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...

42 comments:

  1. "There's a lesson here..."
    Is it:

    1. Don't bet against the wind?

    2. The answer my friend is blowing in the wind?

    3. Always buy wind related insurance?

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  2. just goes to show you that the great sages were great men but men and stubborn they where that could err.

    they had no special power or ruach hokodesh but one does not need that to be great

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  3. Yes, lesson indeed. That it takes giants like RMF and RSZA to know when the time has come to allow the changes, without it shaking the foundations of Halcha and trust in the Sages. Give some real thought to that. Read History, other attempts, by other individuals led to tragic results.

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  4. would note that the Rashba (my least favorite rishon, with all due respect (i.e. not really that much unfortunately)) was probably the most charedi of all rishon's. see his teshuva on moser - which was probably also fueled by needing to defend his community from a govt investigation - where he basically appears to distort some precedents (including the gemara of R' Elazer ben R" Shimon bar Yochai, for which maybe he had a totally different Girsah) in order to silence all types of "mosering" and allow capital punishment to prevent it. the Agudah-Charedi community definitely has a rishon to rely on.

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  5. "it takes giants like RMF and RSZA to know when the time has come to allow the changes"

    They didn't allow any changes.

    And it doesn't take a giant to observe that some of the Gemara's treifos can indeed live, or that when a person stops breathing he isn't necessarily dead.

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  6. R'NS,
    I think it's it takes giants to kasher the change.
    KT
    Joel RIch

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  7. Again, what change? There need not be any change in halachah. And as for the change in our knowledge of metziyus, anyone can observe it. So what does "kasher the change" mean?

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  8. 'what does "kasher the change" mean?'

    I think they mean kasher the change in Dogma. As you wrote, the Rashba knew their arguments to the contrary would be contrived, but it was a view he held for dogmatic reasons not pragmatic.

    I think denying observable truth for the sake of dogma has become a problem in our day because of the widespread education and information available to the masses that just didn't exist before.

    So with regard to the modern day deniers of empirical evidence I would answer them "They could say it, We cannot."

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  9. It means to say that it's ok to say “This is the operative statement. The other statements are now inoperable.” (to quote Ron Ziegler for Richard Nixon)
    KT
    Joel RIch

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  10. R' Slifkin - You know exactly what it means. They make comments in the correct context, subtly moving the discussion in the correct direction. No sign of ideology or a campaign. This allows the important subtle changes to take place (whether they called for it or not). Other ways (even the comment) causes distrust of Chazal and the breakdown of the Halachic process, or a complete reaction from the zealots that closes down meaningful discussion.

    Of course you know all this.

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  11. "And it doesn't take a giant to observe that some of the Gemara's treifos can indeed live, or that when a person stops breathing he isn't necessarily dead."

    No. But it does take a Giant to overturn centuries of precedent. Mere chacahmim risk censure and cherem.

    In the case of the Chasam Sofer, it raises the question if his rulings ever resulted in a rescuscitatable patient being left to die.

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  12. What I think R. Joel means is that for some, reality is only reality if some Adam Godol has pronounced it reality. I have encountered this a number of times. There is one particular Rav who responded a bit to my papers on brain death. He said essentially that I may be right regarding biology and such, but it didn't matter l'halacha unless a group of 'gedolim'(and he, by the way, works for a supposedly MO organization) got together and agreed. Until such 'haskama' took place, actual reality was not germane. (I understand that there are categories of Halacha(such as animal treifot) where Halachic reality is not the same as observed reality, but human life(and human treifot, at least according to the Rambam) is not one of them).

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  13. Yeah, R' Moshe disputed the words of the Rashba just like Mitt Romney "is not concerned about the poor people". Jeez! Did ANYONE commenting here actually look up what R' Moshe actually says?! About nishtaneh hatevah etc?! Was the Rashba's statement displaying confidence in chazal's infallibility or in the immutability of the laws of nature? (that was a rhetorical question)...and are there NO guidelines for what sort of comment may not be posted? For example Milhouse Trabajo's comment attacking the Rashba ad hominem, is permissible? Are there no lines that may not be crossed?

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  14. And I wish I had a shulchan shlomo to see that context...

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  15. YitziZ: "Yes, lesson indeed. That it takes giants like RMF and RSZA to know when the time has come to allow the changes, without it shaking the foundations of Halcha and trust in the Sages. Give some real thought to that. Read History, other attempts, by other individuals led to tragic results."

    What kind of BS is this? You seem to think that Halacha is some kind of socio-political legal system or something. Have't you ever heard of אמיתה של תורה?! The biggest corruption of the Halachic system is when external political influences start determining psak halacha.

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  16. Yitzy7: "This allows the important subtle changes to take place ... Other ways ... the breakdown of the Halachic process."

    What exactly IS the halachic process? again, I think you take halacha to be some political-legal-system, not a Divine law. And while I have no problem with you thinking that way, I do have a problem accepting that that's what RSZA or RMF held.

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  17. Shiffi: "Jeez! Did ANYONE commenting here actually look up what R' Moshe actually says?! About nishtaneh hatevah etc?! Was the Rashba's statement displaying confidence in chazal's infallibility or in the immutability of the laws of nature? (that was a rhetorical question)"

    Did you actually look up the tshuva in Rashba R. Moshe is commenting on? Rashba almost explicitly denies that nature has changed! Don't you think the Rashba wasn't as brilliant as R. Moshe to come up with the "nishtaneh hateva" answer? R. Moshe said what he said because he had no choice other than accept the reality, while the Rashba was able to deny the reality since it wasn't so established in his days.

    By the way, for an interesting discussion of Rashba's opinion see "Hishtanut Hativim Behalacha" pp. 32-34.

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  18. As to Yeedle's question of "What IS the halachic process" I would suggest, given our context, the following answer.
    The halachic process is that a G-d-fearing, serious, knowledgeable Jew takes all of the relevant information pertaining to issue X and brings it to the most expert halachic authority available to him/her and asks a halachic question. The authority then says mutar or assur (or whatever). This is probably obvious to most people here.
    What's really being asked about?
    This simple process is conflated with "deciding reality" because legal precedent can only be overturned by a competent halachic authority.
    As to why people are resistant to innovative declarations, like overturning a traditional halacha based on new physical evidence, and will only accept it from a gadol, is because of all the non-G-d-fearing rabble rousers we've seen throughout history.
    Frankly, for laymen, it's just very hard to tell the difference between an apikorus trying to subtly undermine Torah authority and a genuine truth-seeker.
    So, we have a situation where something which seems patently obvious to some is only accepted after being machshired by a big Rav.
    The system works perfectly, but only when the humans operating it do so correctly...

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  19. They didn't allow any changes.

    what about being mechallel shabbos to save an 8 month baby.

    to me that is a change that needs a posek. (at least before the situation occurs)

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  20. Uh...Yeedle, I don't believe the discussion is about whether the Rashba believed the world as we know it, can or cannot change, nor is R' Slifkin presenting is as such. That goes in the category of the Rishonim being wrong about science (not the theological question of whether Chazal could be wrong), an opinion that MOST charedi people think is obvious!

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  21. Yeedle - Torah is Lo Bashamayim. There is a legal Halachic process that does take into consideration who says what. This idea runs through Shas, Rishonim, Achronim, Teshuva seforim, etc. You may not like it, but it is the reality of the Halachic process.

    If you are looking for scholarly discussions on this topic, see some of Marc Shapiros articles on the Brisker method of learning.

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  22. whoops! just looked up R' Feinstein, seems like Shiffi is right! What he actually says seems to have little bearing on the point this post is trying to make....

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  23. "whoops! just looked up R' Feinstein, seems like Shiffi is right! What he actually says seems to have little bearing on the point this post is trying to make...."

    Can someone post the full source in context?

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  24. here is r. feinstein

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14678&st=&pgnum=305

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  25. Amazing gotta he of true gedolim. Look carefully at the other folks in the video - can it be the women in floral prints??!
    Www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jjH3TLQIFc&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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  26. I don't know that this proves (as per peakman) that "great sages were great men..that could err."
    This comes to the nub of the problem: does science count?
    According to the knowledge of their time, they were correct. They also paskened based on the knowledge of that time. The "mind game" and "what if" being played-out is, for example, "would the Rashba have decided differently if given access to modern veterinary knowledge?" Or would the Chasam Sofer have given a different p'sak if educated about modern resuscitation?
    The question for peakman, and others, is would these gedolim have remain intransigent in the face of science?
    WADR: If you could take the Chasam Sofer in a time machine and give him a tour of a modern neonatal intensive care unit and have him hold a living, breathing baby who was born prematurely, would he have said "it is a stone?"!

    I would like to think not.

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  27. Yeah, R' Moshe disputed the words of the Rashba just like Mitt Romney "is not concerned about the poor people". Jeez! Did ANYONE commenting here actually look up what R' Moshe actually says?! About nishtaneh hatevah etc?! Was the Rashba's statement displaying confidence in chazal's infallibility or in the immutability of the laws of nature? (that was a rhetorical question)...

    Here is a link for those who don't have it handy:

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=921&st=&pgnum=305

    I need to read the whole thing more closely, but it seems quite clear that R. Moshe is saying that the Rashba, given todays evidence, would admit (and now admits in Olam HaEmet) that he was incorrect. Specifically, he would admit that some cases that the Mishneh and Gemorah call out as Treifot can actually live full lives, while at the time he wrote that such a thing is impossible.

    The overall point of the the Teshuva is to say that while Treifot were established with fixed rules (Halachah L'Moshe Mi'Sinai), the rules for human beings (Goses) were not, and are updated as medical techniques are updated. So, for example, someone with a perforated colon might at one time have been a Goses, but now would not longer considered to be one, since this can be corrected with surgery (disclaimer: I a not a physician, so use another example if this one is wrong).

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  28. Slight correction. I wrote Goses when I should have written Treifa. If person A who kills person B who once would have been considered a Treifa in the past, person A is still liable for the death penalty if person B can live based on today's medical techniques.

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  29. "'אף לאחר שישתנו הטבעיים וכו" doesn't seem very ambiguous to me...sorry folks move along, no discoveries in this post...

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  30. considering that there seems to be a consensus among the commentors that this post is a mistake, can the post please be corrected?

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  31. I would agree there is clearly a mistake in this post, either in its presentation of its conclusion. Did you mean to say Rashba was correct theologically, just wrong scientifically (a certifiable yawn), or that somehow igros moshe actually DISAGREED with Rashba theologically? If the latter, how would you conclude that from the quoted tshuva?

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  32. I once heard that when R' Moshe says "nishtaneh hatevah" he means "chazal were wrong" so then R' Moshe WAS disagreeing with the Rashba?

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  33. you say:
    "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.)
    "

    rav moshe never said that chazal's science was wrong. are you wrongly implying/equating r. feinstein with glaser

    I think this what is bothering some posters.

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  34. RgY,

    It could be argued that everyone who uses the nishtaneh hatevaim, or (talmid toeh, or nishtabsha hagirsa although in those cases it is at least a provable hypothesis), is in a respectful way saying the prior authority is wrong. The question is what you do with that determination - change the halacha, uphold it for other pragmatic reasons, leave it as safek, ignore it, etc.

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  35. Eric said etc....
    huh? I am trying to defend Rabbi Slifkin from all the posters saying there is no proof. i say maybe the proof is because the Rabbi knows that "nishtaneh hatevah"
    really means "they were wrong".

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  36. nishtaneh hatevah means they were wrong?! sounds pretty desperate to me....

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  37. "dovid said...
    rav moshe never said that chazal's science was wrong. are you wrongly implying/equating r. feinstein with glaser

    I think this what is bothering some posters."

    To be very simple and plain: the posters are bothered by the fact that rav moshe is arguing scientifically with the Rashba not hashkafically!

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  38. I think that the post makes a very valid point. The Rashba was sure that the science had to be wrong. Rav Moshe shows that this is untenable factually. He even describes why it is the that Rashba could have been mistaken on this (lack of modern communication and travel). He then gives explains how this works out with the actual halachah. Nishtanu Ha'Tivim plays a role, but he also says that our greater medical knowledge could render what at the time was a Treifa into something that could live; the reason then that this is still a Treifa is that it was established as a Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai and that this explains the need to enumerate the Treifos. And finally that this doesn't apply to people; here we do change the halachah as medical science advances even if "nature" remains the same.

    So the final result is that the Rashba is very firm on a scientific fact and R. Moshe shows that his facts are untenable, thus requiring a different interpretation of the Halacha (but not a change in the practice). The fact that he includes the possibility of Nistanu HaTivim in addition to advances in medicine as a way to resolve the different observations then and now, doesn't change that conclusion about the Rashba's position: you can be a very great Talmid Chacham and be very sure that a factual belief is theologically required and then turn out to be mistaken.

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  39. the mistake that David Ohsie is making (in contradistinction with all the other posters) is that the Rashba in no way shape or form could POSSIBLY have believed that halacha requires one to believe nature never changes. Firstly, because he never says it does, and secondly, because it is impossible to make the case that halacha dictates that ALL of nature will never change (halacha certainly ASSUMES nature does not change; but never DEMANDS it). We come back once again to Dr. Shaffer's certifiable yawn: so the Rashba was wrong about science. Impossible!

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  40. the mistake that David Ohsie is making (in contradistinction with all the other posters) is that the Rashba in no way shape or form could POSSIBLY have believed that halacha requires one to believe nature never changes.

    I don't not what Rashba believed about "nature changing". What he seemed to have believed is the following: "Judaism requires in some way that it be true that halachically Treif animals could not possibly live. Therefore, all evidence to the contrary must be false".

    It turns out that he was mistaken.


    We come back once again to Dr. Shaffer's certifiable yawn: so the Rashba was wrong about science. Impossible!

    You are confusing two types of statements:

    1) The earth doesn't move.

    2) Judaism requires us to believe that the earth doesn't move.

    The first is unremarkable, as you say, because that is what nearly everyone believed at one time.

    The second is an object lesson in the danger of making Judaism "require" certain scientific beliefs. And this is not theoretical; it still goes on today: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/09/r-david-nieto-matteh-dan.html

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  41. Shiffi, sorry about the ad hominem attack on the Rashba, though it didn't really have any teeth (i was just noting that i refer to other rishonim before the Rashba, he is not my "go-to" commentary due to his philosophical and interpretive leanings). i should be more careful, but tend to exaggerate when commenting on a blog.

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