Saturday, March 16, 2013
Mouse Deer Tries To Attack Hare, Hyrax
There's a curious journal on Torah and science published by Bar-Ilan University entitled Bechol Derachecha De'ehu, or BDD for short. Many of the articles are excellent and reflect the rationalist approach to these topics. However, there are also several articles which reflect a decidedly anti-rationalist approach (such as those by various physicists claiming to correlate 21st century science with the first chapter of Genesis). In the latest volume, Zvi Weinberger argues that the arneves and shafan of the Torah are not the hare and hyrax, as all Biblical zoologists concur, but instead are the musk deer and mouse deer (echoing a suggestion first put forth in the 19th century).
Why does he suggest this? Weinberger points out that neither the hare nor the hyrax bring up the cud, as the Torah describes the arneves and shafan doing. In this, he is at least half and possibly entirely correct. The reingestion of special fecal pellets practiced by the hare, technically known as cecotrophy, cannot reasonably be described as ma'aleh gerah, which literally means "bringing up by way of the throat." This is notwithstanding the fanciful suggestion of Isaac Betech that the phrase is describing how the fecal pellets are "brought up" in the ascending colon (!) and subsequently pass down the throat when they are reingested. As for the hyrax, some claim to have observed it bringing up food for reingestion, perhaps in a reduced form of rumination known as merycism. Others, however, debate the validity of these observations and argue that it may instead be a form of communication. My video of my own hyrax engaged in what appeared to me to be merycism has been dismissed by some zoologists as showing a form of threat gesture instead. Thus, Weinberger is correct that the hare does not bring up the cud, and may well also be correct regarding the hyrax.
However, none of this is reason to reject identifying the arneves and shafan as the hare and hyrax. There is simply far too much evidence supporting their identification. As for the Torah's description of their bringing up their cud, this is no different from the Torah's description of the Heavens bringing down its dew. It is scientifically inaccurate, but "the Torah speaks in the language of man."
There is also a complete absence of viable alternatives to the hare and hyrax. The rabbit, as noted previously (see here and here), does not live in Israel. (Betech claimed otherwise, and when challenged, replied that rabbits are found in pet stores across Israel! I kid you not.) Nor, more importantly, did it live in Israel in Biblical times (Betech's alleged sources otherwise were conclusively shown to be mistaken references to hares; he has yet to acknowledge this error). Mouse deer and musk deer likewise did not live in Biblical Israel, nor anywhere nearby.
Weinberger presents some extremely unconvincing suggestions in response to this. He suggests that mouse deer and musk deer were familiar via trade routes. But this is not only almost certainly not true for the mouse deer. It also does not account for David and Shlomo choosing to mention the shafan (see here). Weinberger also quotes a professor from Machon Lev as suggesting that the mouse deer and musk deer did indeed live in Israel in Biblical times. But this professor's field of expertise is in technology! I don't understand why someone would quote a non-expert on such a thing. Weinberger does then quote a zooarcheologist, who points out that this suggestion is against all evidence. But this does not dissuade Weinberger from arguing it.
Weinberger acknowledges that there are difficulties with his approach, but argues that it is better to be faced with such difficulties than to have a problem with the straightforward meaning of the pesukim. I don't agree, and I don't think that there is an exceptional problem with the pesukim describing the hare and hyrax as maaleh gerah, whereas I do think that his approach does make a severe problem with the pesukim. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate his honesty regarding his epistemology. He acknowledges the difficulties, and states that he is choosing to override them due to concerns stemming from his particular religious outlook.
The difference between Weinberger and Betech in this regard is striking. Weinberger freely concedes that he is disputing those who base their views on zooarcheology, unlike Betech, who claims that his approach (which identifies the shafan as the non-native rabbit) is "scientific" and "academic"! And Weinberger freely concedes that he is disputing Chazal and traditional authorities (regarding the identity of the arneves), as opposed to Betech, who claims that his approach (regarding defining cecotrophy as maaleh gerah) is "compatible" with every great Torah scholar in history! I have no problem with people adopting positions due to religious motivations, as long as they don't pretend that it is for scientific or academic reasons.
Posted by Natan Slifkin