Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Sun's Path at Night Redux

In previous posts, I explained that placing things in context is a key feature of the academic approach to Torah literature, and gave several examples. In this post, I would like to present an example that is, I think, extremely significant to readers of this forum.

One of my biggest mistakes during the 2004-2006 controversy over my books was neglecting to properly study the Gemara in Pesachim 94b, which records Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi as conceding that the Sages of Israel were mistaken in their belief that the sun travels behind the sky at night. It's by far the clearest and most overwhelming evidence that the notion of Chazal being fallible in scientific matters has broad support from Rishonim and Acharonim, and it's a pity that I didn't present it while the controversy was raging. Eventually I did study the topic properly, and wrote a monograph entitled "The Sun's Path at Night" (which you can download at this link).

In this monograph, I surveyed all the views that I could find on this topic. I divided them according to the approach that they took. Thus, in one section, I listed all the rationalist approaches, from the Geonim through to recent authorities; in another section, I listed all the mystical approaches, and so on. That reflects a traditional, yeshivish way of arranging sources.

When I applied for the PhD program in Jewish History at Bar-Ilan, I had to submit a thesis (my MA was course-based rather than thesis-based), and I decided to rework this monograph. Under the guidance of Dr. David Malkiel, I reorganized the material with a more academic approach.

From the academic standpoint of evaluating intellectual Jewish history, it matters little how many sources can be listed with each approach. The point is to examine the context in which intellectual history develops. With this topic, the most relevant way to divide up the different views is not via their approach, but rather the historical setting. And the key is the sixteenth century. Prior to the sixteenth century, every single rabbinic authority, without exception, understood the Gemara to be talking about astronomy (as opposed to mystical matters). Furthermore, prior to the sixteenth century, virtually all understood it according to its plain meaning (that the Sages were mistaken regarding the sun's path at night). Most reported this in a matter-of-fact way, apparently not seeing it as any cause for concern, while for some it was positive testimony of the Sages’ intellectual honesty. The few who did not understand the Sages as being mistaken apparently took this approach not because they believed the Sages to be infallible, but because they really did believe the sun to go behind the sky at night.

It was in the sixteenth century that everything changed. Some reinterpreted the Gemara in very forced ways. Others claimed that the Gemara was speaking about mystical phenomena, despite the complete lack of precedent for this approach, and the difficulty of reading it into the Gemara. Still others entirely ignored this part of the Gemara and focused instead on an adjacent section of the Gemara in which the Sages' views on astronomy appeared to be vindicated. And even those who accepted the plain meaning of the Gemara were very apologetic about it, in contrast to the Rishonim.

Once it becomes clear that the sixteenth century marks a dramatic transition, the next question to ask is why. In my thesis, I suggested that Jews in Europe, feeling intellectually put to shame by the scientific advances of Christendom in general, and the dramatic achievements in astronomy of Prague and Cracow at that time in particular, could not accept that the Sages of the Talmud had been so grossly mistaken in these matters. I am, of course, open to other suggestions, but this seems to be the historical context that explains the dramatic shift in approaches to this topic.

In other news: If you live in Chicago, don't forget that this Sunday is the Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Reservations are required! There may also be a Sunday evening lecture; details to follow.


  1. On the subject of the scientific knowledge of Chazal, is there any possible way to interpret Niddah 30b as not clearly indicating that they derived from outside, contemporary sources, and even challenged drashos on the basis of such knowledge?

    תניא רבי ישמעאל אומר טימא וטיהר בזכר וטימא וטיהר בנקבה מה כשטימא וטיהר בזכר יצירתו כיוצא בו אף כשטימא וטיהר בנקבה יצירתה כיוצא בה אמרו לו אין למדין יצירה מטומאה אמרו לו לר' ישמעאל מעשה בקליאופטרא מלכת אלכסנדרוס שנתחייבו שפחותיה הריגה למלכות ובדקן ומצאן זה וזה למ"א אמר להן אני מביא לכם ראייה מן התורה ואתם מביאין לי ראייה מן השוטים מאי ראיה מן התורה אילימא טימא וטיהר בזכר וטימא וטיהר בנקבה כו' הא קאמרי ליה אין דנין יצירה מטומאה אמר קרא תלד הוסיף לה הכתוב לידה אחרת בנקבה ומאי ראיה מן השוטים אימר נקבה קדים ואיעבור ארבעין יומין קמי זכר ורבנן סמא דנפצא אשקינהו ור' ישמעאל איכא גופא דלא מקבל סמא.

    (And of course we pasken like the chachamim; not like R. Yishmael.)

  2. Take a look at Norman Solomon's book "Torah from Heaven". He deals a lot with Judaism's reaction to historical contexts.

  3. Who was/were the first to deviate from the traditional interpretation of the gemara?

  4. Why don't you mention the zohar? Since the acceptance of that work judaism has been infused with apikursus mysticism that violates many Jewish philosophies. with said infusion of mysticism why look for a logical conclusion.

  5. The point is to examine the context in which intellectual history develops.
    bingo-and iiuc this is not part of the traditional understanding of the self contained discipline of the "science" of psak.
    Joel Rich

  6. I have a different, but perhaps related, question.

    Why do you think that Chazal was interested in this topic in the first place?

    I.e., what difference does it make which way the sun travels at night, how far it travels during the day, etc.?

    Is it intellectual curiosity? Does it have halachic ramifications? Aren't all the halachic times the same regardless?

    What are your thoughts?

  7. [NOTE: I'm not sure my previous comment got sent, so I'm going to reprint it with some added thoughts.]

    Obviously you think that the Gemara in Pesachim is discussing questions of astronomy. My question is whether or not this is the real topic of interest for the Gemara - here is why I wonder that.

    It seems that this passage has to be read in context of the Gemara that begins on 94a with Rava (I believe, I'm doing all this from memory) discussing the length of the path of the sun during the day and the thickness of the rakiah - which he holds is 1000 parsa thick.

    [Btw, on that note, I assume that when you wrote in your monograph that Rabbeinu Tam holds that the Rakiah is 4 mil thick that that was a mistake. I would assume that 4 mil is relating to the distance that a person walks during the time it takes for the sun to travel the distance of the Rakiah, not the distance of the Rakiah itself].

    This Gemara clearly comes on the back of Ulah's statements on 93b about what is considered a derekh rehokah with regards to the Korban Pesach. In that discussion mention is made about how far a person walks during a day, with discussions about the amount of time from amud hashachar until neitz and shkiah until tzetiz - based on those times Rava attempts to determine the thickness of the Rakiah.

    What is noteworthy is that Ulah's statements are clearly halakhic related. Rava's, on the other hand, seem to have no halachic significance. No halachic conclusions are derived - all that are given are various proofs to show that Rava is wrong - but none of those proofs are halachic in nature.

    The topic, as you point out, seems to be purely a question of astronomical measurements.

    The question is why? What were they interested in? Why did Rava care how far the sun travelled during the day or the thickness of the Rakia? And why did the Gemara care to challenge him on the issue? What does it matter? Why is it significant?

    Is this all supposed to be taken literally?

    [To Be Continued...]

  8. [Part 2]

    Perhaps so. As you point out, the conversation certainly is presented as a scientific question. But then again, presentations and meaning aren't always the same thing. G-d is presented as having a hand and arm and emotions in a matter of fact type way in the Chumash and we don't take those literal.

    Furthermore, there are aspects of this Gemara which seem to indicate that perhaps it's not to be taken as literally as at first glance seems reasonable. For instance, how are we to relate to the statements about the size of Mitzrayim compared to Kush compared to the world compared to Gan Eden, compared to Eden itself and all of that compared to Gehenom?

    Or what about the amount of time it takes to climb from the earth to the Rakiah, etc.? These statements have the ring of non-literal, aggadic statements. And right on the heels of how long it takes to climb up to the various levels of heaven is our Gemara about where and how the sun sets.

    All this raises the fundamental question about what is the real topic of interest in these Gemaras. Did Rava really want to know the distance the sun travels in the same way that an astronomer would want to know? Was this a scientific conversation? Was the conversation between sages of Israel and the wise men preserved and presented in the Gemara because of the interest in the question of which astronomical model was correct?

    Perhaps - but then that raises another question. Why did the sages of Israel find this question interesting or important? And why do we need to know about it? Is the question interesting in and of its own right or does it somehow relate to G-d and His Torah. If so, what is that connection - and how come it's not discussed in the Gemara?

    If the answer is no, if this is not the real interest in this matters, then the obvious question is what is the real topic of conversation?

    [To Be Continued...]

  9. [Final Part]

    Discussing context and showing the historical flow of interpretation is interesting and can be enlightening - but at the end of the day, the real question is what is peshat? What is the Gemara trying to say? And for that, after reading all the various commentaries and noting all the different contexts, we have to go back to the Gemara itself, reread it and ask what does it really mean.

    Why were these conversations preserved? What importance did they seem to have? Why did the various talmudic sages throughout the generations from Rebbi on to Rav Ashi and Ravina deem worthwhile to preserve, pass on and redact these particular conversations.
    And, even more importantly, why did they take place in the first place? What value did Rava, Rebbi and the rest of the sages of Israel see in discussing these matters?

    Until we can answer these questions we don't really understand this Gemara.

    This is the reason why I find context of limited value. It can perhaps point to why interpretations took a particular bent at a particular period in time, but it can't evaluate the value or worth of those interpretations.

    You note that the Maharal's derekh became popular - the question is why. Obviously the honor of Chazal is important to us, but there may be another reason. It may be that the Maharal's approach allows us to address some of the fundamental questions of the Gemara - questions similar to the ones that I mentioned above.

    It's important to remember that in addition to protecting the honor of Chazal we also like to learn and understand the Torah. Just like the astronomer loves to understand the heavens, we love to understand the word of G-d in all its various forms. And that may also account for the popularity of the Maharal's approach.

  10. Interestingly, the 16th century is approximately the time when scientific inquiry began to be stifled in the Islamic world, as any question began to be answered "because it is the will of G-d". Perhaps there is a link?

  11. Is the pattern of change in the 16th century confined to a geographical area?

  12. "In my thesis, I suggested that Jews in Europe, feeling intellectually put to shame by the scientific advances of Christendom in general, and the dramatic achievements in astronomy of Prague and Cracow at that time in particular, could not accept that the Sages of the Talmud had been so grossly mistaken in these matters."

    I don't think it was shame so much as fear. Take a wider view of historical context: other religions were making the same shift then too! they were responding to the breaking away of science from religion, which was just beginning then and happened first in the field of astronomy. That threat is a far more reasonable explanation for the changes in interpretation than Jewish shame.

  13. My explanation was also based on the phraseology used by some figures of that era, e.g. David Gans.

  14. "My explanation was also based on the phraseology used by some figures of that era, e.g. David Gans."

    The academic approach is to never just naively accept what religions say about themselves, particularly about reasons/ motivations.

  15. I for one, would love to read this updated academic version of the monograph, will you be making that available for download as well? :-)

  16. Anybody interested in the historical background of the Jewish Renaissance should listen to the first 4 classes of prof. R. Alan Brill's course on Maharal. Very informative.


  17. Ich bein ein BerlinerJuly 31, 2012 at 9:20 PM

    "When I applied for the PhD program in Jewish History at Bar-Ilan, I had to submit a thesis"

    You just gave the kanoyim ammunition to start calling you Dokter Rabbiner which was a big insult in the alter heim. And at the university of the son of the Netziv who went off the derech no less.

  18. I would suggest that instead of looking at the astronomical advances of Prague , that you look towards the effects of the expulsion from spain in 1492 and the growth of the community in Tzfat.

  19. Rabbi Slifkin - I've been following this academic / traditional Torah scholarship discussion a little bit confused, and I see I'm not the only one, about your use of the word "context".
    It now seems clear you specifically meant "historical context".
    I would recommend you use that phrase explicitly when discussing this issue. The word "context" without a clear context, or modifier, can mean several different things.
    Clearly, all honest scholarship pays attention to "context", but there's a difference between, say, "context within a text / body of texts" and "historical context" or what you might call "personal context" when contemplating the personality who made a particular statement.

  20. Moshe,

    The Maharal's derech was not popular. While a seminal figure in his day, his writings, while frequently discussed with reverence, were largely unknown among his contemporaries and subsequent generations until Chasidim rediscovered them 100-200 years later. By that time, Orthodoxy had certain needs in terms of proving its uniqueness form heterodox/haskalah/non-Jewish movements and found a tremendous precedent for this in the writings of the Maharal. Open up pretty much any page and you will see that he talks about nivdal - that the Torah and its concepts are completely self-contained and separate from anything else known in the natural world. Later on, his writings were adopted by a relatively select few, such as Rav Kook, Rav Dessler, and Rav Hutner each of whom had a number of seminal talmidim. It was probably their popularity which actually disseminated the Maharal's ideas more than his initial reknown.

    Many topics in our religion are largely dependent on context as R. Slifkin is demonstrating. Even something like Shulchan Aruch which the Torah world would probably see as an simple albeit monumental attempt to arrive at a standardized codification of Jewish law was tremendously influenced by other factors such as the Rambam controversy, the growing importance of Kabbalah on Halacha, the displacement of Spanish Jewry, decentralization of Rabbinic authority, proliferation of varying customs and approaches to halacha. After the publication of the Shulchan Aruch, there was significant opposition to R. Karo's approach, both methodological and content. Nevertheless, other social, political, and religious factors lead to it becoming "the code of Jewish law." To ignore those factors is not just being ignorant of trivia or bibliographic minutiae, but to fail to understand what the importance of the Shulchan Aruch and when it emerged in Jewish history really is. So if you're interested in "why," you need Jewish history, historiography, and historiosophy. and not just what is the peshat in the gemara(if such a concept exists).

    If we are recommending books, a historical perspective on Maharal and several other Orthodox thinkers (Yakov Emden, Satmer Rebbe) is explored by David Sorotzkin in his recent book in Hebrew "Orthodoxy and Modern Disciplination: The Production of the Jewish Tradition in Europe in Modern Times"
    אורתודוקסיה ומשטר המודרניות, 2011

  21. "I for one, would love to read this updated academic version of the monograph, will you be making that available for download as well? :-)"

    I haven't decided... meanwhile, I am willing to send it to people that I know personally.

  22. Dov F, in the first comment, makes a good point…

    Another question arises however regarding fetal development, in that there is apparently no outward physical distinction between the genders at 40 days. The 40 day mark is significant as it is when brain waves can first be detected, but that does not seem to be what Chazal were referring to. The gender of the fetus is not distinguishable externally until much later, at 9-12 weeks.

    See for example http://www.secondlookproject.org/tslp_fetal.html - for perspective I've include the other stages as well:

    Embryonic Period - The embryonic period refers to the early stages of human development, from fertilization to the end of eight weeks' (56 days') gestation. It is during the embryonic period that all major systems and structures develop.

    - First days: Human development begins at fertilization, when sperm penetrates the ovum. The early embryo moves through the fallopian tube to the uterus, where it inbeds in the uterine wall approximately 5-12 days after fertilization.

    - 14-21 days: The cardio-vascular system is the first major system to function in the human embryo. Blood is circulating and the heart begins to beat at 21 or 22 days, and can be detected on ultrasound.

    - 21-28 days: The first rudiments of the nervous system appear in the third week; in week four main divisions of the central nervous system are established: forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and spinal cord.

    - Upper limb buds appear in days 24-26 (lower limb buds follow a few days later), and the primordia of the lungs, liver, stomach, pancreas and thyroid are evident.

    - 5th week: The foot plate appears on lower limbs, and pigment appears in the retina of the eye.

    - 6th week: The embryo measures about one inch in length; trunk is beginning to straighten.

    - At 40 days, brain waves are recordable.

    - 7-8 week: The embryo bears the familiar external features and all internal organs of an adult; its length is about 1-1/2 inches.

    By day 51-52 upper limbs bend at the elbow, by day 54, toes have formed.

    Using ultrasound early movements are apparent.

    Fetal Period - The fetal period begins on day 57 (first day of the ninth week) and concludes at birth:

    - 9-12 weeks: Fingernails develop. Eyelids fuse and will remain closed until about the 25th week.

    Urine formation begins between weeks 9-12, and when the fetus urinates, urine is discharged into the amniotic fluid.

    The sex of the fetus is distinguishable externally.

  23. Regarding your statement that Chazal considered the Earth to be flat, the Yerushalmi(Avoda Zara 3:3) says that it is a ball

  24. To Eric,

    In terms of the popularity of the Maharal's APPROACH - I took that from Rabbi Slifkin's monograph which I quickly (i.e., NOT thoroughly) read.

    If memory serves, he said that his approach to this Gemara in Pesachim became popular. He wasn't talking about whether or not the Maharal in general was popular nor was I.

    I was talking about approaches to understanding the Gemara in Pesachim and whether or not the Maharal's approach (if not is particular peshat) is one that can help us understand peshat in the Gemara.

    And speaking of Peshat - at some point we want to know what a text means, why it was written the way it was, etc.

    This is true for the Chumash, for Rashi, for the Mishna, the Gemara, for Tosfos, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch, the Magen Avraham, the Aruch HaShulchan or a Teshuva by Rav Moshe.

    WHY a text became popular or standard may be an interesting question and may having ramifications - but once a text becomes popular or standard we need to get back to that very fundamental question of what exactly is the text saying and why is it saying it.

    And again, in that realm, I think historical context can only help so much.

  25. "Take a wider view of historical context: other religions were making the same shift then too! they were responding to the breaking away of science from religion, which was just beginning then and happened first in the field of astronomy."

    People really need to be more precise in their language when it comes to this topic.

    I can never tell when people use the word religion to refer to Christianity, or when they really mean "Other religions". Did this time period affect Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Shinto, Celtic, or Pagan societies?

  26. I thought an example of what I mean by the real conversation might help - so I just wrote and published a peace giving an example of a philosophical/theological conversation which takes place in the context of modern cosmology.

    Here it is: http://morethinking.com/2012/one-world-two-views/

    There are, of course, many other examples - in history, psychology, etc. Often times, the real conversation aren't about the facts or specific issues themselves, but what the facts say about an issue that is much more important to us.

    My question is whether or not something similar is going on in the Gemara.

  27. I haven't read Rabbi Slifkin's monograph yet, so this might be something that he already discussed there.
    It is interesting that the first letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's collected letters is one that he wrote at age 26 to the Rogotchover Gaon. The Rebbe wanted to obtain some clarity as to what are the views of Chazal on astronomy, and how much is from Greek wisdom, seeing discrepancies between various gemaras that discuss astronomy (one of the gemaras cited is the discussion in Pesachim 94).

    I don't know if it's possible to obtain the Rogotchover Gaon's response. But it's clear that the Rebbe viewed the gemara as discussing physics, not metaphysics or mysticism.

  28. Is it possible that the Gra and Rav Akiva Eiger were right when they stated that the Gemara says neerin cdivreihem, means it only appears they were wrong, but in fact they were not (Rav Akiva Eiger is there on the blatt; not sure where the Gaon is, I've seen it mentioned other places)?

  29. Do you mean to ask if it is possible that the sun really does go behind the sky at night?

  30. Avi Keslinger:

    Yes, Rabbi Slifkin has already noted the Yerushalmi about the earth like a ball elsewhere. For my own discussion(s) of it, see here:


    It is not so clear that this Yerushalmi means that the earth is a globe.

    kol tuv,

  31. Rabbi Slifkin, thanks for that talk you gave the other week in Cherry Hill,this was the first time i actually met you and the first impression was a good impression....
    After your talk i felt i wanted to hear more of you so i googled you and came across another lecture you gave in YU last year on dinosaurs.
    You definately gave me alot of food for thought in that talk, there was one thing however that i found quite ironic - when you mentioned the view of Tiferes Yisroel you said how refreshing it is that he thought out of the box. You then went on to say in a negative tone how some people have printed the mishnayoth without printing this Tiferes Yisroel as they do not agree to his view and they therefore just ignore it.
    Question: did you in effect not do the same during the ban on your books? You were also faced with the view of some rabbis that you did not agree with and you just ignored them.
    I am really not trying to condemn you - i appreciate & need the rationalist approach to Torah, i just felt as a friend i should put you straight and point out that sometimes a shade of hypocrisy in you does rear its head.

  32. Was it a negative tone? Sorry if it was. I usually just quip that the Tiferes Yisrael's essay can be found in every full edition of the Mishnah, except for the ones that it's been removed from. (It was actually torn out of many editions.) I certainly believe that people have every right not to study approaches that they disagree with, which is why I (somewhat) defended the ban on my books.

  33. I mean to ask that neerin implies that the physical reality does appear like them, but there is also a deeper truth.
    Or do you so simply say that the Gaon was wrong?

  34. noone in particularAugust 2, 2012 at 5:56 PM

    so, although I am sincerely trying not to be dis-respectful here, I can't help but ask the following question after reading your post:

    'Given the clear superiority of the academic/context-based approach, over the traditional approach (which comes off here as an un-critical approach); why would you feel a need to use the traditional method for the study of Torah (regardless of the purpose or motivation of that study?'

    And shouldn't we just ditch teachers of Torah who aren't 'into' (or are not capable of using) the context-based approach?

  35. To "no one in particular" - see http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/04/academic-study-of-torah-its-deficits.html

  36. " Bigman said...
    I mean to ask that neerin implies that the physical reality does appear like them, but there is also a deeper truth.
    Or do you so simply say that the Gaon was wrong?"

    That's not what the Gaon and R Akiva Eiger were saying. They were saying that the Chachmai Yisrael were actually correct.

    In any case, I don't think that the word "nir'in" implies what you say. Nor did any of the Rishonim agree with you. Or do you so simply say that the Rishonim were wrong? (see, two can play at that silly game!)

  37. noone in particularAugust 2, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    i'd love to respond without re-hashing all the arguments from your previous post, but I'd simply say the following:

    a more critical approach doesn't reduce my reverential attitude or emotional involvement. Quite the contrary. I find the non-critical approach reduces my reverence.

    Because the traditional approach creates a balloon that is easily punctured and all you are left with is bits of torn plastic. How can you have reverence or emotional connection to something that is all puffed up to be something it's not.

    But the critical approach leads me towards a more realistic, complex picture of the world of Torah which is much more satisfying and intriguing. It delves deeper and deeper, asking better questions and revealing a more vivid understanding of Torah.

    Dumb Torah put me off learning for years.

  38. noone in particularAugust 2, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    also: re tiferet yisrael.. there's a big huge massive difference between 'ignoring what you don't agree with' and 'preventing others from studying it by not printing things you disagree with'.

    The first approach is just dumb. The second is evil.

  39. no silly game, no need to be unpleasant.

  40. I am waiting for this post to be unbiased and research the topic of the infallability of chazal in a true and mature manner.
    Why do you omitt to mention the many places where chazal could not have been relying on the "context of the scientific knowledge of the day" yet were correct in their knowledge.
    Granted, the books one finds showing the supreme knowledge of Chazal (eg Zamir Cohens) etc will show the examples where chazal were correct without mentioning the examples that you give (like in this post) but does that not just reduce both you and the charedim from ignoring sources that do not agree to your mindsets.
    Reading the last 2 posts, i get the impression that you have an agenda without really wanting to find out the truth.

  41. " Bigman said...
    no silly game, no need to be unpleasant."

    Sorry, I was referring to your statement about "Do you simply say the Gra was wrong". Usually, when people say that, it is the silly game of "how dare you say that Gadol X was wrong" while they are implicitly doing the same with Gadol Y.

  42. "Why do you omitt to mention the many places where chazal could not have been relying on the "context of the scientific knowledge of the day" yet were correct in their knowledge."

    Because I have never yet found any! Zamir Cohen's examples all fall through. They are all things which either non-Jews also knew, which don't mean what he claims them to mean, or which are simply false.

    "i get the impression that you have an agenda without really wanting to find out the truth."

    Statements like that are meaningless. I could say exactly the same about you.

  43. @Martin
    sorry to say, but you and others were born either yesterday or at least after r feldman's article and the responses to it. [http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/ravaharon.html]. it's all there, take a look. OTOH i hesitate to recommend it to you and them, lest your emunah become confused. but so that you shouldn't become confused i should put up with your ignorance and nagging...?
    anyway, proceed at your own risk.


  44. another thing to bear in mind is the possibility that chazal learned SOME things from a Sinai tradition or 'sod lireyav' and by other things made scientific errors. the popular notion of chazal's rabbinic infallibility assumes that they NEVER erred. that is a huge claim. chazal make many many scientific statements. if even one of them is shown to be scientifically incorrect, this notion is busted.

  45. To Rabbi Slifkin,

    I just read your article on the drawbacks of the academic method. I would like to add one other point which I think is crucial and relates to the difference between a 'biased' perspective and a 'objective' one.

    You saw the problem as related to religious growth and inspiration, but there is a more fundamental problem with the detached approach - one which relates to understanding the Torah itself.

    Being emotionally attached is a means of inspiration and motivation to understand the Torah itself. Such passion leads one to delve deeper, ask more insightful questions, look for better and clearer answers, etc.

    Rashis and Rambams, Gra's and Rabbi Akiva Eigers are not just borne out of 'historical context', they are borne out of a love and deep passion for the Torah. That love and passion plays out in a context and the context may direct their studies in particular ways, but the context is not the source of genius and understanding.

    I once heard someone say that when Rabbi Soloveitchik gave shiur it was clear that for him all the heavens and the earth revolved around the sugya they were learning. Nothing was more important than understanding the Gemara, making sense of it and figuring it out.

    It's that connection with the Torah which leads to the vast literature of Torah which detached academics like to probe and analyze.

    But those same academics would have nothing to probe, nothing to think about, if the passionate insights didn't come first. They would never be able to produce such a literature themselves because they lack the motivation needed to produce such works.

    As for Noone in Particular - I also don't like dumb Torah - but by no means are the works of the Pnei Yehoshua, Nodah B'Yehudah, the Chazon Ish, Rav Chaim, etc 'dumb' Torah.

    They may be presented poorly or one might not understand them well - but take the time to learn them well and you will find pearls of genius within.

    [Note, this doesn't mean that nothing of value can come from an academic perspective - but at best it's a small side dish and needs to be understood as such]

  46. Along the lines of passion and understanding - I don't think that mathematics, scientists, etc. are dispassionate and 'objective' about their work. They may be methodical, but that's not the same thing as objective in the sense that we are using it.

    Many of the great genius of science and math were totally absorbed in the subjects they were studying.

    For example, I think it was Heisenberg who spent his honeymoon dictating to his wife his paper on quantum physics. Not very romantic - but very passionate about the subject that he was studying.

  47. noone in particularAugust 3, 2012 at 3:24 PM


    you shouldn't blur the distinction between being passionate and being committed emotionally to Torah.

    I find it much harder to be inspired by people who can produce amazing divrei torah, but then spoil the overall effect by also espousing some clearly dumb stuff.

    case in point is the OU daf yomi shiurim. They are great, but every so often, you hear a 'gevaldik pshat' - which really is dumb and it just turns me off the whole thing.

    It's one thing to excuse the rambam for his racism or sexism as a result of his time / context, but its a whole other thing to excuse more contemporary authorities of such flaws, or of espousing dumb Torah when they really have no excuse for not knowing better.

    critical, intelligent torah will inspire more people towards a life of torah. dumb torah just puts people off. (Except for those drawn - for some inexplicable reason - to dumb stuff, as, sadly, so many are.)

    Academic stuff,also, is not small side dishes, it reflects every time you approach a daf or any other learning. It's the general approach - are you critical or not. I can't accept the attempt to minimize the importance of a sophisticated approach to Torah.

    If I was being skeptical and cynical (which I'm not, actually), I would suspect the attempt to minimize the contribution of the critical approach would stem from a fear that more people will wake up and see the emperor is naked - i.e. that so much torah being taught is actually dumb Torah.

  48. noone in particularAugust 3, 2012 at 4:38 PM

    and, if you want a great example of how a critical, academic approach can massively enrich a torah experience, then I suggest you read R. Benny Lau's series Chachamim - (better in Ivrit, than in English).

    It's a slam dunk.

    compare the artscroll commentary on the haggadah, to the sections in book 2 of his series on the distinctions in the appraoches of r. yismael and r. akiva to their historical situation and how those differences appear in the hagaddah and you will have a better, deeper, more inspiring seder night - and you will understand deeper what is going on.

  49. I always learned (and suspect this is a very common view) that Chazal, in this Gemora were saying "The arguments of the Goyim are better than our arguments" (BUT WE ARE STILL RIGHT!!). Therefore the standard view is that you believe an argument even if it makes less sense (or no sense at all) and consider it a priority over an argument that may even have evidence, if that "seemingly better" argument came from the non -Jewish world. In fact, I always learned that evidence is not even a factor to consider, but rather the source of the statement. Now, I don't know if this marks me as coming from a much more ultra-old-fashioned background. But I think we *must* have an honest discussion. Is what I learned fringe? I think what I learned is the standard and it always seems to me that 99% of all Jews in the frum world learned this too. To I need a little clarity and circumspection here. Perhaps I have been isolated, so I do want to hear other views. Also, over time, I have to admit, I have seen some problems with this view, and am wondering if R. Slifkin can offer some clarity on this. I think dialogue and conversation important, and once I saw how some people want to squelch this conservation I really had to give this matter some hard thought.

  50. "I don't know if this marks me as coming from a much more ultra-old-fashioned background. "


    "I think what I learned is the standard and it always seems to me that 99% of all Jews in the frum world learned this too."

    Well, if you read my monograph, you'll see that this is not the case.

  51. Does in Talmud is mentioned somewhere Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights?

  52. My explanation was also based on the phraseology used by some figures of that era, e.g. David Gans.


    are you referring to this gans passage


    The author, David Gans, expresses himself in
    terms we cannot be content with describing as positive; they are in fact
    superlative and even dithyrambic.
    Seventy years ago there lived a man called Nicholas Copernicus, a scientific
    genius, surpassing all his contemporary scientific astronomers. It was said of
    him that nobodys ince Ptolemyh ad been his equal.H e has scrutinizedt he positions
    and movements of the planets and stars with meticulous precision and, in
    order to solve the innumerablea nd complexp roblemsr aised by these data, in
    order to penetrate especially the causes producing all these movements and
    their contradictions, he has judged, declared, and made every effort to
    demonstrate with exceptional elevation of mind that the spheres (of the stars)
    are absolutely fixed and that it is the terrestrial sphere which brings about the
    effect of a continuousm otiona roundt hem. He devotedt o this demonstrationa
    great book filled with a profound and boundless intelligence. A great many of
    the most eminent scientists of our time have expressed their complete
    agreement with his theories. I present this fact in order to bring home the idea
    that we are far from admitting that everything related to the motion of the
    stars and planets is in absolute conformity with what the astronomers of antiquity
    have said about it. No, in this domain, the human mind is completely
    free to discover the theory which seems to be in conformity with its own logic,
    provided that this theory offers a reasonable explanation of the paradoxical
    movements of celestial bodies.....2

  53. "I don't know if this marks me as coming from a much more ultra-old-fashioned background. "


    "I think what I learned is the standard and it always seems to me that 99% of all Jews in the frum world learned this too."

    Well, if you read my monograph, you'll see that this is not the case.
    Which monograph specifically. Also, I was hoping for more clarity than a single word BINGO. Like, perhaps my view is typical of only 98% and not 99%. I know you already wrote a monograph, but could you engage in some explanation of the big picture of attitudes *current* on this issue?

  54. I thought there was something related a year ago. I looked and found your review of the book Chayim Be'Emunasam. You apparently wrote an article (link http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/ChaimBEmunasam.pdf) in which you claimed (p. 21-22) that many rabbis quoted the book Meor Eynayim. Do you have citations (esp. for Magen Avraham, Kneses HaGedolah, and Yad Malachi)?

  55. How can one claim Rabbi Slifkin ignored the rabbis who banned his books? He refuted them and continues to do so to this day. That is not ignoring them.

  56. After having finally read the monograph, I am impressed with the scope of the analysis. However, I think I saw someone ask about how "monolithic" was the knowledge of Chazal--isn't it possible that some of the Sages knew astronomy better than others?

    I mean, it's clear that they knew about the phases of the moon, and which phases were possible and which were not, on a given Rosh Chodesh. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah says that Rabban Gamliel used to quiz the witnesses on which configuration did they see the moon. Rabban Gamliel must have known what the correct answer should have been. Wouldn't that indicate that Chazal knew how the sun is illuminating which part of the moon on a given date? Wouldn't that require that they(or at least some of the Sages, at least) thought that the Sun is illuminating the moon from below the horizon?

  57. just started reading your monograph. looks good so far. i purchased one of those armillary spheres like the one pictured on your front page without looking carefully at the picture in the catalogue. they are made by non-scientists. mine has pisces and aries in the north. 'yours' has aries and tavrvs in the north. but gemini and cancer belong there! such ignorance....

    yehudahP, maybe you mean this but the question is simply: if the sun is above the rakiah at night what causes the moon's phases? [and what causes the phases when the moon is seen by day?]

  58. and do the moon, planets and stars also go above the rakiah from when they 'set' till they 'rise'?

  59. To "reject": That's exactly what I mean--a good paraphrase of my question. But, if Chazal's model of the solar system is like that of the Babylonians, surely they must have addressed the same question: What causes the changes in the moon's phases, if not the sun?


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.

A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...