(This post might well seem pedantic or obsessive. But in few days I will explain why it is much, much more important than it initially appears. Trust me, it's very significant!)
For all its very real harm and dangers, the impact of the internet upon Orthodox Jewish society is quite incredible, especially with regard to the clash between rationalism and anti-rationalism.
In the past, if anti-rationalist rabbinic leaders wanted to oppose any writings or activities, they would just ban it and censor it. They would not get into any kind of debate or discussion in which they would have to justify their position. There were no press interviews or anything like that.
But the internet changes everything. Now, if people want to argue against the rabbinic establishment, they have a platform from which to do so.
The ban on my books presents a great example of this. No explanation was given by the charedi Gedolim for the ban on my books. In the past, that would have been that, but the internet enabled a large number of people to publicly voice their protest and present countless sources from Chazal, the Rishonim and the Acharonim to support the rationalist viewpoint. This caused a tremendous crisis for rabbinic authority in the charedi world.
After a few years, the Official Authorized Explanation of the ban, Chaim B'Emunasam, was published by the main footsoldier in the ban, Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer. However, this book was riddled with silly claims (e.g. that the letters from Rav Hirsch are forgeries) and distortions, including actually editing the words of Rambam to make him say something different. I exposed these flaws in a series of posts and even printed them up in a booklet which was disseminated. No attempt was made to defend Chaim B'Emunasam, and it faded into obscurity.
More recently, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman published his 700+ page book Torah, Chazal and Science, attempting to give a detailed explanation of why my approach is heretical. In a long series of posts, I have been exposing the serious distortions, omissions, and lack of understanding of science present in that book.
Then Rabbi Yaakov Menken wrote a glowing review of Torah, Chazal and Science. I promptly published a blog post listing all the flaws in his review. Rabbi Menken responded to only the first point that I raised, ignoring all the rest. This was my criticism of his claim that one can prove (via Rambam, who notes that Pi is an irrational number) that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number and were thus way ahead of their time. To quote Rabbi Menken: "the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.” I did not dispute the fact that Rambam knew Pi to be an irrational number, and nor, contrary to the straw man that Rabbi Menken set up, did I reject the possibility that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number. Rather, I rejected his claim that one can prove from Rambam that Chazal knew it to be an irrational number.
Rabbi Menken responded with many hundreds of words, in a blog post and blog comments, on this point. But it was all misdirection. Not once did he actually explain how one can prove from Rambam that Chazal knew that Pi is an irrational number.
This was making Rabbi Menken look rather silly. However, he had a certain advantage. All this discussion was taking place on his blog, Cross-Currents, where he enforces comment moderation with a heavy hand. If people submitted comments that he didn't have a good answer to, he could simply give an unsatisfactory answer, and then not publish their follow-up comment. He could reject comments under the excuse that people were swamping the comments section, or even with no justification at all. I tried submitting a comment, but it was not posted.
But then came Facebook! On Friday, someone directed me to Rabbi Menken's Facebook page, where he had posted his article. Now, Facebook works differently from Cross-Currents. There is no possibility of moderating comments on Facebook. Facebook is the great equalizer. So, here I had an opportunity to actually engage Rabbi Menken in discussion and ask him how on earth Rambam's statement provides proof that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational.
The only way to do so would be to prove that Rambam deduced it as a necessary inference from Chazal's words and couldn't have gotten it from anywhere else. This would be very difficult to prove. After all, we know that Rambam absorbed much knowledge from non-Jewish sources. The early Greek and Indian mathematicians were already well on the path towards concluding that Pi is irrational, and it would not be at all surprising for this to have already been guessed before Rambam's time. In fact, in an exact parallel to the Rambam case, one fifteenth century Indian commentator claims an indication from a 4th-century Indian text that Pi is irrational.
But Rabbi Menken said that he didn't know how Rambam [allegedly] deduced it from Chazal. He admitted that to claim that Rambam deduced it from Chazal saying that Pi is three would be ludicrous, because then you're saying that you can prove that Chazal were ahead of their time because they said that Pi is three! But he wouldn't say where Rambam got it from. So I kept pushing, and asking him how on earth Rambam's statement provides proof that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational. Rabbi Menken ended up saying that he didn't have time to respond and would respond on Monday.
But I couldn't resist pointing out that Rabbi Meiselman had indeed indicated where he believed Rambam had deduced it from Chazal. I posted a comment which did nothing other than quote Rabbi Meiselman:
"The Rambam gives no source for his information. Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational."
Rabbi Menken responded by deleting that comment.
Yes, that's right. He deleted a comment that did nothing other than quote Rabbi Meiselman. Presumably, because it showed him to be utterly wrong.
When I responded in shock that he had done such a thing, he deleted that comment too, and then announced that he was blocking me from posting any further comments as well as banning me from posting comments on Cross-Currents.
Anti-rationalists cannot tolerate open discussion, because it exposes them as being mistaken/ dishonest. Fortunately, the internet is the great equalizer, and enables me to expose this on my own website. Because I suspected that Rabbi Menken might delete the discussion, I had already copied-and-pasted the whole thing. Here it is:
Yaakov MenkenI'll quote him [i.e. me - N.S.]: "Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational." That's another straw man, no one said their use of three *proved* they knew it to be irrational. But as he finally acknowledges, the Rambam says precisely what Rav Meiselman and then I said that the Rambam said: Chazal used the approximation because the actual ratio is irrational, unable to be specified precisely.
Natan Slifkin Allow me to quote Rabbi Menken: "Chazal were ahead of their times because they knew Pi was irrational, plain & simple." "The Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”
Yaakov Menken Both correct, and both entirely support what I said above. The straw man, which he and supporters have now used repeatedly, was and remains: "the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational." This would logically require that there be no other tenable explanation for Chazal using three (e.g. claiming Chazal didn't know math). That indefensible position, rather than anything I said, is the straw man erected by RNS once I pointed out that his original attempt to ridicule RMM and myself actually targeted words of the Rambam.
Natan Slifkin How on earth is Rambam's statement "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures", if it didn't come from Chazal? Besides, you already claimed that it did come from Chazal - you called it "the obvious implciation of Chazal's words".
Yaakov Menken Now you are trying to back out of the strawman.
Natan Slifkin Yaakov Menken no, you are avoiding answering what I wrote. Virtually everyone sees that except you.
Natan Slifkin Let's calm down. Perhaps you can just answer one question at at a time: How on earth is Rambam's statement "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures"?
Yaakov Menken So you are accusing virtually everyone of being unable to distinguish between a strawman "the fact of Chazal using three *proves* that they knew it to be irrational" and the argument, which does not use that as a proof at all? Interesting.
Yaakov Menken I'm not going to repeat myself. You can reread my post if you were unable to comprehend it previously. Perhaps you should have done so to my original article before you posted your intemperate responses.
Natan Slifkin It's amazing. You are mamash unable to answer this. The fact is that you claimed that Rambam provides "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures". You also claimed that Rambam derived this from Chazal, as the "obvious implication" of their saying three and not a fraction. This means that you are saying that the evidence of Chazal's advanced knowledge comes from their saying that Pi equals three, via the Rambam!
Yaakov Menken Once again, you have set up a straw man. I did not say that the Rambam used this as the obvious implication. Reread.
Natan Slifkin I quote: "their choice of such a gross approximation (rather than the much more accurate 22/7, which was apparently well known) is the because no one will ever produce the precise and final value. The obvious implication, of course, is that they knew that."
Yaakov Menken Why did you omit the opening words? "I think it is obvious from this statement that the Rambam both knew Pi to be irrational, and believed that Chazal knew Pi to be irrational." At that point, the rest is correct: the implication of the Rambam's statement is that he understood that Chazal knew that no one will ever produce the precise value. It is the "obvious implication" of the Rambam's statement, but not at all obvious from Chazal using 3 for Pi.
Natan Slifkin If it is not an implication of Chazal's statement, then how is there ""evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures"?
Yaakov Menken Nothing in your question has not previously been answered, and I have much to write and a Bar Mitzvah to make. Shabbat Shalom.
Natan Slifkin Good grief, what a cop-out. Good Shabbos.
Yaakov Menken No. I'm not going to beat my head against a wall because you ask me to. I said it was the implication of the *Rambam's* statement but you have steadfastly ignored that. It's either from using 3 for Pi, or something else in Chazal's statement, or who knows what, but the plain meaning of my words consistently escapes you.
Natan Slifkin No, it escapes everyone I know. If we don't know the source of Rambam's knowledge of Pi (as you said. "who knows what"), then how can you say that it is evidence that Chazal knew it? (Especially when all the other Rishonim say understand the Gemara differently, which you have yet to address!)
Yaakov Menken Widen your circle of friends. I have a Bar Mitzvah to make, you can debate this further on Monday.
Natan Slifkin Oh, come on! We were just getting to the crucial point, the very crux of everything that we have been arguing about! You claimed that Rambam provides "evidence that Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures". But if you admit that you have no idea what the source of Rambam's knowledge was, how on earth does it provide evidence about Chazal's knowledge?!
Yaakov Menken Yet somehow none of the reader comments on my article seem at all puzzled by this very point. I need about 3 assistants to get through today, you'll have to wait your turn nicely.
Natan Slifkin Actually, that is exactly what David Ohsie and a whole bunch of other people were pointing out is the crucial flaw of your argument. You can't use the words of Rambam to prove something about Chazal (especially when all the other Rishonim do not learn the Gemara like Rambam!)
[Note - it could be that I lost some of the comments here, but I don't think so - N.S/]
Yaakov Menken Unbelievable
Natan Slifkin I couldn't agree more. By the way, Rabbi Meiselman does indeed indicate what he believes to be the source of Rambam's knowledge. He says that it is "almost explicit" that Rambam got it from the Gemara saying that Pi is three.
Yaakov Menken That is absolutely not what he said. It's not even close. "He [the Rambam] writes that Chazal use an approximation for pi rather than a fraction *because* it is irrational." The assertion that the Rambam derived this from the Gemara saying Pi is three is your own invention.
Natan Slifkin [I responded with the direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman: "The Rambam gives no source for his information (that Pi is irrational). Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational." Rabbi Menken then deleted this.]
Yaakov Menken Last warning, please desist from spamming my Wall. I have multiple Divrei Torah far more needed than rehashing this with you and you are unduly repeating yourself. I will have to deny you access if you persist further.
Natan Slifkin Yaakov Menken I am not spamming. You are challenging my claim that R. Meiselman sad it is almost explicit. I replied with a direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman saying exactly that! Either respond or don't respond, but don't you DARE delete my post, which was simply a quote from Rabbi Meiselman. If you delete it again, you will only make a fool of yourself, because I will publicize that you deleted it.
Natan Slifkin Here is the direct quote from Rabbi Meiselman again. "The Rambam gives no source for his information (that Pi is irrational). Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational."
Natan Slifkin If you delete this again, I will write a post pointing out that you were embarrassed by my doing nothing other than quoting Rabbi Meiselman in direct refutation of your claim and you deleted it!
Yaakov Menken If you follow on your threat I will post that you have willfully lied.
Natan Slifkin Well, I am copying and pasting this entire thread, so that people can see for themselves.