Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Bird in the Hand

Continued apologies for the slow rate of posting - I've been very busy with my encyclopedia. Here's something that I just posted to my Zoo Torah blog:

A resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh called me to say that a strange bird had entered their apartment and was unable to fly. They had been informed that I was the go-to person about such an event. When they told me that it had a curved beak, I promised to come right away.

It's a female kestrel, the most common type of falcon in Israel. It seems to have a broken wing, so I'm going to take her to the veterinary clinic at the Jerusalem Zoo. The Head of Animal Management at the Nature Authority told me that if it makes a full recovery, it will be released, but otherwise, I will be able to keep it. Today, it happily ate a hamster.

Soon, I will be publishing an article about medieval Jewish falconry.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Rules With Exceptions

I'm not just controversial for arguing that Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect. Occasionally, I've also engendered controversy when explaining how Chazal were correct.

In several instances, Chazal pronounce rules about the animal kingdom, which seem to be contradicted by certain species. For example:
  • The statement that every animal lacking upper teeth is kosher - contradicted by anteaters, armadillos, and white rhinos.
  • The statement that every animal possessing upper teeth is non-kosher - contradicted by several types of deer.
  • The statement that every animal that "brings up the cud" is kosher, aside from camels, hares and hyraxes - contradicted by capybaras, koalas, proboscis monkeys and others.
  • The statement that every fish with scales has fins - possibly contradicted by sea-snakes and swamp-eels.
  • The statement that a headless chicken will die - possibly contradicted by "Mike the Headless Chicken."
  • The statement that every animal which lays eggs does not nurse its young - contradicted by platypus and echidnas.
  • The statement that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish - contradicted by the bonobo and stitchbird.

In all these cases, I argued that the rules are not incorrect. It's true that Chazal didn't know about these animals, but even if they would have known about them, they would not have been bothered. The reason is that they were not concerned about animals that live in remote places, and they were not concerned about rare exceptions. Ein lemedin min haklalos - one does not take general principles as absolute rules.

Despite the fact that I brought numerous sources to bolster this approach (see The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax), it ruffled a lot of feathers. True, I said that Chazal were not mistaken - but claiming that their rules were not absolute was seen as undermining their authority.

Not that this bothers me anymore. With R. Yonasan Eybeschutz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg and Chassam Sofer and numerous others presenting such an approach, I'm happy to be in their company. Still, I appreciated a fascinating source that my friend R. Eliezer Zobin sent to me recently.

Koheles 7:20 states that "There is no righteous man in the world who does good and does not sin." Tosafos, to Shabbos 55b, challenges this, based on a Gemara which lists four people who died without sin. He answers - talking about a passuk in Tenach! - that it is not an absolute statement, just a generality, which can have exceptions. The Pnei Yehoshua doesn't like this approach, but that's what Tosafos says.

The Tosafist wasn't a rationalist. But he was level-headed, and didn't see a need to interpret a statement as being some kind of Discovery-style scientific claim.

(If you're looking for a post about Noah's Ark and the Flood, check out last year's post.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Rav Elyashiv Really Meant

On Friday I bought a new and fascinating book, Machshevet Yisrael V'Emunat Yisrael (unfortunately I bought it just before I received an email from the editor, offering me a complimentary copy for review!) It is a collection of articles by Orthodox Jewish academics (mostly in Hebrew) on various themes in Jewish thought, based on a conference that took place at Ben Gurion University. One article by Dr. Baruch Schwartz, which I haven't yet read properly, appears particularly provocative, attempting to present a theologically and logically justifiable basis for Orthopraxy. There's also a fascinating article by Rabbi Dr. David Shatz on Modern Orthodox vs. Charedi approaches to history. But the article that I want to talk about is Dr. Marc Shapiro's article, "Is There A Pesak for Jewish Thought?"

Dr. Shapiro presents a sound discussion of the problems with the notion that matters of belief are subject to the halachic process. He further observes that the rationalist Rishonim definitely did not believe that one can pasken on belief. But he notes that the picture is not so straightforward; there are a few cases where Chazal do appear to pasken on matters of belief, and some Acharonim appear to take this stance. He concludes without a conclusion, noting that the matter is complicated and requires further analysis.

The springboard for Dr. Shapiro's discussion is, of course, a discussion of the so-called "Slifkin Affair" (which I much prefer to call "The Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy"). He summarizes it over the course of two pages, and describes what happened with Rav Elyashiv as follows:
Elyashiv informed him (R. Aharon Feldman) that while it was acceptable for earlier authorities to state that the Sages' scientific knowledge was defective, it was not permitted for Slifkin to do the same. With these few words a viewpoint advocated by earlier authorities... was now being ruled off-limits for contemporaries, in a completely halakhic fashion. (emphasis added)
But are these last few words an accurate description of what happened? I don't think so.

In an article in Hakirah entitled "They Could Say it, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy," (which you can download for free) I explained that Rav Elyashiv was not issuing a conventional halakhic ruling. Instead, he was issuing a societal policy - that rationalist approaches should not be taught in the haredi community.

My basis for saying this is not that I am afraid to confront the notion that a Gadol HaDor rated my books as kefirah. At this stage, I really couldn't care less; I know that they are not kefirah, and that's all that matters to me. Instead, I have two sets of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way.

One is that it is vastly more reasonable. As Dr. Shapiro explains in his article, and as I explained in my Hakirah article, it is very problematic to claim that Rishonim's grasp of Torah theology is now prohibited and rated as fundamentally perverse. Given a choice between explaining Rav Elyashiv's stance in a way that is basically reasonable, or in a way that is bizarre and problematic, why not opt for the former?

My second set of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way is that I have quite a bit of evidence for it - some of which I have not released before this post. It's true that Rav Feldman wrote an essay in which he explained Rav Elyashiv's position as a halakhic rejection of earlier views, but one must differentiate between what Rav Elyashiv said and how Rav Feldman presented it. Furthermore, there is a certain timeline of events that must be taken into account.

Here is the email that Rav Feldman sent in February 2005:
My short visit to Israel last week was, among other reasons, to ascertain Rav Elyashiv’s reason for the issur on Nosson Slifskin’s books. Contrary to rumors, I did not travel on anyone’s behalf.

Rav Eliashiv felt that the hashkofos of the books regarding Chazal and the age of the universe are forbidden to be taught, and this despite The fact that others, even great people (such as R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Pachad Yitzchok and, in our times, Rav Dessler and R. Shimon Schwab) may have said similar things. "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not," he said. In other words, the halacha is not like them.

Most important, Rav Eliashiv said that by his signature on the public announcement regarding the books he did not mean to rule that the author is a min or kofer. As far as he is concerned, Rav Eliashiv said, “the author could be one of the lamed vov tzadikim”; the books nevertheless are forbidden to read. He was surprised when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus.

He then dictated a statement to me, in the presence of his secretary, Rav Yosef Efrati, and one of his grandsons, which read as follows: כוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל or, "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." The word "only" was meant to specifically Exclude the implication that the author is a heretic.

With best wishes,
Aharon Feldman
In this letter, we learn that Rav Elyashiv "was surprised (emphasis added) when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus." And we have his statement that "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only (emphasis added) regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." Although R. Feldman states that the word "only" was intended to exclude the implication that I am a heretic, it's clearly more than that, based on the earlier observation of his surprise; it's also to exclude the idea that the books are actually heretical. In fact, Rav Feldman told me personally that Rav Elyashiv felt that the books can be called "heretical" only in the colloquial sense (of books that are Very Bad).

Furthermore, note that Rav Elyashiv only said "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not." It was Rav Feldman who presented this as a halachic statement: "In other words, the halacha is not like them."

Not a lot of people know this, and I haven't mentioned it previously, but Rav Elyashiv's written statement was actually intended to be a postscript to a statement by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael of America, that was never released. Here is the full statement:
בזמן האחרון הופיעו ספרים שנכתבו ע"י ר' נתן סליפקין נ"י ובהם דברים המערערים את האמונה הטהורה במעשה בראשית בבריאת האדם ובקדושת דברי חז"ל, לזאת דעתנו שכל החרד לדבר ה' ירחק מהם ולא יכניס אותם לביתו.
וע"ז באנו עה"ח
מועצת גדולי התורה של אגודת ישראל
נ. ב. גם אני מצטרף להנ"ל וכוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא בענין הספרים הנ"ל היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל
יוסף שלו' אלישיב
Rav Feldman had wanted this statement to be released, but Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky opposed it; he felt that it was too uncomplimentary to me. In any case, one clearly sees that the books were considered to be problematic and harmful to the community - no more.

What happened next was that over Pesach, Rav Feldman returned to Israel. As he told me explicitly in a subsequent meeting, he was placed under a lot of pressure by Forces On The Right who felt that he was "siding too much" with me. Furthermore, he was distressed at the negative public image of Rav Elyashiv. As a result, he penned his notorious essay "The Slifkin Affair: Issues and Perspectives." Instead of admitting that the ban was a social policy which got carried away with the language, he decided to attempt to justify the language of the ban to the full, and explain the ban as a halachic pesak on matters of belief. This necessitated his writing the following statement, which Dr. Shapiro quoted in his article:
Beliefs, besides falling under certain commandments, affect a Jew’s status with respect to various laws and are therefore also part of practical halacha.
However, Rav Elyashiv himself clearly did not feel that my beliefs affect my status with respect to any laws whatsoever! Furthermore, Rav Feldman himself did not believe that these beliefs have any effect on someone's status with respect to laws. Here is an email that I received from someone in 2009:
Rav Feldman explicitly told me, a baal teshuva, that I could read the books. I don't know the reason. He thought about it for a moment, and replied it's fine.  

 So I think that it's clear. As I wrote in my Hakirah article, Rav Elyashiv’s position is that this approach is forbidden for the community—theologically opposed (but not unequivocally beyond
the pale) and socially unacceptable. It will be tolerated in a footnote in the Schottenstein Talmud, it can be mentioned discreetly as a bedi’eved, but it cannot be presented up-front as a legitimate approach. It's a societal policy, not a halachic disqualification.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Monsters Vs. Israelis

In the comments to yesterday's post, many people observed that even non-charedim in Israel are often entirely unaware of rationalist approaches to Torah-science issues. I was aware of this with regard to evolution, but I hadn't realized the extent of the problem with regard to Chazal's statements about science. Although, considering the abundance of glossy anti-rationalist books on this topic by Rabbi Zamir Cohen, it shouldn't surprise me.

My book on this topic is Sacred Monsters (the expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures). The book sheds light on many different creatures that are mentioned in Tanach, Midrash and Gemara. But its greater value lies in the approaches that it presents to conflicts between Chazal and science.

There is a Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters that has been sitting on my computer for several months. It would undoubtedly be of great value to people in Israel. However, I have been far too busy with my forthcoming encyclopedia and museum to be able to deal with getting it published. There are two ways in which people could help get this published:

1) If you live in Israel, are familiar with the Hebrew publishing industry, and can take on the task of arranging a publisher/ distributor.

2) If you can sponsor the publication of the book.

If anyone would like to be a part of this project, please write to me!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do I Need Supporters?

Rabbi Gil Student recently published a post entitled "Two New Slifkin Supporters." He noted that Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks published a new book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, in which he supports the compatibility of evolution with Judaism. In addition, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, a prominent authority in the national-religious community, published a work in which he adopts the position that the Sages of the Talmud relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, which was sometimes mistaken. In the words of R. Student, "Years after R. Slifkin was condemned, prominent rabbis continue to publicly adopt his positions, justifying both his and my stand against the unfair and counterproductive ban."

I certainly appreciate R. Student's publicizing such sources. However, I would like to add a slightly different nuance to their significance.

Although Rabbi Sack's writing style is not exactly my cup of tea (milk and two sugars, thanks), it's certainly a wonderful book that R. Student did well to recommend. But in the social battle over the theological legitimacy of evolution, I can't see how it makes a difference. Rambam and Ralbag already legitimized non-literal approaches to Genesis; Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik already observed that evolution poses no theological problems. It seems to me that the people who do not respect the approach of such authorities are not the kind of people who will care that Rabbi Sacks follows suit. Conversely, I would presume that the people who respect Rabbi Sacks are not the kind of people who have a problem with evolution in the first place.

But there is a significant point to be made in publicizing the stance of Rabbi Sacks' book. Many people are of the impression, and not without reason, that the charedi Gedolim are effectively the leaders of all Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Sacks' book demonstrates that reconciling evolution with Judaism continues to be a normative approach in non-charedi circles, even after the ban on my books. The Gedolim dictated the acceptable norms for their own community, which is not the entire Orthodox community.

The matter of the fallibility of the Talmudic sages regarding the natural sciences is very different from evolution. It's not just the novel approach of a few recent respected figures. Rather, it is the normative position of numerous Geonim and Rishonim, based on many explicit statements in the Gemara itself, and further endorsed by dozens of Acharonim, right through to today (link, link). The position of certain charedi Gedolim, that there is no traditional basis for such a position, is simply absurd (albeit entirely defensible as a social policy). There are grounds for concern that to point to a contemporary rabbinic authority endorsing such a view implies that it needs support. I hope that this is not the case! Rather, it shows that charedi social-religious norms, at least in this area, are limited to charedi circles. They have not spread beyond that - not even to charedi-leumi circles.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Haredi Construction of Rabbinic Authority: A Case Study

When reader Baruch Pelta was at Touro College South, he wrote a paper that I think will be of interest to other participants in this forum. It concerns a chapter in American Jewish history which illustrates the development of Daas Torah and charedi revisionism.

Here is my own summary/ take: The RCA (an organization for Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbis) was part of the Synagogue Council of America (SCA), which was multi-denominational. This was a question that should presumably be answered by poskim who were (a) relevant to the question and (b) possessed experience in communal policy issues. A group of eleven roshei yeshiva, who for the most part did not fulfill either criteria, issued a ban on participation in the SCA. Rav Eliezer Silver and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik - the only members (or former members) of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah who were really qualified to weigh in on this - opposed the ban. But their opposition has been exorcised from the charedi version of events. Jonathan Rosenblum's recent hagiography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer quotes him as saying "Does anyone have the right to refuse to accept a psak din in which all the gedolei Torah in the world concurred?"

You can download the full paper at this link. Baruch Pelta is looking to do writing/ editing jobs; he can be contacted at markpelta1@gmail.com