Friday, January 18, 2013

Lice redux: don't debate your critics


There is a fascinating exchange between R. Slifkin and Dr. Betech at "rationalist" Judaism. In the immediately preceding post to this one, Dr. Betech addresses the issue of lice (Mesechta Shabbos). This is one of R. Slifkin's classical "proofs" that Chazal are prone to scientific errors. Here is R. Slifkin's response to Dr. Betech's novel response (link):



Blogger Natan Slifkin said... January 18, 2013 at 9:07 AM
Greetings Dr. Betech! Thank you for giving us a free extract from your book. However, if you were to have read the post that you just commented upon, you would have seen that I refuted your approach on numerous grounds. It's a pity that you didn't read my book before preparing yours. .......


I have read R. Slifkin's book and am not aware of where he has refuted Dr. Betech's approach (which is novel so far as I can see).  I think his approach merits further discussion. Hence:


Blogger Dr. Isaac Betech said...  January 18, 2013 at 9:28 AM
BH
Dear Natan,
You wrote:
However, if you were to have read the post that you just commented upon, you would have seen that I refuted your approach on numerous grounds.

IB:
Lets go one by one. Please select one of your refutations to my approach, and will analyze it BH.

Blogger Natan Slifkin said... January 18, 2013 at 9:45 AM
Sorry, I'm not falling into this trap again. Everything is spelled out in my post. You are welcome to prepare a comprehensive response, and post a link to it.


Don't debate. Don't debate shavan and arneves. Don't debate the so called facts of evolution.  Don't debate the rakia supposedly a solid dome. Don't debate the issue of lice. Not very rationalist. 

It is my sincere hope that R. Slifkin will engage in vigorous defense of his claim that he has already refuted Dr. Betech's approach to the sugya of kinnim. He can do this by presenting one of his refutations, perhaps starting with what he considers his strongest point.

Addendum: On p351 of Sacred Monsters, R. Slifkin discusses (and rejects) an approach based on the fact that larvae require a human host to develop and it can thus be said that the lice are generated from there (see his footnote 14). However, Dr. Betech's approach goes beyond that. Dr. Betech's post starts with the following biological fact that the blood-sucking lice are regarded by entomologists as being the most parasitic of all insects.  This would explain why Chazal select the louse as the exemplar for the halacha that lice are not para verava like the eilim in the mishkan whereas fleas, for example, are para verava (see Keren Orah to Shabbos 107b for the pashtus of the gemora). If one is a proponent of spontaneous generation one is forced to learn the gemora not according to its simple meaning as both lice and fleas are spontaneously generated. At any rate there are sufficient issues here to re-open and debate the sugya.

27 comments:

  1. I'm not sure why a debate is necessary. Dr. Betech offers an approach. R. Slifkin offers what he purports to be a written refutation of Dr. Betech's approach.

    Now it is up to Dr. Betech to respond to Slifkin's critique, if he feels that he has an adequate defense.

    Let's not get bogged down again in a debate about debates. This reminds me of Dr. Betch's insistence on revealing his disproof of evolution only in a debate format, but refuses to simply lay it out.

    Enough already.

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  2. Nachum. Shalom aleichem. Neither I, nor Dr. Betech have been able to spot this "refutation" you mention. R. Slifkin is welcome to put it up somewhere and show how it does the job of refuting.

    So I agree. Let's not get bogged down into a debate about debates. Dr. Betech has introduced a novel interpretation of kinnim in Mesechta Shabbos based on some facts about the biology of lice that are new to me. R. Slifkin can start by quoting the second paragraph in Dr. Betech's post (see the pdf) and he can then show where and how he has refuted it. That would be the way to avoid getting into debates about debates.

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  3. A novel interpretation? You mean, it is going against all the Rishonim and Acharonim? Doesn't this mean that Rav Slifkin has the upper hand, since he explains the Gemara in the same way as all the Rishonim and Acharonim?

    By the way, Rav Slifkin already mentioned this "novel interpretation" in his book/post, after which he presented four refutations of it. So I think that the ball is in Dr. Betech's court.

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  5. 1. You are going against all the Rishonim and Acharonim to try to defend a made-up position that Chazal never erred in science. That is a classic case of מכחיש מגידיה.
    2. Your interpretation does not fit in with the words of the Gemara
    3. You must still admit that the Rishonim did not know of your interpretation and were wrong scientifically
    4. You do not specify whether the lice of today are the same as the lice of the Gemara. Assuming that you are talking about Pediculus humanus humanus, they lay their eggs on clothing and not on the host body itself, so your science is also faulty.
    5. You don't even begin to address the other cases of spontaneous generation which Chazal believed in. Your explanation will not work for mud-mice.
    I don't expect any kind of serious answer from you, because zealots often seem to suffer from timtum halev. But I will check back anyway, in the hope that perhaps you are actually interested in reasoned argument (as you claim).

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  6. Rabbi Sedley. Shalom Aleichem. The issue in this post is whether R. Slifkin has refuted Dr. Betech's approach to the sugya of kinnim. Dr. Betech's post starts with the following biological fact that the blood-sucking lice are regarded by entomologists as being the most parasitic of all insects. Now where does R. Slifkin's book deal with this approach, i.e. on what page number in his book does R. Sliflkin mention an approach based on this biological fact (and the other biological data mentioned by Dr. Betech)?

    Does this approach fit the words of the Gemara? This is a reasonable question. How about taking this up with Dr. Betech (in the comment fields to the post just before this one).

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  7. Rabbi Slifkin deals with matters of Torah and science. Dr. Betech's approach seems to be neither. Furthermore, it may also be heretical. Since the name of this post is "Don't Debate Your Critics" it is ironic that you don't attempt to provide answers, but simply insist that Rabbi Slifkin has some kind of obligation to answer every nudnik explicitly (Dr. Betech may not be a nudnik, but he has a lot of explaining to do to show why not). Halachically there is only a requirement to answer someone who has a valid claim.
    And unless it is simply timtum halev, I can't understand how you don't see the answers to Dr Betech in Rabbi Slifkin's book and words. Rabbi Slifkin insists on remaining faithful to Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim. Anyone who does not believe in those basic principles has been refuted by Rabbi Slifkin.

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  8. YSO, why didn't you respond to my points? Don't you debate your critics?

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  9. R. Sedley, you write (and removing the ad hominems of timtum halev, heresy etc.) that we don't see the answers to Dr. Betech's approach in R. Slifkin's books . This is correct we don't.

    If I may repeat my earlier comment to you. Dr. Betech's post starts with the following biological fact that the blood-sucking lice are regarded by entomologists as being the most parasitic of all insects. Now where does R. Slifkin's book deal with this approach, i.e. on what page number in his book does R. Sliflkin mention an approach based on this biological fact (and the other biological data mentioned by Dr. Betech)? Page number please!

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  10. Yissocher, you write "YSO, why didn't you respond to my points? Don't you debate your critics?"

    I have debated R. Slifkin in all sorts of forums and am open to any future debates. But a combox is mostly not the place for an orderly debate. The way I see it is that I post my article and then I open it for comments to allow others to have their say. I feel no obligation whatsoever to answer each comment. I answer those comments that tickle my fancy and for which I have time to respond. Anonymous comments that are off-topic are quite low on the totem pole.

    You write: "A novel interpretation? You mean, it is going against all the Rishonim and Acharonim?"

    Although your question is somewhat off-topic (the topic is R. Slifkin's incorrect claim) your question is nevertheless important. We follow the consensus of Chazal in the Talmud and we do not change the halacha, based on Chazal's mesora, on account of investigations conducted by the philosophers and scientists of other nations. But what about the p'sak of the Rishonim? True, the general rule is that we follow the majority p'sak of the Rishonim. But we have another klal that הלכה כבתרא. This is a big sugya in the commentaries beyond the scope of a combox and even beyond the scope of a blogpost. Should you want to follow up please contact me and we can discuss offline.

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  11. comments that are off-topic are quite low on the totem pole.

    My comment was not off-topic in the least. You are claiming that R. Slifkin incorrectly claims to have refuted Betech's theory. I pointed out that your words themselves support one of R. Slifkin's objections. Namely, that since Betech's approach is novel, and does not have a shred of support from the Rishonim or Acharonim, this puts it on very shaky ground. (This has nothing to do with הלכה כבתרא. We are not talking about paskening halachah; we are talking about the meaning of words in the Gemara. On what grounds does Betech claim that he knows the meaning of the Gemara better than all the Rishonim and Acharonim?)

    If I may respond on Rabbi Sedley's behalf to the question that you posed to him: I don't know the exact page number on which R. Slifkin mentions Dr. Betech's approach, but he has cut-and-pasted it into his blog post. It appears immediately before he presents four powerful objections to it, in the sentence beginning "An alternate claim..." For some reason, you and Betech are the only people who can't see that R. Slifkin is aware of Betech's approach and has presented four objections to it.

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  12. Yissachar, how do you know that הלכה כבתרא is not relevant. Did you contact me to obtain the sources and discuss? I mentioned that it is a complex sugya. if you really want to stay on topic you will provide the page number in R. Slifkin's book where he discusses an approach based on the blood-sucking lice being the most parasitic of all insects. Page number please?

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  13. I know that it is not relevant, because I know the sugya of הלכה כבתראי. If you are making the astounding claim that הלכה כבתראי permits one to say that all the Rishonim and Acharonim failed to understand the Gemara, then it is up to you to back that up.

    I also know that, when you believed that there is no support in the Rishonim and Acharonim for evolution, you did not say that it's okay to present a completely new interpretation because הלכה כבתראי!

    Anyway, I am fascinated by your apparent acknowledgment that, with regard to the meaning of the Gemara, Betech is arguing with all the Rishonim, whereas R. Slifkin is agreeing with all the Rishonim. That clearly puts R. Slifkin in a much stronger position than Dr Betech.

    As for your insistence on the page number - I don't get it. You have the actual text of the relevant part of R. Slifkin's book on the computer in front of you, why does it matter what page number it is on? It looks like you are just stalling.

    The bottom line is that your claim that R. Slifkin did not address Dr. Betech's novel theory is absurd. He quoted the theory, in his book and on his blog, and presented four objections to it. You might not agree with his objections, but how can you claim that they don't exist?! The longer it takes you to admit that your claim was absurd, the worse you look.

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  14. Yissachar, I specifically stated that a combox is not the place to discuss the complex topic of הלכה כבתראי. You put all sorts of statements in my mouth that I did not say. Please refrain from doing so. What I am saying is contact me offline for the sources and we can discuss it further.

    Instead of accusations of "absurd" and the like, how about answering my simple request directly on the topic of this post. Here it is again. Please provide the page number in R. Slifkin's book where he discusses an approach based on the blood-sucking lice being the most parasitic of all insects?

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  15. Not an ad-hominem attack. I'll say it slowly. Dr Betech's approach is (in my opinion - unless he can bring some evidence to the contrary) heretical, in that it goes against the accepted masorah of understanding the Gemara. Rabbi Slifkin does not have to answer questions which are heretical.
    Dr Betech's approach is not scientific. He chose to not include any of his footnotes. Without them, there is no evidence that what he is saying is correct. If it is not correct, Rabbi Slifkin should not answer it.
    In short, has Dr Betech made a case which requires an answer? No.
    Did Rabbi Slifkin give one anyway? Yes (though you are unable to see it. My only explanation for that is timtum halev, which may be ad hominem, but is also my attempt at limud zechut).
    I don't expect you to understand what I have written. (Timtum halev?). But I still feel the need to defend the Torah of Ravina and Rav Ashi against your arguments which attempt to pervert it. Hopefully anyone else who reads this blog will understand that this is not Torah, and certainly not Judaism.

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  16. Jonathan Ostroff: I see from your updated post that despite your repeated asking for the page number on which Rabbi Slifkin addresses Betech's theory, you are well aware of it. Which makes it all the more bizarre that you keep demanding to know which page it is on.

    Anyway, you seem to think that because R. Slifkin addressed the theory about lice being parasitic, whereas Betech wrote about lice being the mostparasitic, that this somehow means that R. Slifkin did not address Betech's theory.

    However, all of R. Slifkin's objections apply equally to both.

    You and Betech are apparently the only people who fail to see that.

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  17. I specifically stated that a combox is not the place to discuss the complex topic of הלכה כבתראי.

    Why not? If you issue the staggering claim that this concept allows one to categorically reject the universal mesorah of what Chazal were talking about - something that Rabbi Sedley describes as heresy - then I think that you have an obligation to publicly back this claim up.

    It's ironic that in a post attacking R. Slifkin for allegedly failing to debate his critics, you do exactly that! Kol haposel...

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  18. Yissocher writes: "I see from your updated post that despite your repeated asking for the page number on which Rabbi Slifkin addresses Betech's theory, you are well aware of it. Which makes it all the more bizarre that you keep demanding to know which page it is on.'

    I provided a page number in the addendum because you did not seem to be able to do so; nevertheless, you were sure that a refutation exists. But, as I explain in the addendum, only a superficial reading of that that page in R. Slifkin's book would make you think that Dr. Betech's approach has already been refuted. This also illustrates why a combox is not always the place to deal with complex sugyas. We need a venue with a little more focus and depth which will give use the time to analyze and appreciate the issues.

    To address the comment by R. Sedley. If I understand it correctly, you and R. Slifkin believe that Chazal are prone to error. In that case it is ironic that you claim to be the defender of Ravina and Rav Ashi.

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  19. B"H
    Dear Nachum:
    You wrote:
    Now it is up to Dr. Betech to respond to Slifkin's critique, if he feels that he has an adequate defense.

    IB:
    Last night I published a response in this blogspost and also posted a link to it in "Rationalist Judaism".
    I will welcome any comprehensive response by NS or anyone else.

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  20. B"H
    Dear Yissacher.
    You wrote:
    By the way, Rav Slifkin already mentioned this "novel interpretation" in his book/post, after which he presented four refutations of it. So I think that the ball is in Dr. Betech's court.

    IB:
    Last night I published a response in this blogspost and also posted a link to it in "Rationalist Judaism".
    I will welcome any comprehensive response by NS or anyone else.
    So I think that the ball is now in Natan's court.

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  21. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley
    As you see, I finished my very busy long weekend, so I will try B"H to answer your comments each point in one comment.

    You wrote:
    1. You are going against all the Rishonim and Acharonim to try to defend a made-up position that Chazal never erred in science. That is a classic case of מכחיש מגידיה.

    IB:
    Are you trying to say that there is no Rishon or Acharon that wrote that the scientific statements published by Chaza"l were inerrant?

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  22. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    2. Your interpretation does not fit in with the words of the Gemara

    IB:
    Please see my new post.

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  23. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    3. You must still admit that the Rishonim did not know of your interpretation and were wrong scientifically.

    IB:
    They were not wrong.
    Please see my new post.

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  24. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    4. You do not specify whether the lice of today are the same as the lice of the Gemara. Assuming that you are talking about Pediculus humanus humanus, they lay their eggs on clothing and not on the host body itself, so your science is also faulty.

    IB:
    They are the same.
    My "Science is not faulty,"
    The subspecies Pediculus humanus capitis belongs to the same species as the Pediculus humanus humanus, see:
    Light JE, Toups MA, Reed DL. “What's in a name: the taxonomic status of human head and body lice” Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2008;47(3):1203-1216.
    Li W, et al. “Genotyping of Human Lice Suggests Multiple Emergences of Body Lice from Local Head Louse Populations”. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2010;4(3):e641.

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  25. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    5. You don't even begin to address the other cases of spontaneous generation which Chazal believed in. Your explanation will not work for mud-mice.

    IB:
    Please see my new post where I explicitly wrote about the half-flesh mouse.


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  26. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    I don't expect any kind of serious answer from you, because zealots often seem to suffer from timtum halev. But I will check back anyway, in the hope that perhaps you are actually interested in reasoned argument (as you claim).

    IB:
    I am "interested in reasoned argument", waiting for your answers, please one by one.

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  27. B"H
    Dear R. Sedley

    You wrote:
    Dr Betech's approach is not scientific. He chose to not include any of his footnotes. Without them, there is no evidence that what he is saying is correct. If it is not correct, Rabbi Slifkin should not answer it.

    IB:
    I choose to not include footnotes on the extract I published from the forthcoming book, nevertheless, if you challenge with a serious source any of my scientific statements, I will Beli Neder publish the scientific sources that purportedly support my view, as I did above today at 11:56 AM regarding Pediculus humanus subspecies.

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