Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mad Dogs and Rabid Hyenas

Here's a problem facing me at the moment. I am in the process of making editorial corrections to the first volume of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, dealing with wild animals. This is a comprehensive work that is intended to include every reference to these animals in Tanach, Gemara and Midrash. And the chapter on hyenas is presenting me with particular difficulties.

Previously, I have discussed the Gemara's description of the hyena changing gender, and the way that the Bavli understood the Mishnah's mention of a cheetah (bardelas) as referring to the hyena. There is a further particularly peculiar reference to the hyena, under its Aramaic name of afeh. This is regarding a recommended remedy for someone who has been bitten by a mad dog and is at risk of contracting rabies:
What is the remedy? — Abaye said: Let him take the skin of a male hyena and write upon it: I, so-and-so, the son of that-and-that woman, write upon the skin of a male hyena: "Hami, kanti, kloros, God, God, Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah." Then let him strip off his clothes, and bury them, in a grave, for twelve months of a year. Then he should take them out and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes. During these twelve months, if he drinks water, he should only drink it out of a copper tube, lest he see the shadow of the demon and be endangered. (Talmud, Yoma 84a)
Now, how am I to discuss this in the book, bearing in mind that it is intended for a broad readership?

I can point out that spotted hyenas (though not the striped hyenas of the Talmud) are, curiously, the only carnivores known to be able to carry the rabies virus without suffering any ill-effects. But this would not appear to be particularly relevant. Even if it was somehow known in antiquity that spotted hyenas can contract rabies without harm (which seems highly unlikely), and even if that belief was transferred to striped hyenas (or if the phenomenon also exists with them), it still would only, at best, account for why people would relate hyenas to mad dogs. It would not mean that writing an incantation on a hyena hide, then burying one's clothing and later burning it, cures rabies.

Catering to the sensibilities of many readers will mean presenting this as the folk-medicine that was common in that place and time. This was indeed the view of authorities such as Rav Sherira Gaon
"We must inform you that our Sages were not physicians. They may mention medical matters which they noticed here and there in their time, but these are not meant to be a mitzvah. Therefore you should not rely on these cures and you should not practice them at all unless each item has been carefully investigated by medical experts who are certain that this procedure will do no harm and will cause no danger. This is what our ancestors have taught us, that none of these cures should be practiced, unless it is a known remedy and the one who uses it knows that it can cause no harm."
A similar statement can be found in the famous treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and it was also endorsed as a legitimate (albeit minority) view by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. These views were also cited by my own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l.

On the other hand, according to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, this remedy was certainly effective, at least in Chazal's time and place. Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rav Sherira Gaon just meant that we do not know how to apply Chazal's remedies, that the treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery, that Rav Shlomo Zalman was writing off-the-cuff and should not be taken too seriously (pp. 101-2), and that Rav Carmell was a proponent of heresy!

Rabbi Meiselman does not explicitly discuss the hyena remedy in his book - presumably because it would look quite foolish for him to endorse writing incantations on hyena skins, burying clothing for a year and then burning it, and warning against seeing demonic shadows in water. But this is clearly his position, since he emphatically states that there is no basis for claiming that any of Chazal's remedies were simply mistaken, and that to do so is called "mocking the words of the Chachamim" (p. 233). And, according to a review of Rabbi Meiselman's book by Rabbi Raphael Fuchs, which appeared in Yated Ne'eman, The Jewish Press, Kuntrus, and Yeshivah World News, Rabbi Meiselman is one of the "select few" who is qualified to write about such a topic, and demonstrates "an extensive understanding of science from a sophisticated point of view." Thus, many readers will expect to be told that writing incantations on hyena hides was indeed an effective cure for rabies.

So, what do I put in the Encyclopedia, which is not intended to be a work on conflicts between Torah and science, but rather a comprehensive guide to all references to animals in Torah literature? Should I even mention the view of Rav Sherira and Rabbeinu Avraham? Should I mention that Rabbi Meiselman considers the hyena remedy to have been effective? There are all kinds of different ways of phrasing things, and no single correct way. Whatever solution I come up with, there will be people who are dissatisfied. As I mentioned in a previous post about hyenas, siz shver tzu zein ah ZooRabbi!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Metzitzah and the Rav

Metitzah - the suction of blood from the circumcision - is prescribed by the Gemara as a medical necessity. Today, however, medical opinion states that not only is it not of medical benefit, it is actually potentially harmful, when done in the traditional manner of using oral suction. What, then, are we to do?

According to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science, whenever Chazal make a statement about realia, and do not indicate that they are speaking tentatively, then they are correct, and to doubt them is heresy. Rabbi Meiselman thus states, with regard to metzitzah (pp. 239-40), that "Chazal's assessment overrides that of modern medicine," because "Chazal understood the situation better than the physicians." He stresses that "we rely upon their judgment unswervingly, even if medical opinion says otherwise."

Following from this, Rabbi Meiselman states that "the mohel must suction the wound in a traditionally prescribed manner." Now, this could only mean that the mohel must suction the wound with his mouth. It is exceedingly strange, though, that Rabbi Meiselman avoids using the word "mouth" in this entire discussion. What is the reason for this? I'm not sure. Perhaps it is politically inexpedient for him to explicitly insist on metitzah b'peh, in the light of all the scandal revolving around the infant illness that it is has caused. Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman is trying to leave himself wiggle room to claim that he is not insisting on metzitzah b'peh but only on metzizah. But his meaning is clear. First, there is the context of the entire discussion - the entire controversy revolves around doing it with the mouth. Second, every reader will assume and understand that this is the intent - if he did not mean metzitzah b'peh, he would have to say so. Third, the phrase "traditionally prescribed manner" does not leave any room for doubt regarding his intentions.

In any case, while Rabbi Meiselman's views on this topic will be anathema to those who accept contemporary medical science and reject his extreme view regarding Chazal's authority, at least it is consistent with his overall approach. One cannot fault him for inconsistency.

Except that one can.

Dr. Shlomo Sprecher pointed out to me that Rabbi Meiselman is in fact revealing a fundamental problem here. Throughout the book, Rabbi Meiselman makes reference to "mori v'rebbi," his uncle and alleged mentor Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik. A review of the book that appears in The Jewish Press claims that Rabbi Meiselman "had unlimited access to his uncle and rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zt”l, who guided him in attaining a profound, thorough and Torah-true perspective on this topic." But Rav Soloveitchik had a very different approach to metzitzah b'peh.

Rabbi Gil Student reports that "the following was written by R. Hershel Schachter in Nefesh Ha-Rav (p. 243) about R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's position on this matter, and was confirmed by R. Fabian Schoenfeld as having happened at his son's circumcision:"
Our teacher's view was that nowadays there is no need for metzitzah at all, like the Tiferes Yisrael's view in the Mishnah [sic!] (see the Sedei Hemed for a long treatment of this). He told us how a mohel once wanted to perform metzitzah be-feh and our teacher asked him not to. When the mohel refused, our teacher told him that if his father, R. Moshe Soloveitchik, were there, he would definitely not have allowed him to perform metzitzah be-feh. However, I am more tolerant and since you are refusing, I will let you.
Rav Soloveitchik's view was also included in the statement made by the RCA:
The poskim consulted by the RCA (Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council; Rabbi Hershel Schachter of RIETS/YU and the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America; and Rabbi Mordechai Willig of RIETS/YU and Segan Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America) agree that the normative halacha undoubtedly permits the third view, and that it is proper for mohalim to conduct themselves in this way given the health issues involved in the fourth view. Rabbi Schachter even reports that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik reports that his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, would not permit a mohel to perform metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, and that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, instructed mohelim in Brisk not to do metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact. However, although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik also generally prohibited metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, he did not ban it by those who insisted upon it, and neither does the RCA advocate any such ban. 
Rabbi Meiselman does not follow his rebbe's view regarding metzitzah b'peh. Worse, he does not even mention it. But even more significantly, Rav Soloveitchik's views on metzitzah b'peh show that he had a very different approach to Chazal's scientific knowledge than does Rabbi Meiselman.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Yated Gets Hoodwinked

Here is a letter that was sent to Yated Ne'eman:

To the Editor:

In a review of Rabbi Meiselman's book that appeared in last week's Yated Ne'eman, the book was gravely misrepresented. It was effusively praised for showing that "Chazal's statements should not be adjusted to adhere to science's teachings," that "the integrity of the mesorah is never in question," and that it displays "an awesome reverence for the incredible golden minds represented in Torah Shebaal Peh and throughout our mesorah." But in fact Rabbi Meiselman does indeed adjust Chazal's statements to adhere to science's teachings, he challenges the entire mesorah in this area, and he discards the universal view of the incredible golden minds throughout our mesorah.

Chazal made a number of statements regarding the generation of various animals, including lice generating from humans, insects from fruit and water, and mice from dirt. ALL the Rishonim and Acharonim, without exception, explained Chazal as referring to spontaneous generation. (Today, since we do not see these creatures spontaneously generating, the standard approach in the yeshivah world is to say nishtaneh hateva or that the creatures described by Chazal are now extinct.) However, Rabbi Meiselman accepts the views of modern science in this area, and claims that all the Rishonim and Acharonim are wrong! (See p. 320, where he writes that they were incorrect regarding what Chazal had in mind.) Rabbi Meiselman also discards the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding their explanations of Chazal's statements regarding astronomy, in a section brazenly entitled "When the Commentaries are Mistaken," in which he writes that "the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs."

Rav Aharon Feldman, in his book "The Eye of the Storm," clearly explains the view of Rav Elyashiv ztz"l, that certain views regarding Chazal and science were aberrant minority views that are therefore to be discounted. It surely follows with the greatest kal v'chomer that if all the Rishonim and Acharonim were to agree on something, that represents the normative mesorah, and it would not be permitted to say, chas v'shalom, that they were all wrong. And Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel likewise writes in his haskomoh to the new sefer Sod Liyreyav, which specifically addresses the topic of spontaneous generation, that we must accept the universal mesorah from the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding the meaning of Chazal's words, and not reject them in favor of modern science. But Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in his new book, does exactly that!

Whereas other books challenging the integrity of the mesorah were roundly condemned, and have been rejected by the chareidi community, Rabbi Meiselman's book is being praised. Surely attention should be drawn to his radical approach in this area, rather than misleading people as to what his book does.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Unsung Heroine

Many of you have written to me over the years to express your appreciation for my work and your support for me against the opposition that my work has aroused. Your letters are always gratefully appreciated, but the truth is, they are almost always addressed to the wrong person. More precisely, they should be primarily addressed to another person.

Sure, I've had a tough time dealing with bans and condemnations and threatening phone calls and dedicated hate-sites and so on. But at least I have the benefit of being very passionate about science and hyraxes and so on, and of having many people speaking to me and giving their support. There's another person who also suffers from the flak that is sent in my direction, but who was never particularly interested in the intersection between Torah and science in the first place. I am talking, of course, about my wife.

When my wife, as a starry-eyed idealist, married me thirteen years ago today, she had no idea what she was getting into. At that time, my work was popular across the board; her old teachers from seminary would quote my works, and I was featured on the cover of Mishpachah magazine. She was a little surprised to discover that I was writing a book reconciling evolution with Judaism - actually, more than a little surprised - but offered her full support nonetheless, even buying little plastic dinosaurs for the book launch.

Then, a few years later, everything changed. There were posters in the street and editorials in the newspapers delivered to our home that were condemning my books. Some of my wife's old teachers started circulating letters viciously attacking me. The "Gedolei HaDor" declared my writings to be heresy! Even I was constantly asking myself whether I was in the right; imagine how much harder it was for my wife, who was never passionate about "rationalist Judaism" in the first place. Not to mention having to deal with a husband who was falling to pieces! And worst of all - perhaps the most horrible moment of our lives - was when she received a phone call relating a threat to the lives of our children.

Yet she stood by me. More than that - she gave me unwavering support. It's no exaggeration to say that I could not have gotten through that turbulent period without her. 

Furthermore, it's not as though the controversy over my work has been the only challenge that my wife has had to endure as a result of being married to me. And I'm not just talking about having to deal with a husband who maintains a blog. When we were dating, I told my wife that my days of keeping pets were long behind me. I think that I even believed it myself. Ha! Over the last few years, my wife has had to deal with chinchillas turning on videos in the middle of the night, bats in the bathroom, and hyraxes on the couch. Her red line - no snakes - somehow fell by the wayside. I've appropriated (okay, stolen) her kitchen utensils for cooking locusts, and taken over the bottom shelf of the freezer with certain Items that I feed to my giant monitor lizards (though, to my credit, at least I put on a warning label saying "GROSS STUFF - DO NOT OPEN"). Currently, while I am accumulating specimens for my forthcoming museum, I have filled up our basement with all kinds of bizarre items, from live reptiles to stuffed carnivores and ungulates and birds of prey. My wife also has to be worried about her husband having dangerous close encounters with lions and bears and great white sharks.

When I go out of the country - which is quite often - things can get even more challenging. Once, during a harsh winter night, my wife noticed that our giant iguana, Billy Bob, had failed to return from his outdoor enclosure to his night-time heated area. Concerned that he would freeze to death, my wife actually donned gauntlets, went outside in the cold and rain, picked up the enormous and repulsive (to her) reptile, and staggered back with him to stuff him into his sleeping quarters. Such mesiras nefesh!

So, here's to my wife. Thank you for putting up with everything with good grace and cheer, and for supporting me through the tough times. And to my readers, I will quote Rabbi Akiva's words regarding his wife - "What is mine and what is yours, is due to her."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Limits of Science

This is going to be a bizarre post. I find myself in the unusual position of arguing that science does not conclusively prove something, while my ideological opponents on the Right act as if it does indeed conclusively prove something!

"Spontaneous generation" is the ancient belief that various insects, as well as certain creatures such as mice, arise from inanimate matter rather than from parents. It is sometimes said that science has "disproved" spontaneous generation. But this is an error. Science cannot "disprove" spontaneous generation. It can say that we do not observe it to happen. But it cannot prove that it never happens.

It is therefore odd, and hypocritical, that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science, argues that spontaneous generation has been disproved, and therefore insists that Chazal never referred to such a phenomenon, and that all the Rishonim and Acharonim misinterpreted Chazal (see pp. 319-320). True, on pp. 598-9, when discussing spontaneous generation in the context of challenging evolution, Rabbi Meiselman admits in a footnote that "proving a negative is virtually impossible." But this only highlights even more strongly the inconsistency of his approach. When justifying his novel approach to Chazal regarding lice, on p. 305, Rabbi Meiselman claims that this is justified due to the presence of "observable facts," rather than mere "theories." But there are no "observable facts" that lice in the era of Chazal did not spontaneously generate!

Why are many of us absolutely confident that animals never spontaneously generated, even in Chazal's time? It is based on a combination of three factors:

1) We never observe spontaneous generation to take place;
2) There is no mechanism to explain such a phenomenon, i.e. it goes against everything that we know about biology;
3) The testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility.

While I have all these factors present to enable me to reject spontaneous generation (but not to deny that Chazal believed in it), these factors do not all exist for Rabbi Meiselman. Rabbi Meiselman can agree with the first factor, that we never observe spontaneous generation to take place. But to reject it on the grounds that it goes against biological theory would run counter to his entire approach. After all, he freely discounts science regarding everything that it says about the universe before 5773 years ago. He is of the view that scientists have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of stars being millions of light-years away. He is of the view that nishtaneh hateva can be freely applied, and thus the Gemara is completely accurate in saying that the wolf, lion, bear and monkey have a gestation period of three years, even though biologists would dismiss such a notion out of hand. Most significantly, he also appears to accept that salamanders are generated from fire, about which I shall write more on another occasion. When he so freely says that scientists have no idea what they are talking about, even with regard to the impossibility of salamanders coming from fire, on what grounds does he suddenly accept their approach in this area?

With regard to the third factor, that the testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility, Rabbi Meiselman would also have to disagree. After all, in the prologue to his book, Rabbi Meiselman writes about how the Rishonim were on a much higher level of understanding than us, that they were "incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources," etc. If they said that Chazal were referring to spontaneous generation, and they further claimed that spontaneous generation occurs, then surely, following Rabbi Meiselman's declarations, that is of tremendous authority.

Indeed, Rav Yehudah Briel, when asked by Rav Yitzchok Lampronti about the position of scientists that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation, simply rejects science out of hand. It should be noted that Rabbi Meiselman himself cites Rav Briel earlier in his book, when he wants to speak in broad terms about the proper methodological approach to these issues. So why does he ignore Rav Briel when it comes to the chapter discussing the topic that Rav Briel was actually speaking about? Let us paraphrase Rabbi Meiselman's disciple Dovid Korneich in a statement originally made about the antiquity of the universe: "The scientific evidence that spontaneous generation does not occur in lice is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding lice reproduction. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by what is written in the Gemara and Rishonim and are left without basis."

On the basis of his own methodology, Rabbi Meiselman does not have license to discard the plain meaning of Chazal's words and the universal mesorah from the Rishonim and Acharonim. When making strong statements about his methodology, Rabbi Meiselman is emphatic: "With respect to all teachings that are part of our Mesorah we do not engage in reinterpretation to accommodate new theories, but only observable facts" (p. 263). And further: "It seems clear that even strong scientific argumentation - whether based upon theoretical considerations, or observation and experimentation - would not be sufficient" (p. 264).

But, contrary to Rabbi Meiselman's claim that there are "observable facts" in the case of spontaneous generation, there are no observable facts that lice did not spontaneously generate in Chazal's day. There are only theoretical considerations, to which Rabbi Meiselman assigns little credibility. Conversely, there are the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, to which Rabbi Meiselman attaches great authority. He should therefore be consistent and follow the approach of the charedi world, which is to say that Chazal were referring to a type of louse that did indeed spontaneously generate, but which is now extinct (or nishtaneh hateva). Rabbi Meiselman is not only going against the universal mesorah and taking an approach which Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel has declared to be heretical. He is also being hypocritical.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Charedi Tragedy of Ignoring Chazal

The following video, which tells the tragic story of the crushing poverty facing the charedi community in Israel, was shown at the Agudas Yisrael convention:

The video describes the standard charedi kollel family as having a total income of 5100 shekels a month, which is "not nearly enough to live off." As a result, we are told, "they must rely on chesed organizations for necessary expenses." And they often cannot afford to provide food, medical care or basic necessities for their large families.

The video indicates that this is all the fault of the government. Dov Krulwich explains why this is incorrect: "The cuts in government funding didn’t cause the unsustainability; the unsustainability led to the cuts in government funding. The government simply didn’t have enough money, and it cut almost everything, including critical army training and lots more, and raised sales tax (VAT), and cut child subsidies for all citizens, and more. The numbers of people collecting charity door-to-door had skyrocketed before the government cuts. The government cuts were an attempt to bring a solution by motivating chadorim and yeshivos to give the bare minimum of secular studies, as is done in America." When a large and rapidly growing sector of the population has only half the employment rate of the rest of the population, of course this is going to harm the economy. Cuts in funding are the inevitable result.

It is astonishing that a problem so grave has its cause and solution staring at them in the face, and yet they refuse to acknowledge it - even though they are ignoring Chazal's explicit directives.

The men need to WORK!!!

The video describes a typical man in kollel as "earning" 1200 NIS a month. But he doesn't "earn" it - he is given it as charity. He is accumulating Torah knowledge for himself, but he does not contribute a product or service to society. And even if you're going to follow the view of some recent mystically-oriented Acharonim and claim that the person is contributing spiritual energy to the country, it is clearly hopelessly inadequate for supporting one's family. Such people, if they cannot get by, need to leave kollel and go to work. (In fact, according to the Rishonim, they should leave kollel and go to work even if they can get by in kollel.)

A man has to work to support his family! There are countless sources in Chazal to that effect. “A person should hire himself out for alien work rather than requiring assistance from others”; “The man who is self-sufficient is greater than the one who fears Heaven”; etc., etc. It's even written in the kesubah. A rabbi from an outreach kollel wrote to me recently with harsh criticism of my Jerusalem Post articles, deploring the way that I use "the same old quotes from Rambam and Pirke Avos that the enemies of Torah have been quoting ad nauseum." It's extraordinary that people in the charedi world are so derisive and dismissive towards the teachings of Chazal and Rishonim. And then when they suffer the tragic results of ignoring Chazal, they blame everyone except themselves!

In an attempt to address those who would point out the obvious word WORK, one person in the video says that "even a man who works cannot pay for basic needs." Well, first of all, obviously someone who earns several thousand shekels a month is going to be in a much better situation than someone who receives 1200 shekels a month. Second, a good job, which enables a person to be fully self-sufficient, usually requires education and credentials - a high-school diploma, a college degree, and work experience. This is why Chazal said that a person is required to teach his child a profession. A profession is not something that you can rely on picking up on the spot when you're in your thirties. It requires an education from childhood.

Rabbi Gil Student points out: "What have we created with the kollel system and lack of secular studies? The only surprise is that anyone is surprised at this economic collapse of this unsustainable system. The long-term answer is not charity or government assistance because that, too, will eventually collapse. The answer is teaching the skills necessary to acquire well-paying jobs and creating a social environment where parents are applauded for providing for their children." To this I would add that there needs to be a social environment where parents are encouraged to fulfill their obligation to teach their children both the knowledge and the values necessary for them to be self-sufficient.

In the video, the mayor of Kiryat Sefer says that "we need a lot of rachamei shamayim and a lot of help to survive." No. That is only going to delay the effects of the problem, which will be even greater further down the line. What you need is to start listening to Chazal.

It's tragic that whereas many charedi yeshivah high schools in the US can provide standard secular education and high-school diplomas, yeshivah ketanos in Israel do not, because "the Gedolim say not to." Who are you going to follow - the Gedolim, who (as shown in this video) have failed Klal Yisroel, or Chazal?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives

I'm pleased to report that I was wrong in a prediction that I made. Many months ago, I posted a letter that I wrote to the journal Dialogue, in response to an article by Isaac Betech about the shafan. On this blog, I wrote that "given the make-up of their rabbinic board (Rabbi Miller, Rabbi Feldman and Rabbi Meiselman), it seems unlikely, to say the least, that they would be open to dialogue." Although I asked the editor to notify me if they would consider it for publication, I did not receive a reply.

I was therefore surprised to discover that they did indeed print it, which means that they are taking a different path than the late Jewish Observer. They did, however, take a step that is not quite following the norms for academic-style journals. Betech himself did not write a response, and so Dialogue arranged for someone else to write a full-length article in response! Not only that, but they asked two people to write responses - one response to my letter was not enough!

Rather unsurprisingly, the two people that wrote responses are Jonathan Ostroff and Dovid Kornreich (the self-styled "Freelance Kiruv Maniac"). Also unsurprisingly, despite a total of forty-four pages written in response to a five-page letter, they fail to address some important points that I raised, such as regarding the problems inherent in describing the hare or rabbit as maaleh gerah. And, also unsurprisingly, they consistently misrepresent what I write, and distort matters in their responses. Many of their arguments have already been addressed in the various posts that I wrote about the hyrax (and in the comments to those posts), but I plan to write several posts detailing their other errors and deliberate distortions. In this post, I will deal with just one topic: Kornreich's response to my approach to the kezayis. It's a great illustration of his utter dishonesty, and of Dialogue's negligence/ dishonesty in printing his article.

My monograph on the kezayis is one of the most popular pieces I have ever written, with many thousands of downloads. It presents an explanation as to why the measurement given today for a kezayis (one-third to one-half of an egg) is so much larger than an olive. The reason is, quite simply, that the Rishonim of Ashkenaz were not familiar with olives. In my letter to Dialogue, I mentioned this very briefly in passing, as an example of a mesorah from a particular region occurring due to unfamiliarity with flora and fauna of a different region. Kornreich spent two pages responding to this point alone.

Amusingly, Kornreich refers to my approach to the kezayis as one of my "attacks" on the Rishonim! If explaining that the Rishonim of Ashkenaz were unfamiliar with olives is considered an "attack" on the Rishonim, then what is the correct description of his rebbe Rabbi Meiselman's claim that all the Rishonim did not know the meaning of basic terms in the Gemara? And Kornreich himself, in this very article, says that the Rishonim of Europe were unfamiliar with the geography of Israel - is that not an "attack" on the Rishonim, by his definition?!

In his response to my approach, Korneich first addresses my claim that the Ashkenazi Rishonim never saw an olive, and says as follows:
"This is without basis. The Romans cultivated the olive in Northern Europe, and cured olives were exported throughout Europe." 
Now, I was a little taken aback to see this, because I had done my research on this topic pretty thoroughly. And so I therefore decided to type in the URLs that he had provided in the footnotes as sources for these statements. The results were fascinating. Kornreich's claim that "the Romans cultivated the olive in Northern Europe" was sourced to this page, which, as you can see for yourselves, says nothing of the sort. It says instead that the Roman emperors encouraged the cultivation of olives in Spain, with ramifications for Northern Europe, to which the oil was exported. And Kornreich's claim that "cured olives were exported throughout Europe" (as if ancient Roman tastes are relevant to medieval Tosafists) is sourced to this page, which simply says nothing at all about cured olives being exported anywhere!

Kornreich then asserts that "many Rishonim" said that the kezayis is half an egg, while "some Rishonim" say that it is a third. He completely fails to acknowledge the primary sources from the Spanish Rishonim that I cited in support of my thesis: Rashba, who states that an olive is "much less" than a quarter of an egg; Ritva, who says that an olive is around a ninth the size of an egg; and one of the Rishonim from Ashkenaz who says that "I saw olives in Israel and Jerusalem, and even six were not as large as an egg" - which is also testimony as to why the other Rishonim in Ashkenaz had the wrong size. (The only Rishon from an olive-growing region that Kornreich cites is Meiri, who takes the Ashkenaz approach of defining it as half an egg; presumably, Meiri was simply trying to make sense of the Gemara on its own terms, rather than considering an empirical study.) This gross distortion of the picture amongst the Rishonim will, unfortunately, not be noticed by people who fail to read my monograph. However, those who are aware of it will realize what kind of person we are dealing with.

In order to reconcile the Rishonim (at least, those that he cites) with the present-day reality of olives, Korneich asserts, as a matter of uncontested and incontestable fact, that olives used to be larger. He claims that the evidence that I offer for olives always having been the same size is the findings of ancient olive pits, and he argues that this is no evidence, since it was the flesh of the olives that was larger, not the pit. But this is a gross falsification of the evidence that I offer. First of all, I also offered the evidence that there are olive trees which are thousands of years old, and produce olives that are the same size as those of today (though he would no doubt respond that they used to produce larger olives). Second, and more relevant to his worldview, is that I also quoted Rishonim who said that olives are around a ninth the size of an egg, i.e. the same size as olives today!

Finally, Kornreich also fails to acknowledge that my thesis is not mine alone; as quoted in my monograph, Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger was the first to point out that those who gave a larger size for kezayis did so because they had never seen an olive.

These are just a few examples of the dishonesty which is, unfortunately, rampant in his article. I will be writing further posts with numerous other examples.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Omitting Inconvenient Sources

Should a book mention sources that are opposed to its thesis? That depends on what kind of book it is. If it just seeks to present a certain view, and makes no claim regarding the existence of other views, then it doesn't need to mention those opposing views. But certainly if a book is attempting to be any kind of definitive guide to the range of legitimate views, and there are views that are ostensibly legitimate and yet are outside of the range permitted by the book, then it should mention them, and account for them.

In the preface to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book, Torah, Chazal and Science, he writes as follows:
“I have not attempted to make this work encyclopedic. Many sources confirming the positions I have taken on major issues have been omitted in order not to overburden the reader. On the other hand, there may be other sources contradicting some of the theses of this book that have also been left out. What I have attempted to do is to quote those sources that reflect what I believe is the mainstream of traditional scholarly opinion on the topics discussed.” (p. xxiv)
I consider this paragraph to be deceptive in the extreme. It purports to justify the omission of sources that “may” contradict “some of” his theses. But there is no justification for his omission of sources that do contradict his fundamental thesis, as I shall now explain.

Rabbi Meiselman’s book is a whopping eight hundred pages long. The description on the inside flap notes that “Thousands of references, including a vast amount of primary source material, make this an invaluable resource for anyone interested in investigating the issues on his own.” The constant theme of the book is that Chazal’s definitive teachings about the natural world are never in question, and the chachmei haMesorah have never said otherwise (see e.g. p. 261). The goal of the work, as discussed on p. xxii (and explicitly described there as the goal of the work), is to show that “there is no support in the classical sources” for the approach to Chazal and science that is presented in books such as mine. In other words, he does not just want to show what is the “mainstream” approach, as he claims in the paragraph above; instead, he wants to entirely negate the legitimacy of the approach that is presented my books.

(Note too that he does not describe his goal as presenting the correct approach, but rather as showing that the approach given in my books is wrong and has no support. His focus and emphasis is on negating the approach of others, rather than on presenting his own approach.)

But given that he writes a vast amount of material, and presents thousands of references, and especially given the fact that his goal is specifically to address and rebut the approach of my books, and to claim that it has no support amongst the chachmei hamesorah, it is all the more remarkable that Rabbi Meiselman does not acknowledge the existence of several of my most important sources!

• Most of the Rishonim, and many Acharonim, are of the view that Chazal were mistaken with regard to the sun’s path at night. As demonstrated in an earlier post, Rabbi Meiselman tries to downplay the views of the Rishonim, refusing to quote or explain their position on this topic. And he does not acknowledge the existence of various Rishonim and Acharonim, such as disciples of Chasam Sofer, who, in commenting on this topic, make general statements about how Chazal were simply not expert in scientific matters and thus sometimes erred.

• Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is one of the most important Jewish figures of the nineteenth century. His letters on Chazal and science are the most extensive pre-20th century discussion of the topic. He occupies a prominent position in the manifesto of the approach that Rabbi Meiselman is attempting to refute. He discusses at length the case of the mouse that Chazal describe as growing from dirt, which Rabbi Meiselman has a chapter on. But Rabbi Meiselman makes no mention of Rav Hirsch’s writings on this topic! And he quotes Rav Hirsch’s skepticism of evolution from a scientific standpoint, without quoting his statement that evolution presents no theological problem!

• The topic of spontaneous generation is one of the most significant in the Chazal-science discussion, and Rabbi Meiselman has a full chapter on it. Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Chief Rabbi of Klausenberg and the author of the seminal work Dor Revi’i, is one of only three pre-Holocaust gedolim to address this conflict; it also addressed by Rav Herzog, who is quoted elsewhere in Rabbi Meiselman’s book and is thus an authority that he takes seriously. But Rabbi Meiselman makes no mention of the view of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog regarding the spontaneous generation of lice!

(And it’s not as though these sources are massively outnumbered by countless sources that Rabbi Meiselman has in support of his approach. In fact, with regard to the cases of the mice and lice discussed above, Rabbi Meiselman claims that all the Rishonim and Acharonim are wrong, and he does not have even a single authority who presents his view!)

There are further examples of how Rabbi Meiselman omits inconvenient sources. I shall discuss them in the course of future posts.

My book Sacred Monsters is only half the length of Rabbi Meiselman’s book, and much of it is not dealing with conflicts between Chazal and science. Yet I manage to quote the full range of views on this topic; it’s really not too difficult. All it takes is the honesty and humility to acknowledge that there have been great people in history who take a different view from one’s own. It is a pity that Rabbi Meiselman cannot do this.

N.B.: Here's a photo that someone sent me, of a poster advertising a series of lectures taking place in Yeshivas Toras Moshe:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Manipulating with Mysticism for Money

You could fill an entire book with examples of tzedakah organizations manipulating people's emotions for money. One of the most appalling examples I've seen is from an organization seeking to raise funds for, you guessed it, Torah study. This one promised to learn in the merit for people to get a shidduch. The picture in the ad was not of people studying Torah - the cause that they are trying to promote. Instead, it was of a sparkling diamond engagement ring. The message effectively being broadcast was: "Attention all singles - think about how desperate you are to get married! Don't miss this opportunity! Give us money!"

Mysticism provides these organizations with an especially potent tool for manipulating people, and today, the ninth of Kislev, demonstrates a powerful example. Kupat Ha'ir put out the following ad:


For those who can't see the picture, it says that there is a once-in-fifty years opportunity to take advantage of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year in the Yovel-cycle. This full house of nines, according to an obscure ancient sefer, is an auspicious hour for prayer. But why pray yourself, when other people can pray on your behalf? Twenty Gedolei HaDor (I never knew there were that many!) will pray for you - provided that you give money to Kupat Ha-Ir!

And then comes the most manipulative line of all: "Don't wait another 50 years for a yeshuah!" You are desperate for salvation from your problems, and you need to give us money in order to attain it, or you'll be stuck for fifty years! Forget about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - it's this once-in-fifty-years opportunity that counts. As the Kupat HaIr website states: "Doesn’t it make sense to overextend yourself for nine minutes for the sake of your entire life? ... Your life depends on these 9 minutes. Will you be happy? Will you have money? What will your health be like? How will you be spared unfavorable decrees?"

Yes, they are raising money for a good cause. (At least, to some extent; I don't know how much of their charity goes to perpetuating the kollel system.) But I'm sure that there are many people who truly can't afford to give, but who do so out of sheer terror that they might be losing their chance to get married, to have children, to be healthy. I personally know of someone who themselves fell into dire straits because of this. And Rav Mattisyahu Solomon of Lakewood has decried the fact that single women desperate for a yeshua had contributed all their savings to Kupat HaIr, and turned to him when they didn't get married. He described Kupat HaIr's modus operandi as "absolute theft."

Furthermore, this form of fundraising spreads the idea that charitable acts are done in order to attain personal salvation, rather than to actually help others. And the next person promising miracles will take your money not to give to charity, but for their own pockets.

There is also the problem of the wider context: in the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). There is a real risk of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus.

And all this is quite aside from the falsehood in the campaign. No, your entire life does not depend on these nine minutes! Oh, and by the way: due to uncertainties about when yovel actually is, Kupat Ha-Ir ran the very same campaign four years ago, announcing that 1:43pm of November 26th 2009 was the ninth of the ninth of the ninth of the ninth! And they ran it again in 2011, claiming that that was the ninth of the ninth of the ninth of the ninth!

This sick, manipulative behavior all occurs, according to Kupat HaIr, with the backing of the (charedi) Gedolei HaDor. Fortunately, however, there are other rabbinic voices. Rav Shlomo Aviner delivered a lecture in his yeshivah in which he condemns the Four Nines as an attempt to use magic and shortcuts in place of genuine spiritual growth. As he points out, if it is so important, why is it not in the Torah? In the Gemara? In any of the major works of Judaism? Why didn't any of the famous rabbis of history mention it? And what's so special about the number nine, anyway? We need, says Rav Aviner, to focus on the truly important things, such as improving our characters. We should not be attempting to invent new magical shortcuts to salvation.

It's great to give charity. But give it to an organization that works in the right way, not one that tries to take advantage of people's fears. My personal favorite charity is Lemaan Achai, whose "gimmick" is not some mystical mumbo-jumbo, nor false promises of salvation, but rather that they practice charity in accordance with the highest ideals: working to wean people off charity. They don't raise as much money as Kupat Ha-Ir - but what they do raise, is raised honorably.

(Hat-tip to those who sent in the links. See too my post on The Ring Of Power)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gedolim Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

Over a year ago, in a post entitled Yated Wars: Reactions to the New Charedim, I described the emerging battle between two factions in the Israeli Litvishe Charedi world. One faction is of extreme charedim, who believe that one should not support hospitals, only yeshivos, and that one should not educate one's children towards earning a living. And that's the more moderate group! The other faction is even more zealous in its opposition towards any sort of accommodation with wider Israeli society. The first group is under the banner of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and runs the Yated newspaper; the second group rallies behind Rav Shmuel Auerbach, and runs the HaPeles newspaper.

For those who are unaware, in the last few weeks the hostility between the two factions has reached epic proportions. This was related to the municipal elections, in which the two groups fielded different political parties, Degel haTorah and Bnei Torah (a.k.a. Etz). It made the Bet Shemesh electoral unpleasantness look like child's play by comparison.

People in many kollels were instructed to sign a loyalty oath (!), stating that they will follow Rav Steinman and Rav Kanievsky, and will not read HaPeles, or else they will be expelled. The invective from Rav Shmuel Auerbach's side was equally incendiary, to the point that a somewhat deranged young man physically assaulted Rav Steinman. And in the latest episode, Rav Chaim Kanievsky described the people in Rav Shmuel Auerbach's camp as "animals," and said that Rav Shmuel is a zaken mamre who is chayyav skilah (liable for death by stoning)!

To say that all this is causing a crisis in rabbinic authority is putting it mildly. While Rav Aharon Feldman considered the ban on my books to have caused the greatest crisis in rabbinic authority in recent memory, this may well supersede it, at least for some people. After all, the Torah-science ban just pitted Gedolim against Rishonim; this fight pits Gedolim against Gedolim.

Just think about the questions that have been raised. Someone asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky if a lifetime disciple of Rav Shmuel Auerbach is allowed to follow his direction, and Rav Chaim answered in the negative. What on earth does this mean? I'm certainly no fan of Rav Shmuel's approach, but I don't understand the conceptual model of rabbinic authority in which his followers are told by others that they are forbidden to listen to him.

Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein presented a lecture by Rav Rubin, which attempts to provide an explanation of why it is forbidden for people to follow Rav Shmuel Auerbach, but it raises more problems than it solves. Why is unthinkable for there to be two different groups? After all, we already have Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Litvaks and Chassidim, Charedim and Dati-Leumi. Why is it forbidden for Litvishe Charedim to further sub-divide?

One person argued to me that for strategic political reasons, it's important for the Litvishe Charedim to be united around one voice. Well, obviously Rav Shmuel Auerbach has a different idea about strategies! Why is his view automatically disqualified?

And who says that Rav Steinman takes precedence over Rav Shmuel Auerbach? Some might say that the idea being presented here is that there is a Gadol HaDor, a single greatest Torah authority that everyone is deemed to follow, and that person is Rav Steinman. But this lacks any basis in halachah or tradition. Furthermore, it would mean that if Rav Steinman and Rav Kanievsky passed away, which would (in the charedi Litvishe mindset) leave Rav Shmuel as the greatest Torah authority, then everyone would have to follow him!

Another claim is that Rav Shmuel Auerbach is a zaken mamre (rebellious elder), because he is going against the majority. But last I checked, it takes a Sanhedrin to have a zaken mamre. Did Rav Ovadiah Yosef have to follow the Ashkenazi Gedolim, if they were in the majority?

Rav Rubin also claims that the level of aggression coming from the Rav Shmuel Auerbach camp demonstrates their illegitimacy. But no less aggression has come from Rav Steinman's camp, especially in light of Rav Chaim Kanievsky's recent statements.

Is there any good that can come out of all this? I believe so.

Consider the ban on my books. Contrary to Rav Feldman, I don't think that the ban on the rationalist Torah-science approach was a disaster for rabbinic authority. It was only a disaster for novel Charedi concepts of rabbinic authority, relating to "Gedolim" and Daas Torah. People gave up on following the Gedolim, and instead turned to their local rabbanim. The traditional type of rabbinic authority - a person's own community rabbi, who is of a similar background and understands him - was strengthened.

A similar phenomenon could occur here. As the charedi world, to put it in the words of Rabbi Eidensohn, "self-destructs," many people may realize how seriously problematic it is, especially with regard to its notions of charedi superiority, rabbinic authority, and Gedolim. Hopefully, they will return to a more traditional and healthier form of Judaism.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Marvellous Mandrake and the Mashgiach of Mir

The mandrake is an odd plant that, in the ancient world, was thought to have all kinds of marvelous properties, from being a fertility aid to having magical powers. The mandrake, which appears in this week's parashah, also had a wondrous effect on me: it had a pivotal role in transforming me into a rationalist.

My formative yeshivah years were spent in a decidedly anti-rationalist environment. I was taught that the system of natural law is an unfortunate entity that exists solely in order to enable free will - we have to have the possibility of blinding ourselves to God's stewardship of the universe. To the extent that a person rises in their spiritual level, they will be above the natural order.

Then I came across a discussion in Daas Chochmah U'Mussar 1:14 by Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1874-1936), mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshivah. He focuses upon the episode of Rachel and the mandrakes that appears in this week's parashah:
In the days of the wheat-harvest, Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes!” (Genesis 30:14)
Why was Rachel so eager for these flowers? The fifteenth-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno states that "these are a type of sweet-smelling herb which enable fertility." Rachel had not yet been able to bear children to Jacob, and hoped that the mandrakes would help.

But, for an anti-rationalist yeshivah bochur, far from explaining matters, this only served to complicate them further. After all, this isn’t just an ordinary person that we are talking about, but Rachel, wife of Jacob, one of the matriarchs and a righteous person of the highest stature. Surely she was fully aware that it was God Who was withholding children from her rather than any physical problem! And it was surely just as clear that her salvation would be through prayer, not through fertility drugs!

But Rav Yerucham Levovitz explained the Seforno in a way that transformed my attitude. He explains that natural law is not to be seen as conflicting with God’s authority. Just the opposite — it is a manifestation of His wisdom. God doesn't just make things happen arbitrarily; there is a system of cause-and-effect. It is important to recognize, says Rav Yerucham, that this is also true of spirituality - one's deeds, words and even thoughts have an effect. If a person does not see the system of cause-and-effect in nature, he will not see it in his spiritual life. If there is no derech eretz, no acknowledgment of a system to the world, then there is no Torah.

It took a while for me to fully absorb this message. Initially, when I recorded it in my youthful and primitive book Second Focus, I still wrote that Rachel's usage of a fertility drugs was in no way a cause of her having children, just a merit. But Rav Yerucham had set me on the path to Maimonidean rationalism. I had begun to see that natural law is not a negative phenomenon that just exists to give us free will, but rather it is the proper way for God to run the world. And when I eventually applied that line of thinking to the development of the universe and of life, I realized that it would be appropriate for God to have done this via an orderly system of natural law, rather than zapping things into existence.

So, that's how I came to a rationalist view of nature - from a marvelous mandrake and a mashgiach of Mir!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Mistake In Science, Or A Mistake In Torah?

Continuing our review of Rabbi Meiselman's book, I would like to draw attention to an astonishing principle that he asserts. First, though, for the benefit of those who have not read the book and are confused about his overall approach, a few words of explanation. Rabbi Meiselman's major thesis is that "if Chazal make a definitive statement, whether regarding halachah or realia, it means that they know it to be unassailable" (p. 107). But, says Rabbi Meiselman, if they make a tentative statement, it could potentially be in error.

(While Rabbi Meiselman does not remotely prove his assertion that any definitive statement of Chazal about the natural world is unassailable, we will not dwell upon that for now.)

Although Rabbi Meiselman concedes that tentative statements of the Sages could be in error, he insists that we ourselves are not allowed to draw this conclusion:
"The human mind - even that of a Tanna or Amora - has limitations... Sometimes even a great scholar may err... Nevertheless, 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)
In this post, I will not deal with the difficulty of reconciling this with countless topics from the Gemara and sources from Rishonim and Acharonim that are not mentioned in Rabbi Meiselman's book. It is sufficient for now to discuss only the difficulty of reconciling this with other topics in Rabbi Meiselman's own book.

Let us first consider the case in Pesachim, where it is Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi that concedes that the gentiles are correct with regard to the sun's path at night. That would initially seem to fit well with Rabbi Meiselman's principle. But let us suppose that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi would not have conceded to the gentiles (or let us suppose that that part of the Gemara would have been lost). According to Rabbi Meiselman, it would then have been forbidden for us to say that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night!

Rabbi Meiselman does not even seem to observe his own methodology with other cases that he discusses later in the book. For example, with regard to the mouse that is generated from dirt, Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal were not definitively stating that it exists, only tentatively exploring the possibility. It is therefore, he says, not problematic to point out that there is no such creature. But Chazal never said that Chazal were wrong! Isn't he contravening his own methodology, quoted above? Is he not being melagleg al divrei Chachamim by his own definition?

Things get even more strange and problematic when we read more about Rabbi Meiselman's approach regarding cases where Chazal were speaking tentatively and were in error:
"...Whether Chazal were speaking definitively or tentatively, they were never - in the opinion of these authorities - merely presenting contemporary science (note - in a footnote, he says that practical medicine may be an exception). They were presenting insights about reality derived from the Torah... Consequently, even when a tentative statement of Chazal is in error, it is not an error in science but an error in the interpretation of the Torah." (pp. 107-8)
This is remarkable! Remember how the Gedolim came crashing down upon me for saying that Chazal made errors in science, due to their following the scientists of their era? Isn't it much, much worse to say that Chazal were actually making errors in Torah rather than in science?!

Furthermore, how can this be reconciled with what Rabbi Meiselman writes elsewhere in the book? The most obvious example of Rabbi Meiselman's principle is the case in Pesachim. So, Rabbi Meiselman is telling us, the Sages who believed that the sun goes behind the sky at night were not following the contemporary Babylonian cosmology; instead, they were solely, albeit tentatively, deriving their position from the Torah. It is extremely difficult to reconcile this with what Rabbi Meiselman writes in the chapter about Pesachim, where he is arguing that the Sages of Israel were wrong precisely because they could not obtain their knowledge from the Torah (and to which I responded that elsewhere in the Gemara, we see that they did relate their cosmological view to Scriptural exegesis).

Those of us who follow the rationalist Rishonim and Acharonim, and who do not subscribe to Rabbi Meiselman's assertion that only Chazal can point to errors in Chazal's statements, will observe a remarkable phenomenon. There are numerous cases where Chazal's statements about the natural world are incorrect, whether they are referring to salamanders spontaneously generating from fire, seven-month fetuses being more viable than eight-month fetuses, the kidneys providing counsel, hyenas changing gender, etc. According to Rabbi Meiselman, we are not allowed to declare any of these to be mistaken; and even if they were mistaken, they were mistakes in the Sages' interpretation of Torah - they were not presentations of the mistaken science of their era and had no connection to it. But where does the Torah speak about salamanders coming from fire or hyenas changing gender? And isn't it an extraordinary coincidence that those insights which turn out to be in error are so often identical to the errors made by non-Jewish scientists of that era?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Anti-Rationalist Mania

In a previous post, "Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun," I referred to the topic of the sun's path at night - the single most powerful proof for the legitimacy of the rationalist approach regarding Chazal and science - in which all the Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Gemara is recording a dispute about the sun’s path at night; and the majority of Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Sages of Israel were incorrect. I demonstrated that when Rabbi Meiselman discusses this topic in his new book, he engages in concealment and obfuscation of the nature of the discussion and confusion of issues, and I showed that his attempt to render the topic irrelevant is flawed.

All this could not go unanswered, of course, and so in the comments to the post, some people argued back. One character, too afraid to use his real name and posting under the moniker "Observer," did not actually respond to any of my points, but repeatedly insisted that I am not remotely the Torah or science scholar that Rabbi Meiselman is, that no talmid chacham agrees with me, that I don't know how to learn the Rishonim, that I have no idea what the rakia is, that nobody cares what I say, etc., etc.

The strangest aspect of his comment is that even Rabbi Meiselman himself, at the end of all his attempts to obfuscate and mislead people in this section, is forced to admit that the Rishonim mean exactly what I say they mean! I quote: "...Chazal's self assuredness did not prevent them from admitting error when confronted with what they recognized as truth. According to most Rishonim... the passage in Pesachim is an illustration of just such an admission" (p. 148). Rabbi Meiselman attempts to argue that this is irrelevant to the larger Torah-science issue, for reasons that I have and shall further discuss, but he concedes that most Rishonim do indeed say that the Chachmei Yisrael mistakenly believed the sun to go behind the sky at night - exactly as I stated!

It's truly fascinating that in their zeal to discredit me, people will argue that I am wrong even when their heroes say exactly what I am saying!

Another response came from Rabbi Dovid Kornreich, a disciple of Rabbi Meiselman whose input is acknowledged in the book, and who is known in the blogosphere by his moniker "Freelance Kiruv Maniac." In response to my charge that Rabbi Meiselman had attempted to conceal the straightforward meaning of the Gemara, Kornreich claimed that there is no straightforward meaning!

Of course, this claim is nothing short of ludicrous. There indeed is a straightforward meaning. It's the literal translation of the Gemara. It's the explanation given by Rashi. It's the explanation given by countless Rishonim and Acharonim. It's the elucidation given by Artscroll and Soncino and Koren and Shas Lublin (Machon HaMaor), which gives the illustration shown here:

And, as noted above, even Rabbi Meiselman eventually has to acknowledge that this is the understanding of the Rishonim!

Kornreich's second claim was that the Rishonim give a host of different explanations regarding the nature of the rakia (firmament). However, this is entirely irrelevant. First of all, some of those were not explanations of Chazal's view of the rakia, but rather of these Rishonim's own understanding of the rakia of the Torah. Second, this is a red herring. It makes no difference what they thought the rakia was made out of. All that matters is that they accepted that Chazal mistakenly believed the sun to change direction at night and go behind the sky, as opposed to the correct view of the gentiles that it passes on the far side of the earth.

Kornreich attempts to argue that the Rishonim were not explaining the Gemara, just extracting the halachic relevance that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night, as per the view of the Gentiles. The problem is that if the Gentile scholars were correct about the sun going on the other side of the world at night, then the Sages of Israel were ipso facto saying that the sun does not go on the other side of the world at night and were incorrect. So Kornreich issues the incredible claim that the Rishonim held there to be no actual argument between the Sages of Israel and the gentiles: the Sages of Israel were talking about a metaphysical reality, wheres the gentiles were talking about the physical world. In other words, even though the Gemara phrases it as a dispute about cosmology, and R. Yehudah HaNasi chooses the opinion of the gentile scholars, there was actually no dispute about cosmology! This would be a fantastically far-fetched explanation to propose for the Gemara, but Kornreich goes even further and claims that the Rishonim held this view but made no mention of it! (And, once again, Kornreich is contradicting his own rebbe, Rabbi Meiselman, who eventually conceded that according to most Rishonim, this is an example of Chazal being in error.)

Moving to the Acharonim, Kornreich claims that that "by observing the extreme variety of their interpretations, one can tell this gemara appears to be far from straightforward." Actually, by observing the extreme variety of some of their interpretations, and contrasting it with the complete lack of variety of explanations among the Rishonim, one can reach a different conclusion: that the Gemara has a very straightforward meaning, which the Rishonim were fine with, but which many Acharonim were deeply uncomfortable with.

Kornreich argues that since R. Yehudah HaNasi agreed with the gentiles, it's not a case of saying "Chazal were wrong." But how is that at all relevant? The point is that several sages were incorrect about a basic fact of the natural world, due to their not having a divine source for this knowledge.

This brings us back to the way in which Rabbi Meiselman attempts to render this Gemara irrelevant to the rationalist approach. In the previous post, I noted why his attempt fails; there is no basis for concluding that Chazal's views on the sun's path at night were any different from their views on other aspects of the natural world. (In fact, unlike some of their statements about the natural world, Chazal related their view on the sun's path at night, and of the firmament, to pesukim. In cases where they did not relate their view to pesukim, they would be all the more ready to concede error.)

Rabbi Meiselman, followed by Kornreich, offers two sources to show that one cannot extrapolate from the sun's path at night to other cases. One is that Rabbi Yehoshua engages in a Scriptural exegesis in order to determine the gestation period of a snake. But what does this show? After all, the Sages also engaged in Scriptural exegesis in order to determine the sun's path at night. It might be different if we could show that Rabbi Yehoshua's exegesis was actually correct, but we can't even do that, forcing Rabbi Meiselman to claim that Rabbi Yehoshua was referring a particular and unknown species (which the Gemara, misleadingly, referred to with the generic term nachash).

Rabbi Meiselman/ Kornreich's second source is Rambam, who, when discussing Chazal's errors regarding astronomy, says that they lost the original correct Torah-based traditions in this area. For some inexplicable reason, Rabbi Meiselman (and Kornreich even more explicitly) takes this to mean that in areas where Chazal made statements about the natural world with no indication of uncertainty, these were based on the Torah and are infallible. Korneich claims that "The exception proves the rule." No, all it proves is that Rambam believed that the Jewish People originally had correct Torah-based traditions regarding astronomy (which is particularly religiously significant, and which is hinted to in a verse about the Bnei Yissacher). It proves nothing at all about Rambam believing that they had correct Torah-based traditions in areas of the natural sciences such as zoology. On the contrary; if they lacked Torah-based knowledge for something as basic and religiously significant as where the sun goes at night, all the more so did they lack Torah-based knowledge for obscure and largely irrelevant matters such as zoology.

But, to return to the points above, what are we to make of Observer and Kornreich insisting that I am wrong, even on points in which Rabbi Meiselman eventually concedes the exact same thing? Is it that the ultimate goal is not to say that Chazal were right or even that Rabbi Meiselman is right, but rather to say that Slifkin is wrong? But surely the only drive for that is precisely because I said that Chazal and Rabbi Meiselman are wrong? How does it make sense that if I am wrong, then ipso facto Rabbi Meiselman is right and Chazal are right, if he's agreeing with me that Chazal were wrong? I guess people get carried away with their anti-rationalist mania.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Various Notes and Announcements

1. Some people really hated the posts about Bet Shemesh politics. Other people greatly valued them. Some people really hate the posts about Rabbi Meiselman's book. Other people greatly value them. Please realize that different people like different things. If you don't like a particular theme that I'm dealing with, please just skip it and come back another time! (Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog via e-mail, so as to never miss a post, and to have them all archived.) By the way, I will be interspersing my review of R. Meiselman's book with other posts.

2. This February, I will again be visiting the US for a lecture tour, to NY/NJ and LA. A major goal of this trip is to raise funds for three large projects that I am involved in: The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, a documentary on the animal kingdom in Jewish Thought, and especially The Jewish Museum of Natural History. If you are able and willing to host a parlor meeting in which I would give a presentation and raise funds, please write to me.

3. Visiting Israel? You can see part of the collection for the Jewish Museum of Natural History, and enjoy a hands-on presentation about the animal kingdom in Jewish thought. A one-hour presentation, for a group of up to twelve people, is $100. For reservations, write to with "museum visit" in the subject line.

4. Are you making aliyah? If you are doing a lift from the US to Israel, I would very much like to put a flat-pack animal cage on it for the museum, that is only available in the US.

5. This coming July, I will once again be guiding a kosher safari with Torah in Motion, to South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Please write to me if you are interested in more details.

6. Several people have suggested that I join FaceBook or Twitter, to help spread my material. Thanks for the suggestion, but no! It would just be too much of a drain on my mind and my time.