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.

NOTE

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.

25 comments:

  1. "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."

    R' Bleich has already demonstrated that he doesn't know the difference between spontaneous generation and asexual reproduction. Perhaps he doesn't know the difference between egg and larva either.

    Also, I have it on good authority that those species which spontaneously generate come into the world as adults.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just curious about your third point. What do you suggest about the fact that the eggs are quite visible yet Chazal seem to have rejected the idea that lice have eggs? I don't have Tradition. (By the way, are flea eggs visible? Some Rishonim that we don't pasken like seem to learn that the kinim here are fleas, i.e "the black ones" rather than the "white ones.")
    Thanks for these articles and your letters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nits (lice eggs) were understood by Aristotle as an aberrant organism produced by lice, but not which hatch into other lice. See too Rashi to Avodah Zarah 3b, s.v. beitzei kinnim, who equates these “lice eggs” with the inba described in Nazir 39a, which clearly refers to nits, and which are understood to be a distinct species that lives and dies.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't know Rabbi Bleich. Is he charedi? Or just a modern Orthodox anti-rationalist?

    ReplyDelete
  5. "I don't even think that the Goldstone boson provides evidence for it."

    Unnecessary sarcasm.

    "all the way through to the Chafetz Chaim"

    all the way through Rav Dessler! But I admit that Chafetz Chaim sounds better.

    Please enlarge the note.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Have you contacted Rav Bleich to share your concerns?
    After all, this is quite disturbing given his importance as a writer on legal and ethical issues in the Jewish world.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Considering that lice eggs are visible, how come no one brought this very relevant fact to bear when discussing New York's "famous" water? It was always my contention that the same reasoning that people use to justify Chazal should be used to justify those several generations of New Yorkers who drank water with tiny tiny bugs in them -- so tiny that no one noticed them for decades.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I can appreciate how someone would accept the rambam model of Judaism of compatibility of science and Torah. this I think deserves praise. It is not any different in my eyes than Genesis and the big bang. A interesting and inspiring book despite the mistakes.---actually come to think of it this is a good example how someone even with a background in physics can make major mistakes in it. all the more so a rabbi that is spouting nonsense about a subject he ought to know that he knows nothing about. But still the very fact of accepting the rambam is a great thing.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Considering that lice eggs are visible, how come no one brought this very relevant fact to bear when discussing New York's "famous" water?"

    No one? Most people I know believe that NY tap water is kosher, and they mention the fact that the bugs are too small to see as proof.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It is disturbing that anti-rationalism is seemingly entrenched in the upper echelons of Y.U.

    This Rabbi is one of the most respected poskim on medical issues.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Adam Zur

    Whatever R. Bleich's errors might be, whatever subject matter he may be mischaracterizing out of ignorance, I don't think the phrase "spouting nonsense" is called for. Even if people's ideas are not always worthy of respect, we should still try to address people with respect and dignity.

    ReplyDelete
  12. How did the rationalist Rishonim who believed in spontaneous generation square that with the Aristotlean rejection of creation ex nihilo?

    My point is, if you had asked the Rambam whether lice spontaneously generated, he would say no. He would say that they somehow form out of sweat by an unknown process. Thus, it stands to reason, that the microscopic process was of no interest to Hazal.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Nits (lice eggs) were understood by Aristotle as an aberrant organism produced by lice, but not which hatch into other lice.

    Note that many insects were understood by Aristotle to generate spontaneously--including fleas.
    Chazal's distinction between lice and fleas could strongly indicate that they were indeed looking for eggs to hatch and found flea eggs but not lice eggs.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Although I can't say I'm surprised at R. Bleich, as this corresponds with his general hashkafah, I must admit that I'm a bit dismayed that this is what orthodox Judaism has come to in the twenty first century. Maybe it's just the 'failed messiah' syndrome, but most of the things I hear about leading rabbonim nowadays make me think that your average guy, who has never opened a Chumash or a page of Ketzos, would do a better job of providing moral and intellectual leadership.

    Whether it is rabbonim advising against vaccinating children, whether it's the wholesale advocation of responsibility and simple amorality that leads the gedolim to viciously fight to deny young men the right to have an education, defend their country or learn a profession, or the wink-wink nudge-nudge approach to financial corruption and tax fraud (as opposed to the utmost seriousness with which women's skirt lengths are taken), I've come to wonder what it is people like R. Natan are working so hard to defend. Mah ha'avodah ha'zos lachem?

    If someone as brilliant as Rabbi Bleich could immerse himself in Torah study his whole life and come out with things that a well educated twelve year old would know are nonsense, then what does Torah teach us? Moral guidance? Is that the amazing moral guidance that produces a community who think it is their divinely ordained right to live off other people's tax money (and sacrifice - in the case of army service), or R. Chaim Kanievsky to sign a letter supporting Elior Chen?

    I know I'm mixing up several issues here but my general point is that if torah can't prevent you from making moral and logical blunders that no similarly decent and intelligent non-frum person would make, then what does it achieve?

    ReplyDelete
  15. My point is, if you had asked the Rambam whether lice spontaneously generated, he would say no. He would say that they somehow form out of sweat by an unknown process.

    See Rambam Sefer HaMitzvoth, negative commandment 179: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=38150&st=&pgnum=460.

    [Amateur Translation:] The birth of an ant or a wasp or other flying or crawling species from rotting parts of food is only hard to believe for fools who don't have an understanding of nature. They believe that it is impossible for a member of any species to be born except from a male and female because they this what they have seen.

    That sounds like he believes in spontaneous generation. #177 and #178 specifically prohibit eating such species.

    What is the evidence the other way?

    [References gleaned from R. Schachter's Shiur on the topic: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/12/rav-schachter-on-chazal-and-science.html]

    ReplyDelete
  16. To Yoav:

    I'm at a 'vacht nacht' in BP (lol) and have no sources, but the way I understand Rambam in Shmone Prokim and the Guide - Torah is refined morality that requires the basic human moraliy and ethics as its pterequisit in order to be sam hachaim and not sam hamaves. This derech eretz shekodmah latorah is lacking, hence we look the way we do.

    I do share your frustration and outrage.

    ReplyDelete
  17. David,

    It does NOT sound like spontaneous generation. It sounds like formation from rotting flesh via an unknown mechanism as opposed to sexual reproduction.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Nobody has ever used the term spontaneous generation to refer to creation ex nihilo.

    ReplyDelete
  19. David Meir said...Even if people's ideas are not always worthy of respect, we should still try to address people with respect and dignity.
    My answer is if he wants respect he should either, (1) stay away from the goldstone boson. (2) Learn the subject well enough so that he does not sound like a am haaretz to someone that knows anything at all about bosons and symmetry breaking.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Adam, the point is that a person should be spoken to respectfully whether they're an am haaretz or a chacham. It's just proper derech eretz, and I think it's something that should be high on the priority list when engaging in these kinds of conversations.

    ReplyDelete
  21. It does NOT sound like spontaneous generation. It sounds like formation from rotting flesh via an unknown mechanism as opposed to sexual reproduction.

    What exactly is the difference?

    For comparison, here is a quote from Aristotle that I pulled from Wikipedia. I don't see the difference:

    Now there is one property that animals are found to have in common with plants. For some plants are generated from the seed of plants, whilst other plants are self-generated through the formation of some elemental principle similar to a seed; and of these latter plants some derive their nutriment from the ground, whilst others grow inside other plants, as is mentioned, by the way, in my treatise on Botany. So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter, as is the case with a number of insects, while others are spontaneously generated in the inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.

    ReplyDelete
  22. as I wrote in the other thread, having now read Rabbi Bleich's rejoinder in Tradition he doesnt say what you claim he does, and you have misrepresented him in the most egregious fashion. moreover, as a general matter, he clearly accepts that chazal could and did err on scientific matters. this is evident from his letter, and beyond clear in the section in which he presents his preferred way of reconciling this with the hazon ish's stance by saying that it's sufficient that their science was accurate IN THEIR OWN TIMES.

    ReplyDelete
  23. "Clearly, Chazal believed in spontaneous generation - as did the entire world in antiquity but even though Rabbi Bleich wrote a nine thousand word response to a one thousand word letter (!), he did not respond to this."

    again, he doesnt say that they didn't believe in spontaneous generation!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Student, you are wrong. Hazon Ish did not believe that Hazal erred, and neither does Rabbi Bleich. As for the speculative theory that he puts forth at the end of section V, he ultimately describes it as problematic due to its novelty, and superfluous due to the existence of other cogent theories.

    ReplyDelete
  25. he says that the ONLY problem with the framework, which is his own, is that its novel - even though the components have been presented before, the combination is novel- and that it MAY
    superfluous given that there are other approaches to the problem. it's his own theory and he says maybe one can raise these objections - big deal. he nonetheless presents it at length,

    you gotta win some kind of prize for saying that he advances his own novel framework based on the idea that hazal took from the science of their times, says maybe one will reject this theory because it's new and there are other established approaches, (including ones that admit hazal's fallibility in science that he's already cited), and say you see! he rejects it! he says hazal were scientifically fallible.

    hard for me to believe you yourself believe what you are writing. what game are you playing?

    ReplyDelete

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.