Sunday, July 31, 2016

Strengthening Emunah: Via Denying Dinosaur Eras, or Sentient Pigs?

There's a fascinating and disturbing battle taking place about how to strengthen emunah with students. It pits one group of charedi Gedolim against another, and both of them against modern educated people with the capacity for critical thought.

Today I was in a Jewish bookstore in New York, and prominently displayed were two new books on emunah. One was by Rabbi Dovid Saperman of the Ani Maamin Foundation and was entitled Emunah: A Refresher Course. The approbations are from Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. It contained the usual specious "logical" and "scientific" arguments of the sort popularized by the Discovery seminar - the Kuzari argument, the claim that the Torah claims there to be only four animals with one kosher sign and no others have ever been discovered, the claim that Chazal made a supernatural prediction that there are no fish with scales and without fins, etc.

Unlike the Discovery seminar, however, Emunah: A Refresher Course also included extensive pseudo-scientific material attempting to prove that there was no era of dinosaurs; the universe is only 5776 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. Likewise, there was extensive presentation of kashyas on evolution, arguing that it is false and nonsense. This material all appeared to be from computer scientist Jonathan Ostroff, well known to long-time readers of this blog as a Young Earth Creationist with bizarre debating tactics and even more bizarre beliefs. Rabbi Saperman apparently rates Ostroff as some kind of scientific expert and unhesitatingly accepts all his material. He appears to believe that convincing people that modern science is all wrong will strengthen people's emunah.

The other book that I saw takes a very different approach and indeed was apparently written as a direct response to Rabbi Saperman. It is entitled The Heart of Emunah: The Torah Approach for Conveying Yiddishkeit to our Children, and it is written by none other than Rabbi Ruven Schmelczer. For those who don't recognize that infamous name, Ruven Schmelczer is the person who, along with Leib Pinter and Leib Tropper, engineered the ban on my books. He subsequently wrote a book in opposition to my own, entitled Chaim B'Emunasam, with glowing endorsements from his rebbe Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Elya Ber Watchfogel, and numerous other charedi Gedolim who had signed the ban on my books. Chaim B'Emunasam was a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty (full critique at this link), rivaling Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science as the most dishonest Torah work ever written. Rabbi Schmelczer not only ignored the views of Rishonim and Acharonim which contradicted his claims; he actually re-arranged the words of Rambam in order to entirely change their meaning!

After I printed and distributed a booklet exposing the dishonesty of Rabbi Schmelczer's work, I received reports that Rav Moshe Shapiro's circle was very embarrassed by the whole matter, and claimed that Rabbi Schmelczer was not, in fact, representing Rav Shapiro's positions. (Subsequently Rav Moshe Shapiro himself severely harmed his own reputation, with the police indicting him for instructing one of his followers to beat an old woman half to death, Rav Moshe's denial of any guilt in the crime, but a video then emerging of his giving these exact instructions.) So I was quite intrigued to see Rav Moshe Shapiro again writing a glowing approbation for Rabbi Schmelczer's book, alongside Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Yaakov Hillel and Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler.

As the approbations and introduction to The Heart of Emunah make clear, this book is written specifically to counter works and programs such as those of Rabbi Saperman. Emunah, it says, should not be taught via any kinds of "proofs" or "arguments" based on history, science or philosophy, which can lead to dangerous confusion. Rather, it should be based on emunah peshutah, straightforward simple faith.

That actually sounds quite reasonable, in and of itself, but when Rabbi Schmelczer fleshes out what he means, it becomes very problematic. On p. 33 we are told that "the foundation of emunah is surrendering one's own sechel to those who have acquired sechel haTorah." On p. 71, Rabbi Schmelczer guarantees that one can cure a bone stuck in the throat by placing another bone from the same dish upon the forehead and saying certain Kabbalistic words. He then proceeds to insist that a person is obligated to believe in the existence of salamanders that are formed from fire, mice that are formed from dirt, mermaids and phoenixes. The main thrust of the book is that children must be be brainwashed with emunah peshutah, by having it repeatedly drilled into them, and removing any influence that might cause them to have any questions. Any questions or discussion should be strongly discouraged; the ideal is to accept everything without questioning anything.

The book mixes this message with all sorts of questionable hashkafic dictates, such as that one's non-Jewish "cordial neighbor" lives a life of "transient self-indulgence," and can turn against you "with utmost cruelty," because it is a halachah that Eisav hates Yaakov (p. 219). Chapter 24, "Combatting Disenchantment," addresses those who "claim" to feel disenfranchised from Klal Yisrael, and who have unanswered questions; Rabbi Schmelczer assures his readership that such heretics are simply seeking license to pursue their lusts for corrupt behavior. The possibility that there are other approaches to these issues amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim is entirely negated; when Rabbi Schmelczer discusses the topic of the sun's path at night (p. 368), his extensive Hebrew footnotes entirely ignore all the dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who saw this topic as demonstrating that the Sages' beliefs about the natural world were not always correct.

Rabbi Schmelczer relates countless stories about the supernatural powers of Gedolim, the truth of miraculous phenomena, and suchlike. He saves the best one, a second-hand story allegedly told by the Chafetz Chaim, for the final chapter. In the city of Shavel (Šiauliai), a pig once forced its way into a shul, went to the ammud, and stood up on its hind legs. Demonstrating a level of intelligence, eyesight, and dexterity not normally seen in this species, it opened up the siddur, and began turning pages. It found its way to a piyut that mentioned pigs, tore that page out of the siddur, and ran out of shul. The rav explained that this pig was a gilgul of Eisav, and that this was a bad sign; a few days later, the entire city was destroyed in a fire. Rabbi Schmelczer concludes by noting that "stories such as these, told by tzaddikim and gedolim who personify trustworthiness.... are proof to our emunah that there is always a spiritual dimension above what we can see and understand."

So, this is the debate between the charedi gedolim. How do we strengthen emunah in our children? Do we give them pseudo-scientific proofs of the truth of Torah, and explain why all the world's scientists are wrong and there was never an age of dinosaurs? Or do we tell them that they have to unquestioningly accept everything, and demonstrate the truths of Torah with tales of sentient pigs?

I wonder how this battle of giants will play out. Personally, I think that for students who are connected to modern knowledge (which is virtually everyone), the healthiest approach is to avoid insisting that they must accept far-fetched claims, and to focus instead on the wonderful experience of Judaism, the significance of Jewish identity, and that which is unquestionably true (yet no less miraculous), such as the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land. And if I'm going to inspire people with amazing animals, I prefer elephants and chameleons to mermaids and sentient pigs. But then again, I'm an apikorus, so what do I know?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Exotic Biblical Dinner!

A special announcement from The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

On the occasion of our second anniversary, we are delighted to invite our Patrons to a unique and exclusive Exotic Biblical Dinner, featuring an amazing menu of gourmet Biblical dishes, in the company of distinguished rabbis, scholars and dignitaries!

The dinner is being prepared by the famous chef Moshe Basson, known as “Israel’s Biblical chef.” The menu will feature wild animals, birds and other dishes that are mentioned in the Bible, with presentations by museum director Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, and other scholars and dignitaries. The dinner will take place in the museum’s main hall (which will be modified for the occasion), providing a truly unique setting for this extraordinary experience!

There is an extremely limited number of spaces available for this elaborate and exclusive event. Invitations are limited to patrons of the museum. To find out more about joining the museum family as a patron, and supporting our education programs, click here.

The dinner will take place on Thursday, 13th October 2016 / 11th Tishrei, 5777, at 7pm. For more details, write to

Monday, July 25, 2016

This Weekend in New York

I'm coming to New York this weekend. Over Shabbos, I'll be speaking at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, and on Sunday evening I am speaking at Beis Tefilah in Woodmere (on the topic of evolution), after which I am off to Los Angeles.

If you'd like to be involved with The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch, and we can get together on Thursday or Friday. Patrons of the museum are going to be invited to an extremely special event, details of which are to be revealed very shortly!

(Please note that the Biblical Museum of Natural History will be functioning as normal while I am away - we have excellent guides - so if you're in Israel for the summer, don't forget to book a tour!)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Let's Destroy The Charedim - And The Rest Of Israel!"

"Let's destroy the charedim!" That must be the plan that is being acted upon by numerous people lately.

As is widely known, the charedi community in Israel is in a state of collapse. It suffers terribly from poverty, and the resultant problems that it brings in its wake. The reason for this is simple: A very high percentage of charedim do not work, and even many those who do work lack the necessary education to get a job that pays a reasonable wage. This is a result of a society that disobeys and disregards Chazal's directive that a person is obligated to educate his children to be able to support themselves.

The previous government, uniquely in the history of Israel, took strong steps to address this problem, such as making financial aid to schools contingent on their adopting the minimal core studies of secular education. This had significant results - the Shas school system adopted math, science and English as a result. For the first time, it looked like there was hope to save charedi society from collapse.

Yet there were those who sought to sabotage this rescue effort. After the last elections, UTJ politicians entered the coalition, promising to support Netanyahu if he rescinded the requirement for basic secular studies. And thus it was.

But that wasn't all. It's not enough to ensure poverty for all the Israelis in the charedi "education" framework. You have to try to also ensure poverty for people moving to Israel, such as the recent olim from France!

To this end, a group of charedi gedolim and askanim just flew to Toronto (on a private jet, of course). Their goal: to raise funds from philanthropists "in order to make sure that the newcomers stay within the Charedi school system." Because God forbid that they should go to a Torani school in which they will get a secular education alongside a Torah education.

At this point I must take the rare step of taking issue with someone that I greatly revere, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. Pointing to the recent report that Lakewood graduates attain the highest CPA scores in the state, Rabbi Adlerstein suggests that the regular secular education track may not be essential. He notes that in Israel, "Motivated haredim with no secular background at all successfully earn the equivalent of bagrut in 12-18 months in special programs, and then take their places in regular academic study at Israeli universities." However, that is somewhat misleading.

First of all, the Lakewood students who take CPA exams are probably not average Lakewood guys. Second, even average Lakewood guys have a secular education and exposure that is vastly superior to chassidim in the US and to virtually all charedim in Israel. Third, the facts are that fully 50% of charedim who apply for "catch-up" programs in Israel (themselves certainly not representative of chareidim in general) drop out because they just can't catch up that late in life.

It would perhaps be more relevant to point to an opposite example. Charedi leaders argue that it is essential to block their students from secular studies and IDF service in order that they should turn into Bnei Torah. But of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Israel of America, quite a few have college degrees. And of the recent new appointees to the High Rabbinic Court in Israel, a whopping 50% have served in the IDF. Evidently, a secular education and IDF service does not prevent people from becoming great Torah scholars.

As Jonathan Rosenblum has forcefully argued, it is essential for charedim to get academic education and professional employment - not only for their sakes, but for the sake of all Israel. I hope that the Toronto philanthropists realize this, and are not suckered into aiding those who are effectively out to destroy the charedim - and the rest of Israel.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghosts, Demons, and Bacteria

Concurrent with the release of the new Ghostbusters movie, somebody asked me about Judaism's position vis-a-vis ghosts. The truth is that the term "ghost" is somewhat vague. The ghosts in Ghostbusters are a mix of the spirits of dead people, demonic entities, and strange slimey things.

In various Jewish texts, the spirits of dead people are described as appearing in terms of gilgulim and dybbuks. Rabbi Reuven Margolies, for example, explains that the reason why a murderous ox is put on a human-like trial is that it houses the reincarnated spirit of a person. Belief in such gilgulim, first discussed in the era of the Geonim, is found with many authorities, though it was also rejected by many others.

(Opponents to the belief in gilgulim include Rav Saadiah Gaon, Emunos v’Dayos 6:8; Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margolies, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud, in Emunah Ramah 7; Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif, Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21; Rav Chasdai Crescas, Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7; Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29; and Rav Avraham Bedersi, Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba. See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a. Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10, 2001.)

A much later belief is that in dybbuks - malevolent spirits that take over a person's body. One of the most famous such accounts is that of Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who told about an exorcism performed by the Chafetz Chaim. However, in Making Of A Gadol, Rav Nosson Kamenetzky cites various members of the Chafetz Chaim's family who said that the woman concerned was mentally ill, and the Chafetz Chaim was simply catering to her beliefs.

Neither gilguls nor dybbuks are found in classical rabbinic texts such as the Talmud or Midrash. However, there are countless references in these texts to sheidim and mazikin. What are these? In a very strange column published yesterday in Hamodia/ Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran quotes the statement of the Talmudic sage Abba Binyamin that "Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us... we would be frozen in terror." Rabbi Shafran adds that "Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation."

Personally, I think that "wishful thinking" would be a better description than "speculation." It is, frankly, rather odd to posit that Chazal knew about such microscopic phenomena. First of all, considering how many very basic things about the natural world they did not know, such as the sun's path at night, why on earth would they have known about microscopic phenomena? Second, if they did indeed know about bacteria and viruses, then why on earth didn't they issue basic medical advice which would have saved countless lives over history, instead of all kinds of bizarre potions and procedures? Third, let's look at the full statement from the Gemara:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see the mazikin, no creature could endure them. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right. Rava says: They are responsible for the crushing in the Kallah lectures, fatigue in the knees, the wearing out of the clothes of the scholars from rubbing against them, and the bruising of the feet. If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat which is the offspring of a black she-cat, the firstborn of a firstborn, roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him, and let him also close his mouth, so that he should not come to harm. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 6a-b)
That hardly sounds like a description of fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses!

The mazikin and sheidim of the Gemara are demons. Many rabbinic scholars over the centuries believed in the existence of such entities, in part due to the authority of the Talmud. Others, notably Rambam, dismissed the notion of demons.

There is a comprehensive discussion of all the different rabbinic views on demons in my monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons. As I conclude in my study, the mere fact of someone ultimately accepting that demons exist does not at all necessarily mean that he is not a rationalist — it all depends upon the historical context.

The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal account or with a credit card. The recommended donation is $5, but if you have gained from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise and would you would like to take this opportunity to express your appreciation with a larger donation, it would be gratefully appreciated! You can make a donation by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ghostbusters Analogy

On the occasion of the release of the new Ghostbusters movie, I am re-posting something that I originally posted back in 2014 on the occasion of the passing of the parshan Harold Ramis.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters movie was immensely popular. Most people loved it for its hilarity; some for its fantastical elements. I was intrigued by a different aspect of it, and it's something which provides a useful analogy for understanding the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to various Jewish concepts.

For those who didn't see it, Ghostbusters was about a group of eccentric geniuses/ dropouts who launched a career catching ghosts. The shtick of the Ghostbusters was that they discovered that it was possible to design technology that could detect ghosts, and ultimately to subdue and contain them. PKE meters, proton packs, muon traps - these were gadgets that used physics but could detect and interact with spiritual phenomena.

Behind the concept of Ghostbusters, then, lies four ideas:

1. Spiritual phenomena exist as entities;
2. They follow precise laws;
3. These laws are connected to the laws of the physical universe;
4. Physical objects can manipulate spiritual phenomena by way of these laws.

The rationalist stream of Jewish thought denied pretty much all of these four ideas. Menachem Kellner, in Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, explains how according to Rambam, concepts such as kedushah and tum'ah are states of mind rather than metaphysical phenomena. The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world. There are many examples of this. Mezuzah creates a reminder rather than a force-field. Shiluach ha-kein teaches us compassion rather than engineering a celestial courtroom drama with angels. And so on, and so forth. Without the first idea in the list above, the latter three don't even begin.

The mystical stream of thought, on the other hand, posits the existence of all kinds of spiritual entities. These relate to, and can thus be influenced by, the physical universe, though not in exactly the same way as with Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters used technology to create physical forces that directly interact with the spirit world. The mystical stream in Judaism, on the other hand, proposes that physical items create spiritual forces which in turn affect the spiritual and material world. However, there are still valuable points of analogy. Just like an improperly calibrated proton pack will not subdue Gozer the Gozerian, so too a mezuzah missing a letter will not create a protective force-field - even if the missing letter is a result of, say, termites attacking the parchment.

My point in this is not to mock the mystical stream of thought - just to note how very far apart it is from the rationalist stream of thought. I believe that appreciating that these are simply two very different worldviews, each the result of a rich heritage, helps avoid friction between people who adhere to different streams. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that. Don't cross the streams!

(In other news - I will be in Florida in November, and I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements. If you are interested, please email me.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In Defense of Yated (Mostly)

And now for something that you never expected to see on this blog: A defense of the Yated.

After the passing of Elie Wiesel, the Yated published an article by Rabbi Yaakov Feitman in response to the obituaries that appeared in the general media. I saw responses by several people, describing it as "vile," "sickening," and unacceptably "judging him."

Yet the article was none of that. Rabbi Feitman made it extremely clear that he was not judging Mr. Wiesel at all, and explained at length why nobody can judge him. He showered him with praise for his various achievements, even though Mr. Wiesel certainly does not reflect the Yated's values. (I was actually quite amused to see Rabbi Feitman praise him as being the shaliach for the charedi world on Darfur, Rwanda and so on.)

Yes, Rabbi Feitman did take issue with some of Mr. Wiesel's theological statements, which are being amplified in the media. But he made it as clear as one possibly can that he was disputing the statements, not criticizing the person. What is the crime in that?

I can only think of two reasons why people would react so strongly to Rabbi Feitman's article. Perhaps Elie Wiesel was such an icon that some see it as unthinkable to dispute anything that he says. But surely such an approach, of idolizing certain figures to the extent that it is unthinkable to disagree with them, is exactly what these people criticize with regard to charedim! Alternately, perhaps these people have a knee-jerk reaction to criticize anything in the Yated. That is unfortunate.

(Incidentally, Rabbi Feitman's response to Elie Wiesel's theological challenges was rather weak. It might have been better to simply acknowledge that the question of why bad things happen to good people is as old as the Torah, and indeed the Torah itself openly states very clearly that God will sometimes do extraordinarily horrible things.)

If there's something to criticize in Rabbi Feitman's article, it's in the parable that he provides for having faith that God must know the answers: 
"The Alter of Novardok offered a moshol that everyone who has ever learned Torah seriously will instantly understand. When we learn a sugya, a section of Gemara, and then look it up in the Rambam, we sometimes discover that the Rambam does not seem to follow the conclusion of the Gemara. This requires analysis and explanation, and sharp Talmudic heads work hard to “answer the Rambam.” No one would simply answer that the Rambam forgot that sugya or page of Gemara. Neither would any Torah scholar think for a moment that the Rambam was simply mistaken. The brilliant scholars of the past eight centuries have always been able to find a solution to these problems." 
As Rabbi Dr. Marc Shapiro demonstrates at great length in Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters, this is sorely inaccurate. The brilliant scholars of the past eight centuries who answered that the Rambam indeed sometimes "forgot that sugya or page of Gemara," or was "simply mistaken," include Raavad, Sefer HaChinnuch, Rivash, Tashbetz, R. Yosef Caro, the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yaakov Emden, the Netziv, and countless others - including Rambam himself! If you want to provide a mashal for God's infallibility, it's not a good idea to use a human being.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Weird and Wonderful Doctoral Dissertations

There were over two hundred and fifty other people who received their doctorates from Bar-Ilan University last week. We each received a booklet listing everyone's dissertations. I thought that it might be interesting to share the titles of some of them, to illustrate the extraordinary range of topics.

In the Faculty of Law, Dr. Yitzchak Ben David's dissertation looked especially interesting: "A Sinful Ruling: On Error, Authority and Responsibility in Talmudic Halakha - A Study of the Exegetical Processes and Literary Structures in Tractate Horiyot." And in Interdisciplinary Studies, Dr. Dov Berger wrote on "The Developmental Philosophy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and the Theory of Evolution." In Jewish Studies, here's one from Dr. Yehoshua Zekbach that may be of interest to some readers: "The Halakhic Approach of Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg: Sources, Exegesis and Halakhic Decision Making." And Dr. Tziporah Lifshitz's topic looks very original: "Beauty as a Value in Rabbinic Literature: Analysis of Rabbinic Approaches to Beauty in Human Beings and Nature."

Moving to the Humanites, one dissertation by Dr. Aleef Faranesh left me scratching my head: "Detective Writing in Modern Arabic Literature." I had a similar reaction to that by Dr. Daphna Cassel: "Contemporary Cinematic Representations of Architectural Transparency: The Case of Twilight and The Dark Knight."

In the Social Sciences, this one by Dr. Barak Bouks looks intriguing: "Is Religious Terror More Violent Than Non-Religious Terror? A Quantitative Analysis of Religion and Terror." Several dissertation titles are revealing of Israel's challenges. Dr. Lior Garbi's dissertation was on "Children's Resilience to Ongoing Terror: The Contribution of Parental and Child Personal Resources to the Sense of Coherency, Externalized and Internalized Affective Responses to Post-Traumatic Symptoms." Dr. Jacob Stein wrote on "Expressions of Isolation and Loneliness Following Combat and Captivity Trauma and Strategies for Coping with them in the Life Stories of Israeli Combat Veterans and Ex-Prisoners of War." And Dr. Gali Tangir's topic was "Consequences of Continuous Exposure to a Security Threat on Child Adjustment: The Moderating Role of Type of Community and the Relationship with the Mother."

Most entertaining are the titles of the dissertations in the Life Sciences and Exact Sciences, because they are obviously very valuable, and yet so incredibly arcane and incomprehensible. Dr. Dorit Eli's topic was "The Role of Oligoribonuclease in Mediating Biofilm Formation in the Bacterial Pathogen Pseudomonas Aeruginosa via c-di-GMP." Gezundheit! Or how about Dr. Liat Moscovich's "The Role of Spt2 in the Collision between the Replication Fork and Transcription Bubble in the Budding Yeast Saccharomyces Cerevisiae." But I think my favorite is that of Dr. Serge Lukasiewicz, who wrote on "Holomorphic Extension of Fundamental Solution of Elliptic Linear Partial Differential Operators with Analytic Coefficients and Simple Complex Characteristics." I understand (almost) every word in isolation, but I haven't got the faintest idea what they mean when they go together!

Mazel tov to all the graduates!

Friday, July 8, 2016

From Yeshivah to University

Yesterday was my graduation ceremony at Bar-Ilan University, in which I received my doctorate in Jewish History, with a dissertation on "Rabbinic and Maskilic Encounters with Zoology in the Nineteenth Century." As I described in my post "Zoo Rabbi Doctor", this was the culmination of a change in my life's direction that I not only did not foresee, but would have positively feared and hated. Twenty-one years ago, when I was twenty years old, I successfully fought against my parents, who were urging me to leave yeshivah and attend university. At the time, even if I would have attended university, it would certainly would not have been to study Jewish subjects. I looked at academics in the field of Jewish studies with deep suspicion, especially if they were also rabbis!

As I mentioned several years ago in my post "From Yeshivah to Academia", Rav Hirsch writes that one of the reasons why the Torah disapproves of vows is that a person should never make absolute decisions about their future plans; life is a process of growth, and plans change as a result. I am very, very grateful that various circumstances and people influenced me to move in a different direction!

(Mazel tov too to Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Brodt, who also received his doctorate!)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Why the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is Special

The previous post, "What is the Highest Form of Human Endeavor?", produced a vigorous response. Rabbi Stefansky and others argued that there are many passages in the Gemara that seem to describe learning Torah as the greatest endeavor:
"Rav Yosef said: Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives" (Megilla 16b)
"Rav said: Torah study is greater than building the Beis HaMikdash" (Megillah 19b)
"[God said to David:] One day that you sit and busy yourself with Torah is better to me than a thousand offerings that your son Solomon will bring on the altar." (Shabbat 30a)
However, there are also other passages which contain similar descriptions about other mitzvos:
"Charity is greater than all the sacrifices" (Sukkah 49b)
"Charity and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvos of the Torah" (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1:1)
Rabbi Stefansky countered that there are many more such descriptions about Torah. Indeed there are, but this does not negate the statements about charity. All these statements about the importance of learning Torah are no different than the phrase Talmud Torah k'neged kulam, which has its counterpart in several other statements about other mitzvos being k'neged kulam. They are a combination of exaggerations, aggadic prose, and a result of the fact that learning Torah is of foundational importance because it enables you to do the other mitzvos.

Rabbi Stefansky also argued that the Gemara in Sanhedrin 99b explicitly states that man was created to toil in Torah. This seems to conclusively prove that learning Torah is the ultimate human endeavor!

Yet the Talmud derives this from a protracted and very subtle exegesis:
Rabbi Elazar said: Every man was created in order to toil, as it is written, “For man is born to toil” (Job 5:7). I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of the mouth or for the toil of work; but when the verse says, “[The toiling soul…] his mouth compels him,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of the mouth. I still do not know, however, if he was created for the toil of Torah or for the toil of speech; when the verse says, “This book of Torah should not depart from your mouth,” this tells me that he was created for the toil of Torah. (Sanhedrin 99b)
If learning Torah was really and truly the goal of our existence, wouldn't there be something actually in the Torah a little more explicit?! The statement in Sanhedrin is a nice drush. An obscure exegesis can hardly be taken as the foundational directive for human existence. (See too Maharsha, who (a) suggests that it is actually referring to teaching rather than studying Torah, and (b) seems to understand Rabbi Elazar more in terms of saying that toil in this world is inevitable, and it is better to fulfill this by way of Torah.)

Another point to consider is this: What about women? Those who claim that Torah study (which is taken to mean learning Gemara, lishmah) is the goal of creation tend to also be of the view that women should not be learning Gemara. So if the goal of creation is Torah study, does that mean that women do not fulfill the goal of creation, and can only enable it via men?!

The only clear source for Chazal's position on this topic is the passage where they explicitly, en masse, set out to discuss it. This is the passage in Kiddushin 40b mentioned in the previous post, where the Sages argued about which is greater, study or action, and they conclude that study is greater - because it leads to action. We see that the greatness of Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal. Tosafos adds that for someone who is ignorant, study is more important, so that he knows how to observe Torah, but for a learned person, it's more important to be spending his time fulfilling the Torah than to be studying it.

There is a related Gemara in Bava Kama 17a about the unparalleled honor bestowed upon Chizkiyah after his passing. A Torah scroll was placed on Chizkiyah's bed, and it was declared that he fulfilled all that is written in it. The Gemara asks that surely the same is said about other people. One answer given is that regarding Chizkiyah it was said that he expounded Torah, whereas regarding others it is only said that they fulfilled Torah. But, asks the Gemara, surely the greatness of studying Torah is that it leads to fulfilling it (and thus it is greater to praise people by saying that they fulfilled Torah)! The Gemara answers that it was said about Chizkiyah that he taught Torah. Rashi explains that while fulfilling Torah is superior than studying Torah, teaching Torah to others is yet better. Tosafos there notes that teaching is superior because it brings many people to fulfill the Torah. Again, we see that the ultimate goal of existence is not that man should study Torah; rather, it is that man should fulfill the Torah. (For a detailed discussion regarding this passage, and possibly errors in its transmission, see Yosef Witztum, "Kiyyem Zeh Mah Shekatuv Bezeh," Netuim 6:59-72.)

From both of these passages, we see that the tremendous value attached to studying Torah is due to its instructional role in teaching us how to fulfill the Torah. There is certainly also value in studying Torah even with non-practical applications, but the primary value of it is in its instructional role.

There is one final significant point to be made. Today, when people want to try to explain why it is so important to learn Torah, they resort to mystical explanations about connecting to the Shechinah and creating spiritual worlds. (They have to do that, because there is otherwise no rational explanation as to why learning Torah would be the goal of existence.) And yet, in all the discussion of the Gemara and Rishonim as to whether studying Torah or fulfilling Torah is greater, not a single authority mentions any such mystical notions. All the discussion in the Gemara and Rishonim about the particular importance of Torah study are in terms of its instructional value.

There are "regular" mitzvos, like blowing shofar, shiluach hakein, building a sukkah, etc. And there are especially significant mitzvos, such as Shabbos, charity, and yishuv ha'aretz. Of the especially significant mitzvos, learning Torah is unique. But this is (primarily) because of its instructional value. The ultimate goal of creation is not to learn Torah, it is to live Torah - to fulfill it.