - the receivers, transmitters and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai. …We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own... Can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times?"

Rav Aharon Feldman: There are cogent answers to these questions but these will of necessity, G-d willing, have to be the subject of another article (N.S. - which was never written, nor did he ever volunteer to explain what these "cogent answers" to the questions that had perplexed so many people, and had been the source of all this trouble, actually are). In the meantime we can be sure of one thing: the answers which Slifkin proposed (N.S. - by which means Rav Hirsch et al., but he prefers to pin it on me) are not the right ones."

Rav Uren Reich: "If the Gemara says it, it's emes veyatziv. There's nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara. That’s the emunah that a yid has to have."

Rav Moshe Shapiro: Anyone with the slightest grasp of Chazal will realize that they were not speaking about the physical biology of bats. In the world of pnimiyus, the bat actually does lay eggs.

Rav Yisroel Belsky: "The sages of the Talmud were far advanced in all facets of wisdom and correct in every field of knowledge. They spoke only the truth and were the repository of all wisdom. So-called contradictions between Torah and science never present any problem, because there are none that cannot be resolved with ease; every seeming contradiction can be shown to be of no consequence to a seasoned mind." (He did not respond to my question as to how this actually works out in practice.)

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman: The Gemara is actually referring to the duck-billed platypus of Australia. Note that according to Rabbi Meiselman, the Gemara referred to the platypus with the same name that the Torah uses for the bat, another creature that also has mixed characteristics of mammals and birds, thereby misleading every student of the Gemara for the last 1500 years to mistakenly believe that they were talking about the same creature.

Rabbi Avi Shafran: "I think there’s a level on which it’s true."

Dr. Isaac Betech: B"H Please tell me what exactly why you believe the Talmud to be problematic. Then let us discuss the protocol for an intellectual, multimedia, respectful, protocolized, neutral, public debate on the matter.

Note - In the comments below, Dr. Betech requested that I repeat that this is not a verbatim quote from him on this matter, but rather it is my own extrapolation based on what he has written in similar cases. I then invited him to present his own view on this topic. As you can see in the comments, he responded as follows:
"I am still willing to discuss in an intellectual, multimedia (sources on screen), respectful, protocolized, neutral, public forum with NS or the representative (Jewish or not) he will choose, on any scientific issue relevant to his 5 controversial books, i.e.
1. Creation of the universe (Big Bang Cosmology).
2. Chemical evolution (increasingly complex elements, molecules and compounds developed from the simpler chemical elements that were created in the Big Bang).
3. The age of the universe.
4. Biological evolution (of the species).
5. “Dr. Betech's own model of recent special creation” (as NS named it).
6. The accuracy of science-related statements made by Chaza”l.
7. After the debate on the scientific issues will be concluded, I am also ready to debate the validity of the theological sources presented by NS on these issues."
So I think that my assessment of what he would answer was pretty good!

Personally, I favor Rav Hirsch's approach, which is very well-founded in Chazal, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Acharonim, and which I consider to be the only reasonable explanation. Rav Hirsch also actually gives an approach that can be applied, instead of merely offering platitudes, posturing, and hand-waving. Maybe the others secretly agree with Rav Hirsch, but cannot publicly say so, due to the harm that they believe it could cause to them or to their communities; who knows?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rebellion in the Ranks of Rav Moshe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

London Schedule (so far)

Shabbos November 25/26: Golders Green Synagogue
- Details at this link

Sunday November 27th
Morning:
9:30 am - Rationalist Judaism: The Unknown, Endangered, Dangerous, & Life-saving Approach to Torah
11:00 am - Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions
Entrance Donation: £5 per lecture
Location: 44 Manor Hall Avenue, Hendon, NW4 1NX

8pm: Barnet Synagogue
Topic: "How (Not) To Be A Heretic: What Must A Jew Believe?"
- Details at this link

If anyone has a car and is interested in joining me for hawking/falconry (as reportedly practiced by King David and Rabbeinu Tam - details forthcoming in a fascinating study by R. Leor Jacobi) on Friday 25, please be in touch!

Note that I still have an open slot on Thursday November 24 - please be in touch if you are interested in arranging a lecture.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Who Cares About Evolution?

I have often wondered why some Very Religious People are so hung up on evolution. After all, there are much bigger intellectual threats to traditional Judaism. And there certainly were great Torah authorities who saw no problem with evolution. Why, then, so people obsess over evolution so much?

There are doubtless several reasons for this, but one in particular emerges from another question to be asked on Rabbi Avi Shafran's recent very strange article criticizing the scientific community for failing to be self-critical, which I analyzed in the previous post. It includes a single sentence in which Rabbi Shafran acknowledges that "it may indeed turn out that... as Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch considers possible, that G-d created species through a process that began with a single cell."

Praise is due to Rabbi Shafran for acknowledging that evolution, at least in terms of common ancestry, is not to be ruled out on either scientific or theological grounds. (I wonder if this is due to the complimentary copy of The Challenge Of Creation that I sent to him?) But here's an interesting question: How is it that he felt comfortable saying such a thing, and he is not taking flak for it, in light of the Great Torah/ Science Controversy of 2004-2005?

The answer to all these questions is, I propose, that the kerfuffle over evolution has very little to do with its alleged theological difficulties (which are, after all, easily solved). Rather, it has to do with social identification.

Many scientists, and especially evolutionists, are associated with atheism and are therefore "bad guys" (and a strong perception has developed that it is not just evolutionists, but evolution itself which is inherently anti-religious). Correspondingly, trashing evolution has become associated with the religious camp and its duties. That's why there is so much more passion about fighting evolution rather than other, more serious, intellectual threats.

The important thing here, for people in the Very Religious Camp, is to show allegiance to the home team. And so endorsing the theological acceptability of evolution is fine if it's a throwaway sentence in a lengthy article trashing scientists. What matters is that the clear message is given: Scientists=bad, Us=good.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Which Orthodoxies Should One Be Wary Of?

There is a very strange article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Ami magazine and Cross-Currents, which returns to a theme that he has written about on several previous occasions. It is entitled "Beware of Orthodoxy!" However, the "Orthodoxy" to which he refers is not Orthodox Judaism, but rather orthodox thinking in other disciplines, especially science. Rabbi Shafran criticizes the "idolatry" of "unyielding reverence for currently regnant scientific dogmas" such as evolution. (Strangely, he also mentions the existence of extraterrestrial life - which is in fact far from universally accepted amongst scientists.) He interjects that there is no religious problem with these notions. And he concludes by urging people to remember that "skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method."

I have four questions on his article.

First, while there certainly is a problem of too much rigidity in science, why did Rabbi Shafran paint a picture which is so black? Rabbi Shafran does not consider the possibility that the evolution of life from a single cell has been accepted due to the abundance of evidence for it and the absence of evidence against it! Indeed, even Rabbi Shafran himself writes that "it is always worthwhile to remember that scientific orthodoxies have been toppled by new discoveries." Since that is the case, clearly scientists are not all that closed to orthodoxies being toppled!

Second, what is an article about scientific methodology doing in a magazine about Judaism? According to Rabbi Shafran, there are no religious issues involved in these aspects of science. So why is it relevant to Judaism? (I have my own answer to this question, which will hopefully appear in the next post.)

Third: Rabbi Shafran criticizes "-isms" - such as atheism, communism, nationalism - for being objects of unquestioned veneration. Now, I am no atheist or communist, but it seems to me that those who align themselves to those systems do so because they consider them to be true, meaningful, or beneficial. Couldn't the same be said for another "-ism": Judaism? Surely the worth of a system should be judged by its innate value, and not by whether it is an object of unquestioned veneration - otherwise, couldn't Judaism be subject to the same critique?

Fourth, the irony of a spokesman for the Charedi community criticizing those who have "unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas" is enough to make one choke. Is he not aware that this criticism applies a hundredfold to those in the Charedi community? Or does he believe that scientists should not have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in science, but religious people should have unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas in religion? And if so, why?

(See too this post.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ummm.... no He doesn't.


פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל חַי רָצוֹן
"You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing."

This is considered to be a very important verse. It's so important that it is one of the reasons why the Sages required us to say Ashrei three times a day. It's so important that, according to the Shulchan Aruch, if one forgot to say it with proper concentration, one must recite it again.

When I started yeshivah gedolah, and began to have real kavannah in davvening for the first time in my life, the following question occurred to me. He opens His hand, and satisfies the desire of every living thing? Ummm.... no He doesn't! From eels to elephants, there are creatures that die from hunger or thirst.

I asked this question to my Rosh Yeshivah. As I recall, he was somewhat was taken aback by the question. He eventually suggested that the ratzon mentioned in the verse is not the will of every living creature, but rather the will of God.

This appeared to me to be a rather forced interpretation of the verse. Furthermore, it rather limits the praise that the verse is giving. In the context of the lavish praise that this chapter espouses, it seems rather unlikely that here it is saying that God feeds only those that He wants to feed. Besides, a similar question can be asked about other verses with which no such escape clause exists. Does God really support ALL the fallen, and straighten ALL the bent?

I had a similar question about pesukim regarding bitachon, which seem to imply that if you trust in God, He will help you in the way that you desire. My Rosh Yeshivah claimed that this is really true - that if one has sufficient trust in God, He will do whatever you need. But aside from this being an extremely unhealthy approach to teach young men (it forces them to attempt to brainwash themselves), could it really be the meaning of these verses? Could anyone believe that God is really guaranteed to rescue you from all harm, if you have sufficient trust that He will do so?

Only much later, when I was able to appraise things in a more mature way, did the answer become obvious to me. The authors of these psalms lived in a much harsher world than ours, and were well aware that these statements were not actually factually true. But such psalms are expressing religious sentiments, hopes and wishes. They are describing an idealized form of reality, not the factual reality.

The question that I now have is as follows: How is it that there are so many people who have been saying "You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing" three times a day with great kavannah, but have apparently never thought about what it actually could possibly mean?

Monday, November 7, 2011

With Respect, You're A Kofer

"Lula demistafina (Were I not afraid), I would say that we need to posit a completely novel interpretation."

"Lefi aniyos da'ati (In my lowly opinion), this way of looking at the topic is completely wrong."

"With all due respect, you're an am ha'aretz."

Such prefatory comments often strike me as completely dishonest in light of what follows. If you are genuinely afraid to posit a new interpretation, then don't! If you genuinely consider your opinion to be lowly, then don't denounce others! If you genuinely respect someone, don't insult them!

The truth is that it is very, very difficult to balance respect for others with strong disagreement. I find it to be especially challenging, as a parent, to teach it to my children. But there is one figure in Jewish history who stands out as striking an incredible balance between the two.

Ramban, a.k.a. Nachmanides, had strong and well-earned opinions. He viewed many of Rambam's views as being tremendous perversions of Judaism (not without reason). At the beginning of parashas Vayera, he discusses Rambam's radical view that all stories in the Torah concerning angels took place in visions rather than in real life. Ramban concludes that "this view contradicts Scripture; it is forbidden to listen to such things, and all the more so to believe them."

Strong words indeed. Ramban has effectively just deemed Rambam's view as heresy. And there are other places, too, where he uses strong language in denouncing Rambam's radical opinions. Yet this was the same Ramban who wrote an important letter defending Rambam in the Maimonidean controversy!

Nor was it only with Rambam that Ramban was able to find respect even while considering his opinions to be near, or actual, heresy. When writing to the rabbis of Northern France, whom he had heard to view God as being corporeal, Ramban addresses them with great respect, as he politely informs them of the error of their ways.

It's not easy to respect those with whom one disagrees so strongly. We would do well to learn from Ramban.

(See too Bernard Septimus, "Open Rebuke and Concealed Love: Nahmanides and the Andalusian Tradition," in Isadore Twersky, ed., Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 11-34)

(On another note: If you live in London, and you are free on Monday November 28, please contact me!)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interview with a Post-Charedi Jew

My article on Post-Haredim was picked up by several media outlets and caused quite a stir. I received some interesting complimentary feedback from some very well-known figures in the Charedi world, but unfortunately I cannot reveal their names. In preparing the article, I interviewed several people whom I identified as post-Chareidi in order to clarify the reasons for their change. One of them, a very serious Ben Torah who spent many years in kollel and still comes across as Chareidi in many ways, sent me his answers by e-mail:

I decided to become Post-Chareidi due to:

(A) My disillusionment with the Chareidi leadership. In particular:
(1) Their disconnectedness from the economic situation, or more accurately - fate of Chareidi society and instead of providing solutions, blasting people and organizations who are, and persisting forcefully in their agenda of keeping everyone in learning/ begging at all costs
(2) Their intolerance, and worse: their breeding of intolerance, for any school of thought deviating even in the slightest from their own; each leader creating thereby several elitist and bigoted societies
(3) Their narrow viewpoint regarding Chazal-and-science, and social issues
(4) Their handling of their reaction to Rabbi Slifkin's books.

(B) My growing distance from the lifestyle, habits and attitudes of the classic Chareidi society members. In particular:
(1) Their contempt for Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox people
(2) Their looking down upon working men as a lower class member of society - unless he donates sufficient money to Chareidi causes, in which case he actually becomes a member of the highest class of Chareidi society (after the Gedolim)
(3) Contempt for general knowledge
(4) Demand of a learning-only lifestyle as an ideal even in the case of economic lack, to the point of lacking fulfillment of familial, moral and social obligations
(5) Their, up until recently, indifference to environmental issues and issues that pertain to the health and stability of society outside of moral issues
(6) Their attitude towards national responsibility outside of the spreading of Jewish practice and belief.

(C) My exposure to, and adoption of objective analysis of alternative schools of thought and lifestyles to Chareidi thought and lifestyle.

This response was fairly typical of what others told me.

In other news, I was pleased to read this article in Ha-aretz, of all places, about post-post-Zionism.

And in yet other news, I still have some openings in my February lecture tour in New York - please email me if you would like to arrange something.