Thursday, March 29, 2012
I noticed that the Jewish Press has a new column on this by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, which was also picked up by Vos Iz Neias (on which the comments always provide fascinating material for social anthropology). While I agree with Rabbi Bar-Hayim's analysis of the halachic history of the kezayis, I cannot agree with his positions regarding how halachah must always confirm to reality as we understand it. Judaism attributes great significance to tradition, and furthermore I'm not sure that he appreciates just how much of a Pandora's box his approach opens.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Rabbi Dessler explains that there are different levels of appreciation of God’s control of the world. The lowest level, on which many of us find ourselves, is that we profess to recognize the truth of it, but do not really do so at heart. The litmus test of this is whether we live our lives any differently. We might say, “God sustains us,” but we wouldn’t dream of actually entrusting Him to handle any of it. Because the person in this position does not really recognize God’s control of the world, he will be treated strictly according to natural law, with no suspensions of it ever made for him. (It is in comparison to such a person that Rav Yosef praised the man who experienced the miracle of being able to nurse his child.)
A higher level is to recognize that God can do with nature as He pleases. A person at this level, however, might be distracted from this viewpoint if he never sees providence overriding the ordinary course of nature. He needs occasional proof that God controls his destiny. Such was the level of the man who miraculously nursed his child, which was why Abayey commented that it didn’t place him in the best light. Another reason why this is not the highest level is that it still perceives nature as a tool—an extension of God, something one level removed from Him. This also implies a deficiency in God’s abilities, as one only uses a tool if one can’t do the job oneself.
The highest level is to see nature not as a tool of God, but as a representation of God Himself. It is not that matters are controlled by nature, which in turn is controlled by laws, which in turn are powered by God—God is present at every stage of the process. This is not, Heaven forbid, to imply a position of pantheism, or Spinoza’s position that God is nothing more than a synonym for the laws of nature. It is not that God is really nature; rather, nature is really a concealed representation of God. He is not using tools.
(Adapted from Michtav Me-Eliyahu vol. I pp. 197-203)
But does Rav Dessler have a place in a presentation of the rationalist approach? There is a newly published book, Modern Orthodox Judaism, by the late Rabbi Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, whose excellent studies of mezuzah and netilas yadayim can be found linked on the side of this website. In a footnote on p. 31, he describes Rav Dessler's "anti-science position" as follows:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206). For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue. Similarly, serious ﬁnancial initiative is unnecessary. The diagnostic skill of the physician (Mikhtav, III, p. 172), the financier’s business acumen (Mikhtav, I, p. 188), ostensibly critical factors in the effectiveness of their efforts, are only illusory causes, argues Rav Dessler. Admittedly, he concedes, one must “go through the motions” of practical activity (the notion of hishtadlut, Mikhtav, I, pp. 187-88) - visiting a physician, making a phone call for financial support - but such is necessary only as a “cover” for the direct Divine conduct of human affairs, which men of faith are challenged to discern. Recognizing the immediacy of the Divine hand behind the facade of human initiative is the ultimate test of faith. One should be engaged in practical effort only for the purpose, paradoxically, of discovering its pointlessness! Therefore, asserts Rav Dessler, to the degree that a man has already proved his spiritual mettle, his acknowledgment of Divine control, could the extensiveness of his “cover” be reduced. Or, alternatively, to the degree that a man is not yet sufficiently spiritually perceptive - wherefore pragmatic initiative might “blind” him to Divine control - should he limit such recourse. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle. (Note Rav Dessler’s necessarily strained interpretation of Hullin, ad loc. and Niddah, ad loc., where one is advised by Harzal to survey one’s property with regularity, and to “abound in business.” in the pursuit of wealth! — Mikhtav, I, pp. 200-01).
Rav Dessler’s position cannot draw support from the doctrine of Ramban, although he
assumes such an identification (ibid., III, pp. 170-73). While Ramban defines the ultimate providential relationship of God to Israel as one of ongoing miracle, he essentially never denies the reality of natural law. Israel, Ramban argues, through its fulfillment of mitzvot, is ideally able to transcend nature and engage God in the special faith—miracle association. In actuality, Ramban in fact concedes, such a relationship with the Divine does not generally prevail today, so that one must live, as a rule, in response to natural law. Thus he legitimates medical practice - he himself, after all, was a physician - not as a “cover” for some outright miracle deceptively operative behind the scenes, as Rav Dessler would have it, but as a genuine recourse to an efficacious discipline. (See Ramban, Commentmy, Lev. 26:11; Torat ha-Adam, in Kitvei Ramban, II, pp. 42-43.) For Rav Dessler, the “natural agency” of medical treatment (III, p. 172), which, admittedly, those of low—faith level must necessarily pursue, is not an effect of natural law as Ramban recognizes it, but, once again, a deceptive expression at every moment of the spontaneous Divine will (see his own reference [ad loc., p. 173] to his basic definition of “nature” in I, pp. 177-206).
Rambam, of course - in contrast even with Ramban - rejects as patently absurd the notion that faith healing, a disregard for nature, could ever prevail as the will of God (see his Commentary to Mishnah, Pesachim 4:10).
Is his understanding of Rav Dessler's position correct? And if so, should I therefore remove my discussion of Rav Dessler's position from my book? This is immediately pertinent, because I am currently preparing a new edition of The Challenge Of Creation. Due to unfortunate problems with my previous distributor, I have to switch to a new distributor and re-do the book from scratch - sponsorship opportunities for the book are available and assistance would be welcomed!
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Eventually, I decided to focus on finishing the first volume, on chayos (wild animals), which is about 80% complete. Then I was distracted by the ban on my books and my academic career. I'm now trying to finish it off, but due to my doctoral dissertation and other projects, I can't give it my full attention. In addition, with each entry, there are sometimes a few sources that present difficulties.
And then I had the idea of crowdsourcing it. Here on this website I am blessed with an audience of over a thousand readers, many of whom are greatly learned. And so occasionally, I would like to present some sources and invite your input. Today's topic is bears, and following are two sources from Chazal that are giving me difficulties.
“...And two bears came out of the forest and tore up forty-two of the children” (Kings II 2:24, referring to the children that taunted Elisha). There was a dispute between Rav and Shmuel; one said that this was a miracle, and the other said that it was a miracle within a miracle. The one who said that it was a miracle is of the opinion that there was already a forest, but there were not any bears. The one who said that it was a miracle within a miracle is of the opinion that there was previously neither forest nor bears. But let there be bears without a forest? Because they would be afraid. (Talmud, Sotah 46b-47a)
Question #1: Why did Rav and Shmuel say that there was any miracle at all? Couldn't there just have been a forest and bears already there? Maharsha suggests that if so, the children would have been afraid to go there, and also that the deaths of the children would not have been attributable to Elisha's curse. Both those answers seem rather difficult.
Question #2: How would the rationalist Rishonim have understood this Gemara? Creation of bears and trees ex nihilo would surely be problematic for them.
Question #3: Kids can be cruel, but doesn't mass slaughter of them seem to be rather a disproportionate response?
Question #4: Is the Modern Hebrew expression "Lo dubim, lo ya'ar" based on a misunderstanding of the Gemara? (See, for example, here)
Next source: When Avraham attempted to prevent God from destroying Sodom, he argued that righteous people would also end up being killed if destruction was unleashed upon the city. The Midrash compares such unwanted results to a bear whose anger does not find a target:
“And Abraham drew near…” (Genesis 18:23) Rabbi Levi said: [It is comparable] to a bear that was raging against an animal, and could not find the animal to rage against, and raged against her children. (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 49:8)Bears are not known to ever do such a thing; their instinct to protect their young is incredibly strong. (I double-checked with the world's greatest expert on bear aggression.) I'm not averse to simply saying that it is zoologically inaccurate, but obviously it would be great to avoid having to do so - especially because this book is directed towards a broader audience than my other books. Matnos Kehunah says that the correct version is בבהמות not בבניה, which would certainly solve the problem, but is there any manuscript or other evidence for this?
Thank you in advance for your suggestions!
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
1. Rashi and science
Rabbi Gold claims that we cannot challenge Rashi's scientific pronouncements. In support of this, he cites a silly article from Dialogue (which I shall be posting about shortly) about the unreliability of modern science and a largely irrelevant Midrash about one of the Tanna'im deriving scientific information from Torah (which is countered by many other sugyos about Chazal not being able to do so).
In response to this, I would point out that few non-extreme-Charedi rabbis today would insist that we should believe in the existence of mermaids simply because Rashi believed in them. There's no shortage of Rishonim and Acharonim who say that even Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect - kal v'chomer for statements by Rashi. And no less an authority than Chasam Sofer is explicit about dismissing Rashi in cases where his lack of anatomical knowledge is apparent:
“What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna – even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this.” (Chasam Sofer to Nidah 18a)Thus, while Rabbi Gold is entitled to personally believe that Rashi is infallible and scientists don't know what they are talking about, and to accordingly believe in the existence of mermaids and werewolves, it is totally inappropriate to make this into an obligatory fundamental of Judaism.
2. Rashi being influenced by his surrounding culture
Rabbi Gold writes "“I don’t accept that Rashi allowed any outside influences to color his understanding of Torah HaKedoshah. To accept such is to invalidate the essence of Rashi and calls into question the sanity and probity of a millennium of great scholars that venerated Rashi, agonized over an extra or missing word in his commentary and wrote tomes and theses based on exactitude of his commentary.”
But it’s pretty well accepted, by figures ranging from the Vilna Gaon to virtually the entire gamut of scholars of Maimonidean thought, that Rambam’s understanding of Torah HaKedoshah was colored by the outside influence of Greek philosophy. If Rambam was influenced by his surrounding culture, why couldn't Rashi have been? Are we supposed to tremble before Rashi, but not before Rambam?
(It goes without saying that every Jewish academic, including virtually all Orthodox Jewish academics, would reject as ridiculous the notion that Rashi was not affected by his surrounding culture.)
3. Rashi giving Midrash as Peshat
Rabbi Gold apparently condemns the idea that one can dispute Rashi for giving drash as pshat. As he says, "Rashi is very explicit when he is not explaining pshat or when he feels that the accepted understanding is not pshat... If Rashi says that Rivka was three, and he says so without qualifiers, he is then stating that this, according to his understanding, is peshuto shel mikra." And Rabbi Gold makes it pretty clear that we have no right to say that such interpretations are not peshat.
Yet there is a long history of Torah scholars criticizing Rashi for giving drash as pshat. Eric Lawee has a superb article on this topic entitled “Words Unfitly Spoken: Late Medieval Criticism of the Role of Midrash in Rashi's Commentary on the Torah,” in Between Rashi and Maimonides: Themes in Medieval Jewish Law, Thought and Culture, ed. Ephraim Kanarfogel. Here is an extract regarding Ibn Ezra (see the original for sources and extensive footnotes):
In one of his grammatical tomes, Ibn Ezra affirmed the ancient sages’ keen awareness of the distinction between peshat and derash and implied their preference for the former (their preoccupation with the latter notwithstanding). He then lamented the abandonment of scripture’s contextual sense by “subsequent generations” who made “each derash primary and paramount.” Nowhere was this regrettable trend more obvious than in the figure of “R. Solomon [Rashi], who explained the Torah, Prophets, and Writings by way of derash, though he thought it was peshat.” Weighing Rashi’s explanations against his twin standards of accuracy, grammatical precision and reasonability, Ibn Ezra determined that, aim notwithstanding, Rashi had successfully grasped and imparted the contextual sense “but one time in a thousand.” Yet he ruefully conceded that “scholars of our generation” (and ordinary Jews all the more, one presumes) “sing the praises of these [midrashically oriented] books.” Even allowing for exaggeration, here was an evidently acute critique.
Lawee discusses others who disputed Rashi's usage of midrash as pshat, and the cites the following sharp words from an anonymous Rishon:
In the Torah Commentary designated as belonging to “Rashi the Frenchman” I have seen rabbinic homilies (haggadot) and interpretations (perushim) that deviate from the way of the Torah’s intention in many places, in some being the very opposite of the correct intention and correct contextual meaning and the grammar and that which accords with reason (sekhel). I thought to record some of the places wherein he erred with haggadot and peshatim as my limited understanding allows...So much for the claim that it is unthinkable to disagree with Rashi's concept of pshat.
4. Rashi's literalist approach to Midrashim
Rabbi Gold also appears to sharply condemn the idea of rejecting Rashi's literalist approach to Midrashim. He is perfectly entitled to do so - no doubt Rashi would have felt the same way! He is not, however, entitled to claim that this represents the basic standards of Judaism.
There can be no doubt that many Rishonim in Ashkenaz interpreted many or even all Aggados literally. This is precisely what much of the Maimonidean controversy was about! As Bernard Septimus notes, “The one surviving polemical letter from French anti-rationalists equates non-literal interpretation of aggadah with rejection.” Rashi himself even adopted this approach in cases that offended the sensibilities of others. For example, in the opinion of some Rishonim (and of modern scholars untainted by bias), Rashi took a literal interpretation of the account of Adam mating with all the animals. And Rabbi Meir Abulafia, famed author of Yad Ramah, vehemently opposed Rashi’s literalist explanations of certain aggadic passages, considering them disrespectful to God.
So Rashi, along with many other Rishonim in Ashkenaz, generally interpreted Aggados literally. Some Rishonim, most famously Rav Moshe Taku, even interpreted anthropomorphic aggados about Hashem literally. And it is well known that Rambam and many others sharply disputed the literalist approach. So on what grounds does Rabbi Gold prohibit following the non-literalist approach of Rambam and others?
5. Is it forbidden to argue with Rishonim?
All the above already shows why Rabbi Gold's claims are wrong, and why it is irrelevant to talk about it being forbidden to argue with the Rishonim (Rabbi Gold even claims that one should not side with one Rishon over another). But, in any case, it is certainly not forbidden to argue with the Rishonim. There are even those who do so in halachah; certainly when it comes to parshanut, there is absolutely no grounds for saying that it is forbidden to disagree with Rashi's view.
6. More intelligent?
Rabbi Gold appears to argue that Rashi was not only a towering Torah scholar who lived much closer to Chazal than us (with which nobody would argue), but also that Rashi is orders of magnitude more intelligent than us - and that this is a fundamental axiom of Judaism. As he puts it, "we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom... It is a fundamental axiom that Rashi was on a higher plane than we are, both scholastically and spiritually."
He appears to be saying that Rashi and the other Rishonim were actually more intelligent than Homo sapiens of today - that they could solve a Rubik's cube in two seconds, build an atom bomb (as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel claims the Gra could have done), and so on. This is certainly not grounded in any reason or empirical evidence, and I do not know of any basis for making it a fundamental axiom of faith.
7. All in the tone?
At this point I am having deja vu over the controversial ban of my books. The opposition claimed that my views were heretical. Many moderate charedim, uncomfortable with the idea that the Gedolim could really be so opposed to Maimonidean rationalism, convinced themselves that the problem was in the "tone" of my books. But this claim was always left vague and unqualified. My response to someone who claims that the problem is all in the "tone", is that they should:
(a) give specific, real-life examples of unacceptable tone,
(b) present the acceptable alternative,
(c) explain the difference,
(d) and explain why it is critical.
The same applies here. As noted above, it seems that the Cross-Currents editor is trying to convince himself/his readers that Rabbi Gold is only objecting to the tone. As documented above, this is in any case clearly not true. But let's consider that claim.
The editor says that Rabbi Gold is "commenting upon the tendency of many to be dismissive of Rashi as hopelessly stuck in a primitive, literalist mode that is beneath enlightened moderns, chas v’shalom." But there can be no doubt that Rambam would indeed be dismissive of many of Rashi's comments as "hopelessly stuck in a primitive, literalist mode that is beneath enlightened moderns"!
Given the gap in time between us and Rashi, and our relative stature and position in Jewish history, it would indeed not be appropriate for us to speak in those terms about Rashi. But I don't know of anyone who does speak with such bluntness, so who was Rabbi Gold condemning? And there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with saying that Rashi's comments sometimes reflect the literalist approach of those medieval Ashkenazi Jews lacking exposure to philosophy and science, with which others may politely and respectfully disagree.
As in the controversy over my books, alleged objections to "tone" nearly always turn out to actually be objections to the underlying rationalist approach.
8. The real issue
After having said all the above, I must note that there one valid point that emerges from Rabbi Gold's article. I do not agree with the critical comments of Rabbi Gold's article that were posted by R. Netanel Livni, who wrote that "Intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context are the prerequisites to understanding. And understanding is the prerequisite to talmud Torah of any kind... a conduit of kedushah in this world."
The problem is that while intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context are the prerequisites to an accurate understanding of what Rashi meant and a proper evaluation of his words, they do indeed stand in contrast with religious feelings of reverence and awe. I have written about this in two previous posts: Traditionalist vs. Academic Torah Study and The Drawbacks of Academic Torah Study. So if Rabbi Gold were to merely be warning against the spiritual dangers of understanding and evaluating Rashi properly via intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context, I would agree. However, since doing so is entirely consistent with reason and with the approach of many great Torah scholars through the ages, it cannot be condemned as beyond the pale or inherently wrong.
Monday, March 19, 2012
1. Not sure what language this post was written in. Not English, not Hebrew. “Rabbeim” is not a word.Netanel Livni:
2. It is not true that Amoraim did not argue on Tannaim. R Elchanan Wasserman has a piece on it. Furthermore, R Yisrael from Shklov, in his introduction, cites the Gaon of Vilna that the phrase “chasuri michsera vehachi ke’tanni, [The Mishna] is missing [words] and this is what it should state,” means that the Amora is actually disagreeing with the Mishna. Thus we don’t find that the text of the Mishna is corrected. (Note: R Yosef Karo in Klale Gemara disagrees with this.)
3. Rishonim argued plenty on the Geonim. And plenty of Acharonim argue on Rishonim.
4. Those Acharonim that tend not to argue on Rishonim, it is not because they felt inferior. Rather because part of Halachic process is that certain poskim have been accepted on the masses. Shulhan Aruch went with Rif, Rosh, and Rambam, not because he thought they were better than others, rather because the masses were already following them. Often he disagrees with the Rambam, and still wrote his opinion in Shulhan Aruch. R Moshe Isserlis did the same. He only argues because in Eastern Europe, people were accustomed to Tosfos, Mordechi, Rabbenu Yerucham etc. Their method of accepting precedence, with regards to Halacha is the same. On the flip side, Maharshal, Shach, and other major Aharonim, decided halacha without precedence. To them, there was the decisions of Gemara, and that’s it. Rambam and Tosfos are only in the equation if they agree with Shach’s understanding of the Gemara. See Shach Choshen Mishpat 36:6 for a very revealing opinion on his method of precedence in halacha.
>It is a fundamental axiom that Rashi was on a higher plane than we are, both scholastically and spiritually.Myself:
I have looked and looked all around the great ikarim literature that exists and have not found this axiom anywhere. Please enlighten us from where this axiom appears (other than, of course, in your own judgement of what is proper)
>We must submit to Rashi, we must to Ramban, Rosh, Mordchai, et al, just as they submitted to the Amoraim and Tannaim that preceded them.
I must submit to God. I must submit to my own concience that God implanted in me. But to submit to Basar veDam?!? NEVER! THAT is avoda zarah.
>If we aren’t trembling before Rashi and his ba’alei pelugta, if we can see ourselves as judges of their acuity, as equals or, rachmana litzlan, as their betters in some ways, then we have detached ourselves from Torah and Yir’ah.
If we are not triying to understand what the rishonim ACTUALLY meant in their own historic/intellectual context. If we are not using all the tools at our disposal to understand them as great scholars who lived in a particular time and place and therefore need to be understood in the context of their intellectual era. If we transform them from great intellects into oracles. Then we dishonor them as scholars and as anshei emet.
>Such type of pedagogy is no longer in the realm of Torah, Kedushah and Mesorah. It is now merely Bible studies and its instructors merely purveyors of a scholastic discipline rising no more than Bertrand Russell’s triangle as chairman of a department of ethics.
Intellectual honesty, critical analysis, and historical context are the prerequisites to understanding. And understanding is the prerequisite to talmud Torah of any kind. A type of study that does not use the vastly superior tools that are available to us but were not available to previous generations. A type of study that is limited to the intellectual vistas of the past and ignores those of the present. Such a type of study can never be emet nor can it be a conduit of Kedushah into this world.
Amoraim do not argue with Tannoim, and Rishonim do not argue on Amoraim – in PISKEI HALACHAH. In non-halachic matters, and in explanations for the sources of piskei halachah, we do indeed find dispute. See Rav Shlomo Fisher in Derashos Beis Yishai for further elaboration. Rambam most certainly was not of the view that it is a “fundamental axiom” that earlier generations are scholastically on a higher level than later generations.
Furthermore, the Rishonim were never canonized vis-a-vis us in the way that the Gemara was canonized vis-a-vis the Rishonim. That is why Rav Moshe Feinstein explicitly states (Yoreh Deah 1:101) that he sometimes argues with the Rishonim – in halachah!
The article here is still somewhat ambiguous, but it seems to strongly say that it is unacceptable to say that Rashi interpreted Midrashim literally, or that on occasion his explanation was based on scientific information that is now obsolete. Since both these points were made by countless authorities from R. Moshe Abulafiah to Chassam Sofer to Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz”l, on what grounds does the writer state that this is unacceptable, that it contradicts the notion of mesorah, and that it results in “Torah minayin”?
I can't figure out by which criteria these comments were rejected.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
In Sacred Monsters, I noted that the Talmud's statements about Moshe Rabeinu being ten cubits high occur in an Aggadic context, and could reasonably be interpreted either literally or allegorically (and there is a dispute amongst the Rishonim/ Acharonim regarding this). On the other hand, the Talmud's description of the Levites being ten cubits tall occurs in a halachic context - the Gemara derives halachos regarding carrying on Shabbos from it. Perhaps one could claim that the Talmud is speaking about metaphysical ideals, as per the view of the Maharal regarding Moses’ height, but this seems overly contrived. The Talmud does seem to be speaking literally.
But Moshav Zekeinim raises a question. If Aharon was the same height as the Mishkan, how could he walk around inside it with the mitznefes on his head? And a reader yesterday raised another question: Why were there three steps leading up to the menorah, as recorded in the Gemara (Menachos 29a) and Sifri (Beha'alosecha 8:3)?
One answer given is that Aharon was, very conveniently, much shorter than his brother and the rest of the Levites. It is also suggested that the steps leading up to the menorah were for future generations of kohanim, who were of ordinary height, rather than for Aharon himself. See this sefer for a collection of sources discussing further ramifications of this issue, such as the question of how Aharon could have held up Moshe's arms.
So there were definitely many who took this description literally. In my book, I wrote that one would be hard pressed to find any contemporary illustration of Moses and Pharaoh, or of the Levites with the Tabernacle, that depict them as being fifteen feet tall, the same height as the Mishkan itself. But yesterday, someone pointed out an illustration that does indeed depict them this way, in the Feldheim Mishnayos illustrated by Yoni Gerstein, and a reader was kind enough to send it in. Here it is:
All that can be said in order to reconcile the Gemara with the rationalist approach (such as that of Rambam, who "shrinks" even Og to six cubits on the grounds that it is impossible for a person to be taller than that), is that the Talmud's source for deducing the height of the Levites is related to how they carried the altar, assuming it to likewise be ten cubits tall. However, this is a matter of dispute; according to Rabbi Yehudah’s view that the Altar was only three cubits tall, there is no argument that the Levites were ten cubits tall. One could probably also argue that the description of the steps to the menorah likely indicates a presumption, at least according to the author of that statement, that all the kohanim were of ordinary height.
I just have one observation left. It is remarkable that the people who believe that ordinary humans can give birth to people fifteen feet all, with all the vast physiological modifications to the skeleton, muscles and circulatory system that are necessary (since a human cannot just be "scaled up"), are usually the same people who claim evolution to be scientifically impossible.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
In the chapter on giants, I listed Leonid Stadnyk as the tallest living person, at 8 feet 4 inches. He is currently not recognized as the tallest person due to his refusal to be measured; it is believed that he is "only" around 7 feet 8 inches. Instead, the record is currently held by Sultan Kösen, who made the headlines this week when he received treatment to his pituitary gland in order to prevent his growing beyond his current height of 8 feet 3 inches. The reason for the intervention was that the human skeleton is simply not strong enough to support such a large figure. (Which is a problem for those who insist that the Levi'im were all fifteen feet tall. But I don't think that there are many people who believe that anyway; I've never seen illustrations that depict them as being so tall.)
In the chapter on dwarfs, I listed Gul Mohammed of India (1957-1997) as the shortest person ever measured, at 22.5 inches tall. But a few weeks ago, a 72-year old Nepali villager, Chandra Bahadur Dangi, was measured at 21.5 inches tall. Pharaoh certainly theoretically could have been eighteen inches tall, as the Gemara says; but as I explained in Sacred Monsters, I don't think that this is what the Gemara meant.
Baruch meshaneh habriyos.
Monday, March 12, 2012
The article writes about how brain-dead people have "more in common biologically with a living person than with a person whose heart has stopped. Your vital organs will function, you'll maintain your body temperature, and your wounds will continue to heal. You can still get bedsores, have heart attacks and get fever from infections." It talks about how they "react to the scalpel like inadequately anesthetized live patients, exhibiting high blood pressure and sometimes soaring heart rates."
This is all entirely true. It is also entirely irrelevant.
Physiological processes do not always denote life, and reactions are not the same as feelings. The detached tail of a gecko can move around with complicated motion and respond to an external stimulus, but clearly the gecko does not feel anything. Even a properly anesthetized patient can respond to the surgeon's scalpel and have their blood pressure go up, but that does not mean that they are feeling anything.
Most significantly of all, especially from a halachic perspective, is that most, if not all, of the functions described as occurring with a brain dead person - to which one can add carrying a pregnancy - would also be entirely true for a person whose head would be severed and the bodily functions maintained via a ventilator (as per the famous sheep experiment performed for Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). And yet halachah would certainly not recognize such a person as being alive!
This is why the article's sensationalist talk about how a dead person should be "cold, stiff, gray and not breathing," rather than "warm, pink and breathing" is entirely irrelevant - the same would be true of a person with a severed head!
The second point to be made is that the article amplified the oft-heard concern that allegedly brain-dead people might not actually be brain dead and might come back to full brain function. Again, this is true, but irrelevant. To be sure, in rare cases, there can be misdiagnosis, due to physicians not checking carefully enough. But exactly the same can be true with diagnoses of regular death! There have been cases of people who were mistakenly diagnosed as dead due to their heart function being so slow as to be virtually undetectable. People make mistakes. It doesn't mean that cardiac death is not death; it doesn't mean that brain death is not death.
Here are Dr. Noam Stadlan's comments:
There are many misstatements and half truths in this article. No physician is going to harvest organs without consent of the family, regardless of what box was checked on the driver's license. Dead people by definition don't have a right or ability to consent, whether it is regarding organ donation, what sort of casket will be used at the funeral, or whether to be cremated or not. The family, next of kin, or power of attorney decide all these things, and indeed can have input into the testing to determine brain death.
The vast majority of people would agree that what makes a person that particular person is his functioning brain. I am the person I am because of my brain. If you amputate my leg, take out a kidney, or any other piece of tissue except for my brain, I remain the person that I am. If my kidney or heart is transplanted to another person, that other person doesn't become me just because my organs are functioning in that body. The identity of the person goes along with the functioning brain. When the brain has irreversibly ceased to function, the person no longer exists, even if a lot of organs or limbs are still receiving circulation.
There certainly is an ongoing discussion as to how much of the brain needs to be destroyed or non-functioning in order for the person to be considered dead. But the first step in deciding whether a person is brain dead or not is that there has to be overwhelming evidence by history and imaging scans that there has been overwhelming and irreversible damage to the brain. Doctors are not trolling the ICU performing exams on random people looking for someone who may fit the criteria.
How much of the brain needs to be dead for the person to be dead? We now know that even when a person is declared dead by the traditional criteria, cessation of circulation, functional brain cells can be found more than 8 hours after the declaration of death (indeed Dr. Devita has done important research on how much function is still possible after variable times without circulation). Perhaps the author wants to issue another article calling for people not to be declared dead for at least eight hours after the heart has stopped?
It certainly is necessary for physicians to follow the criteria with precision, and there have been a very small number of cases where the criteria have not been followed with predictable results. However, when the criteria have been followed precisely, there has NEVER been an adult who regained any neurological function. In addition, there has been documentation of over 30 cases where a person has been declared dead by medical personnel using traditional criteria-cessation of circulation, but they have regained function. Where is the outrage there?
Those who fulfill criteria for brain death are not capable of reacting to pain. There is no brain mediated response to stimulation.There were initial studies which showed that pulse and blood pressure went up with a skin incision, and the obvious conclusion was drawn. Later studies showed that narcotics (pain medication) did not change this response. However, medications which dampened the autonomic system, which runs through the spinal cord, eliminated these responses. What was observed was a spinal reflex, no different from tapping the knees and watching the leg move. It has nothing to do with the brain or with pain, and implying that it does is irresponsible and untrue.
The topic of defining death and ascertaining whether a person is alive or dead is complex enough. There certainly are legitimate points to consider (whether an EEG is necessary or not) and philosophical issues to discuss. Whether donors should be compensated is one of them. Unfortunately this article does little to further the discussion and only presents a very jaundiced view based on half truths and misinformation.
Noam Stadlan, MD
Saturday, March 10, 2012
Aside from the disturbing nature of the content of the post, there also appears to have been a higher-than-usual rate of comments rejected. Here are three comments from people; if you submitted a comment that was rejected, please send it in.
>We need to teach our children reverence for Rashi, Ramban, et al, and to teach them (and ourselves) that we are not the final arbiters of the truth, and that we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom.
Wow. "submit our understanding" - truly one of the most frightening phrases that exists in the world. For people to abdicate their intellect - the greatest gift that Hashem gave us - to others is a truly dangerous idea.
>Rashi’s peirush is beyond that stage, and disagreement belongs only to his contemporaries.
Says who??? When did we deify Rashi and the rishonim and make them infallible. When did we stop subjecting them the same critical analysis to which all knowledge should be subjected? You seem to be taking your overdeveloped sense of reverence and trying to turn it into a overarching rule that should apply to everyone. That is unacceptable.
All in all, your approach demonstrates beautifully the divide between the chareidi world's approach to education and the approach of those of us who want to educate our kids to be open minded and think critically. In my opinion, your approach can result in one of two results, for kids without a natural critical instinct, it will create a simplistic and underdeveloped world view that can not function and confront the larger world. For kids with such an instinct, it will develop contempt for the rishonim since it will not properly contextualize those statements of theirs which will sound very odd (and sometimes downright silly) to their contemporary ears. Either result is highly undesirable.
R’ Nochum’s approach is not representative of the universal or even normative approach in history. Rambam certainly did not take that approach when arguing with his predecessors; Rav Hirsch certainly did not take that approach when arguing with Rambam; Chassam Sofer did not take that approach when arguing with Rashi; and countless dozens of further examples could be given.
Also, see Eric Lawee, “Words Unfitly Spoken: Two Critics of the Role of Midrash in Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah,” in Between Rashi And Maimonides, as well as other articles by him, for examples of rabbinic authorities who criticized Rashi’s use of Midrash. See too his article “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah in Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals.”
Classic straw-man. I don’t think anyone in the “orthodox camp” (oh no, not that term again) would dismiss Rashi lightly or flippantly. But recognizing the need to respect a point of view or the person that espouses a point of view does not necessitate canonizing that perspective or person. Conversely, asserting a right to disagree with a view or person does not also offer a license to disrespect or denigrate it. The worldview evinced by the article is symptomatic of the chareidi world. Disagreement and delegitimization go hand in hand, and since you cannot disrespect [chareidi] “gedolim” (something I think almost all of us can agree on), you also can’t disagree with them; to disagree with them is to disrespect them. Of course, the more enlightened non-am-haratzim know that disagreement is endemic to Torah and halacha, and that for the most part history and halachic guidelines demonstrate that we can disagree and do so in a legitimate and respectful way.
Looking at it from the other side, chareidi deligitimization of modern orthodoxy and modern orthodoxy's acceptance of chareidi Judaism as a legitimate expression of Torah life makes sense. Since the chareidim disagree with the MO, the MO have no legitimacy. The MO by contrast can disagree with the chareidi way of life without negating the normative legitimacy of that hashkafa.
Here are some further thoughts of my own:
First, the Rishonim freely argued with Chazal on matters unrelated to law. For a list of examples, see Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, Sifsei Chaim - Pirkei Emunah u-Bechirah, vol. 2 pp. 257-272. For example, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 89:11) and Tosefta (Sotah 10:9) state that the famine in Egypt ended five years early when Jacob entered the land. But Ramban (Genesis 47:18) disputes this and writes that the famine lasted for seven full years. See too Ibn Ezra in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, where he writes that one may offer alternate interpretations to those of the Sages in cases unrelated to law. If the Rishonim can differ from the views of Chazal in such matters, why can we not differ from the views of the Rishonim?
Second, Rabbi Gold apparently understands yeridas hadoros to mean that earlier generations are actually more intelligent than later generations (something discussed in a post from a long time ago, including a debate as to whether people today really believe that - clearly, at least some people do). Does this mean that gentiles in the past were also more intelligent? And does it mean that future generations will be less intelligent than us? Is there a biological mechanism to explain this decline in intelligence? There are a number of problems with such a view of yeridas hadoros.
Third, is Rabbi Gold going to be consistent? For example:
Is he going to teach his students that Adam had intercourse with all the animals? After all, this is the view of Rashi, according to the view of certain other Rishonim (see Eric Lawee's article referenced above), and Rabbi Gold believes that "we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom."
Is he going to teach his students that according to some Rishonim, such as Rav Moshe Taku, Hashem has spatial location and physical form, and that we have no right to choose between the different views?
Is he going to teach his students that there is such a thing as mermaids? That there is such a thing as werewolves? That Og was approximately the height of the Empire State Building? And that one has no right to dispute any of this? After all, these are all the view of Rashi.
I would not begrudge Rabbi Gold's right to this approach. What bothers me is that he is apparently presenting this as the required approach for everyone - even though many people greater than he clearly had/have a different approach. (For a great example, see Rav Moshe Shamah's comments on Rashi in last week's parashah, in his wonderful new book Recalling The Covenant).
By the way, one should not think that only Cross-Currents is guilty of such sweeping comment rejection. I reject certain comments myself (people are welcome to set up an alternate blog where they post them; I would just ask that they be honest about whether they are posting all rejected comments, or only those which line up with their hashkafic view). And I recently submitted a comment to a Ha'aretz article which was rejected: the article was about "Haredi men suspected of repeated rape" and I questioned why they would not describe the religious/ social affiliation of other types of people who engaged in such crimes. "Secular Zionist suspected of repeated rape" is not a headline that I am expecting to see in Ha'aretz anytime soon.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
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.)
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The first is a collection of my posts responding to Rabbi Bleich's article on spontaneous generation, which has been slightly edited. Download it at this link.
The second is a new article from Rabbi J. R. Bloch regarding hominid-lupine transmogrification. REMOVED.
Enjoy! Please share them with readers of Tradition who might not read this blog.
Monday, March 5, 2012
I would simply like to recommend several pieces of reading material on this topic. Shlomo Sprecher's seminal study, Mezịzạh be-Peh ― Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?, is a must-read if you want an in-depth analysis of the topic. Also of value is the ensuing correspondence in Hakirah regarding that article, which you can download here. A shorter and more accessible, but still excellent, treatment is by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, "Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: Rabbinic Polemics and Applying the Lessons of History," from Jewish Action. Finally, I wrote a post on this topic a year ago, entitled Suckers for Orthodoxy, about contemporary charedi denial of the reasons why many insist on metzizah b'peh, even though they are following the original explicit Orthodox ideology of Chasam Sofer.
And now for something completely different. I was wondering if any of my readers can help me with a question. The Gemara in several places (Avodah Zarah 2b, Kiddushin 72a, Megillah 11a) describes how the bear symbolizes Persia. Amongst the parallels given is that "Persians have no rest, like a bear." And the Gemara says that when Rabbi Ami saw a Persian riding, he would say, “There is a wandering bear!” Now, I understand why the bear would be described as having no rest and wandering around. The home ranges of brown bears are among the largest of all land mammals, extending up to eight hundred square miles, in which bears spend most of their time wandering around looking for food. And bears in captivity will often pace to and fro in their enclosure. But why are Persians described as having no rest? I'd be indebted if someone can provide the answer!
Friday, March 2, 2012
A reader, Joseph, submitted the following comment, which I thought worthy of publishing as a post:
Regarding the claim by R. Bleich that there are no poskim who subscribe to R. Slifkin's thesis regarding halachos based on mistaken factual premises, this is certainly mistaken. Just to give one example, Rav Hershel Schachter, in a recent Q&A session in London (in front of at least 50 people), discussed this exact case, and made reference to the Dor Revi'i. I asked him about the anisakis question, and he said that Chazal believed in spontaneous generation, in accordance with the common belief in that era, and that this is the basis for why they allowed anisakis worms.
He went on to say that despite the fact that we now know this belief to be false the halacha stands, because, as the Dor Revi'i explains, Chazal had the authority to establish the halacha for all generations. He said that the position some report in the name of Rav Elyashiv, namely that worms in the past used to spontaneously generate, and hence were muttar, but have since stopped doing so, and are now assur, is a 'joke'.
Rav Schachter also mentioned that when R. Moshe Feinstein was asked this question, he refused to discuss it, and said that it was ridiculous that anyone should even ask about something that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits.
I would add that there are numerous areas of halacha that are based on scientific premises that are now know to be invalid, such as the various se'ifim in Shulchan Aruch allowing certain worms in fruit or cheese for consumption, or the rules of shabbos which allow putting uncooked food in a kli sheni full of boiling water, or many of the dinim of 'belios' in kashrus, and yet we generally do not suggest we should change the established halacha.
To go back to the example of killing lice on shabbos, if one does not accept the apologetics that Chazal would have allowed this even if they understood how lice reproduce (which R. Slifkin provides cogent reasons for rejecting), then there is no different between this case and that of the anisakis. In both, one is subscribing to the codified rule to do something which would be considered forbidden according to the principles that Chazal were using to propagate that law.
A parallel for this can be found in the case of 'okimtos' that the gemara makes on tannaitic statements, even though these explanations are often plainly not in accord with the underlying reasoning behind a given Tanna's ruling. To quote R. David Foldes' elucidation of Rav Shlomo Fisher's drasha on the topic, "the kabalah that later generations would not argue on the Sages of the Mishna, which is mentioned by the Kesef Mishneh, is only regarding the formal halacha but not regarding content and rationale. The amoraim frequently add svaros (rationales) and derashos (homiletics) to the teachings of the tannaim, and similarly they can argue with the legalistic logic applied by the tannaim. The amora is thus bound by the formal teaching of the Mishna, which he cannot dismiss completely. In case he disagrees with the tannaitic rationale (which he is allowed to) he may accept the ruling of the Mishna in a very specific case, and maintain his own ruling as the principle. As with the biblical covenant regarding mitzvos derabanan, which differentiated between biblical and rabbinic law, so too here the kabalah extends only as far as the terms of the original agreement, namely the formal acceptance of the final rulings of the tannaim."
Thursday, March 1, 2012
At the very beginning of his article, Rabbi Bleich insists that any and all approaches to the issue of Chazal vs. science are irrelevant to the case of Anisakis, since Anisakis worms are demonstrably spawned outside fish and swallowed by them, and are thus clearly not the subject of Chazal's permissive ruling. At the very end of his article, Rabbi Bleich reiterates this claim, and then addresses the objection to it which I presented in my letter: If Chazal were not describing the Anisakis, what were they describing?
Rabbi Bleich first argues that he is under no obligation to answer this question; it is enough to establish that Chazal could not have been referring to Anisakis. I strongly disagree. The fact that we know that Anisakis worms are born outside of fish does not mean that Chazal knew that! If no viable alternative can be suggested, then the conclusion would be that Chazal were indeed describing the Anisakis worm.
Rabbi Bleich then says "Nevertheless, I did answer that question in my article and it is disingenuous to pretend that I did not." Actually, it is disingenuous to pretend that I pretended that he did not - instead, I addressed his proposed answers and disputed them. Here are the possibilities that he presents in this article:
"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; 4) Hazal were referring to other piscatorial creatures of which there is no dearth."
The first three approaches rest on the presumption that spontaneous generation does or has taken place. As I pointed out in an earlier post, I think that there is more than adequate reason to reject this. I am, frankly, disturbed that a scholar at YU is presenting such claims as being viable.
The fourth approach appears to be that which Rabbi Bleich describes in greater detail in his original article, "Piscatorial Parasites": that Chazal were referring to parasites that are imbibed by fish at a stage when they are microscopic and thus halachically insignificant, whereas Anisakis are imbibed at a stage when they are visible to the naked eye.
But there is no reason to think that this is what Chazal actually meant, and every reason to believe that they did not mean this. Chazal gave a blanket license (as did Shulchan Aruch) that worms found in the flesh of the fish are permitted without qualification - whereas according to Rabbi Bleich, no such permission exists in an overwhelming number of cases. Chazal did not insist that we determine where the worms were generated. They did not know the biological details of the life cycle of parasites. They believed that salamanders and mice spontaneously generated from fire and mud - and they likewise believed that insects are generated from sweat, fruit, and fish.
Rabbi Bleich claims that one who believes that Chazal were simply wrong "should be intellectually honest" and must necessarily conclude that all parasites are forbidden, "unless, of course, that person rejects the canons of halakhic methodology." I do not think that either Rav Herzog or Rav Glasner, who were of the view that Chazal's permissive rulings regarding the spontaneous generation of lice have been canonized, rejected the canons of halakic methodology, or were intellectually dishonest.
(Let me be clear: I am not insisting that the only valid approach is that of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner. I am certainly sympathetic to those who would follow Rav Lampronti's approach and forbid them - as long as they face up to the ramifications of this for other areas of halachah.)
Rabbi Bleich concludes his article with an extremely revealing citation, from Maharal in Be'er HaGolah, where Maharal says that even if one does not accept his explanation of difficult passages in Chazal, one should not ascribe any defect to the words of the Sages. This is incredibly ironic, since Maharal's approach suffers from exactly the same drawbacks as Rabbi Bleich's article. In my monograph on The Sun's Path At Night, I showed how all the Geonim and Rishonim, bar none, understood the Gemara in Pesachim 94b according to its plain meaning, that Chazal believed the sun to travel behind the sky at night. Maharal, however, insists that Chazal were most definitively not talking about any such thing, due to his 16th century belief that they couldn't possibly have been wrong about such a matter, and simply does not address the fact that he is going against all the Geonim and Rishonim (amongst other problems with his approach). If Rabbi Bleich wishes to castigate me for my criticism of his article as being anachronistic and intellectually dishonest, then citing Maharal is hardly helping his case.
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