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From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True
I know that many people have no interest in rabbits and hyraxes. But if you're interested in the conflict between rational and irrational thought, it's worth following our critique of Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which is of no contribution to Biblical zoology, and of no interest as such, but is fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.
In the first post, we discussed the fallacy of seeing his book as a search for truth. In this post, we will examine another aspect of his epistemology.
A hallmark of anti-rationalists in general, and Isaac Betech in particular, is the inability to grasp the concept of reasonability. In their mind, if something is remotely possible, then it is just as viable as something that is very probable. If something cannot be categorically disproved, then they see no reason not to believe it.
A prime example from anti-rationalists in general would be the spontaneous generation of lice. Many (though not all) anti-rationalists get around by saying that it can't be categorically proven that no insect spontaneously generates; all that can be said is that we've never seen it. Prof. Herman Branover (a physicist who was influenced by the Lubavitcher rebbe), and Rabbi J. David Bleich, made this absurd claim. Of course, we also cannot categorically disprove the existence of a giant invisible pink fairy in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean that it's reasonable to believe that it exists!
I've found three examples of this way of thinking with Isaac Betech, so far.
A) Betech asserts that the rabbit matches the description of the shafan given by the Spanish Rishonim. I pointed out that this is irrelevant, since their opinion was simply based on the local fauna with which they were familiar, not a mesorah from Biblical Israel. After I pushed him on it, Betech admitted that it's only possible that the Spanish Rishonim had a mesorah from Biblical Israel as to the identity of the shafan. (I provided arguments that it isn't even a plausible possibility.) Yet he transforms their descriptions of the shafan into criteria that must be matched! (See this comment.)
B) One major objection to identifying the shafan as the rabbit is that there were no rabbits in Biblical Israel, according to experts in the field. Betech spends several pages arguing why he believes that their conclusions, based on the fossil record and species distribution, are not conclusive. On p. 97 he writes that "...in my humble opinion an objective reader cannot find the published information sufficient to rule out the existence of rabbits' fossils from ancient Israel."
Now, let's put aside the hilarity of Betech considering himself (rather than zoologists and zooarcheologists, who have no horse in this race) to be an "objective reader." What does it mean that one "cannot find the published information sufficient to rule out the existence of rabbits' fossils from ancient Israel"? Does this mean that it is faintly possible that zooarcheologists are wrong, and that rabbits lived in ancient Israel, but it is most likely that they are correct and rabbits did not live in ancient Israel? Or does it mean that it is likely, or even near-proven, that rabbits lived in ancient Israel? It ought to mean, at most, the former - but he seems to take it to mean the latter!
C) Another major objection to identifying the shafan as the rabbit is that Rav Saadiah Gaon identifies the shafan as the wabr, which is the Arabic name for the hyrax. Furthermore, is the most authoritative classical Jewish source - from a rationalist perspective, due to where he lived, and from a non-rationalist perspective, due to his being the earliest authority to discuss it. Betech discounts this on the following grounds, to which I am appending my responses in parenthesis:
1) Maybe he originally identified it as a rabbit, and a copyist changed it to a hyrax! (Too silly to even respond to.)
2) Wabr is based on a root meaning "hairy" - maybe it refers to a different hairy animal! (And dov is based on a root meaning "movement." So maybe Elisha's honor was avenged not by two bears, but by two elephants, which are also animals that move! But in any case, "hairy" is an alternate meaning for wabr, and it is not the meaning that Rav Saadiah Gaon is using. In medieval times, wabr meant "hyrax.")
3) Even if wabr meant "hyrax" in Rav Saadiah's era, maybe the name "hyrax" meant something else instead! (This makes no sense whatsoever.)
4) Maybe he was referring to rabbits, which are also hairy! (So are yaks, but there's no reason to think that he was talking about those, either.)
5) A near contemporary of Rav Saadiah, Ibn Janach, identified the wabr as the rabbit! (Yes, because he lived in Spain! See R. Josh Waxman's excellent post, That Wascally Wabr)
6) Ibn Ezra challenges the reliability of Rav Saadiah's animal identifications! (And no doubt Rav Saadiah would do the same for Ibn Ezra. So what? The fact is that Rav Saadiah is more reliable, since he lived in the right area!)
Anyway, after listing all these weak suggestions, Betech summarizes (p. 104): "...I do not know of any decisive proof that Rav Saadia Gaon translated shafan as hyrax."
What on earth does this mean? Is he saying that while it is overwhelmingly probable that Rav Saadiah is referring to the hyrax, it is not absolutely proven? Or is he saying that there is very little reason to believe that Rav Saadiah was referring to the hyrax? He seems to take it to mean that there is no reason to believe that Rav Saadiah was referring to the hyrax! This is evident from chapters 2 and 4, where he presents the views of Spanish Rishonim as sources that must be reconciled with the shafan and are matched by the rabbit, but he does not include the view of Rav Saadiah as a source that is not matched by the rabbit!
As I said, Betech's book is absolutely fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.