Monday, September 30, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Contradicts Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

People Are Amazing

There's a lot of negativity and cynicism on the internet about people. In this post I would like to write about the best side of humanity, which my wife and I experienced five weeks ago. This was in the aftermath of the car crash that took the life of my mother-in-law, Mrs. Anne Samson a"h. (The memorial lecture and musical/choiral tribute that took place in Los Angeles on September 9th can be viewed online at this link.)

My wife and I would like to express our deep gratitude to many people:
- To all the staff at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center - the hospital closest to the location of the accident, which received my parents-in-law - for their kindness, extraordinary sensitivity and professionalism;
- To the hospital chaplain who called us at 1.30am with the terrible news, for her great sensitivity and support for my wife during the small hours of the morning;
- To my wife's uncle's friend, nurse B., who came to us in the hospital at 4am and stayed for twelve hours to provide all kinds of support;
- To B. and M., who brought us a kosher breakfast at about 6am, stayed for much of the day, and continued after Shabbos to make extensive arrangements for the funeral;
- To my wife's cousins, who came to the hospital and helped out with our baby for most of the day;
- To Rabbi T. of Bikur Cholim organization, who spent the day with us at the hospital and helped in all kinds of ways;
- To my wife's friend A., who walked several miles on Shabbos to be with my wife, and, when we discovered on Motzai Shabbos that we would be flying to Israel the next day, stayed with us until 3am to help organize and pack;
- To the woman at El-Al who re-arranged the airplane so that our last-minute seats could be all together with a bassinet seat;
- To our friends and neighbors in Ramat Bet Shemesh, who provided meals, help with the kids, and all kinds of support.

I am grateful to all these people not only for the kindness and support that they showed to us during an exceedingly difficult time, but also for inspiring me about the goodness of mankind.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sunday is Sun-Day

This Sunday is Sun-Day - the day that Daf Yomi reaches the famous page of Gemara recording the dispute between the Sages of Israel and the non-Jewish scholars regarding where the sun goes at night. The Sages of Israel thought that it doubles back and passes behind the sky, which they related to their understanding of various Scriptural verses. The non-Jews said (correctly) that it passes on the other side of the world. And Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi concedes that the non-Jews appear to be correct.

Every single Gaon and Rishon, and many Acharonim, agree that this is indeed an argument about where the sun goes at night. And the majority of Gaonim and Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, understand the Gemara as saying that the Sages of Israel were indeed mistaken (other Rishonim say that the sun does indeed go behind the sky at night). No other topic better demonstrates the validity of the rationalist approach to Chazal and science. No other topic better demonstrates that the charedi Gedolim, who condemned this approach as being heresy, are either out of touch with the history of rabbinic thought in these areas, or are deliberately rewriting it.

While I completely goofed up in not focusing on this topic at the time of the ban on my books, I've since researched it in great detail. My monograph The Sun's Path At Night has been available for a while, but I'd like to take this opportunity to also release a different publication, which contains much of the same material, but presented in a significantly different way. It's my thesis that I used to enter the doctoral program at Bar-Ilan. Rather than simply list all the different views on the topic, it presents them in historical context, showing that the change in attitudes to this topic began in the sixteenth century, and exploring the reasons for this. You can download it at this link.

I hope that you enjoy these publications, and please share them with others - especially those who are under the misconception that normative Jewish thought regards Chazal as having been divinely inspired in their understanding of the universe. Perhaps readers could print a few copies and put them out in shul, especially for those studying Daf Yomi. Chag sameach!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Will Charedim Vote In Their Own Best Interests?

Municipal elections are being held soon in Bet Shemesh (which includes Ramat Bet Shemesh). The issues are very different from those of the national elections, and it gives a window of insight into the dynamics of charedi vs. non-charedi populations.

There are two leading candidates for mayor. One is the current (charedi) mayor, Moshe Abutbol, from Shas. He's a friendly person of average intelligence (picture at right, in the middle, when he was looking at my book The Challenge Of Creation, and asking me what dinosaurs are). But he is utterly incompetent as mayor, and has clearly demonstrated (and more-or-less explicitly said) that he believes in kowtowing to the most extreme factions amongst the charedim. The challenging candidate is Eli Cohen (pictured below), a traditional Jew who has the backing of virtually all non-charedi factions. He's held senior positions in the Jewish Agency and Mekorot Water Company.

It will be a close race: Eli Cohen is leading in the polls, but only by a narrow margin. The question is, will charedim vote in their own best interests, or will they vote to maintain the current charedi mayor?

Why do I say that the non-charedi candidate is the best candidate for the charedim? This isn't out of some paternalistic Yair Lapid-style position that non-charedim know better than charedim what sort of life they should be leading. Rather, it's based on some very simple truths.

1. Everyone needs the municipality to have money, and benefits when it has more money.
2. A significant proportion of the charedi population pays very little in municipal taxes - people in kollel get a 90% exemption.
3. Under Abutbol (and as a result of him), many non-charedim (i.e. people who pay full municipal taxes) left the city, and many non-tax-paying charedim moved in. This pattern would continue and even increase were Abutbol to be re-elected. Non-charedim are not attracted to a city in which Abutbol is mayor.

Thus, it's better for charedim if there is a non-charedi mayor, who will maintain a strong tax-base. QED.

I would also add:

4. Abutbol is hopelessly incompetent at running a city. This is only to be expected, since he has no professional training. He's been unsuccessful at attracting business to the city and managing the budget. Money designated for projects such as security cameras, the Kav LaChaim fund, libraries, the Cities Without Violence project, and cultural centers, has simply disappeared. The city is a mess (until a recent frantic pre-election cleanup). Posters saying "Jews Hate Zionists" remained up for months, while city sanitation workers are speedily dispatched to take down campaign posters for Eli Cohen. The planning of the new neighborhoods is nothing less than a disaster, with completely inadequate areas for businesses and other communal necessities. Already in Ramat Bet Shemesh, many retailers are reduced to running their businesses from subterranean store-rooms, there is inadequate parking, and it's only going to get worse when the new neighborhoods get occupied. Eli Cohen, on the other hand, is professionally trained in resource management and has successfully run major organizations. Everyone benefits from having a mayor who knows how to run a city professionally.

Are there any reasons why the above simple arguments would not be valid? One reason would be if charedim had to fear becoming an insignificant minority in the city. But this is clearly not the case - they are already at least 40% of the population, and once the new neighborhoods of RBS open, charedim will be the majority of the population forever. There is no chance of charedim becoming an insignificant minority - the future choice is between them being a slight majority or the vast majority.

Another potential flaw in the above logic would be if Eli Cohen had antipathy towards charedim, and would not enable them to benefit from the increased funds that the city will have when he is elected. Abutbol and his team are running a nasty and completely hypocritical campaign, claiming that Cohen is anti-charedi and is running an anti-charedi campaign. But he isn't at all (follow the above link for more details). In hypocritical contrast, Abutbol and his team are running an anti-non-charedi campaign, telling people that Rav Steinman said that it would be a chillul Hashem to vote for a secular mayor. (What they don't reveal is that Rav Steinman and them are thereby condemning the Gerrer Rebbe along with all the Boyan, Viznitz and Sanz chassidus, who supported secular candidate Nir Barkat in Jerusalem against the charedi candidate.)

As Eli Cohen told me personally, under his leadership everyone would benefit, including charedim - when the pie is bigger, everyone gets a bigger piece. Certainly, charedim are not faring well from the non-charedi population leaving Bet Shemesh, which impoverishes the city.

Charedim, then, stand to gain tremendously from having a non-charedi mayor. Some of them recognize this and will be voting for him. But why will others vote for Abutbol? The reason is pathetic and tragic. It's due to simple tribalism. Abutbul is the chareidi candidate, which means that he is "us." Cohen is the non-charedi candidate, which means that he is "them." End of story.

One can only hope that many charedim will be intelligent enough to vote in their own best interests.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Breathtaking Endeavor

I've been blessed to have some breathtaking experiences in my life. I've seen the sun set on Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and I've experienced the thunder of Victoria Falls in Zambia. I've watched whales in the Pacific, great white sharks hunting seals off Cape Point, and I've been horse-riding in the Alps. And, of course, I've had close encounters with lions, cheetahs, bears, elephants, hippos, beluga whales, and a host of other remarkable animals. But this past summer, I had an experience which, to my surprise, was as breathtaking as any of these.

Los Angeles was full of flyers advertising a new exhibit on display at the California Science Center: the NASA OV-105 (Orbital Vehicle 105), better known as the Space Shuttle Endeavor. I duly took my family to see it. What I wasn't expecting was that upon seeing it, I would literally (and I mean "literally" literally) gasp, and feel a powerful emotion of awe. (If you're reading this in a web browser, you can click on the hi-res image on the right to embiggen it and get a better sense of its awesomeness.)

Now, it's true that the space shuttle was always a big deal for me. As a kid (and, truth be told, even as an adult) I was always a huge fan of spaceships. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Battle of the Planets, Lego Space models, you name it. I remember that as a third-grader, I did a school project which I called "Into The Future," about space exploration; in an ironic precursor of future events, a zealous classmate slammed it as kefirah!

Still, I wasn't the only one to feel such powerful emotions upon seeing the OV-105. My wife, who was was certainly no spaceship enthusiast in her youth, was tending to the baby when I entered the exhibit, and thus entered later and separately. She told me that when she saw the shuttle, she was overcome with emotion, with tears welling up in her eyes.

Why was it such an awesome sight? The shuttle is not as big as an airliner. But it does look very different. For example, instead of a smooth exterior, it is covered in textured insulating tiles - each about eight inches square, individually numbered, separately sized, costing about $2000 apiece, and fragile enough to be crushed by hand! The shuttle also has all kinds of ports and hatches and devices all over it, setting it aside as a Very Unique Vehicle. And those engines!

But it certainly wasn't just the appearance of the shuttle that made the experience so breathtaking. Rather, it was what the shuttle represented. As a child/ teenager in the 80s, the space shuttle truly epitomized the wonder of technological progress. It looked like soon there would be lunar bases and interplanetary exploration, with the USS Enterprise not far off in the future. Of course, the space program didn't quite work out that way, and it seems to have taken a step backwards with the decommissioning of the space shuttle; nowadays, the most exciting part of the space program is when a frog tries to hitch a ride. But for people my age, the space shuttle was mankind's most glorious technological achievement.

For me, seeing the OV-105 was a religious moment. Floundering for the correct response, I pronounced the blessing of Baruch shenasan me-chachmaso l'bnei adam, "Blessed is He who has given of His wisdom to mankind." This is a blessing recited upon seeing a great scholar of secular wisdom; I figured that the shuttle represents the fruits of such wisdom. 

My wife told me that when she saw it, she spontaneously wanted to recite the blessing of Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis, "Blessed is the One who makes the work of creation." Then she felt that it would not be correct, because that is a blessing to be pronounced upon the work of God, whereas the shuttle is the work of man.

I'm not sure that it wouldn't be appropriate. The space shuttle is the pinnacle of man's technological prowess, which in turn is the result of his three-pound brain. Which in turn is the single most complex entity in the known universe - the single greatest and most remarkable element of creation. In The Challenge Of Creation, I quoted the following from mathematician Morris Kline:
A study of mathematics and its contributions to the sciences exposes a deep question. Mathematics is man-made. The concepts, the broad ideas, the logical standards and methods of reasoning... were fashioned by human beings. Yet with the product of his fallible mind, man has surveyed spaces too vast for his imagination to encompass; he has predicted and shown how to control radio waves which none of our senses can perceive; and he has discovered particles too small to be seen with the most powerful microscope... Some explanation of this marvelous power is called for.
Who would predict a universe in which the laws of nature are able to produce a being that can figure out a way to leave its home planet? Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Revolutions in Jewish Intellectual History

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the day that I received a phone call from Bnei Brak, telling me that I had until the end of the day to retract my books and publicly apologize, or face scandal and humiliation. (If you were living on a different planet in 2004/5, you can read all about the ban at this link.) I picked the second option. It was very painful, though less so in the long run than the first option would have been. 

One of the most significant and passionate of my opponents was Rav Moshe Shapiro. He presented himself as following in the path of Maharal. But a certain rav, to whom I am close, and who is an aficionado of Maharal, felt that Rav Shapiro was not portraying Maharal's position correctly.

After several years of study and contemplation, I had to disagree. I felt that Rav Shapiro was perfectly following Maharal's approach. But this did not make his opposition to my work justified. Maharal himself was a revolutionary, who went entirely against the approach of all the Rishonim (and of Chazal). It was truly ironic that such a revolutionary figure was being used to condemn the "heresy" of an approach that has a much more authentic lineage!

Rabbi Chaim Eisen began the process of documenting Maharal's revolutionary approach in a seminal article in the journal Hakirah (freely available here). But I feel that Rabbi Eisen's article did not cover some crucial aspects of the way in which Maharal's approach was innovative. I have documented these in a paper entitled "Maharal's Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship," which you can download at this link. If you feel that you benefit from it, and/or from this blog in general, please make a donation to the Torah and Nature Foundation, which is the fund for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. You can donate with either a credit card or PayPal account by clicking on the button below. Thank you for your support!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

K'neged Kulam!

Any discussion about the over-emphasis given to studying Torah has to begin with the following statement of Chazal: "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam," usually translated as "Studying Torah is equal to all other mitzvos." This is commonly cited as a trump card for shutting down any discussion relating to people's obligations:
"Why don't you work to support your family?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Why don't you teach your children a trade, as Chazal instruct?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Why don't charedim share the burden of military service and supporting the economy?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
And, predictably, someone cited it in the comments to the previous post, presumably in order to claim that it's impossible to over-emphasize the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, since Talmud Torah k'neged kulam.

Here, then, is a list of reasons as to why Talmud Torah k'neged kulam does not mean what it is commonly thought to mean.

1. Who says that Talmud Torah means studying Torah? And what does "studying Torah" mean?

As R. Dr. Yehudah Levi notes in his classic book "Torah Study," the phrase Talmud Torah, properly translated, seems to refer to teaching Torah rather than learning Torah. This is also implied by the Gemara, which derives the mitzvah of Talmud Torah from the passuk of veshinantam levanecha, "you shall teach it to your sons."

Certainly, later authorities took it to mean studying Torah. But it is not clear that Chazal meant it that way, at least not in every instance. And it certainly seems to be the case that even learning Torah was, as far as Chazal and the Rishonim were concerned, primarily about knowing how to observe halachah and how to teach others to observe halachah.

2. Other mitzvos are also described as being k'neged kulam!

There are several mitzvos about which Chazal say that they are equal to all other mitzvos together. These are the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, Shabbos, Bris Milah, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim. (See this link for sources and discussion.) Can you imagine if someone were to propose one of these sources in a similar context in which people say Talmud Torah k'neged kulam?

3. K'neged kulam does not mean that it exempts a person from other obligations! 

Chazal, the very authorities who said Talmud Torah k'neged kulam, also said that a person is obligated to teach their son a trade, and to take a lowly profession rather than beg for charity. And they did not issue a blanket exemption from military service for people who study Torah.

4. It's clearly an exaggeration.

In practice, nobody, not even Chazal, take Talmud Torah k'neged kulam to mean that any given moment of Torah study is equal in value to all other mitzvos combined. If they did, then there would never be grounds to do an optional mitzvah, much less to institute any kind of non-critical act, religious or otherwise, that could take people away from a moment of Torah study. And so it's clearly an exaggeration.

5. The mirror text shows that it's not literal.

The statement Talmud Torah k'neged kulam comes from a Mishnah in Pe'ah. As a reader pointed out, there is a precise mirror image text in the Tosefta, which gives a similar, negative list. It lists the cardinal sins that we are all familiar with: adultery, murder, and idolatry. It then says, "And lashon hara k'neged kulam." From there we have the same line of reasoning. Lashon hara is bad, but is it really worse than adultery? Than murder? Obviously, Chazal's point is that lashon hara is far reaching, and often plants the seeds which may well lead to sins like adultery and murder. Its potential influence is more powerful than the other three.

So, having said all that, what does Talmud Torah k'neged kulam actually mean? Even assuming that it refers to Torah study rather than Torah teaching, it would mean something along the lines of the Gemara in Kiddushin 40b, where the question is asked, which is greater, study or action? One view, of Rabbi Tarfon the non-heretic, is that action is greater, but the consensus is that study is greater - and the reason given is that study leads to action! This is as per the Rishonim who describe the purpose of Torah study as knowing how to observe the mitzvos. You can't know how to live life properly unless you learn how. Rambam explicitly explains the Mishnah this way:
רמב"ם פירוש המשניות - מסכת פאה פרק א משנה א
וכשתחקור על הענין הזה תמצא ת"ת שקול כנגד הכל, כי בת"ת יזכה האדם לכל זה, כמו שביארנו בתחלת דברינו שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה:

When Chazal said that learning/ teaching Torah is equal to all other mitzvos, they meant that learning and/or teaching how to keep the mitzvos is of fundamental importance. And that's all.

(UPDATE: See too this follow-up post)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Over-Emphasizing The Truly Important

Can the importance of something that is really important be over-emphasized?

Yes, of course it can. As long as something is not the only matter of importance, it is possible to over-emphasize its importance. The engine is by far the most important component of a car; but it is possible to over-emphasize the importance of the engine.

Still, when something is really important, and is not taken at all seriously enough by many people, and especially if it is something that defines one's social group, then some people will naturally be hostile to the proposal that it is being over-emphasized. And so I expect that this post, and the series of posts that it launches, will receive a great deal of opposition.

Twenty years ago, the head of a well-known school in Jerusalem told me why he decided to reject Religious Zionism and join the Charedi world. He said that while yishuv ha'aretz is important, it seemed a perversion of Judaism to take one mitzvah and define one's entire religious life around it.

Without commenting on that directly, it seems to me that the Charedi world, which often refers to itself (in exclusion to the Religious-Zionist and Modern/Centrist Orthodox) as the community of "Torah Jews," does the exact same thing with regard to a different mitzvah. I am talking, of course, about the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

Beginning about two centuries ago, and accelerating in the last few decades, the mitzvah of Torah study has been dramatically transformed in both the importance attached to it, and in the very nature and function of the act itself. With regard to the latter aspect, I introduced this topic a few months ago, in a post entitled Learning Torah: Rationalism Vs. Mysticism, when I discussed the difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism with regard to avodas Hashem, the service of God. Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society. Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces. Examples of this difference are the mitzvos of mezuzah, netilas yadayim, and shiluach hakein.

Another example is the mitzvah of learning Torah. For the rationalist Rishonim (as well as for Chazal), learning Torah serves to increase one's knowledge, and to refine one's character, via moral lessons and learning the commandments. (See my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to metaphysically sustain the universe, via the creation of spiritual "worlds." Another aspect of this transformation is that learning Torah became an end unto itself. (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)

A few months ago, I met a successful Torah educator who said to me, "The charedi world has made learning Torah into an avodah zarah." I wouldn't have phrased it that way myself. But the ramifications of the difference between the rationalist and mystical views of Torah study, which relate to the increase in importance that has recently been given to Torah study, are vast and often catastrophic. In future posts (not necessarily consecutive), I will be discussing examples of this phenomenon.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Fabric of Life

This year ended on a tragic note for my family, but I would therefore like to conclude the year's blog postings with a post celebrating life. And so I am writing about a tablecloth.

In July, on my trip to Africa, I spent a few days in Johannesburg before meeting my group. On my first evening, I was invited to dinner at the beautiful home of Jake and Loren Shepherd, readers of my work that have since become good friends. The table was loaded with food - biltong and other such African fare - but I was able to see part of the tablecloth, and it was not the type of fabric that I expected to see. The tablecloth contrasted sharply with the elegant decor of the rest of the house, in that it had children's handprints on it, in brightly colored paint.

"That's cute," I said to my hosts. "I assume that these are the handprints of your children?"

"Well, sort of," they replied, and explained in more detail.

In South Africa, Jewish couples with fertility problems face an added challenge: the high cost of IVF and other fertility treatments. Whereas the evil Zionist Torah-hating Amalekite government of Israel subsidizes such treatments, no such government aid is granted in South Africa. My hosts were deeply involved with a foundation called The Malka Ella Fertility Fund, which provides assistance to such couples in need.

As a result of the fund, many children came into existence. A souvenir tablecloth was made, in which all these children contributed artistically, with a picture or a handprint, depending on their age. I thought that it was the most beautiful tablecloth that I had ever seen - a celebration of life itself.

May this be a year of health, happiness, and success, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Dismisses Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim, Gedolim

It's almost exactly nine years since a group of zealots, now out of commission, arranged for the charedi Gedolim to issue a controversial ban on three of my books and on the rationalist approach in general. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, rosh yeshivah of South Fallsburg, leading figure in the American charedi world, and one of the prime forces behind the ban, is now once again on a tirade against rationalist Judaism.

His platform this time is an approbation to a small book published by a disciple of his entitled Sod Liyreyav, which deals with the subject of spontaneous generation and related topics regarding Chazal's statements about the natural world. Rav Elya Ber's approbation, which you can download at this link, is unusually long, stretching nearly three pages. He emphatically states that everything in the Gemara, as well as in the writings of the Rishonim, is factually true in its plain meaning. Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav (even though if one actually researches the usages of that phrase, one sees very clearly that Chazal believed it to have extremely limited application). Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise. And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).

As far as I am concerned, if Rav Elya Ber wants to believe in the existence of mice that grow from dirt and salamanders that grow from fire, along with humanoids that grow from the ground and werewolves, that is his prerogative, and it doesn't bother me. Likewise, if he wants to take a different position than the view of countless Rishonim, Acharonim, and Gedolim (not to mention Chazal themselves), that is fine.

But this is not merely a matter of his personal view. Rav Elya Ber emphatically insists that any other approach is false, evil, and is kefirah, heresy. He further states that his approach is the explicit, well-known and obvious approach throughout the generations. And he adds that alternate views are only presented from sources of dubious authenticity, personal communications to people questioning inappropriately, or long-rejected aberrant views.

When my books were banned, I was under the mistaken impression that to say that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world was the legitimate minority view of Rambam, his son Rabbeinu Avraham, and Rav Hirsch. I was wrong on two counts. One is that it is clearly not legitimate in certain sectors, notwithstanding its pedigree. My other mistake was to think that it was a rare minority view. In the nine years that have elapsed since the ban, with many people researching the topic, I have discovered that this view was absolutely mainstream amongst the Rishonim and also had considerable support amongst the Acharonim. I further discovered that every single Gaon and Rishon, bar none, learned Pesachim 94b in accordance with its straightforward meaning, as saying that Chazal believed that the sun doubles back and passes behind the sky at night. Most also held that Chazal were mistaken in this belief.

Rav Elya Ber is entitled to dispute the position of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, R. Eliezer of Metz, Tosafos Rid, R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Semag, Rosh, Ritva, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Rabbeinu Manoach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, Radbaz, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, R. Moshe Cordovero, Lechem Mishneh, Maharsha, Minchas Kohen, Chavos Ya’ir, Pri Chadash, Maharif, R. Yitzchak Lampronti, Maharam Schick, R. Binyamin Musafia, R. Eliezer Lipman Neusatz, R. Dovid Friedman (Karliner), R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Ben Ish Chai, R. Herzog, R. Dessler, R. Carmell, and, yibadlu lechaim, R. Shlomo Fisher and R. Ephraim Greenblatt, amongst many others. But to condemn their view as false, evil, and heresy, however, seems out of place - to put it mildly. And to dismiss this approach as never having had a legitimate place in Judaism is an outright perversion of the history of Torah scholarship.

Unfortunately, while many people agree with me - even in the charedi world - nobody has the courage to actually call out Rav Elya Ber on this offensive approach to Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and Gedolim. Perhaps someone can ask him to methodically address, for example, all the sources regarding the sun's path at night. In the meanwhile, one cannot help but conclude that Rav Elya Ber has transmitted a clear message about charedi Gedolim and Torah scholarship.

(UPDATE - you can now download the approbation at this link.)