Monday, September 30, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Contradicts Himself

A few weeks ago, I published a post entitled Rav Elya Ber Dismisses Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim, Gedolim. This was in reference to an approbation that Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel gave to a work about Chazal and science (you can now download the approbation at this link) entitled Sod Liyreyav. But aside from the fact that Rav Elya Ber is dismissing the views of countless Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim as being heresy, he's also contradicting himself, in a fascinating way.

The goal of Sod Liyreyav, which focuses primarily on the topic of the spontaneous generation of insects, is not really to assert that Chazal were infallible - it takes that as a given. Instead, its purpose is to refute those who claim that Chazal didn't really believe in spontaneous generation (in an effort to avoid Chazal being in error), but instead were referring to insects hatching from microscopic eggs or some other such apologetic explanation. The author of Sod Liyreyav proves that this is a completely untenable explanation of Chazal's intent.

He is, of course, absolutely correct. As I explained at length in Sacred Monsters - now available in iBooks format for iPad! - Chazal were most definitely referring to spontaneous generation. This is clear from their terminology, the arguments used in their discussion, their social context, and other cases of spontaneous generation that they describe (such as mice and salamanders). It is also the unequivocal view of Rishonim and Acharonim right up until the apologetics of just a few years ago. While I, along with many great Torah scholars, disagree with the assertion that Chazal were correct in this belief, I certainly agree that this was their belief!

Defending this interpretation of Chazal's meaning is important to Rav Elya Ber's worldview for several reasons, aside from the fact that it is the correct interpretation. One is that it reflects a proud and firm rejection of science. Chazal knew everything, scientists are fools, and we should not be changing our understanding of Chazal in order to make them fit into science. In fact, Rav Elya Ber writes in his approbation that the very idea of needing to justify Chazal in light of science is wrong. Besides, once you start changing the meaning of Chazal to fit with science, then you'll start doing that with Bereishis, and who knows where that will end? Another reason why this understanding of Chazal is important to Rav Elya Ber is that, as mentioned, it is the universal understanding of the Rishonim and Acharonim - and one does not dispute the Rishonim. As Rav Elya Ber writes, chas v'shalom to adopt the conclusions of scientists, and to kvetch the plain meaning of Chazal and the Rishonim in order to make them match.

Which makes it extremely strange, then, that Rav Elya Ber also wrote an approbation to a book that does precisely that.

I'm referring to Dr. Isaac Betech's book, The Enigma Of The Biblical Shafan: Torah and Scientific Research Suggesting a Solution, Including Appendices on Fish and Lice. Betech claims that Chazal did not believe that lice spontaneously generate, as we all thought. Instead, Chazal were referring to the fact that lice are the most host-dependent of all ectoparasites - that they are born, live and die on their host animal!

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman takes a similar approach in his forthcoming book Torah, Chazal and Science, suggesting that rather than referring to lice spontaneously generating, Chazal were referring to their hatching from microscopic eggs. However, Rabbi Meiselman (in the draft version of the manuscript that I saw) at least concedes that he is arguing with the explanation of the Rishonim (amusingly concluding that the explanation of the Gemara is "obscure"). Betech, on the other hand, claims that his novel explanation is also the view of the Rishonim! See this post by Betech and the comments there, in which Betech makes the following extraordinary claim:
We may say that when the Ramba”m wrote “which do not come into existence from males and females” his intention is "which do not come into existence from males and females exclusively”, i.e. they are completely dependent on an external media.
As Rafi Miller (who is getting married today) pointed out, if that's what the Rambam meant, he forgot the key word "exclusively" - and instead used the exact term that is used for spontaneous generation! In order to appreciate just how ludicrous it is to claim that this is Rambam's view, let's take a look at the full quote from Rambam, where he also notes that such insects, which do not result from a male-female relationship, are incapable of reproducing:
והמצוה הקע"ז היא שהזהירנו מאכול השרצים המתהוים מן העפושים אע"פ שאינו מין ידוע ולא יתהוה מזכר ונקבה. והוא אמרו ולא תטמאו את נפשותיכם בכל השרץ הרומש על הארץ. ולשון ספרא השרץ הרומש על הארץ אע"פ שאינו פרה ורבה. וזה הוא ההפרש בין אמרו השרץ השורץ על הארץ ובין השרץ הרומש על הארץ. כי השרץ השורץ הוא השרץ שיש בו הכח המוליד לדומה כי הוא ישריץ על הארץ והשרץ הרומש הוא השרץ המתהוה מן העפושים שלא יוליד הדומה לו. 
The 177th prohibition is that we are forbidden from eating an insect which is created from decayed matter, even though it is not a particular species and is not created from a male-female relationship. The source of this commandment is G‑d's statement, "Do not defile your souls [by eating] any small creature that lives on land." In the words of the Sifri, "The verse, 'any small creature that lives on land' [comes to include an insect] even if it does not multiply." This is the difference between the phrase, "a small creature that is shoretz on land," and "a small creature that is romeis [on land]." "A small creature that is shoretz" refers to something that has the ability to produce offspring like itself and reproduces on land. "A small creature that is romeis" refers to something which is created from decayed matter and does not produce a creature like itself. 
Betech's approach is the paradigm of kvetching the plain meaning of Chazal and the Rishonim in order to make them fit science. How can Rav Elya Ber have written an approbation for a book which takes the very approach that he condemns?

The answer is probably that Rav Elya Ber didn't read that part of Betech's book. Perhaps someone can bring it to his attention, so that he can clarify his position.


  1. No r elya ber is known in the yeshiva velt as a mavrick who wll often say contradictory things and then act in a third way he has no apperent rhyme or reason and sees no need to remain consistent only a rationlist like slifkin worrys about such silly trifelings he does and says whatever is most expidiant at the moment which is why he has such a following amoungst the yishivisha crowd I remeber him coming to BMG and railing agianst kirruv yet he officaly heads lakewoods kiruv program

  2. TL;DR:
    Logic 101:
    approbation ≠ confirmation/acceptance/agreement with every detail in the book.

  3. Yaakov A Sternberg said...
    Logic 101:
    approbation ≠ confirmation/acceptance/agreement with every detail in the book.

    September 30, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    Ok, but when you read REB's hascama to Dr. IB's book you have no idea if he disagrees with some parts of it that he didn't read.

    Then when you read his hascama to Sod Liyreyav you realize that he indeed opposes parts of Dr. IB's book, strongly. And if those parts are central to Dr. IB's thesis so the whole book, with REB's hascama (whether REB is aware of it or not), has nothing to stand on.

  4. "Perhaps someone can bring it to (Rav Elya Ber's) attention, so that he can clarify his position."

    Whoever brings it to his attention should probably not show him the brusque title of this post, "Rav Elya Ber Contradicts Himself."

  5. Yaakov A Sternberg said...
    Logic 101:
    approbation ≠ confirmation/acceptance/agreement with every detail in the book.

    Yaakov, did you TL;DR this post, or are you saying that Rav Elya Ber TL;DR'ed the books which he was giving the Haskama to (something that commonly happens in a Haskama)?

  6. Adding to Rafi Miller's proof, we have this from Negative Commandment 189:

    My translation:

    "And it only appears impossible that a wasp or ant or other flying and creeping creature could be generated from rotting food or from fruit to the masses of people who are not educated in the natural sciences, and who instead imagine that any member of any species can be generated only from a male and female, since they see that is true in most instances."

    If all he meant was that some animals need an external agent to help in reproducing, it seems to difficult to understand why the "masses" would object.

    (Got this reference from R. Schachter's Shiur on the subject).

  7. From David Oshie,

    "If all he meant was that some animals need an external agent to help in reproducing, it seems to difficult to understand why the "masses" would object."

    Kind of like guys in Kollel living off Uncle Sam,and their parents :)

  8. You're all missing the point. Reb Elya's decision on whether or not to give a book an approbation seems to have nothing to do with its specific contents. Instead he asks the question: Is this book anti-Slifkin? if it is, then he'll approbate it happily.

  9. Is the Rambam perchance talking about parthenogenesis rather than spontaneous generation?

    There certainly are many kinds of reproductive mechanisms among insects, and not all of them are male+female.

  10. "Is the Rambam perchance talking about parthenogenesis?"

    No. Read his words carefully.


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