Monday, June 27, 2016

Goodbye Pi - and Rabbi Menken's Motzi Shem Ra and Censorship

(I don't know if this post is of any interest to anyone. But I want it to be published, for the public record.)

A few weeks ago, I spent some time demonstrating that, contrary to the claims of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the statements of Chazal and Rambam about pi do not provide any evidence of advanced knowledge. I spent more time on this topic than I had intended, but, for the reasons that I explained in the post "House of Cards", I think it was important. Rather unsurprisingly, it doesn't look like Rabbi Menken is intending to either defend or retract his endorsement of Rabbi Meiselman's claims about pi providing evidence of Chazal's advanced knowledge, despite the fact that pretty much everyone seems to recognize that it was a silly claim. In fact, my original critique of Rabbi Menken's review, Adulating Dishonesty, has shot up to being the eighth most popular post on this blog of all time!

There is one final loose end to be tidied up. Whatever one thinks about Chazal and Rambam and pi, one thing should be clear. My dispute with Rabbis Meiselman and Menken was regarding whether one can use this topic to provide evidence of Chazal's/Rambam's advanced knowledge. I did not ever dispute the fact that Rambam stated that pi is irrational - in fact, I pointed that out on this blog myself, several years ago. Nor did I ever dispute the fact that Rambam believed that Chazal also knew this. Nor did I ever rule this out as indeed being possibly true. The only aspect that I vociferously disputed was the notion that you can somehow prove that Chazal knew it, seeing as all that Chazal actually said was that for halachic purposes, pi is three.

Yet Rabbi Menken repeatedly issued a serious and defamatory claim about me, claiming that I "inspired people to mock words of our greatest teachers..." "to mock the words of the Rambam." Whereas of course I had done no such thing.

I wasn't the only person to notice this, of course. And one person, Elliott Shevin, tried to submit a comment to Rabbi Menken's post, pointing this out. But Rabbi Menken did not allow the comment to appear. Mr. Shevin, who Rabbi Menken earlier insultingly referred to as my "lackey", sent the comment to me. Here it is:
A less forbearing person than I would have taken your suggestion of my lackeyhood as… snide. Alas, R. Slifkin is unable to post his own correction. Some computer glitch, I'm told.
You may have noticed that in his offending post, the phrase "which coincidentally has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board" has been struck out (not deleted), indicating concession of his factual error. You'll also find my comment toward the bottom of the page suggesting he credit you for inspiring him to do that. I am an equal-opportunity lackey.
You've accused R. Slifkin of having erected a straw man: asserting that one’s opponent has made a claim he did not in fact make, and then attacking that nonexistent claim. In this case, it's "... Rabbi Menken notes... because they knew it was an irrational number...."
On technical grounds, you're right. You were citing R. Meiselman who actually said that Rambam said this was so.
But compare your words to his:
R. Menken: "The author cites many similar cases in which Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond that was known to other cultures. For example... but the Rambam explains that the reason why Chazal used the approximation of 3:1 is because the actual ratio cannot be stated definitively in any case."
R. Slifkin: "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!" (The exclamation point is not to refute the claim of Chazal's understanding, but rather the inference drawn from the claim.)
Did you not say Chazal's understanding of Pi is an example of their "advanced knowledge of the natural world?" That's all that R. Slifkin claims you said. You can quibble over "must have been" and failure to mention Rambam, but it's not much as straw men go.
Anyone who knows R. Slifkin as well as you do knows that the Rambam is one of the LAST people he would mock. And he isn't; he's saying R. Meiselman has taken Rambam too far. And he can't be walking back mockery he never made.
I wish he were less abrasive, but wouldn't you bristle at praise of an author who sides with those who put you through what he endured? You dismiss his hashkafa as rationalistic nonsense, but he was gracious enough to defend yours.
After Rabbi Menken did not allow this comment through, Mr. Shevin tried another:
If you're like me, you've had your fill of... (I'm sorry, but there are some puns even I won't stoop to).
You address three points in R. Slifkin's post:
  • He incorrectly (and rather impertinently) puts R. Meiselman on the editorial board of Dialogue Magazine. Guilty as charged, although R. Meiselman's name does still appear as a member of the Rabbinic Board on Dialogue's web site.
  • He describes you, with an unkind connotation, as a “charedi polemicist.” Guilty there, too.
  • He has set up a straw man, and mocked the Rambam in the process, regarding the matter of... that mathematical constant that shall not be named. Of this, he is not guilty. If you read his words carefully, you will see that he takes issue not with what the Rambam said but with the claim that it is but an example of Chazal's superior knowledge of the natural world. And this is not at all a straw man; you did indeed make that claim.
But R. Slifkin doesn't stop there.
  • He claims that R. Meiselman quotes R. Soloveitchik out of context. He even provides a link to where he discusses this at length, providing the citation in question.
  • He refutes the assertion that only Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam suggested Chazal were fallible in matters of science, and provides a link to a host of sources that say otherwise.
  • Likewise, he refutes the claim that ben HaRambam's opinion is a forgery, providing another link to proofs that it's genuine.
  • He points out that Chazal's view that the sun passes behind the sky at night (and which Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi concedes to be incorrect) is shown, in another gemara and in a midrash, to be connected to pesukim, and that the Sages who so believed were in fact Torah scholars--contrary to R. Meiselman's assertions.
  • He argues against the relevance of R. Hirsch's lack of scientific training.
  • He provides a quote from R. Hirsch refuting the notion that 19th century scholars conceded Chazal's errors of fact only in response to specific issues.
  • He calls laughable the claim that R. Meiselman succeeds in explaining Genesis "without compromising science."
  • He says R. Meiselman ignores "many statements in the Gemara" that conflict with modern science.
  • And most damning of all, he claims that the "vast majority" of contemporary Gedolim would consider R. Meiselman's approach heretical.
With so much rope, hanging him on at least some of it should be easy. Most of the items here can be tested objectively.
The follow-on paragraph is either in R. Soloveitchik's book or it's not. The sources opining that Chazal made mistakes in science are either real or fake. Ben HaRambam's text is a forgery or it isn't. R. Yehudah conceded an error or he didn't. The gemara and midrash saying that the sages guilty of that error were Torah scholars either exist or they don't. R. Hirsch either did or did not write that Chazal's forte was Torah, not science. R. Meiselman ignores some specified conflicts, or he addresses them.
The gauntlet lies before you. Have at it.
But Rabbi Menken didn't allow that comment through, either.

Rabbi Menken, since I know you will read this, I would like to address you directly. I don't expect you to retract your claim about the case of pi providing evidence of Rambam and Chazal having advanced knowledge - even if you wanted to, you couldn't, without toppling the Daas Torah edifice. But I do expect you to retract your slander about what I wrote. All you have to write is, "It appears that I misunderstood Rabbi Slifkin's words. He was not mocking Rambam, rather he was mocking an inference that I was making about Rambam. I apologize for misrepresenting what he wrote and for accusing him of mocking Rambam."

It doesn't really bother me when people say that my writings are heresy. After all, this just means that my approach to Torah is very different from theirs, and so one of us has a very flawed understanding - which is true! But it does intensely bother me when people misrepresent what I write (which, unfortunately, happens quite often). And to accuse me of "mocking" Rambam is not only false and ridiculous, but deeply hurtful, since Rambam is one of my greatest heroes.

The question is, if Rabbi Menken does not retract this allegation, does it reflect only on his own poor character, or does it reflect a general policy in the charedi world, that it is forbidden to ever cede any ground whatsoever to the "enemy"?


  1. The pi discussion was so convoluted that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of what was being disputed.

  2. You wrote :
    ..despite the fact that pretty much everyone seems to recognize that it was a silly claim
    I am curious. Is this 'everyone' commentors of your blog?

  3. Natan, isn't it long past time that you got a life in which you can do something useful so that you don't need to derive satisfaction from seeing your name in the proximity of R' Meiselman's and R' Menken's.

    1. He's an educator. He teaches in a local school, he runs his museum, and he writes on this blog. All 3 ventures are educational, and each represents a different sphere of influence in which he is able to impart knowledge to those who wish to learn.

      Why don't you find a life which doesn't involve denigrating those who wish to expose hypocrisy and falsehood where they see it?

      מדבר שקר תרחק

      If you don't know falsehood when you see it, how do you know to stay away?

    2. Indeed, what could have been accomplished in a decade instead of broadcasting to the world the same topic of spontaneous generation over and over again?

    3. I agree. Maybe you should focus on what you actually know, such as zoology, and leave the paskening in Halacha and hashkafa to those who have finished shas. It is obvious to everyone (besides yourself) that not only are you out of your league, but suffering a tremendous case of bruised ego and resulting bitterness. Your posts on your actual expertise are so much more interesting and less "ok, get a life!" Just sayin.

    4. Yea, instead Rabbi Slifkin could have taken a decade to write a huge book where he defends spontaneous generation as real, misrepresents Rav Soloveitchik, and fails to refute Rabbi Slifkin's books after spending a decade claiming they were incorrect AND heretical. Much more productive.

    5. R' Meiselman and R' Menken are going strong discrediting Rabbi Slifkin -- but it's long past the time for him to defend himself? And everyone else should sit with folded hands while they promulgate falsehood? Is it long past for everyone else too?

    6. A little pathetic: does everyone include me and the vast majority of the thousands of readers of this blog, or only those who agree with you? Just saying.

    7. A little pathetic: ... Your posts on your actual expertise are so much more interesting ...

      You must mean that the "zoo" and "safari" posts are the areas of Rabbi S's expertise and are more interesting than posts like the current one.

      No one agrees with that. The "zoo" and "safari" posts get much less comments than this type.

      But anyway Rabbi S and others on this blog know Shas better than many of their opponents.

  4. It's just reflective of his attitude.

  5. I'm fairly certain when chazal say that for halachic purposes pi is 3, they probably meant just that. 3 will suffice for any calculations that are halachicly relevant. It
    does not mean they were unaware of a more precise number, it means that for all purposes they were interested in transmitting calculations for 3 will do. Id suggest reading Rambam's introduction to the calculation of the onset of the new moon. He basically wrote it with you in mind.

    1. "I'm fairly certain.... 3 will do," etc.

      So what?

      No one claimed otherwise and if anyone did it is pure speculation anyway. You seem to be refuting something R Slifkin didn't argue.

    2. Exactly the straw man which rns is writing to say he didn't argue for. Try rereading this post.

  6. "The question is, if Rabbi Menken does not retract this allegation, does it reflect only on his own poor character, or does it reflect a general policy in the charedi world, that it is forbidden to ever cede any ground whatsoever to the "enemy"?"

    Or both. Duh.

  7. Why would R. Menken be willing to issue an apology when you have not issued your own apology for slandering him first?
    A retraction and restatement of your critique is not an apology.

    1. You made it appear in your original post that R. Menken (and R. Meiselman) were claiming to show Chazal knew pi was irrational because they used 3 as an approximation.

      In that original post, you didn't mention that they were coming off the Rambam in particular, nor that they claimed to have a way of explaining how the Rambam derived it from Chazal's approximation.
      You made it appear as though they were proving it straight from Chazal's approximation.
      That's pretty slanderous.
      Why not apologize first?

    2. JC, first of all, that's not "slanderous". In this post, I deliberately distinguished between disputes regarding the innate topic, and accusations of "mockery." (I would guess that you are the sort of person who doesn't even consider it slanderous when Rabbi Meiselman claimed that I said that the Torah is wrong when it says that the hare chews the cud, right?)

      Second, what I wrote is indeed an accurate summary of what R. Meiselman claims. (Whether it is also R. Menken's claim is not entirely clear to me, since he refuses to explain himself clearly, but I think it is entirely possible that he agrees with R. Meiselman.) True, it might have been nicer for me to mention Rambam, but that would have been lifnim mishurat hadin, since in any case Rambam does not help their argument at all.

    3. The Original Just CuriousJune 28, 2016 at 9:17 PM

      Incidentally, while I'm sure this matters to no one but me, I have posted on the blog in the past (though not recently; the last time I remember posting was re: a discussion of shiluach hakan) using the moniker "Just Curious", but the above poster is NOT me.

      For the record, I happen to think R' Slifkin is not only a tremendous talmid chacham but a courageous seeker of truth, while the dishonesty of his opponents is disgraceful.

    4. Second, what I wrote is indeed an accurate summary of what R. Meiselman claims.

      It is in no way accurate if the reader will think that R. Meiselman was making his own deduction that Chazal knew pi is irrational from the mere approximation of 3.
      You wrote the original post to distinctly give that impression.
      It is slanderous by your own definition above.
      So again, why don't you apologize?

    5. Once again: Even if I were misrepresenting his position, that is not "slanderous." "Slanderous" is saying something negative about someone - e.g. that they are mocking Rambam.
      Second, I maintain that this is an accurate summary of R. Meiselman's position. R. Meiselman claims that Chazal knew pi is irrational. The only source material in Chazal that he references is their statement about pi=3, along with saying that this implies that they knew it to be irrational. The Rambam aspect is irrelevant to the bottom line.

    6. Also, JC, what is your bottom line? Is it that both R. Menken and myself should apologize, or that neither of us should apologize?

    7. The Rambam aspect is completely relevant to the bottom line if the source material in Chazal would never have been claimed to imply pi is irrational without the Rambam!

      Look, I'm not denying that you were slandered maliciously. My bottom line is that I find it quite odd that you demand an apology for the kind of behavior that you yourself are willing to engage in.

    8. You're right that the Rambam led R. Meiselman/ Menken to this way of thinking. However, the bottom line is that they are trying to prove that CHazal knew pi to be irrational. And the only statement in Chazal that they are working from is that pi is three.

      Even if you disagree with this, I can't see how you can see it as remotely comparable to claiming that I was mocking Rambam.

  8. Rabbi Menken's undeniable dishonesty reflects only on him.

  9. When Rambam believed that Chazal knew pai is irrational, you say Rambam's belief was not a proof yet. On the other hand, I am recalling in one of previous discussions you mentioned the Rambam believed that Chazal's statement that any fish that has scales also has fins was not due to their special knowledge but just due to their experience. You seem to be trying to have it both ways.

    1. I don't understand what you are saying, could you rephrase?

    2. When it comes to pai, you are saying the Rambam's belief that Chazal knew it was irrational is not a proof that they indeed knew this. When it comes to Chazal statement about fish, you were referring to Rambam's belief that Chazal did not really have any special knowledge about this. So, in the former case you are not accepting Rambam expertise as a proof, in the former- you are.

    3. Not a proof. A plausible, even probable explanation.

  10. Well your opponent did accomplish one thing. Every minute you spent fretting about his inaccurate and defamatory writings was a minute you could have been advancing your Rationalist position.

  11. "The question is, if Rabbi Menken does not retract this allegation, does it reflect only on his own poor character, or does it reflect a general policy in the charedi world, that it is forbidden to ever cede any ground whatsoever to the "enemy"?"

    If he digs in with his zero-concession policy, he will have the dubious honor of being in the august company of many lawyers and evolutionist-atheists. Edward Simpson in Uncommon Dissent and Bill Dembski in Darwin's Nemesis discuss this at length.

    1. reject: Here is another excellent book in the Genre of "Uncommon Dissent". Enjoy!

    2. @David, I didn't commit myself to everything in the book. If someone wants to ascertain whether R Menken's conduct, if he digs in, will be unique to people of what he (RM) thinks his genre is, those articles in those books will give him food for thought.

    3. Also David, you can stay away from the book, while R Menken, who probably has a positive impression of it, can look at it and see who acts in the same manner as he.

    4. If you go up to a physicist and show them your perpetual motion machine, is it rational for them to adopt a zero-concession policy? Why or why not?

  12. Oh don't under estimate Menken's poor character, he equated me to Goebbels in a post on his Facebook page I commented on, when he felt I was being too accusatory of Chareidim for their lack of condemnation of Yishai Schlissel's actions. Menken is quite the nasty when he wants to be.

  13. This enters the territory of trying to talk common sense to some hard right charedim and getting no useful answer, just" It says right here".

    A while ago I told somebody how in the days of the Torah, populations were very slow to grow,, dues to wars, disease, droughts and child sacrifice. He still insisted that Mitzraim must have had millions of citizens then, almost like today.

    You can argue and bring up, these questions again and again, it just grinds you down.


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