Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rav Shlomo Fisher and the Scientific Accuracy of Scripture

Rav Shlomo Fisher, Rosh Yeshivah of Itri, is a very interesting person. Unlike most Roshei Yeshivah, he has extensive knowledge of theology. But his views can be surprising. A friend of mine, who has had many conversations with him, described him as being great in that he is "totally unpredictable and inconsistent"!

I recently came across two fascinating short pieces by Rav Fisher. One was an extremely harsh condemnation of the rishon R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi. (Follow the link to see a response by Rav Shmuel Ashkenazi).

But while Rav Fisher doesn't specify the full range of his objections, it would not appear that he objects to Ibn Kaspi's use of the principle Dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam, "The Torah speaks in the language of men," which I have cited on numerous occasions in articles and discussed in a blog post. For I just looked at a paragraph by Rav Fisher which I cited in Sacred Monsters, and noticed that the preceding paragraphs address precisely this point. In Drashos Beis Yishai, ma'amar hamo'ach vehalev, footnote 4, he raises the question that Scripture as well as Chazal clearly describe the soul as residing in the heart rather than the brain, whereas we know that the heart merely serves to pump blood. Rav Fisher answers that dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam. He notes that Rambam explained that Yechezkel's vision of the Chariot includes the incorrect belief that the celestial spheres make noise, because prophecy appears according to the worldview of the recipient, even if that worldview is inaccurate.

(On this point, see Guide for the Perplexed II:8, with the commentaries of Efodi, Shem Tov, Narvoni, and Abarbanel in Ta’anos, 4. For further discussion, see Warren Zev Harvey, “How to Begin to Study Moreh Nevuchim,” Da’at 21 (1988) 5-23 pp. 21-23 (in Hebrew). Ralbag was also of this view; see his commentary to Gen. 15:4 and to Job, end of ch. 39. My thanks to Dr. Marc Shapiro for these references.)

Accordingly, Rav Fisher is of the same view as Ibn Kaspi, as well as Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, that Scripture itself need not be scientifically accurate; it packages its messages in the worldview of the people that received it.

(See too my monograph The Question of the Kidney's Counsel.)

23 comments:

  1. How dare you! This has absolutely nothing to do with Beth Shemesh! :)

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  2. "Unlike most Roshei Yeshivah, he has extensive knowledge of theology."

    I guess that's well-known? (Not about R' Fisher's knowledge about theology, but about the others' non-extensive knowledge.)

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  3. Pliny, Rav Elyashiv banned R. Slfkin's books precisely for this reason - because R. Slifkin was introducing aspects of Jewish theology which are unknown to those who have non-extensive knowledge of it.

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  4. "that Scripture itself need not be scientifically accurate; it packages its messages in the worldview of the people that received it."

    Once you go that route it's hard not to feel that it packages its messages in the worldview of the people that wrote it. It's not a logically required conclusion, but pragmatically it's something people are sure to at least feel the tug of.

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  5. I've read several small pieces and quotes from R Fisher, and he always appears surprisingly open-minded for his billing. been trying to get a copy of his seforim (Drashos Beis Yishai) for a couple of years with no luck in NY and even after sending some people around in meah shearim. Any idea whethere his books are just out-of-print or subtly banned?

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  6. SQ: The question of whether the Torah is written by God or by human beings is completely separate from this discussion. The divine origin of the Torah is something frum Jews (and many among the less-observant as well) accept on faith based on ancient traditions. It's not something that can be proven, which is why it is one of Rambam's 13 principles.

    IMO, your statement about "the worldview of the people that wrote it" is really a moot question.

    For those who deny the divine authorship of the Torah, it's self-obvious. A human author can never write with more knowledge than he has on-hand at the time.

    For those who believe in the divine authorship of the Torah, then it assumes perfect knowledge on the part of the author. If there are discrepancies between it and scientific observation, then either science is wrong or the Torah is deliberately using inaccurate/incorrect language to make the higher-level concepts understandable/acceptable to the people that originally received it.

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  7. No idea, but it's on the Otzar HaChochma database.

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  8. "Unlike most Roshei Yeshivah, he has extensive knowledge of theology."


    Since when do Jews use the term "theology"?

    I still have a strong revulsion for that word which I picked up from A. J. Heschel, not exactly a Chareidi fanatic, back in the 1960's.

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  9. Note that R. Ashkenazi's response is not exactly a rousing defense of ibn Caspi.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  10. "It's not something that can be proven, which is why it is one of Rambam's 13 principles."

    I'm not sure I've ever heard the Rambam's principles described as the unprovables of Judaism; we should not be misled because people call them "ikkarie emunah," which he did not. On the contrary, I suspect the Rambam felt these were entirely provable (citing internal evidence from Scripture, of course).

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  11. been trying to get a copy of his seforim (Drashos Beis Yishai) for a couple of years

    The Rav is a neighbor of mine. Want me to ask for you?

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    1. Hey! I have also been looking for a copy of the sefer for years. Any idea where I can get one?

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  12. Rav Fisher appears content with the talmudic aphorism, "the torah speaks the language of men", i.e. idiomatically. However, he also maintains that every letter in the torah is significant and has been accurately preserved. If memory serves me, he was the rabbinic adviser to Doron Witztum when the latter considered devoting himself to torah codes work rather than continuing his degree in physics. The question had arisen that an equidistant letter scheme makes sense only if the torah (at least, Genesis) is letter perfect. Rav Fisher is said to have counseled Witztum to accept that proposition and to continue with his codes work. Subsequently Rav Fisher and 4 other prominent rabbanim in Israel gave their written approbation to the codes work and decried its critics.

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  13. IIRC, Most of the ikkarim use the term itaqqad which means knowledge.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  14. "for those who believe in the Divine authorship of the Torah, it assumes perfect knowledge."

    Shamino, with all due respect, maybe that assumption is mis-placed. Nowhere does the Torah EVER make that claim fo itself. So why super-impose something on it that creates a conflict?

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  15. Y. Aharon -

    He does NOT say that. I just picked up Derashos Ben Yishai today (Judaica Plaza in Lakewood). He clearly acknowledges Chasairos, etc. But he says that it is foolish to point that out. Because whatever Torah we have is the Torah that Hashem's Hashgacha dictated that should be in use. Therefore every letter is significant because this is the Torah despite Chasairos, etc. (I assume though that he would have to only allow codes that fit all current Torah's.)

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  16. "The question had arisen that an equidistant letter scheme makes sense only if the torah (at least, Genesis) is letter perfect."

    As an aside this premise appears to be incorrect, at least according to the code researchers. Subsequent tests have been done on extant scrolls that deviate from the original test scroll. The results have still come out statistically significant, albeit not to the same degree.

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  17. "he also maintains that every letter in the torah is significant and has been accurately preserved"

    That contradicts explicit gemaras, midrashim, and rishonim. At best it is a machloket.

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  18. I must confess to not having read Rav Fisher's sefarim. I based my statement about a letter-perfect torah simply on the basis of his having encouraged Doron Witztum to abandon a career in order to develop the computer torah codes. The argument that the text we now have has been divinely guided so as to preserve the equidistant letter scheme of the codes is impossible to disprove, but is hardly reasonable. The code itself is quite arbitrary even if it preserves mathematical consistency. GOD would have gone through much 'trouble' just to guarantee that the text of Genesis would seem to satisfy those arbitrary procedures.

    The argument about statistical significanse would seem to have little bearing when dealing with an understandable text, i.e. consisting of ordered letters. One could also raise the objection that a paired listing of names and dates should not only be highly ranked relative to permuted list pairs, but should rank first - if the torah actually codes for the correct pairs.

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  19. S.( January 11, 2012 5:35 PM): "I'm not sure I've ever heard the Rambam's principles described as the unprovables of Judaism;"

    I don't have the[ secondary] source with me, and I cant yet find it in the original, but I remember the Rambam being cited, in the Guide, as saying that just to prove, beyond doubt, one Yesod Torah( I think he gives God's existence as the example), it would take far more than a human's lifetime to do, to say nothing of proving the rest, and therefore we are fortunate to have our Mesorah to rely on, for these foundations.

    It could that this was what Shamino was referring to.

    S.( ibid.): "On the contrary, I suspect the Rambam felt these were entirely provable (citing internal evidence from Scripture, of course)."

    In that sense, they were "provable" as being Jewish fundamentals, not as being universal realities.

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  20. Tamir: I think you are referring to the end of Guide 2:24, where Maimonides states we cannot prove that the world was created, and should therefore rely on Mosaic prophecy. (Also see the end of
    2:23.) However, earler he states that we can show on the basis of dialectical arguments that creation is more probable than eternity. More important, contrary to what you think, he states many times in the Guide (se, for example, 2:2 and 2:25) that we CAN demonstrate the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God. For the Rambam, belief in the "mesorah" without belief in God-- and that belief again is based on reason--makes no sense.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  21. I believe Tamir was referring to a different passage in the Guide.
    Book I chap. 34:
    http://press.tau.ac.il/perplexed/chapters/chap_1_34.htm
    מכאן שבהכרח אין מנוס למבקש את השלמות האנושית מלהתאמן תחילה במקצוע ההיגיון, אחר-כך במתמטיקה - לפי הסדר - אחרי-כן במדעי הטבע15, ולאחר זאת במטפיסיקה16. אנו מוצאים רבים אשר דעתם17 נעצרת באחת החוכמות האלה. גם אם אין דעתם18 נרתעת, יש שהמוות קוטע את חייהם כשהם באחת החוכמות-המכינות. אִילו לא ניתנה לנו שום דעה בדרך המסורת19, ולא היינו מודרכים אל שום דבר באמצעות משל, אלא היינו מחויבים לתפושׂ תפישׂה20 שלמה באמצעות הגדרות עצמיות ולאמת באמצעות הוכחה מופתית את מה שמבקשים לאמת - דבר שאינו אפשרי אלא לאחר ההכנות הממושכות האלה - היה זה גורם שכּל בני-האדם ימותו מבלי לדעת אם יש אלוה לעולם או אין אלוה לעולם, לא כל שכן אם יש לקבוע לגביו קביעה21 או לשלול ממנו חיסרון. לעולם רק אחד מעיר ושנים ממשפחה (ירמיה ג', 14) היו נחלצים מכליון זה.
    הבודדים, והם השֹרידים אשר ה' קורא (יואל ג', 5)22, אין השלמות - אשר היא התכלית - אפשרית להם אלא לאחר ההכנות, שהרי שלמה הסביר שהצורך בהכנות הוא הכרחי ושאין להגיע אל החוכמה האמיתית אלא לאחר התאמנות. הוא אמר: אם קהה הברזל, והוא לא פָנים קִלְקַל, וַחֲיָלים יְגַבֵּר, וְיִתְרוֹן הכשֵיר חָכמה (קהלת י', 10), ואמר: שמע עצה וקבל מוסר למען תחכם באחריתך (משלי י"ט, 20).

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  22. A Reader: Thanks for the reference. You are probably right. I'm embarrassed I didn't think of it myself. This Saadyanic type of argument, where revelation is shortcut, of course, does not stop the Rambam from specifically asserting that some people can arirve at knowledge of God through reason. Indeed, Maimonides in the Guide consistently argues that God's existence, unity, and incorpreality can be demonstrated.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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