Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Question About Ralbag's Reception

Professor Menachem Kellner asked me to post the following question:

Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344), known as Ralbag or Gersonides, is best known in the world of Jewish tradition as the author of commentaries on the earlier prophets and of Job. These commentaries are found today in the Mikra'ot Gedolot editions of the Bible along with other traditional commentaries. Once in the Mikra'kot Gedolot, Ralbag's status as a rishon was assured, despite his unusual positions on a whole range of theological issues. His hitherto very rare commentaries on the Torah are being made available by Mossad ha-Rav Kook and in an exemplary edition under the editorship of Rabbi Baruch Braner of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma'aleh Adumim.

Ralbag's apparently positive reception (as evidenced by his inclusion in the Mikra'ot Gedolot) notwithstanding, there is no denying that he became a controversial figure by the later middle ages. Indeed, the first publisher of his philosophic magnum opus, Milhamot ha-Shem (Wars of the Lord) states that many called the book Wars Against the Lord. The explicit doctrines Ralbag defends in his Milhamot Ha-Shem, like those relating to the creation of the cosmos out of a kind of pre-existing matter, and especially those relating to God's knowledge and providence, are daring. Indeed, Isaac Husik called his doctrine of God's knowledge a "theological monstrosity."

I am interested in finding responses to Ralbag by rabbinic figures from the last two centuries and would be grateful for any assistance. I am familiar with brief haskamot on his writings by Reb Moshe Feinstein, z"l, and by the Netziv, but almost nothing else.

Thanks in advance, Menachem Kellner (

Friday, August 24, 2012

Two Summer Anecdotes

Having just returned home to Israel, I don't have anything about Rationalist Judaism to post, but I decided to share two anecdotes from my vacation.

My wife and I took a two-day vacation from the kids in Santa Barbara. On the first day, we were wandering around, looking for a place to sit down and have a picnic lunch. Adjacent to some beautiful residences, we found a grassy area, the nature of which was unclear. It didn't seem to be a park. But on the other hand, it didn't seem to be private property either. So we sat down, spread out our lunch, and enjoyed ourselves.

The next day, we took a tour of the town on an unusual amphibious vehicle. During the land-portion of the tour, we suddenly found ourselves driving right next to our picnic spot of the day before.

"And if you look to the right," announced the tour guide into the microphone, "You can see the sacred grounds of the local Indian tribe, which is left untouched."

Oops. We must have missed the sign. I sure hope that we cleaned up after ourselves properly.

Anyway, it turned out that the local Indian tribe were known as the "Chumash" Indians. Which removed my puzzlement at seeing a beautiful publication of "The Chumash" in the window in the local tourist store. And it seems that those who have accused me of desecrating the Chumash are, in a way, correct!

*    *    *

My nine-year-old daughter returned from summer camp one day and happily told me about her trip to Disneyland. I asked her which part she enjoyed best.

"The blog ride!" she gushed.

I thought that I must have misheard her. "The what?"

"The blog ride!"

"What's a blog ride? You can't ride on a blog!" I protested.

She rolled her eyes at me. "Aba, it wasn't a real blog!"

There's a generational and cultural gap between my nine-year-old American-Israeli daughter and myself, but I still felt that I was missing something. "But what's a blog ride?" I asked.

My daughter patiently explained it to me. "It's a plastic blog. You know, from a tree. You sit in it and go for a ride that splashes into the water."

A log ride. Methinks that my daughter hears the word "blog" too much. Maybe I should cut down.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eilu V'Eilu!

This past Shabbos, I was "off-duty." At the shul in California where I davenned, the guest speaker was a certain Rabbi B. from Lawrence. Now, I had heard in the past that he is a loyal disciple of Rav Moshe Shapiro - one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of mine during the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-5. According to my notes, when I was trying to arrange speaking engagements in Lawrence shortly after that time, Rabbi B.'s name had often been mentioned by people as opposing my being invited. I mentioned this to the president of the shul (a family friend), and he suggested that I have a debate with Rabbi B. I readily agreed, but when he approached Rabbi B., he said that he doesn't like controversy and claimed not to have ever opposed me. So, at seudah shelishis, I decided to simply introduce myself.

Rabbi B. was extremely friendly. He was seemingly happy to meet me, and told me that he had read and enjoyed my book on Perek Shirah and other writings. Naturally, the discussion turned to Torah and science. I first mentioned the notorious book Chaim B'Emunasam, and he responded that he had seen part of my critique on it and fully agreed with me. At this, I began to think that perhaps I had been misinformed about Rabbi B., and perhaps he was actually on the same page as me. I noted that the discussion of the Gemara in Pesachim, regarding the sun's path at night, is really fundamental to the entire issue, especially vis-a-vis Rav Moshe Shapiro. All the Rishonim, without exception, say that when Chazal said that the sun passes behind the sky at night, that's what they actually meant. Maharal, on the other hand, says that Chazal were most definitely not talking about any such thing, and were instead talking about metaphysics - the approach that Rav Moshe Shapiro follows, and claims to be the only legitimate approach.

Rabbi B. agreed that Maharal was innovative, and said that one has to look at the time period in which this took place. Perhaps naively, I thought for a moment that he was going to be agreeing with my assessment of why the 16th century caused great insecurity about Chazal's lack of knowledge regarding astronomy. In fact, Rabbi B. clarified that his point was that it was the revelations of the Arizal's kabbalah, in Maharal's era, which revealed the true metaphysical meaning of Chazal's words.

It was at this point that I realized that Rabbi B. was not in fact on the same page as me.

Rabbi B. proceeded, with several patronizing references to secular scholars, to get into the topic of how to read texts. He argued that instead of looking towards the original intent of texts, we should be employing charitable interpretation. In this case, this means rejecting the explanation of the Rishonim (that Chazal mistakenly believed the sun to go behind the sky at night) and adopting that of Maharal.
"Fine," I replied. "So let Rav Moshe Shapiro say that I am presenting an explanation of what Chazal actually meant, whereas he is presenting what he would like Chazal to mean!"

Rabbi B. claimed that it's impossible for anyone to know what Chazal actually meant. (Apparently, this does not apply to Maharal or Rav Moshe Shapiro.)

"But what about all the Rishonim, who interpret the Gemara according to its plain meaning?" I asked. Rabbi B. responded that he doesn't like the approach of the Rishonim.

I pointed out that while people are free to adopt whatever approach they want, it is somewhat bizarre to insist that the only acceptable approach is to reject the entire body of Rishonim (not to mention to condemn me without admitting that I am representing the approach of the Rishonim).

At this point Rabbi B. said that he did not mean that the Rishonim are to be rejected; instead, he meant that they cannot be learned superficially.

Astounded, I asked him if he meant that all the Rishonim should be read as actually presenting the approach of Maharal. He appeared to claim that this was the case! (I did not ask him how he reconciled this with his claim that it was only due to the revelations of the Arizal that Chazal's true metaphysical meaning was revealed.)

"How on earth can you claim that the Rishonim are actually presenting Maharal's view?!" I asked, dumbfounded. "Let's go through their words, and see!"

"I've been through all the Rishonim," said Rabbi B. dismissively. He did not explain how this answered me, and did not appear willing to actually discuss what the Rishonim write.

Rabbi B. repeatedly told me, in a friendly tone, that it's very important for me to realize that when I get up to Heaven, I am going to have to defend myself to Chazal. Having heard these kinds of warnings/ threats several times before, it did not intimidate me in the slightest, and I responded that I am perfectly ready to do so. I added that aside from defending my approach in the next world, I am also ready to defend my approach in this world - unlike my opponents, who steadfastly refuse to meet me, to engage in discussion, or to explain their position in light of the views of the Rishonim and many Acharonim.

Rabbi B. explained that it's ludicrous for me to think that Rav Moshe Shapiro would engage me in discussion, since he is a Gadol B'Torah and therefore on a completely different level from me. He said that he would like to arrange for me to meet Rav Moshe Shapiro, but only if I do so with the express condition that I am not out to present any arguments at all, just to listen and accept whatever Rav Shapiro says, as a talmid from a rebbe.

"Rav Moshe Shapiro is not my rebbe!" I retorted. "I received my approach from Rav Aryeh Carmell!"

"And is Rav Carmell alive?" asked Rabbi B.

"No," I replied, somewhat puzzled at the question.

"Well, there you have it!" responded Rabbi B. triumphantly!

The argument went on this vein for some time. Rabbi B. claimed that just as a leading scientist will not agree to engage in debate with a layman, Rav Moshe Shapiro need not agree to engage in discussion with me. I pointed out the weaknesses of the analogy. In science, conclusions are only accepted when backed up with arguments, whereas Rav Moshe Shapiro and others are arguing only from their authority, and refusing to ever explain themselves or to deal with the numerous sources that I cite. It is not a case of "Slifkin vs. Rav Moshe Shapiro and other Gedolim" - it is "An entire school of thought, from Rishonim through Acharonim through numerous rabbis and roshei yeshivah of our own era vs. several Acharonim, Rav Moshe Shapiro and many other Charedi Gedolim." But my words fell on deaf ears.

Rabbi B. made numerous condescending statements about how "anyone who knows anything" about how academia works will realize the shortcomings of my approach. He didn't seem to believe me when I said that academics would certainly agree that Maharal was presenting an innovative approach that was not the true meaning of Chazal's words, and which was certainly not the approach of the Rishonim. Eventually, I pointed out to him that I myself am in academia. Somewhat deflated, he asked where. I told him that I am in Bar-Ilan, to which he rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively!

Eventually, the discussion had to stop because Rabbi B. was schedule to deliver his guest lecture. Much to my surprise, he spoke about how Torah is not monolithic, about how there are and must be diversity of views within Judaism, about how Torah is like Wikipedia in that it is a community project, about how great people must lower themselves to listen to Torah from lesser people, and about the importance of eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chaim. The modern Orthodox audience loved it.

After he finished, I asked him if Eilu v'eilu also applies to the debate about Chazal's knowledge of science. "You have to be an 'eilu'!" he replied. "You have to be on a par with the Gedolim in order to have an opinion that counts!"

Which wasn't exactly the message that he conveyed in his speech.

I wanted to ask him if Rav Hirsch and all the other Rishonim and Acharonim that I quote, and all the various roshei yeshivah and rabbonim who agree with my approach, all of whom Rav Moshe Shapiro dismisses in various ways, are an 'eilu,' but I had to leave.

(See too these posts:
"Who Is An Expert in Torah?"
"Rebellion in the Ranks of Rav Moshe")

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Dark Night Rises

On Shabbos I came across a parsaha sheet from the previous week, Shabbos Nachamu, about its relationship with Perek Shirah and the bat. Referring to the bat's verse in Perek Shirah, of nachamu nachamu ami, it presented a beautiful explanation of how the bat symbolizes perseverance and triumph through exiles. Just as the bat hangs upside-down, so too the world in exile is a topsy-turvy world. And just as the bat navigates through darkness via sonar, so too we can navigate through the dark night of exile until it lifts to reveal the dawn.

But as readers of last year's post entitled "I am the Bat Man," will recall, the source for identifying the bat as being present in Perek Shirah is none other than yours truly - and I made a mistake. I was explicitly very tentative with my suggestion, and eventually I decided that it was entirely without merit, and said so in the second edition. However, the first edition had already been used by ArtScroll in their edition of Perek Shirah. And so the bat entered Perek Shirah, resulting in all kinds of alleged metaphysical ramifications, as described in the earlier post.

There's no real harm done as a result of the error in the parasha sheet that I saw. It's an inspirational piece of writing. Still, it is alarming to see that an error of judgment that I made at the age of twenty-three is being adopted and elaborated upon fourteen years later!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Being Beeish

(This is based on a talk that I gave last Shabbos at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. As you can see, my style for Shabbos drashos is different from my usual writing style.)

The fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, begins with the words “Eileh hadevarim… These are the words that Moshe spoke.” However, the Midrash homiletically reads the second word not as devarim, which means “words,” but rather as devorim, which means “bees.” 
“These are the devarim” – Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: The Holy One said, my sons were conducted in this world like bees with the righteous and with the prophets. (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:5) 
 Bees are viewed extremely positively in Judaism. This isn’t just because they’re not WASPS. Nor is it due to the honey that they provide. It is also because of their organizational structure. One of the references to bees in the Torah occurs with the story of Shimshon, and it alludes to their remarkable social structure: 
“And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a nest of bees (adas devorim) and honey in the carcass of the lion.” (Shoftim 14:8) 
 As the commentaries explain, adas devarim refers to a nest of bees. But the word adas is based on the word eidah. This means “congregation” or “community,” and this name reflects the unique structure of a bee colony.

A beehive consists of anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 bees. There are three basic kinds of bee in the colony: The queen, drones, and workers.

The queen is the mother and master of the hive. She is the only bee that gives birth, and lives approximately 2 years, laying up to 2,500 eggs per day. Towards the end of a queen’s life, she will produce an egg from which another queen will hatch. The queen communicates her demands to the rest of the hive by releasing a scent. The other bees fan the smell around the hive, letting the entire hive know.

Drones are male bees. There are only a few hundred drones in a hive at any time. These males do no work; their only purpose being to fertilize the queen. After the drones have completed their single task, they are evicted from the hive and left to starve to death outside of the hive. Though this sounds unfair, they do so often out of their own accord, as if they understood this as their only purpose in life.

The other 99% of bees in the hive are worker bees, which are all female. They have different tasks, depending upon their age. Guard bees protect the hive. House bees clean the cells so they can be used again. Wax bees build new cells and repair old ones. Nurse bees care for and feed the undeveloped young; they also make necessary for the development of the larvae. Forager bees are the oldest and most experienced bees; they gather pollen and nectar, spending a lot of time away from the hive.

The extraordinary nature of bee colonies is the reason for the Midrash seeing them as being alluded to in the word devarim. In the words of another Midrash: 
“These are the devarim” – Just as with the bee, its children are led after it, so too Israel is led by the righteous and the prophets. (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 1:795) 
 Etz Yosef explains that just as bees follow the greatest bee, the queen, so too with Israel do people of lesser stature follow those of greater stature. Bees live in a hierarchal society, headed by a queen. This symbolizes Jewish society, in which there is also a hierarchal system – the people follow their leaders, be they kings, prophets, or Torah scholars. And just as bees are able to accomplish amazing things by virtue of their organized, methodical social structure – namely, producing honey – so too the Jewish people are able to accomplish amazing things – preserving an ancient way of life against overwhelming odds.

(The name of the bee is related the concept of a leader. Simply speaking, the bee is called devorah because its buzzing sound sounds like a form of communication (even though it is actually merely a byproduct of its wings beating). But others suggest that the bee earns its name by virtue of its nature to follow the direction of a leader. The word dover means “to direct”; “davar” means “leader.” And since the bee’s leader is female, the bee’s name is devorah in the feminine gender. Thus, eileh hadevarim would mean these are the directions that Moshe directed, and would also be homiletically read to refer to those who follow leaders – both bees, and the Jewish People.)

This parallel between Jews and bees can be taken further. Sefer Devarim is also known as Mishneh Torah, the review of the Torah. Devarim is the repackaging of the Torah for the next generation. There are many such “repackaged” versions – the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch, and so on. Of these, the most important by far is the Babylonian Talmud, the siyum of which was celebrated this week.

The Babylonian Talmud has been the backbone of Jewish life for centuries. It is a fascinating text. It’s not a code of law. It’s a presentation of discussion and analysis by the Amora’im of the words of the Tanna’im. There is a clear hierarchal structure, like that of bees. Just as the worker bees scurry around, busy with activity, never undermining the leadership of the queen, so too the Sages of the Talmud busy themselves with discussion and analysis, never undermining the leadership of the Mishnah.

But perhaps this parallel between Jews and bees can be even more revealing. Bees in many countries are currently suffering from colony collapse disorder. The reasons for this are not well understood. It has been attributed to parasites, disease, pesticides, cellphone radiation, and a host of other problems. Some suggest that it’s due to the bees having allergies – they always have hives (ba-da-bum!). But it is generally thought that, whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, the reasons why bees are especially susceptible is that domesticated bees today do not have sufficient genetic diversity to cope with these threats. In order for bees to successfully cope with problems, they need genetic diversity – which means that bees must not be perfect, uniform, carbon copies of each other. This used to always be the case – despite the ostensible appearance of perfect uniformity, there is genetic variation in bee colonies. But domestic bees today are all descended from a very limited starter group. There is therefore very little genetic diversity, which renders them especially vulnerable to problems. It’s the artificial farming of bees that put them through a genetic bottleneck and made them too uniform.

The parallels to the Bavli are fascinating. The truth is that the notion of the sages of the Talmud as expounding upon the Sages of the Mishnah with perfect replication is somewhat of a myth. There is tremendous innovation, and even revisionism of the Mishnah. In fact, according to Menachem Fisch, in his book “Rational Rabbis,” this is the very reason why the Bavli is not presented as a legal code- the point of it is to present an approach to dealing with earlier codes, and showing how to adapt them without overtly undermining them. The Talmud says that “one who argues with his teacher, is as one who argues with the Shechinah” – but the Talmud is full of people arguing with their teachers! The Rishonim explain that the problem is only one of undermining their authority. It is possible to disagree, and even act differently from one’s teacher, without undermining their authority.

Bees are able to be extraordinary insects due to their hierarchal structure. But their hives collapse if there is only perfect replication without genetic innovation. So, too, if we try to innovate a new form of Judaism, it won’t get anywhere; but if we just carbon-copy what previous Jews have done, we will not be able to cope with new challenges. We need to follow the approach of the Bavli, which, while paying great respect to earlier traditions, knows how to subtly adapt to changing circumstances. It’s a difficult balancing act – fealty to tradition, but knowing how to adapt. If we’re going to succeed at being Jewish, we need to know how to be beeish!

NOTE to readers in Chicago - This Sunday, as well as the Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo in the morning, I am giving a lecture on Rationalism Vs. Mysticism in the evening. See details here. I will also be selling books at the lecture, at a discount.

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The  nesher , king of...