Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pulling Teeth and Presenting Opinions

This is part five of my response to Rabbi Bleich's 9000 word article in Tradition that responds to my 1000 word letter. (Links: My letter, Rabbi Bleich's article (not free), Part one of my response, part two, part three, and part four.)

I. Like Pulling Teeth

We now reach Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner, author of Dor Revi'i, who acknowledges that Chazal were mistaken about spontaneous generation, but considers their ruling to be nonetheless binding. In my letter, I voiced my surprise that Rabbi Bleich did not mention his position in his lengthy survey of halachic opinions in this matter. I added that Rav Glasner's position is particularly valuable because he acknowledges that Chazal were really talking about spontaneous generation (as all the Rishonim and Acharonim observed, but as Rabbi Bleich disputes), that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation (as is adequately scientifically proved, though not according to Rabbi Bleich), and yet maintains the halachah.

Rabbi Bleich begins his discussion of Rav Glasner by saying that "Rabbi Glasner’s comments are similarly not apropos." However, he does not show this to be the case. Instead, he begins with a lengthy description of Rav Glasner's position. Then, Rabbi Bleich claims that according to Rav Glasner, the Oral Law could not possibly contain a false statement, such as that the moon is made of green cheese. As evidence for this, Rabbi Bleich engages in a lengthy presentation of Rav Glasner's idea that the Torah was given to the Jewish People due to their intellectual honesty (yes, I know what you're thinking), and concludes this presentation by saying that "Rabbi Glasner would claim that God bestowed upon the people of Israel the intelligence necessary to ensure that, in expounding the Oral Law and committing it to writing, they would not rely upon specious reasoning."

After all this, though, Rabbi Bleich is forced to admit the truth, since it is stated unambiguously in black-and-white in Dor Revi'i, and observes that "Rabbi Glasner, in the introduction to his Dor Revi’i, s.v. u-temiha, does concede that, were present-day scientific information available to the Sages, they would not have permitted the killing of kinim on Shabbat." I.e., that Chazal based their ruling on a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation. Well, there you go! That is precisely the position I was reporting! Rav Glasner believed it to be the case that, in expounding the Oral Law and committing it to writing, the people of Israel relied upon mistaken scientific beliefs. Which makes all Rabbi Bleich's discussion about the moon being made of green cheese and the people of Israel not relying on "specious reasoning" either irrelevant, misleading, or incorrect. And which means that, contrary to Rabbi Bleich's claim, Rabbi Glasner’s comments are entirely apropos. And that Rabbi Bleich's statement that "Even if the view of Dor Revi’i... would lead to the conclusion attributed to them in the letter to the editor..." is wrong - his view is exactly as I cited it.

Why does it take so much effort, distraction and apparent attempts at obfuscation before Rabbi Bleich actually admits that Rav Glasner says precisely what I reported him as saying?

II. Presenting Opinions

Rabbi Bleich then explains that Rav Glasner's view is a singular position, and that he is "rejecting the views of numerous highly-respected and more authoritative predecessors." He adds that "Halakhic decision-making is not a matter of picking and choosing among precedents consigned to the cutting floor of Halakhah. It most certainly does not consist of seeking resolutions unencumbered by “unappealing consequences” and then engaging in sophistry to justify those resolutions.

First of all, I was not making any halachic decisions. My letter pointed out that in an article purportedly presenting a thorough discussion of this topic, the view of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog should also be presented. Rabbi Hershel Schechter gives their view a prominent role in his discussion of this matter. I do not see how Rabbi Bleich has remotely justified leaving out a discussion of their view in his much lengthier discussions. He certainly discusses many other views that are even older and more obscure.

Second, while I was not making any halachic decisions, I did write that their approach is the most salient, cogent, historically accurate, and avoids the unappealing consequences of Pachad Yitzchak (who says that the halachah should change). Rabbi Bleich does not like "picking and choosing among precedents consigned to the cutting floor" - but Rav Glasner's and Rav Herzog's interpretation of the Gemara (i..e. that Chazal were talking about spontaneous generation of lice) has the precedent of all the Rishonim and Acharonim, whereas Rabbi Bleich's favored interpretation (that Chazal knowingly dismissed microscopic lice eggs) has zero precedent! And unlike the other approach endorsed by Rabbi Bleich, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog acknowledge that spontaneous generation does not and never did occur. Surely salience and cogency should be factors in evaluating halachic decisions! And I don't see why halachic decision-making does not consist of seeking resolutions unencumbered by unappealing consequences - the anarchy that would result from allowing halachah to be constantly re-evaluated is no different from the anarchy that Sefer HaChinnuch uses to justify Lo Sasur.

"Engaging in sophistry in order to justify seeking appealing resolutions"? To me, that sounds like a perfect description of someone who claims it cogent to believe that Chazal never believed in spontaneous generation, and who misrepresents those who observed otherwise.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Acknowledging Dissenting Views

NOTE: I wish to retract my statement in the previous post in which I described Rabbi Dr. David Shabtai's book as siding with those who do not accept brain death. I have not read the book myself and was merely relying upon hearsay. I apologize if I have given the wrong impression.

Everyone has a bias towards interpreting the views of respected figures as matching their own. But with anti-rationalists (and hyper-rationalists), this bias is so powerful that it often prevents their acknowledging the very existence of any dissenting opinions. Rabbi Bleich's article on spontaneous generation is a perfect example.

Rabbi Bleich begins the section on this topic by making a passing mention of R. Sherira Gaon and R. Avraham ben HaRambam's acknowledgement of the scientific errancy of Chazal, followed by a lengthy citation of Chazon Ish's position that one who posits such errancy is a heretic. On this, I have three comments. First, it is disturbing that in a footnote, Rabbi Bleich references Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's unfortunate theory regarding the "provenance and authority" of R. Avraham ben HaRambam's statement i.e. his belief that it is a forgery. Second, I am not sure why Chazon Ish merits a greater focus than Geonim and Rishonim. Third, there may well be here an instance of Rabbi Bleich revising the Chazon Ish's view to bring it more in line with his own, but from the opposite direction. Rabbi Bleich writes that although Chazon Ish held halachic statements of Chazal to be infallible, he assuredly "would not deny that certain aggadic statements are hyperbolic in nature and that others must be understood allegorically." In fact, this is far from clear. Rabbi Mordechai Shulman, Rosh Yeshivah of Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, relates a story concerning the Chazon Ish (Pe’er HaDor p. 330). A student reported that he had seen a work that claimed that the account of Og involved exaggerations. The Chazon Ish told this student that such beliefs were forbidden, and did not allow that student to touch wine out of concern that it would become yayin nesech. While it is possible that this story should not be taken at face value, there is certainly no basis for being sure of it; Chazon Ish would not be the first or last to insist that Aggadata is all literally true.

Rabbi Bleich then writes as follows:

The claim that “scores of Rishonim and Aharonim are of the view that the Sages were not infallible in such matters,” i.e., in matters of Halakhah, is simply not true. Those authorities who ascribed error to Hazal did so only in the context of non-halakhic pronouncements. With the exception of Pahad Yizhak, I am hard pressed to identify any rishon or aharon who believes that, properly understood, Hazal were fallible in their specific halakhic pronouncements.

His "i.e." is somewhat disingenuous, since I was in fact referring to statements made in non-halachic contexts. However, I will let it go, since the bottom line is that I see no reason why they would not say the same in halachic contexts. The scores of authorities who said that Chazal were not infallible in matters such as basic astronomy clearly did not subscribe to the recent mystical view, itself strongly conflicting with the Gemara, that Chazal had ruach hakodesh in all matters. What basis is there for saying that they would all believe that ruach hakodesh would suddenly "kick in" when they were basing a halachah on this scientific knowledge? Besides, as Rabbi Aharon Marcus in Keses HaSofer to Bereishis 1:21 points out, we see cases (such as Niddah 22b, Chullin 63b and 77a) where Chazal relied on the opinion of scholars in the natural sciences for the purposes of halachah. Were those gentile scholars suddenly divinely inspired in such cases?

Furthermore, in at least one case there are indeed halachic ramifications of the cases where the Rishonim said that Chazal erred. The Tosafist R. Eliezer of Metz suggests that the reason why one must knead matzah dough only with water that had sat the night after being drawn is to prevent it from being heated during the night by the sun, which is passing beneath the earth at that time. He notes that this follows the view of the gentile scholars regarding the sun's path at night, as opposed to the view of the Jewish Sages which was mistaken. R. Eliezer’s view is quoted, endorsed and further explained by Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, and Ritva.

Rabbi Bleich then claims that R. Yosef Kappach, whom I cited as stating that Chazal's ruling on lice was based upon a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, held no such thing; instead, he claims, R. Kappach believed that nishtaneh hateva (i.e. that although lice today do not spontaneously generate, the lice in Chazal's era really did spontaneously generate). But the evidence indicates that this is simply R. Bleich projecting his own views upon R. Kappach. As R. Kappach's disciples will attest, he had no problem saying that Chazal erred in scientific matters. R. Kappach (unlike Rabbi Bleich) elsewhere readily acknowledged that Chazal were mistaken in their belief in the spontaneous generation of mud-mice; presumably he would have acknowledged the same regarding their belief in the spontaneous generation of sweat-lice.

Rabbi Bleich likewise claims that Rav Herzog, whom I cited as stating that Chazal's ruling on lice was based upon a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, was instead proposing that nishtaneh hateva. Yet, again, everything that we know about Rav Herzog indicates otherwise. Rabbi Herzog fully accepted that the Sages of the Talmud were fallible in scientific matters:

The attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. “It does not at all follow,” Abraham Maimuni declares in his classical introduction to the Haggadah, “that because we bow to the authority of the sages of the Talmud in all that appertains to the interpretation of the Torah in its principles and details, we must accept unquestionably all their dicta on scientific matters, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. We ought to be quite prepared to find that some of their statements coming within the purview of science are not borne out by the science of our times...” It is of importance to bear this in mind when we enter upon the study of science in the Talmud. (Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Judaism: Law & Ethics, p. 152)

In another context, he notes that a statement in the Talmud about physiology has been clearly demonstrated as false, and therefore could not have been a tradition from Sinai (see the letter cited by Dov Frimer, “Jewish Law and Science in the Writings of Rabbi Isaac HaLevy Herzog"). In light of his ready acknowledgement of Chazal's fallibility in scientific matters, and his PhD in marine biology, it is surely absurd to claim that Rav Herzog believed that Chazal were correct in their beliefs regarding spontaneous generation.

Rabbi Bleich also completely ignores my citation of Rav Moshe Glasner, the Dor Revi'i, in this section.

In summary: Rabbi Bleich refuses to acknowledge that anyone (other than Pachad Yitzchak) ever admitted to Chazal sometimes basing halachic rulings on erroneous scientific beliefs. This is opposed by all reason and evidence, and simply reinforces that which we have seen in the first and second part of this rejoinder: that Rabbi Bleich has a non-rationalist approach to this topic.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Lice Are A Matter Of Life And Death

I'd like to interrupt my rejoinder to Rabbi Bleich's article in order to explain why this is so important. After all, in general my policy is not to engage in extended critiques of those who have not done so to me. But in this case, it's literally a matter of life and death. And I mean "literally" literally.

Brain death and organ donation is a matter of life and death. If brain death is not death, then to take organs from a brain-dead person is murder. But if brain death is death, then to refrain from taking organs from a brain-dead person is needlessly allowing several other people to die.

Most people do not pasken this question for themselves; instead, they follow their Poskim. But the problem is that poskim on this issue are usually implementing a non-rationalist approach. For people in the charedi world, this is any case usually their own preferred approach. Non-charedim, on the other hand, will follow a posek such as Rav Bleich. Because he writes with sophisticated English (and Latin), has academic credentials, publishes in Tradition, and teaches in YU, these people assume that he reflects their own approach to Torah and Judaism and their own epistemology. But Rabbi Bleich's ruling against organ donation is fundamentally resulting from the same non-rationalist approach that makes him refuse to accept that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation.

Rabbi Bleich's methodology for paskening brain death and organ donation is based upon drawing inferences from Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim. But this only makes sense if Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim dealt with the relative significance of the neurological and cardiopulmonary systems, and understood the roles of each. Only then could we determine whether they believed life to depend upon the action of the heart or the action of the brain.

But Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim did not and could not have dealt with the relative significance of the neurological and cardiopulmonary systems. For until very recently, the systems were inseparable. There was no such thing as being brain-dead but having your heart still beating. And furthermore, even if Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim were to have dealt with the relative significance of the neurological and cardiopulmonary systems, this would be hampered by the fact that they mistakenly believed significant components of the mind to be housed in the heart.

Someone who acknowledges that Chazal only possessed the limited scientific knowledge of their era will (hopefully) take this into account. But if someone believes that Chazal could not have been mistaken about scientific matters - as demonstrated by their refusing to accept that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation - then they will refuse to consider that brain death cannot be resolved via drawing inferences from the statements of Chazal.

Recently, a new book was published on brain death and organ donation, entitled "Defining the Moment: Understanding Brain Death in Halakhah," which bears an enthusiastic endorsement from Rabbi Bleich. On a post at the Hirhurim website regarding the launch of this book, I asked the author the following question:

It seems that all those who wrote haskamos, and whose positions you discuss, take the approach of paskening this question directly from the Gemara and earlier poskim. Applying this methodology of psak is in turn is based on two presumptions: that Chazal differentiated between the nervous system and the cardiopulmonary system  – and that they correctly understood the role of each. Do you discuss the nature and validity of these presumptions in the book?

I posed this question to the author twice, and despite the fact that he was responding to other comments, he did not respond to my question. My guess is that he'd never thought about it, and is uncomfortable with it. I don't blame him for his discomfort.

If you accept that all the Rishonim, Acharonim and contemporary non-fundamentalist Talmud scholars are correct in understanding Chazal as describing spontaneous generation, and you accept that spontaneous generation has been adequately disproved, you should not be following a ruling regarding being an organ donor from someone who does not acknowledge these points, or who does not incorporate them into his analysis of the issue.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Who's Afraid Of Mice And Salamanders?

In the previous post, I addressed Rabbi J. David Bleich's astounding claim that there is "no scientific reason" to reject spontaneous generation. He presents this as part of an attempt to show that there are multiple legitimate ways of addressing Chazal's statements about spontaneous generation without saying that they made a mistake. Rabbi Bleich presents another approach, which he describes as personally finding more plausible: that Chazal did not consider microscopic eggs to be halachically significant.

But while it may well be reasonable for a Posek today to rule that microscopic eggs are not halachically significant, there is overwhelming evidence against the claim that this is what Chazal themselves actually meant (which is what Rabbi Bleich claims). Let us consider the evidence, and assess Rabbi Bleich's claim that "there is nothing contrived or anachronistic" in this explanation.

First of all, the words of the Talmud say nothing about the eggs being halachically insignificant due to their small size. It simply states that these insects do not reproduce sexually (and, in the case of fish-worms, that they develop from the flesh of the fish). While it is not impossible that this could be a shorthand reference for something else, the burden of proof is certainly upon those who would make such a claim. Especially since, in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate, it is highly unreasonable to state that when the Sages spoke of lice as not reproducing sexually, they intended a different meaning entirely.

Second, such explanations are inconsistent with the views of the traditional Talmudic commentators. Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Tosafos and others all explain the Gemara to mean that lice spontaneously generate from sweat or dust. True, it is not impossible that they misunderstood the nature of the Talmud’s ruling — indeed, I post that this occurred with Rashi's explanation of the Talmud's reference to "dolfins" as referring to mermaids. Yet in the case of mermaids, there was compelling textual evidence that the Talmud was referring to dolphins instead; here, no such evidence exists. Furthermore, Rabbi Bleich appears to generally adopt the approach of faithfully adhering to the views of the Rishonim and Acharonim, not claiming that they all misunderstood the Gemara. Is it not inconsistent for him to claim here that the Rishonim and Acharonim all misunderstood the Gemara? And what reason is there to believe that they misunderstood it?

Third, the eggs of head lice and body lice are not in fact microscopic; they are quite easy to see with the eye. Rabbi Bleich writes that we must therefore say that the Gemara is talking about a different type of lice than those that we find today. This is immensely problematic from both a scientific and rabbinic perspective. From a scientific perspective, there is no reason to believe (and every reason not to believe) that the type of lice to afflict humans has changed, or that the lice eggs themselves have suddenly gotten much bigger. (I don't even think that the Goldstone boson provides evidence for it.) From a rabbinic perspective, the Rishonim and Acharonim, all the way through to the Chafetz Chaim, all presumed that the lice discussed by the Gemara are the same as those that we find today. When does Rabbi Bleich believe that they started to get it wrong?

Fourth, the Gemara discusses other cases of spontaneous generation, including the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt (Sanhedrin 91a), and of salamanders from fire (Chagigah 27a). Here, the actual process is not microscopic and there is no way of explaining it away in such a manner. Clearly, Chazal believed in spontaneous generation - as did the entire world in antiquity. I pointed this out in my letter to Tradition, making specific reference to mice and salamanders, but even though Rabbi Bleich wrote a nine thousand word response to a one thousand word letter (!), he did not respond to this.

Thus, the approach which Rabbi Bleich personally finds plausible, non-contrived and non-anachronistic, is in fact entirely implausible, utterly contrived, and wholly anachronistic, as well as going against all the Rishonim and Acharonim and clear evidence from other topics in the Gemara.


Following is another objection to Rabbi Bleich's point, but it is more involved and technical, so feel free to skip it.

In my letter, I pointed out that when challenged with the phrase "God sits and sustains from the horns of re’emim to the eggs of lice,” the Gemara rejects the idea that there are eggs of lice, and says that there is a species called "eggs of lice" (I explain the intent of this in Sacred Monsters). But if the Sages were not denying the existence of lice eggs, why do they reject the simple meaning of the statement that speaks about God sustaining the eggs of lice, and resort to difficult explanations instead? Let them simply state that although lice do hatch from eggs, these are too small to be halachically significant! It therefore seems that they did not consider this possibility.

Rabbi Bleich responds by claiming that the Gemara's objection in any case requires reinterpretation: "even if the thesis of spontaneous generation is understood literally, there is no reason to presume that kinim arise spontaneously as mature creatures (emphasis added). Certainly, divine providence would perforce necessarily extend even to spontaneously generated kinim. If so, God’s providence would indeed be necessary... How then, does the cited dictum negate the assertion that kinim are the product of spontaneous generation?" He proceeds to claim that the Gemara's objection must be that the providence over the development of the lice can be visually perceived, to which it responds that it can only perceived with a different creature called "eggs of lice."

Yet, again, this is forcing a reading into the Gemara for which there is no evidence and which, for this reason, no Rishon or Acharon ever proposed. Furthermore, Rabbi Bleich's question from the conventional understanding of the Gemara's objection appears baseless. He asks that even spontaneously generated lice would be generated as infants rather than adults, and thus surely it would be obvious that providential care is required. But the point of the Talmud's objection is that the phrase speaks of eggs of lice, which shows that lice are generated from eggs laid by other lice rather than from sweat.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Spontaneous Generation Defended In "Tradition"!

The problem with reporting an astounding statement on Rosh Chodesh Adar is that people assume that it is a Purim joke. So let me begin this post by assuring my readers that it isn't.

A few months ago, I submitted a letter to the RCA journal Tradition in response to Rabbi J. David Bleich's article regarding spontaneous generation and Anisakis worms. You can read my letter here; the thrust of it was that Rabbi Bleich's refusal to admit to the Talmud's mistaken belief in spontaneous generation seriously hampers his analysis. The new issue of Tradition, which was just released, includes my letter, and an entire article by Rabbi Bleich in response. I will break down my own rejoinder into a series of posts.

The most astonishing part of Rabbi Bleich's article is that he defends the belief in spontaneous generation as being scientifically valid! Although he admits to finding it more plausible to posit that the Sages were not discussing such a phenomenon (which I will explain in another post to be equally implausible), he argues at length for the scientific viability of spontaneous generation.

Rabbi Bleich writes that "any person who has even a passing familiarity with philosophy of science" will know that "Pasteur’s rejection of spontaneous generation is an empirical generalization and hence not logically compelling." In other words, the fact that all creatures that have been studied have been found to reproduce by conventional means does not categorically preclude the possibility that there are other species which spontaneously generate. Well, yes, it is true that we cannot categorically disprove the existence of spontaneously generating creatures. But how someone can raise this as a serious argument is beyond me. After all, we also cannot categorically disprove the existence of werewolves, vampires, leprechauns, or Santa Claus. But no reasonable person will believe in their existence, for reasons that I explain at length in Sacred Monsters.

Rabbi Bleich then claims that there is actual scientific support for spontaneous generation. He first states that "Physicists have demonstrated that a massless sub-atomic particle known as a Goldstone boson can be spontaneously created in a vacuum and do not regard the generation of life in a laboratory as merely grist for science fiction" with a footnote pointing towards the impressive-sounding Path Integrals in Physics; Volume II: Quantum Field Theory Statistical Physics and other Modern Applications. I am not a physicist and cannot comment on whether Rabbi Bleich's description of Goldstone bosons is accurate. However, I do know that the generation of a massless sub-atomic particle has no bearing whatsoever on the spontaneous generation of lice from sweat, mice from dirt and salamanders from fire. Physicists, notwithstanding experiments regarding generating RNA in a lab, would indeed not regard such spontaneous generation of animals as grist for science fiction - they would regard it as grist for fantasy. Even science fiction has to at least have some basis in reality.

Rabbi Bleich continues to state that "Even more strikingly, evolutionists would have us believe that all life on planet Earth arose out of some type of primordial chemical soup." Yes, they would have us believe that theory. Whether it is valid or not is up for dispute; I personally have no opinion on the matter. However, the theory of simple organic molecules evolving from primordial chemical soup and subsequently into rudimentary cellular life provides absolutely no reason to believe in the  spontaneous generation of lice from sweat, mice from dirt and salamanders from fire. You might as well say that the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs provides evidence for werewolves.

Rabbi Bleich concludes by invoking nishtaneh hateva to account for why we no longer witness spontaneous generation. He insists that "there is no scientific reason to assume that an asexually reproducing species did not exist in talmudic times but became extinct over the course of millennia or that members of that species metamorphosed into sexually reproducing lice through intra-species evolutionary processes." This must be some strange new usage of the phrase "no scientific reason," of which I was previously unaware. In fact, there are numerous scientific reasons which converge to the conclusion that the spontaneous generation of lice, mice and salamanders has never occurred. They are:
  • The complete absence of evidence for such phenomena, despite extensive attempts to find such evidence;
  • The fact that such phenomena would run contrary to everything that we know about biology (which is quite a lot);
  • The fact that the ancient belief in such phenomena can be easily accounted for, due to the lack of systematic study of the natural world in those days.
  • The fact that situations formerly thought to provide evidence for these phenomena (such as rotting meat "producing" maggots) were shown by Louis Pasteur to provide no such evidence.

I have learned not to be surprised that there are still people who defend the belief in spontaneous generation. What surprises me is that such a view can be presented in a journal published by the RCA.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Werewolf Redux

I was somewhat surprised to discover that my post of two months ago, "Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?", is the second most popular post on this blog of all time. With 2596 pageviews, it is superseded only by my post on "The Evolution Of The Olive," at 3,427 pageviews.

I'm not sure why that post was so popular - perhaps it's because it was so utterly strange. One person wrote to me that he enjoys telling super-yeshivish people that Binyamin was a werewolf, listening to them dismiss it as heretical nonsense, and then watching them squirm and splutter when he shows the original source.

At any event, I noticed that in his latest post at the Seforim Blog, Marc Shapiro points out that Rashi also makes mention of werewolves. In his commentary to Job 5:23, “the beasts of the wild shall be at peace with you,” Rashi defines the “beasts of the wild” with the Old French garoux, which refers to the werewolf. He adds that this is also the meaning of adnei hasadeh that are mentioned in the Mishnah, Kilayim 8:5 (which Rambam, Tiferes Yisrael and Malbim define as an ape, while others define it as humanoid which grows from the ground via its navel, as discussed in Sacred Monsters).

I received an e-mail recently from an educator who was extremely bothered by the fact that Rishonim believed in werewolves, asking this can be reconciled with our respecting them as authorities in halachah and theology. The answer is that it depends on how one is viewing them. It is true that learning of their beliefs in werewolves is incompatible with the non-rationalist view of their being superhuman characters with divinely-based knowledge. However, it is not at all incompatible with the rationalist view of their being great Torah scholars who lived at a pivotal time in history from the point of view of Judaism but were limited by the scientific knowledge of their era. I don't think that anyone loses respect for Thomas Jefferson's greatness as one of America's founding fathers, upon discovering that he believed that no species ever becomes extinct and therefore sent Lewis and Clark to find mammoths. As with his discussion of mermaids, Rashi's statement about werewolves reflects perfectly normative belief in medieval France.

Recently, I was also surprised to discover that some people think that I myself believe that Binyamin was a werewolf and that Eisav was a vampire! So let me state for the record: I do NOT believe that Binyamin was a werewolf or that Eisav was a vampire!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Atheism 2.0

A reader sent me the following video of a TED conference lecture about atheism. The presenter, Alain de Botton, is a descendant of Avraham de Boton (c. 1560-c. 1605), author of the Lechem Mishneh commentary on Rambam's Mishneh Torah. Unlike his illustrious ancestor, Alain de Botton is an atheist who considers belief in any supernatural entity to be mistaken. But he also has words of criticism for militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins who consider religion to be not only wrong in its theological claims, but also a ridiculous way of life. De Botton says that atheists should adopt many aspects of religion, such as its intense focus upon becoming a better person, its way of reinforcing its messages via education, repetition and ritual, and its organizational structure, amongst other aspects:

After watching his presentation, I was thinking that while his ideas for how atheists should change their approach are good, it's just not going to happen on any significant scale. Religious communities provide a framework to sustain and perpetuate the values and practices that De Botton admires, which are not going to be provided in a society of atheists. If these values and practices are really that important to him, he might as well just rejoin the Jewish community of his ancestors and keep quiet about his lack of beliefs!

(Hat-tip: David Meir)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Passing of a Pioneer

Professor Cyril Domb (1920-2012)

I was greatly saddened last week to learn of the passing of Professor Cyril Domb z"l. The younger readers of this website have probably  not heard of him, but he was a pioneering figure in the field of Torah and science.

Professor Domb was born in England. He was the first Orthodox Jewish scientist to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the highest academic honors in England. He moved to Israel about 30 years ago, where he worked at Bar-Ilan University and Machon Lev (JCT). My father, z"l, told me that he was one of the leading physicists in Israel (and Professor Domb, in turn, once told me that my father was a scientist of extraordinary breadth). Professor Domb also developed a range of Torah-study enterprises in England, from TVA to Hovevay Torah (no connection to the US institution). Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky referred to him as "the famous scientist sheyiraso kodemes lechochmoso."

Professor Domb was the first honorary president of the British Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. In this role, he co-edited a collection of articles by various authors, together with my mentor Rav Aryeh Carmell z"l, that was published in 1976 as a profoundly influential book: Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems. After all these years, although some of the science is dated, there is still a tremendous amount of valuable material in it. It is also a remarkable volume for the sheer diversity of views presented - from the rejectionism vis-a-vis science by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the accommodation of science in the thoughtful chapter entitled "AOJS Panel Discussion" (which was written by Rav Aryeh Carmell). Professor Domb wrote the opening chapter, which is a fascinating discussion of the role of the Orthodox Jewish scientist in the world.

Professor Domb was also a wonderful person - kind, warm, and modest. When I first met him at the tender age of 18, he was perfectly ready to invite me to his home and talk to me on various diverse topics, ranging from the authenticity of archeopteryx to the halachos of beliah at different altitudes. My family is indebted to him for his role in encouraging my parents to make aliyah (he told my father, "Come and work for Jews for a change!") and arranging a position for my father at Machon Lev.

A lengthy biographical sketch of Professor Domb can be found at the end of Encounter: Essays on Torah and Modern Life. He perfectly fulfilled his own prescription, in the opening chapter of Challenge, for the role of the Orthodox Jewish scientist: to "bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular." יהי זכרו ברוך.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dying to Help

With the increasingly strange reactions to the declining health of Rav Elyashiv, one story stands out: A Jerusalem avreich donated one year of his life to Rav Elyashiv. According to the report, he said that “we are in a time that the gedolei yisrael are the pillar of our existence." The report also states that he asked for, and received, permission and encouragement from other gedolim. (Alas, their names are not given.)

Most of the "frum" discussion about this story is centering on whether it is possible to do such a thing. There is a Midrash about Adam HaRishon making a deal with God to donate seventy years of his life to David HaMelech. However, translating ideas from Midrashim to today is problematic (which I will be posting about on another occasion - feel free to send in examples).

I would like to focus on a different aspect to this story. Let us first ask the following: Does this person, and the rabbis that he consulted, really and truly believe that this could work? Or is it just something to make himself feel good and/or inspire others?

I'm not entirely sure of the answer. On the one hand, it doesn't seem likely that he doesn't believe in it. But on the other hand, if he really believes that it works, and that it is a worthwhile sacrifice because Rav Elyashiv, even at this advanced stage of life, is the "pillar of existence" of the Jewish People, then why is he only donating one year?

But, putting this question aside, let us consider the fact that this person is being praised for his gift. Given the assumption that Rav Elyashiv's continued survival really is of critical necessity to the Jewish people, this is indeed understandable. It is true that we do not normally permit the taking of one person's life in order to help another - "Who says that your blood is redder than his?" However, there can be cases where one person's life is, objectively speaking, worth more than the life of another. Furthermore, we see in the Gemara, regarding Papus and Lulianus being praised for giving their lives to save the community of Lod, that a person has more autonomy over their own life, empowering them to choose to give it away, than they do over someone else's life. Thus, to give up one's life in order to save the lives of others can be a legitimate and noble sacrifice.

But here's where things get especially interesting. It is precisely this line of argument which demonstrates that, even if one does not rate brain-death as death, organ donation should be permissible. Even if one considers the brain-dead person to possibly be alive, his life is certainly worth much less than that of a chayey sha’ah, a terefah, or even a goses, since he is incapable even of thought. For a person to volunteer in advance to give up that life in order to save several healthy people is surely even more worthwhile a sacrifice than for this avreich to give up an entire year of his life for a 101-year-old.

And yet, virtually nobody in the Charedi world accepts this argument. Why?

Personally, I think that the answer is simple. Indeed, such a sacrifice is noble and legitimate. However, for the chareidi world to accept it, it also has to sound frum. What this avreich is doing sounds really frum. But organ donation, for various reasons, does not sound frum.

NOTE: For discussion about the halachic option of "noble sacrifice" for organ donation even if brain death is not death, see Rabbi Yehudah Dik, “Terumat Eivarim Mi-Goses LeHatzalat Chayey Adam,” Assia vol. 53-54 (Elul 5754/ August 1994) pp. 48-58; Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan, “BeInyan Mi SheTorem Lev O Kaveid LeHashtalah,” Assia 47-48 (Kislev 5750), pp. 131-141; “Terumat Lev HeHashtalah,” Assia 83-84 (5769) pp. 108-118; Rabbi Dr. Michoel Avraham, “Terumat Evarim,” in Techumin (5769) 29 pp. 329-339; Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, at the HODS Rabbis & Physicians Seminar, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (video available at For an analysis of the philosophical framework behind such determinations, see Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, “As Thyself: The Limits of Altruism in Jewish Ethics” and “Concepts of Autonomy in Jewish Medical Ethics,” in Jewish Thought in Dialogue (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press 2009) pp. 326-384.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rationalism and Rabbinic Authority

Many of my posts, especially lately, have been about the state of rabbinic authority today. Some people have requested that I instead write about rationalist Jewish thought. While I will try to get back to that topic, the two topics are, in fact, connected.

Contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority - i.e. "the Gedolim" - banned my books. This was essentially about opposing the rationalist approach.

But more fundamentally, the very concept of contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority stands in opposition to the rationalist approach. The rationalist approach is about how the human brain is, generally speaking, a potentially good tool for attaining knowledge, and it is about how the conclusions reached by the human brain are worthy of consideration. Thus, if we examine the definition of Rationalist Judaism, we see that it is about using the human brain to attain knowledge of God*, the natural world, and the function of mitzvos. (*This is something in which there is a difference between medieval Jewish rationalists and contemporary rationalism.)

This has important ramifications for rabbinic authority. While even with the rationalist approach there can be valid reasons for abiding by the rulings even of those with whom one disagrees, the approach to rabbinic authority is fundamentally different from that which occurs with the non-rationalist approach.

With the rationalist approach, arguments are made from reason rather than from authority or alleged divine inspiration. Expertise and authority is held by those who actually demonstrate knowledge and wisdom in the particular areas under consideration. There is no presumption of infallibility, either theoretical infallibility or practical/effective infallibility.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who apparently believe that great knowledge in Shas according to the Brisker derech = great knowledge in all areas of Torah = great knowledge in all areas of knowledge = great righteousness = being correct = being authoritative. (And = a whole lot of other things, too.)

And so, as someone who is fascinated by the rationalist approach to Judaism and the opposition to it, I am also fascinated by contemporary charedi rabbinic authority.

(Incidentally, I just got back home to Israel yesterday, and I hope to now be able to resume posting at a more frequent rate. It was great to meet many of my readers in the US, and I was very moved by those who went out of their way to give me rides - especially those who drove several hours out of their way to do so!)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The One-Way Street

Some observations:

- Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi synagogues support Charedi charities, but Chareidi synagogues do not support Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi charities.

- Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi synagogues often have Chareidi rabbis, but Charedi synagogues never have Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi rabbis.

- Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi synagogues and organizations often have Chareidi rabbis as guest speakers, but Charedi synagogues and organizations never have Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi rabbis as guest speakers.

- Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi schools often have Charedi rebbeim, but Chareidi schools never have Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi Rebbeim.

- Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi Jews often fund Chareidi publications, but Chareidi Jews never fund Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi publications.

It's frustrating that Chareidim do not respect the Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi. But it's even more frustrating that Modern Orthodox/ Dati Leumi do not make more of an effort to perpetuate their own existence, and then complain about Chareidim.

(In other news - my Torah Tour of the National Zoo in Washington tomorrow has been replaced by a two-part multimedia presentation on the Animal Kingdom In Jewish Thought, at Beth Sholom in Potomac at 2.30pm, entrance donation $10.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Extraordinarily Extravagant Exaggerations About Rav Elyashiv

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is an extraordinary person. He is extraordinarily brilliant. He is extraordinarily dedicated to learning Torah. He has survived to extraordinary age, notwithstanding his fragility.

Nevertheless, this editorial from Yated/ Matzav about his critical condition contains some extraordinarily extravagant exaggerations, which illustrate the problematic state of rabbinic authority in the chareidi world.

"We were confronted with a life-changing crisis and shocked out of our stupor when we heard news from Eretz Yisroel on Monday about the health of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. We have been hearing for several weeks now about his precarious situation, but each time, we davened and merited a strengthening of his situation. We began, perhaps, to take it for granted and slacken off in our tefillos for the posek and amud hador. We have it so good. We have had it so good for so long that we couldn’t imagine it being any other way."

We have had it good for so long? We are confronted with a life-changing crisis?

What were the recent rabbinic decisions issued in the name of Rav Elyashiv (and it's impossible to know how much he was actually involved with them) that were so invaluable? Was it banning charedim from seeking any form of professional training, and thereby condemning them to poverty? Was it banning Mishpachah? (Well, I guess that one was certainly invaluable to the Israeli Yated, and possibly also helpful for the American Yated.)

For many years now, the public pronouncements of Rav Elyashiv have been deeply problematic at best. They have often been issued without any attempt to hear the claims of the defendants. As Mishpachah magazine pointed out, this is a grievous abuse of rabbinic authority. Things have gotten so bad that YNet ran an article entitled "The Posek of the Generation is Disconnected from the Generation." To judge Rav Elyashiv favorably, once could say that all this is due to his being manipulated by the power-hungry zealots who control access to him. Even if this is the case, it still means that it is far from accurate to say that "we have had it good for so long." And it's a "life-changing crisis" for the power-hungry manipulative zealots who will no longer be able to manipulate him, not for the rest of the nation.

Then there's the way that the article portrays Rav Elyashiv as the halachic mentor for Rav Yitzchak Herzog. Now, it could well be that Rav Elyashiv contributed valuable analyses to Rav Herzog. But Rav Elyashiv went to hear shiur from Rav Herzog, not the other way around! He was his talmid, not his rebbe!

Praising people with false praise is not doing them, or the Jewish People, a service. And people should be placing rabbinic authority where it traditionally belonged: with local rabbis who are in touch with their flock, not centenarians who are cut off from the world and manipulated by askanim.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Dangerous Gamble

(Apologies for the delay in posting - I've been overwhelmed with my lecture tour as well as under the weather.)

Many readers misunderstood the point of the previous post, When The Winds Below. Which is my fault entirely, because I didn't spell out what my point was.

I was not getting into the topic of whether Rav Moshe Feinstein and others intended the term nishtaneh hateva as a euphemism for saying that Chazal were mistaken. I've heard Rav Moshe Tendler insist that he did, and others insist that he didn't. That's a fascinating issue to ponder, but it wasn't my point.

I was also certainly not making any point about changing halachah. On the contrary; I favor the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog, in which halachah does not change even if based upon mistaken beliefs.

My point was as follows: It can be very risky and problematic to insist, and make Judaism depend upon, science being wrong about something. Because maybe there's another way of looking at things. And maybe science will turn out to be correct, after all.

Rav Kook writes about how, when faced with a scientific theory that appears to challenge the Torah, one should not take a knee-jerk approach of insisting that it must be false. Instead, one should "build the palace of Torah above it." One should figure out how, even if the scientific theory turns out to be true, Judaism still survives. Then, when one is not religiously threatened by the scientific theory, one is in a better position to honestly assess its merits.

People who insist that the truth of Judaism depends on scientists being wrong about terefos, that the cessation of respiration is never reversible, or about there being no additional animals in the world with one kosher sign, or on there being no fish with scales and no fins, are taking a very dangerous gamble. And also an entirely unnecessary one.

Ride request: If anyone can drive me from Baltimore to New York on Monday, please be in touch!

Friday, February 3, 2012

When The Winds Blow

(REMINDER: Over the next ten days I am giving a number of lectures in the New York, Baltimore and Washington region. See my schedule here for more details.)

One of the sharpest statements against science from the medieval period, often cited by anti-rationalists, is from the great Rashba. The context was with regard to terefos. The Mishnah in Chullin lists certain physical defects that classify an animal as a tereifah, which is prohibited to be eaten, and also gives the general rule that animals with mortal defects are classified as tereifos. The Gemara (Chullin 57b) defines a mortal defect as one that prevents an animal from living for twelve months. A question was addressed to Rashba concerning an animal that apparently possessed one of the defects listed in the Mishnah but did survive for twelve months. Rashba replied:

"If you see or hear someone being lenient and pronouncing it kosher… do not listen to him, do not be drawn to him and let there not be something like this in Israel. Anyone who proclaims such a thing to be kosher appears in my eyes as someone who is raising suspicion on the words of the Sages. I am writing at length on this matter so that a line should be drawn for you and for everyone that fears and trembles at the word of God – and the sanctified words of the Sages of Israel should not become as a broken fence for every fox to breach! …That which the Sages listed in these principles can never, under any circumstances, become permitted… And since this is so, even if many were to come and say that they have seen [animals with these defects living longer than twelve months] we would deny it, such that the words of the Sages should be established, and we should not raise suspicions on the Sages’ words by establishing the words of these people… Let this person testifying and a thousand like him be invalidated, rather than invalidating a single thing from that with the holy Sages of Israel have agreed upon, the prophets and the descendants of prophets, and the words that were spoken to Moses at Sinai… the conclusion of the matter is that it is better to chase after arguments in order to establish [the Sages’] words rather than to dispel their holy, true and established words in favor of establishing the empty words of these people… Everyone needs to preserve the principles that are transmitted through the People of Israel--and even if all the winds in the world were to blow, they will not move us from this place." (Responsa 1:98)

Even though the testimony of two witnesses is considered extremely powerful in Jewish law, Rashba insists that that we would dismiss the testimony of a thousand witnesses who claim to have seen an animal with one of these defects living for more than a year.

Seven hundred years later, however, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following remarkable words:

"…even the Rashba, were he to be alive today, and likewise now that he is in the World of Truth in Gan Eden, would agree that some of those listed in the Mishnah and Talmud as being tereifos are, in fact, able to survive…" (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat vol. II 73:4, p. 308)

This is a remarkable development! The Rashba insisted that all evidence to the contrary must be dismissed, if necessary by way of "chasing after" arguments (i.e. contriving forced arguments). But seven hundred years later, Rav Moshe says that it's just not possible. The evidence is too strong. (Rav Moshe continues to state that Chazal's laws still stand regardless, for reasons that I have discussed in Sacred Monsters.)

There is another, similar, change that took place in a different area of halachah. In the eighteenth century, there was widespread fear that people were being buried alive due to their being mistakenly diagnosed as dead before they had actually expired. Many physicians of that era insisted that cessation of breathing does not suffice and that a thorough medical examination was required. A question arose as to whether a kohen could be the doctor to examine a corpse and certify that death had taken place. R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes ruled that it was permissible, arguing that the absence of respiration did not conclusively mean that the person was dead and thus the doctor could potentially be saving a life. Chasam Sofer, on the other hand, firmly opposed the idea that a person who was not breathing could be considered even possibly alive:
"When respiration has ceased, one does not further violate Shabbos (in a rescue attempt); and this is necessarily a rule for all deaths, for it is the definition which is accepted in our hands from the time that we became a congregation of God and a holy nation. And even if all the winds in the world were to blow against us, they would not budge us from the position of our holy Torah." (Responsa Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah #338)

This time, it only took two hundred years for the winds to budge us. As Rav Shlomo Zalman pointed out, the cessation of respiration should no longer be used to determine death, since it can be reversed:

"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…" (Shulchan Shlomo, vol. II, pp. 34-35)

Of course, irreversible cessation of breathing can still be used to determine death; but that is not what Chassam Sofer was saying. He was saying that all cessation of breathing is by definition irreversible. (See this post for further discussion regarding his view.)

And so we have two of the most famous and powerful rabbinic statements against accepting the scientific advances of their era, both dramatically claiming that all the winds in the world would not change their position. And in both cases, later rabbinic authorities acknowledged that the winds really have blown very strongly indeed, and that the counter-evidence can no longer be rejected.

There's a lesson here...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Zealots' Perspective

The following extremely informative video includes an interview (in Hebrew) with the leader of the thugs in Bet Shemesh, as well as some important footage of events (please note that the video includes random advertisements, some of which, according to reader reports, include immodest scenes):

It shows how far apart their worldview is from normal society. I can't think of any short-term solution for this problem. In the long run, however, I think that their society is doomed, due to the freedom of speech and infiltration of ideas that the internet brings. I think that they know it, too, which is why they are getting so worked up lately.

It's good to see a sharp condemnation of their actions, in this report of a lecture by Rav Edelstein of Ponovezh.

(Hat-tip: Rafi G. at Life In Israel, the best news source)

A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...