Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Post: R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran's Encyclopedia

Guest post by Rabbi Dr. Seth Kadish, continuing the series on R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Cosmos and Life on Earth

A few years ago, my son was given a gift by his metapelet (the woman who took care of him along with a small group of children at an after-school day care center in her home). It was a lovely book of “questions and answers” about nature and the world around us, beautifully illustrated with vivid color pictures, and published by a ḥareidi organization especially for religious children, to show them the wonders of Hashem's creation. My son loves animals, and he loved the book.

At the time, I was working together with a talented talmid ḥakham who also serves as a rabbi in the powerful network of ḥareidi-run synagogues in my town, all under the supervision of the official rabbi of the city. Both within his local ḥareidi community and outside of it, this particular talmid ḥakham is considered relatively “moderate” and “open” (in the sense of being deeply involved in the outside world on a positive level and capable of working together with people of all kinds). He even does milu'im (reserve duty), although his children most likely will not.

When I came into his home, I immediately noticed a copy of my child's book on his dining room table, and innocently commented that we had the very same book at home, that it was such a lovely book and my son too had received it as a gift. He replied that the copy on the table wasn't actually his. It belonged to one of the members of the local ḥareidi community, who had brought it over for him to look at and make sure that it was “kosher” enough to keep in a Torah home. (That person was apparently concerned that it might have “problematic” ideas like natural history or dinosaurs.) So it seems that if you have a respected place in a ḥareidi community (by wearing the right hat and getting the backing of the right rabbi), and yet you are still thought to be relatively broadminded, then people will make you their authority to pasken on the kashrut of childen's books... :-)

That parent who brought a children's book on nature to a rav for a hekhsher represents a need that is to be found wherever there are people of a very specific mindset: Religious Jews who think that the Torah teaches hard facts about nature or history which may be contrary to what is generally thought to be true. Communities like this will inevitably demand sources of general knowledge (books, magazines, documentary movies, etc.) that have been “cleaned up”—farendert un farbesert!—to reflect the facts of nature according to what the Torah supposedly teaches whenever such a contradiction seems to exist. A most desirable tool for such a community would be a “Torah encyclopedia,” i.e. a compendium of general knowledge from which all possible heresy has been removed or properly modified, and which in addition contains plenty of information that is of particular use to its readers (such as an emphasis on Jewish history in a way that reflects what is considered to be the proper “Torah attitude”). During the 20th century numerous people and publishing houses made attempts to create books and compendiums of this sort.

But there is also a completely different way to approach the issue. When Yeshiva University granted an honorary doctorate to Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz (this was in 1991 when I was a young semikhah student), he gave a public lecture on Torah u-Madda that I still remember vividly. He began by remarking that when people find themselves confronted by conflicts between science and the Torah, those problems are usually rooted in “popular science” or “popular Torah” (or both). The more serious and broadminded a scholar is, said Rabbi Steinzaltz, the less likely he is to find substance in many or most such apparent contradictions. But at the same time there will always still be some deeper and more nuanced problems, which are far more difficult to deal with, and for which there may not be satisfactory solutions. For these questions the answer is not censorship but honesty, along with the kind of intellectual humility capable of acknowledging that “no one ever died from a question.”

Neither sanitized science nor censored Torah is the answer. Rather, they are both the very root of the problem. Sanitized science is a sin against God's gift to us of the human mind, and against any true appreciation of the wondrous universe that He made. But censored Torah is even more frightening and dangerous, because when the study of God's Torah is limited to those opinions which are deemed acceptable in a certain community at a certain time, or according to certain rabbis who are deemed gedolim, the result will be not just hyper-inflated contradictions between Torah and science but something far worse: a perversion of the Torah itself and thus of God's will for Israel.

Serious questions about Torah and science are nothing new. In every generation mankind tries anew to understand both itself and the universe around it, and this continuing search reveals new truths. At the very same time, men of Torah in every generation—who are themselves also men of truth—honestly strive to understand anew both God's Torah and the world around them using the best tools available to them. This dual engagement not only forces them to meet deep and important challenges head on, but also has the potential to enrich their understanding of mankind, of the universe, and of the Torah itself.

In Rabbis Ḥasdai Crescas and Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran we have two great men who were both outstanding in their pursuit of truth in the realms of Torah and universal knowledge alike. Both of them received the best possible education in both Torah and the science of their time. Both of them possessed encyclopedic knowledge of both realms, and they both continued to fully engage in Torah and science alike throughout their entire lives. Each of them was also the outstanding rabbinic leader in his locale, devoting his life to rebuilding Torah life in the devastated Jewish communities of Spain (Crescas) or to strengthening Torah life within a community of exiles in North Africa (Duran). For both of them, the hard but honest and high-quality work they did when they dealt seriously with the relationship between Torah and science was an integral part of their Torah leadership.

Nevertheless, despite their common origins, similar educations and parallel interests, Crescas and Duran were extremely different as men of the mind. Duran's passion, both in Torah and science, was always for the details. On any given topic, no matter how seemingly trivial at times, he loved to survey (in most cases apparently by heart) every opinion ever expressed in the generations before him, and every possible interpretation that might now be offered in light of them. This characteristic is true of his biblical interpretation, of his talmudic commentaries and halakhic responsa, and also in matters of science: The latter might be anything from personal experimentation to show whether or not spontaneously generated animals can themselves reproduce, to proofs of the existence of angels and demons. Essential to Duran's approach is that the Torah has much of importance to say about nearly every detail of the physical world, and that its wisdom regarding plant and animal life, humanity, and the cosmos is superior to human wisdom of the Aristotelian variety. Duran does not entirely reject allegorical interpretation of the Torah—indeed he occasionally revels in it—but his general approach is that the Torah and azal fully intended to describe the myriad details of concrete really and that they did so successfully.

Also essential to Duran's approach, however—though usually understated, and sometimes nearly lost entirely in his frequent praise of the Torah as superior to human knowledge—is the assumption that Aristotelian wisdom is generally correct, in its overall approach if not in all of its details. Duran is quite sure that human wisdom has objectively proven a great many truths about the universe (though it has also occasionally stumbled in the places where it contradicts the Torah), the most important of them by far being the existence of God, but no less so for matters such as the biological derivation of semen and the laws of heredity. The literary result of Duran's way of thinking is Magen Avot, as an encyclopedic compendium of knowledge about plant and animal life, human life, and the structure of the cosmos, in which the scientific corpus is corrected when necessary through the superior wisdom of the Torah.

Crescas' intellectual passion was the exact opposite of Duran's: It was nearly always the underlying concepts that fascinated him, not the concrete details. And unlike Duran, he was willing and even eager to cast doubt upon nearly everything. His major goal in Or Hashem is to show that human wisdom can never prove anything absolutely (up to and including the existence of God). And as for the Torah, he felt no compulsion to assume that it describes the concrete reality of the cosmos. A startling example of this is his discussion of the Garden of Eden towards the end of the book: Crescas—fully aware of both Maimonides' allegorical view of Eden and of Namanides' harsh critique of it, in which the latter musters the stories of explorers who have stumbled upon it as proof of its concrete existence—argues that the Eden of Genesis is a concrete place where the body and the soul will be rewarded together at the resurrection. He finds this position compelling because on the one hand it reflects the plain sense of the biblical text, while on the other hand rational inquiry simply has nothing at all to say about the issue. But he nevertheless admits that the question must remain open in principle by its very inclusion in Part IV of Or Hashem, on topics for which the Torah itself mandates no particular view: “Since the Torah does not reveal the true conclusion in these matters, whether to affirm them or reject them, the way to study them is therefore to explain the arguments in both directions for each of them, so that he who investigates them may separate that which is correct from that which is incorrect.” In other words, the ultimate conclusion in matters like these is up to each person, and there is no room for mandating any particular position on matters that the Torah itself fails to mandate.

Crescas' approach to the nature of Eden is typical of his overall approach to both Torah and science. His primary goal is always to deal with the most important conceptual issues, and not with other details: What is a “personality” and does God have one? What is causality? What is “will”? What is “creation”? What are “infinity” and “time”? For each and any of these issues, Crescas always begins by asking what science really says and what the Torah really says. Regarding science, what are the various approaches to the issue? If Aristotelian science has proven something, is that proof truly conclusive or is another explanation possible based on a new understanding of the underlying concepts? I emphasize that in no way did Crescas engage in anything remotely like the cheap disparagement of modern science popular among some Orthodox Jews today. Quite the opposite: Crescas didn't engage in polemics so that he could “save” the Torah. Rather, he placed himself firmly at the cutting edge of the science of his day by questioning its underlying concepts, and he was able to offer alternatives that other contemporary scientists found compelling.

Regarding the Torah, Crescas' also asks what it really means in principle regarding each and every concept it touches upon. In this way he delineates the underlying concepts of the Torah (an intricate structure of shorashim and pinnot quite different from Maimonides' 13 ikkarim) for comparison to the possibilities uncovered by human wisdom.

When we compare Duran and Crescas, it is obvious that there are far more contradictions between the Torah and human wisdom for the former than the latter. We might even say, in a certain sense, that this is the result of Duran's reliance on the popular ways to understand both Torah and science in his time. Regarding Torah, the extreme rationalistic approach had already fallen out of favor in the rabbinic world of which he was a part, and allegorical interpretation—while not forbidden—was nevertheless thought to be far less attractive than to say that the Torah correctly described concrete reality. And regarding human wisdom, Aristotelian science in Duran's time was still generally thought to be the only possible way to describe the universe, while those who cast doubt upon its very core (such as Crescas) were still far outside of the mainstream.

But to say that Duran engaged in “popular” Torah and “popular” science would also be extremely misleading. On the contrary, his extraordinary expertise in both fields is second to none in terms of its encyclopedic breadth, depth of understanding, and creative interpretation. By modern standards Duran would have earned several Ph.D.s, and should he have chosen an academic career he might well have been a respected professor of Bible, Talmud, Biology or Philosophy. But more likely is that in our day he would have been a rosh yeshivah and professor at Yeshiva University who teaches semikhah students in the morning and biology or mathematics in the afternoon. What he lacked nonetheless was a passion for rethinking underlying concepts in creative new ways. In other words, he was not at the cutting edge of his fields. But he most certainly was an expert.

Regarding Crescas, however, neither his Torah nor his science can possibly be thought of as “popular” in any way. He was both an expert and at the cutting edge. He tried to rethink assumptions on both sides for every issue he confronted. Nothing in Torah or human wisdom was obvious to him, and nothing was beyond question. By shattering popular notions in both realms he was able to not only reduce the friction between them, but also allowed each one to enrich the other.

In the middle ages, a single science reigned for centuries. But now that the static and dogmatic science of the middle ages is a thing of the past, and our understanding of both the world and the Torah is changing continually, it would seem that Crescas' more flexible approach is the one most appropriate for us today. Nevertheless, Duran's model remains highly relevant as a vivid illustration of how and why such an approach is extremely attractive to Torah Jews (including many to this very day), as well as of the great expertise, creativity and love that must go into building such a model for it to be done well.

Chapter 4 of The Book of Abraham (“The Torah Encyclopedia of the Cosmos and Life on Earth”) is available here (the PDF is a “hybrid” which means that it can also be opened as a fully editable file using LibreOffice). The full index of chapters and blog posts is here.


  1. "Religious Jews who think that the Torah teaches hard facts about nature or history which may be contrary to what is generally thought to be true."

    There is no question as to whether the Torah makes specific claims about how the world was created that are "contrary to what is generally thought to be true." It does, in "black and white". The only question is what is meant and what is the implication of the conflict.

  2. Seth,

    Very thought-provoking post. The link you give is to the appendix, Ch 4 is only accessible by the google site.

  3. `farendert un farbesert`.

    The expression you`re looking for, Rabbi Slifkin,is bowlderised

  4. Amazing. So even if the post title says "Guest Post", and the post begins "Guest post by..." in bold and italics, people STILL think that I wrote it!

  5. Yirmiahu, if the Torah makes such claims in "black and white" then why is there any question left about "what is meant"?

    Thanks Eric for the correction and Rav Slifkin for the fix.

    שבת שלום וחג שמח

  6. peretz mann said...
    `farendert un farbesert`.

    The expression you`re looking for, Rabbi Slifkin,is bowlderised

    Peretz Mann - the term you meant to use is "Bowdlerized", taken from the name of a person who took on the task of editing Shakespeare for the benefit of the tender ears of English speakers.

  7. I believe that the Yiddish phrase, "farendert un farbesert," is a reference to the story of a poster for a Shakespeare play that was presented in earlier years in the Second Avenue Yiddish theater, which was advertised as being "translated and improved."

  8. "The more serious and broadminded a scholar is, said Rabbi Steinzaltz, the less likely he is to find substance in many or most such apparent contradictions."

    And the less likely he is to be Orthodox.

    "For these questions the answer is not censorship but honesty, along with the kind of intellectual humility capable of acknowledging that “no one ever died from a question.”"

    No one may have died, but a lot of people have abandoned Orthodoxy when the best available answer is not an Orthodox one.

  9. Am grateful to learn the fundamental approaches of two Torah giants of the Middle Ages.

    A suggestion: For me, the article would be much clearer if context and illustration were given. For example:

    >> "Duran is quite sure that human wisdom has objectively proven a great many truths about the universe...such as the biological derivation of the laws of heredity. " >>

    Mr. Kadish surely means something by that sentence, but I find it to be a whopper of anachronism. That is, I believe that the "laws of heredity" only became a concept with Mendel, who of course comes 450 years later that R. Shimon.

    R. Shimon dealt with "proofs" of the existence of angels and demons, the "laws of heredity" -- he could not possibly have known differently and we can't criticize him. But to this modern reader, there is a matrix of anachronism and fairy tale that makes it hard for me to understand what Duran achieved.

    I learn that Duran was a genius for detail and Crescas saw the big picture and continually questioned things. Sinai and Oker harim? That alone is worth the price of admission for me. Thanks for an informative article.

  10. Stevie, regarding heredity: People have always realized that offspring bear traits received from their parents. Many ancient and medieval thinkers also tried to explain the natural rules governing how this works. Mendel is the father of the modern science of heredity, but people asked the questions and searched for answers long before him. Duran was one of them.

    Regarding a "matrix of anachronism and fairy tale", I wouldn't call it that. Rather, Duran was simply making the best possible use of the science of his time, in which he was an expert. I find that to be inspiring, even if I don't completely think that his entire approach is appropriate today.

    Regarding Sinai and Oker Harim, both of them were Sinais. But only Crescas was Oker Harim, at least in the area of science and philosophy.

    SQ: "a lot of people have abandoned Orthodoxy when the best available answer is not an Orthodox one." My response is that the spectrum of Orthodox responses has been artificially narrowed in many communities, making it almost impossible for an Orthodox answer to be an honest or satisfying one.

    "And the less likely he is to be Orthodox." I don't think that is factually true. But if it is true then the Torah is in serious trouble.

  11. "My response is that the spectrum of Orthodox responses has been artificially narrowed in many communities"

    I concede that that is true of certain questions (and even domains) but it's definitely not true for all of them, including some very sensitive ones v"y.

    "I don't think that is factually true."

    Don't kid yourself.


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