Tuesday, May 31, 2016

African Vista

Here is a terrific photo that I took this morning, using the Panorama mode on my camera. You have to click and enlarge it to get the full impact.

"The elephant is saying: How great are Your works, God; Your thoughts are tremendously deep (Psalms 92:6)." (Midrash Perek Shirah)

(I also have a great video of an elephant mock charging us, but the upload speed at the lodge is too slow. Another time!)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lioness Finds Her Bashert

Three years ago, when I was visiting Chobe National Park in Botswana as part of the Torah In Motion Africa Tour, we were lucky enough to spot a solitary lioness. Although it was getting dark and she was quite far away, I even managed to take a good photo (see right). Later that evening, when I transferred the photo to my laptop and zoomed in on it, I noticed that her eyes were different colors - her right eye was blue instead of the normal yellow. The next day, I asked the ranger, and he told me that she was blind in one eye. Poor lioness.

Two years ago, we visited Chobe again. Once again, we saw a lioness - and it was the same one! Her eye had gotten even worse, it was now entirely opaque. The poor thing was still alone, too.

Last year, when went to Chobe, I eagerly looked out for the one-eyed lioness. Alas, I did not see her. I hoped that she was still alive.

Five days ago, we went back to Chobe. And yet again, we saw the lioness that was blind in one eye. Only this time, she wasn't alone. She was with a large and powerful male lion. And one of his eyes was damaged! She had found her bashert!

Here is a photo of the happy couple (alas, a little out of focus):

And here is a video (but if you're reading this via email, you will have to visit www.RationalistJudaism.com in order to watch it:

Baruch Hashem!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Equalizer

(This post might well seem pedantic or obsessive. But in few days I will explain why it is much, much more important than it initially appears. Trust me, it's very significant!)

For all its very real harm and dangers, the impact of the internet upon Orthodox Jewish society is quite incredible, especially with regard to the clash between rationalism and anti-rationalism.

In the past, if anti-rationalist rabbinic leaders wanted to oppose any writings or activities, they would just ban it and censor it. They would not get into any kind of debate or discussion in which they would have to justify their position. There were no press interviews or anything like that.

But the internet changes everything. Now, if people want to argue against the rabbinic establishment, they have a platform from which to do so.

The ban on my books presents a great example of this. No explanation was given by the charedi Gedolim for the ban on my books. In the past, that would have been that, but the internet enabled a large number of people to publicly voice their protest and present countless sources from Chazal, the Rishonim and the Acharonim to support the rationalist viewpoint. This caused a tremendous crisis for rabbinic authority in the charedi world.

After a few years, the Official Authorized Explanation of the ban, Chaim B'Emunasam, was published by the main footsoldier in the ban, Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer. However, this book was riddled with silly claims (e.g. that the letters from Rav Hirsch are forgeries) and distortions, including actually editing the words of Rambam to make him say something different. I exposed these flaws in a series of posts and even printed them up in a booklet which was disseminated. No attempt was made to defend Chaim B'Emunasam, and it faded into obscurity.

More recently, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman published his 700+ page book Torah, Chazal and Science, attempting to give a detailed explanation of why my approach is heretical. In a long series of posts, I have been exposing the serious distortions, omissions, and lack of understanding of science present in that book.

Then Rabbi Yaakov Menken wrote a glowing review of Torah, Chazal and Science. I promptly published a blog post listing all the flaws in his review. Rabbi Menken responded to only the first point that I raised, ignoring all the rest. This was my criticism of his claim that one can prove (via Rambam, who notes that Pi is an irrational number) that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number and were thus way ahead of their time. To quote Rabbi Menken: "the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.” I did not dispute the fact that Rambam knew Pi to be an irrational number, and nor, contrary to the straw man that Rabbi Menken set up, did I reject the possibility that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number. Rather, I rejected his claim that one can prove from Rambam that Chazal knew it to be an irrational number.

Rabbi Menken responded with many hundreds of words, in a blog post and blog comments, on this point. But it was all misdirection. Not once did he actually explain how one can prove from Rambam that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number.

This was making Rabbi Menken look rather silly. However, he had a certain advantage. All this discussion was taking place on his blog, Cross-Currents, where he enforces comment moderation with a heavy hand. If people submitted comments that he didn't have a good answer to, he could simply give an unsatisfactory answer, and then not publish their follow-up comment. He could reject comments under the excuse that people were swamping the comments section, or even with no justification at all. I tried submitting a comment, but it was not posted.

But then came Facebook! On Friday, someone directed me to Rabbi Menken's Facebook page, where he had posted his article. Now, Facebook works differently from Cross-Currents. There is no possibility of moderating comments on Facebook. Facebook is the great equalizer. So, here I had an opportunity to actually engage Rabbi Menken in discussion and ask him how on earth Rambam's statement provides proof that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational.

The only way to do so would be to prove that Rambam deduced it as a necessary inference from Chazal's words and couldn't have gotten it from anywhere else. This would be very difficult to prove. After all, we know that Rambam absorbed much knowledge from non-Jewish sources. The early Greek and Indian mathematicians were already well on the path towards concluding that Pi is irrational, and it would not be at all surprising for this to have already been guessed before Rambam's time. In fact, in an exact parallel to the Rambam case, one fifteenth century Indian commentator claims an indication from a 4th-century Indian text that Pi is irrational.

But Rabbi Menken said that he didn't know how Rambam [allegedly] deduced it from Chazal. He admitted that to claim that Rambam deduced it from Chazal saying that Pi is three would be ludicrous, because then you're saying that you can prove that Chazal were ahead of their time because they said that Pi is three! But he wouldn't say where Rambam got it from. So I kept pushing, and asking him how on earth Rambam's statement provides proof that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational. Rabbi Menken ended up saying that he didn't have time to respond and would respond on Monday.

But I couldn't resist pointing out that Rabbi Meiselman had indeed indicated where he believed Rambam had deduced it from Chazal. I posted a comment which did nothing other than quote Rabbi Meiselman:
"The Rambam gives no source for his information. Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational."
Rabbi Menken responded by deleting that comment.

Yes, that's right. He deleted a comment that did nothing other than quote Rabbi Meiselman. Presumably, because it showed him to be utterly wrong.

When I responded in shock that he had done such a thing, he deleted that comment too, and then announced that he was blocking me from posting any further comments as well as banning me from posting comments on Cross-Currents.

Anti-rationalists cannot tolerate open discussion, because it exposes them as being mistaken/ dishonest. Fortunately, the internet is the great equalizer, and enables me to expose this on my own website. Because I suspected that Rabbi Menken might delete the discussion, I had already copied-and-pasted the whole thing. Here it is:

Yaakov Menken I'll quote him [i.e. me - N.S.]: "Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational." That's another straw man, no one said their use of three *proved* they knew it to be irrational. But as he finally acknowledges, the Rambam says precisely what Rav Meiselman and then I said that the Rambam said: Chazal used the approximation because the actual ratio is irrational, unable to be specified precisely.

Natan Slifkin Allow me to quote Rabbi Menken: "Chazal were ahead of their times because they knew Pi was irrational, plain & simple." "The Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”

Yaakov Menken Both correct, and both entirely support what I said above. The straw man, which he and supporters have now used repeatedly, was and remains: "the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational." This would logically require that there be no other tenable explanation for Chazal using three (e.g. claiming Chazal didn't know math). That indefensible position, rather than anything I said, is the straw man erected by RNS once I pointed out that his original attempt to ridicule RMM and myself actually targeted words of the Rambam.

Natan Slifkin How on earth is Rambam's statement "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures", if it didn't come from Chazal? Besides, you already claimed that it did come from Chazal - you called it "the obvious implciation of Chazal's words".

Yaakov Menken Now you are trying to back out of the strawman.

Natan Slifkin Yaakov Menken no, you are avoiding answering what I wrote. Virtually everyone sees that except you.

Natan Slifkin Let's calm down. Perhaps you can just answer one question at at a time: How on earth is Rambam's statement "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures"?

Yaakov Menken So you are accusing virtually everyone of being unable to distinguish between a strawman "the fact of Chazal using three *proves* that they knew it to be irrational" and the argument, which does not use that as a proof at all? Interesting.

Yaakov Menken I'm not going to repeat myself. You can reread my post if you were unable to comprehend it previously. Perhaps you should have done so to my original article before you posted your intemperate responses.

Natan Slifkin It's amazing. You are mamash unable to answer this. The fact is that you claimed that Rambam provides "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures". You also claimed that Rambam derived this from Chazal, as the "obvious implication" of their saying three and not a fraction. This means that you are saying that the evidence of Chazal's advanced knowledge comes from their saying that Pi equals three, via the Rambam!

Yaakov Menken Once again, you have set up a straw man. I did not say that the Rambam used this as the obvious implication. Reread.

Natan Slifkin I quote: "their choice of such a gross approximation (rather than the much more accurate 22/7, which was apparently well known) is the because no one will ever produce the precise and final value. The obvious implication, of course, is that they knew that."

Yaakov Menken Why did you omit the opening words? "I think it is obvious from this statement that the Rambam both knew Pi to be irrational, and believed that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational." At that point, the rest is correct: the implication of the Rambam's statement is that he understood that Chazal knew that no one will ever produce the precise value. It is the "obvious implication" of the Rambam's statement, but not at all obvious from Chazal using 3 for Pi.

Natan Slifkin If it is not an implication of Chazal's statement, then how is there ""evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures"?

Yaakov Menken Nothing in your question has not previously been answered, and I have much to write and a Bar Mitzvah to make. Shabbat Shalom.

Natan Slifkin Good grief, what a cop-out. Good Shabbos.

Yaakov Menken No. I'm not going to beat my head against a wall because you ask me to. I said it was the implication of the *Rambam's* statement but you have steadfastly ignored that. It's either from using 3 for Pi, or something else in Chazal's statement, or who knows what, but the plain meaning of my words consistently escapes you.

Natan Slifkin No, it escapes everyone I know. If we don't know the source of Rambam's knowledge of Pi (as you said. "who knows what"), then how can you say that it is evidence that Chazal knew it? (Especially when all the other Rishonim say understand the Gemara differently, which you have yet to address!)

Yaakov Menken Widen your circle of friends. I have a Bar Mitzvah to make, you can debate this further on Monday.

Natan Slifkin Oh, come on! We were just getting to the crucial point, the very crux of everything that we have been arguing about! You claimed that Rambam provides "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures". But if you admit that you have no idea what the source of Rambam's knowledge was, how on earth does it provide evidence about Chazal's knowledge?!

Yaakov Menken Yet somehow none of the reader comments on my article seem at all puzzled by this very point. I need about 3 assistants to get through today, you'll have to wait your turn nicely.

Natan Slifkin Actually, that is exactly what David Ohsie and a whole bunch of other people were pointing out is the crucial flaw of your argument. You can't use the words of Rambam to prove something about Chazal (especially when all the other Rishonim do not learn the Gemara like Rambam!)

[Note - it could be that I lost some of the comments here, but I don't think so - N.S/]

Yaakov Menken Unbelievable

Natan Slifkin I couldn't agree more. By the way, Rabbi Meiselman does indeed indicate what he believes to be the source of Rambam's knowledge. He says that it is "almost explicit" that Rambam got it from the Gemara saying that Pi is three.

Yaakov Menken That is absolutely not what he said. It's not even close. "He [the Rambam] writes that Chazal use an approximation for pi rather than a fraction *because* it is irrational." The assertion that the Rambam derived this from the Gemara saying Pi is three is your own invention.

Natan Slifkin [I responded with the direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman: "The Rambam gives no source for his information (that Pi is irrational). Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational." Rabbi Menken then deleted this.]

Yaakov Menken Last warning, please desist from spamming my Wall. I have multiple Divrei Torah far more needed than rehashing this with you and you are unduly repeating yourself. I will have to deny you access if you persist further.

Natan Slifkin Yaakov Menken I am not spamming. You are challenging my claim that R. Meiselman sad it is almost explicit. I replied with a direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman saying exactly that! Either respond or don't respond, but don't you DARE delete my post, which was simply a quote from Rabbi Meiselman. If you delete it again, you will only make a fool of yourself, because I will publicize that you deleted it.

Natan Slifkin Here is the direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman again. "The Rambam gives no source for his information (that Pi is irrational). Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational."

Natan Slifkin If you delete this again, I will write a post pointing out that you were embarrassed by my doing nothing other than quoting Rabbi Meiselman in direct refutation of your claim and you deleted it!

Yaakov Menken If you follow on your threat I will post that you have willfully lied.

Natan Slifkin Well, I am copying and pasting this entire thread, so that people can see for themselves.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

What A Wonderful World

Here is an amazing photo that I took at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Mah rabu maasecha Hashem!

In other news, the comments section to Rabbi Menken's post is getting especially fascinating. Rabbi Menken doesn't seem to be able to decide what he is proposing, or doesn't understand the ramifications of what he is saying. Originally he insisted that "the Rambam's statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.” He also claimed that the Rambam derived this position (that Pi is an irrational number) from Chazal. This in turn means that Chazal's statement (that Pi equals three, rather than giving a fraction) provides evidence (in Rabbi Menken's words, "the obvious implication") that they knew Pi is an irrational number. However, Rabbi Menken simultaneously claims that he is not attempting to use the Gemara to prove that Chazal were ahead of their time! Rabbi Menken doesn't seem to realize that he is completely self-contradictory and illogical. Oh well, at least most of the blog commentators appear to recognize that.

The other interesting thing is when someone asked Rabbi Menken about Rabbi Meiselman completely misrepresenting Rav Soloveitchik's statements in The Emergence of Ethical Man, which I showed to be completely clear in black and white. Rabbi Menken first responds with an uncivil insult that I am "not a rational actor" and thus not to be trusted (despite the fact that the distortion is completely visible for everyone to see), and then says that it is easy to contact Rabbi Meiselman to find out the explanation. This is hardly a satisfactory response from someone who has praised Rabbi Meiselman's book to the heavens, claiming that Rabbi Meiselman accurately presents the view of Rav Soloveitchik!

I think that this is why I love the natural world so much. It's so genuine and authentic.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Final Words from I, Voldemort

I'm very much hoping that this will be the third and final part of my response to Rabbi Yaakov Menken.

Rabbi Menken once again responded to my post (see the update to his original response) and, once again, only attempts to respond to part of it. His response to the Pi topic is to issue a stream of seemingly contradictory statements that have left many people confused. Here is a selection:
"Chazal were ahead of their times because they knew Pi was irrational, plain & simple."
"...[Natan Slifkin] implied that either RMM or I said “their use of pi = 3 PROVES that they knew that pi is irrational,” this is nonsense. No one said that."
"It is the Rambam’s confident assertion that the value of Pi cannot be known that is extraordinary."
"The Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”
I think that he's trying to say that Rambam's statement about Pi being an irrational number could only have come from Chazal and therefore proves that Chazal were ahead of their times. However, the claim that Rambam's description of Pi as an irrational number could only have come from Chazal (who said nothing more than that Pi equals three!) is rather staggering and requires proof. Rabbi Meiselman provides nothing other than a weak argument that I refuted in the previous post. Furthermore, as I pointed out in the previous post, the other Rishonim clearly did not understand the Gemara that way. Rabbi Menken does not respond to my pointing out that he and Rabbi Meiselman are (yet again) categorically dismissing Tosafos and all the other Rishonim and Acharonim. And nor, of course, has he responded to anything else in my critique of his review.

But let's return to the psychological/sociological aspects. Yesterday I marveled at how Rabbi Menken describes me in unambiguous detail and yet refuses to mention my name. I mentioned my friend's suggestion that this is an obnoxious and unprofessional way of trying to avoid giving me any dignity. But Rabbi Menken himself claims that he does this for noble reasons:
"...because I did not want to descend to his level, and condemn him while naming names."
Can anyone tell me what on earth this is supposed to mean? What "descent to my level" is there? I might have been overly strident in describing his writings as being ludicrous and dishonest, but he went considerably lower in approvingly citing a description of my writings as "rabid"! Furthermore, Rabbi Menken has had no problem mentioning the names of people at Women Of The Wall or the Reform Movement in his condemnation of them. So how is it "descending" to any level in mentioning names?

Of course, it's all nonsense. The reason why he can mention the names of WoW or Reform is that they are not a serious threat to people in his circle. But I am, and that is why he is afraid to dignify me or give me any credibility by mentioning my name. It's similar to how the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say Voldemort's name. Likewise, Rabbi Menken won't link to my posts (and gives the silly excuse that the reason is that he hopes that I will change my mind and remove them).

Yet as Dumbledore points out, refusing to say the name of Voldemort actually gives him more power. Likewise, virtually nobody is fooled by Rabbi Menken's excuses for not giving my name, and they are disgusted by both his refusing to mention my name or link to my posts, and his false excuses for it. So, ironically, his technique to try to devalue the opposition ends up having the opposite effect!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

He Who Must Not Be Named

Yesterday's post about Rabbi Yaakov Menken's adulation of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's appallingly dishonest Torah, Chazal and Science, despite being written in a hurry while waiting in Johannesburg Airport, was astonishingly popular, having already been read over five thousand times in the last 24 hours! Rabbi Menken has already penned a response, sort of. Of the long list of problems that I pointed out with his review, he decides to only respond to one of them - in which I wrote as follows:
Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly!
Rabbi Menken agrees that it would indeed be ludicrous to project current mathematical knowledge back into the distant past in order to excuse a coarse estimate, and then use that very projection to tout Chazal’s prescience. However, he claims, neither he nor Rabbi Meiselman said any such thing:
Rather, it was the Rambam who said so, 600 years before modern mathematicians reached this same conclusion. In the Rambam’s time, this statement was hardly projecting “current knowledge” back onto Chazal, because even then the nature of Pi remained unknown. On the contrary, the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that “Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”
He quotes Rabbi Meiselman as explaining how Rambam demonstrated that Chazal knew Pi to be an irrational number:
The Rambam gives no source for his information (that Pi is irrational). Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational.
Accordingly, concludes Rabbi Menken, the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that “Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.” He is shifting responsibility away from himself and Rabbi Meiselman and instead onto Rambam. And he thus accuses me of mocking the words of Rambam.

Now, let's see what's actually going on here.

First of all, Rabbi Menken's claim that Rambam described Pi as an irrational number 600 years before anyone else is not true. What happened 600 years later was that Pi was proved to be irrational. But it was known to be irrational long before that. It seems that the early Greeks also hinted to Pi being an irrational number. Besides, where does anyone think that Rambam got the idea from that Pi is irrational? R. Meiselman quotes "scholars" as saying that he got it from the Gemara, but he suspiciously does not reference these scholars. Rambam surely didn't get it from the Gemara, or he would have said so. So presumably he got it from the mathematicians of his era, or worked it out himself. (In yet another ludicrous argument, Rabbi Menken takes this as further proof that Chazal knew Pi was irrational, because there is nowhere else that Rambam could have gotten it from!)

But what about the Gemara? Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational. Rabbi Meiselman presents a highly speculative argument to this end: "This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational." But there is simply no such implication in Rambam.

And there is a reason why Rambam would not make such an argument. That is because even if Chazal thought that Pi was rational, there would indeed be a justification for using an appropriate fraction. Perhaps Chazal thought that it was a complicated number, and therefore simply rounded it off (as many Rishonim indeed hold). One cannot prove from Chazal using the value of three that they knew it to be irrational.

And there is another possibility, too: that Chazal thought Pi was actually equal to three. Tosafos (Eruvin 14a) points out that, based on the context, the Gemara does not seem to be giving an approximation. Of course, there are various apologetics which argue otherwise, but Tosafos apparently didn't find them convincing. Thus, if someone wants to believe that the Gemara did not mean this, they can do so, but one cannot use the topic of Pi to prove that Chazal had superior knowledge of the natural world, unless one is willing to categorically dismiss Tosafos and Tosafos' arguments.

Furthermore, the Mishnah (Ohalos 12:6) says that "A square is greater than a circle by one-fourth," referring to the perimeter of each when the circle is drawn to the height of the square. This is true if Pi is assumed to be 3, but given a more accurate value of Pi, the perimeter of the square is actually closer to one-fifth longer than that of the circle.

(Some readers will doubtless find it hard to accept that Chazal believed Pi to be 3. The question is whether there is basis for their disbelief, and an analysis of the Gemara and Rishonim reveals that there were much more basic mathematical errors committed by some (but not all) of Chazal. Tosafos (Eruvin 76a) says that Rabbi Yochanan and the Gemara in Sukkah misunderstood a statement by the judges of Caesarea to mean that the diagonal of a square is equal to twice the length of its side. Tosafos states that Rabbi Yochanan subscribed to this understanding of the judges of Caesarea, and that the Gemara in Sukkah rejected it precisely because it is mathematically inaccurate. Rashba expresses surprise at Tosafos attributing a simple mathematical error to Chazal, and he gives an alternate explanation, but he does not deny that Tosafos does indeed say this! Ran likewise expresses surprise that the judges of Caesarea erred in a simple mathematical matter, and cites an alternate explanation of Rabbi Yochanan’s misunderstanding of what the judges of Caesarea were saying, which somewhat lessens the error, but still leaves Rabbi Yochanan making genuine errors of both interpretation and mathematics. Tosafos HaRosh states similarly.)

So, to conclude: We have a Rambam that does not say or imply that the fact of Chazal using Pi=3 proves that they knew it to be irrational. We further have other Rishonim who understand this Gemara as saying that Pi is a rational but complicated number, or that Pi does indeed equal three. So, yes, for Rabbi Menken/Meiselman to present this Gemara as proof of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is indeed ridiculous. And, since Rambam did not say this, I am not mocking Rambam (though Rabbi Menken is indeed dismissing Tosafos and other Rishonim).

One final, fascinating point. Why does Rabbi Menken never mention me by name, even though it makes it absolutely clear that he is talking about me? What am I, Voldemort?! I was puzzled by this and so I asked a friend to suggest an explanation. He suggested that it was because Rabbi Menken didn't want to dignify me. My friend considered this to be obnoxious and unprofessional. I think he's right.

(Please note that I am currently in the middle of the jungle in Zimbabwe, and tomorrow I am heading to Botswana, so my internet access is sporadic!)

(The full series of critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book is at this link)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Adulating Dishonesty

In this forum, I’ve been steadily working through the web of obfuscations, convoluted arguments, inexcusable omissions, and downright distortions that is Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s Torah, Chazal and Science. However, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the charedi polemicist of Cross-Currents fame, recently published an adulatory review of Rabbi Meiselman’s book in the journal Dialogue (which coincidentally has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board). This had the benefit of drawing my attention to further falsifications in Rabbi Meiselman’s book that I had previously overlooked. It also demonstrates a fascinating sociological aspect of the charedi world, as we shall see at the end of my review of his review.

Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly! But let me carefully work through some of the problems with Rabbi Menken’s review.

The Ideal Perverter of Rav Soloveitchik

At the beginning of his review, Rabbi Menken explains why he thinks that Rabbi Meiselman is “in many ways, the ideal person to address this controversial issue. Because he was a dedicated and close talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik… he is best able to rebut those insisting that their ideas are compatible with Rav Soloveitchik’s school of thought.” Who is "those"? You mean all Rav Soloveitchik’s other close talmidim and family members? They all regard Rabbi Meiselman as a completely dishonest charedi revisionist of Rav Soloveitchik. I know, I’ve spoken to them.

Besides, you don’t even need to be a talmid of Rav Soloveitchik to know that Rabbi Meiselman grossly distorts his teachings – you just need to be able to read. The most egregious example of Rabbi Meiselman distorting Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings in this area is when he quotes the Rav as saying that evolution and the Bible have long been recognized as being at odds – without revealing that one paragraph later, the Rav explains that this is a thoroughly mistaken approach! Such brazen dishonesty is, unfortunately, rampant throughout Rabbi Meiselman’s book.

Chazal and Science

Rabbi Menken describes Rabbi Meiselman as showing that the only sources indicating the fallibility of Chazal are Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and those who lived after the scientific revolution and were unsettled by it. Of course, this is nonsense. There are many dozens of sources amongst the Rishonim and early Acharonim who present this view.

Most notably, this occurs with the Gemara in Pesachim, where the Sages of Israel state that the sun passes behind the sky at night, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observes them to be incorrect. Rabbi Meiselman has an extremely muddled discussion of this topic, in which he eventually is forced to concede that most Rishonim do understand this Gemara to mean that the Sages of Israel were wrong, but he claims that these sages did not derive this position from the Torah. Yet the same view is presented by Chazal in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah where it is connected to pesukim! Elsewhere, Rabbi Meiselman claims that these sages of Israel were not Torah scholars, which is likewise refuted by the Gemara in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah. Furthermore, if Chazal could mistakenly believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night, why could they not also mistakenly believe things that were universal belief for much longer, such as spontaneous generation?! Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is following the consensus of Rishonim with his work, but in fact he is going directly against the consensus of Rishonim.

Rabbi Menken happily accepts Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments that the relevant section of the maamar of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery. David Ohsie has presented a lengthy series of posts refuting these arguments. I would simply like to point out that the only people who find Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments to be remotely convincing are those who, for religious reasons, are convinced that this approach is heretical and thus Rabbeinu Avraham could not possibly have said it. Rabbi Meiselman makes reference to several scholars of Maimonidean manuscripts that he consulted with regarding aspects of this discussion, and when I contacted them, none of them knew anything about his argument, and it seems that he was not interested in asking their opinion.

The “Unsophisticated” Rav Hirsch

Rabbi Meiselman dismisses the views of more recent rabbinic scholars who noted that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. He claims that they “were generally not trained in science” and therefore said Chazal were wrong, and “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters they might have felt less intimidated.” But what on earth does training in science have to do with anything?! When scholars such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog observed that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation, they just honestly accepted that Chazal's words meant what all the Rishonim and Acharonim and common sense says that they mean, without contriving a forced reinterpretation of Chazal’s words that goes against all sense and tradition. It is simply a red herring to say that “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters” they would have said otherwise. (On the other hand, it is entirely accurate to say that had the Gedolim and Rabbi Meiselman been more sophisticated in scientific matters, they would not have rejected the evidence for the antiquity of the universe!)

Rabbi Menken also helpfully drew my attention to another distortion that Rabbi Meiselman commits. In discussing and dismissing the writings of 19th century rabbinic scholars on these issues, Rabbi Meiselman states that “In the face of these challenges some may have felt compelled to concede the imperfectness of Chazal’s factual knowledge. When they did so, however, it was always in response to some specific issue. Moreover, they made no attempt to square this concession with the overwhelming consensus to the contrary.” To prove the falseness of these claims, let us simply quote these authorities. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes as follows:
“In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.”
Rav Hirsch, then, does not present this approach as a particular response to a specific issue. Furthermore, he clearly states that he believes this to be a normative view (albeit obviously with those who differ). The same goes for Rav Herzog, who presents Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s position as being the normative viewpoint. But you wouldn’t know from Rabbi Meiselman’s book that Rav Hirsch says this, because Rabbi Meiselman never once quotes Rav Hirsch’s writings on these topics, even though they are the most thorough pre-20th century treatment of these topics.

Rabbi Meiselman is perfectly entitled to adopt the view that Chazal were infallible in their definitive statements about the natural world. However, it is a falsification of the history of Torah scholarship to deny that there was a major school of thought that felt otherwise, or to dismiss the statements of figures such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog.

At the end of the day, regardless of the sources for and against the notion that Chazal could be mistaken in scientific matters, what is the logic to it? Rabbi Menken claims that "Rav Meiselman's statement is reasonable and straightforward: that Chazal were careful with their words, and would only make a definitive statement that they knew to be true." In fact, Rabbi Meiselman’s statement is not reasonable in the slightest. Yes, Chazal were careful with their words. Still, like every human being that has ever lived, they would make definitive statements that they believed to be true. One can never ultimately know if one’s statements are true. Rabbi Meiselman has no problem dismissing hundreds of scientific statements made by the Rishonim and Acharonim; he does not see it as impugning their integrity. There is no reason why Chazal should be any different.

The Age of the Universe

Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is a Rosh Yeshiva with a "clear understanding of modern science." I’m not sure on what basis Rabbi Menken, a computer scientist, is able to endorse Rabbi Meiselman in this way. Rabbi Menken makes an astonishing claim regarding Rabbi Meiselman’s approach to Creation and the Flood: “In each case, he shows how the Biblical passage may be understood while neither discarding its plain meaning nor rejecting facts known to scientists.” Likewise, Rabbi Menken later writes that Rabbi Meiselman succeeds in explaining Genesis “without compromising science.” Well, just about every scientist in the world (of those in the relevant fields, and lacking a religious agenda) would find that laughable.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that every single field of science dealing with matters pre-dating the Deluge is fundamentally invalid. He claims that they are all based on an incorrect assumption that the laws of nature have never been different. In fact, Rabbi Meiselman is ignorant of the very basis of the fields of science which deal with that period. The constancy of nature was not an assumption for them – it was a conclusion, first drawn by William Smith, who observed that the geological layers show an orderly, uniform pattern, not the chaotic mess that the religious Christians of the time expected, as the result of their belief (along with Rabbi Meiselman) in the miraculous and non-naturalistic creation of the world. It’s as a result of the discoveries of Smith and others that there are multi-billion dollar industries based upon the work of geologists. Geology works, precisely because the world did develop according to an orderly, naturalistic process, and not the supernatural, entirely different process from today that Rabbi Meiselman insists upon.

And let us not forget that it is not only with regarding to creation and the flood that Rabbi Meiselman discards science. There are many statements in the Gemara that are at odds with modern science, which Rabbi Meiselman simply ignores, probably because he has no way of satisfactorily dealing with them. Chazal make definitive statements about the gestation period of different animals, the spontaneous generation of salamanders from fire, and all kinds of things which, following Rabbi Meiselman’s principles, one would have to accept as being factually true, even though they are completely at odds with science.

If somebody wants to simply say that all modern science is bunk, well, so be it. But to reject (without explanation) the fundamentals of physics, geology, paleontology, biology, and archeology, which are accepted by all scientists in those fields, while simultaneously claiming that one “understands modern science” and is not “rejecting facts known to scientists” or “compromising science” is laughably dishonest.

Rabbi Menken Betrays The Gedolim

There is one absolutely fascinating aspect of Rabbi Menken’s review. He presents Rabbi Meiselman’s book as being the long-awaited explanation for the Gedolims’ ban on my own books. To quote Rabbi Menken: “Many were confused when those views were ultimately declared to be wrong and even kefirah by Gedoley Torah. No previous writer has laid out in such detail where those writers went off course and what needs to be corrected.” Later, Rabbi Menken states that Rabbi Meiselman “…has defended the honor… of our Chachomim, shlita, in our times.”

Now, this blew me away. After all, Rabbi Meiselman presents positions and statements that the vast majority of the Gedolim would find to be every bit as heretical as my own. For example, there are numerous passages in the Gemara and Midrash which discuss various cases of spontaneous generation, according to the unequivocal consensus of all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Yet Rabbi Meiselman comes along and insists that all these Rishonim and Acharonim did not know how to learn these passages, and innovates a new explanation of them. This brazen disregard for their Torah scholarship – which, for the record, I myself strongly dispute – would be regarded by most, if not all, the Gedolim as completely unacceptable.

Indeed, there was one book that was presented as the Authorized Response to Slifkin, Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer’s Chaim B’Emunasam, which featured approbations from many of the Gedolim who banned my books (unlike Rabbi Meiselman’s book, which features no approbations). In their approbations, several of the Gedolim specifically stated that one is obligated to accept the traditional explanations of the Gemara that are given by the Rishonim and Acharonim, and not to contrive new and non-traditional explanations in order to make the Gemara compatible with science. They are condemning precisely Rabbi Meiselman’s approach!

Nor is this the only case of Rabbi Meiselman presenting positions that the Gedolim oppose. He makes several statements that the Gedolim would find unforgivable. For example, he states that Chazal “would only make definitive statements that they knew to be true – and, along with those, made tentative statements that might well not be true.” Can you imagine Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel or Rav Moshe Shapiro accepting that some of Chazal’s statements, such as those describing the earth-mouse and which involve derashos from pesukim, are only tentative statements about the world that might well not be true?!

Rabbi Meiselman is certainly not explaining the view of the Gedolim who banned my books; he is simply taking a different anti-rationalist view that these Gedolim would likewise deem heretical. Why, then, does Rabbi Menken see them as presenting the same approach? Furthermore, even more fascinatingly, Rabbi Menken’s own book, Everything Torah, presents exactly the approach regarding the age of the universe that Rabbi Meiselman (and the Gedolim) condemn!

What on earth is going on here? I think that the answer is as follows. It’s all about tribalism. It doesn’t matter that Rav Elyashiv and Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and Rabbi Yaakov Menken all have mutually exclusive views. It doesn’t matter that Rabbi Meiselman is a heretic by Rav Wachtfogel’s definition and Rabbi Menken is a heretic by Rabbi Meiselman’s definition. The important thing is that they are all against Slifkin, Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy, and all those other things. You can say that the Acharonim were wrong, you can say that the Rishonim were wrong, you can say that Chazal were wrong, as long as you say that Slifkin is wrong!

(The full series of critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book is at this link)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Close Encounters

I spent an amazing day at Glen Afric in South Africa, filming a new video for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. This was definitely the most dangerous shoot I have ever done!

First was Monty the lion. Now, I had filmed with him three years ago, for the video that we show at the museum. However, three years on, he was MUCH bigger, and vastly more dangerous. The trainers weren't even sure if we could do the shoot at all. Finally we worked out the safety procedures. Firstly, of course, there would be plenty of handlers around, with pepper spray and guns. The videographer, as usual, would be safely protected inside a cage within the enclosure, along with my good friend Jake Shepherd holding up my lines. Then, just to the side of what the camera could see, another cage was set up, with a person inside who would yank me in if things went south. After a safety rehearsal, the lion was released! He was clearly a much more powerful and dangerous animal than when I had last seen him, as you can see in this photo, when he got angry! (You can click on all the photos to enlarge them)

Then came the shoot with a beautiful leopard, Selati. She seemed mildly interested in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.

Although much smaller than the lion, Selati was still a highly dangerous animal, it was quite disconcerting when she suddenly strode up to me:

Then it was time to film with the cheetahs. Cheetahs are less dangerous than leopards, but can still be unnerving:

Finally the cheetah settled down and I got to have a good cuddle!

There was also an elephant that sort-of charged us, which we got on video, but it will take me a while to upload that. Fun!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Going to Africa, Coming to America

I. On Wednesday night, I am going to Africa for two weeks. On the agenda is filming a new video, speaking at Mizrachi Johannesburg, and leading the annual Africa tour for Torah In Motion in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. My blog content and scheduling will thus be changing! If you're in Johannesburg and would like to buy any of my books, please write to me.
II. At the end of July, I am coming to America for about a month. On Shabbos July 30th, I will be speaking at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach. On Sunday 31st, I am so far open for engagements. After that, I will be based in LA. I have availability for scholar-in-residence engagements for Shabbos of August 6th and 13th (but probably not on the East Coast). If you'd like to arrange something, please write to me. Please note that the Biblical Museum of Natural History will be functioning as normal during that period - we have excellent guides - so if you're in Israel for the summer, don't forget to book a tour!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Siren Vs. Tehillim - Which is Jewish Tradition?

In my younger years, I would not stand silently during the sirens on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. After all, I reckoned, those are non-Jewish, meaningless customs. Instead, I would recite Tehillim, the traditional Jewish way of memorializing the deceased, which actually helps them in the Upper Worlds. (Of course, if I was in public, I would nevertheless stand in silence out of respect for others.) Such is still the normative attitude in the charedi world.

This year, it occurred to me that I had it entirely backwards.

Standing silent for the siren may have been introduced into Israel as a copy of procedures done in non-Jewish nations, but it is not chukkas ha-goy. It is simply a natural human expression of solemnity in the face of tragedy. And such a response to death goes back to the Torah itself. When Nadav and Avihu were killed by fire, it says vayidom Aharon, "Aharon was silent." Iyov's friends sat in silence with him for seven days - they didn't recite Tehillim. The Gemara (Berachos 6b) says that "the merit of attending a house of mourning lies in maintaining silence." Contemplating matters in our minds is something that is very much part of traditional Judaism.

What about the siren? A siren can be seen as simply a way of alerting everyone to this avodah, just like the Shabbos siren. Or, it can be seen as recalling the wars in which many lost their lives. It can even be seen as very similar to the shofar blast, another type of horn which sounds and to which in response we stand in silent contemplation.

Standing silent for the siren, then, echoes traditional Jewish practices. It is not something that is simply copying non-Jewish practices, like schlissel challah, pouring lead, and many other popular rituals in frum society.

But saying Tehillim, on the other hand - just how traditional is that? In my monograph What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away? I demonstrated that in classical Judaism, one gives charity for the dead and one prays (such as with the Yizkor prayer, which is recited at Yom HaZikaron events). For one's ancestors and teachers, one learns Torah and does good deeds as a credit to them. Saying Tehillim for strangers does not appear to have any basis in classical Judaism; the earliest sources to discuss such things explain that it does not actually accomplish anything for the deceased. I am fairly sure that it is a custom that goes back no more than two hundred years (but I am open to being corrected!).

So which is the traditional Jewish way of responding to such things, and which is the meaningless custom of recent origin? Like so many other topics that we have discussed here, it all depends on whether you define Jewish tradition as starting in Biblical times and carrying on through Chazal and the Rishonim, or whether you define it as starting about a hundred years ago. Similarly, it also depends on whether you follow the rationalist approach of the Rishonim or the more recent mystical approach.

(Of course, it is still infinitely better to say Tehillim during the siren than to ignore it entirely!)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Greatest Miracle

There are two things that lie at the core of of my relationship with God and Judaism. One is the personal providence that I perceive in my life, as non-rationalist as that may be. The other is the single greatest miracle in post-Biblical history: the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland. An ancient nation, exiled and dispersed and massacred with the most horrific persecution in history, fulfills its ancient prophecies and returns to its homeland, to create an amazingly vibrant country and triumph against overwhelming odds.

The more that one learns about the creation of the Israel, the more miraculous it becomes. Historian Paul Johnson, in A History Of The Jews, describes the extraordinary confluence of circumstances that was necessary for it to happen, including the death of Roosevelt (who had turned anti-Zionist), and an amazing brief period in which the Soviet Union was pursuing an active pro-Zionist policy. As Johnson concludes: "Israel slipped into existence through a fortuitous window in history which briefly opened for a few months in 1947-8. That too was luck; or providence."

I recommend reading Johnson's book to learn more about all the factors that had to coincide for Israel to come into existence. I still can't quite believe that for much of my life, I did not celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut. God performed one of the greatest miracles in history, to our immense benefit - how can we not celebrate it? "The ingathering of the exiles is as great as the day upon which the heaven and earth were created" (Pesachim 88a). (See Rav Eliezer Melamed's discussion at this link.)

Happy Yom Ha-Atzma'ut!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Star Wars, The Holocaust, and the Wild West

This is going to be a confused jumble of thoughts, because the last two days have been a confusing jumble.

Yesterday, my Facebook feed was filled with people commenting and sharing links and photos about the special day of the year. Only for some people, that was the annual Star Wars Day ("May the Fourth be with you"), whereas for others, it was Holocaust Day.

I really don't mean to sound moralizing or patronizing. I must be honest; to my shame, I must admit that I probably feel more connected to Star Wars than to the Holocaust. But it was striking to see how, generally speaking, people in Israel are so much more connected to events of genuine national importance.

Star Wars itself can be loosely described as trying to teach about the dangers of fascism, with the most recent movie, The Force Awakens, being blatant in its equating the evil First Order with the Nazis. Still, while I watched The Force Awakens, and I enjoyed it immensely, there was one scene that bothered me intensely. Action movies are a lot of fun, even when there is a high body count (and sometimes because of the high body count). But The Force Awakens portrayed what I think must be by far the greatest loss of life in any movie ever, with the First Order destroying an entire planetary system - many millions, even billions, of lives. And yet, that act took up just a few seconds of screen time, showed a few scared faces, played a few sad notes of music, and then the action and fun rolled on. Have we really reached a point where a story can portray such staggering loss of life in so casual a manner?

Meanwhile, if secular culture is utterly desensitized to the magnitude of holocausts, the same is true at the other end of religious spectrum. Just a few hundred yards down the road from my neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph is the Wild West, a.k.a. Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. The last few days have been full of rioting, over several "causes" - the screening of a kosher movie for women by one chassidic group, the arrival of the police to attend to a wife being battered, the arrest of a young man in the Auerbach faction for avoiding military service under the guise of being in yeshivah but who was actually partying away. The police, and civilian civil guard volunteers, are screamed at as being "Nazis".  That's an epithet that I haven't heard leveled at Jews since - well, since the last municipal elections. (It should be noted that most of the charedim in that neighborhood despise the rioters. However, the charedim in that neighborhood, and even in Aleph, are not willing to make any kind of public demonstration or denunciation against them.)

I hope and pray that people get a proper perspective the easy way, via education, rather than the hard way.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Challah With Keys? Give Me Bagels With Locks.

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a custom of some to bake "Shlissel Challah" - challah with the design of a key, or challah with a real key actually baked into it. It is alleged to be a segulah for parnassah (sustenance).

There's a debate about the origins of this custom, with some claiming that it is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices, while others defend it as having Jewish origins. Yet, unlike certain hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things even if their origins are questionable. There's lots of things in Judaism that originated in foreign cultures; but where something originated is less important than what we've made of it.

But what about the very idea of such a segulah? While the rationalist Rishonim were obviously not into segulos, I'm not militantly against them. Segulos are often harmless placebos, and may also be time-honored tradition.

Yet in this case, however, I am a little more concerned, given the wider context. In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). Chazal's directive that a person must teach his child a trade, i.e. to be financially self-sufficient, is widely ignored in charedi society. There is a real problem of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus. And the segulah industry is rife with problems.

Instead of trying to get parnassah via an unproven and unlikely custom of unclear origins, why don't people try get it via a proven method ordered by Chazal themselves? The answer, of course, is that Chazal's way is much more difficult. But such is the way of the world. "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" - not by the key in the challah.

(Regarding segulos in general, see my posts on The Ring Of Power and Manipulating with Mysticism for Money.) 

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...