Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Gadol and the Snail

Yesterday I attended a conference marking 100 years since a very unusual doctoral dissertation. Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote his dissertation on the identity of the chilazon, the snail from which the tekhelet dye is derived. The conference, organized by Ptil Tekhelet, featured a very broad range of speakers, from rabbis to archeologists.

Rav Herzog was a truly extraordinary person. He was ordained by Ridvaz, who pronounced him one of the world’s outstanding Talmudists. Rabbi Herzog’s elite group of disciples included Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (whose work Ma’adanei Aretz bore the approbation of Rabbi Herzog), Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

At Rav Herzog's funeral, Rabbi Aharon Kotler of the Lakewood Yeshivah eulogized him as a “prince,” and spoke of his extraordinary Torah scholarship. See this link for a fascinating account of regarding Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Herzog's passing, and see Rav Kotler and others at Rav Herzog's funeral in the picture at right. Rabbi Shalom Gold of Har Nof, who received ordination from Rav Herzog, told me that Rav Herzog was also proficient in numerous languages, and moreover was a wonderfully kind person.

Justice Neal Hendel (himself a fascinating person - an American Orthodox Jew who studied under Rav Soloveitchik and is now a judge on the Israel Supreme Court) spoke about Rav Herzog's approach to halachah. Amongst other things, he mentioned how it is so important, and yet so difficult, for a posek to get the full picture on the cases that he rules upon. Rav Herzog wanted to determine the correct approach to techeles - and so he studied marine biology!

Rav Herzog appears on a few occasions in my books The Challenge Of Creation and Sacred Monsters. He believed that the account of creation did not need to be interpreted literally, and he wrote that Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam's approach to the science of the Talmud - that it was simply the prevalent beliefs of the era and thus fallible - expresses the correct position to take. (As we discussed regarding Rav Hirsch in the previous post, these views are likewise considered heresy by many contemporary Charedi rabbinic authorities, such as by Rabbi Meiselman in his book on this topic.)

Regarding techeles, there's a vast amount of literature on the website of Ptil Tekhelet. I haven't had time to go through more than a fraction of it, but as I once wrote in a post regarding my own chilazon-hunting expedition, it's clear to me that the Murex trunculus is indeed the correct candidate. Those who claim otherwise inevitably turn out to be of an anti-rationalist persuasion. However, I do not myself wear techeles, for reasons that I will discuss on another occasion.

The presentations from the conference will soon be available for download from the Ptil Tekhelet website. And now for something completely different: There are readers of this blog who strenuously object to everything that I write, and I would like to ask them to attempt to employ this policy once again. I am very interested to know if there are any early mentions of the phrase "l'iluy nishmas" or the concept thereof. (I am not referring to the concept of atoning for the departed via charity, but to the concept of elevating the soul, particularly via Torah learning.) My hunch is that it does not appear in the period of the Rishonim at all. Please let me know if I am wrong!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rav Hirsch: Hero or Heretic?

Tomorrow is the 125th yahrzeit of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. The official line amongst Orthodox Jews of all stripes is that Rav Hirsch was a hero who saved Torah Judaism. But when we come to his views on Torah and science, there is a remarkable divergence of views.

There are three significant positions that Rav Hirsch takes with regard to Torah and science. First is his being one of the earliest prestigious rabbinic authorities to recognize that evolution poses no theological problems:
Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 26; for further discussion, see this post)
The second significant position that Rav Hirsch takes is with his explanation of how the Torah can contain inaccurate descriptions of the universe:
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. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)
Third is Rav Hirsch's elaboration of the idea that the Sages of the Talmud did not possess any special knowledge of the natural sciences and thus accepted whatever notions were prevalent in their era, even those that were mistaken:
...The first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai... The greatness of a person's wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. (Collected Writings vol. 9; for the full text and further discussion, see this post)
My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, stressed the importance of Rav Hirsch's approach in these areas. I know that Rav Hirsch's writings in these areas were an immense help to me, and I have seen them help thousands of people who struggle with religious crises in this area. Feldheim Publishers included Rav Hirsch's writings on these topics in their "Collected Writings" series. To all of us, Rav Hirsch's approaches in these topics further confirms his status as a hero.

But there are those who take a different view of Rav Hirsch's approach in this area. In the late and unlamented Jewish Observer, the revisionist Rabbi Joseph Elias fundamentally distorted Rav Hirsch's views and claimed that Rav Hirsch never really intended them seriously. Rav Moshe Shapiro holds that such an approach to Chazal is a fundamental perversion of the Gemara and blatantly heretical; after being disproven in his claim that Rav Hirsch's writings were forgeries, Rav Shapiro stated that "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash." Rav Aharon Feldman maintains that Rav Elyashiv "paskened" Rav Hirsch's approach to be heresy for all Klal Yisrael; when I asked him how he could do such a thing, Rav Feldman told me that "Rav Elyashiv is bigger than Rav Hirsch" (which did not seem to answer the question). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman likewise maintains that the approach of Rav Hirsch (in all three areas mentioned above) is heresy, and therefore entirely omits Rav Hirsch's views on these topics from his 800 page book on Torah, Chazal and Science.

I find it fascinating that within one very small group of relatively similar people - the Anglo Orthodox Jewish community - there are those who consider Rav Hirsch's approach in these topics to be true, life-saving, and heroic, and there are those who consider it to be false, deadly and heretical.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Elected Representatives and Emissaries of the Gedolim

Two charedi Members of Knesset recently made comments that people should know about.

Meir Porush, of United Torah Judaism, was interviewed about the electoral fraud in Bet Shemesh. One of the biggest cases was discovered by authorities due to their being tipped-off by someone in the charedi community. Porush's response was to condemn people who report such things to the police.

Meanwhile Yisrael Eichler, also of United Torah Judaism, spoke about the efforts to counter the new Israeli government's policies regarding charedim. He stated that "If the government continues with its gezeiros, international human rights organizations will demand an investigation over the discriminatory policies and question how in a prospering nation over 800,000 children are living in poverty." In other words, it's the government's fault that charedim live in poverty.

I'm past being astonished at such statements. What astounds me is the many "normal" Anglo-charedim that I know who vote for these parties.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Frogs Challenge Rationalism

(I posted this a few years ago - I am re-posting it because of its relevance to the parashah.)

Once in a while, I come across something that I personally cannot reconcile with the strict rationalist Maimonidean-type approach. Previously, I have discussed two such cases. One is antisemitism (discussed here); but I am quite content to reject the strict rationalist view in such a fundamental issue. Another is the Pi gematriya (see here and especially here), which is somewhat more difficult to integrate into my worldview, but at least it's Scripture. But this one is really challenging: The strange reality that relates to the Midrashic account of the frog plague.

The Torah speaks about the "frog," in the singular, coming up from the Nile. Previously, I have discussed how many people are oblivious to the pshat in this passuk. But for now, let's discuss the famous derash - that there was one frog, which multiplied to become hordes:
“And the frog came up, and it covered the land of Egypt” …Rabbi Akiva said, there was one frog, which then multiplied all over the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, Akiva, Why do you involve yourself with aggadata? Finish with your words and go to study nega’im and ohelos. There was one frog, it called to the others, and they came. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b; Midrash Shemos Rabbah 10:5; Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 8:183)

Rabbi Akiva states simply that the frog multiplied, without explaining how this took place. It could well be that he means that it procreated in the way that frogs usually do. However, the Midrash cites a more unusual version of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion:
One verse says, “and the river swarmed with frogs,” and another verse says, “and the frog came up.” Rabbi Akiva said, There was one frog, and the Egyptians were beating it, and many frogs showered from it (matezes). (Midrash Tanchuma, va’era 14; Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 7)

There is also a well-known version of this Midrash (I have seen it cited from Midrash Aggada, but I haven't yet been able to track down the original) in which it produced new frogs from its mouth.

Now, the phenomenon of childbirth, as with all other areas of life, takes on remarkably diverse forms in the natural world. However, whether producing eggs or live young, most animals are identical and ordinary in that the young emerge into the world from an orifice located at the rear end of their mother's body. Of the entire animal kingdom, the only exceptions to this rule that I know are seahorses, in which the male takes the eggs into a pouch until they are ready to hatch, and certain species of frogs/ toads (scientifically, there is no distinction between the two names).

The female pipa toad (also known as the Surinam toad) carries her eggs embedded in a spongy layer of skin on her back. After four weeks, the young pop out of her back as perfectly formed toadlets, as you can see in this amazing video:



Then there is the remarkable Darwin's frog, Rhinoderma darwinii. After the female Darwin’s frog lays 20-30 eggs on land, the males gather around and wait for the eggs to begin to hatch into tadpoles, which takes 10-20 days. When the tadpoles move inside the eggs, the males flick several of the eggs into their mouths with their tongues and place them into their vocal sacs. Inside the vocal sacs, the eggs hatch and develop into froglets, whereupon they emerge from the males’ mouths.

A similar but even more extraordinary amphibian is the Australian gastric brooding frog. The species include the Northern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus) discovered in 1972, and the Southern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) found in 1984. These frogs are already presumed extinct; the former was last seen in the wild in March 1985 and the latter in September 1981. In the few years that they were known to man, however, they made a remarkable impression.

The female gastric brooding frog actually fully swallows her 18-30 fertilized eggs, which then develop in her stomach. The tadpoles have undeveloped tails, lack teeth and do not feed; they live off their yolk sacs. As the tadpoles grow inside their mother, her stomach expands until it occupies most of the body cavity and she cannot even fully inflate her lungs. Remarkably, the stomach does not produce hydrochloric acid (the digestive juices) during the brooding, period; this prevents the digestion of the young, but it also prevents the female from feeding. The gestation period inside the mother is 6-8 weeks; she then gives birth by opening her mouth. Baby frogs come up to her mouth and then gradually leave, while the mother keeps her mouth wide open. If a baby tadpole does not leave the mother’s mouth, she re-swallows it, to be born later.

Remarkably, then, the same extraordinary birthing procedures that are attributed to the frog of Egypt are actually found in real frogs today. What are we to make of this?

I would not infer that it was those species of frogs that acted in the Egyptian plague. After all, these frogs are not found anywhere near Egypt and were unknown until quite recently; nor are they capable of giving birth to enough young to swarm over the entire country.

When I was more mystically inclined, I used to explain it as follows: that the concept of giving birth through the mouth, or from the skin of the body, must relate to the fundamental spiritual essence of the frog. This therefore has manifestations in both the unusual frog species, and in the unique frog of the Egyptian plague. I related this to how the frog often appears in rabbinic literature as symbolic of a Torah scholar (who studies at night, just as the frog croaks at night), and of a tzaddik who is mosar nefesh (see Perek Shirah for details). The frog that gives birth through its mouth is parallel to the Torah scholar who produces his students – rated as his progeny – through his mouth, the medium of teaching Torah. The other explanation, of the frogs being produced from the frog’s skin, parallels the Torah scholar producing students through his body’s actions and good deeds. The Egyptians, who tried to suppress all this (which is given in the Zohar as the reason for the frog plague), were thereby taught a lesson.

But this whole idea of spiritual essences which are manifest as various creatures in this world, while considered by many to be an absolutely normative understanding of Judaism (as per the Torah being "the blueprint of the world,") is not at all consistent with a rationalist, Maimonidean style understanding. Yet on the other hand, it seems just too extraordinary to dismiss as coincidence - that the two bizarre methods of reproduction described in the Midrash just so happen to actually occur with frogs, of all the different creatures in the world.

I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts on this.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Elections in Bet Shemesh!

The explosive news of the day is the court decision that due to massive fraud in the recent elections in Bet Shemesh, there will be new elections. See the extensive Jerusalem Post article here.

It should be noted that the great anger about the Bet Shemesh elections is not only due to the numerous cases of electoral fraud. It's also about the way that the mayor's election campaign was run. Mayor Abutbol recently filed a complaint about incitement against him, complaining that "words can kill," which is ironic in light of the fact that his campaigners were demonizing Eli Cohen as a quasi-Nazi who wants to send charedi children to concentration camps. Furthermore, local charedi rabbis were using rabbinic muscle to intimidate and even order people not to vote for Eli Cohen. (This includes some rabbis of moderate charedi shuls, which led to many of their members feeling disenfranchised and leaving the shuls.)

There are many other examples of improprieties during the election campaign by Abutbol, his campaigners, and local rabbis. Many people observed that all this was undermining the foundational principles of democracy. Unfortunately, that's probably not something that will change in the new elections.

It's not yet clear when the new elections will be held. Meanwhile, here is a list of the posts that I wrote about the Bet Shemesh elections:

Who Is Responsible For Extremism?
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/who-is-reponsible-for-extremism.html

Will Charedim Vote In Their Own Best Interests?
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/09/will-charedim-vote-in-their-own-best.html

Letter From A Charedi Jew Regarding The Bet Shemesh Elections
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/letter-from-charedi-jew-regarding-bet.html

What Else Do These Doctors Have In Common?
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/what-else-do-these-doctors-have-in.html

He Will Send Your Children To CONCENTRATION CAMPS!
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/he-will-send-your-children-to.html

Tribalism, Plus A Siege Mentality
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/tribalism-plus-siege-mentality.html

The Differences Between Charedi and Dati-Leumi Rabbanim
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/the-differences-between-charedi-and.html

Are You Allowed To Make Up Your Own Mind?
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/are-you-allowed-to-make-up-your-own-mind.html

The Daas Torah Voting Tefillah
http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/the-daas-torah-voting-tefillah.html

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Prince of Egypt


(A re-post from three years ago)

Orthodox Jewish reactions to the Dreamworks movie "The Prince of Egypt" were generally negative. Moses was portrayed as being too young, and not holy enough; Aharon was portrayed in a poor light; Tzipporah was not particular tzanua; etc., etc. To be sure, there is what to criticize, including some inaccuracies that probably don't even occur to people; for example, the Torah does not describe Yocheved as dangerously floating Moshe down the river (although it makes for a terrific song in the movie), but rather as placing him in the reeds.

But there is one major theme in the movie which, while it probably grates on the sensitivities of some Orthodox Jews, is an important part of the story.

We're all brought up being taught that Moshe was the greatest tzaddik ever, and the Egyptians were the worst resha'im. And so when The Prince of Egypt depicts Moses as having a close relationship with Rameses, and being emotionally torn up when assisting in the plagues inflicted upon him, this makes some of us uncomfortable. But I think that this is an extremely valuable point in Moshe growing up in Pharaoh's palace to begin with.

Ibn Ezra says that the leader of the Jewish People could only be someone who grew up in such circumstances. Had Moshe grown up as a slave, with the lowly mentality of a slave, he wouldn’t have had the confidence and character traits to be a leader. Attacking the Egyptian who was hitting the Jew, and saving the Bnos Midyan – Moshe was only capable of these things because he had grown up as royalty. But perhaps growing up as the prince of Egypt was also important as it placed him in a test that was crucial for his future as leader of the Jewish people:

“And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; and he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand". (Exodus 2:11-12)

Many years ago, I heard a terrific drush on this from Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopez-Cardozo, quoting Rav Shlomo Kluger: that we are being told here about the identity crisis of the prince of Egypt. When Moshe saw the Egyptian beating the Jew, “He looked this way and that way” – he looked at his royal Egyptian upbringing, and at his Jewish ancestral roots. “And he saw that there was no man” – he saw that he lacked a true identity. “And he slew the Egyptian” – within himself. “And hid him in the sand” – he totally detached himself from the Egyptian mindset, and aligned himself fully with the fate of the Jews.

This was the trial of identity for Moshe. Would he give up all the luxuries and familiarity of Egyptian culture, as well as the relationships from his life so far, to go over to “the other side” and reunite with the slave nation? Moshe passed the test. But I don't think that this trial of identity was only about his slaughter of the Egyptian. I think that, even if Moshe aligned himself fully with the Jews, it could not have been easy for him to leave Pharaoh's house, and to be involved with inflicting the plagues that harmed Pharaoh's home.

Consider this: as Rav Chaim Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim notes, a major theme of the entire Exodus is hakaras hatov (gratitude) - with two notable examples being Moshe not being able to smite the river and the dust, both of which saved him. Even though this was not a conscious act on the part of the river and the dust, Moshe nevertheless felt hakaros hatov towards them. Now, hakaros hatov is not an intellectual position; it is an emotional sentiment. If Moshe had this emotional connection, this feeling of gratitude, to the river and the dust, imagine how much of an emotional connection and feelings of gratitude he would have had to the home that raised him!

If we perceive Moshe as being Moshe Rabbeinu from day one, like all Gedolim are portrayed as being malachim from birth, then it's hard for us to imagine that he could have had these feelings towards Pharaoh's home. But if we realize that Moshe grew up as the Prince of Egypt, then we can certainly understand that his gratitude towards Pharaoh's home must surely have exceeded his gratitude towards the Nile and the dust. This is something that the movie does a good job of illustrating, and especially the pain that Moshe would have felt in his role with inflicting the plagues upon Egypt.

Feeling this distress, yet not letting it stand in the way of his vital job on behalf of his fellow Jews, was Moshe's akeidah. To be a leader requires tremendous dedication to the people. Moshe had to bring that dedication to light - by painfully giving up on his upbringing as the Prince of Egypt.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Publishing Rennaissance

When Religious Zionist/ Centrist/ Modern Orthodox Jews in North America and the UK complain about the "slide to the right" in Orthodoxy, or about how their children have become charedi and expect to be financially supported for the rest of their lives, it irks me. After all, it's their own fault!

Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy (if there's a less clumsy term, please let me know) have failed to make a basic effort to perpetuate themselves. For example, at least until very recently, there has been little effort to encourage students to become educators. As a result, their schools, yeshivot and seminaries have to draw upon the Charedi community for teachers. Is it any wonder that many kids then see Charedim as the role model to emulate and join that community?

In this post, I would like to talk about another manifestation of this problem: publishing.

We are the People of the Book, and books form a major part of our lives. They influence us in all kinds of ways, from the role models that they choose to present, to the sources that they choose to quote, to the hashkafic outlook that they reflect - often very subtly. (For example, consider how the ArtScroll Gemara assures its readers that Talmudic discussions of cosmology are not intended literally - against the view of all the Rishonim.) And yet, for many years, Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy ceded this important field almost entirely to the Charedi community.

Sure, there were always non-Charedi publishers. But they were small operations that did not present a comprehensive range of publications, and just published whatever came their way. It's ArtScroll that has been overwhelmingly dominant. Every shul in North America has ArtScroll Siddurim, Chumashim, and Gemaras. Many people like to mock or protest against ArtScroll for their approach, which includes such things as censoring the non-charedi opinions of Torah scholars and altering texts. But I don't think that such criticism is fair. ArtScroll had a comprehensive vision. They went ahead and exerted enormous effort to fill a huge gap, for which they deserve much credit; of course they are going to reflect the approach of their own community.

Where on earth was everyone else? The donor pages of ArtScroll publications are astonishing. Few donors are charedi - they are mostly modern Orthodox (or even non-Orthodox) Jews. Why are these people sponsoring publications which are from a different community and do not reflect their worldview? The answer is that there was no alternative. There was no YU Talmud or OU chumash to compete. Only ArtScroll was serious about publishing a full range of Jewish literature.

Well, finally, things are starting to change. There is the OU Press, which recently published the Mesoras HaRav Chumash. And there is a huge development, which finally marks a publishing renaissance for Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy: Koren.

Koren is the only Jewish publisher aside from ArtScroll to have a comprehensive publishing vision. They are putting out siddurim, machzorim, and a Shas. They are working on several Chumashim and a series of works on Tenach. They are putting out a range of stimulating works on Jewish Thought and Law, one of which, Hilkhot Moadim, I plan to review soon. And their works are all distinguished by high intellectual caliber, great accuracy, beautiful design, high standards of publication - and commitment to the values of Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy.

You can take a look at Koren's partial list of forthcoming projects at their website. But bear in mind that Jewish publishing - especially in the Amazon and digital age, and especially with books that are produced to a high standard - is an extraordinarily costly business. Please support their works - whether by sponsoring them, buying them yourself, or encouraging your shul/ school/ yeshivah to buy them. (I am also still short of about half the funds for the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, if you would like to be a part of that project!)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rambam on Demons and Segulos (updated)

The Gemara is replete with discussions about demons, in both aggadic and halachic contexts. In my monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons, I documented how most authorities accepted the reality of demons (and for understandable reasons). Several authorities, however, rejected the existence of demons, notwithstanding the fact that Chazal believed in their existence. The most prominent of these was Rambam. While many religious authorities did not accept that Rambam denied the existence of demons, this appears to have been because they could not accept it, due to their own religious convictions - I have yet to discover a scholar who does not believe in demons, and yet thinks that Rambam did believe in them. But there were certainly plenty of authorities who recognized that Rambam denied the existence of demons - most significantly, the Vilna Gaon.

The topic of demons is of some relevance to the topic of Chazal and science. After all, here we have Rambam and other Rishonim denying the existence of creatures whose existence was attested to by Chazal. For most of us, however, when considering Rambam's attitude to Chazal and science, it's not especially significant to look at his view on demons. The reason for this is that Rambam already wrote explicitly in the Guide that "You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science." There is every reason to presume that if this is what Rambam felt about astronomy - an area of science with great relevance to Torah and halachah - all the more so would this be true of other areas of science.

On the other hand, for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Rambam's position on demons would be extremely relevant. This is because Rabbi Meiselman denies that the quotation above from the Guide demonstrates that Rambam believed Chazal to be limited to the science of their era. He insists - extremely unreasonably, as I have demonstrated previously - that Rambam was only saying that Chazal erred in a few limited cases of astronomy. With everything else that Chazal said, Rabbi Meiselman claims, Rambam believes that Chazal were correct.

Furthermore, the existence of demons, as the Vilna Gaon makes clear, is inherently related to other supernatural phenomena such as segulos. Rabbi Meiselman devotes an entire chapter to the topic of Rambam and segulos, which he states to be of relevance to the topic of Torah and science, since it demonstrates Rambam's views regarding non-scientific phenomena. Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rambam did indeed believe in the efficacy of segulos - and he further argues that this is the "mainstream view." However, while Rashba - who was passionately committed to the existence of non-scientific phenomena - did indeed ascribe this view to Rambam, numerous others understood that Rambam denied the efficacy of segulos.

In a recent post at Torah Musings, Rabbi Gil Student states that although Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rashba's interpretation of Rambam “was adopted by many other authorities,” Rabbi Meiselman does not name any, and Rabbi Student does not know of any. Rabbi Student further points out that despite Rabbi Meiselman's claim that the view of Radvaz, that Rambam denied the efficacy of segulos, was “not adopted by any other major interpreter of the Rambam," it was actually echoed by no less than the Chida and the Vilna Gaon, amongst others.

I do not know if Rabbi Meiselman considers himself wiser than the Vilna Gaon and all the other authorities who stated that Rambam denied the existence of demons and segulos. However, even if he considers them to be wrong, he should still acknowledge the existence of their views.

The reason why he doesn't acknowledge their views is obvious. It's because they fatally flaw his entire book, which is dedicated to claiming that no mainstream figure ever held that Chazal could be wrong in their claims about the world.

UPDATE - In the comments section, it was pointed out to me that the Vilna Gaon accuses Rambam of falsely reinterpreting the Gemara, not of disputing it. Thus, the Vilna Gaon's statement would not be relevant to claims about Rishonim stating that Chazal were wrong.

Did Rambam believe himself to be disputing Chazal, or did he convince himself that Chazal also did not believe in demons? I'm still looking into it. On the one hand, it's impossible to imagine how one could convince oneself that Chazal did not believe in demons. On the other hand, Rambam certainly convinced himself of very strange things regarding the Neviim.

If we consider the situation with astrology, Rambam claims that only a few sages believed in it (whether he was being diplomatic, or actually genuinely thought so, is an interesting question that is difficult to answer). However, even if only a few sages mistakenly believed in astrology or demons, that is still fatal to Rabbi Meiselman's claims.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Recipe for Intellectual Dishonesty

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The label "intellectual dishonesty" is often bandied about, but is not so easy to define, or to differentiate from general dishonesty. It seems that the term should be used for cases when a person presents an intellectual argument that falls far short of the standards that the person himself should know to use. He may sincerely believe the argument that he is offering, and thus he is being honest; but he is intellectually dishonest in not applying the evaluation that he should know to apply.

For example, someone who insists that "expert opinion" maintains that the world is less than six thousand years old, and that there was no age of dinosaurs, is not necessarily intellectually dishonest. He may genuinely believe that to be the case, if his definition of "expert opinion" is consistent.

There are numerous examples of intellectual dishonesty in Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science. But one stands out in that it is an actual recipe for intellectual dishonesty.

It's very unfashionable in Orthodox Judaism to talk about anyone being infallible - after all, that reeks of idolatry. Staunch advocates of Daas Torah, for example, will insist that they do not believe that the Gedolim are infallible. However, they undermine this claim when they refuse to name any instance of the Gedolim ever being mistaken.

Rabbi Meiselman likewise insists that Chazal were not omniscient or infallible (p. 33). However, he undermines this claim in two ways. First is that he distinguishes between cases where Chazal make definitive statements and when they make tentative statements. In cases where they make firm statements, Rabbi Meiselman claims that is inconceivable that they would have done so unless they were certain that they were correct and that there was no possibility of their being in error. As he states: "A major thesis of this book is that if Chazal make a definitive statement, whether regarding halachah or realia, it means that they know it to be unassailable" (p. 107). His given reason for this is that "Whenever Chazal make unqualified statements it indicates that regarding those particular issues the information encoded in the Torah or the methodology for extracting it had not yet been lost. Therefore, their knowledge represents absolute truth, which overrides any manmade theory" (p. 32-33).

Now, there are a number of problems with this claim. Rabbi Meiselman claims that if Chazal make a definitive statement, it means that they know it to be unassailable. But how does he know this? If he is insisting that Chazal's unqualified statements are based on information extracted from Torah, then we can ask again, what on earth is the basis for this claim? Rav Hirsch and many others certainly didn't think so! Why couldn't Chazal have ever said something that was not from the Torah, and yet which they believed to be true? Is it really impossible for them to have gained knowledge from their intellect or from other sources, and to have considered it reliable?

And there are further problems here. Let's say that Chazal really did base a given statement on knowledge that they had extracted from the Torah. Why does this necessarily mean that it is correct? That could only be the case if one considers Chazal to be absolutely infallible in such matters. Such a topic is beyond the purview of this post, but suffice it to note that it is far from undisputed.

Furthermore, as noted, it is significant that we see that Rabbi Meiselman in fact considers Chazal infallible. For the most a person can do is to believe that something he says to be unassailable. You can never know that something you say is unassailable - unless you are infallible.

However, I want to concentrate on the theme of this post, which is intellectual dishonesty. We have here a twofold recipe for intellectual dishonesty. First is that engendered by Rabbi Meiselman considering definitive statements to be infallible, and only non-definitive statements to be potentially errant. The result of this is that when faced with a statement about the natural world in the Gemara that is obviously incorrect, he, and those who follow his approach, are forced to classify it as a non-definitive statement - no matter how unreasonable it is to do so. In other words, he has to argue that a certain claim (i.e. that a given statement of Chazal was only tentative) is definitely true, even if under other circumstance the evidence would not warrant such a claim. That is a recipe for intellectual dishonesty.

The second recipe for intellectual dishonesty comes when we have taken Rabbi Meiselman's step and relegated a statement to being tentative instead of definitive. Here, Rabbi Meiselman agrees that it can potentially be in error; however, he maintains that it is forbidden for us lowly denizens of the 21st century to actually point out such things:
"...Even when a tentative statement of Chazal is in error... the prerogative of declaring any of their teachings mistaken is granted to them, not to us. For anyone other than Chazal themselves, questioning their conclusions is called being melagleg al divrei Chachamim - "mocking of the words of the Sages" - a crime with very serious consequences." (p. 108)
(By the way, I'm not sure how he reconciles this with his claim that Chazal's tentative statement about the existence of mud-mice is in error. Is he not being melagleg al divrei Chachamim by his own definition?)

Here we have another recipe for intellectual dishonesty. Rabbi Meiselman admits that some of Chazal's tentative statements may be in error, but he says that it is forbidden for us to explain the Gemara in that way. A similar claim was issued on the blog of Rabbi Meiselman's protege, and assistant in writing his book, Rabbi Dovid Kornreich (who seems to diverge from his rebbe by claiming that Chazal are theoretically fallible even with regard to definitive statements):
"The problem for the traditional camp is that while Chazal were not infallible and made mistakes, we do not have the authority to declare Chazal mistaken based on our own knowledge or judgment. Only other members of Chazal have the authority to point out their mistakes. So there would be a problem if Chazal truly believed in the existence of a spontaneously generated creature that we know today does not exist. This problem is neatly avoided by simply examining the relevant gemara and realizing that there is nothing which forces the conclusion that Chazal actually believed its existence."
Whereas Kornreich claims that his problem has been "neatly avoided," in fact what he has done is to apply the intellectual dishonesty mandated by Rabbi Meiselman. Since it would be unacceptable to interpret Chazal as having made a mistake, he is forced to reinterpret Chazal such that they are not actually asserting the existence of such a creature, no matter how unreasonable it is to explain the Gemara in such a way. Reader Akiva Cohen neatly encapsulated the problem with Kornreich's claim, which equally applies to Rabbi Meiselman:
"In other words: Chazal are not infallible, but we need to treat them like they are.  So even though that may lead to non-emes interpretations of the Gemara (since we may be interpreting the Gemara wrongly in order to avoid claiming “Chazal erred” in a situation in which Chazal actually erred), that’s better than saying “Chazal erred.”
This, by the way, strikes me as the worst of both worlds: take all the supposed “faith-destroying” impact of acknowledging that Chazal were fallible when relying on their own intellect, and add to it the new (and more legitimately) faith-destroying acknowledgement that your interpretations of Gemara are not driven by emes, but by an express denial of a possibility that you acknowledge is a possibility."
So, to sum up, Rabbi Meiselman has given two recipes for intellectual dishonesty. One is that all scientifically-problematic statements of Chazal must be explained as being tentative, even if there is no reasonable basis for doing so. Second is that even tentative statements may not ever be explained as actually being errant, even though this might indeed be the case.

Anyone following Rabbi Meiselman's approach is going to be taking a course in intellectual dishonesty. For some, it will be help them feel happy and superior; for others, the cognitive dissonance will cause great inner turmoil.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Desperate Measures

I have often been torn about the posts that I write, but never so much as with this one. I pray that I have balanced the issue correctly.

Many of you have doubtless heard about the tragic plight of the Cohen family in Houston. Their six-year-old son, Raphael Elisha, has a brain tumor, and the doctors have said that there is nothing more that they can do for him. It's impossible to imagine how painful this must be. The worst experience of my life was seeing my father die horribly from cancer - I cannot even begin to grasp how terrible it would be to see one's child in the grip of this disease.

In this situation, there is a particular wrinkle that relates to the wider public. Lacking other options, the Cohen family has decided to pursue a controversial form of treatment called Antineoplaston Therapy at the Burzyinski clinic. But the FDA does not endorse this treatment. People are therefore being asked to sign a petition for the FDA to approve a "compassionate use exemption" and to contribute towards the expensive treatment (UPDATE: The money is not only for experimental treatments, but also to pay past medical bills and to support the family, since the parents have been unable to work). It's on the front page of HaModia and in numerous Jewish websites.

Some people asked me to spread word to sign the petition and pledge funds. Others asked me to spread word that the Burzyinski clinic is marketing snake oil.

Last year, in my sister's community, there was a child suffering from a terminal illness. The situation was so bad that he had been placed in a hospice. The family wanted to try an experimental treatment, but the Kupat Cholim refused to pay for it, on the grounds that it was unproven. The family raised money from the community, began the treatment, and the child's condition began to improve. Upon seeing this, the Kupat Cholim concluded that the treatment was indeed effective, and proceeded to pay for the remainder of the treatment. Today, the child is leading a normal life. This is thanks to the parents pursuing an experimental treatment, and the community funding it.

Many people therefore conclude that in such cases, one should help. After all, you have the chance to save a life. What harm can it do?

On the other hand, there is the potential for harm. There is a reason why the FDA does not approve it. According to reports, there is no reason to believe that the Burzyinski clinic's "Antineoplaston Therapy" has any medical benefits. It is extremely expensive and gives false hope to desperate people who will try anything. There are allegations of serious improprieties with Burzynski. Furthermore, the treatment has the potential for numerous harmful physical effects. See this article and this story for further explanation. In the words of my friend Dr. Charles Hall, a medical school professor with a PhD in biostatistics, and part of a National Cancer Institute funded cancer center: "Do not under any circumstances sign this petition or any other that promotes Burzynski or antineoplastons. Burzynski has been operating outside of the system for decades, using desperate children like this one as human guinea pigs. He has refused to do proper research and should have been shut down a long time ago. This petition will only give him credibility and attract others to his dangerous enterprise."

But on the third hand, there is another dimension to consider. The Cohen family undoubtedly knows all about the controversy surrounding Antineoplaston Therapy, yet still desires to pursue it. Even if one believes it to be a bad decision motivated by desperation, it's their decision to make. Perhaps one should support them in this, and view it as financial and moral support for a family going through an awful crisis.

Personally, I feel torn. I cannot in good conscience use this forum to promote the implementation of a treatment that according to numerous medical professionals is a scam that is more likely to cause harm than to help. But on the other hand, I cannot in good conscience use this forum to discourage the support of a family that is in a terrible crisis and has decided to pursue this course of action. And so, I have decided to simply alert people to the situation, present both sides, and call on everyone to make the best decision that they can.

May Hashem grant a recovery to Raphael Elisha Meir ben Devorah. And may He grant all of us the wisdom and strength to know how to act in such situations.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Chazal Said It Straight

Thinking back to yesterday's post, it occurred to me that it provided an example of how Chazal had a very different view of the world than many people today.

What kind of a person is a Torah scholar? I don't mean someone who's learned some Gemara and has the title "rabbi." I mean someone that Chazal themselves would consider a Torah scholar. Which is presumably, according to many people, someone leagues above the Gedolei Torah of today.

Previously, I have posted about the common assumption that if someone excels in one area of Torah knowledge, it means that he excels in all areas of Torah, and that he is also a great leader. There is likewise an assumption that if someone is a great Torah scholar, then they must also be tremendously great in character. It would be unthinkable to speak of such a person having serious personality flaws.

Chazal, however, felt differently.

Let's take another look at the Gemara in Yoma 86a:
Each of us is obligated to make G-d beloved through his or her actions. If a Torah scholar deals kindly with others, people will say, 'Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah! Fortunate is his rabbi who taught him Torah! Woe to those who do not study Torah! This one to whom they have taught Torah, see how beautiful are his ways!' If, however, he is not honest in his dealings and does not speak kindly to others, people will say the opposite: 'Woe to this one who has studied Torah! Woe to his father who taught him Torah! Woe to his rabbi who taught him Torah! This one who has studied Torah, see how crooked are his deeds and how ugly are his ways!'

Chazal said it straight. They tell us here that it is perfectly possible to have a Torah scholar who is not honest in his dealings and does not speak kindly to others. They tell us that such a person will deservedly be described as crooked in his deeds and ugly in his ways.

It seems clear that a great Torah scholar who is not honest in his dealings and does not speak kindly to others is creating a chillul Hashem. And Chazal say that when there is a chillul Hashem, one does not apportion honor to a Rav.

Thus, Chazal tell us that there can be scenarios where one does not apportion honor to a great Torah scholar. Yet many people today believe - or act as though they believe - that this scenario cannot exist. It's a pity that they don't take Chazal seriously.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Bizarre Denunciation of a Denunciation of a Denunciation

This Chanukah, I took my family to visit an amusement park, which was hosting a special day for the families of Tzohar rabbis (I am not a Tzohar rabbi, but I was given the free tickets by a supporter). Tzohar is a remarkable organization which, under the leadership of Rav David Stav, seeks to do what the Israel Rabbinate is supposed to do but fails at abysmally. It is a group of passionate Zionist Orthodox rabbis who try to make Judaism meaningful and attractive to the secular majority of Israel.

Most secular Israelis only encounter rabbis when they get married - and they find it a highly unpleasant, bureaucratic mess, which makes many of them prefer to get married in Cyprus instead. Tzohar rabbis, however, teach the secular couples about the beauty of a Jewish marriage - and moreover, they do it for free. I saw hundreds of Tzohar families in the park, and they were the crème de la crème of religious Jewry - full of love for Torah and klal Yisrael and yiras Shamayim rather than yiras bnei adam.

Earlier this year, Rav Ovadiah Yosef launched a blistering denunciation of Tzohar and Rav Stav. He referred to him as a “wicked man,” who is “dangerous to Judaism” and who has “no fear of God at all.” Unsurprisingly, it resulted in verbal and physical harassment of Rav Stav.

The RCA wrote a private letter of support to Rav Stav, which was subsequently leaked to the media. In the letter, they did not attack Rav Ovadiah personally, but they did denounce his words as "terrible," and they quoted the Gemara in Yoma 86a: "Each of us is obligated to make G-d beloved through his or her actions. If a Torah scholar deals kindly with others, people will say, 'Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah! Fortunate is his rabbi who taught him Torah! Woe to those who do not study Torah! This one to whom they have taught Torah, see how beautiful are his ways!' If, however, he is not honest in his dealings and does not speak kindly to others, people will say the opposite: 'Woe to this one who has studied Torah! Woe to his father who taught him Torah! Woe to his rabbi who taught him Torah! This one who has studied Torah, see how crooked are his deeds and how ugly are his ways!'

Enter Ami magazine. Ami is a popular yet very strange publication, perhaps most infamous for its 2012 cover story on antisemitism which depicted the White House draped with swastika flags. In addition, after the conviction of the long-term Satmar pedophile, its cover story - the sole story that it ran on this case - was an interview with the defense attorney! Ami also ran a puff-piece about New Square after the Skvere Rebbe's assistant tried to set a "dissident" family home on fire. This week, there is an absurdly lopsided portrayal of the political situation in Bet Shemesh, and in general Ami is a great example of charedi pravda-style journalism. But it's the editorial regarding the RCA, by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, which really takes the cake.

Rabbi Frankfurter denounces the RCA for its denunciation of Rav Ovadiah's denunciation of Rav Stav. Rabbi Frankfurter denounces Rav Stav (whom he calls "Stav") as a "reformer" and an "anti-Torah activist." He claims that the RCA letter is "unpardonable," and that it highlights the RCA's "departure from halachic standards," because halachah "sanctions, and in fact demands, the reproof of a person who has deviated from the path of Torah and mitzvos."

But doesn't it occur to him that the rabbis of the RCA do not actually believe that Rav Stav has deviated from the path of Torah and mitzvos? Why on earth would they accept Rav Ovadiah's statement to that effect? Especially since Rav Ovadiah is known for issuing pronouncements without being fully appraised of the situation (and if there's anything here to be condemned as a "departure from halachic standards", you have it right there).

The Ami editorial doesn't get any better. It condemns the RCA for its letter of protest regarding the Manhattan rally against Yesh Atid's social engineering, giving the impression that the RCA letter of protest was due to RCA solidarity with Yesh Atid. In fact, the RCA letter of protest was due to the rally being a Satmar-led event that included hate speech against Israel and strengthened Israel's enemies. The editorial also issues the usual canards against Yesh Atid, claiming that any supporter of Yesh Atid hates Torah and wants to "close down" the yeshivos. As usual, it's oblivious to the fact that in the Dati-Leumi world, people love Torah and yeshivos exist, even though people serve in the army and work for a living.

Can't we have a weekly English magazine for Orthodox Jews that doesn't spout offensive nonsense? I'm sure there would be a market for it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Vintage Wein

A number of people sent me this superb article by Rabbi Berel Wein. It seems as though pretty much everyone has seen it already, but in case you haven't, here it is.

THE TRUTH OF SATIRE

There is a wickedly funny and enormously sad piece of satire making the rounds about a “Lithuanian” charedi father attempting to explain to his inquisitive child the story of the Hasmoneans and their triumph over the Greeks. On the one hand the Hasmoneans were staunch “Lithuanian “charedim who learned all day, while on the other hand they apparently had weapons, organized an army that they themselves led in actual warfare against the Greeks.

They also engaged in commerce and agriculture, albeit always wearing only white shirts. And, apparently, they wanted to establish an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The child realizes the enormous disconnect between the traditional story of Chanuka and the Hasmoneans and what he has been taught at home, in school and amongst his peers about the country and society he currently lives in.

The father admits to himself the existence of this savage disconnect with reality and the Chanuka story, but says one may not state so publicly lest one be accused of being a Zionist.

Here, as in all good satire, there exists more than a bit of exaggeration.  But, there is no doubt that more than a kernel of truth also exists in this fictitious conversation. The charedi world in the main, especially the “Lithuanian” branch (with whom I identify myself as belonging to) has yet to come to grips with the realities of today. It is still fighting the battle of the nineteenth century against secular Zionism, a battle long ago ended and not relevant any longer in today’s Jewish world.

Part of the problem is changing this mindset of complete disconnect with reality. We have grown so comfortable over the past centuries of Jewish life as being the persecuted victim, that we are frightened to shuck off that protective mantle. We see the world in black and white colors only – the good guys and the villains. There is no room for nuance or moderation in such a worldview.

If we are involved in rabbinic scandal, financial misdeeds, abusive physical and sexual behavior, violence against police, corrupt elections (and those elected thereby) and are caught by the authorities for so doing, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is that we are being persecuted because of our religious practices, different dress, traditional lifestyle and distinct societal mores.

Somehow we have forgotten that idleness, poverty and a persecution complex all are, in the long run, self-destructive conditions. These were the conditions that secularized much of Ashkenazic Jewry over the past three centuries. Eventually a system built on declining governmental welfare allotments and unending charity from others - a system decried by Maimonides and other great rabbinic sages and religious leaders throughout the ages – is a Ponzi scheme that inexorably will collapse of its own weight.

And we are ill served by religious political leaders and the handlers of old and revered great Torah scholars who, for purposes I have never really understood, oppose any change of the current miserable status quo. And, there is never any plan advanced to help rescue their adherents from the deepening abyss of poverty and personal despair.

So, a little clever satire can be a good thing for us. A good look at the absurdity of some of our societal practices, at the disconnect with reality, at an educational system that impoverishes its students for life and stifles creativity and different opinions can only help us in the long run to advance the cause of Torah in Israel and in the Diaspora!

A middle-aged person recently came to see me before embarking on a trip to the United States to raise money to pay for his crushing debts accumulated over the years that he has not worked. The irony is that he graduated university and is  a qualified engineer and is easily employable. So when I asked him why he doesn’t go to work instead of undergoing the humiliation of canvassing door to door in the American winter for a month to receive charity, much of it given begrudgingly, I sighed deeply at his answer: “I have daughters to marry off and the husbands they want to marry will not accept daughters of someone who is working!”

I wanted to answer him harshly: “But they will accept daughters of someone who begs others for charity!” However, I bit my tongue and wished him success (?) on his journey. I was impotently outraged all day at how this type of mindset has corrupted such a wonderful people. Perhaps we need more satire to have the truth of the situation sink into our society.

Shabat shalom

Berel Wein

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mouse Torture

Is there such a thing as a mouse that grows from dirt? The Mishnah discusses the halachos of such a creature, and the Gemara presents it as a way to convince someone of the viability of the resurrection of the dead. (See the full discussion in my book Sacred Monsters.) Due to Chazal's attestations, the Rishonim and Acharonim insisted that such a creature existed. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, on the other hand, said as follows:
The greatness of (a scholar's) wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas... Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he had found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh and his report was accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect the Sages to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of defilement and decontamination apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can the Sages be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well known and accepted in his day. 

There is no such creature as a mouse that grows from dirt. But it is perfectly reasonable for Chazal to have believed in such a creature, just as people today believe in duck-billed platypuses and other creatures that they have never seen.

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, however, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science, has a different take on the matter.

You see, Rabbi Meiselman is caught in a difficult situation. On the one hand, he insists, as a matter of dogma, that whenever Chazal make a definitive statement about the natural world, it must be true, and to say otherwise is heresy. On the other hand, he believes that science has proven that spontaneous generation never occurs (though his basis for this is very unclear, due to his free dismissal of science in other areas). So, in this case, he is forced to making the astonishing claim that Chazal themselves never actually believed in the existence of the mud-mouse!

What of the Mishnah discussing its halachos? Rabbi Meiselman claims that Chazal were "merely familiar with the persistent rumors" about the mud-mouse, and wished to clarify its halachic status. But "they made no definitive statement" that this creature exists. That's true; still, it is most reasonable to say that Chazal presumed that such a creature did indeed exist. The Rishonim and Acharonim, based on this Mishnah and the discussions in the Gemara, understood that Chazal were attesting to the existence of such a creature. But Rabbi Meiselman, as is his style, claims that the "accepted understanding" (i.e. mesorah) regarding this Gemara is wrong.

But what about the Gemara, in which Rabbi Ami tells a heretic, who does not believe in the viability of the resurrection of the dead, to "Go out to the valley and see the mud-mouse"? Amazingly, Rabbi Meiselman still insists that Rabbi Ami was making no attestation as the existence of the mud-mouse. Instead, he was saying "Since you believe that mice grow from dirt, why shouldn't you believe in techiyas hameisim." Notwithstanding the fact that Chazal often consciously rebuffed heretics with weak arguments, or according to their own, mistaken understanding of pesukim, it is extraordinarily unreasonable to explain this case in such a way - Rabbi Ami actually told him to go and see it! Furthermore, Rabbi Ami precedes and follows his mouse-argument with other scientific arguments that are based on actual realities. Yet Rabbi Meiselman presents his explanation, which goes against the plain meaning of the words, the surrounding context, and the traditional understanding, as the "likely" explanation of the Gemara!

But there is an even more blatant proof that Chazal believed in the existence of the mud-mouse. It's from the third source in Chazal discussing this creature - and it's a source that Rabbi Meiselman entirely neglects to mention. The Gemara and Midrash explain that an exegesis from a Scriptural verse is used to deduce that such a creature transmits spiritual impurity: 
"I might think that a swarming creature causes impurity, but a mouse that is half flesh and half earth, which does not reproduce, does not cause impurity. But it is logical: The rat causes impurity and the mouse causes impurity; just as “rat” is as its meaning, so too “mouse” is as its meaning (and thus a mouse that is half flesh and half earth would transmit impurity). Yet alternatively, one could say, just as the rat procreates, so too the mouse referred to is one that procreates, which excludes a mouse that is half flesh and half earth and does not procreate! Therefore it teaches us, “[And this is impure for you] amongst the swarming creatures (basheretz) [which swarms on the land]”—to include the mouse that is half flesh and half earth, that one who touches the flesh becomes impure and if he touches the earth he remains pure." (Midrash Sifra, parashas Shemini 5:6; Talmud, Chullin 127a)
Chazal actually had a derashah from the Torah specifically for the mud-mouse! Now, while some people are comfortable in saying that Chazal's drashos were their own inventions, and could have a mistaken basis, I'm pretty sure that Rabbi Meiselman does not fall into that category. Furthermore, in the prologue to the book, Rabbi Meiselman insists that even in cases where Chazal make mistakes in Torah, we do not have the right to point it out. It's no wonder that Rabbi Meiselman omitted this Gemara from his chapter on the earth-mouse - there's no way that he can quote it and maintain his approach.

(As an aside, the Gemara in Chullin, which presents the mud-mouse as an opposite case to para v'rava, shows that "ain para v'rava" with regard to lice refers to spontaneous generation, in contrast to the strained apologetics of Dr Betech and Rabbi Meiselman.")

It is ironic that at the end of the chapter, Rabbi Meiselman has some weasel words about how he "makes no claim" that his approach is "definitely the correct one" and the correct approach "may be different altogether." He's made it clear that spontaneous generation of mice does not happen, and he's made it clear that to believe that Chazal made a false attestation is heresy. So which different approach is he allowing room for?

What of Rav Hirsch? Well, as noted in an earlier post, despite Rabbi Meiselman's presentation of his book as a definitive guide to Torah and science, and Rav Hirsch's essay being the most substantial pre-20th century treatment of this topic, Rabbi Meiselman omits any mention of Rav Hirsch's essay. Presumably this is because, according to the dogmas that Rabbi Meiselman sets down and claims to be based on tradition, Rav Hirsch's essay is heresy.

Chazal discussed the halachos of the mud-mouse. They had a specific drashah from the Torah to refer to the mud-mouse. They told heretics to go and look at the mud-mouse. It's unreasonable in the extreme to claim that Chazal were not convinced that such a creature exists. Yet this is what Rabbi Meiselman insists upon. And he further insists that if you agree with him that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation, then you are committing heresy if you accept the view of all the Rishonim and Acharonim who disagree with his understanding of the Gemara, and who explain that Chazal were indeed attesting to such a creature!

Perhaps even more disturbing is how in order to try to pull this off, Rabbi Meiselman omits any mention of the crucial Gemara about a derashah for the mud-mouse. Even more ironically, in the conclusion of the book (p. 673), where Rabbi Meiselman repeats why only a person such as himself is qualified to write on these topics, he says that it must be dealt with by "sincere and qualified scholars, interested only in truth." Is omitting crucial Gemaras and prominent Acharonim, not to mention bending over backwards and engaging in tortuous apologetics to avoid the straightforward meaning of the Gemara that was accepted by all the Rishonim and Acharonim, the sign of a sincere and qualified scholar who is interested only in truth?!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Metzizah and the Rav Part II

In a post last week entitled Metzitzah and the Rav, I argued that Rabbi Meiselman, in insisting that "the mohel must suction the wound in a traditionally prescribed manner," was neglecting to mention the position of his alleged mentor, Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, who was against metzitzah b'peh. Various defendants of R. Meiselman claimed in response that R. Meiselman was not referring to metzitzah b'peh, but just to metzitzah by any form, including using a tube as was often done in Lithuania.

Now, if this is true, it would provide another example of R. Meiselman being exceedingly disingenuous. If a person means to state that metzitzah must be done whether by mouth or by tube, there are plenty of ways to say this clearly, such as by saying that "the mohel must suction the wound by whatever means." Saying "in a traditionally prescribed manner" clearly leads people to believe that he is referring to metzitzah b'peh. After all, if he is referring to using a tube, then what is the non-traditionally prescribed manner?!

But it would not only be an example of disingenuous writing. It would also still be conflicting with the position of his alleged rebbe.

In a post at the Seforim Blog, Dr. Marc Shapiro noted that Rav Schachter wrote a footnote in the second edition recording the view of one of the Rav's talmidim that the Rav was not opposed to metzitzah per se, just to metzitzah b'peh. Someone sent me the following comment:
I spoke to Rav Schachter after I read Marc Shapiro's post and he insisted that Rav Soloveitchik did not require metzitzah at all (he mentioned the Sdei Chemed to me when I asked him how Rav Soloveitchik could say such a thing). When I mentioned Marc Shapiro's post to him, he said one or two of the Rav's talmidim in Israel insisted that the Rav never said metzizah is unnecessary, so Rav Schachter added a footnote to this effect in the next edition of Nefesh Harav. However, Rav Schachter in his conversation with me was insistent that the Rav, indeed, did not require metzitzah at all.

Another person wrote as follows:
I am not into writing reactions (Israelis call them "talkbacks") on blogs, since I have not become accustomed to the 21st Century. But I want to give you a bit of information that is relevant to your discussion of Metzitza. I attended Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's shiurim at Gruss for a number of years, and I clearly remember what he said on the subject during what the guys called "a press conference." He said very clearly that the Rav was against any Metzitza at all, and he expressed this view explicitly at the brit of one of Rav Aharon's sons. To me such a view makes lots of sense, if one understands that it is required in the gemara only because it was then thought that the lack of Metzitza was dangerous.(כי לא עביד סכנה הוא (שבת קלג,ב
And, following this comment, another person wrote to me (unfortunately, he will not let me quote him by name):
I was at the same shiur (= "press conference") of Rav Aharon and he explicitly said that "the Rov" held that no metzitza should be done at all. At the brith of one of Rav Aharon's sons, the Rov was watching "like a hawk" lest the mohel do it.

So, we have the emphatic testimony of two of the Rav's leading talmidim, one of whom is also his son-in-law, that the Rav was against any form of metzitzah, whether by the traditionally prescribed manner of oral suction, or the non-traditional manner of using a tube. (And they have much less incentive to fabricate this position than those claiming that the Rav did insist on metzitzah.) Thus, if Rabbi Meiselman was referring to metzitzah via a tube, he is not only being disingenuous in his writing; he is still demonstrating that his approach to Torah and science is fundamentally at odds with his alleged rebbe.

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