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The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study
I just received a copy of Dr. Isaac Betech's new book The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan. It's fascinating and invaluable - as a case study in anti-rationalism. As a work of Biblical zoology, on the other hand, it's completely useless.
(Some background for non-regular readers: Dr. Isaac Betech is a Mexican pediatrician who is a staunch anti-rationalist - campaigning that evolution is false, the universe is 5773 years old, Chazal knew modern science, etc. He was one of the people involved in engineering the ban on my books. He is also notorious for his style of debate, in which he avoids giving direct answers to direct questions.)
I'll be analyzing several aspects of his book, over several posts. The great thing about his book is that it has lots of haskamos (approbations) from charedi rabbonim, and thus our analysis will be very revealing not only about Dr. Betech himself, but also about them. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective), the book is virtually unreadable - it's a messy mixture of English, Hebrew, Spanish, bold, italics, poor formatting, and poor layout, quite aside from the eccentric writing style and specious argumentation.
Upon reading the book, I was reminded of something. Several years ago, I saw a brochure that was seeking to raise funding for a book refuting challenges to the Divinity of Torah from archeology. At one point, the brochure spoke about how archeologists are blinded to the truth by their anti-religious agenda, whereas the project being funded would have no such biases and would be objective. The laughable nature of this claim was exacerbated a hundredfold by the accompanying graphic, which featured some decorative text: Moshe Emes v'Toraso Emes!
As I told the rabbi who prepared the brochure: If you want to claim that secular archeologists have an anti-religious agenda, fine. But don't pretend that you're even remotely objective!
Betech's book is the same thing. In the introduction, he stresses that any mistake is to be attributed to him alone, and not chas veshalom to the G-d given Torah and Talmudic knowledge. His clear starting point is that the Torah, and the Gemara, and even the Rishonim, must all be scientifically correct. (Thus, there must be only four animals with one kosher sign, and the European Rishonim must be correct that the shafan is the rabbit.) And in the conclusion and epilogue, Betech expresses gratitude that he has been able to accomplish his goal, of solving any "seeming contradiction" between Torah or Talmudic statements and scientific knowledge.
If your starting point is the infallibility of Torah/ Chazal/ Rishonim, and your goal is to demonstrate that belief, then obviously you will find a way to convince yourself that you have done that. In anything apart from rigid mathematics, it's always possible to contrive some sort of skewed argument, whether that the moon landing is a hoax, Christianity is true, or evolution is false. If you have a passionate commitment, then reason can go out of the window.
Note that I am not saying that because Betech is biased, therefore his arguments are wrong. (See my very important post on The Seven Principles of Bias.) I'll be devoting other posts to explaining why his arguments are wrong. Rather, my point here is that his bias is so obvious, broad and overwhelming, that it is inevitable that he will find some sort of argument, whether strong, weak or utterly fallacious. It is absurd to see this book as any kind of scientific investigation, where the outcome is not decided in advance.
You can either be committed to discovering truth - to whatever evidence, logic and reason shows - or you can be committed to dogmas. But you can't be committed to both, within the same investigation!
The rabbonim who wrote approbations don't seem to realize this. They praise the book as being a search for truth, while simultaneously acknowledging (and praising) the book having a strong religious agenda! Rav Belsky writes about how the book strives for truth, and to show how Torah sages are correct and without error. Rav Aharon Feldman claims that the book "displays both an honest quest for truth as well as reverence for the words of the Sages." Rav Aharon Schechter writes about how Betech is driven to search for truth - by his fear of God!
As discussed in previous posts, and as I will show in future posts, Betech's arguments are unreasonable to the point of absurdity. But it's not surprising that these rabbonim, hacharedim l'dvar Hashem, found them to be convincing. After all, they confirmed everything that they were desperate to have confirmed!
I'll conclude with just one example. Several of Betech's arguments for the shafan being the rabbit (pp. 79-83) are that the rabbit perfectly matches the description given by the great Rishonim of Europe - long ears, etc. This is, of course, ridiculous - naturally the Rishonim of Europe thought that the shafan was the rabbit, because they were only familiar with rabbits and had never heard of hyraxes! And not only does Betech ignore this point (which I had already raised to him before his book went to press) - he makes it into an argument as to why the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He argues (p. 130) that one of the Spanish Rishonim noted that the shafan is abundant in Spain - and therefore it can't be the hyrax, which is non-existent in Spain!
You might as well prove that olives used to be gigantic from the fact that the French Rishonim gave a huge shiur for the kezayis!