Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Keep Science Away From Torah!

The previous posts, about checking fruit for bugs, garnered a lot of attention (12,000 views!). They raised the topic of whether we should take advantage of advances in science and technology for implementing halacha.

For science, this would include awareness of the impossibility of spontaneous generation - earlier halachic sources permitted the consumption of certain insects based on the belief that they spontaneously generate. In my book Sacred Monsters, I explained why according to some opinions, even though based on the academic/ rationalist approach we see that Chazal were mistaken in believing that lice spontaneously generate, this should not affect the halachah that it is permissible to kill them on Shabbos. I discussed the case of Tanur Shel Achnai and showed that the Torah has its own protocols which can sometimes diverge from objective reality. No doubt some readers will be shocked by this; I recommend that you read (or re-read) the final chapter in Sacred Monsters to appreciate this point of view.

Technology might be seen as a different matter. After all, this is not saying that earlier generations had mistaken conceptions; it's just a matter of using the tools at our disposal to resolved questions and problems with more efficiency. This means everything from clean running water to modern chemicals to artificial lighting to glasses, which enable us to inspect fruits and vegetables for insects and clean them more effectively than in previous generations. So shouldn't we make use of it?

Many people assumed that the rationalist answer to this would be yes. After all, if it's a sin to eat bugs, and we have better ways to avoid that problem than did earlier generations, why should we not take advantage of that?

But in fact, the answer is no. And the explanation is implied by the maxim, Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet, "the Torah was not given to angels," in combination with another maxim, shelo lehotzi laaz al dorot harishonim, "do not cast aspersions on earlier generations." The Torah was given to an ancient nation in a desert, not to divine beings. And it wasn't applied to modern man either, with his technological innovations, which is why there is no prohibition against eating microscopic insects. Furthermore, if you're going to argue that modern man is the same as ancient man, just with more applied wisdom, and that we should use this to observe halachah better, then this casts earlier generations in a negative light. We do not wish to portray ourselves as keeping halacha better than Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabbi Akiva and Rambam.

And if those principles aren't enough, there's another. Do you want the halachic way of life to be utterly overturned? Because that's what you're facing if you apply science and technology and take it to its logical conclusion.

Somebody once asked the great and underappreciated Rav Nachum Rabinovich, shlita, about whether one can use ultrasound to resolve a niddah question. He said that the answer is yes, but chas v'shalom to say that people should do such a thing, because it would end up being considered essential. After all, how can you rely on the visual appearance of a stain - which can be affected by many things - if there is a much more precise scientific method of resolving the question? The halachos of niddah would be completely overturned and transformed into something unrecognizable if we decide to incorporate science and technology to resolve it.

Another example would be the prohibition of bishul, cooking, on Shabbos. It is very clear from a scientific perspective that whether or not a food becomes cooked depends on factors such as the temperature, the duration for which that temperature is maintained, the specific heat capacity of the food, and so on. Yet the halachos of bishul are based on concepts such as kli rishon, kli sheni etc. To my mind it is obvious that there is no need to change the halachic parameters of bishul, and I don't believe that anyone would ever suggest otherwise. Aside from the fact that the parameters of kli rishon/ sheni have been canonized, they make for a much more useful application of the melachah than temperature and specific heat capacity. The physical reality is used as a rough basis for the halachic concept, but the halachic concept then takes on its own reality which does not change by virtue of it not being precisely matched by the physical reality. Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet. And likewise, Lo nitna Torah to a generation with thermometers and a scientific understanding of cooking.

The same applies to checking and cleaning fruit and vegetables for bugs. Traditionally, people did not have clean running water, pesticides, artificial lighting, glasses, or awareness of microscopic insects. Traditionally, there were no halachic manuals like that of Rav Vaye. And therefore it should not become normative halacha today, either.

Now I know that this matter is not entirely cut-and-dried. And Rav Herzog did criticize rabbis who do not take into account advances in science and technology, comparing them to the (myth of the) ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. Still, I think that as a basic approach, it is not only correct and appropriate, but also vital, unless one wants to enable a wholesale reformation of halachah. Which I don't think is a very good idea.


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53 comments:

  1. Are you ever planning to write something major on why science should not be brought to halacha? Such a paper would be awesome!

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  2. I think the issue of bugs in produce is quite interesting. The basic Halachah is that bugs not visible to the naked eye are permitted to be eaten, if one does not know for certain they are present.

    However, the question is: is the Halachah this way because the naked eye was the only instrument available, or is it this way because people can't be expected to staff a forensics laboratory just to know if a carrot or a tomato may be eaten?

    If the former, there's room to adjust Halachah as instruments become available. If the latter, it is an admission that Torah is for living, and that people can't be burdened with sending their produce to the lab to be checked before making dinner.

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    1. As lenses and such developed over centuries, did the Rishonim advocate their usage or imply that was a halachic requirement?

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  3. Simply put, incorporating science into halacha often causes halacha to operate on a level that it was never intended to.

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  4. "Traditionally, there were no halachic manuals like that of Rav Vaye. And therefore it should not become normative halacha today, either."

    This statement is not accurate, since in those times every kid knew how to check for insects - unfortunately this knowledge has not been handed down from parent to child as it used to be done. Today the masses do indeed need manuals, especially considering we are not an agrarian society.

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    1. Yeah. In those days they flicked the bugs off their food, and then ate it. You think people don't do that today? If so, it's only because bug infestation today is dramatically lower, and I'm not convinced you're right in any case. Yes, we buy our produce rather than grow it, but home renovation shows always prize dual sinks in the kitchen - one for dishes, and one for fruit and vegetable prep. That's all about washing dirt/pesticides off. If there are obvious bugs, those are caught at that stage, or the food is simply thrown away.

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    2. What is your source for this very unlikely claim? Especially given that it's being made about a society where neither running water, soap or electric lightboxes were readily available?

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    3. Actually, believe it or not, the mesorah of that secret knowledge has been handed down from parent to child (from my parents to me at least) and, incredibly, R'Slifkin has lately revealed it to the entire world.

      It goes like this: "Look at the fruit. If you don't see a bug, eat it."

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    4. All of these replies negate the fact that we live in a society today that don't want to be bothered with checking they want pre-checked or a easy way out method such as washing /rinsing. This is where the halachos kick in of bittul,rov,matzoiy etc.The old fashioned way was to actually check .......

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    5. "The old fashioned way was to actually check."

      What is your source for that claim?

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    6. How are you all interpreting "look at the fruit"? By "looking" who said it meant perfunctorily? Perhaps it meant "scrutinize closely", as there is NOTHING perfunctory in halacha?

      Furthermore, there indeed used to be a time when people were ignorant, and therefore careless, about microscopic organisms, and surgeons would not bother washing their hands before procedures. Why are we so fanatical today, I wonder?

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    7. Avi, you wrote: "Yes, we buy our produce rather than grow it." Even back then, they bought most of their produce. It's not like every individual grew every food he'd eat.

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  5. While I appreciate why this post was necessary I think your explanation of the topic is lacking. If there is a more precise way of determining hilchos bishol or niddah why wouldn't we use it (if it was practical)? Just because it would make Halacha unrecognizable doesn't seem to be a very rationalist reason.

    And why do "We do not wish to portray ourselves as keeping halacha better than Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabbi Akiva and Rambam"? It's no shame on them as long as they tried their best. One wouldn't say we shouldn't keep kosher because holy people in the holocaust couldn't keep kosher and we don't want to portray ourselves as better than them.

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  6. You state what the obvious difference is but you don’t apply it. If the Talmud would state clearly how to check for bugs then it’s similar to niddah and bishul where the Talmud tells us what to do so we continue the practice. Th Talmud does not say how to check for bugs so if u have a better way of checking u should check. And based on this (as well as other reasons) there will be no laaz on early generations.

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  7. Rabbi, this is a nice start but there is a lot of material missing here. The flip side of the coin needs to be explored. Technology is used in halacha to determine if someone is alive or dead (it used to be checking for signs of breathing). You left out things like the fact that a torah scroll written by a machine is not kosher. let's hear more!

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    1. Regarding Torah scrolls, the technology is not relevant. A scroll written by a female or a slave is also not Kosher, and both of those existed in the times of CHaZaL. The Halachah is that it must be written by a male who is obligated in the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah. Machines have no obligations of any kind.

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  8. I think you mean ultraviolet light, not ultrasound. Ultrasound is what is used to look inside the womb.

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    1. I'm pretty sure R' Slifkin means ultrasound. Transvaginal ultrasonography can be used to evaluate the lining of the uterus and thereby ascertain whether the source of vaginal bleeding is uterine or otherwise.

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  9. Does this mean that "clean meat", produced in a lab, no animal necessary, will be forbidden - lest all the halachos of Basar b'chalav and treifos go by the wayside?

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    1. That's like asking if eating candy should be forbidden because those questions don't apply. I do not know if this meat would be considered בשר with respect to the Halachos of בשר וחלב, but the fact that טריפות just doesn't apply to this particular source doesn't matter. Do you avoid fish because those Halachos don't apply? Did CHaZaL forbid eating birds, despite their being an argument as to whether בשר וחלב should apply? After all, everyone agrees the application is purely Rabbinic.

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  10. Practically speaking, Rabbi Slifkin, I think that this is impossible to ask.

    Historically we have always made use of science for halacha. It's not the fault of our predecessors that much of the science they went on has been improved to a exponential level in the last 200 years.

    The Talmud itself records things in the science of it's day. Many Rishonim and Achronim make their arguments based on their own later science and trying to understand the practical implications.

    An example would be one that bothered me this past Sukkot: Shulchan Aruch w/ Rema records an Ashkenazi opinion that certain hadassim not matching the leaf pattern found in Israel might be considered kosher. The "workaround" was to claim that the 2:1 pattern could be a general area (in contrast to many Sephardic opinions from places where normal hadassim grow, which say it's a very specific 2:1 pattern).

    There was some level of basic botany going on there to qualify a minhag and validate people trying to keep practice in a very different place than their ancestors were from.

    If I could ask you any question relating to your opinion on this, it would be: Why should electricity and electrical devices face a ban when their evaluation was scientific? If you overturn the science entirely, you would be forced to admit electricity is just some mysterious entity. Only through several mistaken beliefs of early electrical science did modern poskim rule against electricity as "fire".

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  11. I would like to suggest a moderate approach: it is very good idea to reform the halacha based on the modern science and modern technology... BUT that shall be enabled to sages of Sanhedrin only. Not to ordinary rabbies. And not to anyone until Sanhedrin is established. At least, that I'd Rambam's approach.

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  12. The halachos … would be completely overturned and transformed into something unrecognizable if we decide to incorporate science and technology to resolve it.
    Questions:

    1. So at what year of technological advancement do we freeze the development of Halacha?

    2. Should Halacha using science, only reflect stringencies i.e. aiding inspection for bugs in food or leniencies, i.e. such as using encapsulated medicine on Shabbat (since compounding of medicine is very very rare?

    3. What about social and political changes with regard to transforming Judaism? What we have today is “transformed and something unrecognizable” compared to Judaism at the time of the second temple. To paraphrase Rabbi David Hartman, “Is your daughter (the same as) your grandmother?

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  13. Two points:

    1) Do we really think that fruits and vegetables were cleaner in ancient times or the Middle Ages -- a time without toilet paper, deodorant, proper sewage removal, easily affordable soap, or regular bathing?

    2) I don't think the Gemara every says microscopic insects are muttar. The Gemara simply didn't know they existed. When achronim discovered that they did exist, it was unimaginable to them that Jews had been eating not kosher food for 2,000 years. So they argued that the Torah must not forbid microscopic bugs. The same exact argument can, and should, be used for why one is permitted to eat bugs that no normal person sees unless he drives himself crazy and has implements his forbears didn't.

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  14. This post should be titled "OOPS I PAINTED MYSELF INTO A VERY TIGHT CORNER"

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    1. I don't know what you're talking about. This post is what I have been saying for 15 years.

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  15. For a generation constantly seeking instant gratification - pre-checked this, pre packaged that etc. Chumros are indeed warranted and appropriate.

    By all means, those that want to check and not rely on the kulos of "rov", "muchzak" etc. They are indeed following the tradition. Those seeking minimal rinsing / checking are the one's bucking the norm.

    It's unfortunate that the progressiveness of some on this thread is such that their Vision has become completely clouded.

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    1. This may come as a shock, but no one--frum or frei, Jewish or Amish--wants to eat bugs in their salad (except perhaps R' Slifkin with his locusts). I don't think I've met a civilized person who doesn't perform at least "minimal rinsing / checking" of produce before eating it.

      The problem is that, in contradistinction to your tolerant attitude (that people may reasonably rely upon reasonable "kulos" and still be "following the tradition"), it seems to be increasingly the case in the frum world that those of us regular folks who do such "regular" checking are regarded as being oveir an isur de'oraita by eating a Caesar salad.

      If some people want to go lifnim mishurat hadin in their practice of bedikat tola'im that's their business, but that doesn't mean that broccoli need be phased out of the menus of kosher restaurants for fear of microscopic infestation.

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    2. Really? The norm for 2000 years was to buy Bodek brand vegetables? Revisionist history isn't history.

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  16. first of all, you should just know that Rav Asher Weis paskins in the same vein as you based on "Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet" (I heard him say this at a shiur he gave in raanana where he ate a strawberry off a fruit platter with barely a glance). He's a pretty mainstream and respected posek who cannot be accused of a flippant approach to halacha.

    secondly - I never understood Rav Vaye's approach: The din to check for bugs is based on the din derabanan that we do not rely on rov when there is a miut hamatzui .That is why shochtim only check for a treifa in the lungs which is a miut hamutzui and not for the other 17 trefos which are not. But it is explicit in the rishonim in chulin that the rabanan only required this because checking for a hole in the lungs was easy (you just blow them up like a balloon) and does not ruin the meat. R Vaye says that some fruit and nuts should be avoided completely and others require a tedious checking process that ruins the fruit/nuts. It would seem that in such cases the din derabanan was not said and rov can be relied upon.
    josh cohen

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    1. those which should be avoided is because Rov is a problem, no?

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    2. no. i have asked many people about the ones that are to be avoided and they all said that most of them are not infested. Either way I have no idea how R Vaye could ascertain the statistics about these thing. It would take a massive scientific study with fruit/nuts from different places, harvests, years etc..
      josh cohen

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  17. You left out one of the biggest examples: paternity tests! Huge ramifications regarding mamzerus, etc.

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    1. Yes but that's different because in dor hamidbar they also had an advanced technology for determining paternity: the Mon.

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    2. /obligatory_charedi_bashing

      Charedim can never accept paternity tests, lest all the sleeping around be definitively proven.

      /tongue_in_cheek

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  18. I understand your argument about halachik reality, but doesn't that turn Judaism into a game, with halacha as the rulebook? Instead of doing things grounded in reality, we're playing a game called "Judaism" with arbitrary rules. Follow the rules, and you "win," break them, and you "lose." That is significantly less meaningful than following halacha because it prescribes the right way to live in the world.


    I think that this is where the idea that psak changes reality comes from. It's an attempt to keep halacha grounded in the real world. If halacha is known to not always match the world, then the world must be made to match halacha.

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  19. And also bliah and plitah in kelim.

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  20. There is branch of mathematics called projective geometry. It deals with understanding what happens when a higher dimensional object is projected on to a low dimension. For example a three dimensional sphere projected into two dimensions becomes a circle. There are elegant and consistent rules that govern all the objects within a dimension. However the rules of plane (two dimensional) geometry are not the same as those of spherical (three dimensional) geometry. Trying to understand the nature of a sphere using only the rules of a circle will lead to frustration and incorrect results. The same is true when trying to understand the nature of Torah which is a higher dimensional object by using the laws of physics which is limited to the physical dimensions of space-time and mater-energy. The "Nefesh Hachaim" goes to great lengths to describe and explain this. The fact that many of the rules of Torah do not mesh with those of physics does not mean that either physics is wrong or that Torah is wrong. They are rules involving different dimensions and no more contradict each other than do the rules of plane and spherical geometry.

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    1. how does this relate to checking for bugs. should we or shouldn't we?

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  21. I don't think that this can be right. The science and technology of the Talmud was also not the same as the science and technology of the Midbar. The problem is not changing with technology. The problem is that we have no mechanism for change any more, so applying modern technology to old rules results in disaster.

    If we had a mechanism for change, then we would adjust our Kashrus and Bishul practices to be more in line with what we know. Maybe we would get rid of Kli Rishon/Sheni and substitute an appropriate temperature. Maybe we would admit that there bugs, but say explicitly what a reasonable amount of checking is, or say that those bug were never prohibited even though the ancient reasons given (they grow as part of the fruit/vegetable) is incorrect.

    Isn't that what Chazal did?

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    1. I agree with much of your analysis. One of the reason I support strict constitutionalism in America is because there *is* a mechanism for change. 3/4 of the people can change the constitution if they want, so it is better to be honest and interpret the text as written.

      There is no mechanism for change, however, in halacha which is why poskim sometimes invent creative arguments. In this manner, they can be lenient while still technically staying true to the text. If we had a Sanhedrin with the power of the ancient Sanhedrin, such creative arguments would probably be improper.

      I don't think, however, that we want a modern-day Sanhedrin at the moment without Mashiach. I think such a Sanhedrin would be a disaster as it would be heavily politicized and create far more problems than it would solve.

      The only course forward that I see is to continue doing what we've been doing the last 1,500 years. And although problems come up here and there, on the whole, I think the halachic process has worked out pretty amazingly. It is both rigid and flexible in remarkable ways.

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    2. I agree that no one will agree on a Sanhedrin.

      I think that the better course would be to continue to make changes as we have been doing. Turns out women are not stupid, so now they learn Torah. Medicine is no longer a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and we don't make own pills, so we perform all kinds of medical treatment on Shabbos. The Gentiles are not out to kill us any more, so we ignore pretty much any halacha involving treating them poorly. It seems that to fix things up, we need to walk a difficult middle path between tradition and change and just admit a bit more that things do change. Conservatives went too far and lost the whole thing (for the most part), but more careful efforts should be tolerated and encouraged, IMO.

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  22. Rabbi, thanks for this article (and this blog)!

    I think there are two different issues here. The niddah check is one category: the Rabbis who created the standards essentially said "This is an acceptable level of precision for us - a visual check of the stain." Fine, we can go with that - if a certain level of stringency was good enough for Chazal, it can be good enough for us.

    BUT - that is qualitatively different from saying "You can kill lice on Shabbat," which was based on saying "the prohibition of killing only applies to creatures that sexually reproduce, and therefore lice are exempted", along with bacteria and such. The argument that we should continue to accept this logic seems extremely weak, more like the adoption of an erroneous minhag than an actual valid law. And it's not unheard-of to say that Chazal's statements about natural science are not authoritative (as R' Avraham ben Rambam said), though it becomes difficult when it's applied to law rulings.

    In cases where the reasoning behind legal decisions of the Rabbis is not hidden from us, maybe we shouldn't be afraid to say "If they had known [X], they wouldn't have included [Y] in their reasoning," and see how that affects the ruling. If there are other reasons still available, the ruling stands; if not, it gets overturned.

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  23. That's all great except that it equally applies to the kezayit issue. The claim that an olive is the size of a contemporary egg is, if not 'canonized' well on its way to canonization and is already 'canonized' in the most influential and fastest growing sectors of orthodoxy. I suppose you could contrive some difference between one form of science and another, but it sure looks like you are engaging in Procrusteanism to justify your arbitary preferences.

    Now to examine your two issues:
    Niddah Leaving science behind, I think most people who have thought about this recognize that hilchot niddah is in need of reform. A small, but not insignificant minority of Jews are pushed into involuntary celibacy for extended periods by Rabi Zeira's humra and many more are only able to escape it by resorting to obvious falsehoods like pretending that their wife has some sort of chronic public lice infestation. When these laws are reformed, I don't see any reason why contemporary knowledge of anatomy shouldn't be employed.

    Bishul The gemara's statements about a cli rishon/sheni are eminently reasonable. The system of paraphysics worked out by the Acharonim based on Tosefot are not reasonable. A system based upon reality would be markedly preferable.

    In reality, halacha changes all the time. The problem is that it usually changes for dumb reasons i.e. someone in Spain found an incoherent, rambling book in chest. The reason why we can't change things for good reasons is because Judaism has become dysfunctional and the dysfunctionality is so ingrained that intelligent people have devoted their time to coming up with bizarre theories (cough Brisk cough, cough YU cough) of why chronic dysfunction is the highest religious ideal.

    The solution is to appoint a functioning Jewish court system, a Sanhedrin, and a king from the House of David. Since these are all things that we are obligated to do anyway and are sinning every second we don't do them, then it's a win-win.

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  24. You ask a rational question, and quote non rational answers. Yes, it may be more practical to do things one way. That does not make it more rational. Shelo lehotzi laaz al harishonim is also non rational, especially as it is not entirely relevant. They didn't have microscopes, we do.

    I do not think we should use microscopes or ultrasound to decide halacha, neither do I have any questions on hilchos bishul. But that is not due to the frivolous arguments quoted here.

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  25. Has anybody actually bothered to find out how many people follow Rav Vaye? I bet you very few. To have a dig at the entire chareidi world on the basis of one Rav's writing, well its just the usual bigotry one expects from this blog.

    We live in a free world. Anybody can publish a halocho sefer. It is only relevant if it becomes mainstream. As far as I know, 99% of chareidim do not follow his views here. Which makes the wholw conversation moot. Most charedim I know have a very sensible approach to bugs on food.

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  26. "To have a dig at the entire chareidi world on the basis of one Rav's writing, well its just the usual bigotry one expects from this blog."

    1. Where do you see this post as being a dig at the entire chareidi world?
    2. I can't speak for other places, but in Ramat Beit Shemesh Rav Vaye's views are totally normative and he was invited to present them at a large anglo-charedi shul.

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    1. The sad part about Slifkin-gate, is your obstinate refusal to accept that any of your ideas could actually be wrong. So blinded by your self infatuation you can't see that some of your ideas are just wrong and misguided.

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    2. Actually, I've publicly conceded that I've been wrong on all kinds of things. Have you ever done so?

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    3. Normative and being invited to speak means nothing. You need to survey the facts on the ground. I am sure some follow him, the question is how many follow others.

      As far as a dig, we can let the readers decide.

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  27. 1. Ironically, I believe Rabbi Rabinovitch whom you cite actually does indeed hold that one cannot even necessarily rely on kli shlishi since bishul is indeed based on actual temperature and needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

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