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Goodbye Pi - and Rabbi Menken's Motzi Shem Ra and Censorship
(I don't know if this post is of any interest to anyone. But I want it to be published, for the public record.)
A few weeks ago, I spent some time demonstrating that, contrary to the claims of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the statements of Chazal and Rambam about pi do not provide any evidence of advanced knowledge. I spent more time on this topic than I had intended, but, for the reasons that I explained in the post "House of Cards", I think it was important. Rather unsurprisingly, it doesn't look like Rabbi Menken is intending to either defend or retract his endorsement of Rabbi Meiselman's claims about pi providing evidence of Chazal's advanced knowledge, despite the fact that pretty much everyone seems to recognize that it was a silly claim. In fact, my original critique of Rabbi Menken's review, Adulating Dishonesty, has shot up to being the eighth most popular post on this blog of all time!
There is one final loose end to be tidied up. Whatever one thinks about Chazal and Rambam and pi, one thing should be clear. My dispute with Rabbis Meiselman and Menken was regarding whether one can use this topic to provide evidence of Chazal's/Rambam's advanced knowledge. I did not ever dispute the fact that Rambam stated that pi is irrational - in fact, I pointed that out on this blog myself, several years ago. Nor did I ever dispute the fact that Rambam believed that Chazal also knew this. Nor did I ever rule this out as indeed being possibly true. The only aspect that I vociferously disputed was the notion that you can somehow prove that Chazal knew it, seeing as all that Chazal actually said was that for halachic purposes, pi is three.
Yet Rabbi Menken repeatedly issued a serious and defamatory claim about me, claiming that I "inspired people to mock words of our greatest teachers..." "to mock the words of the Rambam." Whereas of course I had done no such thing.
I wasn't the only person to notice this, of course. And one person, Elliott Shevin, tried to submit a comment to Rabbi Menken's post, pointing this out. But Rabbi Menken did not allow the comment to appear. Mr. Shevin, who Rabbi Menken earlier insultingly referred to as my "lackey", sent the comment to me. Here it is:
A less forbearing person than I would have taken your suggestion of my lackeyhood as… snide. Alas, R. Slifkin is unable to post his own correction. Some computer glitch, I'm told.
You may have noticed that in his offending post, the phrase "which coincidentally has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board" has been struck out (not deleted), indicating concession of his factual error. You'll also find my comment toward the bottom of the page suggesting he credit you for inspiring him to do that. I am an equal-opportunity lackey.
You've accused R. Slifkin of having erected a straw man: asserting that one’s opponent has made a claim he did not in fact make, and then attacking that nonexistent claim. In this case, it's "... Rabbi Menken notes... because they knew it was an irrational number...."
On technical grounds, you're right. You were citing R. Meiselman who actually said that Rambam said this was so.
But compare your words to his:
R. Menken: "The author cites many similar cases in which Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond that was known to other cultures. For example... but the Rambam explains that the reason why Chazal used the approximation of 3:1 is because the actual ratio cannot be stated definitively in any case."
R. Slifkin: "For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal's advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly!" (The exclamation point is not to refute the claim of Chazal's understanding, but rather the inference drawn from the claim.)
Did you not say Chazal's understanding of Pi is an example of their "advanced knowledge of the natural world?" That's all that R. Slifkin claims you said. You can quibble over "must have been" and failure to mention Rambam, but it's not much as straw men go.
Anyone who knows R. Slifkin as well as you do knows that the Rambam is one of the LAST people he would mock. And he isn't; he's saying R. Meiselman has taken Rambam too far. And he can't be walking back mockery he never made.
I wish he were less abrasive, but wouldn't you bristle at praise of an author who sides with those who put you through what he endured? You dismiss his hashkafa as rationalistic nonsense, but he was gracious enough to defend yours.
After Rabbi Menken did not allow this comment through, Mr. Shevin tried another:
If you're like me, you've had your fill of... (I'm sorry, but there are some puns even I won't stoop to).
You address three points in R. Slifkin's post:
He incorrectly (and rather impertinently) puts R. Meiselman on the editorial board of Dialogue Magazine. Guilty as charged, although R. Meiselman's name does still appear as a member of the Rabbinic Board on Dialogue's web site.
He describes you, with an unkind connotation, as a “charedi polemicist.” Guilty there, too.
He has set up a straw man, and mocked the Rambam in the process, regarding the matter of... that mathematical constant that shall not be named. Of this, he is not guilty. If you read his words carefully, you will see that he takes issue not with what the Rambam said but with the claim that it is but an example of Chazal's superior knowledge of the natural world. And this is not at all a straw man; you did indeed make that claim.
But R. Slifkin doesn't stop there.
He claims that R. Meiselman quotes R. Soloveitchik out of context. He even provides a link to where he discusses this at length, providing the citation in question.
He refutes the assertion that only Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam suggested Chazal were fallible in matters of science, and provides a link to a host of sources that say otherwise.
Likewise, he refutes the claim that ben HaRambam's opinion is a forgery, providing another link to proofs that it's genuine.
He points out that Chazal's view that the sun passes behind the sky at night (and which Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi concedes to be incorrect) is shown, in another gemara and in a midrash, to be connected to pesukim, and that the Sages who so believed were in fact Torah scholars--contrary to R. Meiselman's assertions.
He argues against the relevance of R. Hirsch's lack of scientific training.
He provides a quote from R. Hirsch refuting the notion that 19th century scholars conceded Chazal's errors of fact only in response to specific issues.
He calls laughable the claim that R. Meiselman succeeds in explaining Genesis "without compromising science."
He says R. Meiselman ignores "many statements in the Gemara" that conflict with modern science.
And most damning of all, he claims that the "vast majority" of contemporary Gedolim would consider R. Meiselman's approach heretical.
With so much rope, hanging him on at least some of it should be easy. Most of the items here can be tested objectively.
The follow-on paragraph is either in R. Soloveitchik's book or it's not. The sources opining that Chazal made mistakes in science are either real or fake. Ben HaRambam's text is a forgery or it isn't. R. Yehudah conceded an error or he didn't. The gemara and midrash saying that the sages guilty of that error were Torah scholars either exist or they don't. R. Hirsch either did or did not write that Chazal's forte was Torah, not science. R. Meiselman ignores some specified conflicts, or he addresses them.
The gauntlet lies before you. Have at it.
But Rabbi Menken didn't allow that comment through, either.
Rabbi Menken, since I know you will read this, I would like to address you directly. I don't expect you to retract your claim about the case of pi providing evidence of Rambam and Chazal having advanced knowledge - even if you wanted to, you couldn't, without toppling the Daas Torah edifice. But I do expect you to retract your slander about what I wrote. All you have to write is, "It appears that I misunderstood Rabbi Slifkin's words. He was not mocking Rambam, rather he was mocking an inference that I was making about Rambam. I apologize for misrepresenting what he wrote and for accusing him of mocking Rambam."
It doesn't really bother me when people say that my writings are heresy. After all, this just means that my approach to Torah is very different from theirs, and so one of us has a very flawed understanding - which is true! But it does intensely bother me when people misrepresent what I write (which, unfortunately, happens quite often). And to accuse me of "mocking" Rambam is not only false and ridiculous, but deeply hurtful, since Rambam is one of my greatest heroes.
The question is, if Rabbi Menken does not retract this allegation, does it reflect only on his own poor character, or does it reflect a general policy in the charedi world, that it is forbidden to ever cede any ground whatsoever to the "enemy"?