Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Future Rabbi Slifkin?

My son Simcha Shalom, of "long animals" fame, was born nearly eight years ago, right at the turbulent time of the Great Torah-Science Controversy (due to which he received his name). Recently, in the week of parashas Shekalim, he came home from the school and drew the following diagram:
He explained that the machatzit hashekel teaches us a lesson about tzedakah. The middle letter of machatzit, tzaddi, represents tzedakah, charity. If you are close to tzedakah (I think he meant on the giving end), then you merit life, symbolized by the letters chet, yud being adjacent to the tzaddi. If you are far from it, then you deserve death, symbolized by mem, tav being far it.

I'm normally not a fan of such wordplay, but this one is really neat, and it teaches a valuable lesson. I think it's great!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Purim Humor: A Treasury Of Classic Stories For Kinderlach

A Purim Guest Post By Rabbi Eli D. Clark
Purim 2013

Der Drei Kleiner Chazzeirimlach
Once upon a time there were three little pink kosher animals with curly tails named Shmuli, Tuli and Smartest-in-Schooli. Their mother, whose name is inconsequential, sent them to learn Torah and get an online degree in neuropsychology.
Each one went out to build a beis medrashel. To leave more time for learning Torah, Shmuli built his beis medrash of straw. Tuli collected leftover schach after Sukkos and built his beis medrash from sticks. Smartest-in-Schooli received a loan from the Small Business Administration, collected Section 8 vouchers, obtained Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans, and built a beis medrash from bricks.
Along came the Big Bad Feminist and banged on Shmuli’s door. “Little prig, little prig, let me lead the hakofos!” Shmuli answered, “No, you can’t. It’s against the Torah’s hashkafos!” “Then I’ll hora with the Torah, and force my way in.” And she did.
The Big Bad Feminist banged on Tuli’s door. “Now I want to learn Gemara. Little prig, little prig, let me start reden in lernen!” Tuli answered, “No, no. It’s assur for women to have that yearning!” “Then I’ll learn at Stern, and I’ll argue my way in.” And she did.
The Big Bad Feminist banged on Smartest-in-Schooli’s door. “Now I want to be a rabbi. Little prig, little prig, let me learn Yoreh De’oh!” “Not on your life, you Apikoyres, you Cholerya! “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your walls down.”
But the brick walls were too strong. Shmuli, Tuli and Smartest-in-Schooli continued to learn Torah undisturbed. Furious, the Big Bad Feminist climbed onto the roof of the beis medrash and jumped down the chimney. She fell straight into a fiery pan of gribenes. This caused her cholesterol level to skyrocket, and she was never heard from again.

The Pea and the Not-Princess
Malka Feldensteinowitz was desperate to find her son Mendel a kalloh. Only she couldn’t be one of those spoiled JAPs, a princess. But how to make sure? Malka instructed her son to go to the hotel lobby before the date, locate the plushest, softest chair in the room, and place a small dried pea under the cushion. During the date, the girl would sit on the chair. If she felt the pea, the verdict was clear – no shidduch! The plan worked. Date after date, every girl sat in the chair and complained how uncomfortable she was. Then Mendel took out a girl named Shprintze Rochel. She sat on the chair with the pea. “Does it feel okay?” he asked. “Just fine,” she replied. An hour later, Mendel asked her, “Is the chair comfortable?” “Couldn’t be better,” answered Shprintze Rochel. After another hour, he inquired, “How’s the chair?” “Great,” she said. At the end of the date, Mendel was bursting with excitement. He rushed home to tell his mother that he had found his true bashert!
Sadly, Shprintze Rochel was not interested in Mendel. “He spent the whole evening talking about furniture, staring at my seat, and muttering about pea.”

The Matzo Brei Man
Once upon a time, on Paysach, a kindly balabusta made matzo brei for her husband, who learned part-time in Kollel and worked part-time as a coat rack. She fried the matzo brei in butter, then shaped it into the figure of a person, adding raisins for eyes, a fruit slice for a mouth, and strands of bean sprouts for tzitzis. Suddenly, the Matzo Brei Man jumped up and ran out the door, shouting, “Run, run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Matzo Brei Man!” “Never mind,” said her husband. “He is gebrokts, so we can’t eat him any way.” So they did not run after him.
He ran past a cow. “Run, run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Matzo Brei Man!” “Looks tasty,” thought the cow. “But matzo makes me constipated.” So the cow did not run after him.
He ran past a horse. “Run, run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Matzo Brei Man!” The horse licked his lips at the sight of the Matzo Brei Man. “I love fried foods, but the trans fats will give me a heart attack.” So the horse did not run after him.
He came to a river. “If I get wet, I will fall apart,” said the Matzo Brei Man. A fox appeared and said, “I will help you across the river. Ride on my back and you won’t get wet.” Halfway across the river, the Matzo Brei Man heard the fox making the berocho of “Borei Minei Mezonos”. “He probably brought along a snack to eat,” thought the Matzo Brei Man, who was fast, but wasn’t very quick. Before he could even say “Omen,” the Matzo Brei Man felt himself thrown in the air, and the fox gobbled him up. After savoring his yummy snack, the fox realized he had behaved badly. “I just remembered – I’m still fleishig!”

Goldenlutz and the Three Baers
One Shabbos a boy named Goldenlutz went to visit his friend, Laibie Baer. He knocked on the door. No one answered. Goldenlutz entered the kitchen and found three boxes of cereal on the table. He examined the first box. “This hechsher is too permissive.” He read the second box. “This hechsher is too chassidish.” He checked the third box. “This hechsher is just right.” And he finished the entire box. Goldenlutz walked into the Baers’ living room. He saw three shtenders with an open Gemara on each. Goldenlutz started learning from the first Gemara. “This sugya is too hard.” He tried the second Gemara. “This sugya is too easy.” He looked at the third Gemara. “This sugya is just right.” Goldenlutz started shuckling vigorously, until the shtender broke. “Now it’s muktzeh,” he said and went to take a nap.
He went upstairs and found three beds. The first bed was pointed East-West. “That’s against the Shulchon Oruch,” Goldenlutz said. The second bed was pointed South-North. “That’s against the Zohar,” he said. The third bed was pointed North-South. That’s the pesak of the Mishnoh Beruroh,” he said and went to sleep.
Papa Baer and his sons Chezkie and Laibie came home. “Someone’s been touching my cereal box,” said Papa Baer. “Someone’s been touching my cereal box,” said Chezkie Baer. “Someone’s been touching my cereal box,” said Laibie Baer, “and it’s all gone.” Papa Baer smiled. “Interesting choice,” he said.
The Baers went into the living room. “Someone’s been learning my Gemara,” said Papa Baer. “Someone’s been learning my Gemara,” said Chezkie Baer. “Someone’s been learning my Gemara,” said Laibie Baer, “and they broke my shtender and left the pieces all over.” Papa Baer smiled some more. “Yes they did,” he agreed.
The Baers went upstairs. “Someone’s been looking at my bed,” said Papa Baer. “Someone’s been looking at my bed,” said Chezkie Baer. “Someone’s been looking at my bed,” said Laibie Baer, “and he’s sleeping in it.” Papa Baer smiled even more. “Yes he is,” he agreed.
Goldenlutz woke up and saw the Baers. “I am really sorry,” he said. Papa Baer said, “Never mind, my boy. You ate Laibie’s cereal with the right hechsher. You left the muktzeh pieces of shtender on the floor. You chose the only bed that follows the Mishnoh Beruroh. You passed the test. Would you like to marry my daughter?”
“Help!” Goldenlutz screamed, and he ran out the door and never came back.

The Little Red Socialist
Once upon a time, there was a Little Red Socialist, who lived in Eretz Yisroel with a Mekubal, a Chossid, and a Misnaged. One day, the Little Red Socialist decided to build a kibbutz. “Who will help me?” asked the Little Red Socialist. “Not I,” said the Mekubal. “Not I,” said the Chossid. “Not I,” said the Misnaged. “We’re too busy learning Torah. “Then I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Socialist. And he did.
When the Arabs attacked, the Little Red Socialist asked, “Who will help me fight?” “Not I,” said the Mekubal. “Not I,” said the Chossid. “Not I,” said the Misnaged. “We’re too busy learning Torah. “Then I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Socialist. And he did.
When the fighting subsided, the Little Red Socialist asked, “Who will help me build the economy?” “Not I,” said the Mekubal. “Not I,” said the Chossid. “Not I,” said the Misnaged. “We’re too busy learning Torah. “Then I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Socialist. And he did.
After 60 years, the Little Red Socialist asked, “Who will help me enjoy the bounty?” “I will,” said the Mekubal. “I will,” said the Chossid. “I will,” said the Misnaged. And they did.

Copyright © 2013 by Eli D. Clark
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy Copernicus Day

Today is Copernicus Day, celebrating the birth of Nicolas Copernicus. He is rated as "the father of modern astronomy"; and he was the first person to present a scientific basis for the Sun being at the center of the universe rather than the Earth.

Jewish reactions to Copernicus range from hostile rejection to ambivalence to warm reception. Those who rejected his model did so for a variety of reasons. Some of these objections were of little merit from a religious perspective. But others presented more powerful objections. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Hurwitz of Vilna (d. 1821) authored a popular work on science entitled Sefer HaBris. He points out that “as everyone from old to young knows,” the heavens are God’s domain, and the earth is man’s domain. As the verse states, “The Heavens are the Heavens of God, and He gave the earth to mankind” (Ps. 115:16). How, then, could the earth be moving within the heavens? R. Hurwitz, writing to a fictitious interlocutor, is astounded: 
…According to your words, the earth and everything in it is placed in the heavens…. not in the area below the heavens, which was designed to be a dwelling place for mankind and a place for the lower world. Who is foolish enough to turn to and accept such folly and nonsense as this? …What place does he who is born of woman have amongst the stars of the heavens, and the angels of fire and water…? (Sefer HaBris 1:9 Chug Ha’Aretz 8)
This is an intriguing and significant objection, that was also raised by a few other Acharonim. By placing the earth in orbit around the sun, just as with the other planets, Copernicus had blurred the Biblical and traditional distinction between heaven and earth.

Jewish reactions to Copernicus generally fall into two categories. There were those who claimed that heliocentrism is against traditional Judaism, and is therefore false. There were those who claimed that it is true, and did not see anything in traditional Judaism that opposes it (or did not make any mention of any opposition). But there were also those who acknowledged the point raised by R. Hurwitz and others, and recognized that traditional Judaism did indeed oppose the Copernican model, and yet nevertheless accepted it as true and did not see it as a threat to Judaism.

The only rabbinic scholars to present such an approach were Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook. Rav Hirsch writes that Scripture is simply speaking from the ordinary human perspective and is not making any statement about astronomical facts:
Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. It would have been inconceivable that the Bible should have intended, for example, Joshua’s command “O sun stand still” as implying a biblical dogma confirming or denying the existence of a solar system. The Bible uses human language when it speaks of the “rising and setting of the sun” and not of the rotation of the earth, just as Copernicus, Kepler and other such scientists, in their words and writings, spoke of the rising and setting of the sun without thereby contradicting truths they had derived from their own scientific conclusions. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)
There are two ways of employing the approach of “the Torah speaks in the language of men” for this case. One is that just as we today speak of sunrise even though we know that it is the earth moving, so too the Torah uses such figures of speech and they were not intended to be understood as actually describing the sun moving. Another is that the Torah is speaking in accordance with how people actually understood the universe. Hirsch seems to be following the latter approach, with his mention of the Torah speaking in terms of human understanding. Elsewhere, Hirsch stresses that the different understandings of the universe are of no consequence to the goals of Judaism:
Whether or not man is able to find an adequate or correct explanation for the natural laws governing any phenomenon of nature does not alter his moral calling. What Judaism does consider vitally important is the acceptance of the premise that all the host of heaven move only in accordance with the laws of the one, sole God. But whether we view these laws from the Ptolemaic or Copernican vantage point is a matter of total indifference to the purely moral objectives of Judaism. Judaism has never made a credo of these or similar notions. (Horeb, translated in English by Dayan I. Grunfeld, London: Soncino 1962, p. clviii)
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook likewise stated that heliocentrism is true, and yet simultaneously admitted that it opposes the traditional understanding of the universe. He applies the concept of dibra Torah k’lashon bnei adam to mean not just that the Torah uses figures of speech that ordinary people use, but also that it speaks within the intellectual framework of the generation that received the Torah, with regard to their model of the universe. According to Rabbi Kook, the Torah describes the age of the universe as being only a few thousand years, even though that is not scientifically accurate, because of the necessity of staying within the intellectual limits of the generation that received the Torah. While Rabbi Kook does not specify that the Torah itself supports the geocentric model, the clear result of his approach is that even if the Torah does do that (and it does), this does not mean that we today are obligated to accept this model; on the contrary, it was simply a necessary concession for the Torah to make for its readership.

It was therefore only Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook who provided a viable approach. There was a very real problem with the Scriptural cosmology. The problem was not with verses speaking of the earth being still or the sun moving, which could easily be seen as simply figures of speech, but rather that, as R. Pinchas Hurwitz and a few others pointed out, Scripture presents the Heavens as being a spiritual domain and standing in contrast to the earth, whereas the new astronomy demoted the Heavens to being merely space, with the earth inhabiting it. In Scripture, the Heavens are the abode of God; in the new astronomy, the heavens are the abode of man. The only way to accept the new astronomy and maintain religious faith was to propose that Scripture speaks not only in the language of the people that received it, but also according to their intellectual framework. A maskil could never say this, because it would be making too much of a break with tradition. And an ordinary traditionalist could never imagine that the Torah contains concepts that are not scientifically accurate, or that we could discover a truth that was unknown to the ancients. Only figures such as Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, confident in the authenticity of their traditionalist credentials, and yet exceptionally broad-minded, could propose this approach. Ironically, it took a traditionalist to be truly enlightened.

I have written a lengthy study of Jewish reactions to Copernicus, which I plan to publish one day in the distant future as a chapter in Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions. (This book will also include discussion of rabbinic responses to the first astronomical revolution, that of Ptolemy, which you can preview in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night.) But much sooner it should be possible to purchase Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, which I am sure will be a superb work.

Meanwhile, you can freely download "Ma'amar Mevo HaShemesh" - a booklet (in Hebrew) by Rabbi Pinchas David Weberman which "proves" that heliocentrism is heresy. It's available on the "Controversy" page of the "Books" section of my website, My site has been newly redesigned, thanks to Yudi Rosen. Please check it out, and let me know if you have any ideas regarding improvements.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ruach HaKodesh and Reason

I know that any more mention of the hyrax makes many people want to bring up the cud. But, aside from my own personal fascination and history with this topic, there's little else that better illustrates the radical gulf separating rationalism and reason from anti-rationalism and dogmatism.

Some people wonder why I waste my time with Isaac Betech. After all, this is a person who not only insists that the world is 5773 years old and distorts the words of Chazal and the Rishonim beyond belief, but also acts exceedingly inappropriately in his style of debate, and was involved in the campaign against me. However, aside from my personal interest in this matter, I think that there is something else to consider. In light of the frightening fact that Rav Belsky, who is the posek for the OU and respected by many people as some sort of scientific expert, praises Isaac Betech to the heavens, it's important to respond to his claims.

In the ongoing debate in the comment thread to the post, Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?, various interesting points have emerged. Isaac Betech insists that the shafan is the rabbit. He claimed that rabbits "live and have lived in Eretz Yisrael," but he was not able to present any evidence for this; his alleged sources either referred to hares instead, or to regions outside of Israel and/or to later periods in history. But all of this was only in an attempt to refute the standard position of Biblical zoologists according to their own view, that one reason why the shafan cannot be the rabbit is that the rabbit is not a local animal. Isaac Betech himself is not at all concerned with whether rabbits did or did not live in Biblical Israel. After all, King David had ruach ha-kodesh.

You might think that the debate has to end there, but that's not the case. After all, even accepting that King David had ruach ha-kodesh, this by no means results in it being reasonable to propose that the shafan is the rabbit. There are (at least) seven reasons why it is still unreasonable:

First of all, since when does ruach ha-kodesh equate to describing the characteristics of unfamiliar animals in remote places? Rabbi Sedley and myself have been continuously requesting Dr. Betech to provide sources to that effect, but he has so far been unable to do so; he merely gave lists of references which, upon investigation, proved to say nothing of the sort.

Second, Rashi is also said by many to have been written with ruach hakodesh. Yet no Rishon, and few Acharonim, believed this to mean that he possessed knowledge about the natural world beyond that which was known in his time and place. Rashi himself certainly didn't think so!

Third, if you do interpret ruach hakodesh as meaning knowledge about creatures that cannot be obtained via regular means, then how do you ever know what animal the Torah is ever talking about? Maybe the shafan is an alien life form on a different planet? Maybe it is a creature that is yet to come into existence, and will be developed in the laboratory? The fact that Chazal and the Rishonim talk about this creature is not evidence otherwise, because they also had ruach hakodesh and could see across time and space!

Fourth, we see that the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim attempted to identify the animals in the Torah - and as animals that they were familiar with. Why? Why did they assume that they would know these animals, if they were described in Tanach with ruach hakodesh and could live in distant regions of space or time?

Fifth, if we look at the rest of Nach in general and Barchi Nafshi in particular, nowhere do we see that the Kings and Prophets mentioned fauna or flora that was unknown in Biblical Israel. There is no mention of polar bears, pandas, penguins, pangolins, puffins, or platypuses. Barchi Nafshi is about the wonders of all creation; yet instead of it presenting a list of examples like that which you might see in a contemporary book on the wonders of nature, it limits itself to examples that would have been familiar to a person in Biblical Israel. When David is singing about the trees, he doesn't  mention the giant redwoods and sequoias of California; instead, he mentions the much less impressive cedars of Lebanon. Dr. Betech attempted to present example of unfamiliar animals that are mentioned in Tenach, but all the examples that he brought turned out to be animals that are either (a) familiar in Biblical Israel, and/or (b) not actually in Tenach. In fact, all of the descriptions of the natural world in Tenach perfectly match the perspective of people in Biblical Israel - including various inaccuracies, such as describing dew descending from heavens, the earth standing still, and the kidneys housing the mind (and hares bringing up the cud!).

Sixth, every single one of the verses in Barchi Nafshi describing the natural world has a single theme; if there are two parts to the verse, they are tightly connected. Since the verse about the shafan begins by describing how the ibex live in the high hills, the animals in the second part must have some sort of connection to the ibex in the high hills. Since hyrax live in the exact same places as ibex, this would make sense (see the video at the end of this post). There is no connection between rabbits and ibex.

Seventh, if you want to talk about an animal that hides under rocks, why talk about something thousands of miles away, that nobody else (without ruach hakodesh) knows about, when there's something that hides under the rocks right here, amongst the ibex that you just mentioned? Similarly, in Mishlei 30:24-28, King Shlomo speaks about animals that are "small, yet ingenious." If I was speaking on that topic, I'd mention the bombardier beetle, the basilisk, the pistol shrimp, or some similar extraordinary marvel. Shlomo, on the other hand, speaks about the ant, the locust, and the lizard - presumably, because he and his readers knew about such animals, whereas they did not know about bombardier beetles, basilisks and pistol shrimps. He also mentions an animal that is weak, but manages to evade predators by hiding amongst rocks. Now, if you wanted to mention an example of a small animal that evades predators by hiding amongst rocks, is it not extremely reasonable to mention the animal that lives right in your area and does exactly that? Doesn't that make much more sense than positing that Shlomo mentions an animal that lives far away, and in fact prefers to hide in burrows rather than rocks?

According to Isaac Betech, none of these objections are significant. He doesn't even concede their presenting the slightest weakness in his approach! And he's been quite explicit about why. There are no unequivocal sources explicitly refuting the notion that David spoke with ruach hakodesh about an animal living far away instead of about an animal living right amongst the ibex that he just mentioned. All my objections are merely based upon reason. They are not categorical disproofs - and therefore they are without merit at all.

And there you have it: the unbridgeable chasm between rationalism and reason versus anti-rationalism and dogmatism.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When It's Time To Step Down

One should not have a Torah leader who is too old. He's not going to have the necessary sensitivity for the job.

Such is the position of Rambam, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:3:

 אין מעמידין בכל סנהדרין לא זקן מופלג בשנים ולא סריס, מפני שיש בהן אכזרייות.

Other reasons for this halachah can be added. As I once wrote in a post entitled Strength in Leadership, leaders must have a certain degree of vigor, in order to be able to be in control, and to be perceived that way. In the post, I speculated that the current problems of weakness in charedi leadership are a result of modern medicine prolonging the lives of people who lack the strength to lead.

It turns out that in the wake of the Pope's resignation, others are making the same point:
Joseph Curran, professor of religious studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, said the modern medicine prolonging the life of people had posed difficulties for institutions whose leaders usually rule for life.
"His resignation is a tremendous act of humility and generosity," he said. "A man who lives up a position of authority because he can no longer adequately exercise that authority, and does so for the good of the Church, is setting a wonderful example," he said.
It's good that the pope recognizes this. Apparently, papal infallibility helps him realize that he is all too fallible.

This in turn reminds me of an interesting observation that someone once made. Charedi Judaism does not claim infallibility for its leaders, but in practice never admits to their being wrong. The church, on the other hand, does claim infallibility for its leaders, but in practice they have shown themselves ready to admit being wrong!

(Hat tip: Michapeset)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Wind And The Ibex

(A re-post from two years ago, in honor of Rosh Chodesh. Chodesh Tov!)

Barchi Nafshi, the chapter of Tehillim that we recite on Rosh Chodesh, is one of my favorite chapters. It's a glorious description of the beautiful harmony of God's universe. There's a wonderfully poetic account of the weather functioning, and the animals going about their business; the stork nesting in the cedar tree, the ibex on the high hills and the hyraxes hiding in the rocks (ironically, there is a hyrax watching me as I write these words. Strange but true.) Man, too, is mentioned, as an integral part of the natural world, harvesting its produce for his needs and benefit. And there is the humbling description of how the mighty leviathan was created, as God's plaything, to sport in the ocean; a verse for which I gained new appreciation on one memorable boat trip, as you can read about on the archives of my other blog.

It's just wonderful to think that these praises of the natural world, composed thousands of years ago, are still being recited today! Our heritage is extraordinary. And, far from dying out, it is constantly being reinvigorated in new ways. About ten years ago, my wife purchased a video in Mea Shearim entitled "Barchi Nafshi." It was a montage of video clips from National Geographic channel and other sources, depicting the creatures and processes described in Barchi Nafshi. The montage was set to music - a combination of Jewish music, classical music, and the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans, with Barchi Nafshi being recited in the background. Sure, it was amateurish, but I loved it.

The Kolmus Journal of Torah Thought, published with last week's Mishpachah magazine, also finds Barchi Nafshi to be inspirational, but for a different reason:
David HaMelech writes, "Oseh malachav ruchos - He makes winds his messengers" (Tehillim 104:4). Again, science has borne out what David HaMelech wrote a few thousand years ago. We now know that weather phenomena are fundamentally rooted in the velocity, force, and direction of the global winds, which factor heavily in the fickle nature of weather prediction, because winds are nearly impossible to predict.

Later, the article has an excellent discussion of some of the wonders of the weather system, which is what Barchi Nafshi actually tells us should inspire us. But before that, the author draws inspiration from the fact that David HaMelech said something that was only recently discovered by modern science. While such inspiration is certainly not the point of Barchi Nafshi--and to focus upon it is to miss the point--is it true? Does Barchi Nafshi reveal that David HaMelech knew the discoveries of modern science that were otherwise unknown in the ancient world?

Well, first of all, it should be noted that the verses preceding and following this verse are certainly not congruent with our knowledge of the universe. Verse 2 describes God spreading out the heavens like a canopy. No doubt, people today will insist that this is poetic, but this is simply imposing modern conceptions upon the text. Certainly Chazal understood it to mean that the heavens are a solid dome over the earth, as I shall document in the near future. Then verse 5 describes how God "established the earth on its foundation; it shall never move." As an earlier article in Kolmus observes, there were Acharonim who insisted that this is literally true, and dismissed Copernicus as a result. In fact, the list of Acharonim who took this stance is far more extensive than the article notes, as I shall document in a future essay. The only suggestion that it was not literal came from those who had already been convinced of the correctness of the Copernican revolution, and who decided to innovate a new understanding of the verse in order to make it harmonious with modern science. So it is hardly accurate to cite Tehillim 104 as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago. It's better to cite it as an example for the approach of Rav Kook, based upon Rishonim such as Rambam, that the prophets presented their timeless spiritual messages within the framework of their ancient worldview of the universe--and in this case, an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of this framework.

But there's another problem with the article's claim, in the very passuk being quoted. The passuk says, "He makes winds His messengers." Now, this could mean two things. It could mean that winds are His messengers, just like all sorts of other things are God's messengers. But the article in Kolmus takes it in a different sense; to mean that winds are the primary agents in the weather system. I don't know if this is true or not. But what I do know is that the author has conveniently omitted the second half of the passuk! The passuk continues, "His servants are flashing fire (i.e. lightning)." Now, either this means that lightning is the co-primary agent in the weather system--which is clearly not the case--or, what I consider much more likely, that the pesukim are not at all discussing primary agents in weather control, merely the fact that all nature does God's bidding.

We shouldn't be using shtick to make Barchi Nafshi inspirational. Especially when the shtick doesn't even work. Barchi Nafshi doesn't need it; it is already a beautiful, inspirational tefillah. Unfortunately, most Jews today are too urbanized and exiled to really appreciate the descriptions of nature in Barchi Nafshi. I'll bet that most people reading this don't even know what some of the animals in Barchi Nafshi actually are. To compensate, I'll conclude with an incredible video from the Life series which illustrates the verse, "[He made] the high hills for the ibex":

Friday, February 8, 2013

An "Agenda"!

There's a certain word which my ideological opponents often use in their criticisms of my work. Here are some examples from some heated comments to the previous posts:
Could it be that the Gedolim realized that your agenda was to show that Chazal make mistakes and hence banned your books?
...[you have] an agenda to promote one approach and dismiss/invalidate all the others.
...Natan Slifkin and his Bible Critisism agenda...
i now stand in awe in front of the Gedolei Torah who somehow perceived that we are talking about someone with an agenda.
What exactly is an "agenda"? The definition of an "agenda" is an underlying ideological mission. There are two possible reasons why having an agenda could be a bad thing. One is that the underlying ideological mission could itself be bad. The other is that the mission itself is concealed and therefore devious.

The second possibility is certainly not the case. In the introduction to Mysterious Creatures (which, admittedly, those who banned the book did not read), I was very explicit about my ideological mission. I noted that when students are bothered by conflicts between Chazal and science, teachers usually only  teach conservative approaches. I noted that this often causes severe disillusionment, and that it is therefore important for people to be aware of the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and others to these issues. And I added that although my book describes and applies many different approaches to these topics, in several cases I emphasized the approach of Rambam and co., since these explanations are the least widely known and understood, and it is therefore appropriate to give them a fuller presentation.

So, there was no deviousness involved. But what about the first possibility - that the ideological mission is itself bad? I don't see how that could possibly be the case, unless you think that Rambam, Rav Hirsch and co. had a seriously perverted view of Chazal. The mission is to promote an approach to Torah which makes sense. Some people choose to promote Maharal's approach, and nobody objects. Others choose to promote the Nishtaneh Hateva approach, and nobody objects. Why should it be evil to promote the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and co.?

The greatest irony is when people accuse me of "promoting one approach and dismissing/invalidating all the others" - as though the Gedolim were the open-minded ones who want to give every approach a fair hearing, whereas I am the narrow-minded one! I've seen this claim a few times, and it always makes me laugh. In my books, I discuss every approach, and note that all of them have a strong history of great Torah scholars behind them. My opponents, on the other hand, claim that the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and many other Torah scholars is heretical and/or is forbidden to be taught! And Rav Moshe Shapiro in particular only ever gives credence to the Maharal's approach, and denies the legitimacy and historicity of any other approach. If anyone is guilty of having an "agenda" to dismiss and invalidate the approach of great Torah scholars, it is certainly my opponents rather than me.

In ideological battles, words are often wielded in nefarious ways. It's important to remember that what one person calls "an agenda" is what another person calls "a worthy mission." Describing my books as having "an agenda" is misleading; you might as well say the same about the Gedolim. Let's stick to discussing the real issues, rather than using inappropriate terminology which clouds the discussion.

(Don't forget that this Sunday are my two lectures at the Bridge Shul in Washington Heights - details on this flyer. They are planned to take place despite the weather forecast - if there is any change, I will post it here. If anyone can give me a ride after the lectures to Queens or (preferably) Long Island, I would greatly appreciate it.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Striking The Wrong Balance

During the Great Torah-Science Controversy of 2004/5, everyone had a different take on what was going on. Blogger A claimed that the Gedolim were concealing a secret, devious agenda. Apologist B claimed that the Gedolim didn't really mean it, but were being forced by communal pressure. Zealot C claimed that the Gedolim were correct, and that I was an evil denier of God. Blogger D claimed that the Gedolim secretly thought that the Torah-science questions were more powerful than the answers, but had to pretend to fill their role. And so on, and so forth.

Someone, I forget who, made a fascinating observation. All of these people, in declaring the shortcomings of the Charedi Gedolim or me, were subconsciously projecting their own shortcomings. Blogger A had a secret, devious agenda that he never revealed. Apologist B was always being forced by communal pressure to write things that he didn't believe. Zealot C turned out to be someone who was evil and clearly didn't believe in God. Blogger D secretly thought that there were no good answers, but had to pretend to be frum. And so on, and so forth. As Chazal say, Kol haposel, bemumo posel - whoever disqualifies, does so with his own blemish.

I was reminded of this when reading Rabbi Yisroel Miller's take on the ban in his new book "In Search of Torah Wisdom." He's a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Before discussing his take on the ban, I would like to make some general comments about the book. As a book presenting charedi hashkafah, it suffers from the inevitable shortcomings. However, with that in mind, it's vastly better and more nuanced than one would expect. The author is a nephew of Rav Avigdor Miller, and although he quotes him on numerous occasions, the style of his book is certainly light-years ahead of the books of Rav Avigdor Miller. If all books on charedi hashkafah were like this one, the world would be a much better place!

Anyway, back to the topic of the ban on my books. It is mentioned in several chapters, confirming what we all know - that it was a pivotal event. Rabbi Miller agrees that there were Torah authorities who stated that Chazal occasionally erred in science (although he wavers between saying that this was a minority view, that it was the lone view of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and even quoting Rabbi Meiselman's desperate claim that Rabbeinu Avraham is a forgery.) He claims that the real issue behind the ban is one of balance. In the introduction to Mysterious Creatures, I noted that there are a variety of different approaches to conflicts between Chazal and science, which Rabbi Miller approves of. But the problem was in how I applied these approaches in the rest of the book. Instead of presenting the approach of Chazal being infallible as the mainstream approach, with the rationalist approach being a bedi'eved minority view, "the message the book conveys to the reader is that the Sages of the Gemara were wrong - not only as a possible interpretation (which might not even be correct) but as the main approach - again and again and again."

Now, the first observation to be made is that while this is a good approximation of Rav Elyashiv's approach, Rabbi Miller is clearly not representing the views of the Gedolim who were the actual driving force behind the ban. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Elya Weintraub and Rav Moshe Shapiro don't believe that the rationalist approach is a bedi'eved minority view. They believe that it is utter heresy that was never held by any genuine Torah authority!

The second observation to be made is that Rabbi Miller is not representing my book correctly. Contrary to the way he described it, with the majority of creatures described in the book I did not say that Chazal were wrong. I either explained that the words of Chazal had been mistranslated, or that Chazal were speaking metaphorically. Only in three cases did I say that they were wrong.

So, amazingly, Rabbi Miller says that the problem with my books was one of balance; yet in describing the views of the Gedolim, and in describing my book, he suffers from an extreme lack of balance!

I didn't read the entire book, but flipping through it, I noticed other examples of his lack of balance. On p. 142 he talks about the problem of making statements without citing sources, which he says is a particular problem amongst non-Orthodox clergy. He further states that another problem, of selective citation, occurs in Orthodox circles. The examples that he gives in the next three paragraphs - the Hakirah journal, various panel discussions on women's issues and organ donation - are all from non-Charedi circles. Then, noting that this problem occurs on both ends of the spectrum, he gives a single paragraph discussing how selective citation regarding conversion requirements occurs on both ends of the spectrum.

Is this the correct balance? Four and a half paragraphs about non-citation and selective citation amongst non-charedim, and half a paragraph about selective citation amongst charedim? You must be kidding me. Since when do the Gedolim cite detailed sources for their pronouncements? And does anyone really think that selective citation and misrepresentation is more of a problem with Hakirah than in charedi publications?!

Chazal were indeed correct. Kol haposel, bemumo posel. 

(Note: If anyone wants to know my own take on the ban, read my essay "In Defense of my Opponents" and the postscript.)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

New York Lecture Tour update

Today (Sunday), I'm giving a multimedia presentation on "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought" at Beth Aaron in Teaneck, at 2pm.

Here is the rest of my schedule:
  • Tuesday February 5 - Kingsway Jewish Center, Brooklyn - 8pm Lecture: "What A Jew Must Believe." Admission $10 non-members, $5 Kingsway members
  • Wednesday February 6 - Parlor meeting in Brooklyn, to discuss the Encyclopedia and Museum, and to raise funds. It is invitation only; if you are interested in attending, please be in touch.
  • Shabbos February 8-9 - Young Israel of Plainview 
  • Sunday February 10 - Afternoon - Two lectures at the Bridge Shul in Washington Heights - details on this flyer
  • Sunday February 10 - Evening - Lecture at Beth Hadassah in Great Neck, 8pm, The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought.
  • Friday, February 1, 2013

    King David's Groundhog Day

    According to American folklore, a groundhog first emerges from hibernation tomorrow, February 2nd. If it is cloudy, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

    Amazingly, the groundhog's hibernation is actually mentioned in the Midrash - at least, in the view of some.
    "And the Lord God cast a slumber (tardemah) upon him" (Gen. 2:21)... Rav said: There are three types of slumber: that of sleep (shenah), that of prophecy, and that of marmita... (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 17:5)
    The Midrash explains that the last type of slumber occurred with the camp of King Saul, when David sneaked in and removed Saul's spear and water-jug:
    That of marmita: "Nobody saw or knew or woke up, for they were all sleeping; for a slumber of God had descended upon them" (I Samuel 26:12) (Midrash ibid.)
    The slumber of the mysterious marmita is the deepest type of sleep - but what is a marmita?

    Opinions vary. But several opinions (including Anaf Yosef, Rashash, and R. Yosef Schonhak) argue that it is the animal known in Europe as the marmot, which is known to North Americans as the groundhog. Marmots enter a deep hibernation during the cold winter; their heartbeat slows to around five beats a minute, while they only take one to three breaths a minute. The Midrash says that such a deep sleep was placed upon Shaul's camp by Hashem, so that David was able to steal in and out undetected. Nobody in Shaul's camp woke up; it was as though time itself was frozen.

    Although the phenomenon of hibernation was known to ancient writers such as Aristotle and Pliny, I haven't been able to discover if there is indeed basis for interpreting the Midrash in this way. If anyone has further light to shed on this, please do so!

    Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

    How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...