Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?

(If the topic of this post doesn't interest you, please skip to the announcement at the end regarding my lecture tour.)

As the field of Torah/science changes, due to increased scientific knowledge and increased awareness of classical Jewish sources, the rationalist approach gains steam. The response from anti-rationalists also evolves. Never underestimate people's creativity! Nine years ago, we saw the innovation that opinions of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and so on can be "paskened" to be a heretical perversion of theology. Now, with the new assault on the rationalist approach by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and his protege Dovid Kornreich, there's another novel stratagem.

The new stratagem is a method for wholesale dismissal of Rishonim who give inconvenient explanations, while simultaneously condemning those who dispute certain other explanations of  Rishonim for the crime of "attacking the mesorah." The attempted justification for this contradictory approach is the claim that the Rishonim intended certain explanations "tentatively," while other explanations were given definitively. But of course, there is no a priori method given for determining which is which; rather, the determination is made based upon which approach gives the desired result.

Rabbi Meiselman discards the views of all the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statement that lice are not parin v'ravin. He is also willing to dismiss their views regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statements about astronomy, and its statements about the mouse that grows from dirt. He attempts to justify such large-scale dismissal of Rishonim by saying that "It was never their intention that their explanations were definitely what Chazal meant. They were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them" (p. 146).

Now, what is the basis for such a claim? Rabbi Meiselman argues that "they certainly never intended to chain Chazal's words to their understanding, so that if they should be proven wrong, Chazal's teachings would fall along with them. On the contrary, they would have been the first to say that their interpretations were evidently incorrect."

But is this true? In the case of astronomy, I demonstrated that it is certainly not true. There, the Rishonim do not “interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day.” They explain it as referring to a mistaken and obsolete view!

But what about in the case of lice? Would the Rishonim have changed their explanation of Chazal's words had they known that lice do not spontaneously generate? The simple truth is that it is impossible to know. My feeling is that some would have changed their explanation, and some would not. Yet in any case, it's irrelevant. As long as they did not know that spontaneous generation was an impossibility, they believed that their explanations were correct. They did not indicate in any way that they were only tentatively suggesting these explanations.

Furthermore, one point is beyond dispute. It is abundantly clear that had the Rishonim been confronted with evidence that their explanations of certain Scriptural stories were wrong, they would certainly have retracted their explanations. Yet this is a case where Rabbi Meiselman takes their explanations as being definitive and beyond dispute!

Turning to Rabbi Meiselman's protege Kornreich in the latest issue of Dialogue, the contradictions and unreasonability of the approach become even more pronounced. Kornreich concedes that the Rishonim of Europe, aside from being mistaken about spontaneous generation, human anatomy, astronomy and so on, also made certain errors due to their geographical removal from the world of Torah and Chazal. Thus, he admits that their understanding of the geography of Eretz Yisrael contains inaccuracies. However, he insists that when it comes to identifying flora and fauna, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim of Europe erred. This, he argues, is a "fundamental part of our mesorah," because it relates to halachic definitions and terms. Accusing them of "wittingly or unwittingly" being in error "impugns the integrity" of their character and "undermines our belief in the accuracy of that mesorah." Thus, it is unacceptable to say that the Rishonim of Europe, due to geographical limitations, erred in their halachic identification of maror, shibbolet shual, the kezayis, the tzvi or the shafan.

The problem with this distinction is that, aside from being completely invented out of thin air, it is very clearly contradicted by the sources. First, as I pointed out above, the Rishonim gave what they viewed as correct explanations of spontaneous generation, and human anatomy, which definitely have halachic ramifications, and yet Kornreich dismisses all their views on this topic. Second, many authorities have clearly stated that the European Rishonim erred in these identifications due to geographical limitations.


With maror, I am told that the Roshei Yeshivah of RIETS, including Rav Schachter and Rav Willig, will not make the berachah of al achilas maror on horseradish. They recognize that Europeans only legitimized the use of horseradish because they had no access to leafy vegetables. And there are several cases where prominent early Rishonim discounted the views of European Rishonim on halachic matters due to their geographical limitations. We have noted previously that Radvaz negates the view of R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (and effectively many others) who identified the "River of Egypt," stated to be the border of Eretz Yisrael, as the river Nile, pointing out that they were unfamiliar with the geographical reality, due to their living in Europe. Ramban negates Rashi's view regarding one of the ingredients of the ketores. Rav Yosef Karo negates the Tur's view regarding which berachah to make on sugar, on the grounds that the Tur was not from a place where sugar grows and was unfamiliar with the nature of it.

The tzvi provides a potent example of how Kornreich's approach is without basis. In my letter to Dialogue, I wrote that "Europe has very different animals from those of Eretz Yisrael, and the names of animals in Tanach were transposed to local equivalents. For example, the gazelle of Israel perfectly matches all Scriptural, Talmudic and Midrashic descriptions of the tzvi. While Jews in north Africa, which also has gazelles, had a (correct) tradition that the tzvi is the gazelle (and that the deer is the ayal), there were no gazelles in Europe. As a result, the name tzvi in Europe was transposed to the deer (hirsch). This led Rashi, in his commentary to Chullin 59b, to note that the creature traditionally called tzvi in Europe (i.e. the deer) is not the tzvi described by Chazal. Thus, Rashi himself observes that European traditions regarding the identities of animals mentioned in the Torah are not accurate."

Kornreich attempts to discount this by creating an artificial distinction between different classes of animal identification. He claims that "the translation of tzvi as a deer was never an halachic one employed by the Gedoley Torah of Rashi's time, but merely one used in the vernacular." According to Kornreich, Rashi's very point is that the tzvi only means deer in the vernacular, and this was never a halachic mesorah. However, if you take a look at Rashi's words, that is not at all what he was saying - he was genuinely troubled by the deer not matching the Talmudic accounts of the tzvi. Furthermore, Kornreich has not studied the topic - Tosafos maintains that the tzvi is indeed the deer, and engages in a textual emendation of the halachic criteria given in the Gemara in order to make it fit! Clearly, the translation of tzvi as a deer was indeed an halachic one employed by the Gedoley Toyrah of Rashi's time.

Kornreich argues that the Rishonim must have known that the animal and plant life of Europe differs from that of Eretz Yisrael, and they would thus not have given their identifications unless they were certain that their geographic distance was irrelevant. But this is simply a naive retroactive projection upon the Rishonim. It's certainly not "impugning the integrity of their character," as Kornreich charges, to say that they did not realize that the animal life of Israel is very different from that of Europe. I find that even people today generally don't realize that the animal and plant life of Israel is fundamentally different from that of Europe and North America. When it comes to rabbinic approaches to zoology - the topic of my doctoral dissertation - Kornreich is simply completely out of his depth. In my extensive studies of the history of rabbinic and non-rabbinic attempts to identify the flora and fauna of Scripture, it is clear that it was only in the last two centuries that people began to become adequately sensitive to geographical differences in animal distribution. Furthermore, if you look at the tremendous difference between the definitions of kosher and non-kosher animals, birds and insects (a topic with halachic ramifications) given by European Rishonim, and those given by Rav Saadiah Gaon and other authorities from the region of Israel, it's obvious that this is due to each interpreting them in terms of animal life with which they were familiar.

In conclusion: this stratagem of wholesale dismissal of Rishonim who give inconvenient explanations, while simultaneously condemning those who dispute certain other explanations of  Rishonim for the crime of "attacking the mesorah," is hopelessly illogical, contrary to the sources, and self-contradictory. But alas, I suspect that the result of my pointing this out will not result in a retraction of this approach. Instead, it will result in even creative and intellectually dishonest attempts to come up with hair-splitting differences to enable the wholesale dismissal of Rishonim that they don't like, while condemning those who do not follow the Rishonim that they do like.

On another note, due to a schedule change, I am available in New York for Shabbos of January 25. If you are interested in hosting me as scholar-in-residence in your community, please be in touch. I am also available in California for the Shabbos of January 18.

29 comments:

  1. I am an admirer who has been following your blog for a year or so and have been waiting for the word Parthenogenesis to crop up, but it hasn't. So I'm going to drop it in here. I think it is both unfair and unprofessional of you not to have included it, if only among the footnotes, in the discussion of Chaza"l's statements on the subject of lice. I'm not sure about head-lice, but tree-lice may be observed to reproduce without sex. A single female louse egg may observed hatching and maturing into adulthood and reproducing without any other lice being involved. Not because sexual mating is not necessary for reproduction to occur, but because of parthenogenesis. The brother male-louse impregnated his sisters at some point in their life-cycle while still inside their female parent. Chaza"l while not aware of parthenogenesis did make accurate observations and pronouncement on sexless reproduction, specifically in lice.

    I think a touch of open-mindedness around the subject of olives and Kezayis would not go amiss, either. You have no way of knowing whether the northern European Rishonim ever saw an olive. I am sure they did. However they had no way of knowing, based on the pickled or dried olives they held in their hands, what size an average olive is on the tree, in situ. So while I cannot but agree with your Maskana in that Sugya, I think the statement that they never saw an olive is not supported by any evidence. Why not say with confidence that they most probably never saw an olive-bearing tree?

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  2. I did too discuss parthenogenesis! I have a whole paragraph on it in the chapter on Sweat Lice in Sacred Monsters, explaining why it is irrelevant to the subject at hand.

    Also, I believe that there are more than adequate grounds for saying that the northern European Rishonim never saw an olive, as discussed in my monograph. The food-historian with whom I conferred agreed with this. Incidentally, my own mother, who grew up in Wales/ Manchester, never saw an olive until quite late in life!

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  3. I apologize for commenting while missing your paragraph on Sweat Lice. I will look for it. Is it anywhere in this website/blog?

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  4. I honestly don't know! The search feature doesn't work very well.

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  5. It is not only obvious that Rishonim were wrong about some facts of nature with halachic implications such as the alleged spontaneous generation of some creatures, such as worms found inside stored produce, but that Talmudic sages were also subject to such error. For example, Rav Yosef in T.B. Shabbat who attributed the permissibility to kill body lice on shabbat to their supposed non-sexual reproduction. More importantly, the talmudic listing of treifa criteria is no longer viewed as realistic. Nonetheless, those halachot, including the permissibility to eat worms inside stored produce, is still in force (not that I suggest eating such worms). The point is that the halacha may be treated independently of the rationales given. Either the authors have the authority to innovate the laws (while we do not have the authority to abrogate them), or the halacha came before the rationale and is independent of it (the lice case).

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  6. This posting makes I think an excellent observation.

    The phenomenon of people in the name of humility and subservience to the masters judging and rejecting the views of those masters is fascinating.

    It would be interesting to know if people are familiar with this phenomenon more broadly, in other religions (l'havidl), politics or simply as a known psychological function.

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  7. R' Slifkin
    For more examples of Rishonim being incorrect about various ideas try to get your hands on Mishna Berura vol. 3 with the Ish Matzliach biur, in the back there is a kuntres called Bien Hashmashos from HaRav Meir Mazuz see pages 91- 94 you will enjoy.

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  8. Parthenogenesis is mentioned in the Snake Gestation post.

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  9. What makes the matter of conflicts in mesorah more confounding for me is the inconsistency. Take orez: rice or millet? Not only is there linguistic evidence from other languages, but there is a mesorah that it is rice, and indeed normative halachic practice goes this way. So why do we have so much problem with shibbolet shual, shafan and others with at least as much evidence and mesorah?

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  10. From reading about mesora here and other sites, it seems that the word 'mesora' has morphed into some kind of Haredi device for shutting down debate.

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  11. > However, he insists that when it comes to identifying flora and fauna, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim of Europe erred. This, he argues, is a "fundamental part of our mesorah," because it relates to halachic definitions and terms. Accusing them of "wittingly or unwittingly" being in error "impugns the integrity" of their character and "undermines our belief in the accuracy of that mesorah." Thus, it is unacceptable to say that the Rishonim of Europe, due to geographical limitations, erred in their halachic identification of maror, shibbolet shual, the kezayis, the tzvi or the shafan.

    > The problem with this distinction is that, aside from being completely invented out of thin air, it is very clearly contradicted by the sources.

    No, the problem with this is that it’s an appeal to consequences. It doesn’t matter if there are sources that show Rishonim would have disagreed with this position. If the Rishonim of Europe were wrong, then they were. The fact that he doesn’t like it, or that such a conclusion is inconvenient and "undermines our belief in the accuracy of that mesorah" has nothing at all to do with whether it’s true.

    You’re arguing with someone who sees sunlight shining through his window and reasons that because he wants to go back to sleep it must still be dark.

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  12. You really don't like the Zohar, huh?

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  13. G*3 introduces a fallacy Temujin has not seen mentioned: "Appeal to Consequences," Great one!

    However, so far, R.Slifkin is not arguing with anyone, as the usual contrarians here...including Temujin's lost and still missing forum pet, Observer...are conspicuously absent. This, one reasons, is most likely due to the fact that some arguments are, bluntly put, indefensible. Moreover, blowing off shoddy thinking and arbitrariness with the routine "because (I/Gedolim/mesorah) say so," is getting harder these days...people will laugh. In this particular case, one imagines that the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome has again afflicted the dear fellows, who not only never thought things through to the end, but never thought they would have to conjure up facts or defend method or principle to the pouncing hoi polloi. O, the curse of the Internet...

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  14. Although I do not agree with a lot of R' Slifkin's opinions, I must point out that today is R' Avraham Ben Harambam's Yartzeit. 18 Kislev. (In Israel its the next day already).

    Not a bad idea to do a piece about that great man.

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  15. @YacovDovid:
    This posting makes I think an excellent observation....The phenomenon of people in the name of humility and subservience to the masters judging and rejecting the views of those masters is fascinating...It would be interesting to know if people are familiar with this phenomenon more broadly, in other religions (l'havidl), politics or simply as a known psychological function.

    Bingo. Indeed so, Temujin can pipe in with notions gathered from his personal experiences of having grown up in totalitarian countries. He recalls periods of almost unanimous support for the "betters" and their ideas...even in private amongst friends and family... when the times are good but then, waves of grumbling and dissent as things get harder.

    In comparing those days to the current controversies, Temujin sees astonishing parallels in the unraveling of an old human process. Authoritarian systems operate like early chiefdoms and small city states, with the Big Men able to gather a lots of resources and oodles of kavod for their positions and their own selves when good times are to be had by all and the people's hearts can are gladdened with free stuff, a power-retention strategy which can reach absurd proportions, such as with the West Coast Amerindian potlatches, the late Roman Empire bread and circus thing....or turning tens of thousands of made-unemployable men into life-long students under the direction of a new mandarin class.

    Alas, as in an old boring film seen one too many times, expectations and one-upmanship rise with every jolly spree...as do expenditures and stress on donors...while the systemically corrupt system of favoritism inevitably degrades the quality of the leaders. As the treasures run on empty and the Big Men begin to break down and expose their inadequacies to a less charitable audience, the gifts become "symbolic," where people are offered honeyed words, harangues, harrowing threats, pie-in-the-sky promises and a deluge of magic and incomprehensible mystical stuff. That only works on some and then only for a little while though, so illusions eventually evaporate. And so, first come the questions, then the ever-louder grumbling and then, before the crash, the sharp jokes begin to pop up...oh, those jokes... first in private, then openly and then to the face of the failing masters. By this time the back-pedaling in an attempt to reboot and make trouble go away begins. And, as YacovDavid kindly points out a freeze-frame in the unraveling process, there is an emerging recognition, even among the leaders, that there are big and difficult issues with their ways of doing things and new, more critical models...with a few genuine, but mostly superficial, tarted-up reforms and self-critiques...begin to appear. Too late. The saying, "a train wreck in (very) slow motion" springs to one's mind.

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  16. someone who read the bookNovember 21, 2013 at 11:39 PM

    "Rabbi Meiselman discards the views of all the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statement that lice are not parin v'ravin. He is also willing to dismiss their views regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statements about astronomy, and its statements about the mouse that grows from dirt.

    Rabbi Slifkin, you were called out on this one already.
    What Rabbi Meiselman actually said was:
    http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.co.il/2013/11/my-job-made-easier-part-i-charge-of.html
    "I, too, make no claim that my approach is definitely the correct one or that it resolves every single difficulty. It may be in need of refinement. Alternatively, the correct approach may be different altogether."

    It doesn't quite sound like he is discarding or dismissing anyone's view. He is simply offering his own tentative alterantive approach to avoid a conflict with Chazal and the metzius.
    It sounds like Rabbi Meiselman is clearly open to another approach which would explain Chazal like the rishonim--if it would avoid a conflict with the metzius.

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  17. I don't know who is being more disingenuous, you or Rabbi Meiselman.

    His entire book is explicitly dedicated to showing that certain approaches are definitively wrong.

    In the case of lice, the only thing that he is at all tentative about is his own proposed explanation of the Gemara. But he he insists that since spontaneous generation does not occur, the Rishonim and Acharonim are all wrong.

    To issue some platitudes about how he doesn't claim to be definitely correct is meaningless and disingenuous. It reminds me of Betech claiming immunity from various criticisms by insisting that he's not claiming that the rabbit actually is the shafan, just that the rabbit is compatible with all definitions of the shafan and no other animal is.

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  18. When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?

    When it disagrees with your preconceived notions of what is mesorah

    The rest, as they say, is commentary

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  19. someone who read the bookNovember 22, 2013 at 1:31 AM

    "But he he insists that since spontaneous generation does not occur, the Rishonim and Acharonim are all wrong."

    You keep saying this as if its a quote or a paraphrase from the book. Why do you insist on misrepresenting what he actually says?
    All he says is that based on the knowledge we have today, we need to understand Chazal differently.
    You are simply putting words in his mouth.

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  20. Please explain how "we need to understand Chazal differently" is not the same as "the Rishonim were wrong."

    This reminds me of the guy (was it you?) a few posts back, insisting that there was a crucial difference between "wrong" and "incorrect."

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  21. Book owner:

    "But he he insists that since spontaneous generation does not occur, the Rishonim and Acharonim are all wrong."

    You keep saying this as if its a quote or a paraphrase from the book. Why do you insist on misrepresenting what he actually says?
    All he says is that based on the knowledge we have today, we need to understand Chazal differently.


    Can you explain why the response to the Rishonim is not "obviously, we have not merited to fully understand their words"? Or "they were speaking metaphorically"? Or "they were speaking to a metaphysical reality"?

    Even better, the entire syllogism of science-rejection in connection with the age of the world is "well, science does not know everything, science can be wrong, GODDIDIT means that science can't work"

    (see FKM in the comments to one of his attack posts: "The scientific evidence for the age of the earth/universe is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding the conditions of the early universe/formation of the earth. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by the fact of supernatural Divine creation and are left without basis.")

    Once that position is adopted for any potential conflict between Chazal/Torah and science, what possible basis could there be for using any other approach in any other area of apparent conflict? After all, isn't it better to say "science, shmience" than "well, the Rishonim were simply interpreting Chazal to the best of their ability, and had they known what science today tells us they would have had a different interpretation"?

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  22. @Akiva, i'm surprised. Most rishonim say chazal can make scientific errors. In Pesachim 94, barring Rabenu Tam & Maharal, chazal say the same about themselves. Who needs the argument "science shmience"?

    Are you new here?

    --

    As for the quote from FKM, he missed the boat, as usual. The point isn't whether "old universe" is true or false. The point is whether it is kosher or treif. Please think about that.

    And his statement "From the perspective of our Jewish tradition" is merely a presumptious pontification.

    Kol tuv.

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  23. Akiva:

    Let's give it a go:

    "The scientific evidence that spontaneous generation does not occur in lice is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding lice reproduction. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by what is written in the Gemara and Rishonim and are left without basis."

    Hey! It works!

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  24. Nachum, you're pre-empted one of my posts!

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  25. An excellent listing of the caution involved in making claims for scientific studies--and many halachic studies as well.

    http://www.nature.com/news/policy-twenty-tips-for-interpreting-scientific-claims-1.14183

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  26. Reject,

    All due respect, I think my comment may have gone over your head.

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  27. @Akiva, maybe,(these things have happened), in which case you might want to crawl down and explain yourself. Or mine have gone over yours, and i should do that.

    Most of your suggestions have already been discussed on this blog over the years, regarding errors of *Chazal* and R Slifkin and others have pointed out that the rishonim, when confronted with these very torah vs. science issues have not made use of your suggestions that you make regarding *the rishonim*. Rather, they ascribed to Chazal scientific error, as R Slifkin does. Do you accept the rishonim's view that Chazal aren't scientifically infallible, but believe that the rishonim are? Though your suggestions may be logical, you'd have to divorce yourself from the precedent of how the rishonim approached these matters.

    There are exceptions where the rishonim question the validity of the scientists *of their time*, but in fact the scientists of their time were quite crude relative to today's scientists. Much of their old science would be considered laughable today. Do you believe, for example, in the "four humors" or solid celestial spheres, or many other ancient scientific ideas that are today regarded as jokes?

    It seems that some people aren't regulars here but just popped in to discuss R Meiselman's book. I thought you might be one of them.


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  28. Reject,

    You are making my points. Look back at who I was talking to. That was my critique of "Someone who read the book".

    Nachum caught it, as did R' Slifkin. No worries - nuance is sometimes hard to catch in text comments from people you don't know.

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  29. @akiva, oops! Thank you for clarifying.

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