Friday, January 31, 2014

Guest Post: Rav Yonah Merzbach on Modern Geocentrists

"And the earth abideth forever"-- Is it literal or figurative? (click here for original Hebrew version)

Written by Rav Yonah Merzbach ZT"L, published 1976
Translated by David Ohsie (corrections welcome and encouraged)

Update: Rabbi Dr. Yonah Merzbach (1900-1980) was for many years chief editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudit and former rabbi of Darmstadt, Germany and a faculty member of Yeshivas Kol Torah. [*]

Section 1

Man was commanded to "replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) -- the command includes subduing the forces of nature, forces that were hidden in the creation, which was created by the maker of all things.  In order to subdue them, one must investigate and understand them.  It is well known, and a tradition in our hands, that before the end-times there will slowly be revealed to the eyes of all, many of the secrets of the creation, and God's honor will be thereby elevated.

And in truth, within the past few hundred years, and especially in the past few decades, many of the of the secrets of nature have be deciphered by Man.  The vast distances of space in the universe and the paths of the stars have been clarified;  hidden waves invisible to the eye have been revealed.  The structure of the tiny atom has been deciphered, and within it is contained a mighty power capable of destroying worlds, except that its creator restrained it with a mysterious power that holds it together.  If not for that, all things would disintegrate in an instant...Blessed is the one who in his goodness renews each day the act of creation.

And inasmuch as man expands and understands the creation and its secrets, and the image of world is renewed in his eyes, behold he trembles, is fearful and is terrified by the greatness of his Creator and His wisdom, in matters both large and small (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah Chapter One, that according to the understanding of his time he mentioned only great things); and the righteous will walk on that path, and will understand and see the divitinity of it, and will add to the love and fear of Him, and the transgressors who close their eyes from seeing, will be stumbled by them.

Section 2

To the masters of the holy spirit, and to them alone, are revealed the ways of nature and its laws from the verses of scripture and the words of our sages of blessed memory.  Others are liable to make errors in this.  The Torah was not written to be a book of natural science, and it was not for this purpose that our sages of blessed memory said what they said.  Whoever wants -- and there were some like these -- to prove that there is a boundary to the sky in the east and the west, or that the earth is flat and not spherical, relied on the statements of our sages of blessed memory and erred, because they didn't understand that "the Torah speaks in the language of man" (see Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:9 and 1:12) and in like manner spoke our sages of blessed memory and similar things can be found in the figurative language of our prayers and our praises.  These words are only an outer vestment for the extremely deep matters, and riddles by which to express secrets (see the Rambam's introduction to the Commentary on Mishneh).  And there are those instances where they spoke according to the knowledge of their era to the people of their generation.  And as much as mankind enlarges his understanding, he changes his language, however the words of God will stand for eternity and his word stands erect in his laws and in their lofty ideas and thoughts hidden in the garb of their words.

Section 3

"Who is a wise man?  One who learns from any man" -- the word "man" was precise, meaning even a gentile.  And one who says to you there is wisdom among the nations -- believe him; יש אמונה בגויים - חס-ושלום! אל תאמין, and do not learn from others faith and a worldview, but rather knowledge and wisdom.  And the Rambam wrote (laws of the sanctification of the moon, end of chapter 17) that in such matters where the reason for each claim is revealed and the truth is known, we don't concern ourselves with the identity of the author, even if a gentile authored it.  And an aspect of the holiness of our Tannaim was demonstrated in the argument -- which outwardly touches upon scientific matters -- that occurred between the sages of Israel and the sages of the nations, in that which they said that "their words appear truer than our words".

Section 4

For what purpose have all these words been said?  In an article published in "Digleinu" in the Tishrei 5736 issue entitled "revealing faces in the Torah", the author poured out brimstone and fire on the heads of those who "paskened" like Copernicus, that the earth rotates on its axis over the course of a day, rather than the sun and stars revolving around it.  With the holy anger of the jealousy of God and his Torah, he saw in this "position" denial and apostasy.  In truth, he himself writes that there were among the our great decisors -- Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Moshe Sofer -- who apparently did not see in the position of Copernicus any defect in the foundations of our faith, and one actually agreed to it [1], while the other -- in truth, apparently in accordance with the experts of his generation that he asked, because he himself did not feel himself to be an expert in this matter -- was doubtful because there were arguments on either side of the issue; however, he did not write of any defect in this belief.  However, the author of the article was angry and annoyed and judged as evil and found guilty anyone who accepted this "position".

And he set down his foundations and his proofs on the verses from the story of creation -- about which the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah said that it is "a deep mystery that is not well-understood from the scriptures" -- and from the words of our sages of blessed memory an their statements according to the their outward appearance (see above).  And all of this was written in a era [2] where man can go into outer space and to land -- with precise calculations and understanding of their laws of motion -- his man-made devices on the moon and the planets, and all this is beside the other proofs of the rotation of the earth, all of which has been proven true.  But he, the author, in his article wants to claim that all the of the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon, and all the stars, among them at huge distances that are counted in millions and billions, revolve in twenty-four hours around the sphere of the earth -- that is to say, if so, with such great speed that they are moving millions and billions of times faster than the speed of light [3].  He hides his face from facts, and then finds others guilty of "revealing faces"?

Section 5

It is not because of the ignorance that is contained in this "jealousy of God" that I am angry and mock, and not even because, through this, he calls believers and the pious [4] deniers and heretics, or because it would be permitted to degrade one that calls me an evil one.

Rather it is because I am concerned with three things:  1) The desecration of God's name, that through this he makes us targets of mockery and laughter in the eyes of others who will mock the denial of reality by those who are God-fearing. 2) And of the purity of belief, that through this he mixes up the concepts of belief which the Torah and Chazal have described, with regard to which beliefs are mandatory and which are not. 3) And because of the danger to to the public, that through this he endangers the belief of those young people who will go out at some point and hear from others that which will open their eyes, and they will infer a general principle from this case in which they were taught ignorance, to respond, God forbid, in the same way to everything that they are taught.

It is incumbent upon sages who write in periodicals to be careful in their words so that they not become a stumbling block. And therefore I wrote these words.


[*] Biographical details from the preface to the reprint of Rav Merzbach's article in Ohr Yisrael, Dr. Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, and the wikipedia entry for Yeshivas Kol Torah.
[1] Rav Emden actually ended up opposing Copernicus although some things that he wrote seemed to indicate possible agreement.
[2] Written in 1976.
[3] According to Relativity, this apparently would not actually violate any physical laws.  On can, if one likes, look at the earth as stationary and the universe revolving without violating any physical laws including the velocity of the stars from that viewpoint.  However, in the ordinary usage of the term, it is the earth that rotates (e.g. the rotation causes an equitorial bulge).
[4] Literally, חרדים, and I originally translated as Charedim.  This left the a possibly faulty impression of who was being referred to (per commenter "Norm").

Update: Here is the full quotation regarding the "faster-than-light" argument:
There are other arguments used [against geocentrism], and they seem like good ones but in fact they don’t work out in real life. For example, the most obvious one is that distant stars are light years away. If they circle us once per day, they must move faster than light, which is impossible! This is true even for Neptune; at its distance it would have to move at just faster than light to make one circle every 24 hours. 
I thought about this, and wound up asking my friend the cosmologist and fellow Hive Overmind blogger Sean Carroll. He confirmed my thinking: relativity says the math has to work out if you change a frame of reference, so if you do the detailed relativistic equations to look at the motion of distant objects, it still works. Things actually can move faster than light relative to the coordinate system, it’s just that things cannot move past each other with a relative speed greater than light. In the weird geocentric frame where the Universe revolves around the Earth, that is self-consistent. 
In other words, the Neptune-moving-too-quickly argument sounds good, but in reality it doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t use it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest Post: On The Difficulty of "Paskening" Science

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

A couple of years ago, Rabbi Slifkin published a post on the difficulties of "Paskening" scientific matters.   I'd like to share what seem to me to be some interesting examples that I found in a recently published book.  First I'll bring isolated examples of deriving conclusions about science from Torah, without describing the subject matter or personalities involved, by substituting [...] in the appropriate places.  I also put in bold arguments that strike me as parallels to contemporary arguments.

Quotation #1:
All the early philosophers were in agreement that [...]  As a result, many [scientists] have made fools themselves when they declare that [...]. They have left us with a lie, and the truth will bear witness that [...]  Rather they claim that [...] and because of this they mock our sages of blessed memory who stated that [...]
Quotation #2:
Woe to our generation who would question why [...] For one who believe in the Torah of Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace, and who believes that God has allowed his Divine Presence to shine in the lower world and [believes in God] who came in a great showing on Mount Sinai, who revealed himself to humanity...such a person would have no trouble in understanding why [...].   My teacher, the great [...] always had this reply at the ready.  He would say that the entire enterprise of [...] was to study the stars and the like...and as a result [...] found no purpose for the [...] and could not understand why [...]. But this is not so for us, the children of Israel who study the Torah that is even greater than [...] The proofs of [...] are in no way convincing for he has no say in this matter at all. We must follow the path of our Torah, which is followed by all the statements of the Rabbis and books of kabbalah...God forbid that any wise Jew would accept a lie...
Quotation #3:
"This system is absolutely false, do not believe it and do not listen to them in any way, for this is rejected by the Scriptures and by the holy prophets. for it states [...] All of these verses must be interpreted according to their plain meaning, namely that [...]"

Here are the full quotations.  I don't bring this to denigrate any of these authorities, God forbid.   We are no more intelligent or knowledgeable that they are; we just have better information available to us due to an accident of birth.  [Update: I'll add that even some of the greatest scientists in history sometimes were sometimes very mistaken about science.  Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on alchemy, and Linus Pauling on an odd obsession with vitamin C.  Albert Einstein never came to terms with the quantum theory that he helped to invent.]  My purpose is to show that even great Talmidei Chachamim can face great difficulties in deriving science from Torah.  I think that this should give pause to others trying to go down a similar path.

Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz:
"All the early philosophers were in agreement that the stars orbit [the earth] in order to obtain [spiritual] perfection, and this is how they worship God, just as we worship God through the performance of his mitzvot in order to obtain perfection for our souls. They reach perfection for their intellectual souls through their movements and continued orbiting...just as God ordered them to be quick and orbit the Earth each and every day.
As a result, many astronomers, including Copernicus and his supporters, have made fools of themselves when they declare that the Earth orbits [the Sun]. They have left us with a lie, and the truth will bear witness that the Earth stands still for ever... Since the reason that the stars orbit is to become [spiritually] perfect, being endowed with both a soul and intelligence, any challenges raised by Copernicus can be answered. They asked, could it be that the Sun and all the planets move simply to illuminate the tiny Earth? But this is not an objection, for they orbit to obtain spiritual perfection and to receive Divine influence, for this is the service that they have been commanded to perform. Now, some later Christians maintain that not all the planets are intellectual or spiritual beings, and that they lack an intellect that drives them. Rather they claim that the planets are inanimate material, just like, the Earth itself... and because of this they mock our sages of blessed memory who stated that the planets rejoice and are happy in their performance of the will of their creator.
Rav Israel David Schlesinger, student of Chasam Sofer:
Woe to our generation who would question why the Sun would orbit the Earth.  For one who believe in the Torah of Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace, and who believes that God has allowed his Divine Presence to shine in the lower world and [believes in God] who came in a great showing on Mount Sinai, who revealed himself to humanity...such a person would have no trouble in understanding why the Earth would be more important than the Sun.  He will believe what is clearly stated: "and God put them [the Sun and the Moon] in the skies to light up the Earth" [Gen 1:17].  My teacher, the great Rabbi Moses Sofer always had this reply at the ready.  He would say that the entire enterprise of Copernicus was to study the stars and the like...and as a result [Copernicus] found no purpose for the Earth and could not understand why the Sun would orbit it.  But this is not so for us, the children of Israel who study the Torah that is even greater than the Sun.  It is indeed fitting that the Sun should shine on the Earth, not for the sake of the planet, but for the sake of those who dwell on it and who study that which is even greater than the Sun...  The proofs of Copernicus are in no way convincing for he has no say in this matter at all. We must follow the path of our Torah, which is followed by all the statements of the rabbis and books of kabbalah... God forbid that any wise Jew would accept a lie...".
R. Reuven Landau:
This system is absolutely false, do not believe it and do not listen to them in any way, for this is rejected by the Scriptures and by the holy prophets. For it states in Kohelet that "the Sun rises and the Sun comes" and in the tenth chapter of the book of Joshua it states "...the Sun stood motionless in Givon" and in the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah it states "..The sun returned ten degrees, the number of degrees that it has moved."  All of these verses must be interpreted according to their plain meaning, namely that the Earth rests in its place, and that the Sun, the Moon, and all the planets orbit it.
Quotations and translation taken from Dr. Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.  Dr. Brown posted here previously on Rabbinic Responses to the Transit of Venus.  See also יחסה של הספרות היהודית לקופרניקוס במשך הדורות by Rabbi Eliezer Brodt.

The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Guest Post: Summary and Conclusion [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 8)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“[This] is a principle (klal) that the Rambam makes in his Perush HaMishnayos. When one has a question of historical fact or hashkafah – there is no p’sak. In a question of halachah, after there is a discussion of different opinions, we must come to one conclusion. Anyone not abiding by that conclusion is going against halachah – ke-neged halachah. However, in the case of hashkafah, or historical questions, this is not true” -- Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Age of the Universe: A Torah True Perspective

“Say a great Sage comes to a conclusion opposed to that of the Sanhedrin, but the Sanhedrin rejects his reasoning. The Sage is entitled to keep his opinion; there is no ‘thought control’ in the Torah.” -- Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, Freedom to Interpret”.

In prior posts, we have seen that in his book, Torah, Chazal, and Science, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman attempts to counter the approaches of Rabbi Kaplan and Rabbi Carmell to resolving potential conflicts between Torah and Science. Both Rabbi Kaplan and Rabbi Carmell leveraged the principle that P’sak does not apply outside of halacha to enable us to pursue novel interpretations of pesukim in order to reconcile such potential conflicts. They both based themselves, in part, on the repeated, explicit statements of the Rambam supporting the view that there is no P'sak in hashkafa or any other theoretical matter.

Rabbi Meiselman, in my humble opinion, attempts a radical reinterpretation of the Rambam’s words in order to assert that hashkafah is just like halacha. Just as in halacha, we follow the system of P’sak and do not allow each individual to follow his own opinion of which Tanna, Amora or Rishon he prefers, so to, in Rabbi Meiselman’s opinion, our opinions in hashkafah must conform to a “haskafic” decision making process determined by great authorities. According to Rabbi Meiselman, “There are times when a person must serve God through the use of his logic, but there are times when he must serve Him through the relinquishing of his logic.” (TCS pg 689).

In this series of posts, I believe that we have successfully shown that the Rambam simply doesn't admit of this interpretation. His plain language (אין מקום לפסוק כאחד מהם) says that he doesn't allow for P'sak outside of Halacha.  The Rambam would theoretically admit of interpretations of pesukim that are consonant even with an eternal "Providential" universe; he emphatically rejects the eternity of a "Providential" universe due to a lack of evidence.  And when the Rambam discusses the possibility of the universe's eventual destruction, an area which Rabbi Meiselman takes as an example par excellence of p’sak in Hashkafah, the Rambam himself says “those who [...] reject our view [...] are at liberty to do so. [...] Their faith, however, does not suffer by it.”   I believe that we’ve established that, at least according to the Rambam, it is valid to say that we cannot "pasken" the age of the universe.

I’d like to to take the liberty to make a few more comments about Rabbi Meiselman’s book as a whole and to bring one more argument from his book that is relevant to this topic. In general, while I personally disagree with many of the book’s conclusions, I respect the fact that Rabbi Meiselman does not simply bring his own interpretation of his sources, but instead quotes large sections of the sources themselves. This gives a reader like myself the ability to more easily form his own conclusions on the topic. A large portion of the sources for these posts were in fact derived from Rabbi Meiselman’s book. I hope that I've similarly provided the reader with sufficient source material to form their own judgement.

Rabbi Meiselman repeats many times in his book that the interpretation of the Torah is not a “free for all”.  I want to emphasize my agreement with Rabbi Meiselman on this point. I believe strongly that Rabbi Carmell, Rabbi Kaplan, and others are also not advocating a “free for all”. Rather, they are attempting, as the Rambam did before them, to interpret the Torah in a manner that fits with the basic observable facts of the world around us.  In fact, I believe that this essay supports the conclusion that Rabbi Carmell and Rabbi Kaplan are engaging in the farthest thing from a "free for all"; they are following the plain meaning of the Rambam's words quite closely.

These posts have targeted the Rambam’s position on P’sak in hashkafah. However, Rabbi Meiselman also brings a source outside of the Rambam to prove that there is P’sak in hashkafah:
Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions. (Eiruvin 13b).
I’m sure that there is much to be said about this Gemara, but I’ll leave that to others. What I will say is that I believe that one’s interpretation of this Gemara is a kind of litmus test for their approach to this topic. Rabbi Meiselman sees in this Gemara a straightforward and literal explication of of his principle: when you have a philosophical dispute, it is to be resolved authoritatively by a vote of the authorities. I believe that we’ve shown clearly that the Rambam simply does not interpret this Gemara literally, and I believe it clear from the rather abstract issue that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were arguing about, that neither side ever envisaged a definitive solution, let alone a “P’sak”.

I’d again like to thank Rabbi Slifkin for allowing me to be a guest poster on his blog. I’d also like to thank him for his continual support in providing important source material such as Rabbi Carmell’s essay as well other sources that he’s made available to me in the past. And of course for all the hard work exemplified in his books and his blogs which we've all benefited from. And finally, for standing up, at a not inconsiderable cost, for some important principles.

I'd also like to thank the various commenters who have helped to sharpen by my views and added important sources.   I encourage further comments and will continue to answer questions and comments to the best of my ability.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Guest Post: Does the Rambam Pasken Hashkafa Using Halachic Principles? [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 7)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“Even a cursory examination of the Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim reveals that the Rambam clearly rejected hashkafic dictums that he believed to be minority views” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 620.

[Update: To provide better organization, I gave the posts more informative titles and set them up to be easier to navigate.  Content has not changed.]

In our last post, we demonstrated that the age of the universe was not subject to P’sak according to the Rambam. In this post, we’ll look at Rabbi Meiselman’s evidence that the Rambam used halachic principles to reject minority views in “hashkafah”.  In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis is directly contradicted by the Rambam himself.

Does the Rambam Decide All Issues Using Halachic Principles?

Guest Post: A Clear Statement from the Rambam on the Age of the Universe [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 6)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie.  All rights reserved

In our previous post, we examined Rabbi Meiselman's contention that "hashkafah" is practical.  In this post, we'll examine whether or not such a category of "practical hashkafah" can be applied to disputes of the age of the universe, making it amenable to P'sak.

Can we "pasken" the age of the universe?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Guest Post: Is there P'sak in "hashkafa"? [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 5)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie.  All rights reserved

[Note: if you are interested in some further discussion of the last post, please see this supplementary post below.]

“The truth of the matter is that the Rambam’s principle in Peirush HaMishnayos -- that he will not decide issues without practical import -- is not relevant to haskafic questions in the first place” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 619

In our previous post, we demonstrated that Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis that the Rambam “definitively rules” on non-halachic matters was not well-supported by the evidence, in my humble opinion. In this post, we’ll discuss the next element of Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis: that questions of “hashkafah” lie outside the Rambam’s limitations on P’sak.

Guest Post: Response to Some Objections [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 4A)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

This is a short interlude to summarize some of the reaction to our last post.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Guest Post: More Evidence From the Rambam On P'sak [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 4)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie.  All rights reserved.

“The Rambam, more than any other Rishon, rendered specific decisions regarding hashkafah”. -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 625.

In our last post, we discussed the evidence against the first two elements of Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis: that the Rambam considered P’sak to be optional on non-halachic matters, and in fact did rule definitively on many of these matters in Mishneh Torah. In this post, we provide additional evidence.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Guest Post: Evidence from the Rambam on P'sak [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 3)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“... The Rambam states that he does not feel compelled to decide issues with no practical ramifications. In the Mishneh Torah, however [...] he often rules even on such matters”. -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 618.

In our previous post, we described Rabbi Meiselman’s view of the Rambam on P’sak outside areas of practical halacha. In this post, we’ll examine the first element of Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis.

Rabbi Meiselman first argues that the Rambam actually issues p’sak all the time on matters that are not of practical import, and his principle is that he merely “will not necessarily give a definitive ruling” (TCS pg. 616).  In my humble opinion, this thesis is very difficult to maintain for three reasons: it contradicts the words of the Rambam; it contradicts the Rambam’s reasoning; the evidence adduced for this thesis does not actually provide any support.

Guest Post: Rabbi Meiselman's Thesis [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 2)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“And I’ve already said to you once that if the sages argue in any Hashkafah or view whose result is not at all practical, then it is not appropriate to say ‘the halacha is like so-and-so’” -- Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, Sotah 3:5

“This is how the decision-making process functions in the realm of halacha, and in matters of hashkafah the procedure is no different.” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 624.

In our last post, we examined the Rambam’s position on P’sak in matters that lie outside of  the realm of practical Halacha, in accordance with the positions of Rabbi Aryeh Carmell and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In this post, we’ll examine some objections to our interpretation of the Rambam based on Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s position recently published book.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Guest Post: Can we “pasken” the age of the universe? (Part 1)

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“We’ve already mentioned to you many times that with regard to any argument between the sages which does not involve practice, but rather the establishment of a theory, there is no room to render a p’sak that the halacha is like one of them” -- Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, Sanhedrin 10:3.


A recurring theme in the ideological battles over Torah and Science is a dispute over a somewhat technical issue: what is the role of halachic decision making (P’sak) in deciding theological questions and the interpretations of the Torah? Is a majority considered authoritative in such matters? Are minority opinions and individual opinions (Daas Yachid) excluded? Rabbi Aharon Feldman says “yes”, while Rabbi Aryeh Carmell and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, say “no”. In this series of posts, we will explore this dispute mainly from the perspective of the Rambam and some recently published interpretations of his work.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Have Your Futile Arguments About Evolution Right Here!

(Don't miss the newsflash at the end of this post!)

Arguments about evolution are almost always a waste of time. For starters, they are often unfocused, with one person talking about common ancestry and the other talking about evolutionary mechanisms. Then there's the problem that opponents in such debates usually have fundamentally different epistemologies. Furthermore, for virtually all anti-evolutionists, it's not really a scientific matter - their fundamental motivations are due to religious sentiments or societal identification.

But how people love to argue about it! The previous post was about classical views on the origins of domestic animals, yet people kept on trying to have arguments about evolution. I had to prevent a lot of comments from being posted, because I don't like it when comment threads spiral off-topic. But I felt bad, because people so clearly wanted to argue about evolution. And so this is a special blog post, on which you can submit comments with arguments for or against evolution, to your heart's delight! Have fun!

NEWSFLASH: I'm on my way to Los Angeles and New York, for two weeks of lecturing and fundraising for various projects. It will be difficult for me to post anything, and so I've recruited someone who will be filling in for me at Rationalist Judaism, publishing a fascinating and important series of posts. Incidentally, if anyone is able to give me a ride from Lawrence to Manhattan on Sunday morning of Jan. 26th (and you can attend a multimedia presentation on dinosaurs at LSS), or from Lawrence to Teaneck (or somewhere close) on the morning of Tuesday Jan. 28th, please be in touch!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who Made Cows?

What do people who reject evolution think about the origin of cows? Were cows made by God? Or did man domesticate cows from wild aurochs in the last few thousand years?

The same question goes for lots of other animals. Did God make dogs, or did man domesticate them from wolves? Did God make sheep, or did man domesticate them from mouflon? Did God make pigs, or did man domesticate them from wild boar?

I'm not asking this question in order to challenge contemporary creationists or attempt to prove anything to them - I've long given up on such things. Rather, I am pursuing a historical investigation.

It would seem that the creationist position ought to be that God created cows. After all, that would appear to be the most straightforward explanation of the Torah, which states (Gen. 1:25) that God made the behemos and the chayos. Chayos means wild animals and behemos means domestic animals. Accordingly, the various lines of evidence for domestication are to be dismissed, and the genetic similarities between dogs and wolves, pigs and boar, and sheep and mouflon are simply coincidence - er, I mean inexplicable Divine providence. (The Gemara presents a view that the shor ha-bar - presumably the aurochs - is a domestic cow that has gone feral.)

However, I discovered that Malbim, in no less than four places (Gen. 1:28, 2:20, 7:3, and Lev. 11:2), writes that domestic animals were created by man. Accordingly, he is forced to explain that when Genesis describes the creation of behemos and chayos, those terms do not refer to domestic and wild animals, but rather they refer to herbivores and carnivores; thus, the deer is a behemah. Only later in the Torah do these terms change in meaning.

Malbim is forced into such a difficult explanation of the terms because, as he states, scientists have shown that domestic animals were domesticated from wild animals. But, curiously, Ramban also defines behemah and chayah in Genesis 1:25 as referring to herbivores and carnivores (and Abarbanel also seems to prefer this view). Netziv points out that this explanation is difficult, since the deer is certainly classified in the Torah as a chayah, and the dog, according to one view in the Mishnah, is a behemah. What, then, motivated Ramban to explain the verse in this difficult way? It does not seem that he would have been aware that domestic animals originated in wild animals. Can anyone shed any light on Ramban's motivations?

Likewise, so far I have not been able to discover any other sources dealing with this topic - if anyone can dig up something (which would most likely be from the 19th century), I'd be indebted.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

And Man Made Godolim In His Images

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled "And Man Made Godolim In His Image." In that post, I discussed an essay by Jonathan Rosenblum, which claimed that the Gedolim secretly agree that the kollel system is deeply problematic and should be radically changed. I argued that it is more likely that Rosenblum was simply re-creating the Gedolim in an image more amenable to his non-charedi background, modern American worldview, and post-charedi sensibilities - as he has done on other occasions.

In a fascinating new post at the Seforim Blog, Dr. Marc Shapiro demonstrates another potent example of the phenomenon of people re-creating Gedolim in a more preferred image. There is a biography of Rav Elyashiv, written in Hebrew, which was "translated and adapted" into English. The English adaptation re-creates Rav Elyashiv to make him into the type of person that would be considered a Gadol by Anglo charedim, as opposed to the type of person that is considered a Gadol by Israeli charedim. For Israelis, portraying Rav Elyashiv as a Gadol means describing how he was completely absorbed in his learning to the negation of all interpersonal relationships, even with his own family. But for Americans, this would not be seen as a sign of greatness at all. Instead, it would be seen, at best, as simply a sign of an introverted personality, and at worst, as a personality defect. And so the English biography cuts out many of these stories, and adds a claim that Rav Elyashiv's family members held back from him because he would care too much.

It's long been known that many "Gadol biographies" are simply hagiographies that seek to inspire rather than present an accurate portrayal. But this is a fascinating example of how different communities can have opposing ideas of how to do that.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why People Don't Wear Techeles

In light of all the evidence in favor of identifying Murex trunculus as the source of techeles, why do so many Jews (including myself) not wear it?

There are those who claim that there are substantial objections to identifying Murex trunculus as the source of techeles. As I noted in the previous post, these almost always turns out to stem from an anti-rationalist viewpoint. For example, it may indeed be true that the Murex trunculus does not match various descriptions given by certain Rishonim, but that is only relevant if one make the anti-rationalist assumption that the Rishonim knew exactly what it was. And claiming that the real chilazon is some unknown or lost creature that nobody has ever discovered, and that the archeological remains of Murex factories and blue Murex-dyed fabric is a red herring, is not consistent with a rationalist outlook.

But even from the perspective of those who consider such objections valid, they are not the underlying reason why these people do not wear techeles. Even if there were no such objections, these people would still not wear techeles. In the comments to the previous post, one person offered the following explanation of why various groups of people do not wear techeles:
* Haredi rabbis: We don't deviate from the previous generation's mesorah, even if they call left "right" and right "left".

* Haredi layfolk: Because my rav doesn't wear it.

* Modern rabbis: We probably should, but it's not my mission.

* Modern layfolk: Eh, not interested. Plus, the people who wear it tend to be, er... "eccentric" types.
An elaboration of the reason why Haredim do not wear techeles was offered by someone else:
Charedim don't care about techeles because they are particular about halachos that are part of their mesorah. If the techeles was discovered through research it is not a part of their mesorah, and they won't deal with it. It is perfectly consistent with their approach to halacha/mesorah. It is similar to the Chazon Ish's statements on newly discovered texts. It's all interesting academically but he would not use a newly discovered text to overturn centuries of halacha.
This is all essentially correct, and it's similar to what I once heard from a prominent rav in the charedi community. It's also consistent with the patterns that I described in my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making Of Haredim. Orthodox Judaism, as per its academic definition, came about as a reaction to the challenges posed by modern society. In order for Judaism to survive against the drastic changes that were taking place, it became extremely conservative. Immense resistance developed to change, if that change was perceived as coming out from external sources. Haredi society took this approach to even greater extremes.

I strongly disagree with the person who posted a comment claiming that such reasons are "100% definitely heresy" and based on "sinat chinam." Once you open the door to changing the practice of Judaism based on external sources and academic research, you have opened a Pandora's box. I'm not saying that there is never a place for this - each case must be weighed up separately. But it is certainly understandable that there are those who would rather sacrifice a mitzvah than place the entire edifice of Orthodox Judaism as risk.

There is much merit to this approach. Ironically, it is very similar to the approach of none other than Rav Herzog regarding Chazal and science. Rav Herzog acknowledged that Chazal granted permission to kill lice on Shabbos based on a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation. However, he maintained that it is still permissible, due to the authority of the Gemara. It is similar to the celebrated case of tannur shel Achnai, which teaches us that adhering to the protocols of halachah is more important than the "objective" truth about the halachah. Behind all this is a concept that religion requires authority and stability. (I elaborate on all this at much greater length in my book Sacred Monsters.) The ramifications of this are that in an age when there is so much threat from change, we have to be very cautious with any change.

It's true that wearing techeles is a mitzvah. But Jews have not worn techeles for many centuries. Reintroducing techeles is a significant change - and it comes from people who are (a) academics rather than rabbis, and (b) not from the charedi world. For many Orthodox Jews, and especially for chareidi Jews, techeles is therefore an innovation that comes from outside sources.

In case there is any confusion, I am certainly not saying that nobody should wear techeles. All I am saying is that the charedi opposition to wearing techeles is very understandable, in light of their worldview regarding Judaism.

What about me? My own reasons for not wearing techeles are not too different from those of the charedi community. Aside from my work with Biblical and Talmudic zoology, my public role is of saving rationalist Judaism from extinction. While for many people, rationalist Judaism is a spiritual life-saver, it is certainly destabilizing for many others. And while there is a crucial difference between theology and practice, it is often very difficult to get that point across. When I stress that the Sages based some of their rulings on a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, there are inevitably going to be some people who see that as calling for a change in halachic practice, no matter how strongly I stress my allegiance to the approach of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner. Furthermore, some of my work spills over into the realm of practice, such as my essay regarding kezayis. And so I think that I personally have to be extremely cautious regarding changes in practice. (See too my post on Seder Historical Realities Versus Seder Traditions.)

To put it in other words: I already rock the boat quite a lot. It is quite likely that at some point wearing techeles will become mainstream, and then I'll be glad to join the crowd. But in the meanwhile, I think that it is wise for me to be as conservative as possible in the area of practice. I must also add that I have not yet been able to research this topic as thoroughly as I would like to, and so it is possible that I may change my mind!

(Please note that the delay in blog posts is due to a very heavy workload. For this reason, I will probably not be able to respond to all the comments that this post may provoke. Sorry! Also, while I have your attention, if there are any readers in New Jersey or Long Island who are interested in hosting a parlor meeting in their home on January 22nd, please be in touch. Your help is greatly appreciated!)