Wednesday, January 13, 2016

There Ain't No Such Thing!


"There ain't no such thing!"

This is a familiar sentiment to Orthodox Jews with rationalist leanings who have spent a long time in yeshivah. Whether the rebbe is telling you about mermaids, humanoids growing from the ground via a cord attached to their navel, or impossibly large animals, the modern and educated student has a hard time believing that such things exist.

"An albino cyclops shark?! There ain't no such thing!"
Yet the question itself is often rebuffed as an act of heresy. Sometimes, this is directly because of the prestige of the authority that is being challenged. In other cases, it is because of the prestige being given to science that is considered unwarranted. In those cases, the questioner is often rebuffed with phrases such as "scientists don't know everything," "scientists don't know anything," or "you can't prove a negative - you can't prove that something doesn't exist!"

It is therefore valuable to see the following comments of R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, better known by his acronym Ritva. The subject is a mysterious fish in the Gemara, Avodah Zarah 39b, named a kilbit. Rashi identifies it as a fish that is spontaneously generated inside vats of fish-juice - but Rashi notes that it is only generated from the juice of kosher fish, and if there is juice of non-kosher fish mixed in, the kilbit will not appear. Ritva objects to this:
"This explanation is exceedingly difficult - first, it is not logical that there is such a thing, and it does not exist in nature."
This is a perfect expression of the rationalist inclination. The existence of such a creature does not make sense, and furthermore there does not appear to be empirical evidence of such a creature.

(At first, I was bothered by this comment of Ritva. After all, belief in spontaneous generation was perfectly normative throughout the medieval period. But there are two possibilities. First, we see that Rambam, while insisting on the reality of spontaneously generating insects, was skeptical of the possibility of spontaneously generating mice, presumably because it is a larger and more complex creature. Second, it could be that Ritva is not objecting to the spontaneous generation of this fish per se, but rather to the aspect of it only spontaneously generating from the juice of kosher fish.)

So would Ritva's comment be good ammunition for those seeking to defend the rationalist approach to their non-rationalist teachers? Of course not. The inevitable rejoinder would be "But you're not Ritva! He could say it, but you cannot!"


(Reminder: I am travelling to New York tonight, then to LA next week. If you would like to meet or join parlor meetings in support of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch!)

31 comments:

  1. I think the part that doesn't make sense to the Ritva is the only from Kosher fish juice thing. Spontaneous generation is just something that happens to not be the way nature works. There is more of a logical objection in principle to the Kashrus of the fish juice affecting what would or would not spontaneously generate within it. This would require Halacha directly and observably affecting reality, which is just not something that we ever see, and is probably too mystical and metaphysical a notion of Halachic law for the Ritva's taste.

    This reminds me of a discussion I once had in Yeshiva regarding the Halacha about the Besulim of a girl returning when she isn't 3 years old, and how that is Halachically considered to depend on the Ibur Shana. If the Sanhedrin add a month to the year she will not be 3 years old in Adar Bet and therefore will still be considered a Besula. If they don't add a month then she will be 3 years old and thus no longer a Besula. The Rosh Yeshiva brought this as an example of "Halacha determining reality", that what is being said is that the Ibur Shana will actually physically affect whether the Besulim will grow back. When I expressed skepticism about this to a distinguished and actually very intelligent and well-informed (not to mention very nice) Avreich, he said: "Well, what this basically comes down to is whether you actually believe in G-d or not". So if I think it is highly unlikely that a decision about when to extend the Jewish calendar in order to realign it with the solar calendar will affect the biological function of little girls it is because I don't believe in G-d. I think that about sums up the basic Yeshivish attitude to such things.

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    1. Halacha does determine reality. Maybe the Rosh Yeshiva didn't understand the halacha though.

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    2. A lunar year is 354 days long. If 3 x 365 days is the relevant time period and there is an upcoming leap year, then that time period has not elapsed. (Whether this is in fact the relevant time frame, or whether this is as fallacious as the rest of ancient medical knowledge is another matter.)
      The explanation posited by your Rosh Yeshiva is part of a disturbing tendency of the irrationalists to interpret rational statements in an irrational manner. For example, the Talmud states that if raindrops join together they would destroy the world. A rational understanding of this statement is that bucket-sized raindrops would be rather destructive. So how do the irrationalists explain this? They say that global destruction would ensue if two raindrops collided and merged.
      A similar argument to Ritva is applied to the purported danger of consuming milk together with fish. I forget which, but one of the commentaries on Shulchan Aruch says that this should be disregarded because "we see every day" that it's fine. The same argument should be applied to the purported danger of consuming meat and fish together, but good luck with that.

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    3. I think that there is another more fundamental problem than suspension of disbelief. It is the application of legal reasoning to non-legal topics. In the legal realm, there is a yes/no age of majority, age of consent, etc. These, to some degree arbitrary, sharp cutoffs facilitate bright line rules, but they do so as the cost of deviating somewhat from the underlying reality that they represent, which is gray and not black/white. Legally, defendants are either guilty or not guilty (0 or 1 if you will), but the real world is analog and not digital.

      If that was understood, then it would be understood than no exact shuir in halachah corresponds to any underlying reality exactly. 3 years is an estimate of something, but even if the solar calendar was used, there was never going to be an exact correspondence with anything real.

      For example, the Talmud states that if raindrops join together they would destroy the world.

      The Talmud is right: What if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single giant drop?


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    4. shai, David,
      The Rosh Yeshiva in question quoted the Yerushalmi correctly. It is found in Ketubot 1:2, Nedarim 6:8, and Sanhedrin 1:2. אמר רבי אבין אקרא לאלקים עליון לא-ל גומר עלי בת שלש שנים ויום אחד ונמלכין ב"ד לעוברו הבתולין חוזרין ואם לאו אין הבתולין חוזרין. Rav Avin asserted that the determination of Beit Din to extend the year affects the regeneration of a girl's בתולים. The majority of Rishonim, (Ra'aviah, Rashba, R. Mordechai b. Hillel, Ran, R. Shimon b. Zemach, R. Yitzhak Aramah, R. Judah Mintz), take this Yerushalmi at face value and accept that the natural phenomenon of בתולים regeneration is contingent on the halachic ruling of a Beit Din. Indeed, Rashba in Torat Ha'Bayit 7:3 uses this Yerushalmi to rebuff Ramban's skepticism about the ability of a psak Beit Din to affect natural phenomena (cited by Ra'ah ad loc). Furthermore, the literal reading of the Yerushalmi is supported by a parallel statement of Rav Avin in Y. Sanhedrin 6:7, where he uses the same passuk to substantiate that God endorses human rulings by means of natural intervention. However, Meiri (Ketubot 11b) understands that Rav Avin is simply stating that even in regard to halachot that depend on natural phenomena, we nevertheless follow an arbitrary psak Beit Din, even inasmuch as the ramifications of the psak do not, and cannot, precisely reflect the reality it seeks to describe. It is therefore not a statement about the supernatural effects of a psak, but rather a comment on the necessity of halacha, - and equally, any legal system - to have categorical laws that do not conform to every subjective reality. This is very much congruent with Meiri's strong rationalist leanings. (However, Meiri had a different and incorrect version of the passuk the Yerushalmi cites - לאלקים גמר עלי, and he uses his reading support his understanding of the statement. The correct version of the passuk cannot be read as Meiri does).
      It seems,
      1)A great number of rishonim were prepared to accept an anti-rationalist view expressed in the Gemara, even one which presumed supernatural effects.
      2)Ramban held that it was illogical that the psak Beit Din should affect natural phenomena, although it is inconclusive how he would deal with an explicit statement of a gemara to that effect. (However, the Chatam Sofer in Teshuvot ח"ג סימן ו understands Ramban differently).
      3)Meiri was sufficiently resistant to the anti-rationalist perspective that he preferred to adopt a forced reading of the Yerushalmi, even considering that a different Yerushalmi supported the anti-rationalist reading. (I think that this is particularly telling, since Meiri preferred to take the Gemara at face value and give a larger-than-olive shiur for the Kezayit, instead of adopting the shiur of an actual olive. Apparently, he was ready to accept a ruling of the Gemara that did not conform to reality, albeit one that did not rely on supernatural factors. Obviously then, he felt that the literal reading if the Yerushalmi was completely untenable).

      In sum, I do not think that it can be conclusively shown that Ritva would be adverse to accepting an explicit statement of the Gemara indicating that halacha can supernaturally effect natural phenomena, which seemed to be the prevailing view of the Rishonim, certainly in the Tosafist school that Ritva was a part of. Perhaps he only rejected Rashi's anti-rationalist peshat because it was an unsubstantiated interpretation.
      R Stefansky

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    5. As I said, this is a rational explanation. It's just not how the irrationalists understand it.

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    6. R Stefansky, thank you for that informative comment. I think that a major dividing line among contemporary Jews would be there answer to the question of whether, being shown conclusively that the majority of Rishonim do indeed hold of the anti-rationalist position here, that will determine their position on the matter. For I must say that it certainly does not determine mine. It is obviously and categorically absurd to me that the Halacha will influence reality. Our modern world with it's constant observation and measuring makes it simply impossible to believe that such a thing reliably occurs under everyone's nose. This of course will also serve as a (rather obvious and oft-repeated) defense of those Rishonim. They simply hadn't the benefit of our observations.

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    7. Halakha influences reality in the same way that American law, or for that matter, any legal system influences reality. Take for example, DUI legislation. Despite the fact that there is no difference in impairment between someone with a BAC of .079 and someone with a BAC of .081, one of them is a drunk driver and the other isn't. Even though the two people are equally impaired, the law creates the reality that one of them is impaired and the other isn't. The same here with the regrowth of betulim. Halakha states that betulim regrow provided that the person is under the age of three. While this could be 36 months for one individual and 37 for another, the legal reality is that it is three years, regardless of the fact that one set of three years may be longer than the other set.

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    8. Anonymous, I couldn't find the quote in the torat habayit, could you help me find the page?

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    9. It's found in the Mishmeret Ha'Bayit, (Rashba's rejoinder to Ra'ah's glosses in Bedek Ha'Bayit), at the beginning of שער ג.

      R Stefansky

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    10. The halachic decision does not revert physical damage. It's merely halachically considered intact. Physical examination would not confirm regeneration.

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  2. Hi Rav, I am a big Chossid of your, but in fairness what you're leading with is not a question. Attitude plays a big role in these discussions (fairly or unfairly) and a Rebbe should react very differently to "There ain't no such thing!" from "How are we meant to understand this, given that this is illogical and not supported by science?"

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    1. Isn't that odd, though? If you tell someone the sky is blue, and he disagrees, does it matter whether he does so respectfully or tells you you're an idiot for thinking that? It will affect how nicely you respond, but either way, you can easily show him that he's wrong.

      I think the reason that defensible religious precepts demand respect is because with it, you can pretend that they're somehow in some sense right - " How are we meant to understand this," rather than, "This is obviously wrong." Without that respect, they quickly become ridiculous.

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    2. What would be a proper reply to each?

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    3. G*3, I don't think that's odd - it's part of dealing with people, that emotions come into play, and people identify personally with the positions they have taken, thus an attack on my belief is an attack on me. I am consistently witness to the "equal and opposite reaction" in the heat of arguments, and no one ever ends a shouting match saying "hold on, hold on, you're right and I'm wrong!"

      So it may well be that we don't want to give credibility to their position - but think of it rather as giving respect to their person.

      Anyway, there may well be times that a direct attack on someone else's position is called for. Fine. But then claim it for a justified attack - my issue with the article is that an attack is branded as a question, and I think we should be aware of the difference.

      (My name is Sam, the title is for a blog I started with my students and I use it so rarely elsewhere that I haven't changed that, but I'm not attempting to appeal to authority!)

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  3. I was present when a rabbi in Baltimore told his questioning congregant that "there is no such thing as dinosaurs."

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    1. He was right - there is no such thing as dinosaurs. They went extinct quite a while ago. :)

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    2. Technically he's correct. There IS no such thing as dinosaurs, unless you think the Jurassic Park movies are documentaries. However, there WAS such a thing as dinosaurs, once upon a time.

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    3. As a Baltimore resident, I would find it most helpful to know which Rabbi said that. Thank you.

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    4. My sixth grade Rebbe explained dinosaurs to us.

      The waters of the mabul (Great Flood) had magical properties - it was, after all, a supernatural flood - they were boiling, for example, and they caused buried bones to grow and age. What atheistic scientists present as dinosaurs were really only salamanders. (I assume the only dinosaur with which he was familiar was the brontosuarus, today the apatosaurus.)

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    5. It's possible that more than one rabbi in Boston think that way.... just saying

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    6. And dinosaur bones found in Italy are really the remains of Hannibal's elephants when he crossed the Alps.

      And the dinosaur footprints you can see in the rock at Beit Zayit just outside Yerushalayim are bird tracks.

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    7. ...as in "there was no such thing as dinosaurs."

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  4. The inevitable rejoinder would be "But you're not Ritva! He could say it, but you cannot!"
    No, the correct response would be "it's a forgery!"

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  5. A similar argument to Ritva's is applied to the argument that it is dangerous to consume milk together with fish. I forget which, but one of the commentaries on Shulchan Aruch says that this should be disregarded because "we see every day" that it's fine. The same argument should be applied to the purported danger of consuming meat and fish together, but good luck with that.

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  6. You won't tell us about the luz bone or other such bits of fiction?

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  7. The wikipedia entry for 'garum' (the roman age fish sauce you refer to) has a reference to 'kosher garum' in vesuvian graffiti. Might this be the attributed to the (western world) legend (vs the ritvah's eastern world upbringing)?

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    1. Good point! Garum continued to be made and used in the Romanized Mediterranean world long after the fall of Rome, so Ritva of Seville was most likely familiar with it.

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  8. In general I've found arguing such points useless. At some point they prove that everything I said is invalid if you accept their ridiculous interpretation of what mesorah is, or if you accept the validity of the zohar, or some other point which is just too fundamentally engrained In their worldview to make it worth arguing. And if you do you very quickly get called an apikores.
    We are dealing with a difference between two mindsets that is too great to be bridged. Instead I've just had to explain the rationalist Viewpoint to those who are receptive and uncomfortable with the chareidi view but never heard the most alternative before, and are usually happy to find they don't have to abandon their common sense to be religious. It is there that progress can be made.

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