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.


  1. What about R. Dessler? Didn't he advocate the same position as R. Glasner and R. Herzog?

  2. No, Rav Dessler held that the real reasons are lost in antiquity, and Chazal were only giving a suggested explanation.

  3. "Student", I did not post your comment since it does not relate to this post, but rather to the next post that I will be doing.

  4. Inappropriate or not to repeat the point (see previous post) It's odd that you characterize Rabbi Bleich as "forced to admit the truth.... I.e., that Chazal based their ruling on a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation" when he follows his discussion of Rabbi Glassner with
    a new section that begins

    "The thesis that talmudic canonization of rules based upon erroneous scientific theory renders them binding for posterity might perhaps be justified in an entirely different way."

    and then spends a full section presenting his own approach as to how hazal can base halacha on false premises and its nonetheless binding. This is clearly his own approach and it's based on the notion that hazal accepted outdated science.

    You've already explained in the comments that why you dismiss the relevance of this section and insist that R Bleich's position is hazal's scientific infallibility, even though he provides this section to present his own framework for how to understand that hazal based halacha on the science of their times and why it's nonetheless binding. Rabbi Bleich ends this section by saying that a problem with his own approach is that it's novel in the way it combines existing shitot (though the shitot he relies on are themselves mainstream) and in addition, one might think his approach is superflous because there are other resolutions to the problem offered by prior authorities to the question, so who needs Rabbi Bleich's? Based on this, you say that rabbi bleich rejects his own hiddush, even though he quite clearly elaborates on it and presents it as the most compelling alternative that also has the virtue of relying on mainstream understanding of the binding nature of halacha as deriving from hazal's authority granted by maamad har sinai, and not from "communal acceptance of halacha" as you present it.
    If you take his disclaimer as a sign that rabbi bleich doesn't accept his own hiddush and in fact, not only rejects his own framework for how halacha can be based on hazal's outdated science, but also really disputes the premise underlying his novel framework, that they relied on the science of their own times - and instead insists on hazal's scientific infallibility - then there's nothing more to say.

  5. OK, but R. Dessler's and R. Glasner/R. Herzog's positions amount to almost the same thing:

    1. Chazal were scientifically wrong about halachic matters.

    2. The halacha as presented in the Gemara remains authoritative.

    I don't recall if R. Glasner or R. Herzog explicitly dispute R. Dessler's view. In theory, they could agree with him.

    If you don't want to group them together, then you should suggest R. Bleich incorporate R. Dessler's view separately.

  6. my comment was a response to this post. I have been answering your posts in the order you write them, and you have attempted to censor me from the get-go. Your first response to me is to say that it's "inappropriate" that I repeated comments in a different thread, where every comment I left in different threads related to new material that YOU introduced even though you repeated some points and it required of me to reemphasis some old point while addressing the new material directly - I was NOT simply posting the same thing in different threads, but responding to new points. I expect you to have the decency to print my comments, and don't accept your excuses for not doing so, given that I'm one of the only people here who's posting based on having read the Tradition article .

  7. A question: Did the ancient world even believe in the existence of microscopic matter? I am asking this question in sincerity; I honestly don't know the answer. (Of course it's also relevant in evaluating Chazal's statements about sontaneous generation.)

  8. Oops! R. Glasner clearly does disagree with R. Dessler. So R. Dessler should be presented separately in R. Bleich's article.

  9. you've now printed the second half
    RNS: You've now posted the second half of my comment (February 29, 2012 4:34 PM) and omitted the first part, in which i respond to several new points you made in this post.

    "Oops! R. Glasner clearly does disagree with R. Dessler. So R. Dessler should be presented separately in R. Bleich's article.

    he does present r dessler, separately from r glasner. Why don't you read his article?

  10. Student, if Rabbi Bleich personally holds that the Gemara did indeed erroneously believe in spontaneous generation, then why does he believe that when they permitted worms in fish, they themselves were not talking about Anisakis? The fact that he entirely rejects the possibility that the Gemara was talking about anisakis shows that he ultimately does not accept that the Gemara had a mistaken belief.

  11. A Reader: see section I:1 and section V.

  12. Rabbi Slifkin, can you please explain why, if Chazal were mistaken, the halacha stands? The halacha regarding killing lice on Shabbat or eating worms in fish was not a gezaira that might stand by virtue of their enactment; it's an application of a halacha. If their understanding of the circumstances proves to be false, their application of the halacha no longer applies. I fail to understand why it should be permitted to kill lice on Shabbat or eat worms in fish.

    (Reader, Rabbi Bleich maintains that the anisakis clearly are born outside of the fish, are swallowed, and migrate from the digestive tract to the muscles. This puts them in the forbidden category of aquatic creatures found in the entrails of fish.)

  13. Speaking of nishtane hateva: I don't know how many cures mentioned in the gemara do still work, but there are certainly a number of herbal medicines known in the Mishnaic era which still work. Certainly Rambam's regimens are still pretty sound, and he mentions therapies that still work, too. His medicine was from Dioscorides, Galen and others active in the era of the Tannaim and Amoraim, via the Byzantines and Arabs. Ibn Sina, who preceded Rambam by around 200 years, wrote a text which is still part of a living medical tradition with many successes to its credit.

    How do those who hold shinui hateva explain why it is so selective?

  14. see also the original article that prompted rabbi slifkin's letter and the rejoinder, in spring '11 Tradition (vol. 44, no 1) particularly the final section, regarding the problem in this instance within hazal's own statements of how to go about determining the halacha

    there are quite a few specific statements in that article that are hard to square with the proposition that r bleich denies that hazal believed in spontaneous generation, insists that their scientific understanding was accurate, etc. as per the baal hablog.

  15. A Reader: see section I:1 and section V.

    A Student: I did.

  16. Rabbi Slifkin -
    To add to my previous question, Chazal said that it is forbidden to be mechalel Shabbat for a baby born in the 8th month of pregnancy, since they have no chance of survival. We know now that babies born in the 8th month have a wonderful chance of survival, and are mechalel Shabbat for them accordingly.
    In other words, we view what Chazal said as an application of the pikuach nefesh rule, and not as an ruling in and of itself. Why do we not view the spontaneous generation rules accordingly (especially since the former is likulah and the latter is lichumrah)?

  17. I presume that Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog viewed the ruling with lice as having been canonized in its application rather than in its underlying theory. They could possibly have made the same assessment with the 8-month baby, and held that pikuach nefesh would trump even canonized laws. In general, however, it's very difficult to determine when a reason is considered integral to the final ruling.

  18. Can you explain that somewhat circular reasoning? Pikuach nefesh is doche a rule that says that pikuach nefesh is not doche?

    Can you provide another example of such a ruling?

  19. "and then spends a full section presenting his own approach as to how hazal can base halacha on false premises and its nonetheless binding. This is clearly his own approach"

    See his article on New York City water where he states explicitly that his own preferred approach is that Chazal were talking about reproduction that can be visually perceived.

  20. that's his preferred response to a different question. big,amall. global, local. broad, narrow. ask youreslf some questions. in that instance, belief in spontaneous generation is rendered irrelevant. can one always render the relevant scientific rationale irrelevant when it impacts halacha? even if one can, would that be fortuitious, or design/hashgacha? would that provide a weltanschauung?

  21. rabbi slifkin - you wrote yesterday that you didn't post my comment because it didn't relate to this post but rather to the next. i objected, the second half of my comment was posted (February 29, 2012 4:34 PM). Your next post appeared and didn't relate at all to the first half of my comment, which wasn't posted. (I broke the comment up due to posting size restrictions). Neither did your next post relate to the second half of my comment. The comment that didn't appear was about rabbi bleich's analysis of the dor revi'i and I wrote at some length that you've misunderstood r bleich's objections, that it's clear why he presents the dor revi'i at such length, and that there is no obfuscation on his part or need to "concede" that dor revi'i says that halacha can be based on mistaken premise and remain binding, since his objections lie elsewhere.
    were you planning to write another post that this comment or the next comment applied to?
    is there some other explanation?
    you just think i need typing practice?

  22. "that's his preferred response to a different question. "

    No, he presents that as his preferred response to the issue of lice.

    Regarding your other comment - I never committed myself to any particular explanation for Rav Glasner's reason for his determination, so Rabbi Bleich's, and yours, lengthy dispute regarding this is irrelevant.

  23. "No, he presents that as his preferred response to the issue of lice."

    that's a different issue. he also explains in the original article why he does that. i take it you didn't ask yourself those questions. what he says about lice is not a philosophy that explains how the halacha accomodates hazals worldview.

    "Regarding your other comment - I never committed myself to any particular explanation for Rav Glasner's reason for his determination, so Rabbi Bleich's, and yours, lengthy dispute regarding this is irrelevant."

    (i'll have to break this comment up due to length)

    don't you wish it were irrelevant. You cited rabbi glassner as an authority upon whom you rely for his position that halacha decided by chazal based on empirical error is binding. First, in your original letter you said that rabbi glassner's opinion that halacha decided based on outdated science remains binding is based "on the authority of chazal" and it is not based on that at all. So you did explain the basis of his position, and did so incorrectly. You also say that rabbi glassner's position is cogent and important, and, having already inaccurately claimed that rabbi glassner's stance is based on the authority of chazal, connect his position to the notion that nationwide acceptance of hazal's authority is what allows the halacha to remain binding, which you attribute to rabbi fisher. Not only does rabbi fisher not say this, rabbi fisher being a second source that you misunderstand/misrepresent, rabbi bleich argues that his position can't be used to justify your proposition as his logic wouldn't lead to following chazal if they base themselves on empirical error or to follow them lekula. Even if you were representing rabbi fisher's view and its implications properly, this wouldn't connect with rabbi glassner's determination at all, since his logic has nothing to do with hazal's authority. More important than that your defense that you didn't commit to a particular understanding of rabbi glassner is inaccurate, it's beside the point. You can't rely on rabbi glassner's determination if you don't accept his reason for that determination, as his determination is dependent on the framework from which it arose, and can't simply be stripped of its context and applied willy-nilly to any other model of hazal's authority, as those other models don't result in the conclusion that you can follow hazal if you demonstrate that hazal decided the halacha in error, and you still need to find a way to resolve this problem. Rabbi glassner's determination is no help to you if you don't accept his framework and rationale. nor can you rely on rabbi glasner's determination within his own model and accepting his framework, as his model of the source of the binding nature of tsb"p is a distinct minority view that you can't rely on lekula when it leads to results that conflict with the halachic implications of the mainstream understanding of the nature of their authority.

  24. (continued)
    So, you left logical/halachic holes in your analysis that rabbi bleich drives a truck through, pointing out that it's not tenable to argue that nationwide acceptance of hazals authority allows one to rely on them if they base psak on empirical error. he also points out that your sources don't hold this non-viable position and can't be reconciled with it. he explains at length how you erred in handling your sources. You haven't addressed any of this, except to claim, incredibly, that it's all "irrelevant"! I guess it's irrelevant if what you say makes any sense. ...I suppose it should come as no surprise that you misunderstand and misrepresent Rabbi Bleich's points, and fail to understand the logic and implications of what he says. If that's how you handle the sources you rely on for the position that is near and dear to your heart and that you've been writing about for years, that's how you'll approach rabbi bleich's writing too, with disregard for accuracy and logic. You can't deal with a position by focusing on sound-bite-type sentences divorced from the logic and larger context of the argument.

    But after Rabbi Bleich analyzes what you present as THE solution to the issue at hand, and have claimed is the solution he should have offered in his original article (regardless of whether such a problem and solution were relevant to his original article) he says: Look, it's obvious that this complete mess of an analysis that you, rabbi slifkin, present for how to approach the issue is motivated by the fact that you want to get to a result. You want to be able to justify saying that halacha was decided based on empirical error, and is still binding. No problem, but you haven't successfully achieved this result. And he backs up the truck, and shows you how to drive safely to your destination.

    He hasn't argued with you, as you claimed, because he takes the position of the hazon ish that it's forbidden to say that hazal erred on science. He doesn't have any problem saying they erred on science,, his focus all along is situations where halacha is based on putative error. and towards the end of his article, he presents a framework in which you CAN say that hazal erred and halacha is binding, But he claims that his framework, unlike yours, is coherent and viable. He isn't relying on a vague and unworkable notion that acceptance of hazal's authority allows one to rely on them in cases of empirical error. He isn't relying on sources that can't be relied on either because they don't say what he "needs" them to say to get his proposed solution working, or because they fly in the face of mainstream positions that would require different behavior.

    Since rabbi bliech is a highly competent halachist and a rigorous thinker, it's not surprising that he succeeds where you fail. The difference between you and Rabbi Bleich is not, as you claim, that he is an anti-rationalist and you are a rationalist. It's that presenting a coherent rationalist position in a rigorous, sophisticated way is not over his paygrade.

  25. "I guess it's irrelevant if what you say makes any sense"

    and again, this is your entire affirmative case. Put aside your criticisms of anything else Rabbi Bleich wrote in his original article, his response to those points, your response to his rejoinder - you present a solution to the entire issue that you say is correct and that rabbi bleich should have adopted himself. And you have not addressed AT ALL in any of your posts his lengthy analysis of all the many problems in your position. You ignore this entirely preferring to attack rabbi bleich as anti-rationalist, and turning all focus away from his claim of the many weaknesses in your analysis. Even if rabbi Bleich were an anti-rationalist, even if he say that you can't argue that hazal erred (not his position) and etc. you'd still have to deal with the criticism of your own approach on the merits, as this crticism is not based in any way on rationalism/anti-rationalism.

    I don't think you can deal with his criticisms satisfactorily, except to concede. If you can, by all means. If you can't, you already owe him an apology.

  26. a.student - R. Bleich's obfuscations notwithstanding, R. Slifkin's quote of Rav Glasner is totally accurate (and if R. Slifkin won't cut it for you, I heard Rav Hershel Schachter say exactly the same thing). Rav Glazner explcitly says (a few lines up from where he mentions lice), that even if those who come after the period of the Talmud find out that the baalei hatalmud 'tau' - made an error, nevertheless the din stays the same. He then goes on to give examples of cases where Chazal allowed things based on mistaken scientific conceptions, such as worms in fruit and cheese that they thought spontaneously generated, when we now know that this is untrue. He goes on to say that the din is unchanged, even to be machmir. I'm not quite sure why you are having such difficulty dealing with this.

  27. "I'm not quite sure why you are having such difficulty dealing with this."

    I have no difficulty dealing with the dor revi'i's conclusion (at least not that he makes it). I've just explained how i see the issue again in my response to Shlomo Pill in the thread entitled "A contemporary posek on spontaneous generation" See there as it seems pointless to repeat the same points in multiple threads and that discussion is currently active.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.