Friday, October 24, 2014

Dangerously Presumptuous Drashos

This is not a post about climate change. I am saying that from the outset, because for some people, saying that you think that there is such a thing as man causing climate change is like saying that you eat babies, or support Obama.

Instead, this is a post about the problems of being presumptuous in interpreting the Torah.

Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran (who, intriguingly, has often written in support of Obama) argues that there is no such thing as harmful climate change caused by man. Whatever the merits of that position, what bothers me is the Torah argument that he offers in support of it:
Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).
Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily – “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1 16:30) – reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.
The problem is not only that there does not appear to be any firm grounds for understanding this verse, "the world is fixed so that it cannot falter," as negating the possibility of harmful climate change. Even worse is that there is a long history of this very verse being used to make claims about the natural world that turned out to be mistaken. Numerous prominent Acharonim, including such luminaries as Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, used this verse to argue that the world is stationary and that Copernicus was therefore wrong (for extensive discussion, see Jeremy Brown's excellent work, New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.)

But it gets even more ironic. You don't need to search for an ambiguous verse that can be interpreted as telling us whether it is possible for man to harm the world. There is an explicit Midrash, based on a Scriptural exegesis, that says clearly and unambiguously that there is indeed such a danger:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1)
Is mankind causing the climate to change, with dangerous repercussions? That's not a question that Judaism can answer; it's a question for meteorologists. But is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, for man to harm the world in such a way as to have harmful repercussions? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.

48 comments:

  1. So many *American* Jews are religiously convinced otherwise because the alternative would force them to think about why they vote Republican.

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    1. Alan, with all due respect, the Reform movement's official policy statements are basically indistinguishable from the Democratic national platform. The problem you are describing is prevalent across the board. In fact, you tell me what's worse: your religion essentially dictating you vote a certain way, or using your religion to justify why you vote in a certain way.

      Anyways, I agree with R' Slifkin that it's dangerous to try to interpret ambiguous verses to support very firm positions. Everything may be in the Torah, but it's hubris to assume you know how to derive all of it.

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  2. Oh, you said the "G" word. Now you're going to get it.

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  3. Its fascinating, from a psychological perspective, how you so often fail to perceive shortcomings in your viewpoint/arguments, that you are so quick to see in others. Truly, אין אדם רואה נגעי עצמו.

    First, you open with a disingenuous comment that only makes you look bad. The "Global Warming" (which you now call Climate Change) skeptics do NOT view global warming on a par with supporting Obama. Though surely the mental thought process that causes one to vote one way or the others might be correlated to the thought processes that causes one to believe in or not believe in global warming [and the statistics claimed by believers to support it] that is by incidental nature only. Your comment shows you haven't grasped that.

    As for the Possuk in question - are you suggesting the verse is capable of sustaining one interpretation only? That because one person interpreted it one way, it means another can't interpret it the other way? By your logic, all arguments for global warming must be rejected, because thirty years ago we were being told of the coming ice age. And if global warming has now been replaced by climate change, that itself, according to your argument, would be a reason to disqualify it.

    Finally - you misunderstand the religious point of view. There's a reason why the overwhelming majority of believers in climate change are also atheists/agnostics. The religious view Man as being too small to make SIGNIFICANT damage to the planet. Sure, we can cause harm in some small measure (which is all the midrash implies.) But the true believers in global warming speak in terms of cataclysmic events caused by nature, of the type depicted in movies.

    Bottom line - try playing your favorite game, of writing an identical post to yours, but from the mirror image perspective. Start with saying that for some people, not believing in climate change is like eating babies. You might end it like this:

    Is the climate experiencing its usual peaks and valleys, measured over millennia, with no dangerous repercussions? That's not a question that Judaism can answer; it's a question for meteorologists. But is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, that the world is experiencing the same weather patterns it has always experienced? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.

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    1. "The religious view Man as being too small to make SIGNIFICANT damage to the planet."

      But that is the point. This is demonstrably not the view of Hazal who did say man could cause vast amounts of harm.

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    2. Goodness, DF, unless you have a degree in that witchery (and even then...) let's leave psychology out of this. The only shortcoming R'Slifkin suffers from is the understandable assumption that so many scientists and institutions cannot be wrong given the assumed credibility of the parties and the assumed health of the self-correcting mechanisms in the science disciplines. It is not an unreasonable assumption to make...although Temujin would argue that in this particular case it is a wrong one, as the newly-concocted discipline of "climate science" is demonstrably fueled by political and fiduciary concerns which have lead to outright fraud. One is reminded of a similar case; the impossibility of critiquing kabbalah. So many exalted personalities, schools of thought, halachic decisions, poetic and artistic endeavors, mega-tons of books and endearing customs are entangled in it, that even mild critiques elicit panicked shouts and dire warnings about the collapse of the entire edifice of Orthodox Judaism. To test this, try taking off your tallit and sitting down to peruse through your siddur during lecha dodi....

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  4. >>>
    And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.
    <<<

    I agree with the previous comment, but I would phrase my thoughts differently:

    . . . They're religiously convinced otherwise, because it means they don't have to
    . . . listen to the meteorologists.

    . Charles

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  5. While I think it's absurd to use the verse in Divrei Hayomim as proof that mankind cannot destroy the world, your counterargument citing an equally ambiguous Midrash has even less merit.

    - Where the former clearly says "it cannot falter", the latter is a series of if statements.

    - Where the former is an address by David to the masses, the latter is a specific conversation between God and Adam. (You might argue, convincingly, that Adam is an allegorical reference to all men, but the text clearly refers to the biblical Adam character himself)

    - Where the former is a verse of the Old Testament itself, the latter is a Midrash


    I'm not saying that Rabbis who cite ambiguous bible verses to justify their personal beliefs are in the right. I'm saying it's more common than sliced bread and if you want to sway anyone, your counterargument can't be a doubly-dodgy Rabbinic reference.

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    1. Your first objection is utterly silly. It still clearly say Hazal thought destroying the world was possible.

      The second is also utterly silly. Who else would such a statement be addressed to? Adam was the first Human and the progenitor of the rest.

      As for the third statement, I'd the verse said "Do what you want. The world isn't going anywhere," you'd be right. It doesn't. And the Midrash shows clearly that at least one member of Hazal, who knew the verse, still assumed world-wrecking was possible. However you want to interpret the Midrash

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  6. The problem is that many people who believe in hashgacha pratit confuse it with God making some sort of promise that you, personally, will not have harm come to you. That's not what hashgacha pratit (God is responsible for what happens to you) means at all. But the Holocaust seems to be a distant memory for those who confuse God's promises to the Jewish people with promises made to individual Jews.

    God has made exactly one promise: that the Jewish people will survive. If global warming really is happening, all that means is that if the oceans rise and cover the Earth*, a minimum of twelve Jewish women will happen to be on Mount Everest at the time, one from each tribe, and each pregnant with a boy and girl. No promises beyond that.

    But that's apparently too uncomfortable a notion for those streams of Judaism whose stability of belief actively depends in the constant, baffling assertion that רע לו can't possibly happen if you're a צדיק. This is why you get things like rabbis saying, rather offensively, that soldiers who died in Lebanon fell only because they were mechalel shabbat.

    * Yes, I know this is not actually possible even if the glaciers melt. Poetic license.

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    1. Since you display an amusing keenness for being pedantic - can I make the point that technically you only need one of the twelve women to be pregnant with a girl (as well as a boy) as all the boys besides for the twin brother can marry just one of the girls following death or divorce.

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    2. Sorry that should have read 'two of the twelve women'....

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    3. A further suggestion: To vary the genetic pool, adopt R'Emden's pilegesh proposal, expand its application to yeshiva guys (they are scholars, i.e., kings as well) and problem solved, with the bonus of extra father-in-laws to provide respectable parnassa.

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    4. Ah, but then nobody in the next generation can marry their sister.

      There might be away to organize it if there are *two* twin girls for the boys, but I can't be bothered to work out the math.

      But I was wrong about one thing: you need fourteen women. The twelve tribes that don't include Levi, plus one Levi, plus one Kohen.

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  7. Dont need to look so far. In Bereshit, God says to Adam, "Guard it" what need for a guard if there is no danger of harm?

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  8. While the verse that Rabbi Shafran quotes may not be firm ground for the negating the possibility of climate changes, there is a verse in today's parsha - parshas noach - that seems to do just that: "For the rest of the days of the world... (fall and spring), summer and winter, day and night will not cease to be." (Genesis 8:22)

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    1. They won't cease. They may be rather less comfortable.

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  9. I think you have it backwards when it comes to the Torah. The Midrash is most probably a traditional idea passed on from Moses and read into the verse, as many Midrashim are. On the other hand, an explicit verse does not mean much without tradition to explain it; "an eye for an eye" would be viewed literally as the non-Jews do (particularly Muslims), whereas our tradition teaches that it means monetary payment. The Midrash's Rabbinic reference is viewed by us fools as either a tradition, or at the very least a very solid exegesis which has more authority than an unclear poetic verse in Tanach.

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    1. This was a response to Anonymous

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  10. I am a climate change skeptic but agree that the Torah cannot be used as proof for my position.

    As far as why some religious Jews take this attitude: I think it has to do with the fact that they believe Hashem wouldn't "let it happen" -- the same way they believe that an asteroid will never hit Earth and destroy it.

    I find this reasoning faulty for two reasons (despite the fact that I am a climate change skeptic):

    1) It's not wise to "dare" Hashem -- especially since free will is the basis of the Torah and Hashem often lets man live with the reprecussions of his deeds. If he didn't, free will would be somewhat undermined. It is at least vital that we *believe* (whatever Hashem might do behind the scenes) that our actioons have reprecussions.

    2) Even if Hashem theoretically wouldn't let us completely destroy the earth, that doesn't mean that our acts can't cause mayhem short of complete destruction.

    In sum, I don't believe all the hype about climate change, but I don't believe that the Torah can be used to "prove" that man-induced climate change" is impossible.

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  11. Off topic: Today's paper has an ad about R' Ovadia Yosef's yahrtzeit- do teshuva and rabbis will pray for you. OK, maybe, but then at the bottom is an offer for the last bit of the jam made from R' Ovadia's last etrog. Eat it and he promises you'll get salvation!

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  12. Why trust meteorology more than alchemy? (I do believe in man made climate change based on personal observations but not in meteorologists who are susceptible to fads as anyone and whose long term forecasts are often the cause of much hillarity.)

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    1. On personal observations ? You can detect averaged global surface temperature fluctuations measured in the tenths of a degree Centigrade over the span of decades? And you can separate natural multi-decadal temperature variations, micro-climate urban heat island effects and Milankovich cycles from those supposedly caused by human action? Cool.

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  13. This is a quote from Psalm 93 verse 1: Metsudah has it translated as, "He has firmly established the world so that it cannot be moved."

    As Shafran suggests "...that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos."
    The very first mitzvah we should be doing, in addition to cutting back on pollution is 'clean up all the pollution we have already caused to our waters, air and landfills.'

    The naysayer would have us believe if they can prove that man made pollution somehow is not detrimental to the world's climate, it is also therefore not harmful and safe for humans. Let them try to tell this to all the cancer patients.
    o

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  14. I sent my objection to Rabbi Shafran, and his response was to deny that he denies human-caused climate change.

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  15. Irony aside, do these two citations reflect a machloket?

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  16. A careful reading does reveal that he doesn't deny climate change or that humans can cause climate change... he just vilifies those who believe either that humans are harming the Earth irreparably, or if so, that we can and should do anything about it. As R' Slifkin says above, he denies "HARMFUL climate change CAUSED BY MAN" (my emphasis). Humans can cause climate change -- but it can't be harmful, or there can be harmful climate change -- but not caused by humans.

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  17. That denial makes sense. After all, Rabbi Slifkin himself quoted the context of Rabbi Shafran's use of the verse in Divrei Hayomim which was only to support the idea that people cannot utterly destroy the world--contrary to the hysterics of the climate-change crowd. He was clearly countering their dire predictions of the future with that verse- not that humans can't damage the earth!

    Rabbi Slifkin totally missed the mark with his objections and his source in the midrash.

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  18. Too weird for Temujin....pseudo-science ("climate change") duking it out with pseudo-theology (the Eybeshutz Stale Earth hypothesis)...so he'll skip this round. Anyway, what's this "change" business? What happened to good old "global warming"? Oh, right, satellite temperature data show a decline (aka, the ongoing "pause") for the past 18 years in spite of rising CO2 levels . "Where would you like us to move these goal posts Ma'am?"

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    1. I agree that meteorology is an immature science with deeply flawed models- and indeed that any science of complex chaotic systems will lack precision. Nevertheless something is happening. Global warming is perhaps too simple a moniker but climate changes are happening and its hard not to link that to CO2
      http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

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    2. Thanks for the chuckles, Nope, rather droll to see pseudohistorical revisionism on a pseudoscientific site run by a PR firm.

      Moniker, meteorology is not responsible for the GW hypothesis; an initial handful of scientists and political activists, followed by a dedicated UN office, new energy industries, mendcious alarmism by celebrities and several billions of targetted government funding and PR are responsible. WHAT is this "climate change" caused by supposedly? No other mechanism or hypothesis has been offered...ever... apart from the supposed greenhouse egfect-induced WARMING effects from anthropogenic CO2 on the entire global climate! So why play silly-buggers with terms?

      Just to be clear, Temujin is not defending Rabbi Shafran's reasons for his position which appears to be based on his peculiar theological interpretations and on his political preferences and alignments rather than science. These may be legitimate...
      Temujin is a theological dunce and cant comment on that part, and climate alarmism is clearly favoured by the Left and opposed by the Right...but neither of these have anything to do with the science part of the debate. O, yes, and please, do write NASA and ask them why the historical record and their own satellite data on surface temperature has demolished their own modeled "projections." You do remember those scary predictions of even 10 years ago? Like no more snow in temperate zones by now, melted glaciers, coastal cities and entire islands under water, billions of climate refugees fleeing catastrophic desertification....

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    3. The graph you link to has no data between 2001 and 2014.

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  19. I see you didn't post my critique of your post. This, even though you know I generally support your viewpoint and have even given you citations for your books. That's disappointing. It shows you have no more intellectual integrity than any one of the people you regularly attack. If you want to have the veneer of a comment section, as though you were open-minded, you should have the honesty to print even the hard hitting critical ones.

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    1. The only comments that I deleted were those solely relating to Democrat vs. Republican, which were not relevant to the post. Presumably you didn't enter the "captcha" correctly.

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    2. I'm pretty sure I did, but I've sort of lost the zeal to write a full critique again.

      In a nutshell, if you were to use your favorite game of writing a mirror image critique of your own post, you'd see the flaws in your reasoning. You would end with something like: "Is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, that mankind cannot destroy God's world along the apocalyptic repercussions so often predicted by the true believers in climate change? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise."

      Also, the fact that some rabbis may have interpreted the verse in Chronicles one doesnt in preclude others down the line from interpreting it differently. By this logic, the "climate change" theory should also be discarded. 35 years ago we were being warned about Global Cooling and the coming ice age. 10 year ago it was Global Warming and the flooding of cities because of melting icecaps. Now they call it "Climate Change." If different rabbis over centuries cannot interpret pesukim differently, why should we accept so many flip-flops among the believers, and within so short a time?

      Anyway, it was longer before. Bottom line, its a touchy subject. Opening paragraph disclaimers don't help. [Think how that paragraph would look in the mirror image.] Your closing line about people being "religiously convinced" can, with absolute equality, be applied both to believers and non believers of global warming. From my perspective the religious hysteria and irrational believers are all in the climate change camp, but to keep the peace we should say both sides have both types within them.

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    3. Ah, I found your comment, in the "spam" folder. I don't know why Blogger sent it there.

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    4. Keep it there. My apologies for thinking it was purposeful. Keep up the good work.

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    5. FTR I also posted a comment that isn't up and makes no reference D vs. R. Note that I am note the same "Isaac" whose comment was posted above.

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  20. The idea that we cannot harm ourselves because God will continuously protect the Earth is ridiculous and demonstrably so. Let's forget climate change for a moment. I assume most everyone can accept that pollution is bad. A single picture of the smog in China should suffice to realize what happens when there is no system in place to limit pollution. If you have a water source that you continually dump garbage into, it will no longer be clean and drinking it will be harmful. Even if you don't believe that human actions can shift the climate, surely everyone believes that human action can cause bad and unsafe things. Where do people think all the garbage goes that's dumped into landfills or oceans? What happens to chemicals that go into the air? The Earth has the ability to recuperate from some of this, but not if it happens continuously. Your body can handle a cigarette a week, but not a pack a day. Yes, God can protect the Earth from irreparable damage if He wants. But it seems to me that's asking for a miracle. Climate change is a straw man in this argument. It's about humans' ability to cause harm to the planet which is so blatantly, obviously the case, I'm flabbergasted that this is even a debate.

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  21. For the record, it should be noted that the debate is not only whether "climate change" is man-made or not, it is also over whether there is any such thing as "climate change. " The question is whether something has changed in the Earth's weather patterns, or whether the Earth is experiencing the same fluctuations it has always shown, over centuries. Some answer both questions with a "yes", some both with a "no", and some take a middle path. Each side can marshal scientist and documents ad nauseum to support their own view.

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    1. Only one side, though, is endorsed by major American scientific organizations.

      AGU: "Human-induced climate change requires urgent action. ... Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of global warming. These observations show large-scale increases in air and sea temperatures, sea level, and atmospheric water vapor; they document decreases in the extent of mountain glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and Arctic sea ice. These changes are broadly consistent with long-understood physics and predictions of how the climate system is expected to respond to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases. The changes are inconsistent with explanations of climate change that rely on known natural influences."

      AMS: "There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities. This scientific finding is based on a large and persuasive body of research. The observed warming will be irreversible for many years into the future, and even larger temperature increases will occur as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Avoiding this future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The ongoing warming will increase risks and stresses to human societies, economies, ecosystems, and wildlife through the 21st century and beyond, making it imperative that society respond to a changing climate."

      ACS: "Comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real, largely attributable to emissions from human activities, and potentially a very serious problem."

      APS: "The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now."

      NRC: "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems."

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    2. DF: And the obvious should be noted too: Who decided that warming is actually bad? Why are so few not laughing at the astoundingly stupid premise behind the alarmism? 100 million years of "greenhouse earth," the Eocene, gave us an explosion of life, most importantly mammalia, and "recently" every warm period has been a boon to humanity, with population growth and emergence of civilizations, while every cooling from global "snowball Earth" ice ages to moderately cool periods have been life-killers, with specie extinctions, pestillence, wars, famines, desertification and declines or disappearances of major civilizations. This is why historians were the first to scratch their heads over this warming panic nonsense (a warming which barely compares to the Bronze Age, Greek, Roman and Medieval ones) with its ludicrous predictions of doom.

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  22. A good post. Attaboy Rabbi Slifkin!

    I learned on this very site the Ramban's rule that Rabbis should not poskin about anything except halacha (or should do so with great caution). They can tell you whether your chicken is kosher. They should not tell you whether the Torah precludes climate change, or requires us to vote for Democrat, or whether Hurricane Katrina happened because we failed to take some required action.

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  23. Every system has its limitations. This is a rough summary of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. (For those not well-versed in the terminology, in math and science, a theorem or theory is a fact, and not just a good guess as some would understand it.) It can be applied here. We are talking about knowledge systems. There will always be things within any knowledge system, that, while true, can't be proven within a system. Science and Torah are two knowledge systems. They each have their limitations. Science does not address matters of morals and ethics, how to live a proper life, however it is a reliable way to determine facts about the physical world. Torah tells us how to live a proper life but it is not a reliable way to determine facts about the natural world. This, in my mind, doesn't diminish Torah any more than your doctor is diminished by not knowing how to fix cars. Rabbis look foolish when they try to extend Torah beyond its limits to address matters of pure science, especially when it is so obvious they have no knowledge or understanding of science. They harm their own credibility and that of Judaism; they are supposed to be representatives of Judaism but pontificating outside one's area of expertise, trying to make it a religious issue, makes one wonder where else are they so terribly wrong about an issue. Not only does one have to keep in mind the limitations of the system they are working in, "A man's got to know his limitations". I think it also implies a certain insecurity by not being able to accept that Torah doesn't address every issue that may confront a person. Science doesn't either. However, if we simply apply Torah to those issues for which it is suited and apply science to those issues for which it is suited, they we have two very powerful, very reliable tools to address all sorts of issues. Isn't this better than constantly trying to hammer pegs into the wrong holes? It may be that this separation, these limitations, are only apparent because our minds and understanding are limited and Torah actually is an authoritative source for all knowledge. But until we can see how that can be, I think it is better to stop approaching one from the other, and just accept them for what they are and make the best use of each of them.

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  24. The only side of the story which gets any media attention is the side which claims humans are altering the climate with so called "dangerous consequences".

    Anyone who dares challenge this "settled science" (a total misomer, the minute science is "settled" it ceases to be science) is denied grant money and called out on taking bribes, being dishonest, etc..

    Quite similar to certain practices by overzealous religious groups, some of which have been mentioned on this site in the past.

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  25. It's also important to note that the case may well be we are CURRENTLY too small to make an impact, but someday in the future with more technological development and with more of the earth covered in factories, we might reach that point.

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  26. I am a little confused. Who is the Rabbi here? Anyone who attaches Rabbi to his name? SO Rabbi Slifkin is also one of the Rabbis?
    Shafran represents himself and the radio in his car, permanently welded to Rush Limbaugh etc. The Rabbis I know have not offered an opinion on global warming and the like. The one I did speak to about vaccinations (I was not asking for myself, a doctor wanted the halacha if a person decides not to vaccinate may he endanger other children in the class? He wanted a halachic opinion, not a medical one) did not speak like those quoted on the internet.

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