Thursday, June 30, 2016

What is the Highest Form of Human Endeavor?

A friend sent me a mission statement from his children's yeshiva day school, which opened with "The Yeshiva continually emphasizes that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah." My friend had a question for me: Is this indeed true? Does classical Judaism maintain that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah?

I find this claim intriguing. I'm fairly sure that whoever penned it presumed that he was saying something perfectly normative, traditional, and even unequivocal. However, while there certainly are figures in our history who would agree with this statement (such as R. Chaim of Volozhin), there are many more who would not, especially amongst Chazal.

Now, many people would immediately assume that Chazal certainly held that Torah study is the highest form of human endeavor. Chazal said that Talmud Torah k'negged kulam! However, as discussed in two posts on this topic, Talmud Torah k'negged kulam just doesn't mean that. First of all, the corresponding text in the Tosefta lists the cardinal sins of adultery, murder, and idolatry, and then says, "and lashon hara k'neged kulam," so the phrase k'neged kulam is clearly an exaggeration.  Second, Chazal also say that Shabbos, Bris Milah, living in Eretz Yisrael, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim are k'negged kulam. Thus, the phrase Talmud Torah k'negged kulam does not mean that it is the highest form of human endeavor.

More relevant to our discussion is the dispute in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) about which is greater, study or practice. This dispute was resolved with the conclusion that study is greater. That would seem to indeed demonstrate that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah.

And yet, as with so many other things, matters become more complicated when you look into it carefully. The Talmud's conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It's that study is greater because it leads to practice.

There are two very important ramifications of this statement. One is that the sort of study being discussed is the sort that leads to practice. That is not necessarily the kind of Torah study that takes place in yeshivos. For more on this, see the excellent and very important article by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hersh Fried, "Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living? And If So, How Can We Connect Them? A Focus on Middos" (link).

The second important ramification is that if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is greater! Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his excellent study of this topic, notes that many authorities interpret the Gemara to mean that study is "greater" only in the sense that it takes precedence; you have to study the Torah in order to know how to practice it: 
"One could thus suggest, as indeed many have, that the assembly's preference for study is meant only in a chronological sense; it is to be propaedeutic to practice. To be sure, it is indispensable to practice and therefore has to come first, but it serves only as a means to achieve another end, namely, practice, which remains axiologically superior." (Torah Lishmah, p. 141)
(It is true that Rambam held that study is indeed the highest form of human endeavor. However, the type of study that Rambam had in mind was that of philosophy, not Gemara. As the Vilna Gaon points out, Rambam was deeply affected by Greco-Islamic thought. In the role that he attributed to philosophical contemplation, Rambam represents an unusual departure from both those who preceded him and those who followed him.)

The notion that Torah study is the highest form of human endeavor is based on mystical thought, and it was created by R. Chaim of Volozhin as a response to Hassidism. Hassidism innovated new relative importance to spiritual experiences vis-a-vis Torah study, and did not require halachic expertise for spiritual leadership. R. Chaim of Volozhin responded by creating a new role for Torah study, in which it took on mystical significance beyond anything ever proposed by Chazal. (See my post Torah Lishmah and Reformations of Tradition.) Here are the words of two Rishonim who represent the normative, classical Jewish position on this topic:
“ ‘It is not the study that is the main point, but rather the practice’ – That is to say, the goal of a person’s knowledge and toil in Torah is not that he should study much Torah. The goal is nothing other than that it should bring him to practice. And that is what is written, ‘And you should study them and guard them to fulfill them’ – it comes to teach that the purpose of study is for nothing other than practice.” (Rabbeinu Bechaye Commentary to Avos 1:17; see there at length) 
“It is not the study that is the main point, but rather it is a man’s good deeds that pull and bring him into the next world.” (R. Shimshon of Shantz, Comment to Sifri Acharei 9:9)
Let us also consider what message we wish to send to children. Should we be "continually emphasizing" to our children that studying Torah is more important than anything else? What about being a good person - perhaps that is more important than anything else? When R. Chaim of Volozhin wrote his open letter to launch the Volozhin yeshivah, he wanted to show that learning Torah is more important than anything else, and he approvingly quoted the Kabbalist R. Chaim Vital as saying that a person who can but fails to learn Torah forfeits his share in the World-to-Come, even if he has good deeds (Lamm, Torah LiShmah, p. 139). While this does not necessarily imply that somebody who does learn Torah earns a share in the World-to-Come even if he lacks good deeds, the message that comes through is certainly that it's more important to be a Torah scholar than to be a good person. Should that be the message that we broadcast?

Right now, my community is reeling in shock over the news that an outstanding local Torah scholar turned out to be a serial predator. But you don't have to turn to such an unusual case to be disturbed about teaching that it's more important to be a Torah scholar than to be a good person. A friend of mine, who taught in a yeshivah for many years, recently mentioned to me that he knows of several yeshivah rebbeim who have deeply problematic personalities, causing great harm to students, and he observed that their behavior would not be tolerated in any job other than yeshivah rebbe. There is not necessarily any correlation between being a Torah scholar and being a good person; our community errs not only in assuming that the former is also the latter, but also in emphasizing the former over the latter. There are far too many cases of people who receive respect for their Torah scholarship but who are severely lacking in the integrity and middos department. We need to be stressing to students that more important than Torah scholarship is that you are a person of integrity and good middos.

If Chazal and classical Judaism do not maintain that the highest form of human endeavor is Torah study, then what is the highest form of human endeavor? The answer is that there isn't one. Traditional Judaism does not specify a particular form of human endeavor as being the greatest. God requires different people to do different things at different times. Keeping Shabbos, serving in the Beis HaMikdash, making a bride and groom happy, escorting the dead, learning Torah, supporting your family, building up the Land of Israel and its economy, giving tzedakah, etc., etc., all have their time and place. There is no one thing that is more important than anything else. To quote the end of Koheles: סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם. "Fear God, and observe His commandments, for this is the entirety of man."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Choosing The Right Yeshivah

I received a request from someone for guidance about choosing the right yeshivah in Israel. Since I'm not so up on the American yeshivah scene, I suggested that he write a full description of his story, and I would post it here, for the input of my readership. Here it is:
I grew up in a frum home, the eldest son of two ba'alei teshuva. From the get go, I was the perfect off-the-derech child - I was very inquisitive of the natural world; the only thing more interesting to me than a wild plant or a rock I found was an episode of PBS's NOVA. Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the ground - there was something mysterious and enchanting about the world. While my peers were reading fiction such as The Magic Treehouse and Artscroll’s biographies, I was absorbed in the latest issue of National Geographic or Biblical Archaeology Review.

I went to a charedi-type school through first grade, but I hated it terribly. From a young age, I was a rationalist. I hated Judaic studies with a passion. I vividly remember how, "chumash class" was six-year-olds sitting in front of a purely Hebrew text (which few of us could understand) with the class Rebbe reading to the class with a poisonous dose of midrash. Midrash, in my opinion, is something that should NEVER be taught to children. To briefly quote an essay from Heshey Zelcer,

“Is Litchenstein privy to a study that analyzes how an educational approach that stresses a fairy tale version of Chumash affects modern Orthodox children? What percentage get turned off to Judaism, lose their faith, or leave orthodoxy? And what about the insult to Chazal that such a literal interpretation [of midrash] implies? Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid [hardly a rationalist] in Sefer Chassidim (page 239) gives sound advice regarding teaching midrash to children. “One does not reveal a strange Aggadah to children, lest they say, ‘This is nonsense’ and ‘If this is meaningless, so is all the rest (of the Torah)!’”.

Exactly as Zelcer describes, such a thing happened with me. Similarly, I was unable to justify how the creation narrative given in Bereshis could possibly have occurred, given the mountain of evidence for natural selection and evolution. I was disenchanted by my teacher’s inability to answer difficult questions, usually choosing to give a non-answer and then adding “Does that answer your question?” (my answer was always “no”). Often, it is better to say "I don't know" than not give a complete/real answer.

My burning questions, lack of access to answers (or Judaica, period), and heavy exposure to the rational discipline called science created someone who was destined to leave Orthodoxy. But further developments through a wrench in that machine.
When I was 8, my parents abandoned Orthodoxy. Ironically, I remained the most observant member of my family! I could not and would not eat food that wasn't kosher, if I could help it. I made a concerted effort not to ride in the car on Shabbos, and to walk to shul every week. I was still going to a Jewish, but now a modern Orthodox school, at this time. I have read about the “shift to the right” occurring in modern Orthodoxy these days. I can vouch for this. While I should have been exposed to a greater diversity of thought and ideas, I got the same unsatisfactory answers, yet masquerading as “moderate”.
When I was almost 13, my family moved to the middle of nowhere. I started going to public school on the weekdays, and a Chabad on Shabbos. Contrary to the horror stories I was indoctrinated with, switching to public school was probably the best thing that could have happen to me! I was exposed to other cultures, religions, and people. I got to see all the bad my parents had shielding me from, and I learned to appreciate what I had in private Jewish schools. I got to develop my own identity and understand of Judaism.
But now I was faced with new challenges. There were only a few fellow Jews at my new school and I had the misfortune of being the most knowledgeable about Judaism. Which meant I was the one who was faced with the challenge of the occasional evangelizer. In this instance, the internet was my friend. I watched Skobec and Singer debate Christian missionaries, and I learned what I needed to learn to stand up for the Jewish minority. Although I didn’t understand the implications of what I just did at the time, this was a very important development in my personal outlook. I gained proficiency in certain Torah concepts, absent of that “pesky” midrash or aggadah. Just plain, dry, rational Tanakh.
While at first I really fit in at Chabad (although it was very different from my more Litvish upbringing), as time went by I started to notice the ideological gap between Lubavitch and I. An annual visit to Crown Heights in Brooklyn (where Chabad-Lubavitch is headquartered) reminds me of that gap. Chassidim occupy the polar end of the rational-spiritual spectrum. Unfortunately, it so happens that they occupy the other end of the spectrum! I have come to expect “There’s spiritual reasons for it” as a catch-all answer, although I now have the chutzpah to ask “But what does the Talmud say?” as a follow up. Granted, this isn’t much different from my previous experiences, but at least now I have access to a set of English-Hebrew sefarim, so I can cross check whatever others say myself.
A few things further influenced me since I started at Chabad. First, I gained a mentor who hosted me at his lab for the summer, giving me a brief experience in genetic engineering. He also happens to be a ger. Second but unrelated, I went through a black-hat phase for two months. I don’t talk about that much. But the biggest change came last summer when a friend of mine recommended I go (קרי: coerced me into going) on an NCSY summer trip. I chose The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), an NCSY Israel summer trip for American public school teenagers. My mentor from the lab told me sternly before I went, “when you are in Teveria, visit the Rambam’s Kever.” I agreed, and had my councilors reroute our activities in Teveria, so I could visit it. Although Rambam did not mean anything to me at the time, those ten, short minutes were surprisingly meaningful both at the time and in hindsight. Near the end of the trip, we visited The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I was very surprised by the intellect level of Rabbi Slifkin (and his museum volunteers), who was unlike any rabbi I had ever met. At the time, I was not aware of the rationalist outlook, so in hindsight I regret not taking full advantage of the opportunity and striking up a conversation with the staff. Blowing the shofar collection just seemed less intimidating, I guess.
I came back from Israel wanting to learn about the places I had been and seen. I went online, and began learning about the archaeology of Israel, an interest of mine from when I was a young child. What began as a secular interest eventually resulted in me learning the mishna, tosefta and gemara for contextual understanding. As a side note, I still hate midrash, although I can now appreciate midrash the way it is supposed to be learned (not literally, but as a parable so that we can learn wisdom).
Biblical archaeology lead me to discover ben Sira. Which lead to Sa'adia Gaon. Which lead to Rambam, and eventually the whole breadth of rabbinic literature. I started catching up with my yeshiva learned friends in a few months. I learned to abandon the need to reconcile all opinions quickly. I abandon pointless Zoharic this and that, including all mysticism (probably to the distress of my Chabad Rabbi). I discovered rationalist Judaism on my own.
But at the end of the day, I learned to find my own נתיב - a road personally traveled - even if it meant abandoning the straight and narrow דרך. This blog was a great influence on me. I found a like-minded person to learn from. A few days ago, I read Rabbi Slifkin’s post about the yahrzeit for his mother-in-law, Anne Samson, and read his essay about mourning. I knew the name sounded familiar... The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey! This trip had a profound positive influence on my life, by inspiring me to learn about Israel (biblical archaeology), and leading to me learning Torah the way Torah I believe it is supposed to be taught.
So why is this story here? Since I started public school, but even more since the summer, I have wanted to go for a gap year to yeshiva. I now know I would like to go to Israel. But I wanted to reach out to the reader base to see which one(s) they could endorse. I want to spend most of my time learning - whether I'm in my yeshiva, or "in the field" (I have a passion for the natural world I mentioned), so ideally there will be a lot of learning, but also opportunities for me to go out on my own during the year. I would being interested in seeing which gap year yeshivos the reader-base could endorse (or not endorse) to help my decision along. 
If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments!

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"?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Danger That Remains To Be Addressed

This has been a very distressing week, with the announcement about Rabbi Meir Pogrow being a serial predator. Although I haven't seen much of him in the last few years, I first met Meir and his extended family over twenty years ago, when they gave me much hospitality and help, and his ex-wife and her family are truly wonderful people. I feel immense pain for them and for all the victims.

However, while the revelations about his actions were not as wholly unsurprising as was the case with Rabbi Leib Tropper (with whom, several weeks before the revelations came out about his predatory actions, I warned that he was a dangerous manipulator), I can't say that it came as a complete shock. I first heard reports about Meir's inappropriate behavior over a decade ago. That itself, however, obviously raises a question. While these cases are complicated, and there are all kinds of factors to consider, there remains to be more light shed on why it took so long for the condemnation to appear, and how last week he could be perfectly acceptable as a maggid shiur but this week he is a rasha with whom one must not associate. (I am not saying that there aren't any good answers to this question - there may well be. But I think that, if there are good answers, they should be made known, rather than leaving it up to people to speculate.)

One very important essay about this case was written by Shayna Goldberg, an experienced seminary teacher, at The Times of Israel. It is similar to the excellent material written by Paul Shaviv about the problem of "Pied Pipers" - overly charismatic teachers who manipulate their students in harmful way. The essay is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here is the second part:
...This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
And so I want to talk about it. I want to talk about teachers who use fear and guilt frequently and indiscriminately in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from — their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis. Teachers who break students down so that they can recreate them in their own images. Teachers who cultivate groupies and are dependent on their students for self-esteem. Teachers who lack real relationships with their own peers because they are “so devoted” to their students. Teachers who teach students not to trust themselves, not to rely on their instincts, and not to listen to their inner voices.
Unfortunately, teachers like this are not uncommon, and we don’t talk enough about the damage that they do. About the fact that the rapid growth and change that they foster usually doesn’t last or, if it does, comes at a heavy price. About the fact that their students, years later, often find themselves empty and lost. About the guilty feelings that can stay with a person forever. About the relationships that are ruined in the process. And about the dependence that has been formed.
We don’t talk about it because, in the moment, the picture is so rosy. The teacher is charismatic, “his” classes are well attended, “she” is so devoted to her students, and the growth seems so exciting and real.
There are healthy and positive ways to educate and to inspire growth, whether the trajectory in mind is chareidi, “modern,” or something else. These ways are usually rooted in respect, humility, responsibility and trust.
Deeply respecting our students means wanting to understand and appreciate where they come from and who they are. It means valuing their relationships with family and friends and encouraging positive interactions as much as possible. It means wanting growth to be organic and slow, to follow a continuum and to not demand a total break with the past.
Humility includes being able to admit our own failings and limitations. It is the ability to tell our students when we don’t know something. Humility also means realizing that our way is not the only way, and that sometimes someone else might know more, or know better, or simply have a different take on things. Humility means understanding that each person is an individual; that it is important for students to cultivate and develop that individuality and not suppress it; and that the goal is not to create miniature versions of ourselves.
Responsibility is required with regard to the teaching methods that are employed. Fear and guilt work effectively for inspiring quick change, but, in the long run, they often lead to self-doubt, resentment, and depression. Responsibility means being honest about the ups and downs of life. It means describing hard moments that might arise and preparing students to deal with them. It means letting our students know that we also have challenges, questions, struggles and doubts. Teaching with responsibility means having patience, because real growth is a process that takes a long time. It means understanding that in order for something to be truly internalized, a student needs to work hard to make it that way.
Finally, we should educate our students to develop trust in themselves. Trust in their ability to think, to weigh things, and to make good decisions. Trust to pay attention to their gut and to notice when something doesn’t feel right. We should trust that our students are good at heart and want to do the right thing. And we should not betray their trust when they come forward with a concern, but should listen very, very closely to what they are telling us.
Even if we want to disagree about what exactly constitutes a healthy education, let’s at least agree on what does not.
I hope that in the wake of this scandal, we don’t just talk about one outed, sick educator and then move on as if everything were okay. Let us not get so distracted by the outrageous details that we forget what was so grossly inexcusable about his conduct as a teacher, even had he never touched anyone.
People like this are facilitated by an educational culture that celebrates and rewards brilliant and charismatic figures, despite the fact that they are often highly problematic and leave silent trails of ruin in the shadows of their successes.
As a community, we can be aware of this and do a lot to change it. Our schools, administrators, and lay leaders can think, and think again, about our educational goals and about the healthy ways in which to help our students reach them. And, in the event that there are staff members whose behavior is wholly inconsistent with our conclusions, then it’s time that we put our children’s well-being first.
Let’s talk about that.
I truly hope that this message sinks in, because it is a very serious problem. Furthermore, while Mrs. Goldberg discusses cases where staff members are manipulative and dangerous to their students, that can potentially be addressed by other staff members and by the heads of the institution. What about  when the head of the institution himself is a deeply problematic person? I remember, after the brouhaha several years ago regarding charges about problems with Rav Bina's educational approach, a friend of mine, who knew Rav Bina very well, told me that while all the reports were true, they pale into insignificance compared to a certain other Rosh Yeshivah in Jerusalem. He explained to me that at least with Rav Bina, there are other staff members who temper his approach, but with this other Rosh Yeshivah, his exceedingly manipulative and emotionally abusive approach is not only vastly more harmful than that of Rav Bina, but it is untempered by any other faculty members, who are all devoted chasidim of this Rosh Yeshivah and who amplify his approach.

Previously, in a post on the question of why do so many centrists send their kids to extreme charedi yeshivos, I noted that many parents do not do proper research, or are misled by the yeshivah. Perhaps it is up to high schools, who often host rebbeim that are recruiting for various yeshivos and seminaries, to find out whether these yeshivos and seminaries have severely inappropriate teachers on their faculty or running their institutions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Chassidish, Heimish, Amish!

Today was a particularly fascinating day at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Over the course of the day, we had 120 impeccably behaved chassidishe kids, some heimishe families... and an Amish family!

I did a double-take when I saw them. My first thought was, How did they get to Israel? On a horse-drawn airplane? But then I realized that this was a naive question. There are all kinds of Amish people, just as there all kinds of Orthodox Jews. There are Jews who consider themselves Orthodox but disregard Torah principles regarding sexual behavior, and there are Jews who consider themselves Orthodox but disregard Torah principles regarding the ideal of self-sufficiency.

This lovely Amish family, from Iowa, was clearly Modern Orthodox Amish (or perhaps even Open Orthodox). They had a Nikon SLR camera, although I couldn't tell if it was digital or film. The husband was indistinguishable from any other American, except that he was speaking Pennsylvania Dutch to his family. The wife and daughters, though, had the "look" - bonnets and long-sleeved long dresses of a single color. It occurred to me that Amish tzniyus makes much more sense than contemporary Orthodox Jewish tzniyus.

It was a real pleasure to meet this family (and it was a treat for the other people on the tour, too). However, I am not posting a photo of them; I wouldn't want any Cross-Currents writers to start a heresy-hunt against them!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stan Larkin Had No Heart

The most extraordinary story was in the news recently. Stan Larkin of Michigan, age 25, has led a fairly normal life - except that for nearly two years, he didn't have a heart in his body. Last month, he finally received a heart from a donor. But for over a year and half before that, he had no human heart at all! Instead, he had a pump, connected to a machine that he carried around in a backpack, which circulated his blood.

The entire story is amazing. It also powerfully illustrates why brain death should be rated as death - with the consequence that the organs of people who are brain dead should be used to save the lives of other people.

Stan Larkin's story shows that the heart, as incredible an organ as it is, has nothing to do with housing our identity or our soul. It's just a sophisticated blood pump - nothing more, nothing less. When Stan didn't have a heart, just a machine in a backpack, he was no less of a person. And when he received the donor's heart, he didn't "become" the donor.

Due to the wonders of modern technology, enabling scenarios that never occurred before in history (and are thus not addressed in halachic sources), the same thing could happen with pretty much any of the body's organs. You can switch them out for artificial replacements, or you can transplant them from other people. It's amazing medical technology, but it has absolutely no consequences for their identity or their soul.

Except for the brain! You can't replace the brain with a machine. And you can't currently transplant one from someone else - but when technology eventually makes this possible (as it presumably will), there will most certainly be crucial consequences for the person's identity and soul. If, a hundred years from now, Stan Larkin Junior loses his brain, and has it replaced by that of a donor, then Stan Larkin Junior has ceased to exist, and the donor has taken over his body. The only way that Stan Larkin Junior can remain existing without a brain is if by then it is somehow possible to download the "software" of the brain onto a computer (which seems highly unlikely).

It's clear that a person's identity and soul is fundamentally rooted in his brain, not in his heart or any other organ. The heart is no more significant than any other organ. It can be replaced by a machine in a backpack. It's only the brain that is crucial to personhood. When the brain is no longer present, the person has passed on. And this gives us a unique opportunity to use their organs to save the lives of several people.

If you haven't yet signed up to be an organ donor, please do so today, at

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Day of the Bardelas

It's Bardelas Day! 

Today, Daf Yomi reaches Bava Kama 16a, which discuss a mysterious creature called the bardelas. Many students of the Gemara have been perplexed by this animal, which appears in several places in Shas. Here is an extract from The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom which discusses its identity.

The Mishna discusses the laws regarding which animals are classified as dangerous, such that their owners have a higher degree of liability for damage that they cause:
The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas, and the snake are muadin (rated as expected to cause damage). (Mishna Bava Kama 1:4)
What is the bardelas? As discussed in the chapter on the cheetah, this is not a Hebrew or Aramaic term but rather a Greek term. In Greek, it refers primarily to the leopard but also to the “lesser leopard” i.e. the cheetah. The leopard is already mentioned prior to the bardelas in the Mishna’s list, under its usual name of namer, and thus the term bardelas must refer to the cheetah.[1]

As we shall see, this is apparently the view of the Yerushalmi. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, queries the meaning of the term bardelas, presumably due to the Sages of Babylonia being relatively isolated from Greek culture and language. It answers that the bardelas is the hyena:
What is the bardelas? Rav Yehuda said: The nafraza. What is the nafraza? Rav Yosef said: the afeh (אפא). (Bava Kama 16a)
Afeh is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew tzavua.[2] Thus, according to the Babylonian Talmud the bardelas is to be identified with the tzavua, which is the hyena. But this leads the Talmud to raise a difficulty with this interpretation:
Let us raise a question: R. Meir said, also the tzavua, and R. Eleazar said, also the snake, and Rav Yosef said, the tzavua is the afeh! (Bava Kama 16a)
The question being posed by the Talmud is that since the tzavua is listed by R. Meir as a separate creature from the bardelas in the Mishna, then they must be different types of animals. The Talmud answers that this need not be the case:
This is no difficulty; one refers to a male tzavua, while the other refers to a female tzavua. (ibid.)
The Talmud considers that both male and female hyenas are dangerous. It takes the term bardelas as referring to one gender of hyena, and the term tzavua as referring to the other gender of hyena. But while this is the view of the Babylonian Talmud, the Yerushalmi is of a different view, for two reasons. First, it apparently understood the term bardelas as referring to the cheetah, and second, the Yerushalmi is of the view that only a male hyena is considered potentially dangerous:
It was taught: R. Meir said, also the tzavua. R. Yose, son of R. Avin, said, R. Meir was only talking about a male tzavua, which has its hour when it is as dangerous as a lion. (Y. Bava Kama 6b)
Later, we shall further explore the danger posed by the hyena, as well as other aspects of the views of the Talmud regarding male and female hyenas. For now, let us note that the Babylonian Talmud identifies the bardelas with the tzavua, which in turn refers to the hyena. This identification was accepted by Maimonides, who gave the Arabic name of the hyena:
Bardelas – an animal that is called al-tzaba in Arabic. (Maimonides, commentary to the Mishna, Bava Kama 1:4)
In 1338, Shlomo ben Shmuel of Gurgang published a Hebrew-Persian dictionary, in which he identified the bardelas as “an animal that lives in cemeteries, digs up the dead and eats them.”[3] This undoubtedly refers to the hyena. A little over three hundred years later, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz (1620–1674), a resident of the Land of Israel, refers to Maimonides’ description of the bardelas, and writes about it at length. He describes it as somewhat similar to a donkey; presumably this is a reference to the hyena’s mane, longish neck and large ears.[4]

Rabbi Moshe Reischer was a nineteenth-century resident of Palestine who was forced to emigrate and moved to Galicia. He wrote a popular work about the Land of Israel which includes a brief section on its fauna, in which he discusses the bardelas at length – presumably because his European readership was unfamiliar with this animal.[5] He cites Maimonides’ Arabic translation of al-tzaba, and notes that the Arabs of his day refer to it as al-daba, which is synonymous due to the common transposition of “tz” with “d.” Rabbi Reischer says that he saw the hide of a hyena, but apparently did not see a living specimen. He gives a fairly accurate description of the hyena, describing its mane as extending down its back, though exaggerating its size somewhat in describing it as being as big as a donkey.[6]

While in this passage the Talmud identifies the bardelas as the hyena, it seems that other references to the bardelas in the Talmud do not refer to this animal.[7] Instead, they are apparently a corruption of the word mandris. This appears to refer to the mongoose or similar such creature, as we shall discuss in the chapter on the mongoose.[8]

(The chapter continues to discuss the Gemara's description of how the hyena changes into different animals, and concludes with an inspirational concept, based on Perek Shirah, about how the hyena is an essential part of the circle of life. With thanks to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who told it to me a number of years ago. You can buy The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom at this link.)

[1] See Binyamin Mussafia, Mussaf HaArukh; Menachem Dor, HaChai BiYemei HaMikra, HaMishna VeHaTalmud, p. 64; Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas.”
[2] See Targum and Radak to I Samuel 13:18 and Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas.”
[3] Cited in Wilhelm Bacher, Ein hebräisch-persisches Wörterbuch aus dem vierzehnten Jahrhundert (Strassburg, 1900).
[4] Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz, Korban Mincha (Izmir 1675), Chapter 7; also cited by Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen in Midrash Talpiyot (Izmir, 1736), anaf bardelas. Rabbi Chagiz also relates a belief that the hyena hypnotizes people by dancing and singing, after which it lures them to its lair and kills them.
[5] Rabbi Moshe Reischer, Shaarei Yerushalayim (Warsaw, 1868), pp. 18–19.
[6] Rabbi Reischer also relates a belief that the hyena hypnotizes a person. According to Rabbi Reischer, it does this by dancing in front of him on two legs while drumming on its belly, causing the onlooker to fall into hysterical laughter and lose his mind. The person then follows the hyena to its lair, whereupon it kills him, eating only his brain.
[7] Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Chagiz and Rabbi Moshe Reischer, loc cit. See Tosafot to Sanhedrin 15b s.v. Vehabardelas.
[8] Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas in Ancient Rabbinic Literature.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Do You Know That You Know It?

Consider something that you know to be true. The earth is a sphere. George Washington existed. Dinosaurs lived a few thousand years ago/ lived many millions of years ago/ never existed. Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who is plotting to destroy Israel. (Hey, there are probably some readers of this blog who believe that!)

Now, the question is as follows. Do you know that you know these things to be true? Or do you just believe that you know these things to be true?

An honest answer is that we can never know that we know things to be true. We can only believe that we know things to be true. There is always the possibility that there are mistaken assumptions or other things that are leading us to incorrect conclusions. No doubt, there are certain "facts" that we "know" today which will one day turn out to be quite different.

This seemingly arcane question has become very relevant to the recently-revived crusade to delegitimize the rationalist approach to Chazal and science.

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science, claims that Chazal would not make a definitive statement unless they knew with absolutely certainty that it is true. "A major thesis of this book is that if Chazal make a definitive statement, whether regarding halachah or realia, it means that they know it to be unassailable" (p. 107; see too p. 33). In other words, when they say something about the natural world, it is not the case that they merely believe that they know it to be true. Rather, they know that they know it to be true. Accordingly, to say that they are mistaken is an attack on their integrity, and is therefore utterly wrong and heretical.

And thus, according to Rabbi Meiselman, when Chazal say definitively that any species in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs, this must be true, and accordingly, either elephants used to lay eggs or they used to possess external genitalia. When Chazal say definitively that the gestation of animals such as wolves is three years, it must be that this used to be the case. Similarly, when Chazal said that the atalef (bat) lays eggs, they must have been referring to creatures such as the duck-billed platypus, rather than mistakenly referring to the animal that every Torah scholar always understood the word atalef to refer to - the bat. Likewise, when Chazal say definitively that there is a salamander that is generated from fire, this must be true.

There are innumerable other such cases. In all these instances, according to Rabbi Meiselman, if you say that Chazal merely sincerely believed such things to be true (as did countless others in antiquity, and as we do about everything we think we know) and could thus be mistaken, you are a heretic. Instead, you are obligated to believe that Chazal knew these things to be true, and thus that these things are indeed true. (It remains unclear to me why Rabbi Meiselman considers the spontaneous generation of insects to be impossible, and thus insists that Chazal never believed in any such thing, but accepts the spontaneous generation of salamanders.)

Rabbi Yaakov Menken applies this to Rambam as well, at least in one case. Rambam says firmly that pi is irrational, and adds that only fools think otherwise. It happens to indeed be correct that pi is irrational, but did Rambam actually know this, or just believe it? According to Rabbi Menken, this cannot be simply a matter of Rambam's belief, similar to the way in which many other people in the medieval and possibly even the classical era believed pi to be irrational, since Rambam says it so definitively. Rabbi Menken argues that even though the irrationality of pi was only formally proved in the 18th century by Lambert, Rambam was uniquely privy to another, even more conclusive source - namely, some mysterious source in Chazal that he refuses to mention (!). Just as Rabbi Meiselman argues regarding Chazal, Rabbi Menken argues regarding Rambam, that if he states it definitively, he must have had conclusive knowledge of the fact. He didn't just believe it to be true - he knew it to be true.

But is that itself actually true? Let's take a look at some other definitive statements of Rambam:
"It is not impossible… that vermin be created from rot inside food, except as far as the fools who have no knowledge of the natural world are concerned, as they believe that all creatures cannot be generated except via a male-female relationship since this is what they see transpires in most cases." (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Sa’ase 179)
Here we see Rambam likewise stating definitively that spontaneous generation takes place, and dismissing those who think otherwise as being fools. Yet did Rambam know this to be true? Of course not - because it is actually false! The "fools" are correct, and there actually is no such thing as spontaneous generation! Rather, Rambam believed it to be true. And it is not mocking Rambam's integrity or intelligence to point out that it is false. Belief in spontaneous generation was perfectly normative until quite recently, and it is only to be expected that even an extraordinary genius such as Rambam would subscribe to such a belief.

In exactly the same way, when Rambam said with certainty that pi is irrational, it does not mean that he had any more reason for his certainty than when he said that spontaneous generation is a fact. He sincerely believed pi to be irrational, and he may well have had very good reason to do so - after all, the existence of irrational numbers had been demonstrated a thousand years earlier, and mathematicians had spent centuries failing to calculate an exact value for pi. As we have seen, there were several mathematicians in the medieval period who asserted that pi was irrational, and this was a common belief that turned out to be correct. But Rambam did not have the basis to know that pi is irrational. (And nor, let us again point out, has Rabbi Menken proposed what this alleged basis actually was.)

And in exactly the same way, when Chazal said various statements about the natural world, it does not mean that they knew these to be true. Rather, they believed them to be true. Accordingly, it is not remotely impugning Chazal's integrity, or the authority of the Gemara, to note that these statements are not necessarily true.

(Hat tip to R. David Ohsie for inspiring this post)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

House of Cards

A number of people were wondering why I spent so much time demonstrating that Rabbi Yaakov Menken was completely off the mark in his claim of there being evidence from the case of Pi that Chazal were ahead of their time. What’s the point? It’s not as though he would ever concede. And after all, there’s lots of people who crusade about negating the rationalist approach. There’s Rabbi Meiselman’s protégé Rabbi Dovid Kornreich, the self-styled “Freelance Kiruv Maniac” (a 67% superb moniker!), who has obsessively spent ten years running a blog solely dedicated to twisting what I write and explaining why it is heresy, and I certainly don’t bother responding to him. So what made this case different?

The answer is that there is much, much more at stake here than an argument about Pi.

The ban on my books was more than just a ban on some books by young Nosson Slifkin. It was an attack on the rationalist approach in general, and an attempt to write it out of Judaism. The Gedolim declared that it is forbidden to state that Chazal were deficient in their knowledge of the natural world. When people protested the ban, the situation took on the added dimension of also becoming about the fallibility of the Gedolim. But there was never an opportunity to openly discuss this with the other side. The Gedolim refused to meet with me or to give any explanation of the ban. Strategically, this was very wise. For to enter into discussion, to give an explanation, would render them vulnerable to being rebutted. The topics were not up for discussion. It was all about the authority of the Gedolim, and that’s that.

Since all this was creating an unparalleled crisis in charedi rabbinic authority, Rav Aharon Feldman published an essay which attempted to justify the ban. However, this made astonishing and easily disprovable claims about rabbinic interpretation and authority, and a number of people wrote devastating rebuttals of it. Rav Feldman did not attempt to respond to these rebuttals. Again, this was strategically very wise, because he would have lost the arguments.

Then Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who had previously issued the most vicious and personal attacks against me of all my opponents, and who also wanted a piece of the anti-rationalist pie, published his own 700+ page book about why the rationalist approach is heretical. While I responded with an extensive critique, there was no way that he was going to get into a discussion with me. Besides, his anti-rationalist stance was in any case very different from the anti-rationalist stance of the Gedolim – they would consider some of his own views and statements, which are very dismissive of the Rishonim, to be heretical.

But then, after all these years, something new happened. Rabbi Yaakov Menken published a glowing review of Rabbi Meiselman’s book. And he published it in Dialogue, at the request of Rav Aharon Feldman, who is on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and who probably saw Rabbi Meiselman’s book as the pie-in-the-sky demonstration of why the rationalist approach is heresy. The rabbinic board of Dialogue includes Rav Shlomo Miller, who is likewise regarded in the charedi world as one of the Gedolim of North America. Furthermore, Rabbi Menken presented Rabbi Meiselman’s book as THE proper explanation of why the rationalist approach is heretical. Rabbi Menken was thereby placed in the position of Official Representative of the Gedolim vis-à-vis the ban.

Now, it’s very dangerous to be in that position. If you get drawn into debate, and you lose, then you have not only compromised your own honor – you have compromised that of the Gedolim. And so when I published my blog post detailing all the problems with Rabbi Menken’s review, the strategically smart thing for him to do would have been to entirely ignore it.

And ignore it he did, for the most part. Yet he couldn’t resist addressing just one point in my critique of his review, regarding his claim about Pi demonstrating Chazal’s advanced knowledge. He cherry-picked a criticism that he thought would be as easy as pie to rebut and defend his claim. And he used that as an example of why he doesn’t need to respond to the rest of my critique.

But it turned out that his claim was indeed problematic. And as the back-and-forth went on, more and more people got to see the absurdity of Rabbis Meiselman and Menken’s insistence that you can start with a statement from the Gemara that pi is three, add Rambam’s unsurprising statements about Pi being irrational and reading of that into the Gemara, and come up with evidence that Chazal possessed advanced knowledge.

At this point, Rabbi Menken became truly stuck. He couldn’t concede that what he wrote in Dialogue was in any way wrong. For if he did, then the obvious next stage is for him to issue a correction in the next issue of Dialogue and to address the rest of my critique. For example, he has to address why he claimed that Chazal were far ahead of their time in their knowledge of the natural world, and that there is none amongst the Rishonim who said that any of Chazal could err in things about the natural world that they knew from the Torah, despite my pointing out that all the Rishonim state that [many of] Chazal believed that the sun goes behind the sky at night, which they inferred from pesukim. Likewise, Rabbi Menken would have to address why he presents Rabbi Meiselman as an honest scholar who reflects the true position of Rav Soloveitchik, when I demonstrated that Rabbi Meiselman utterly misquotes Rav Soloveitchik on a crucial issue.

But if Rabbi Menken does enter into discussion regarding the rest of my critique, and I prove it (or significant parts of it) to be likewise correct, then it’s not just Rabbi Menken who ends up with egg on his face. It’s Rabbi Meiselman, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, and by implication the entire Gedolim/ Daas Torah enterprise. It would severely set back the crusade against the rationalist approach. That was why I kept hammering away at this point, and not allow Rabbi Menken to distort, sidetrack or ignore the issue.

So what was he to do? He had to drag out the argument until he could find an excuse to pull out and blame it on me. And that is exactly what he did. When I got into a Facebook debate with him, he constantly evaded answering my points, and then claimed that I was “spamming him,” deleted my quotations from Rabbi Meiselman which revealed his mistakes, and blocked me from further discussion. He also claimed that my writing style was disrespectful, despite his being at least as bad (if not worse) in the way that he wrote about me and with his insults to others who agreed with me.

Sure, Rabbi Menken ends up looking foolish and intellectually dishonest for repeatedly insisting that Rambam’s statements about Pi demonstrate Chazal’s advanced knowledge, despite my pointing out that the irrationality of Pi was widely known in the medieval period and that there is no evidence whatsoever that Rambam actually derived it from Chazal. But, from Rabbi Menken’s point of view, it’s better to have egg on your face than to eat humble pie and bring down the whole Daas Torah house of cards.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Is It Amazing That Rambam Knew That Pi Is Irrational?

(For those who are sick of Pi, feel free to skip this post! But it does clarify some important points. The reason why I am spending so much time on this topic is in a post that I drafted last week but which I am waiting another few days to publish.)

First, I have to correct a mistake that I made. Back in 2011, on Pi Day (3.14), I wrote that Rambam was the first person in recorded history to explicitly describe pi as being an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be expressed by a fraction). But I now discovered that it seems that he was preceded by others.

Boaz Tsaban and David Garber, in an article that is helpfully referred to in Rabbi Meiselman's book, note that "Various ancient Greek writers, including Hero, Eutocius, and Simplicius, understand the difficulty of finding an exact value for the ratio, and seem to realize the possibility of its being irrational," although they did not say so definitively. It is thus certainly no surprise that after centuries of failed efforts to calculate number precisely, people would conclude that it is indeed irrational.

The fifth-century Indian mathematician Aryabhata wrote that “Add four to 100, multiply by eight and then add 62,000. By this rule the circumference of a circle of diameter 20,000 can be approached.” The 15th century commentator Nilakantha Somayaji interprets the original words as saying that not that is this an approximation, but that the value is irrational.

Then, at the turn of the ninth century, the Persian mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi notes that there are several different methods for calculating Pi. A marginal note (I am not sure when it was written) observes that "It is an approximation not a proof, and no one stands on the truth of this, and no one but Allah knows the true circumference of the circle, as the line is not straight and has no beginning and no end, we merely attempt to approximate and discover the root, but even the root has no definition as no one may know its exact value but Allah, and the best of these approximations that is to multiply the diameter by three and seventh as it is faster and simpler and only Allah might know it true."

The Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived from 973-1048, was familiar with Aryabhata's works. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, [Roshdi Rashed ed.], vol. 2, London/New York, 1996, p. 454), Boris Rosenfeld and Youschkevitch note that al-Biruni described Pi as irrational. In their discussion of medieval Arabic science, they further note that "...Arabic mathematicians repeatedly expressed their belief that the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diameter was irrational... Subsequent European mathematicians were also sure that pi is irrational but only J. H. Lambert, a native of Alsace, in 1766 succeeded in proving this."

In light of all this, it can hardly be seen as surprising that, just as the early Greeks seem to have suspected and just as the early Indian and Muslim scholars were certain, Rambam was likewise certain that pi is irrational.

Now, here is where matters become really strange. Rabbi Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science p. 155, says that Rambam "was not merely repeating an accepted piece of information, since this fact was as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Rabbi Meiselman concludes that Rambam deduced it from the Talmud, seemingly from the Talmud's approximating Pi as three rather than using a fraction. As such, Rabbi Meiselman presents this as evidence that Rambam, and in turn Chazal, possessed wisdom that was ahead of their time, and was somehow derived from the Torah or some other such supernatural source.

But Rabbi Meiselman himself, while he does not appear to be aware about Aryabhata, acknowledges in a footnote that al-Biruni already knew it! Rabbi Meiselman claims that "there is no reason to assume that the Rambam saw this work." This statement is very strange. The article from which Rabbi Meiselman took his information about al-Biruni just says that "it is not known" if Rambam saw it. Seeing that al-Biruni was a famous scientist, it is certainly highly plausible that Rambam saw it! And furthermore, it is obviously something that was known in the medieval period! How can Rabbi Meiselman write that "this fact was as of yet unknown to the rest of the world"?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken, in his review and defense of Rabbi Meiselman's book, likewise makes these strange and counterfactual claims (aside from repeatedly slandering me by falsely claiming that I denied Rambam's knowledge of pi and his attribution of that knowledge to Chazal.) He writes that "The field of mathematics did not leap forward in the centuries between the Gemara and the Rambam. It stretches credulity to imagine that Chazal made a rough estimate for no known reason, the fact that Pi is irrational then became common knowledge, and the Rambam then projected this common knowledge back upon Chazal." Accordingly, he concludes that not only was Rambam ahead of his time, but even Chazal are shown to be 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.”

Yet every single statement here is wrong. The field of mathematics most certainly did leap forward in the centuries between the Gemara and the Rambam. While it is certainly possible that Chazal knew pi to be irrational - after all, even the early Greeks suspected it - it does not at all stretch credulity to posit that Chazal did not know this, and gave the rough estimate of three for any number of reasons (such as those posited by Rishonim other than Rambam). It likewise does not at all stretch credulity to imagine that the irrationality of Pi became common knowledge in Rambam's time - even Rabbi Meiselman himself acknowledges that it was already stated by al-Biruni. Nor does it remotely stretch credulity to posit that Rambam projected this common knowledge back upon Chazal. People do this all the time - just look at how many recent figures have claimed that Chazal actually believed that the sun shines on the other side of the world at night. Rambam in particular is acknowledged by everyone (including the Vilna Gaon!) to have projected Greco-Islamic philosophy back into many statements in Chazal and Tanach (does anyone actually think that Maaseh Merkavah is really about Greek metaphysics?!).

And what is Rabbi Menken positing instead? That Rambam derived from Chazal that pi is irrational? Where exactly did he derive this from? Rabbi Menken does not seem to want to say, as Rabbi Meiselman does, that the source is the Gemara approximating Pi as three. But Rabbi Menken refuses to say where else the Rambam got it from. Is it some lost Gemara that nobody has ever heard of?!

It is clear that it is extremely plausible, even overwhelmingly likely, that that Chazal made a rough estimate of what they thought was a difficult (though not necessarily irrational) number for the reasons given by the other Rishonim. It is close to a fact that the irrationality of Pi later became common knowledge. And it is extremely normal and in character for Rambam to project such knowledge back upon Chazal.

Would anyone claim that the fact of the 15th century commentator Nilakantha Somayaji deriving the irrationality of pi from the fifth-century Indian mathematician Aryabhata is evidence that Aryabhata was in possession of a supernatural source of knowledge?! What stretches credulity is that Rabbi Meiselman and Rabbi Menken see Rambam's statement as "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures"!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Big Five

At Inyati Private Game Reserve in South Africa, on Torah In Motion's Africa Safari. Click to embiggen!