Sunday, February 18, 2018

Futile Torah-Science "Discussions"

(This is a sequel to yesterday's post, The Great Dinosaur Mistake)

I recently joined, and then left, an online discussion group about Torah-science issues. I had hoped that it would provide interesting and thought-provoking discussion, and indeed there were some participants who initiated such discussions. But there were two dominant voices in the group that caused me to leave.

One was a person who had The Ultimate Solution to the age of the universe. It was an endless sequence of comments about Deep Time, and SPIRAL, and other acronyms and jargon, and I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. I began to suspect that he didn't know what he was talking about, either. So I posted a comment to his discussion with my own jargon - a hodge-podge of meaningless but sophisticated-sounding terms. Lo and behold, he fell for it entirely, and excitedly responded with a flood of further discussion. There's no point engaging with such people, and it's rather frustrating when they attempt to take over every discussion.

The second was a person who presented himself as an authoritative voice on Torah-science issues. However, his approach was entirely non-rationalist. With regard to science, he did not respect the modern scientific enterprise; he casually dismissed facts that are universally accepted among biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and so on, if they raised problems with what he considered to be the unequivocal meaning of various parts of the Torah. With regard to Chazal, he wrote that "their thought processes are those of human beings far greater than ourselves – of rishonim k'malachim – and we are therefore very reticent to second-guess them" (which effectively meant that we can never say that they erred). He did not accept the legitimacy of Rishonim and Acharonim who said otherwise, and once approvingly cited a view that such authorities should be put in cherem. He would not accept that Chazal could be wrong about fundamental scientific facts, and he was willing to contrive any kind of interpretation, no matter how far-fetched, in order that Chazal should be correct. And if someone expressed a view that offended his religious sensibilities, he was eager to condemn their views as being beyond the pale.

Now, there is certainly ample basis in tradition for such views. However, they are not the Maimonidean or rationalist approach, and it renders any discussion of conflicts between Torah and science rather pointless. If you don't believe that modern science has raised any new challenges for Torah, and you're not willing to re-evaluate any traditional beliefs, and you're not willing to implement intellectual honesty in trying to understand what Chazal were actually saying, then there is simply no point in having any discussion.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Dinosaur Mistake

There's a common mistake that religious Jews make about dinosaurs. I'm not talking about whether they did or did not live millions of years ago. I'm talking about a mistake made regarding people who do accept that fact.

When considering the rationalist/non-rationalist divide, there are two types of people. (It's actually a spectrum, but we can broadly talk about the two poles.)

One type of person, the rationalist, follows Rambam's principles that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes, and that we should never cast aside reason and follow views simply because they are traditional, because "our eyes are set in front, never in back." (Note: this is referring to beliefs, not halachic practice, which have independent reasons for allegiance.) Accordingly, such a person accepts that science has satisfactorily proved various things, and is ready to adopt a non-traditional interpretation of Torah in order to reconcile it. If such a person is confronted with something that appears scientifically proven but does not appear possible to reconcile with Torah, then he will honestly admit that he does not have a solution that is compatible with the two.

The second type of person, the non-Maimonidean rationalist, attributes veracity to claims largely based on the religious authority of the one who utters them. They have little regard for the scientific enterprise, if it presents something uncomfortable. And if confronted with something that is claimed to be scientifically proven but does not appear reconcilable with their understanding of Torah, they will insist that the scientific claim is wrong (and they will sometimes turn aggressive against the person issuing that claim, decrying them as a heretic, non-Orthodox, etc.)

Now, it is popularly believed that people who accept that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago fall into the first category.

This is a mistake.

They might fall into the first category. And it is true that everyone in the first category does accept that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. But it is not true that everyone who accepts that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago falls into the first category.

For example, it is popularly assumed that because the general public of Modern Orthodox Jews accepts that there was an age of dinosaurs, this means that they are ipso facto more rationalist than charedim. But this is not necessarily the case at all. It's just that in that world, the existence of an age of dinosaurs is a given, both scientifically and religiously. It's not considered to be significantly controversial from either a scientific or religious standpoint. It is true that the rationalist viewpoint is vastly more acceptable in Centrist/Modern Orthodoxy than in Charedi Orthodoxy, but any given Centrist/Modern Orthodox person's belief in an age of dinosaurs does not tell you much about whether he is a rationalist.

Likewise, it is often assumed that if a rabbi accepts that the universe is millions of years old, then he is a rationalist, following in the footsteps of Rambam. Not at all! It could well be that he was simply educated in an environment in which the antiquity of the universe was acknowledged to have been endorsed by figures such as Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Aryeh Kaplan (admittedly based on a misunderstanding of R. Yitzchak of Acco). But when confronted with a different or new challenge, such as evolution, or evidence that Chazal's understanding of zoology or physiology was deficient, this person might be entirely non-rationalist - rejecting that which is scientifically well established, creating unreasonable readings of Chazal, and even aggressively delegitimizing those who adopt a rationalist approach.

One of the most valuable effects of the controversial controversy over my books was that many people suddenly became aware that those people that they had thought were their religious leaders were not actually operating with the same epistemology, and they looked for more suitable religious leaders instead. But when looking for religious guidance, one must be careful; belief that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An Official Denial

Hassan Firouzabadi, the former chief-of-staff of Iran’s armed forces and senior military advisor to the Supreme Leader, said yesterday that Western spies had used lizards such as chameleons to spy on his country’s nuclear program, because their skin “attracts atomic waves”. Actually, the skin of lizards does not attract atomic waves. Perhaps General Firousabadi was getting mixed up with the recent fascinating revelation that the skin of chameleons glows under ultraviolet light. The Biblical Museum of Natural History officially denies that any of our chameleons or other lizards have been involved in spying on Iran.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Wild Goose Chase

On Sunday, the Biblical Museum of Natural History held a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Beverly Hills, California. Here is my speech from one of the courses:

The most complicated item on the menu for the Beverly Hills Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna was the goose. The fact that we are serving geese tonight is nothing less than a miracle. It nearly brought the chef and myself to tears. Here is the incredible but true story.

Geese are unusual creatures - when they grow up, they grow down. We wanted to have them on the menu because they are significant in a Biblical context. A description of the lavish banquet served at King Solomon’s table every day includes several types of mammals. But there is only one type of bird that is a sufficiently special food item to be included on this list, and that is "fattened barburim."

What are these barburim? In Modern Hebrew, barbur refers to the swan. But this does not seem to be the barbur of Scripture, since swans do not appear to have been fattened for the table in Biblical times. The same is true for ducks, which were fattened in the medieval period, but not in antiquity. Thus, the verse presumably refers to geese.

The wild graylag goose has been domesticated since ancient times. In the ancient city of Megiddo in Israel, carvings have been found of domesticated geese. These date from the ninth century BCE, which is during the reign of King Solomon, and thereby show that geese were eaten in that period. Indeed, ever since then, the goose has been prized as a delicacy. A famous Shabbat song lists the goose in this context: "Lehitaneg b’ta-anugim, barburim u’slav v’dagim - To delight in delicacies, in geese, quails and fish…"

So, we had to have goose on the menu. But it is extremely difficult to acquire kosher-certified goose. There is no commercial production of them. So, this would have to be specially arranged. And that proved to be more difficult than we could possibly have imagined.

First, we had to locate some geese. That is not easy. Geese are not raised in vast numbers like chickens or ducks. And this is the wrong time of year. Geese do not hatch year-round like chickens – they hatch in March and are slaughtered in the fall. Finally, we located a seller who said he had some geese of the American Buff breed. We were all set to go and collect them for shechitah.

Not American Buff
But then we received a somewhat blurry photo of the geese, and the geese in the picture were not American Buff. The OU promptly said that they could not certify them as kosher without knowing exactly what kind of geese they were and ensuring that they were a kosher type. Because the OU has very high halachic standards, and they don't want anyone to accuse them of being loose as a goose. And perhaps these geese were hybridized with Chinese geese. And there are some shochtim who have a custom not to shecht Chinese geese.

I have to say that I did not agree with this at all. Because while the geese in the picture were not American Buff, so what? First of all, they were clearly basically greylag geese of one breed or another. There was no particular reason to think that they were hybridized with Chinese geese. Second of all, even on the off-chance that they were hybridized with Chinese geese, so what? There is no real reason not to eat Chinese geese; nobody has ever proposed that there is anything at all wrong with them. What presumably happened is that some people simply lacked a tradition for them, and this evolved into a tradition not to eat them. Third of all, Chinese geese are fully interfertile with domestic geese, producing fertile hybrids, and there is ample halachic basis for stating that is if a bird is fully interfertile with a known kosher type then their offspring are kosher (as discussed at more length in my essay Chicken Wars).

Notwithstanding my arguments, the OU would not certify these geese without close-up detailed photos and an accurate breed description, which would rule out their being hybridized with Chinese geese. So I told the shochet to get on down to the farm as quickly as possible, and take good photos. I was frustrated at how the shochet seemed to lack a sense of urgency. Goose the gas, I said! But by this time, the seller had given up on us and had sold the geese in question to somebody else!

The Canada geese that were offered to us
It looked like our goose was cooked. But the shochet then asked me if Canada geese would be acceptable to the OU. Now, Canada geese are a species of wild North American geese, and there is obviously no tradition on them. So I told him that they wouldn't be good. But then I thought, Well, it doesn't hurt to ask. And lo and behold, the OU said that although nobody has ever shechted a Canada goose, they would approve it—because they are roughly similar to domestic geese and can hybridize with them.

(If you've been following, you'll notice that this appears to contradict the OU’s refusal to permit domestic geese which might be hybridized with Chinese geese. The OU’s response was that there was a positive custom against Chinese geese which doesn’t exist with Canada Geese.)

At this point, it was already Thursday morning, and the chef was getting frantic, since it takes a while to marinade and prepare geese for consumption. And it was dawning on us that there was a real problem with this shochet. He was of a certain chassidic group who just don't feel a sense of urgency about anything. It was 11am and he hadn't even left his home yet! So we told him to stop being loosey-goosey and to get on after these geese.

Several hours later, the shochet texted me that they were having great difficulty catching these wild Canadian geese. But I told him to stick at it, and that it would hopefully only be a wild goose chase literally, not figuratively. Finally, they captured six geese!

But now there was a new problem. Midday Thursday, we discovered that the OU mashgiach, to supervise the shechitah, was unavailable. He sent a message that he was otherwise engaged and we couldn't even reach him by phone! Thereby followed hours of frantic phone calls to friends in the OU. I was advised to drop some names to the highest levels of the OU. But who? A Hollywood star? Ryan Gosling?

The answer was our donors, the Geese that lay the golden eggs. Now, I am normally a somewhat shy person - I wouldn't say boo to a goose. But I spoke to the OU leadership, and I stressed the urgency of the matter, and I dropped the names of our donors. But I was told that there was nothing that could be done. Still, shortly afterwards I got a message that the mashgiach was suddenly available. Thank God!

And then I found out that the geese had escaped.

The pilgrim greese that were offered to us
This was beginning to look more and more like God was playing some kind of trick on us. But not to worry, said the shochet, he had a lead on eight domestic geese, of the pilgrim and Toulouse varieties, that were available, and he was on the way to pick them up.

And then the OU told us that our shochet was unacceptable.

Quite why this hadn't come to light in the weeks of preceding discussion is a question that I still don't have an answer to. Somehow both the shochet and the OU had neglected to inform us that the shochet was not on the OU’s approved list of shochtim. And finding a shochet in Los Angeles is no easy matter. The OU flies in its own shochtim from the East Coast weekly, and they had just flown back. There was one local shochet that they named who might be acceptable, but he was out of town.

By this point, the chef and I had totally given up on getting geese. It was a tremendous disappointment, and we were trying to figure out what to serve instead.

The geese: end result
But then I got a text from the original shochet saying not to worry, he had it all sorted, they had tracked down the shochet who was out of town, he was on his way back, and they were on the way to shecht the geese, with the OU mashgiach, in someone's backyard.

At one-thirty a.m., on Friday morning, the chef received eight shechted geese. When I got the news, I broke out in goose bumps.

So, that's the extraordinary story behind the geese that we are serving tonight. The chef and I are not exactly sure who is to blame for the fiasco. No doubt, when we finally get the bill from the guy who was assigned to handle this, it will be through the roof. So we're going to tell him to do something that a duck can't do but what a goose can do: to stick his bill up his tuchus.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Actions and Consequences

A friend of mine once defined the problem of fundamentalism as being when a person lets one factor dictate everything, without recognizing that there are often a multitude of factors to consider. Life is rarely simple and even if there are strong grounds for pursuing a particular course of action, there are usually other factors that must be considered.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l did not seem to make that mistake, at least in the area of kashrus. Based on questions that I asked him, and discussions that I had with others who had more extensive contact with him, my impression is that he weighed up the consequences. While he no doubt took kashrus very seriously, he also weighed up meticulousness in kashrus against other mitzvos and values. Thus, in certain circumstances, he recommended not being particular about certain kashrut stringencies where it would risk compromising shalom bayis.

One example of people doing the opposite is with the practice in some Orthodox circles to never allow a woman's face to appear in print. Now, I can understand and sympathize with the motivation behind this, even if I don't feel that way myself. But the people engaging in this practice only think about the reasons for doing it. They never seem to take into account the possibility that, regardless of whatever good reasons they might have, there can be negative consequences which might outweigh it.

At a broader level, this seems to have happened with halacha in general. Over the last few decades, there was been a tremendous increase in stringency. This was often done in order to strengthen halachic observance. However, people don't seem to have considered how it can actually have the opposite result. In an age when people are more knowledgeable and independent-minded, they can recognize when halachah has been chumrafied for unsound reasons. This undermines their confidence in the halachic system as a whole.

Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Differences between Shuls in Israel and America

The riddles that I posted in the last post generated some interesting answers that hadn't occurred to me!

1) Which of the Sages is quoted by name very frequently in the US - hundreds if not thousands of times daily - but never in Israel?

Many people said Rabbi Yishmael, from the end of korbanos. But that's not really accurate, you can hear that said aloud in Israel too. The answer is R. Chanania ben Akashya, quoted in countless shuls in the US in order to justify saying kaddish:
רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָה בֶּן עֲקַשְׁיָא אוֹמֵר, רָצָה הַקָּדוֹש בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְזַכּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הִרְבָּה לָהֶם תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: י-י חָפֵץ לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר
But I've never heard this done in Israel. It seems that in America, people are more keen to have opportunities to say kaddish. I'm not sure why that is.

2) What is the significant design difference between shuls (synagogues) in Israel and shuls in the US - that is to say, there is a very prominent feature that is found in every shul in Israel that I have seen, but which is missing from many and perhaps most shuls in the US?

Many people suggested dedicated washing basins for kohanim. I guess that's a fair answer, but it's not what I was thinking of. I was thinking of something to hold your siddur. Every shul in Israel has either tables or shtenders or "lips" on the benches to hold them. But plenty of shuls in America have nothing at all - even shuls which certainly have the budget for such furniture. Why is that? It's very strange, as well as encouraging poor posture while davenning. Does anyone have an explanation for this?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Riddles of Israel vs. America

Riddle time! Here are two perplexing riddles about the difference between Israel and the US:

1) Which of the Sages is quoted by name very frequently in the US - hundreds if not thousands of times daily - but never in Israel?

2) What is the significant design difference between shuls (synagogues) in Israel and shuls in the US - that is to say, there is a very prominent feature that is found in every shul in Israel that I have seen, but which is missing from many and perhaps most shuls in the US?

Answers in the next post!

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Why Mystics Incorporate Technology Into Halacha

Over the last few posts, we have been discussing the difference between those who check fruit and vegetables for bugs in a simple way, and those who engage in extensive checking and cleaning procedures. This correlates with the rationalist/mystic divide in two ways.

First is that rationalists tend to be more historically aware, and further are aware that our ancestors were greatly limited in their ability to check and clean fruit and vegetables, and are further aware that there is evidence against their having done so. Non-rationalists usually view halacha in a vacuum, evaluating a halacha on its own merits without thinking too much about the history of that halacha. If they do think about history, they take the non-rationalist stance that our ancestors were superhuman, and they presume that they therefore were observing halacha at least as well as we do.

But there is another, perhaps more significant reason, as to why mystics are much more concerned about checking and cleaning food for bugs. It is due to the basic difference between how rationalists and mystics view the prohibition against eating bugs.

As explained at great length in Menachem Kellner's fabulous Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, there is a fundamental difference between how a rationalist like Rambam and a mystic like Ramban viewed the prohibitions against eating non-kosher foods.

According to the rationalist view, there is nothing inherently metaphysically harmful about foods. Rather, for various reasons relating to how God wants us to improve our minds, our character and society, He prohibits their consumption. We are given various commandments that we have to observe in order to effect the change in our mind, character and society that God intends.

According to mystical view, on the other hand, there are antecedent metaphysical harmful elements present in non-kosher foods. If you had the right kind of spiritually-sensitive technology, you could actually detect it. God therefore prohibits these foods to us, because of the danger that they pose to our spirituality.  

The difference between these views can lead to significant ramifications with regard to the halachic implementation. According to the rationalist view, there is a certain degree of diligence which is halachically required in order to fulfill God's intent. If one has performed one's due diligence, but then somehow ingests non-kosher food through absolutely no fault or negligence of one's own, then little harm has been done.

According to the mystical view, on the other hand, there is objective metaphysical danger present in non-kosher food. Even if one has exercised all due diligence in avoiding it, and one ingests some through absolutely no fault or negligence, it will cause the same spiritual damage.

Thus, the mystical view naturally leads to an obsession with avoiding eating insects even beyond that which is halachically required. And as technology increases, and we become more aware of smaller insects and we develop ways to avoid eating them, the mystics rush to act accordingly.

What we have here, then, is an interesting inversion. Whereas normally, it is the rationalists that are more connected with science, here it is the mystics!

See too these posts:
The Ghostbusters Analogy
Tylenol and Timtum

See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Futile Torah-Science "Discussions"

(This is a sequel to yesterday's post, The Great Dinosaur Mistake ) I recently joined, and then left, an online discussion group about...