Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Green Cheese versus Hominid Lupines

I must admit that I was very surprised at the extent and nature of the negative feedback on J. Remus Bloch's article on Hominid-Lupine Transmogrification (which I have since taken down). In some cases, people had not read Rabbi Bleich's article, and did not realize that the exact same phrases were used. In some cases it can be attributed to people being the disciples of Rabbi Bleich, or to their drawing their personal self-esteem from the institutions that Rabbi Bleich represents. But in other cases it is apparently their objective judgment that such a satire is wrong.

To my further surprise, I discovered that the negative reception was not so much due to the two or three phrases that I added in to the article (which I inserted due to certain factors pertaining to Rabbi Bleich's unique style, as guessed correctly by some commentators but incorrectly by others). Instead, it was largely due to the overall nature of the article: replacing the discussion about spontaneous generation with equivalent discussion regarding werewolves.

This may be because people reject the idea of ever using satire to criticize an article by a Torah scholar, even in Purim week. In general, I am sympathetic to that viewpoint, and I try to err on the side of caution, despite my enormous emotional drive to succumb to it. That is why, for example, I have never and would never satirize Rav Aharon Feldman's essay that purports to explain why my approach is heretical. I made an exception in this case due to the aforementioned certain factors pertaining to Rabbi Bleich's unique style that were guessed correctly by some commentators but incorrectly by others. Still, it was not a wise choice, and I regret it.

But in at least some, if not most, cases, the charge here runs something like this: The article was inappropriate mockery because it made out as though Rabbi Bleich proposes something ridiculous. Whereas defending spontaneous generation, or claiming that Chazal did not really believe in it, is much less ridiculous than defending the existence of werewolves, or claiming that the Rishonim did not really believe in them.

Now, even if that were true, I am far from convinced that it would mean that to parody it in such a way is wrong. I think that this would only be the case if defending spontaneous generation, or claiming that Chazal did not really believe in it, was not ridiculous at all.

But in any case, a primary purpose of the article was to illustrate that belief in werewolves, or claiming that the Rishonim did not believe in them, is in fact not any more ridiculous than defending the existence of spontaneous generation or claiming that Chazal did not really believe in it.

I would not have made belief in Santa Claus the subject of such a satire. In his article, Rabbi Bleich brought up the hypothetical example of Chazal believing that the moon is made of green cheese, and wrote about how Rav Glasner would never attribute "specious reasoning" to Chazal. Those were inappropriate distractions that were entirely misleading, since I never made any such claim, and there is no equivalence whatsoever to spontaneous generation. But werewolves are perfectly analogous.

It's true that belief in werewolves is generally considered to be more ridiculous than belief in spontaneous generation. But that's only because werewolves are the subject of B-movies and teen fiction, whereas spontaneous generation is discussed in an academic context. A primary point of the J. Remus Bloch article was to demonstrate that there is nothing inherently more ridiculous either in positing the existence of werewolves, or in claiming that the Rishonim did not really believe in them. If anything, werewolves are less refuted by modern biology than is spontaneous generation. And belief in werewolves in antiquity was almost as widespread as belief in spontaneous generation.

In fact, I was considering removing any humorous aspects, and submitting such an article on werewolves to Tradition - claiming that there is no scientific reason to reject their existence, and that the Rishonim never believed in them anyway. And dressing it up in lots of high-falutin' terminology. And plenty of condescension to those who would disagree. What would be the grounds for rejecting such an article, if Rabbi Bleich's article on spontaneous generation was printed?

(For further reading, I highly recommend Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories, in which there is a chapter about the medieval belief in werewolves.)


  1. 'I would not have made belief in Santa Claus the subject of such a satire. In his article, Rabbi Bleich brought up the hypothetical example of Chazal believing that the moon is made of green cheese, and wrote about how Rav Glasner would never attribute "specious reasoning" to Chazal. Those were inappropriate distractions that were entirely misleading, since I never made any such claim, and there is no equivalence whatsoever to spontaneous generation. But werewolves are perfectly analogous.'

    do you really not understand that this analogy had nothing to do with you - he was NOT saying that dor revi'i doesn't attribute specious reasoning to chazal and you shouldnt attribute to them belief in outdated science, which btw is not specicous resaoning. actually not btw as he next goes on to say - and he's not 'conceding', he's explaining - that despite the fact and even because of the fact, that dor revi'i insists that every word of written and sealed tsb'p must be immutable divine truth, he also considers any halacha that chazal decided based on error to be immutable. he in no way was criticizing you for imputing specious reasoning to chazal. if you were reading this article to try and understand it, you would understand that rabbi bleich himself never rejects that chazal could err, or even reject that they can decide halachos based on such error, and himself offers an explanation for how this phenomenon is possible. how can he do this if he thinks it's forbidden to attribute error to chazal. you have invented a straw man, and then you knock it down.

  2. Student, I am not responding to your comment, or posting any more comments from you, until you do the following:

    1) Make an effort to write properly and coherently. No long rambling sentences without proper punctuation.

    2) Respond to my challenges to you. E.g.: Rabbi Bleich wrote the following:
    "Among the possibilities are: 1) the parasite they described is extinct; 2) it has mutated into the present-day sexually reproducing Anisakis; 3) some Anisakis may arise in the flesh of the fish and others spawn in water."
    To which I pointed out that these three approaches rest on the presumption that spontaneous generation does or has taken place.
    You denied this.
    So I asked you to explain what he was saying in each of these cases.

  3. I wrote earlier tonight that I would return to that thread as I didn't respond to a number of posts addressed to me (I still haven't). There was no intent on my part to avoid your question. I just caught your latest post before I returned to that thread and posted here first due to my astonishment at what you wrote. Moreover, after I write this response, I will have to leave off posting for a bit, and will not be able to return to that thread just now either.

    I believe that possibilities one and three are not examples of belief in spontaneous generation. Possibility number two, I probably was wrong about. Possibility number one, I understood to be that the organism they had in mind, whatever it was and with no assumption that it spontaneously generated, is extinct. Possiblility two I understood to be saying the same, but that it's mutated, and I did assume that if he meant mutated into 'today's sexually reproducing' it would be from asexual reproduction. You've argued that this is a reference to an earlier section of the article, and on reflection I think you're probably right about that. I happily concede the point. Possibility number three I understood as a reference to his own 'reformulation' of the talmudic principle (reformulation of the talmudic principle is a phrase that alone does not strike me as particularly compatible with your thesis that he means to argue that chazal themselves believed in spontaneous generation).

    I also do not think that
    Rabbi Bleich meant for anyone to take seriously the argument that spontaneous generation once happened. He was 'just saying.' He does that sort of thing quite a bit in his articles. It's a perhaps-irritating personal tic.

    However, your misleading presentation of your own sources is a real issue, not a stylistic one. You have yet to post my comments on relevant posts where I claim in my comments that you have misrepresented sources. I would like to be able to refer others to those comments without retyping them as they are examples of how you handle sources that don't relate to the subject of your Tradition article and I believe they represent a pattern. I apologize for my poor typing, but the less of it I do, the better it will be. Also, the caplock key on my keyboard was sticking to lower case and I didn't think the failure to capitalize was THAT bad.

    an easy fast and a good purim and i will try to return at some point to that thread should anyone other than rabbi slifkin be awaiting a response.

  4. I didn't think your satire was inappropriate. Especially considering that it is Purim.
    But who am I to judge?

  5. It saddens me that some people just don't seems to get the idea of the Purim parody, a venerable institution that goes back at least as far as "Masechet Purim." I'm just glad I was quick enough to read the Bloch piece before it Disapparated.

  6. RNS I think the point you may have missed was that its is much easier to claim that rishonim talking midrash were mistaken about science than chazal (tannaim and amoraim) were about science wrt to halacha.
    Therefore the satirical article equating the two can seem disrespectful.

  7. a.student - Very revealing comment. As you did when R. Bleich referred to R. Meiselman's pathetic attempt to deny the authenticity of the piece from R. Avraham ben HaRambam, you claim that R. Bleich didn't mean it seriously or was just quoting all opinions. Perhaps you will also claim that R. Bleich's ridiculous mention of Goldstone bosons was also 'unserious' (it happens to be unserious, but for reasons that you are presumably incapable of admitting).

  8. easier to claim that rishonim talking midrash were mistaken about science than chazal (tannaim and amoraim) were about science wrt to halacha

    Please expand on this. I don't get the distinction. Consider the 4 groupings (detailed below) that you are suggesting. Why should any of these distinctions be meaningful? Rishonim were not invested with prophetic visions and neither were Tannaim and Amoraim. Furthermore, either they made mistakes on science or they didn't. We might choose to maintain certain halacha's for the sake of continuity (i.e. killing lice on Shabbat), but that has nothing to do with the core issue.

    1. Rishonim addressing midrash

    2. Rishonim addressing halacha

    3. Tanaim + Amoraim addressing midrash

    4. Tanaim + Amoraim addressing halacha

  9. Yitz
    Your question comes from your position of agreement with RNS re chazal and science.
    There are (plainly) those who completely disagree and some who are sympathtic only to an extent.
    For those people rishonim being mistaken about science wrt midrash is far more palatable.
    I think that is fairly evident without having to expand on each category.
    If still dont understand and really want me to expand please let me know.

  10. Not the first time your post took a low road. Your message will be more effective if you adopt a less petty tone.

  11. Rabbi Slifkin -

    Stick to your guns, and stop apologizing for Purim Torah! People on this site need to stop getting so up in arms about such a non-issue. In fact, their comments reinforce the importance of and need for this time in the Jewish calendar - when critique of leadership that borders on satire and mockery is legitimate and all in good fun.

    Rabbi Bleich doesn't need "defenders" to fight his battles; that would be insulting to a man of his intellectual and critical stature. The energy that fuels the vehemence with which folks rush to his aid would best be directed toward more pressing issues that have current relevance in the Orthodox world.

  12. Rabbi Slifkin: Again, I think that you should have stuck to you guns and not have taken down the parody but should have done some minor
    editing and trimming, particularly at the end, which was over the top.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  13. Your question comes from your position of agreement with RNS re chazal and science.

    I'm only speaking for myself. Seems to me that if one acknowledges that Rishonim were not infallible in scientific matters, then the proverbial camel's nose is now in the tent. Why then would the Amoraim and Tannaim be infallible in scientific matters?

    The only reason that comes to mind is the non-reason of religious sentiment.

  14. As a response to Joseph / support of student:
    Rabbi Bleich _does_ frequently quote opinions that he personally does not agree with. I have asked him many times about positions presented in his articles, and he has often answered me that he doesn't agree with them.

    I agree with student that this is an irritating tic, but Rabbi Bleich intends for his articles to be primarily surveys, and he brings many relevant sources and invites his readers to sort through them themselves. His opinions are appended somewhat infrequently (almost never in the earlier years) to the sources he brings.

    Those who read his series of articles in Tradition *should* be aware that the fact that something is quoted in his articles in no way confers his approval on it.

    In this particular article in question, he presented several approaches and explicitly mentioned the two that he finds compelling (neither of which involved belief that spontaneous generation has ever occurred).

  15. Dear Rabbi Slifkin:

    I didn't read the lengthy interchange between you and Rabbi Bleich, nor did I read the parody that you took down. I can only comment on this particular post, and all I can say is that it is deeply offensive.

    There is a long mesorah, stretching back hundreds if not thousands of years, testifying to the existence of werewolves. Your use of werewolves as a parody to demonstrate the ridiculousness of believing in spontaneous generation is an insult to all our forebears who witnessed werewolves and passed this down to their children. What else will you have us doubt that our forefathers have passed on to us?

    Furthermore, your post is deeply insulting to the memory of all those who have been eaten by werewolves. Their descendants wince in pain upon reading your callous words. In my opinion, a class action lawsuit for negligent infliction of emotional distress is not inappropriate to consider.

    Look, I'm a reasonable guy and I don't want to trade barbs over the internet, especially as hunger sets in today on Taanit Esther. Why don't you and I go out Thursday night after the Purim Seudah, and we can sit down and talk about this like menschen--at least for a few hours...

    A freilechen Purim,

    Michael Merdinger

  16. Rabbi Bleich _does_ frequently quote opinions that he personally does not agree with.

    So how come he never quoted Rav Herzog or Rav Glasner in his original articles?

  17. "Put somewhat differently, when a statement by ecclesiastical authorities conflicts with modern clinically-observed phenomena,
    it is to be reinterpreted in any possible or even impossible way such as to remain true."

    You are right to find humor in this approach, but recognize that this approach is very typical of the "rationalist" rishonim, in whose footsteps you follow.

    "Our emunah has to be, and will
    continue to be, that every word of the Rishonim is emet le’amitoh."

    It sounds like a direct quote, but no self-respecting charedi would every say emet.

  18. If somebody (rabbi or not, old or not, respected or not) publishes, his arguments are "fair game" for a sarcastic attack.

    And if an argument is bad, it doesn't matter much who makes it.

    Charles Cohen /
    Richmond, BC, Canada

  19. Michael,

    As a former chavrusa of yours, I of course must disagree with your heartfelt yet typically ignorant sentiments above.

    As I told you repeatedly when we were learning hilchot eruvin together, my greatgrandmother OBM was eaten by a werewolf al kiddush Hashem when she was but a wee lass in Romania where she almost grew up. Neither I nor any of her other descendants "wince in pain" chas ve'shalom when we fondly recollect the mesiras nefesh and temimus with which this holy child rendered her precious soul unto her Maker as well as her body as an early evening appetizer to oto ha'werewolf, yimach shmo v'zikhro.

    Next time, please stick to writing about stuff you actually know something about (and from what I remember of our beit midrash days, I know exactly how much that would restrict you.)

    And don't even think of dissing the sacred memory of my zaide's mother again.

    Your old buddy,
    Barry Kornblau

  20. Barry,

    Thats not a very nice way to speak about werewolves.
    In fact I am descendant of Binyamin and consider your words quite disrespectful.
    In fact your grandmothers mesiras nefesh, provided me with tasty, lip smacking, meal.
    (fatty meat is the best).
    Now please let me go howl at the moon in peace.


  21. I think you were right to take down the parody. I also think it's within the realm of rationalism to recognize both the weakness of Rav Bleich's argument, and his overall deserved stature as a Rav. The latter point warrants presenting the former point respectfully, regardless of his argument's incompleteness and logical flaws.

  22. Dear Rabbi Barry--

    Buddy, I, too, recall learning Eruvin in those Beit Midrash days, and I feel that the fact of your repeated insults to my knowledge in this very public forum simply reinforces my old impression that you never had any understanding of boundaries.

    With blessings of Torah U'Maddah, Torah v'Derech Eretz, and Torah v'bizayon l'zulat (since life is full of contradictions),

    your buddy Michael Merdinger

  23. כל ליצנותא אסירא, חוץ מליצנותא דעבודה זרה דשריא. Mocking legitimate rabbonim undermines the authority of the rabbinate as a whole, even if they make ridiculous statements. That it's close to Purim is immaterial, because the criticism is obviously serious.

    Moreover, Rav Bleich's position is not ridiculous unless you take empiricism for granted. Clearly he does not, and many other talmidei chachamim also don't. You and I follow talmidei chachamim who do fully accept that the scientific method works, but not everyone has to to be a Torah scholar worthy of respect.

    It's appropriate to discuss the reasoning of different talmidei chachamim about whether Chazal can err scientifically. But I cannot see any benefit from the incredulous and outraged tone you often adopt on this blog, let alone outright satire, and I can see much harm. There are enough datim with an ax to grind against charedim without further encouragement. We need to maintain the utmost respect toward all legitimate rabbinic authorities, even if we think they're being ridiculous and even if they don't extend the same courtesy to us.

  24. Good to see this discussion moving back to the comfortable realm of cutting sarcastic humour (the best type ...)!
    I think the article of Rebbe Remus was side splittingly funny, and therefore not disrespectful specifically BECAUSE it went too far - by extending all the way into complete farce it shows that it is a joke. People who can't take a joke are usually those who feel insecure about their position. For that reason I feel sure Rabbi Bleich himself would not take offense.

  25. I'd like to respond to joseph in this thread and answer some comments addressed to me on a previous thread, but I see that a number of my comments have yet to be approved. Why is that? The first time you explained why a comment of mine was not approved was in the thread "Pulling Teeth" devoted to Rabbi Bleich's presentation of the dor revi'i. I'd written two comments. The first related to your criticism of Rabbi Bleich's assertion that "Rabbi Glasner's comments are similarly not apropos," a sentence that I contended then (and still contend) that you have taken out of context and distorted. I wrote that it's completely clear that Rabbi Bleich was asserting that Rabbi Glasner's comments are not germane to your thesis that due to national acceptance of chazal's authority, the halacha remains binding even if it was decided on the basis of empirical error. (In his rejoinder, Rabbi Bleich first analyzed Rabbi Fisher's position, as you brought Rabbi Fisher as the source for the thesis that national acceptance of chazal's authority applies even to cases where the halacha is incorrectly decided on the basis of empirical error, and asserted that Rabbi Fisher does not make this claim and can't be used as a source for this claim. He then moved to the dor revi'i, and wrote that the dor revi'i's analysis is similiarly not apropos, i.e. not germane to the "national acceptance of hazal's authority" thesis.) The second comment that I wrote was tangentially related to the post. At first you told me that you didn't approve my comments on that post as they would relate better to issues you'd bring up in the future. When I complained, you posted the second half of my comment and not the first part that related even more directly to the post you had up. In what way was my first comment not relevant to the thread in which you discuss Rabbi Bleich's analysis of the dor revi'i, but rather more relevant to some other post? What other post? (The second comment also didn't relate to any later post to date.) You've finished analyzing Rabbi Bleich's rejoinder, and to date there's been no later post to which that comment was more relevant. As you didn't answer my question as to what happened, and what future post you had in mind, I didn't know what you could mean and I decided to assume that the first part of my comment was lost in the ether. After all, I subsequently included the essence of the argument I'd made in that first unapproved comment in a comment on a less directly relevant post and you did let the later comment through. My comments have also not been approved on some posts that weren't part of your analysis of your back and forth with Rabbi Bleich in Tradition. Maybe you didn't notice new comments awaiting approval on those posts (I don't know how unapproved comments show up to the blog owner on blogger). Yet my comments on active posts also haven't been posted. For example, my comment on the still-active thread "Hominid-Lupine Transmogrification - UPDATED" was not approved. Maybe it contained a spelling error? As I don't see rhyme or reason as to when you approve my comments and when you don't, I'll wait before commenting further to see if you approve any of the comments I've already written that are awaiting approval or whether you will clarify your comment-approval policy. I'd like to know whether I can reasonably expect a comment to be posted and not devote time to writing comments that will never be approved. As you let some of my comments through, I am quite puzzled as to your policy, assuming you have one apart from your momentary whims.
    Good shabbos or gut voch as the case may be.

  26. Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

    My old buddy Michael Merdinger tells me that you did, not whatever reason, choose to post his recent comment: "Buddy, your repeated insults to my knowledge reinforces my impression from our hilchot eruvin days that you never understood boundaries." This was his response to my ad-hominem jabs at him in an earlier posting.

    I humbly request that you post his superbly witty comeuppance to me so that I can be so publicly insulted in such fine, punny style and so that I can get have the misery of not getting in the last word. To be insulted only privately and to leave the comment thread knowing that I have had the last word is more than I can bear.

    Thank you for your consideration,
    Barry Kornblau


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