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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel Shlit'a

Last month Rabbi Slifkin wrote a post criticizing Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel’s position re Science and Torah as expressed in a haskama he wrote for a talmid. Following the link Rabbi Slifkin so graciously provided, I read Rav Wachtfogel’s haskama and for me it was a great chizuk in emunas chachamim. Unsurprisingly, it served as yet another target for Rabbi Slifkin’s ongoing smear-campaign against our gedolei Torah.

For the record, I do not claim to be aligned with every statement Rav Wachtfogel makes in his haskama but I certainly understand the thrust of his message and agree with it wholeheartedly. As such, I’d like to spend a few minutes responding to some of Rabbi Slifkin’s issues with the haskama.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav
Actually, what he claims is that Chazal’s utterances were stated either by Sinaitic tradition or by ruach hakodesh. Ruach Hakodesh is a well known, universally accepted phenomenon in our traditions. Of course, Ruach Hakodesh does not equal infallibility. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was not infallible! (see Rashi, Vayikra 10:20). But the unanimous consensus of our Rishonim and Acharonim is that any statement by Chazal that made it to Talmud Bavli is sacrosanct. This notion has characterized all of the writings of the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim and has served as our derech haTorah since the chasimas haShas 1500 years ago! As Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi explains in Doros Harishonim, it is clear that Hashem granted Rav Ashi an especial measure of siyata di'shmaya (i.e. ruach hakodesh) when composing the Talmud. 

Rabbi Slifkin continues:
Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise.
Really? I think not. Here’s a snippet from the Pirush Hamishnayos L’Harambam that I am fond of quoting on this blog (my translation).

“And this fourth matter, that is, the exegetical sayings found in the Talmud, should not be considered trivial or of little benefit, for they are of enormous benefit in that they encompass within them the most profound allusions and wondrous ideas. When an appropriately deep examination of these sayings is conducted, the absolute good which cannot be surpassed can be gleaned from them. All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…” (Kapach ed. pg. 19)

“And therefore, we must establish the truth of their (Chazal’s) words in our hearts. We must delve deeply into them and not hurry to dismiss a single saying of theirs. Rather, if something is found in their words which seems strange in our eyes, we must orient ourselves in the appropriate [corresponding] disciplines until we understand their meaning in this particular topic, assuming that we are even able to comprehend [their words] in the first place. For even our [latter] sages of blessed memory, despite the fact that they delved exceedingly into their studies, were clear of mind, were appropriately fit for the comprehension of wisdom, attached themselves to great people and entirely detached themselves from material pursuits, [and yet despite all this they] attributed a ‘lacking’ to themselves when comparing themselves to previous generations…so much more so ourselves…how can we not attribute a lacking to ourselves in comparison to them. And since they [the latter sages] knew that all of the words of the sages are well established from every angle, they were very protective of them and enjoined against slandering them and stated ‘whomsoever blandishes the words of the sages is judged in boiling feces’ and there is no worse ‘boiling feces’ than the foolishness that leads one to denigrate [the words of our sages]. And therefore, you will never find one rejecting their words but one who chases after lust, who favors materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever.” (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)

So Rabbi Slifkin, this should clear up your “astonishment” with Rav Wachtfogel’s reference.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).
He doesn't need to. It’s obvious. But here are some examples. The Torah informs us that the universe was created. The Torah informs us that the universe is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Torah informs us that the universe is purposeful. The Torah informs us that there is life after death. The list is endless! Any universal insights garnered by scientists pale in comparison to the monumental significance of the Torah’s teachings about the nature of the universe. Rav Vachtfogel’s message seems clear. As he writes (my loose translation):
Scientists have been searching for information about the nature of the universe for thousands of years and they have still not managed to comprehend the smallest aspect of its phenomena. Whatever they have revealed is insignificant in comparison to the revelations of the Torah.
The revelations of the Torah are absolute. They are categorically true and are inherent to the nature of the universe whereas the revelations of science are transitory at best. Today margarine is healthy, tomorrow it’s not. Today time is constant, tomorrow its not. Today space is linear; tomorrow gravity seems to make it bend. Today the possible velocity of mass through space seems to max out at 300,000 kilometers per second; tomorrow there seem to be quantum events that result in spooky actions at a distance. The point is, science is an enterprise practiced by limited minds. It is mankind’s attempt to discover the truth of the universe. How can that compare to the revelations of the Torah which ARE the truth of the universe?

In any case, I don’t see Rabbi Slifkin’s issue. It’s not like Rav Vachtfogel is the first person to make this argument. Aish HaTorah has been holding countless seminars demonstrating the incredibly accurate descriptions of the universe depicted in the Bible. Why is Rabbi Slifkin picking on the Rosh Yeshiva?

Rabbi Slifkin makes several more comments in his post. Perhaps for another time…  

Evolution and Space Shuttles

Over Yom Tov I had the pleasure of meeting a young man (let’s call him Zev) who follows this blog. After introducing himself he asked me if I was interested in discussing some of my positions on the blog and I agreed. He then began to pose several challenges in rapid succession. I did my best to respond to him in the limited time we had but there was one particular issue which I took special interest in and which I insisted on discussing with him at length. Unfortunately our discussion was cut short so I’d like to revisit it here.

About three years ago I wrote a series of posts on this blog describing what, in my opinion, was most disturbing about Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to science and Torah in general and evolution and ma’aseh bereishis in particular. I argued that accepting the notion that life evolved naturalistically over hundreds of millions of years effectively cripples one’s ability to discern the presence of the Creator from the beriah. Rabbi Slifkin responded that he discerns the presence of the Creator from the fine-tuned laws of nature and I countered by asserting that the denial of patent design in biological nature is logically inconsistent with the claim of patent design in the laws of nature. In short, I accused him of maintaining an incoherent theology. Zev challenged my rejection of “Rabbi Slifkin’s theology” by quoting none other than my very own rebbi, Rav Avigdor Miller!

On page 30 of Rejoice O Youth, Rabbi Miller writes as follows: 
Youth: What is the ray of hope [of convincing evolutionists that the universe cannot be attributed to chance naturalistic mechanisms and therefore clearly testifies to a Designer – sc] of which you speak? 
Sage: The Evolutionists have blinded themselves against the evidence of the organic world. But the inorganic world is full of marvels of plan and purpose which can open one’s eyes to the Truth… 
Rabbi Miller then goes on to discuss physical properties such as the force of gravity, the atmosphere, and rates of evaporation. Although there are an endless number of possible permutations, the physical laws that govern the aforementioned phenomena all cooperate with each other to allow for an infinitely complex, fully functioning world. They are “finely tuned” for our specific universe despite the fact that the probability of them being so conveniently aligned is statistically nil. This is popularly referred to as “the argument for Intelligent Design from the fine-tuning coincidences in the universe” and is endorsed by Rabbi Slifkin in his book The Science of Torah (pp 39-46) and The Challenge (pp 49-57).

Based on the aforementioned quote from Rejoice O Youth, Zev felt that my accusation against Rabbi Slifkin was in conflict with Rabbi Miller’s statement that even if one denies “design” in the phenomena of life, there is still a “ray of hope” that he will discern it from the laws of nature.

The truth is, Zev is in error. Just before this quote, Rabbi Miller writes (Rejoice, ibid):
I fear that even this (the argument from the fine-tuned laws of nature - sc) will be ignored by them. If they have the hardiness to ascribe to accident all which we have discussed hitherto, they are quite impervious to argument. Men who are not biased are powerfully impressed when they are told of an animal which is able to shoot a suffocating stench against its enemies (skunk), or an animal that is able to present javelins against its enemies (porcupine)… If men are so irresponsible as to ascribe to accident these intricately planned devices, then I fear nothing could move them. 
So, any attempt to persuade an avowed evolutionist of design in the universe is most-likely futile. If they are capable of ascribing the intricately planned phenomena of life to chance naturalistic processes, they are equally capable of ascribing the laws of nature to naturalistic processes, as they in fact do. (Stephen Hawkings’s most recent book claims that all of the laws of physics can be accounted for by the presence of the Law of Gravitation. As he writes: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”)

What does Rabbi Miller mean by “a ray of hope”? Nothing. It is a form of speech. He didn’t actually believe that there is any hope that an evolutionist can discern the trappings of design in the phenomena of the universe. Which brings me to the topic of this post.

In a recent post entitled A Breathtaking Endeavor, Rabbi Slifkin writes:    
…upon seeing it [the space shuttle Endeavor], I …feel a powerful emotion of awe…Why was it such an awesome sight?... it was what the shuttle represented… for people my age, the space shuttle was mankind's most glorious technological achievement… The space shuttle is the pinnacle of man's technological prowess, which in turn is the result of his three-pound brain. Which in turn is the single most complex entity in the known universe - the single greatest and most remarkable element of creation. 
In The Challenge Of Creation, I quoted the following from mathematician Morris Kline: 
“A study of mathematics and its contributions to the sciences exposes a deep question. Mathematics is man-made. The concepts, the broad ideas, the logical standards and methods of reasoning... were fashioned by human beings. Yet with the product of his fallible mind, man has surveyed spaces too vast for his imagination to encompass; he has predicted and shown how to control radio waves which none of our senses can perceive; and he has discovered particles too small to be seen with the most powerful microscope... Some explanation of this marvelous power is called for.” 
Who would predict a universe in which the laws of nature are able to produce a being that can figure out a way to leave its home planet? Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis! 
Evolutionists Rabbi Slifkin! Evolutionists claim that the human brain is the end product of biological evolution over hundreds of millions of years. Actually, it's even worse than that. Evolutionists make the astonishing claim that the human brain began as a chimpanzee brain a mere 7 million years ago and evolved naturalistically to encompass mathematical concepts, ideas, logical standards and methods of reasoning! 

Does Rabbi Slifkin believe in Evolution? If so, what stirred him to proclaim Baruch Oseh Maaseh Bereishis when considering the human brain?

What is wrong with Rabbi Slifkin’s theology? The answer is, it makes no sense.   

Monday, July 29, 2013

Is Rav Saadia Gaon’s “wabar” the rabbit?

Dear Readers:

This week we read Parashat Ree where the issue of the shafan is again mentioned.
As you probably know, after the publication of the book “The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan” many blogspots and comments have been published in the Jewish blogosphere.
Now I would like to concentrate only in a specific point.

In the book we have tried to demonstrate that the rabbit is compatible with all the descriptions of the shafan that have been published in the Jewish classic literature, including Ibn Janach and Rishonim.
Rav Saadia Gaon expressed his identification of the shafan very shortly. In our book this issue was elaborated on chapter 5 (d).

In the short Arabic explanation to the Pentateuch (Leviticus 11:5) attributed to Rav Saadia Gaon, who lived over one thousand years ago, [1] we find the word shafan translated to a three (وبر[2] or five (الوبر[3] letter Arabic word, which can be transliterated to “wabar (literally meaning “hair, wool or fur”) or “al-wabar” (“the hair, the wool or the fur”). [4] [5] [6]
This word (وبر) is also the modern common name in certain Arabic countries to describe the hyrax (Procavia capensis).
It is thus understandable that in the last 150 years, some Torah commentators and some researchers have claimed this source as evidence that Rav Saadia Gaon considered the hyrax, and not the rabbit, the Biblical shafan.
However, the results of our extensive research show that there is no conclusive evidence that this necessarily was Rav Saadia’s opinion, for the four reasons explained in the book.

After the book went to press, I found B"H the description of the “wabar” in Tafseer Ibn Katheer (Damascus, Syria 1301-1373) on Surah 103:1 where Ibn Katheer wrote the following two paragraphs:

"O wabar, o wabar! You are only two ears and a chest, and the rest of you is digging and burrowing...''

"And the wabar is a small animal that resembles a cat, and the largest thing on it is its ears and its torso, while the rest of it is ugly." [7]

I think we could use this medieval source -whose description of wabar (“big ears” and "digging and burrowing") seems to match with the rabbit and not with the hyrax- as evidence that when Rav Saadia Gaon translated shafan as "al-wabar" perhaps he was speaking about the rabbit and not the hyrax.

As you remember the source of Ibn Janach -elaborated elsewhere- indicates the same.

Kol Tuv!

[1] Born in Egypt in 882; at the age of about thirty he moved to Israel and Syria, until 921, when he returned to Babylonia, where he remained until his death in 942 CE.  accessed 28/jul/13 accessed on 28/jul/13
[2] ערוך השלם, ד"ר חנוך יהודה קאהוט, חלק רביעי דף נ"ט ערך טפז, בהערה.
[3] פירוש רבינו סעדיה גאון ע"י יוסף קאפח מוסד הרב קוק, ירושלים, תשנ"ד על ויקרא י"א ה' ע' ק"כ
accessed on 16/jul/06
[5]  accessed
on 16/jul/06
[6] Stevenson Thomas B. "Domestication" of hyrax (Procavia capensis), in Yemen. J. EthnobioI. Summer 1990;10(1):23-32.
[7] See Tafsir Ibn Kathir Juz' 30 (part 30): An-Nabaa 1 to An-NAS 6, 2nd edition, London 2009. By Muhammad Saed Abdul-Rahman. Page 221

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Were there Rabbits in Biblical Israel?

(Click here, for a revised version of this post; an earlier version appeared in Dialogue Fall 5774, No. 4)

Could the shafan be the rabbit?

R. Slifkin's answer is no. He concedes that many rishonim understood the shafan to be the rabbit, but summarily dismisses their position. He claims that, as Europeans, the rishonim were unaware of the fauna of the Middle East. On his blog R. Slifkin has written that:

The original study was by Tchernov [2000], who notes that the hare is "the only endemic species of lagomorph known from the Middle East since the Middle Pleistocene".
Lagomorphs include hares, rabbits and pikas. So the study by Tchernov claims that hare remains have been found in the Middle East, but not the remains of rabbits.  On the other hand, R. Slifkin claims that early authorities such as Rav Saadia Gaon (who lived in the Middle East) and Ibn Janach (about 100 years later) identified the shafan as the hyrax.
Traditional sources for identifying the shafan as the the hyrax include Rav Saadia Gaon (882-924CE), Ibn Janach and Tevuos Ha-Aretz. [N. Slifkin, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, p88, 2011, 2nd edition]
R. Slifkin thus concludes that the shafan is the hyrax. Even though the hyrax does not regurgitate its food, the Torah calls it ma'aleh geira because its chewing motion superficially resembles that of ruminants, even though the chewing action is not needed for nutrition. 

This weakened criterion poses a problem as it would apply to other animals not mentioned in the Torah's exhaustive list (e.g. the kangaroo). As a consequence, R. Slifkin is forced to assert that the Torah's list is limited to just those animals in the general region surrounding the land of Israel. This contradicts Chazal's exegesis of the applicable verses in the Torah in which the Almighty (the "Ruler of His World") uniquely identifies the four types possessing a single sign of purity (according to one opinion in the Talmud, there is a 5th species called shesuah).

What is the shafan according to Rav Saadia and Ibn Janach?

Dr. Betech's recent book (here) has raised important challenges to R. Slifkin's thesis. First, R. Slifkin erred when he wrote that Ibn Janach identified the shafan as the hyrax.  This is what Ibn Janach actually wrote:
"And the shafan". It is the wabr, an animal the size of a cat, which is found [only] a little in the East, but is abundant among us. Nevertheless the masses do not know it by that name, but by the name conilio, a Spanish name (for rabbit). [Ibn Janach, Sefer Hashorashim, translated from the Arabic]
R. Slifkin's error is significant. Ibn Janach unambiguously identifies the shafan (Arabic: wabr) as a rabbit. R. Slifkin's response is that Ibn Janach (living in Spain) did not know of the hyrax, but he did know of the rabbit, and that some people called the rabbit by the term wabr, and so he assumed that this was the meaning of R. Saadia's term.

Now, it is possible that the term wabr was used for both the hyrax and the rabbit. But, we also note that Ibn Janach was a Torah authority, a grammarian, and an expert in Arabic.  He lived soon after the times of Rav Saadia Gaon. Was he unaware of the fauna of the Middle East? Apparently not. He writes that the wabr (rabbit) is abundant where he lived (in  Spain) but scarce in the East (where Rav Saadia lived). This matches the rabbit very well, but rules out the hyrax, which is hardly found in Spain. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Truth in Advertising: What is the Yesh Atid Agenda for Educational Reform?

By, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, Rosh HaYeshiva, Darchei Torah
(Posted by Rabbi Korobkin, BAYT, 5 July, 2013, pdf version)

The recent visit of Chaver Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman to Toronto raised a myriad of questions. To many, however, all of these can be reduced to a single question: The positions of Yesh Atid seem so reasonable and so progressive; why is the Chareidi community so blind to its own self-interest? The Chareidi community, rather than vilifying party leader Yair Lapid, should instead embrace him as the leader who will bring the Chareidim to enlightenment, prosperity, and full participation in Israeli society.

This question presumes that the Yesh Atid platform has been correctly presented and that Chaver Knesset Lipman's statements accurately represent the Yesh Atid platform. But is this the case?