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 With 2596 pageviews, it is superseded only by my post on "The Evolution Of The Olive," at 3,427 pageviews.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!

28 comments:

  1. As to your educator friend:
    Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof-J K Galbraith

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  2. What this tells me is that we need more installations in the series, for instance a post entitled: "Was Moshe Rabbeinu a Wizard?"

    "Take thy wand and speaketh to the rock..."

    I'll let the readers fill in the rest.

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  3. "The answer is that it depends on how one is viewing them... 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 ... but were limited by the scientific knowledge of their era."

    That's pretty much exactly my view. I don't know if this is included in what you said, but I'm much more concerned with a claim that RAMBAM whas not aware of a step in the Gemara, than with a claim that he got something wrong in, say, his asthma treatise.

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  4. shaul shapira,

    Why should the claim that the Rambam misunderstood a Gemara trouble you greatly? Is it your contention that all Rishonim perfectly understood every single one of the thousands of pages of Gemara?

    Does this make any sense to you? In daily life and history, we see geniuses making mistakes all the time.

    Besides, Rishonim and Achronim often argue that the "other guy" got it wrong. It's nice of yeshivish people to try to defend the Rishon/Achron being attacked ("he must have read the Gemara differently"), but the person attacking him often thinks exactly what you feel uncomfortable with: He was wrong.

    P.S. Marc Shapiro has shown that the Rambam sometimes accidentally misquotes pesukim (quoting, as he apparently was, from memory). Is that shocking to you too?

    You have to realize that these Rishonim/Achronim were people just like us except that many of them were smarter and more righteous. But they were still people. Examine yourself and realize that just as you are capable of erring (even if you worked on yourself and became a baki b'Shas and a saint), so were they.

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  5. (You are getting tons of hits on this post partially because of the image. Werewolves are very popular today, blame Twilight, and searches are taking people to this post.)

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  6. The reason it's so popular is because there were so many comments (over 100 I think) and a lively debate raged on for days - so people kept checking in.

    I take (part of) the credit.

    You're welcome :-)

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  7. E. Fink, I was just going to say that it'll be much more interesting to hear the traffic sources for all the hits. There sure must be some funny/weird google searches that led people to that post.

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  8. How about contemporaries who still believe that no species ever becomes extinct?

    http://www.hashkafah.com/index.php?/topic/26850-can-an-asteroid-hit-and-destroy-the-earth/page__view__findpost__p__593803

    "got news for you - not only won't the world be destroyed... but a species will never go extinct. (If you ask - what about the dodo - the answer is - it's not extinct and will be found again on some remote island somewhere."

    Later on in this thread the same poster sources this view in "the Sefer HaChinuch on the Mitzvah of Shaluach HaKaan" but leaves open the possibility that species may have gone extinct before Matan Torah.

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  9. Sure, I have a whole chapter on this in the newest edition of The Challenge Of Creation.

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  10. I think you can even have a far greater view of the Rishonim and still not be troubled. You can view them as not only great Torah Scholars who lived at an important time, but even superior, Holy human beings, who had a certain special sense of Divine Inspiration.

    Yet, nobody denies they lived when they did. They didn't discover Electricity or indoor plumbing. They didn't have it in their own lives and weren't given the ability to discuss the Halchos of it.

    Also important to note that even among those that describe the Rishonim as even greater than I did, there are certainly different levels of Rishonim who are held in higher esteem than others.

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  11. Not sure why this fellow who wrote you he enjoys baiting yeshiva people thinks the latter are a better "target" than their modern counterparts. To the contrary, its the modern orthodox who are more skeptical about such things, while the yeshivish are generally much more credulous. Regardless, since ANYONE unaware of this obscure opinion would think it strange, I'm not sure how your correspondent gets any jollies whatsoever from his little game.

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  12. What about the Tachash? (this week's parshah)
    Didn't that go extinct?

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  13. In response to Hershel: That's not a perfectly solid argument because it's possible that after the Jews were done using the Tachash, Hashem hid it away. Like the quote referenced by P. Almonius, it could be that the Tachash exists somewhere as of yet undiscovered. That's not to say I believe that's true, but I don't think the Tachash is proof that species can go extinct.

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  14. I believe I was one of the first people to ask about vampires on that post. To be clear, my son just became a Bar-Mitzvah by the week of Parshas Vayechi. He was reading the Darren Shan Cirque De Freak books in his spare time. I couldn't resist showing him the post. By Chamishi,(Ze'ev Yitrof) during his Shabbos leining, he looks at me right before he starts, winks, and whispers Werewolf!(He Lained very well, thank you Lion of Zion, who taught him but alas, no longer blogs). He mentioned the vampire thing to me when I showed the original post to him, and I asked about Eiasav being a werewolf being Binyamin's Uncle. I believe that's how the vampite part worked it's way in. BTW, over at Life in Israel, there is a post on Lab grown meat.

    http://lifeinisrael.blogspot.com/2012/02/lab-grown-steak-on-way.html

    If the Cow the stem cells are taken from is dead, is it zombie meat? Can zombie meat be consecrated? Are sweetbreads really brains, or was my dad just teasing me? :-) -LFD

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  15. "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."

    A true 'non-rationalist' would simply say that werewolves must exist. I remember them saying that mermaids were seen after the 2004 tsunami (based on rashi).

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  16. > 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.

    No it’s not. Not unless one takes it as given that werewolves don’t exist. The logical conclusion given that 1. The rishonim had infallible knowledge through rauch hakodesh and 2. They believed in werewolves is that werewolves are real.

    Yitzi7 said...
    > Yet, nobody denies they lived when they did. They didn't discover Electricity or indoor plumbing.

    And yet many in the Chareidi world sincerely believe that the great rabonim of the past could have built jetliners, developed penicillin, etc., but didn’t because they knew through ruach hakdesh that the world wasn’t yet ready. That’s what I was taught in yeshiva.

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  17. In your vampire post, you did not want to offer your source for the collection of evidence suggesting, (tongue in cheek?) that Eisav was a vampire. My suspicion has been that the collection of sources was your own work. Am I right? (and if not, are you ready to divulge where you saw it?)

    Thanks,
    -ahg

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  18. No, it was stam somebody on the internet. I wanted to see how people's opinion would change depending on the source.

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  19. Like we are puzzled at the Rishonim who sincerely believed in werewolves, could it be that our decendants will one day ridicule us for believing in evolotion? Granted, there may be some evidence for life evolving, but i am sure in the 12th century they also had some evidence for werewolves. So Rabbi Slifkin, your great great grandchildren may one day be puzzled how their educated patriach could have believed in such nonsense.

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  20. Yeah, and they might be puzzled as to why I believed that the earth is spherical.

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  21. Natan,
    Your descendents will only be puzzled about your rationalist beliefs in the unlikely event they become Charedi, Rachmana L'tzlan.

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  22. " 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. "

    Sorry, but I believe that is a false claim.

    Besides those who might believe that werewolves exist, most non-rationalists would first and foremost argue that werewolves as a concept exists, and that werewolves as a concept reside in all people. For the city-dweller who no longer needs to worry about 'beasts of the field', the "beast of the field" within all of us is still a danger. Or so a non-rationalist could argue.

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  23. Not sure why this fellow who wrote you he enjoys baiting yeshiva people thinks the latter are a better "target" than their modern counterparts... I'm not sure how your correspondent gets any jollies whatsoever from his little game.
    Assuming I'm 'that correspondent' (I left a comment in a recent post pretty much saying what R Slifkin quotes me as) the answer to your question is as follows: Modox don't go ripping up other people's papers in the name of holy righteusnos only to find they've ripped up a rishon.

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  24. Yehudah said...
    shaul shapira,
    "Why should the claim that the Rambam misunderstood a Gemara trouble you greatly? Is it your contention that all Rishonim perfectly understood every single one of the thousands of pages of Gemara?"

    It concerns me because the Rambam was more than just a genius- he was 'obssesed' with the gemara.
    There are people alive today who can take the "pin test" (R Mintz from coventry shul in Lakewood comes to mind). This isn't just about having a working knowledge of shas it's about knowing it colder than cold. (this need not be a charedi point- I would feel the same way even if I were to become convinced of Leo Strauss's views of the Rambam's secret beliefs). I relate to it the same way as if you told me that Dawkins skipped a chaper in the origins.

    As for Marc Shapiro- it's not so simple. You might want see his tizzy with R Buchman over at Hakira, starting with R Buchman's "A hagiograpghers review of studies in Maiomonidies." Read all three parts.

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  25. Were there Rishonim who did not believe in werewolves?

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  26. "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"

    The Rambam defines it as אלנאסנאס, which was not an ape back then!

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  27. "Yeah, and they might be puzzled as to why I believed that the earth is spherical."

    I sure hope you mean spheroidal.

    And if you did mean spherical, then I am puzzled as it has been known that the earth is not spherical for close to 200 years.

    But just be sure you don't say egg shaped, lest you be labeled an apologist Muslim.

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  28. Dokter Rabbiner Avrohom Van HelsingJuly 3, 2012 at 7:46 AM

    The Gra also learns the Mishna Kilayim is talking about a humanoid and points out otherwise there would be a shver passuk in the makkah of Arov, which participation of the humanoid in the makkah removes the difficulty. The humanoid was allowed in that instance to unearth the place in the ground attached to it's cord (vegam ha'adama ...) to join in the assault on the Mitzrim.

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