Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect": Apikorsus Defined

This post is a continuation of the preceding one entitled Practically Speaking, Torah Protects. In the previous post we demonstrated that – as opposed to Rabbi Slifkin’s assertion that practically speaking Torah does no provide protection – Chazal were clearly of the opinion that the merit of limud haTorah results in very real and practical results such as physical protection from harm.

In this post we will discuss several ma’amarei Chazal that describe both the spiritual and physical harm engendered by adopting the attitude that “practically speaking Torah does not protect”.     

The Gemara (Yerushalmi Chagiga 1:7) relates,

R’ Shimon bar Yochai taught: If you encounter cities in Eretz Yisrael that have been uprooted, it is because the inhabitants did not support teachers of Torah, as indicated in Yermiah (9:11) “Why did the land go lost…And Hashem responds, because they have abandoned my Torah”. 
Rabbi Yuden, the exilarch, dispatched R’ Chiya, R’ Asi and R’ Ami to travel throughout all of the cities of Eretz Yisrael and establish teachers of Torah. One time they arrived at a city and discovered that it possessed no teachers of Torah. They asked them [the city leaders]:
 “Where are the guardians of the city?” 
 They [the city leaders] brought them the centurions [soldiers guarding the city]. 
 “These are not the guardians of the city!” exclaimed the rabbis. “These are the destroyers of the city!”
 “So who are the guardians of the city?” asked the city leaders.
 “The teachers of Torah,” answered the rabbis. “As it is written (Tehilim 127:1): If Hashem will not build the house, its builders have toiled in vain; if Hashem will not guard the city, its watcher keeps his vigil in vain.”  
 Before we proceed, I cannot resist mentioning that this Gemara is yet another example which proves that Rabbi Slifkin’s fundamental thesis ("Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect") is kineged (contra) Chazal. But this is not the point we are attempting to bring out here. Our current point is this:

To state that the primary protection for a city is Torah and not soldiers is a concept that can reasonably be understood. But why did the rabbis state that the centurions were the “destroyers” of the city?

My rebbi answered as follows. The issue here is the attitude. It’s the attitude that the centurions are the protectors which is destructive. The soldiers possessed this attitude and so did the inhabitants of the city. The rabbis were remonstrating with the people. They were telling them that such an attitude is materialistic in nature and causes one to lose sight of reality – the spiritual reality. And once one loses sight of the spiritual reality, one risks the possibility of physical destruction.

This type of attitude is discussed at length by Chazal in tractate Sanhedrin (90b). After the Mishna states that every Jew has a portion in the world to come, it lists several exceptions to this rule. One of them is an apikorus (an heretic). On daf 99b, the Gemara discusses this classification. 
'What is an apikorus?' asks the Gemara. 
Rav Yoseph says, for example, those who claim, ‘Of what benefit are the rabbis to us? Their study of Torah is for their own benefit. Their study of Mishna is for their own benefit. 
From here it is clear that Chazal considered one who believes that limud ha’Torah does not afford benefit to others is an apikorus, G-d forbid! But let’s continue studying…

Abaye responds to Rav Yoseph that such a claim ("Of what benefit are the rabbis to us") is even worse than apikorsus (heresy) and falls under the category of mi’galeh panim ba’torah, which means “acting brazenly against the Torah.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this category is worse than apikorsus because it involves willful impudence against the Torah. Abaye then goes on to support his claim by quoting the famous verse in Yermiah (33:25): 

"If it were not for my covenant day and night, then the laws of nature (lit. heaven and earth) I would not have established." 

The term “covenant” in this verse is understood by Abaye to refer to the Torah, and so there is an open verse that the study of Torah not only provides physical protection but is actually responsible for the ongoing existence of the entire universe!

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok supports Abaye’s position from another verse (Bereishis 18:26): 

"Then I will spare the entire place for their sake."

Once again, this demonstrates that the study of Torah by Torah scholars does not only provide personal protection; it even provides local protection and sometimes (as per Abaye’s position) even global protection.

Notwithstanding any kushyos or objections Rabbi Slifkin may have, it is abundantly clear from countless ma’amarei Chazal that limud haTorah produces physical benefits in a very practical way, and nothing he says or asks can change this fact. Furthermore, we have demonstrated from several ma’amarei Chazal that Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude that “Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect” is not only contra-Chazal but is even categorized by them as apikorsus and mi’galeh panim ba’torah r”l!  In this writer's humble opinion, Rabbi Slifkin would do well to cease his strident and ongoing assault against the Torah and its students. 

I would like to end with the famous ma’amar Chazal quoted all over in Shas. 

Talmeeday chachamim marbim shalom ba’olam

Those who study the Torah increase peace in the world! The Gemara in Brachos (64a) lists five pesukim to support the idea that Torah brings peace to the world, and includes things that are merely related to Torah such as “places of Torah” and even "those who love Torah". Rabbi Slifkin believes that Torah does not provide any practical protection. As we have seen, his attitude is diametrically opposed to that of Chazal’s. 

To our readers: If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to leave a note in the comments section and I will do my best to respond. If I have made any errors in the ma’amarei Chazal I quoted, I would greatly appreciate being notified.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Practically Speaking, Torah Protects

Rabbi Slifkin's personal disapproval of the Chareidi attitude to the IDF is well-known to his readers and has been extensively documented over the past two years in his numerous posts on this topic. A central subject in his writings is the Charedi claim that limud HaTorah provides protection, a claim which he seems particularly bent on refuting. As we’ve mentioned in the previous post on this topic entitled Bitachon and the IDF, for the most part we have ignored his writings due to the fact that his posts have long ago ceased being academic in nature. Unfortunately, his latest post on this topic – Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect – is exceptionally egregious in its siluf (distortion) of Chazal’s idea. Something should be said to address the issue.

Rabbi Slifkin asserts: 
There is no unequivocal claim in the Gemara that someone learning Torah receives protection from being killed by a terrorist… It's just as well that the Gemara does not make any such claim, because such a claim is quite clearly not true. 
The only thing “quite clearly not true” is his assertion. Ironically, his post appeared on November 16, the very day that the world was learning Sotah daf 21 in Daf Yomi. The Gemara compares the learning of Torah to light. Just as light protects the world, so too does the learning of Torah. In fact, the Gemara specifically goes on to provide a mashal of how the Torah protects an individual from listim, robbers (read: terrorists)!  This ma’amar Chazal alone serves to defeat Rabbi Slifkin’s thesis. Nevertheless, let’s spend some time analyzing some of the more salient points in his post.   

Rabbi Slifkin asks, rhetorically: 
"Torah scholars do not need protection"? We saw the terrible tragedy of the Torah scholars who were massacred in Har Nof… "Someone on their way to do a mitzvah (shaliach mitzvah) cannot be harmed"? Some of the stabbing victims of the last few weeks were on their way to daven or to give shiurim. "When you're learning Torah, you can't be harmed"? We saw otherwise in the tragedy a few years ago at Mercaz HaRav. 
Let’s conduct an experiment. Let’s repeat Rabbi Slifkin’s argument, but instead of Torah, let’s substitute, li’havdil, the IDF, with the objective of demonstrating that “Practically Speaking, the IDF Does NOT Protect.” Here’s the way the argument would read.   
It's just as well that the State of Israel does not make the claim that the IDF provides protection for the people of Israel, because such a claim is quite clearly not true. ‘The people of Israel are protected by the IDF'? We saw the terrible tragedy in Har Nof. 'People in Israel who are travelling on the road are protected by the IDF from Arab terrorists'?  What about the stabbing victims of the last few weeks. 'If you live in Israel, you are protected by the IDF'? What about the tragedy a few years ago at Mercaz HaRav? 
The argument is clearly absurd. Reasonable people do not consider the cited cases as evidence that the IDF does not provide practical protection for the people of Israel.  True, sometimes terrorists slip through despite their efforts. But does this render the assertion that the IDF protects Israeli citizens "not unequivocal," or only true "in some abstract or hyper-qualified sense, but clearly not true in any practical sense today"? Does it lead to "the bottom line that there is no practical truth or ramifications" for the assertion that the IDF protects Israeli citizens? Obviously not.

And just as obviously, when Chazal say that Torah protects, they naturally do not mean that Torah is a 100% barrier against any harm. Only a fool (or a person with an agenda) understands Chazal that way. Chazal, who were painfully aware of the death of almost every talmid chacham in Eretz Yisroel by the Romans in the war of Beitar, knew that Torah does not provide protection unconditionally.

Anyone with even a modicum of theological sophistication understands that it is not the Torah itself which provides protection but rather Hashem who provides protection in the merit of the Torah. Obviously there may be additional conditions and considerations that come into play. Any rational claim that "x protects against something" is not meant to guarantee that “x” is the only factor in determining the outcome. The only logical way to understand Chazal is that Torah does indeed provide protection but sometimes Hashem decides that there are overriding considerations which necessitate an ostensibly harmful result that would normally be shielded against by the merit of the Torah.

Rabbi Slifkin writes: 
Now, many people, even in the charedi world, realize this, at least to some degree. That's why, since the stabbings began, many charedim have been learning self-defense, buying pepper spray, and requesting increased army protection. 
But the reason they do this is not because they "realize to some degree" that Torah learning is irrelevant in providing protection. It's the simple matter of combining emunah and bitachon with hishtadlus. To my mind, everyone in Israel should learn self-defence. When Shaul fell in battle, Dovid eulogized him. The first thing he mentioned is that we need to teach our boys self-defense! Dovid is the paragon of emunah and bitachon in Hashem yet he understood the importance of physical hishtadlus. Bitachon is not a stira to hishtadlus (as anyone with a basic understanding of hashkafa understands). Please see this post for further elucidation.

This concludes our response to Rabbi Slifkin's assertion that "There is no unequivocal claim in the Gemara that someone learning Torah receives protection from being killed by a terrorist". As we have seen from a number of quoted ma'amarei Chazal, his claim is patently false.

In the following post we will deal with the spiritual ramifications of maintaining the view that "practically speaking, Torah does not provide any physical protection" 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Confronting Dinosaurs - Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one entitled Confronting Dinosaurs.

And it's not as though there was only one period of prehistoric creatures. The fossil record shows beyond doubt that there were numerous distinct periods. The therapsids lived before the dinosaurs; the dinosaurs lived before the mammoths. And even among dinosaurs, different layers of rock reveal distinct eras. Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Allosaurus are never found in the same layers of rock as Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Velociraptor. The conclusion is that each existed in a different period; the former lived in a period which has been termed the Jurassic, while the latter lived in the Cretaceous period. This is not part of some evil conspiracy by scientists, nor the result of mistakes on their part. Any paleontologist could win instant fame by finding a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in Jurassic rocks - but nobody has ever done so, which shows that T-Rex lived much later, in the Cretaceous.
Unfortunately, it shows no such thing. Anytime supposedly later fossils are found in supposedly earlier beds or vice versa, evolutionists simply cut up the beds to conform to the dictates of the theory. If Rabbi Slifkin actually bothered to study evolutionary geology, he would know this. The fact is, geologists already knew – over one hundred years ago! – that supposedly earlier strata are regularly interbedded among later strata. And not merely in one isolated instance. This phenomenon occurs frequently all over the globe!

Furthermore, the fossil record Rabbi Slifkin puts so much faith in (The fossil record shows beyond doubt that there were numerous distinct periods) is entirely bogus. Sometimes Jurassic is found before Cretaceous, sometimes after. This disparity is so frequent that in order for evolutionary geologists to account for it they have been forced to come up with a fantastic mechanical explanation called “overthrusting”. They don’t know how it works; they only know that it works. Why? Because they need it to work! When challenged with the idea that such incredible movements of the strata are invoked by evolutionary geologists solely due to the fact that fossiliferous strata happen to be found in an order that contradicts their theories, one writer (a famous Swiss evolutionary geologist) responded as follows: 
the most incredible mechanical explanation is more probable than that the evolution or organic nature should have been inverted in one country, as compared with another
It is upon such nonsense that Rabbi Slifkin puts all his trust, allowing himself to be duped while simultaneously duping others. The above has been discussed numerous times on this blog wherein the scientific literature has been delineated, chapter and verse. Don’t believe the hype! There is absolutely nothing about the existence of dinosaur fossils or the order of the beds they are found in that contradicts the timeline of our mesora in any way.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Confronting Dinosaurs

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:
How do you evaluate whether a professed expert on Torah and science is worth his salt? One step (of many) is to see whether he is ready to confront dinosaurs… whether he is ready (and has already thought about) some very basic questions. Like, when the dinosaurs live? Did they live at the same time as people? Did they all live at the same time as each other? And if so, why are their fossils consistently found in different layers of rock?
Ahhh… dinosaurs. Again. Evolutionary scientists claim that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. Combined with their remarkable structure and categorical absence in today’s zoological landscape, dinosaurs have become the very image of the purported Torah-Science loggerhead. Indeed, Rabbi Slifkin’s primary Torah-Science book has a picture of T-Rex prominently featured on the cover.

But here’s the thing. Dinosaurs are actually the easiest thing to answer! The truth is, the dino problem is nothing more than evolutionary dogma combined with media hype. Dinosaurs went extinct some time in the past just as countless other life-forms. Extinction is an ongoing reality which most-likely attended the biological condition from its very inception. So what? Extinction has nothing to do with age. There are over 750 documented species that went extinct in the past 500 years alone. Dino fossils don’t come with an “age” stamp. Fossilization occurs rapidly and there’s no way to know how old a fossil actually is.   

Rabbi Slifkin misleads his readers (or perhaps himself) by asking:  
Did they all live at the same time as each other? And if so, why are their fossils consistently found in different layers of rock?
Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Dinosaur fossils are consistently found in identical rock layers. All one has to do is study the material. But rather than conducting a proper scientific investigation of the material at hand, Rabbi Slifkin chooses to base his conclusions on sensationalist stories in low level media outlets. This blog has already demonstrated on numerous occasions that dino fossils are often found in identical layers and it is merely evolutionary dogma which dupes the public into thinking otherwise. Rabbi Slifkin has no business writing the things that he does. His blog is supposed to be an explication of the “rationalist” approach to Judaism. Rationalists form their opinions based on empirical observation, not subjective belief.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
Interestingly, the Christian Young Earth Creationists (YECs) are eager to confront dinosaurs… Yet there is no parallel to this amongst Orthodox Jewish YECs. Whether they ultimately claim that dinosaur bones are an incredible work of art created by God, or that they lived before the Flood, one finds that Orthodox YECs simply do not want to discuss the topic at all.
Actually, I find this comment insulting. I am an Orthodox Jewish YEC and I have spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, and even years discussing dinosaurs. I personally have penned several dozen posts on this blog dealing with this issue and in fact have discussed it directly with Rabbi Slifkin in online debates and even discussed it with him in person when he came to Toronto. My Rebbi, Rav Avigdor Miller, spent sixty years discussing the issue of dinosaurs. His books are readily available. Rabbi Slifkin’s comment is simply false.

Here’s some more from the good Rabbi:
Forget abstract jargon about radioactive decay and cesium atoms. Think about something tangible and familiar, such as animal life. The fossil evidence clearly shows that there were dinosaurs and all kinds of other creatures which lived before people (since no fossils of contemporary creatures are found in the same strata).
Once again, this claim is simply false. Here's something "tangible and familiar". Dino fossils were recently found on the North Slope of Alaska in the exact same location that old cow bones would be expected to be found.  

Dinosaurs pose no problem to our mesorah. The Torah states that Hashem Created all life forms recently over a period of six days. Science provides no evidence to the contrary and in fact all the available evidence points to rapid creation.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Whale Evolution and Skepticism

"But has Rabbi Shafran applied his professed "critical thinking" to the alternate understanding of life's development that is taught in his circles? Does he really think that the available physical evidence better supports the notion that whales were created independently, with striking internal similarities to terrestrial mammals, and an inability to breathe underwater like fish, and following a whole chain of extinct creatures that were progressively less terrestrial, rather than indicating that they are actually descended from terrestrial mammals?" 
[R. Slifkin, July 21, 2015]
What does it take, in an engineering sense, to transform a car into a submarine? Quite a bit. And quite a bit of intelligence.

The same is true of transforming a land based mammal like a cow into a whale. There is very little (if any) hard scientific evidence for whale evolution. At least not through apparently unguided processes such as random mutation and natural selection.

Does R. Slifkin really have actual evidence that that whales evolved from a land animal in a few million years? Other than fanciful drawings with only a few so-called "transitional" fossils?

(see pdf for enlarged view)

In the drawing, on the left, is the supposed sequence of transitional fossils from a fully terrestrial animal (like a cow) at the bottom -- to a fully aquatic whale at the top -- in about 10 million years on the evolutionary time scale.

On the right -- is a recent fossil find showing a fully aquatic whale in just the wrong place in the sequence.
Argentine paleontologist Marcelo Reguero, who led a joint Argentine-Swedish team, said the fossilized archaeocete jawbone found in February dates back 49 million years. In evolutionary terms, that's not far off from the fossils of even older proto-whales from 53 million years ago that have been found in South Asia and other warmer latitudes. 
Those earlier proto-whales were amphibians, able to live on land as well as sea. This jawbone, in contrast, belongs to the Basilosauridae group of fully aquatic whales, said Reguero, who leads research for the Argentine Antarctic Institute. 
"The relevance of this discovery is that it's the oldest known completely aquatic whale found yet," said Reguero, who shared the discovery with Argentine paleontologist Claudia Tambussi and Swedish paleontologists Thomas Mors and Jonas Hagstrom of the Natural History Museum in Stockholm.
[Oct. 2011, www.nbcnews.comThe handout drawing on the right is released by the Argentine Direccion Nacional del Antartico shows an artist`s rendition of an Antartic Archaeocetes, after fossils of the creature were found at the La Meseta formation, near the Marambio Base in the Argentine-run area of the Antarctica.]
Until now, the whale series went something like this:
Pakicetids (fully terrestrial): ~50 mya
Ambulocetids (semi-aquatic): 49 mya
Remingtonocetids (semi-aquatic): 49 mya
Rodhocetus (a Protocetid, semi-aquatic): 47 mya
Basilosaurids (fully aquatic): 40 mya
Now the timeline looks something like this:
Pakicetids (fully terrestrial): ~50 mya
New Fossil Jawbone (fully aquatic whale): 49 mya
Ambulocetids (semi-aquatic): 49 mya
Remingtonocetids (semi-aquatic): 49 mya
Rodhocetus (a Protocetid, semi-aquatic): 47 mya
Basilosaurids (fully aquatic): 40 mya
The fossil record now might jump from fully terrestrial Pakicetids to fully aquatic whales in just a couple million years -- maybe much less than 5 million years [at least according to the shaky dating systems of evolutionists]. In fact, if this find has been correctly identified, then fully aquatic whales might have existed before many of their alleged semi-aquatic evolutionary precursors.[1]

Now I think it is pretty amazing that evolutionists can reconstruct a whole whale from a jaw-bone. But they do this kind of thing all the time. Below is a reconstruction of an important "transitional fossil"  in R. Slifkin's fossil sequence.

(see pdf for enlarged view)

From a few fossils like a skull and a pelvis, Wikipedia shows a fanciful reconstruction of Rodhocetus. Rodhocetus is claimed to be a semi-aquatic mammal developing flippers and a whale-like tail. However there is no fossil evidence for these whale-like properties. I have superimposed red stars on the critical parts that are missing from the actual fossil evidence.  

As Richard Sternberg and others have argued, there are quite a few changes that have to appear in just a few million years in going from a land mammal to a whale [2]:

  • Counter-current heat exchanger for intra-abdominal testes
  • Ball vertebra
  • Tail flukes and musculature
  • Blubber for temperature insulation
  • Ability to drink sea water (reorganization of kidney tissues)
  • Reverse orientation of fetus in the uterus
  • Nurse young underwater (modified mammal)
  • Forelimbs transformed into flippers
  • Reduction of hind limbs
  • Reduction/loss of pelvis and sacral vertebrae
  • Reorganization of the musculature for the reproductive organs
  • Hydrodynamic properties of the skin
  • Special lung surfactants
  • Novel muscle systems for the blowhole
  • Modification of the teeth
  • Modification of the eye for underwater vision
  • Emergence of expansion of the mandibular fat bad with complex lipid distribution (the fat pad has acoustic properties)
  • Reorganization of skull bone
  • Modification of the ear bones
  • Decoupling of esophagus and trachea
  • Synthesis and metabolism of isovaleric acid (toxic to terrestrial mammals)
  • Emergence of blowhole musculature and their neurological control
New genes and proteins would have to be adapted or "invented" along the way. To form even a few proteins is well beyond the probabilistic resources of life on earth or the even the universe, even at billions of years proposed in evolutionary time scales. All the changes would have to be co-ordinated to develop a new body plan.

In fact, evolutionist do not even have a single detailed Darwinian pathway that could account for even one of the significant morphological changes needed to convert this speculation of whale evolution into serious science.

Here is a video of the  incorrigible Dr. Berlinksi that evolutionist love to hate:

[1] http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/10/discovery_of_oldest_fully_aqua052021.html 

[2] http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/10/discovery_of_oldest_fully_aqua052021.html

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bitachon and the IDF

It’s been a long time since anyone has posted on this site. I cannot speak for my colleagues but as far as I am concerned the primary purpose of this blog is (or at least was) to provide “rational” responses to Rabbi Slifkin’s arguments against mainstream Orthodox views. Unfortunately the Rationalist Judaism Blog is no longer academically based. The vast majority of the material is partisan in nature (Chareidi bashing seems to be the order of the day) and as such does not warrant a response from this blog.

Nonetheless, I cannot deny the fact that many of Rabbi Slifkin’s posts are a source of agmas nefesh to me. He consistently mischaracterizes the position of the Chareidi Jews in Israel and does everything in his power to portray them in a bad light. And while anti-Semitism is nothing new, it is particularly upsetting when it comes from within. In view of the current events in Israel, I decided to write something in defense of acheinu beis yisrael.

In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin bemoans a “disturbing anti-rationalist approach that is spreading in the current war”. He explains that there is an “extreme but pervasive anti-rationalist approach, which I was taught in yeshivah, that physical endeavor is of no real significance. Instead, it is simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate” and that “Following this approach, Iron Dome and the IDF soldiers are not really doing anything; it is just a charade that we have to go through - and which some people lose their lives for.”

He then goes on to revisit an old post quoting Dr. Martin Gordon’s critical comments of Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s approach to the concept of bitachon, ostensibly for the purpose of accounting for the “disturbing anti-rationalist approach” that the IDF is “not really doing anything”.

Before commenting on Rabbi Slifkin’s remarks, I’d like to note that we responded to Rabbi Slifkin’s initial post (April 2012) with a post of our own delineating, in part, Gordon’s erroneous assessment of the material in the Michtav.  

As far as Rabbi Slifkin’s comments, they amount to a gross oversimplification of the topic at hand. Yes, the IDF is preforming a necessary and indispensable task. Yes, we, all of us, all Jews throughout the world, owe them a debt of gratitude. Yes, we should pray for their welfare. And yet, what Rabbi Slifkin was taught in Yeshiva is entirely correct and is entirely consistent with the notions stated above. Amazingly enough, Rabbi Slifkin writes the very words that reconcile this whole dilemma yet he fails to see the resolution. He writes: “Instead, it is simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate”.

Hashem is the one who administrates the affairs of mankind. Every frum Jew accepts this principle. Hashem is the one that grants success to the soldiers. Every frum Jew understands this. But Hashem only grants success to those who make an hishtadlus. If there was no IDF, there is nothing to grant success to!

So yes, the IDF is really not “doing” anything. It is Hashem who is doing everything. But that doesn't mean that their endeavors are not necessary or that they do not possess significance.

When Shaul fell in battle against the Philistines, Dovid HaMelech delivered a eulogy. The first words that came out of his mouth were: “To teach the sons of Judah how to shoot a bow and arrow”! We need soldiers who are trained in the art of warfare. We need the “sons of Judah” to protect their people from surrounding nations. This is obvious! When Dovid went to war, he didn't wade into battle with a Tehilim under his arms. He engaged the enemy with a battle mace! And he was exceedingly efficient at his task. He leapt into action and killed 800 men in one fell swoop. 

But did Dovid attribute his success to his physical strength? Did he attribute it to his cunning mind? Did he attribute it to fearless nature? Did he attribute it to his strategic battle tactics? Oh no. Here’s what Dovid actually said: “For with You I attack a troop of soldiers, with your Name I leap over a wall”! Dovid attributed everything to Hashem. Not because he was practicing fake anava, chs’v. Rather, it is because he understood that everything that he possessed, everything that he was, everything that he accomplished was solely due to Hashem’s assistance. Ultimately it is Hashem who guides everything.

If some of the Chareidim in Israel speak disparagingly about the IDF, it is because unfortunately there is a war of ideology between the secular Army and the Religious right. Both sides speak disparagingly about each other.This is a fact of life in Israel. But this doesn't mean that the “Chareidi view” is that we don’t need an army or that the efforts of the IDF are insignificant.

Rabbi Slifkin is attempting to drive yet another wedge between the Chareidim and the rest of klal yisrael. My sincerest tefila is that his efforts meet with unmitigated failure.                        

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gaonim and the Ban on Talmudic Medicine

In his post on a cure using the skin of a hyena (Yoma 84a), R. Slifkin returns to his well-used quote of Rav Sherira Gaon:
We must inform you that our Sages were not physicians. They may mention medical matters which they noticed here and there in their time, but these are not meant to be a mitzvah. Therefore you should not rely on these cures and you should not practice them at all unless each item has been carefully investigated by medical experts who are certain that this procedure will do no harm and will cause no danger. This is what our ancestors have taught us, that none of these cures should be practiced, unless it is a known remedy and the one who uses it knows that it can cause no harm.
R. Slikin then writes:
A similar statement can be found in the famous treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and it was also endorsed as a legitimate (albeit minority) view by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. These views were also cited by my own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l. 
On the other hand, according to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, this remedy was certainly effective, at least in Chazal's time and place. Rabbi Meiselman claims that Rav Sherira Gaon just meant that we do not know how to apply Chazal's remedies, that the treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery, that Rav Shlomo Zalman was writing off-the-cuff and should not be taken too seriously (pp. 101-2), and that Rav Carmell was a proponent of heresy!
Never mind that Rabbi Meiselman, Shlita, does not discuss Rabbi Carmell zt”l. Nor does he say that Rav Shlomo Zalman should not be taken seriously. He also does not say that the maamar on aggados of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery (more on this below). A little bit of precision would be helpful.

Post-chareidi inventions

The post-chareidi phenomenon discussed on this blog involves the invention of radical new theologies that are then justified with the claim that they are compatible with classic Jewish thought.

As Rabbi Meiselman has pointed out, one method used by the new literature is the superficial citation of isolated passages from Chazal and the classic commentaries. “This projects a false image of what authentic Torah analysis is about and obfuscates the views that are actually presented in these sources. One must always remember that a single statement must be understood within the context of an author’s entire work.  No statement exists in isolation.”
Another methodology is to seek out convenient singular or minority opinions and weave them together, thereby creating a new Torah that is radically different from the one that has been passed down from generation to generation. 
More insidiously, in their anxiousness to show that the Torah can accommodate any theory emerging from the hallowed halls of academia, contemporary writers often find it necessary to dismiss statements of Chazal as nothing more than reflections of the primitive, outmoded conceptions of their time. If Chazal had no special insight into the material world, their views on realia obviously have no binding authority.

Medical quote from Rav Hai Gaon

As a case in point, consider R. Slifkin’s earlier quote attributed to Rav Sherira Gaon. The quote does say that Chazal’s medical knowledge was not derived from Torah shebe’al peh (“they are not matters of mitzvah”) but from contemporary practice that “they saw in their day”. This is the same stance taken by the Rashba, a staunch defender of Chazal’s authority in all other areas. Although the medical remedies in the Talmud are not to be followed, Rav Sherira (contra R. Slifkin’s constant refrain that Chazal were prone to error in realia) nowhere hints that Chazal were mistaken. Nor does he say that Chazal did not know mathematics, astronomy, or the other natural sciences.

We now turn to the responsum of Rav Hai Gaon – the son of Rav Sherira and his collaborator. Rav Hai Gaon was asked to explain a piece of Gemora containing medical advice (a passage in Brachos). He writes:
[The Braisa teaches:] Six things heal the sick. 
[You asked:] How do they heal and what is the explanation of each term? To begin with you must know that today's remedies are not like those of earlier times, for there are a number of things that the earlier generations knew about what lies in this food that we do not know today. Furthermore, one may not rely on those remedies today because we do not know how they were to be applied. In addition, there is no single remedy that heals all illnesses; rather, each one has the power to heal one type of malady. [1]
The explanation given by Rav Hai for the prohibition against using Chazal's remedies is precisely the one offered in subsequent generations (e.g. the Maharil) – that we do not know how to apply them properly.

Chazal knew more than we do, not less

Even more significant, the Gaon begins his response by telling us that the problem is not that Chazal were ignorant of things that we now know, but precisely the reverse - that they knew things about the powers of the various plant and animal products that we do not know!

The Parma text attributed to Rav Sherira Gaon

Rabbi Meiselman points out (Ch. 16) that, to date, four fragments (mostly from the Cairo Geniza) have been found that have been associated with this responsum, one in Oxford, two in Cambridge and the remaining one in the Palatine Library of Parma, Italy.

The first three do not contain R. Slifkin’s quote. The first three contain various portions of Rav Sherira’s Arabic explanations of the difficult Talmudic terms. One of the Cambridge manuscripts also contains the text of the inquiry, while the Oxford manuscript contains Rav Sherira’s concluding remarks. These three manuscripts all overlap to some extent and are therefore undoubtedly part of Rav Sherira’s responsum. Not one of them contains the discussion of the prohibition against using Talmudic medicine. In fact, the Cambridge manuscript containing the inquiry skips directly from there to the explanations of terms.

The Parma manuscript, conversely, contains no part of the linguistic section. It begins with the inquiry, as in the Cambridge text, and then proceeds with the discussion of why we may no longer rely on Chazal’s remedies.

Since these manuscripts were first discovered, successive generations of researchers have all assumed they belong to a single responsum and that the discussion in the Parma manuscript was originally the preamble to Rav Sherira’s response. Although there are a number of serious difficulties with this view, since it is the one that most scholars have adopted over the years Rabbi Meiselman proceeds on the assumption that it is correct. 

(However, R. Tuvia Katzman of Machon HaTalmud notes, in a soon to be published article, that the identification of the Parma ms. as part of Rav Sherira’s responsum is based upon a single piece of evidence – the congruence of the inquiry in this ms. with that in T-S G2.49 (Cambridge). Against this he cites three pieces of strong counter-evidence including the fact that it appears to be diametrically opposed to the reason given in his son, Rav Hai’s responsum – that Chazal knew more than we do and that we are ignorant of how to apply the remedies. See footnote 140 on p220 for the details.

On the assumption that the Parma manuscript is Rav Sherira, it is unlikely that Rav Sherira and his son would have held diametrically opposed opinions on such a fundamental issue. Therefore if the attribution of the Parma text to Rav Sherira is to be accepted, it is reasonable to interpret it in light of Rav Hai’s statement. As we mentioned earlier, nowhere does Rav Sherira say that Chazal were mistaken.)

[It was standardly taught in medical schools that stomach ulcers was from too much stress or the wrong kind of food. In the 1980s, Dr. Robin Warren hypothesized that some stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium and could be treated with anti-biotics. For this, Dr. Warren was savagely ridiculed, and called a crackpot by the scientific and medical community and his papers were rejected in the relevant conferences. In 2005, he and his collaborator were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and millions of sufferers have been helped. This is a helpful story to keep in mind before ridiculing the medical advice mentioned in the Talmud and at the same time a step towards becoming an informed consumer of science.]

Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam

 Rav Meiselman’s book contains a detailed analysis of the sources of the maamar odos derashos Chazal of Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. The appendix to the book contains a painstaking analysis by Rabbi Gavriel Rubin (a friend from Ohr Sameach days).

Rabbi Meiselman does not say (contra R. Slifkin) that “the treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery”. What he does say is that there is a single manuscript of the original Arabic that has been discovered in the Cairo Genizah. The original Arabic fragment does not discuss the controversial quotes used by R. Slifkin which has the discussion of Chazal’s knowledge of science (p.90). 

Sometime before the 15th century, the original Arabic (possibly a part of HaMaspik leOvdei Hashem) was translated into Hebrew. We do not have the original Hebrew translation and we do not have much information about the copyists.  One of the manuscripts  may  have been written by Eilberg (or Eilenberg) in the mid 16th century. This manuscript is unusable because the author makes radical changes and inserts his own comments at will. Another manuscript (from Oxford) was included in the Vilna edition of the 1877 Eyn Yaakov. Certain places in the Oxford and Paris copies bear no relation to the Arabic manuscript.

Rabbi Vidal HaTzrtfati (1540-1690) reports having seen the Arabic version of the ma’amar and gives an extensive synopsis of it. The synopsis is consistent with the Arabic text discovered in the Cairo Geniza, which, of course, does not have the controversial section. In fact, the second, fourth and fifth parts of the ma’amar form a complete unit. The third controversial section (which is also not in the Arabic) is not essential to the flow of the ma’amar (p93).

Deviating from the Rambam

We therefore cannot rule out the possibility that controversial quote in the third section of the ma’amar is a later interpolation. R. Reuven Margoliot has observed that the author of the ma’amar’s text is different from that of the Rambam.
According to the Rambam the passage in Pesachim concludes: Venitzchu chachmei umos ha'olam - "And the wise men of the nations of the world were victorious."  This variant is shared by a number of Rishonim, including Rabbeinu Tam (c. 1100-1171) as quoted by the Rosh. 

The author of the Ma'amar, by contrast, makes much of the fact that Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi did not rule definitively in accordance with the Chachmei Umos HaOlam. He takes it as a sign of Rebbi Yehudah's integrity that he did not give their view any stronger endorsement than the evidence warranted.  The version of the text he quotes is the same as what is found in the familiar Vilna edition, according to which Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi merely says that their view seems more likely. 

It would be very surprising if Rabbeinu Avraham knew of both variants the Gemora yet chose to ignore the one cited by his father and base an argument specifically upon the alternative. Hence if one wishes to maintain that Rabbeinu Avraham is the author of this section one must conjecture that he did not even know of his father's text, which would be very strange indeed. (p109)
Even if this issue can be resolved, there are other problems with the Hebrew copy of the ma’maar.

Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam was a staunch supported and defender of his father. We thus almost never find him disagreeing with his father’s halachik rulings, and certainly not in fundamental principles. However, this does happen in the controversial quote. For example, the ma’amar cites a passage from Chulin (124a) in support of the superiority of rational argument even over prophetic tradition. 
In this passage an Amora makes an assertion, to which his colleague replies, “I swear that even if Yehoshua bin Nun said it, I would not listen to him.” The context is a halachic debate involving the laws of purity. As the author interprets it, the implication is that when logic is involved, there can be no appeal to authority - even in matters of halachah! 
In other words, if I am not convinced logically, I must not accept any one else’s word, even if he belongs to an earlier period - even if he is Moshe Rabbeinu’s protégé and successor Yehoshua bin Nun.

The Rambam was not oblivious to this passage. In his Peirush HaMishnayos he explains it to mean that prophecy plays no role in establishing the halachah. Hence it is a statement about the halachic process in specific, not about the establishment of truths in general. 

In fact, in an epistle to the people of Marseilles (Montpelier) on the topic of astrology the Rambam identifies three legitimate grounds for believing a proposition: 1) logical demonstration; 2) the evidence of the senses; and 3) receipt from an accepted authority such as a Navi or tzaddik.
From this encapsulation it is clear that the Rambam, in contrast to the author of the Ma'amar, does consider receipt from an authoritative personality as valid grounds for belief.  This disagreement, compounded by their divergent interpretations of the Gemora, certainly calls into question the ascription of this discussion to Rabbeinu Avraham. (p112-113)
The radical position advocated in this part of the Ma'amar is not even hinted at in any of Rabbeinu Avraham's other writings. Moreover, it is at odds with the Rambam's positions in numerous respects. Either of these would be sufficient grounds for doubting its authenticity. It was the espousing of a similar position by Azariah de Rossi that prompted Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575) - the Beis Yosef - to take the extreme measure of ordering his books burnt.
The integrity of the text and the faithfulness of the translation has to be examined critically  before it can be accepted. Rabbi Meiselman’s book is ground breaking in this regard, and hopefully more critical analysis will be undertaken. We refer the reader to the book for the full details, as we only mentioned some of the points given that this is a blog post.


In light of all these doubts on the controversial third section of the ma’amar, it does not seem likely that it was written  by Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (the major part of the ma’aamar, though, might be imprecise copies of an original Arabic). It is  unsound for R. Slifkin to base his revolutionary new approach to Torah upon this controversial sub-section of the ma’aamr.

Likewise, the medical quote attributed to Rav Sherira Gaon can be understood in the light of his son Rav Hai Gaon’s statement that “for there are a number of things that the earlier generations knew about what lies in this food that we do not know today. Furthermore, one may not rely on those remedies today because we do not know how they were to be applied.”
No one suggests that Chazal were simply mistaken. In fact, it appears from the Maharshal and the Maharil that to make such a suggestion would be called mocking the words of the Chachamim, an offense with the most serious of consequences. In short, there is nothing in the teshuvos of the Geonim to justify the propounding of a radical new philosophy concerning Chazal’s knowledge of the world. (p233)
According to Rav Hai Gaon, how did Chazal know of remedies that we do not know? Perhaps, Chazal had a deeper understanding of the physical world based on their knowledge of Torah. There is an important passage in Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s Hamaspik leOvdei Hashem:
People can be divided into three groups. ... The second group consists of those possessed of insight, understanding, depth of thought and contemplativeness, who have delved into the various wisdoms and arrived at an understanding of the impetuses and causal factors of each and every phenomenon. 

Some of them even attained an understanding of the Cause of Causes - that is, HaShem, may He be exalted and praised - establishing their belief system upon the relationships between the various causal factors one to another. These are the nonreligious scholars and savants, such as the Greek philosophers and their followers. Even those individuals, however, were incapable of understanding the truth in its entirety, but came to the conclusion that HaShem, may He be exalted, never alters any natural process, nor does He introduce any cause from outside of the causal nexus.. 

By contrast, observers of religion, who understand the principle of the Torah, contemplate the secondary (i. e. natural) causes and reflect upon them in the same manner as the second group, comprised of the enlightened and scholars of nature, and do not fall short of them in attainment. On the contrary! They understand everything that the scholars of nature do and receive their respect and honor. But HaShem has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers,  giving them indications and proofs of that which the philosophers denied regarding His knowledge of particular things, His observance of the circumstances of human beings and His special providence.
The wording of the phrase in italics is ambiguous. One might argue that Chazal received from the Torah only their awareness of hashgachah pratis - Divine providence - while their knowledge of “secondary causes” was obtained from other sources.

“A more natural interpretation of the phrase in italics seems to be that Chazal derived from the Torah everything known to the non-Jewish scholars, plus additional wisdom not possessed by them. It follows from this that wherever there is disagreement between the two forms of wisdom, Chazal’s must be presumed superior because of its Divine source”. (p90)


1. ברכות מד ע"ב: תניא, ששה דברים מרפאין את החולה מחליו ורפואתן רפואה. ואלו הן, כרוב ותרדין ומי סיסין, דבש וקיבה והרת ויותרת הכבד.
 זכרון לראשונים וגם לאחרונים חלק א סי' שצד (ראה גם אוצר הגאונים לברכות מד ע"ב): ששה דברים מרפאין את החולה. כיצד מרפאין ופירוש כל חדא וחדא. תחלה דע כי לא כענין רפואות שהיו הראשונים עושין רפואות שלעכשיו. ויש כמה דברים שהיו הראשונים יודעים שיש במאכל זה שאין יודעין אותו עכשיו. ואין לסמוך עכשיו על אותן רפואות לפי שאין אנו יודעין היאך רפואה בהן. ועוד, אין לך דבר מיוחד מרפא לכל חלי אלא כל אחד יש בו רפואה לדבר אחד.