Monday, December 6, 2010

Logical Consistency versus Rationality

Pursuant to our most recent blog entry, Rabbi Slifkin took to the comment section to protest what he considers a mischaracterization of his position on our part. In fact, he feels that our description more aptly fits the parameters of this Blog’s own position! This blog entry is dedicated to responding to his claims while simultaneously clarifying both his position and our own.

Rabbi Slifkin maintains that there is sufficient evidence to assume that the world is very old and that life evolved over a period of billions of years. He admits that he is not sure precisely which mechanism could be responsible for such a feat but nonetheless he is convinced that it definitely did happen. Consequently, he is forced to reinterpret the verses in Genesis and reject our universal mesorah. This alone has been a cause of much concern amongst his critics but is not the topic of this blog entry and will thus be overlooked for the time being.

Our most recent accusation against Rabbi Slifkin’s view is that it compromises our ability to utilize a study of the beriah as a means of becoming aware of Hashem’s presence. In response to this accusation, Rabbi Slifkin makes a vigorous counter-argument that is designed not only to defend his position but to simultaneously condemn our position. His argument goes as follows. Since we would admit that one of the fundamental imperatives of Jewish theology is to see Hashem’s hand in the events of our lives and in the events of history, evolution is no different. If evolution did indeed occur, we would simply attribute it to Divine Providence working in the background in exactly the same way we would attribute the events of our lives to Divine Providence. Thus, claims Rabbi Slifkin, by maintaining that evolution compromises our ability to see Hashem, we are in effect countermanding the well-established Jewish principle of Hashgacha.

On the surface his argument might seem compelling but just a little contemplation reveals the fallacy of his position. As explained in the comment section of the aforementioned blog, Rabbi Slifkin is improperly conflating two separate concepts. A study of the beriah is conducted for the purpose of establishing the presence of the Creator whereas the concept of Hashgacha enjoins us to impute the already established reality of a Creator to the daily events of our lives or to historical events, something we would not necessarily have done had we not first established His existence (either from the beriah or from the Torah).

In response to this, Rabbi Slifkin claimed that he too uses the beriah as a means of establishing the presence of the Creator, just not through the phenomena of the universe. Rather, he sees God in the fortuitousness of the laws of nature (e.g. fine-tuning coincidences)

While acknowledging Rabbi Slifkin’s claim, we maintain that such a position is wholly untenable. The phenomena of the universe also require a healthy measure of "fortuitousness", especially life. What principled distinction can Rabbi Slifkin make between fine tuning coincidences (i.e. laws of nature) and random chance mutations of the gene (i.e. evolution)? None. Thus, his claim is self-contradictory and therefore incoherent.

While contemplating all this, I suddenly realized precisely what bothers people about our rejection of Rabbi Slifkin’s view, including perhaps, Rabbi Slifkin himself. Notwithstanding all of our argumentation above, the simple fact remains that there are two possible explanations for life: either it was specially created or it evolved via naturalistic causes. Even if the latter is statistically improbable, so what? Do we really need to make such a big deal of all this? After all, we can still see Hashem in the beriah via our own self-mandated theology (i.e. hashgacha). As such, evolution is consistent with our theology! Who says we have to see Him directly from a study of the beriah??

Personally, I believe our remarks about the importance of seeing Hashem directly from the beriah should convince people of the major theological shortcomings inherent in Rabbi Slifkin’s views but since there seems to be some resistance to this critique, I’d like to approach this from an entirely different angle. Rabbi Slifkin and his chasidim consider themselves "rationalists" and therefore the following argument appeals to the rational element in man.

Consider the following. You are sleeping in the top floor of your home when suddenly you are awakened by the sound of rumbling in the attic. You try and fall back asleep but the rumbling continues. Your wife is also awakened and both of you stare at each other quizzically. She speaks first.

"I think the beavers hanging out in our backyard finally figured out how to make a nest in our attic. There’s been a rash of beaver nests in this neighborhood. We need to call the ASPCA tomorrow. They’ll know how to get rid of them"

Satisfied with her explanation, your wife closes her eyes and tries to get back to sleep. Not to be outdone, you decide to advance a theory of your own.

"That’s not it", you tell your wife. "I think I know what’s going on. Recently, a family of three foot tall green goblins moved into our attic. Occasionally they get bored so they entertain themselves by bowling. The rumbling noises we are hearing tonight is the sound of three foot tall green goblins bowling".

Now, is your explanation illogical? Absolutely not. The noise that three foot tall green goblins would make bowling is logically consistent with the available empirical evidence i.e. the sounds you are hearing. But is it rational? Does it appeal to our native human intellect? I think that anyone reading this would most likely reply in the negative. (If you reply in the positive, this Blog has nothing significant to impart to you and you are wasting your time reading it).

The same applies to Rabbi Slifkin’s view. Yes, it is logically consistent with our theology of hashgacha. But is his view rational? Do we need hashgacha to see Hashem in the phenomena of life? Isn’t life so amazingly complex, so amazingly purposeful? Doesn’t it scream out the presence of a designer no less than the laws of nature Rabbi Slifkin is so fond of quoting? We have a choice. Either we can align the phenomena of life with the theology of hashgacha or we can align it with the theology of ma’aseh bereishis i.e. special creation. The rational choice is clear and thus Rabbi Slifkin’s choice is simply irrational. Since he considers himself a rationalist, it would behoove him to reconsider his views on ma’aseh bereishis.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Those disappearing comments

Some readers complained that their comments were deleted. Actually no comments have been actively deleted (except at the request of the author of those comments). However, when I looked in the blogger spam folder, I did see a number of comments (and I am not sure why blogger flagged them as spam). Those comments have been re-enabled. Any advice on how to train blogger's spam folder to be more discriminating, would be be appreciated. (I'll have to check the spam folder more often :-). My apology to those who have been inconvenienced.

What's Wrong With Rabbi Slifkin's Theology - Part 3

In part one of this series, we explained that by comparing the miracle of Purim to the miracle of Creation, Rabbi Slifkin is improperly conflating Hashem’s role as Creator, i.e. Boreh, with His role as Administrator, i.e. Manhig. The former involves meta-natural processes whereas the latter involves Hashem’s administration via currently operating laws (unless in extreme exceptions). In Part 2 we expanded upon this while drawing a clear distinction between operational science and historical based science. In Part 3, we intend to illustrate what is perhaps the most objectionable element of Rabbi Slifkin’s approaches to ma’aseh Bereishis.

In Hilchos Avodah Zarah, the Rambam discusses the unfolding of Avraham Avinu’s career as the originator of Monotheism. Avraham was born into a world inundated with idol worship. No one (other than a tiny pocket of individuals living in Jerusalem) recognized the true One God. The Rambam writes as follows: (my translation with bracketed words inserted for explanatory purposes)

"As soon as this [spiritual] giant was weaned, his mind began to wander while he was still a young boy, and he thought by day and by night. And he wondered how it could be that the sphere continued to operate without an operator; who would cause it to turn? He had no one to teach him, no one to inform him of anything. Rather, he was steeped amongst the idiotic idol worshipers in Ur Casdim. And his father and mother and the entire nation were serving strange gods and he was amongst them [yet] his mind [continued] to delve and understand until he apprehended the true path and understood the "straight line" from his own correct understanding. And he knew that there was a unique Deity, and He causes the sphere to turn, and He created everything, and there is no other deity in existence other than Him."

The Rambam then goes on to recount Avraham’s history, his ongoing debates with the surrounding nations, and his ultimate achievement in introducing the knowledge of the One True God. It is clear from the Rambam’s presentation that Avraham reached an awareness of Hashem’s presence via empirical observation. This idea is clearly expressed in the following Medrash. (my translation)

"R’ Yitzchok stated: This can be compared to one who travels from place to place and notices a palace which is lit up. ‘Can we possibly say that this palace does not have a master’? The master looks out at him and says ‘I am the master of the palace’. So too, since Abraham was saying (i.e. thinking) ‘is it possible that this world has no master’? Hashem [therefore] looked out at him and said, ‘I am the Master of the world’" (BR 39:1)

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Avraham reached an awareness of Hashem via empirical observation of the phenomena of the world.

Nature was formed via the asara ma’amaros (ten sayings) whereas the Torah was bestowed via the eser dibros (ten forms of speech). Both are manifestations of the Will of the Hashem. Consequently, a concerted study of either one has the inherent ability of leading one back to an awareness of their Source. Until the advent of matan Torah, the primary method of reaching an awareness of the Creator was via a study of nature. Once Moshe descended with the Torah, the study of nature took a back seat, at least temporarily. Matan Torah was such an extraordinary experience it eclipsed any other agent of Divine revelation, even nature itself. This situation obtained for several hundred years until Dovid haMelech re-introduced the study of nature to our nation. Ever since then, we have been using both forms of revelation as a means of gaining awareness of Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda – in his monumental work Chovos Halevavos – states that there are three primary ways of reaching an awareness of Hashem and His laws: 1) Through Torah 2) Through Nature 3) Through Tradition. He explains that although Torah may be superior to Nature, Nature is the surest, most direct method of reaching an awareness of the Creator.

In Slabodka they used to say that there are two batei medrash. There is the beis medrash of Avraham Avinu and the beis medrash of Moshe Rabbeinu. Both are equally valid. And both are equally necessary.

What’s wrong with Rabbi Slifkin’s theology? Simple. His approaches to ma’aseh bereishis have effectively eliminated Nature as a means of gaining an awareness of the Creator. Avraham Avinu’s beis medrash has become entirely irrelevant. How can one gain an awareness of Hashem via a study of nature when said study yields nothing but random chance mutations? If naturalistic explanations suffice to account for the presence of life, what meaning can Dovid haMelech’s enthusiasm in Barchi Nafshi, and countless other kapitlach Tehilim, possibly contain? If the very phenomena he describes can be understood as evolving over billions of years via naturalistic means, how do they possess the ability of demonstrating the greatness of Hashem?

Claiming that a hidden God is somehow causing the evolutionary process to unfold is entirely meaningless. It takes a pre-conceived notion and forces it upon an otherwise rationally acceptable materialistic process. Occam’s razor, which eschews unnecessary assumptions, considers the assumption of such a notion as unreasonable.

The pesukim are clear. We gain an awareness of Hashem’s presence from a study of nature as opposed to insinuating our pre-conceived notion of Hashem’s presence into the study of nature.

Evolution possesses no evidence whatsoever and yet Rabbi Slifkin feels the need to re-interpret the pesukim in order to satisfy a bankrupt theory. This alone is a serious breach of acceptable Torah interpretation. Unfortunately it pales in comparison to the true ramification of his approaches; the undermining of the very foundation of our religion i.e. the clear, unadulterated awareness of our Creator.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

We, The Community Following Moshe Rabbeynu

Rabbi Slifkin once wrote:

Any intelligent discussion concerning Rambam's philosophy and its applicability today has to take into account the fact that Rambam was countering Aristotelianism, and modern science does not fit into his categories. Back then, the options were either that the entire universe and everything in it were created meta-naturally, or that everything always existed as it does today. Ultimately what Rambam was fighting against, and what he defined his ikkarim based upon, was the Aristotelian model. There was no idea of explaining that the universe was created meta-naturally but that things in it developed according to laws of nature, since there was no theory of laws of nature that could explain this. So it's problematic to be medayek in Rambam's words regarding whether such an approach is kosher or not. And whether this is closer to the Aristotelian model or to Rambam's model can be debated.

This, in my humble opinion, is a serious misunderstanding of the Moreh Nevuchim. The Rambam tells us not only that Aristotle's position contradicts our mesorah, but he also tells us what the mesorah actually is:

MN 2:17 (see, note 6, for a compilation of translations of this passage.)

For we, the community following in the footsteps of Moshe Rabbeynu and Avraham Avinu, aleihem hashalom, believe that the world came into being in such-and-such a form, and became such-and-such from such-and-such (haya kach mi-kach), and such was created after such.

What specific, existing Jewish belief of things coming onto being (in full form—as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim 2:30, where he also says that all was created simultaneously, and then one-by-one "set apart") should we suppose he was referring to, when writing of things becoming "such-and-such from such-and-such"? To my mind, it is clear that he meant that part of the belief the Jewish community received from Moshe Rabbeynu is the meta-natural formation of, say, Adam from the adamah, and not from the beheima.

The Rambam (ibid.) immediately continues:

And Aristotle would attempt to topple our words, and would bring against us evidence from the nature of the set, actualized, complete metsius as it acts regularly. But we concede to him that once it was established and reached completeness, it was not one iota similar to what it was at the time of its being generated, and that it was brought into existence after being absolutely absent. What argument in all he says holds up against us? These arguments are indeed compelling against one who claims that the fact that the world’s being mechudash can be proven by the way the world is now, in its permanent nature. But I already let you know that I am not saying this.

The Rambam was not looking for a way to explain how a meta-naturally created world was developed, only resorting to a meta-natural explanation because “there was no idea of explaining that the universe was created meta-naturally but that things in it developed according to laws of nature, since there was no theory of laws of nature that could explain this.” No; the Rambam was presenting the mesorah, which clearly reports that besides the initial creation ex nihilo, there was a maaseh breishis, the further extraction, fashioning and positioning of the world’s components into their mature state; and it is this process to which our refraining from melacha every seventh day testifies. (See Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s piece in his Chumash commentary, where he emphasizes that the fact that the post-maaseh breishis world does not possess the properties to again produce the another world such as ours is the proof that there was a maaseh breishis, and that this is what our refraining from melacha on Shabbos testifies to.) And this is why the focus in the pesukim is not on the creation ex nihilo component, but on the mesorah that “sheyshess yamim assah Hashem ess hashamayyim v’ess ha’aretz.

Most certainly, the Rambam does not choose to reinterpret or distort the mesorah on the grounds that some other explanation seems "more elegant" to his mind. For such arrogant grounds have no relevance to the G-d-given mesorah that it was otherwise.

Of course the Rambam was directly addressing Aristotle's idea of a universe without a beginning. That was the contra-mesorah idea in vogue then, and the Rambam spoke about why it’s important the mesorah teaches us that Aristotle’s is not the way the world came into being.

(And yes, just as the Kuzari, the Rambam reluctantly admitted that Plato’s version escapes the logic-based criticism he designed; and, similar to the Kuzari, he reluctantly admitted that if Plato’s version were absolutely proven, we would have to reinterpret the mesorah so that matter always existed eternally with Hashem[--but note that unlike Aristotle, Plato allows for meta-natural formation of matter into actualities non-existing beforehand, and allows maintaining the 6-day meta-natural process of creation as described by the pesukim]; and if Aristotle’s theory were absolutle proven, we would have to abandon the mesorah altogether, chas v’shalom. He also says that this can never happen. His reason for this applies to accepting evolutionary theory as well.)

But what is important is that the Rambam as well as all our baalei mesorah would consider either move to be a major, radical departure from the mesorah as it had been understood since the days of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeynu. It would mean that until his time, Hashem allowed and fostered, through narrative and commandment, a false idea of a fundamental teaching of the Torah. And no rishon ever suggested this beyond the hypothetical.

And again, what is most important is that Rambam tells us what the Jewish belief about the world's initial development is. He does not need to specifically reject every possible alternative that deniers of the mesorah may ever conceive. To think he did is as unreasonable as saying that by emphasizing that Hashem is one, he was only rejecting dualism, past Greek polytheism and vogue trinity, but had he known of a religion of specifically four gods, or one God of Evil, he may have reconsidered.

Besides, several Greek philosophers did teach forms of evolutionary development as explanations of the world's present condition ( --and you can be sure they also had their theories of laws of nature to "explain" their fantasies.* The Rambam could easily have slapped together some rendition of their evolutionary story of natural forces producing our world with the proviso that there was first an initial Creation, just as Rabbi Slifkin does. The Rambam didn't, and even if it were in vogue would not have. He did not need to specify that such an idea is incompatible with the mesorah, because he held that:

"we, the community following the footsteps of Moshe Rabbeynu and Avraham Avinu, aleihem hashalom, believe that the world came into being in such-and-such a form, and became such-and-such from such-and-such, and such was created after such."


*Evolution is not so much a modern discovery as some of its advocates would have us believe. It made its appearance early in Greek philosophy, and maintained its position, more or less, with the most diverse modifications, and was frequently confused with the idea of emanation, until the close of ancient thought. The Greeks had, it is true, no term exactly equivalent to "evolution"; but when Thales asserts that all things originated [naturally--ZL] from water; when Anaximenes calls air the principle of all things, regarding the subsequent process as a thinning or thickening, they must have considered individual beings and the phenomenal world as, a result of [natural--ZL] evolution, even if they did not carry the process out in detail. Anaximander is often regarded as a precursor of the modern theory of development. He deduces living beings, in a [natural--ZL] gradual development, from moisture under the influence of warmth, and suggests the view that men originated from animals of another sort, since if they had come into existence as human beings, needing fostering care for a long time, they would not have been able to maintain their existence. In Empedocles, as in Epicurus and Lucretius, who follow in His footsteps, there are rudimentary suggestions of the Darwinian theory in its broader sense; and here too, as with Darwin, the mechanical principle comes in; the process is adapted to a certain end by a sort of natural selection, without regarding nature as deliberately forming its results for these ends.

The behavior of Natan Slifkin, a “Rationalist-Jew”! UPDATED

Just a short update, B"H. On November 23th Natan Slifkin published in his own blogspot the following:
“There were a number of interesting people who made it their life's work to argue for the truth of a flat earth - and were considerably successful at it. Reading the account of these events gave me an overwhelming sense of deja vu, due to the overwhelming parallels with the young-earth anti-evolutionists that I have run into on occasion (such as Dr. Isaac Betech).”
By the way, I think that Chazal did not believe that the earth is flat; of course the sources will be presented and discussed in the public debate with Natan Slifkin. Since I do not think there are “overwhelming parallels” between my life's work and the defenders of a flat earth, I tried to publish a short respectful answer in Natan Slifkin’s blogspot, the same forum where I was defamed, but Natan Slifkin decided not to publish it. Is that the proper behavior for a “Rationalist-Jew”?
Update: Rationalist Judaism ( is a moderated blogspot, i.e. Natan Slifkin decides if he publishes a comment or not. NS decided to publish E-Man’s accusation against me (a 2nd time, i.e. November 28, 2010 3:05 PM), but NS refused to publicize my defense to the second accusation… Is that the proper behavior for a “Rationalist-Jew”?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How the Days of Creation Were Understood by Our Sages

Current academia depicts the world as having existed for aeons, rather than merely six millennia, and to man as a creature evolved from others. Although many Torah scholars object that these claims are in contradiction to the teachings of the Mesorah, others have claimed that one can find support among the earlier Torah authorities for accommodating the Torah to academia’s depiction. This essay takes issue with this claim.

It is not implausible that despite one’s endeavors to make a point clear and simple─despite one’s striving to expunge any ambiguities and to prevent any misconstruing of what he means─there will still be some who will construe from [his very words] the very opposite of the point he wished to convey. This has happened even with the words of Hashem Yisborach: He stated that He is One and that there is no other; and, in order to remove from our souls the corrupt ideas believed by the Dualists, clearly stated regarding this point, "Hear O Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One." Yet the Christians use this very verse as a "proof" that the Alm-ghty is a trinity, and they say, "It says, ‘Hashem,’ then ‘our G-d,’ and then, ‘Hashem.’ Behold: these are three Names; and it then says ‘One’─a proof that they are three and the three are One"!

                                               Rambam, introduction to his Ma’amar T’chiyyas HaMeisim


The Rambam wrote the above lines in response to accusations that in his Mishneh Torah he denied the principle of techias ha-meisim, the future resurrection of the dead. Despite his teaching this very concept as a fundamental of Judaism, some took his statements in other contexts to be "hinting" that he "really" did not believe in it. Some attacked him for this phantom position, while others gleefully cited him as an authoritative source for their kefira, their denial of a fundamental doctrine of Judaism. The Rambam reacted pointing out that even the Torah’s clear words cannot escape distortion by those whose agendas contradict the Torah’s intended message.


The Rambam’s words quoted above should come to mind when one is confronted by the strange interpretations people suggest to avoid the clear premise Hashem sets up for us in the Torah─the premise that the world was created in six days.1 Hashem details this in Breishis. He repeats it in Sh’mos 20:11 ("For six days G-d made the Heavens and the Earth"), and again in Sh’mos 31:17 ("Between Me and B’nei Yisrael this will be a sign forever, that in six days Hashem made the Heavens and the Earth..."),2 and Chazal have instituted our referring to this fact every Shabbos and Yom Tov. What could Hashem say to make His intent clearer? Yet despite all this, some suggest that we ignore these clear words in deference to an ever-morphing alternative to Creation.3


Our mesorah insists that the six days of Creation, counting from the first creative act, were six literal days.4 It does not allow one to insert the evolutionary explanation into the p’sukim by claiming that the days were actually billions of years. Even the idea that Creation was anything less than a totally miraculous process, not conducted through natural processes at all, ─accelerated" or otherwise─is rejected by the Maharal (Ba’er HaGolah, p. 83, Ba’er Four):


Know that He, May He be blessed, brought out these creations, all of them, to physical reality during the six days of Breishis by Himself, in His Own Glory─not by means of an agent, meaning Nature. Creation was contrary to the way things are after the conclusion of the six days of Breishis, wherein Hashem Yisborach conducts His world by means of the agent, i.e., Nature."


Indeed, as elaborated upon by the Maharal, if anything bothers Chazal, it is the mesorah attributing the extra steps Hashem took (and time involved) in creating the world through His "ten ma’a’maros (declarations"), instead of creating everything in one "ma’a’mar" (and in one fraction of a second).5


The Age of the Universe

Our ba’alei mesorah have always understood and insisted that the six days of Creation were regular days, not eons, and that the first day of Creation began less than 6,000 years ago. Even kabalistic passages, if taken literally as referring to physical worlds preceding ours, in no way conform to the world’s history as portrayed in academia’s current versions (as of this writing).


Rabbaynu Saadia Gaon (Sefer Emunah V'Dei’os, end of first chapter) is very clear about his understanding of how long the universe has existed:

And the third opinion [is] the opinion of the fools... [who] say, 'How can the intellect accept that the world has existed for only 4,693 years?' And we will answer [in defense of that] that once we accept that the world was created, it is impossible for it not to have had a beginning."


In fact, he states (Emunos V’Dei’os 3:8) that if someone professing to be a prophet suggests that Hashem took a year to create the world, he is a false prophet!


Rabbeynu Yehudah HaLevy, in HaKuzari (Book One) as well, states clearly that Judaism has always considered the world to have been created in six regular days, and has consequently existed merely thousands of years:


(42) The Khazar King: What could be more erroneous, in the opinion of the philosophers, than the belief that the world was created, and that it was created in six days? ...


(43) The Rabbi: ... Our prophet  ... revealed the hidden things, and told how the world was created...and the years of the world from Adam until now.


(44) The Khazar King: It is astounding, too, if you have a clear counting from the creation of the world!


(45) The Rabbi: With it we count, and no Jews exist from Hodu to Cush who contest this.


(46) The Khazar King: And what is your count today?


(47) The Rabbi: 4,500 years....


(60-62) The Khazar King: Does it not weaken thy belief if you are told that the Indians have antiquities and buildings which they consider to be millions of years old?....And what will you say of the philosophers (read: scientists--ZL) who, as a result of their careful researches, agree that the world is without beginning? This is not a matter of tens of thousands of years, nor even millions of years, but of something that has no beginning or end at all!


(63) The Rabbi: The philosophers─we can’t blame them. Being Grecians, they inherited neither wisdom nor Torah....


(64) The Khazar King: Does this obligate us not to rely on Aristotle’s philosophy?


(65-67) The Rabbi: Yes. Since he did not possess a kabbala through the reporting of a person he could trust, he exerted his mind, deliberated about the beginning and end of the world, and found it difficult to envision it [both as] having a beginning as well as it being infinite. However, through his unaided thought processes, he concluded by accepting his logical structures that inclined towards the theory of a world with an infinite past. He did not see fit to ask about the correct count of years from anyone who came before him, nor about the chronology of the human race. Had the philosopher lived among a people possessing widely known traditions, which he would be unable to dismiss, he would have applied himself with his logic to strengthen the viewpoint that the world came about through Creation.

...Heaven forbid that the Torah would contain anything that actual proof or demonstration would be able to contradict! But the Torah does record, in its account of Creation, the occurrence of miracles and different behaviors in nature, and the changing of one thing to another, to demonstrate that the Creator of the world is able to accomplish what He wants, when He wills it. The question of eternity and creation is deep; the arguments would be evenly balanced; but the prophetic tradition of Adam, Noah and Moses resolves the question in favor of Creation. For prophecy is undoubtedly more reliable than conjecture. And if a Torah-person would find himself compelled to believe and concede that matter is eternal, and [to believe in] the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not be an impairment to his belief. For he would [still] believe that this world was created from a certain time, and that Adam and Eve were the first human beings.


Three strands intertwine among the commentators: the Torah teaches that the world was created less than 6,000 years ago; the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu followed immediately upon earth’s creation; and the "days" of Creation are regular 24-hour type days. Each of the meforshim explicitly state one or more of these ideas, and implicitly vouch for all of them; and virtually all6 agree that the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu began and ended during the first day. We have already noted the disposition of the Maharal, Rav Saadia Gaon, and Rabbeynu Yehudah Halevy. The Rambam’s son, Avraham,(Sefer Milchamos Hashem, ed. Margolios, Mosaad HaRav Kook, pp. 57-58 and 59): continues the legacy of our mesorah:


The Torah was given to Israel twenty-four hundred years after the creation of the world. And if anyone mumbles to you, "Haven't the Chachamim darshonned that the Torah was created a thousand years before the world?" ─you should answer him: That drash needs many payrushim to answer it (l'taretz osso), and it is impossible that it should be understood literally. And even if it were meant literally, the subject under discussion is when it [the Torah] was given [and not when it was created]....Behold, their [the philosophers'] belief is that that world is old (yashan), and it has no beginning. And we disagree with them, through the emunah of the Torah, and we can present teshuvos and establish many proofs to make the Torah emunah clear, that the world is new (chadash), and created; and nothing exists that is rishon and acharon except for HaKadosh Baruch Hu.


We should note that both Rabbeynu Yehuda HaLevy and the Rambam’s son acknowledge an esoteric teaching about time and/or worlds preceding our world; but they both do so reluctantly and go out of their way to hold themselves aloof from it as a mainstream mesorah literal, physical depiction of history.


The Rambam himself, in Moreh Nevuchim, makes it clear that when confronted with Aggadic statements that contradict the p’shat and/or logic, the Aggadta must not be taken literally. Thus, he too rejects the literal meaning of even talmudic statements that assign the concept of time to "before" Creation. Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer Ikkarim), the Ramban, Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon, and the Maharal (for one instance, in Ba’er HaGolah, Amud 82-3, Ba’er HaR’vi’vi) all follow this approach. These ba’alei mesorah either reject or reinterpret such Aggadta so as not to conflict with the simple understanding that Creation began and ended within seven literal days.


A Day is A Day

Long before the Gaonim and Rishonim, the Talmud (Chagiga 12a) set the record straight:


Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: Ten things were created on the first day: Heaven and Earth, tohu va-vohu (Emptiness and Formlessness), Light and Darkness, Ruach and Mayyim, middass yom and middas layla (the length of day and length of night).


This talmudic passage clarifies two things regarding our subject:


            1. Even if the sun, moon and stars were not operating as they do at present, whatever conditions necessary for time passage were already operating normally the first day, which saw the creation of Heaven and Earth, Earth’s condition of tohu va-vohu, and Light and Darkness.


            2. The length of day and night was determined and put in effect that first day. Without any further qualifications, it is obvious that the measurement of the day and night refer to the length of day and night to which we are accustomed (—certainly for the days following the first). Indeed, Rashi explains, "middass yom and middas layla means the length of day and the length of night: 24 hours combined."


We will see that not only Rashi, but all the classic mefarshim understand the Creation days to be no longer than 24-hour type days. Whereas in some other instances the word "yom" may refer to longer periods of time, the meforshim treat such instances as exceptions, and point out when they occur.1 They do not do so regarding the days of Creation.7


Ibn Ezra:

"Yom echad" is a reference to the turning of the sphere ... And after it said that the Light should be called Day, it is not possible to call the evening "Day." The only payrush is: it was evening, and [then] it was also a morning of one day.


Even the Ramban, renowned kabbalist that he was, indicates impatience toward any tampering with the meaning of the word "day" in the Creation account (Breishis 1:3):


Know that the days mentioned in Ma’aseh Breishis were, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, literal days, composed [not of years and millennia, but] of hours and minutes, and they were six, just as are the six days of the work-week,


The Ramban (ibid.) even rejects the thesis that the original light initially shined bright for one moment, and then immediately waned to produce a twelve hour night, and then shined for twelve hours. The Kuzari (II:20) suggested this to explain the sequence in Scripture of evening preceding morning. The Ramban rejects it "because they would be adding an additional, albeit short, day, onto the specifically six days of Creation."

In a private communication, Rabbi Dovid Gottleib has pointed out that the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (2:30) invokes the unanimous position of --

[a]ll our Sages…that all of this [the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, and the account of the serpent] took place on the sixth day…. None of those things is impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed.

For the Rambam's problem and solution to make sense, he must be presupposing 24-hour days. If the "days" of creation were unspecified "periods" actually consisting of the passage of numerous 24-hour days, there would be no difficulty of containing all the events mentioned in the pesukim within one such period, and no need to invoke the fact that the laws of Nature were not yet fixed.

Even those commentators who do not directly explain the length of the Creation days in their comments on the verses mentioning those days do reveal their assumption (no doubt based on p’shat and Chazal) that they were 24-hour type days when they deal with another issue: The question arises as to how the first three days of Creation could be measured if, as a simple reading of the verses indicates, the sun was first created on the fourth day. Without a sun, what determined the first three days, and how could they be measured? Defending the mesorah that the first three days of Creation, just as the last four, were regular days as we know them, the mefarshim offer solutions:

Rambam, in the same chapter of Moreh Nevuchim cited above (2:30) posits as follows:

If [as the p’shat appears] there were [as yet, before the fourth day] no [celestial] sphere and no sun, how was the first day timed [as a day]?

... The foundation of the entire Torah is that Hashem brought the world into being from out of nothingness. [This was] not "at the beginning of Time," because Time [itself] is a created thing. For time depends upon the movement of the [celestial] sphere and [although the sun and stars were not yet put in their positions], the sphere itself is one of the created things. …[Although the Torah speaks of the sky emerging on the second day and the sun emerging on the fourth day, for example], our Sages have explained that … all things [including the celestial sphere] were created together [with heaven and earth on the first day], but were [merely] separated from each other successively…. According to this undoubtedly correct interpretation, the difficulty …is removed, which…consisted in the question as how the first day, the second, and the third were determined. [ZL: I.e., the 24-hour revolution of the celestial sphere or, in our parlance, the 24-hour rotation of the earth, was in effect from the moment of Creation.]9 [Indeed,] in Breishis Rabbah, our Sages, speaking of the light created on the first day according to the Scriptural account, say as follows: these lights [of the luminaries mentioned in the Creation of the fourth day] are the same that were created on the first day, but were only fixed in their places on the fourth day. The meaning [of the first verse] has thus been clearly stated.

Rabbeynu B’chaya gives the same answer:

"Evening" is the declining of light, and "morning" is the shining of light. Yet the Torah speaks of the first three days experiencing evening and morning, even though "Let there be light-bearers in the Firmament" was not stated yet. This is because regarding the first three days, "evening" and "morning" were not spoken of in the aspect of light, but in the aspect of the rotation of the sphere. But from the fourth day and on, when the light-bearers (the sun, moon and stars) were created, it speaks of "evening" and "morning" with the [effects of] light in mind.


Ralbag gives the same answer.

Abarbanel offers another explanation, which still illustrates the presumption that the days spoken of are 24-hour type days:

How were the first days timed, if there was still no revolving the celestial sphere? [The answer is that] that first Light was an entity spread through space through the will of the Creator, for an allocated time, in which was the day; and it disappeared an allocated amount of time, which was night; and that Light came in gradations of morning and evening and noon. Through this, then, were the days timed in hours and minutes [not years and decades and millennia--ZL] just as the latter, natural days were [later] timed by the revolution of the celestial sphere. (Malbim gives the same explanation.)


Seforno combines the two ideas:

Even though He separated the Light and the Darkness, so that that they would serve at different times without means of the sphere’s revolution, He still separated them in such a way so that between them there would be a time of evening [gradually] developing into night, and a time of morning [gradually] developing into [full] daylight.


Rabbeynu Ovadiah MiBartenuro answers in a way that presumes time as a reality independent of the movement of objects:

"And there was morning and there was Evening--One Day."--The causes of day and night is the movement [or, as we would say, the apparent movement--ZL] of the sphere. But since the sphere was not created [until the fourth day], how could the Torah state [already on the first day], how could there have been a morning and an evening? Answer: Hashem told Moses that the amount of time over which this took place was the same amount of time that [the passage of] morning and evening takes nowadays.

Ralbag (Breishis 1:1) offers this as one of two answers as well:

By what was the first day, second day, and third day timed, since the light-bearers [sun moon and stars] were not in existence until the fourth day? The answer is clear according to the first explanation [I had given, that all was actually created the first day]: The diurnal sphere was in existence the first day, and each revolution it made was about one day’s time.

He then adds:

And it is not bizarre to suggest that it was known to Hashem the measurement of time without the sun and stars. And this is self-explained. 


Between Initial Creation and beginning of Tohu Va-vohu



Certainly by now, one perceives the spirit in which our mesorah approaches the Torah’s description of Creation. All the commentators, while they were certainly aware that there are deep secrets and humanly incomprehensible aspects to Maaseh Breishis, still primarily understood whatever the Torah does reveal in its plain meaning. Following the plain meaning, different explanations are offered. All agree that anthropomorphisms, as throughout the Torah, must of course be understood properly. ("The sound of Hashem going through the Garden" refers to the traveling of the sound Hashem created, not to the sound of Hashem walking.) Some attribute to the terms Earth, Heaven, Wind and Darkness the four elements. First-glance impressions are sometimes modified (as concerning the machlokess over whether the creation of "the heavens and the earth" means that the heavens were created before the earth, rather than after or, the meaning most meforshim prefer, simultaneously; or precisely what part of the heavens the words "shamayim" and "rakiah" refer to). But, as we have seen, "days" is never reinterpreted, and the sequence of events is accepted as presented.9 We can therefore anticipate how the mesorah understands the Torah’s meaning of the state of things between Breishis 1:1, which reports that Hashem created the universe, and the following verses that speak of the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu (emptiness and void), the creation of Light and everything else.

Did a long period of time pass between the moment of Creation and the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu─allowing for the creation of landscapes and creatures and prehistorical histories untold─or did the earth’s state of tohu va-vohu follow immediately upon the earth’s creation?


According to several mefarshim, including Rashi,10 Rambam and Ramban, everything was actually created the first day, and the other days consisted of further miraculous extracting, forming and positioning of that which was already created. All agree that no significant time elapsed between Breishis 1:1 and 1:2, and certainly no swamps and evolving dinosaurs and other forms of life existed during that period, and almost needless to say, the origins of vegetable, animal and human life appeared only afterwards, and in fully developed form:


Seforno on Breishis (1:2) "and the earth was tohu va-vohu" directly addresses and dismisses such a possibility:

And that earth created then was a thing composed of [tohu va-vohu]. (I.e., tohu va-vohu was the first state of the universe upon the universe’s creation. No time passed between "Breishis bara" and "V’ha’aretz hayssa so-hu va-vohu."


Ibn Ezra does the same:

The meaning is that at the beginning of the creation of the sky and the land, the earth was uninhabited.


─as does the Rashbam:

Do you think that this world has always been fashioned as you see it now--full of all goodness? No, it was not so. B’raishis bara Elokim, etc." Meaning, at the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth, meaning, at the time the heavens above and the earth [that you see now--ZL] were already created--then, whether for a long or short time, the world was tohu va-vohu.


One should not attempt, based on the words, "whether a long or short time" to attribute to the Rashbam the idea that between the beginning of "tohu va-vohu" and "Yehi Ohr" passed millennia of evolutionary processes, leaving physical evidence of plant and animal development which evolutionists have discovered. For the Rashbam, along with all the others, define "tohu va-vohu" as a state that admits no developments:


Tohu Va-vohu means that there was not in them anything whatsoever  ... They were desolate, with no inhabitants.


The Abarbanel makes the same point:

After Scripture clarified the fact of the creation of the heavens and the earth, it comes to clarify how their situation was now, in their being created ... and regarding this it says that the earth was tohu...


─as does Rabbeynu B’chaya:

And all these great ikkarim (fundamental principles) are clarified from this parashah: It tells us first, that the world is created m’chudash, ex nihilo. After its first being tohu va-vohu, He created all the existing things in six days, and on the sixth day He created Adam....


And the Hizkuni addresses the potential error head-on:

This is not to be explained as meaning that before its creation it had been tohu va-vohu...


Thus, all the commentators speak plainly, if not pointedly, of the absence of any vegetation or animal life before the first of the six days, and of six days in a natural sense.11 There is no room to suggest that the p’sukim’s words mean anything other than a normal day, and/or that the tohu va-vohu state consisted of millennia filled with evidence-leaving, aging, physical entities, and that the origin of the life-forms we have today are with life-forms that were immediately created fully-formed. All such contortions of the biblical text do violence against both its letter and spirit, and are contradicted by the conventional sense presumed and accepted by our meforshim.


The mesorah we have is a reliable, historical transmission from Adam, Noach and Moses of the factual account of how the world came to be. It is more reliable than speculations based upon the assumption that nature always ruled, always acting as it does now. Indeed, Midrash Shemos Rabbah (30:9) records Onkelos’ marveling the fact that the youngest Jewish children know "how the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He created the world.─They know what was created the first day and what was created the second day, how much [time] there is since the world was created, and what [good deeds] sustain the world. And their Torah is true." And the Ramban cites this Midrash to illustrate that "the Torah ‘opens one’s eyes,’ for it reveals to us the secret of the Formation, the subject of Maaseh Breishis, the Creation and Formation of the Universe."


May our eyes be opened to the truths taught by the Torah.





1  The commentaries, including Rabbeynu Saadia Gaon’s Emunos V’dei’os and Rav Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkarrim, teach us that a word’s primary conventional meaning is the proper way to initially understand a given word in the Torah. Only if contradicted by sensory perception, logic, or other verses—data available to the reader since the time of the Torah’s revelation—are we to understand the word in a less conventional usage. Thus, as will be demonstrated in this article, Chazal and the commentaries all understood the word "yom" in our context to be a 24-hour type day.


2  Note that the testimony we are commanded to declare is focused not on the implicit Creation-from-nothing, but on the time period of six days.


3 They fail to recognize the circular nature of their thinking: Evolutionary explanations of how the world came into existence are propelled by a discipline which, in principle and by self-definition, arbitrarily refuses to accept the possibility of a meta-natural (outside-of natural, i.e., miracle-based) explanation of the world’s origins. But meta-natural processes are the very bedrock of the six-day Creation our testimony, as explained by our mesorah.


4 And the mesorah is not beginning its count just from the time of Adam’s creation, a suggestion some have made in order to insert millennia of earth’s existence before his creation. Nor, in a rather odd interpretation sometimes touted, is it beginning its count just from Adam’s "ensoulment," after his having been a soul-less creature born from a millions-of-years-old line of creature ancestors. For "all of creation was created fully formed."─At ma’aseh b’raishis the ox was created not as a calf but as an adult [Rashi in Rosh HaShonna 26a s.v. shor sheh-hu par]; and Adam was likewise created as an adult, the Talmud reports, within the same 24-hour period─standing erect.


5 Pirkei Ahvos (5:1).

6 Rashbam, the sole exception, says that the first day only began at the creation of Light, and therefore the earth’s period of tohu va-vohu (emptiness of visible life-forms), and the heaven’s period of Darkness, lasted an indefinite time prior.


7     For example, Maimonides’ son, Avraham, comments on the verse (Breishis 2:4) reading "…the day Hashem fashioned the Heavens and the Earth." He says that here the word "day" cannot be taken in its conventional way, because the fashioning of the Heavens and Earth took place over a period lasting six days, not just one. (Needless to say, if he thought the six days of Creation were already not meant as conventional days, the contradiction would not have arisen.)


9 The Ramban elaborates on the first created thing, the "tohu," being the equivalent of the formless matter of Greek fame. He assigns no time frame to the phase of "tohu," but there is no basis to suggest that he disagrees with the Gemora that explicitly includes the "tohu" phase among those things created within the first day (of 24 hours), as the poshut reading of the posuk implies.

9 The Ralbag understood Chazal to be holding that almost everything was created simultaneously and instantly, all in their fully developed form. Except for the growth of vegetation on the fifth day, there was no creative or formative activity left to be done following the first day. Thus, he concludes, Chazal were telling us that the report of events on the ensuing days, until Shabbos, is not meant literally, but is meant to relay the hierarchical relationships between all created things.

Some have understood the Ralbag to be saying that this was the Rambam’s view as well, but this is untenable. The Ralbag himself states that none of his fellow rishonim before him "realized" that this was what Chazal were saying. (And he was very aware of the Rambam’s writings on the subject.) And the Moreh Nevuchi, just as other rishonim [such as Rashi—see note 10], cite the Chazal that teaches that most things created the first day still needed to be extracted, more fully formed and permanently positioned on the following days. And the Moreh Nevuchim invokes the fact that Nature was not yet fixed on the sixth day, in order to defend the possibility of so many events occurring on that one day.)


However, at any rate, the Ralbag’s position (dismissed by the Abarbanel and other commentators) would not be helpful to those who would like to extend the existence of the world to billions of years. On the contrary, according to the Ralbag the world existed six days less than the time stated by the other commentators! And as just demonstrated, the approach of the Ralbag is to build the understanding through the teachings of Chazal, and not through rejecting them on the basis that they differ with the science of the day.


10      Rashi clearly states on 1:14 (see also on 1:6, and Sifsei Chachamim ad loc) that everything was actually created on the first day, but each created thing was brought out, fashioned, positioned and/or perfected on the day the Torah declared. Some have made much ado about Rashi’s comment on verse 1:1, where he states that we are forced to say that the mikreh is not describing the chronological order of events. They translate "mikreh" as "Scripture [in general]" and take Rashi to mean that throughout the entire account of Creation, Scripture does not intend to describe the chronology. This posits the absurd idea that when Scripture says one thing happened on day two, and another on day one, it does not mean to tell us the order of occurrence, and it may really have happened in a different order. The Rashi on 1:14 shows this is wrong. "The light-bearers [sun, moon and stars] were created from the first day, but on the fourth He commanded them to be hung in the sky. And likewise all the tolodos of the heavens and earth were created back on the first day, and each one was set in its permanent state on the day decreed for it. This is why [when describing their creation on the first day,] "ess" is written before the word shamayim and before the word "ha-aretz


" to include their "offsprings"


Rashi’s comment about the mikreh not describing chronological order is in reference to the first verse (see Radak Breishis 1:1:

"...וכן דעת רבינו שלמה ז"ל שלא בא לזכור סדר הבריאה בזה הפסוק."

The focus of this mikreh, this verse, is not to tell you the chronology of the creation of the earth in its narrow sense (i.e., sans water and the other elements) in relation to heaven or the elements. The first verse, based upon grammar and information we have from Midrashim, Rashi holds, must be read not "The first thing G-d created [before water or fire or Light or the vegetation and creatures] was the heavens and the earth." It must be read, in conjunction with the following verse, "During the start of G-d’s creating heaven and earth…G-d said, ’Let there be Light!’"

12 And with the exception of the Rashbam, all the meforshim include the tohu va-vohu period within, and not prior to, the first day. (See note 6.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Déjà Vu All Over Again (unfortunately)

R’ Slifkin writes:

Check out this...discussion about an article in the International Journal of Cardiology, concerning how verses in Scripture demonstrate a knowledge of the function of the heart and blood that would not be discovered by science until thousands of years later. The catch is, this is not the Jewish Scriptures, but rather the Islamic Scriptures! It's all the same themes of wishful thinking that we have (unfortunately) seen in the Jewish world.

Wow. So, any attempt to support the veracity of the Torah by appealing to future scientific findings is 1) no better than attempting to support the Koran and 2) is unfortunate.

How unfortunate then is the Torah's attempt to do the very same thing - at least according to our sages’ in Chulin 66b and Nidah 51b - regarding future biological findings.

And how fortunate we are to have Rabbi Slifkin who sets us straight regarding the "wishful thinking" associated with any such venture.

Here’s a question for the Rabbi; Did Chazal get anything right?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

First of all Natan Slifkin accuses Chazal… then he explores the topic!

New revealing post published by Natan Slifkin, he wrote:
“…It thus appears to me that while Rambam was correct in describing Chazal as mistaken in believing the sun to make sound… … But I have only just begun to explore this topic.”
Aren’t “Rationalist Jews” expected to explore a topic and then qualify it as a mistake? Am I missing something?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Erroneous Attitudes about Chazal and Science

In recent times it has become fashionable to demonstrate the ostensible erroneousness of Chazal’s conclusions in science. Although this is not the first time our nation has had to deal with such attitudes (Greek Hellenism was the first permutation of this type of attitude in our nation), the secularist mind-set seems to be experiencing a resurgence of sorts, gaining a strong foothold amongst certain Jewish elements. Historically, the current trend towards secularism can be traced back to the Reform Movement’s Society Feur Die Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Society for the Science of Judaism). While this society disintegrated in a relatively short period of time (all of its original founders converted to Christianity), its mandate of secularising Judaism continued to be perpetuated by members of the Eastern European Enlightenment.

Under the guise of a movement called Chochmas Yisrael (The wisdom of the Jews) great efforts were made to recast Judaism in a new, secular mould. Voluminous research was conducted and a significant amount of literature was produced by scholars such as Isaac Jost, Leopold Zunz, Edward Gans and Heinrich Graetz. These people were later fortified in their efforts by the likes of Moritz Steinschneider, Marcus Jastrow and David Friedlander. Although their works did not make a lasting impression on European Jewry, their general attitudes regarding the secularisation of Judaism continued to be perpetuated into the twentieth century and found a secure resting place in Jewish American culture.

Regrettably, these attitudes have managed to infiltrate certain elements of Orthodox Jewry, at least to a certain extent. "Science" has been given top billing in certain Modern Orthodox circles partly due to the staggering advances in scientific knowledge which began with the advent of the industrial revolution. One of the most notable Orthodox Jewish exponents of this attitude is our very own Rabbi Slifkin. Much of his time and research seems to be dedicated to conclusions which seemingly demonstrate the shortcomings of Chazal’s views on science, especially as regards the life-sciences. Examples that come to mind are the spontaneous generation of lice from sweat, the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt, and the generation of salamanders from fire.

The purpose of this paper is not to respond to Rabbi Slifkin’s examples. I will leave that for others. Rather, the purpose of this paper is to dispel the egregious notion that our ba’alei mesorah were in any way aligned with his general attitude. In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin writes a letter to Rabbi Aharon Feldman Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, enjoining him to concede to the fact that a long who’s who list of gedolim understood that Chazal erred in science. In order to demonstrate this, Rabbi Slifkin chooses one of his showcase sugyos in Shas, the gemara in Pesachim 94b, which deals with the orbit of the sun in respect to the firmament. From the long list of Rishonim and Acharonim who comment on this gemara, the Rambam no doubt stands out the most. In Moreh Nevuchim (2:8), the Rambam quotes this gemara as saying that the gentile sages have "defeated" the Jewish sages. And although our current girsa’os do not contain this statement, the Rambam’s general thrust seems pretty clear.

As such, it might be edifying to explore this paticular Rambam in the Moreh in order to determine precisely what his general opinion was regarding the scientific statements of our sages. Based on our conclusions, we can then draw analogies to all the rest of the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this matter.

Before we address the Rambam in the Moreh, a few comments are in order. The Rambam compiled a huge compendium of halacha, the Yad haChazaka. Other than the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodei haTorah (which are based partially on Greek naturalism) the entire work is based on the words of Chazal. Many of the halachos of Chazal are based on scientific considerations (such as ein bishul achar bishul) and yet the Rambam never digresses from Chazal and never questions their statements on nature. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding the science of Chazal but one can claim that in the field of halacha the Rambam documented Chazal’s views, even the ones pertaining to science, although personally he didn’t necessarily accept them. But the truth is, the Rambam’s opinion of Chazal was so elevated that he totally annulled himself to their view.

If one wishes to be aware of the Rambam’s true opinion in these matters, to understand the spirit which pervades all of his writings regarding our sages, let him look in the Rambam’s preface to his Pirush haMishnayos wherein he states as follows: (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 favours materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever." (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)

This is what the Rambam really felt about our sages. Those who portray the Rambam as an avant-garde thinker who forged a new path in the explication of Judaism even when it contradicted our sages are far from a proper awareness of the Rambam’s true Weltanschauung.

Although, as I mentioned, when it came to almost all disciplines, the Rambam was machniya himself to the view of our sages, when it came to astronomy, it seems that he leaned towards the wisdom of the Greek astronomers and their writings. This is most apparent in the Rambam’s writings on Kiddush haChodesh and seems puzzling in view of the Rambam’s normal modus operandi. In fact, this aberration is so uncharacteristic of the Rambam that he himself senses it and states as follows: (my translation)

"and it should not be strange in your eyes that the view of Aristotle (which the Rambam accepts) is opposed to the view of our sages of blessed memory in this matter, for this view, that is, if they [the heavenly bodies] make noise is associated with the view of a fixed sphere and moving stars and you already know that the wisdom of the gentiles was decisive, in the matter of astronomy, over the wisdom of our sages as the sages themselves openly state ‘and the sages of the gentiles have triumphed’…" (Moreh 2:8 Kapach ed. pg. 180)

Before we go on, I would like to point out that in order to dismiss the view of the sages, the Rambam felt the need to resort to a direct quotation from Chazal. Thus, he supported his approach to astronomy by illustrating that Chazal themselves admitted defeat in this matter.

However, notwithstanding the Rambam’s hisnatzlus in this matter, Chazal’s seeming lack of knowledge in the field of astronomy seems incongruous with the Rambam’s general characterization of our sage’s wisdom. How could the wisdom of astronomy have escaped them?

But the mystery is cleared up once one reads the Rambam in the Yad Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh. The truth is, states the Rambam, our nation did have a tradition regarding astronomical calculations which originated with the biney Yisaschar and was passed down during the times of the neveim. Unfortunately, this discipline was lost during the Babylonian exile and thus our sages had no choice but to rely on the calculations of the Greek astronomers. (Rambam Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh 17:24)

Incidentally, do not think it was strange that Chazal relied on the Greeks for astronomy. The Greeks were incredibly accurate with their calculations. For example, W.M. Feldman in his 1931 text (page 131) reports that Hipparchus, an ancient Greek astronomer, recorded the time between an eclipse measured by the Babylonians and one measured by himself less than 400 years later. He found that there were 4,267 lunations and that the exact duration was 12,607 days and 1 hour. Thus, the average lunation would be 3,024,169 hours divided by 4,267 lunations thus equalling 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 1/3 seconds or 29.53059 days. This is astounding as it is only one half second off from present day calculations for the average Sinodic month!

In conclusion, even the greatest "rationalist" amongst the Rishonim, the Rambam himself, held all of Chazal’s opinions in the highest esteem. How much more so would this apply to the non-rationalist (i.e. French) category of Rishonim. Rabbi Slifkin’s unfortunate habit of constantly highlighting the purported shortcomings of Chazal’s knowledge is foreign to our ba’alei mesorah. They would never even dream of writing whole books dedicated solely to contra-Chazal conclusions.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blog Comments Policy

We do want to thank all our readers for the polite way in which the discussion and comments have been undertaken. This is particularly noteworthy given the significant disagreements on fundamentals and the controversial nature of the topics treated.

Given the polite (lashon-hara free) tone of the discussion,  we have seen no reason to moderate comments. The blogger policy we have invoked is that comments are posted immediately (I hope we can continue to do this). However, comments go to the moderation queue after 14 days. We just noticed some comments in that queue and have enabled them (but this is an error prone process as someone has to remember to look at the queue). Please provide us with feedback on this policy. 

Irrefutable Proofs & the Case of the Panda's Thumb

The national project of the Jewish people has been to study the Torah (received from G-d at Sinai), to put it into practice, and to transmit it intact (to the best of our abilities) to the next generation. The Rambam (MN II.25) goes so far as to say that only an irrefutable proof (by Aristotle or Plato, for example) would be grounds for reconsidering the simple reading (peshat) of the first chapters of Genesis. The essential historicity of the first chapters of Genesis is accepted by all our b'aalei mesora.
On each day of the six day creation week, novel entities were formed outside of the system of nature currently in operation and, on the seventh day (Shabbos), the state of the world became lasting and established just as it is at present. [Rambam, MN 1:67]

“The geographical location of the mizbeach was extremely precise; it’s location is never to be altered…It is a tradition in the hands of all that the place Dovid and Shlomo built the mizbeach in Goren Arvinah is the same place that Avraham built the mizbeach to which he tied Yitzchok. It is the place which Noach built upon when he exited the ark. It is the mizbeach which Kayin and Hevel offered upon and Adam haRishon sacrificed a korban when he was created. And from there he was created. Our sages have said, ‘Adam was born from the dust located at the place of his atonement’”. (Rambam, Hilchos Beis haBechira 2:1-2)
Proofs against our mesora, needless to say, have not been provided. Following the Rambam, we are committed to rational discourse. We have a well authenticated national tradition -- so the burden of proof is on those who wish to contest our baalei mesora.

In his books R. Slifkin has taken a view contrary to our baalei mesora including the Rambam (see above). Following Darwin, R. Slifkin believes that man evolved from primitive ape-like precursors, and he thus aligns himself with Darwinians who believe in vestigial organs, embryological debris and poorly designed structures such as the Panda's thumb. Evolution's Blind Watchmaker Thesis claims that we are here by unguided processes (e.g. random mutation and natural selection) that did not have us in mind. While this type of belief is supportive of atheism, R. Slifkin believes that we can nevertheless be "religious Darwinists". “Naturalistic Darwinian evolution is fully compatible with religion” (Challenge p. 294). “The blind-watchmaker thesis need not be incompatible with God” (Challenge p. 297). Consider a section titled "Imperfect Design from a Perfect Creator" in which Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows: 
Stephen Jay Gould [Harvard University] has elaborated upon this argument in his work The Panda's Thumb [1980]. Pandas do not have an opposable thumb that is one of the five digits, as do other animals with grasping hands. Instead, they have a modification of the wrist bone, which serves to help grasp bamboo. Such a "thumb" makes sense in light of Darwinian evolution; the thumb was already pressed into use as a finger, leaving natural selection to operate with the wrist bone. But, argues Gould, this is too inefficient a limb to be the work of a wise Creator. There are other features of organisms that not only appear poorly designed, but are even potentially detrimental. ... Evolutionists correctly argue that these indicate descent from earlier species; atheist evolutionists incorrectly argue that they disprove the existence of a wise Creator. ... 
We can therefore plausibly contend that He [the Creator] would use the simplest means to obtain the complex goal of the world in which we live. It is a mark of genius to create a system that can produce a panda from a non-panda (even at the cost of having an inflexible thumb), rather than having to design one from scratch. Far from being a menace to religion, boundless Darwinian evolution assists in explaining an age-old problem of why there are so many features of living things that seem poorly designed, useless, or even harmful. [Challenge p. 303-304, Emphasis added]
The above style of reasoning (common in evolutionary biology) is very far from the standards of the hard sciences (and even further from the standard of proof demanded by the Rambam when it comes to our mesora). For example, even if it is true that the Panda's thumb is poorly designed, there are no detailed testable Darwinian pathways that can explain the origin of wrist bones, thumbs, the muscle, nerve and the brain mechanisms needed to run all this machinery (robots that perform these functions are the product of advanced intelligent design techniques).

However, a 1999 study in Nature analyzed the giant panda's thumb using computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and related techniques. Contrary to R. Slifkin's and Gould "poorly designed" panda's thumb, the study shows that the radial sesamoid bone (its "thumb") is "one of the most extraordinary manipulation systems" among mammals.
The way in which the giant pandaAiluropoda melanoleuca, uses the radial sesamoid bone — its ‘pseudo-thumb’ — for grasping makes it one of the most extraordinary manipulation systems in mammalian evolution. ...
The three-dimensional images we obtained indicate that the radial sesamoid bone cannot move independently of its articulated bones, as has been suggested, but rather acts as part of a functional unit of manipulation. The radial sesamoid bone and the accessory carpal bone form a double pincer-like apparatus in the medial and lateral sides of the hand, respectively, enabling the panda to manipulate objects with great dexterity. ...
We have shown that the hand of the giant panda has a much more refined grasping mechanism than has been suggested in previous morphological models.
[Endo, H., Yamagiwa, D., Hayashi, Y. H., Koie, H., Yamaya, Y., and Kimura, J. 1999. Nature 397: 309-310. Emphasis added]
For more on the Panda's thumb see here.

R. Slifkin should consider adding the case of the Panda's thumb to the errata list he has compiled for his book. In the preface to Challenge of Creation, R. Slifkin writes that he is "following the approach of the Rambam". This too should be added to the errata list. More to the point, R. Slifkin has embraced "theistic evolution". But, theistic evolution is a new (or at least different) religion whose dogma is contrary to the essence of our mesora

Friday, October 29, 2010

Strange parallelism

In a recent post entitled: Forcing the Opposition, NS criticized his opponents with the following paragraph:
The traditional way of arguing one's case - citing Rishonim and Acharonim - ceased to be relevant. All that was important was what the Gedolim say. This was a revolution which cannot be underestimated.
I tried to substitute a few words and found a telling parallelism:
The traditional way of arguing one's case - citing scholarly sources and scientific experiments - ceased to be relevant. All that was important was what the Global consensus says. This was a revolution which cannot be underestimated.
I hope this revolution will be reverted and NS will be ready to discuss the validity of the evolution of the species.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's Wrong With Rabbi Slifkin's Theology - Part 2

In our original post, we drew a clear distinction between belief in the doctrine of theistic evolution and the message of Purim which teaches that God is behind the affairs of our universe albeit in a hidden fashion. We demonstrated how the former doctrine is openly opposed by the verses of the Torah and the clear consensus of our ba'alei mesorah, whereas the latter is firmly grounded in normative Jewish theology. The current post aims to clarify some issues which came up subsequently in the comment section of the aforementioned post.

An interlocutor stated as follows:

Rabbi Coffer - do you only see the Hand of Hashem in the creation of nature? You don't see it in our lives today - in historical events, in how nature operates, in your personal life? Surely you must be aware that science explains all these things without recourse to a Creator; just in terms of random, blind processes. And I'm sure that you don't deny these scientific explanations. So if you believe that such scientific explanations deny seeing the hand of Hashem, aren't you ruling God out of the picture?

His question can be broken down into the following four components.

1) Surely we see the hand of Hashem in all of the affairs of our universe, not just its Creation.

He is, of course, correct

2) Surely we recognize that just as evolutionary theory appeals exclusively to random blind processes, so too do all forms of scientific endeavor appeal solely to unguided processes.

Although superficially this might seem to be true, it is in fact false and highly misleading as will be demonstrated shortly.

3) For the most part, we accept scientific explanations which explain the current events of our lives.

True, although as in the previous assertion, highly misleading. Our interlocutor then goes on to make the following leap of reasoning.

4) Since we’ve eliminated evolution due to the fact that it appeals exclusively to unguided forces, what gives us the right to accept other forms of scientific endeavor (I believe meteorology was one of the examples given)? By accepting some forms of scientific explanation, are we not tacitly admitting that God is not behind these explanations? And if we respond that we accept the science but reject the idea that God is not behind it, then why can we not adopt the same approach to evolution?

The truth of the matter is, this is little more than a paraphrase of Rabbi Slifkin’s argument and was directly addressed in the last post. As we mentioned there, evolution – inasmuch as it addresses the scientific view of the origins of multi-cellular life – is entirely incompatible with the Torah which clearly states that multi-cellular life originated via direct meta-natural fiat. He commanded the vegetation to begin sprouting on Day Three before the process of photo-synthesis was enacted on Day Four. He commanded the waters to generate fish on Day Five and the earth to generate animals on Day Six. In short, God wasn’t hiding behind the laws of nature. He was creating them!

On the other hand, at the completion of ma’aseh bereishis, Hashem did establish the laws of nature and then receded behind them. From that point on, the laws of Nature remain immutable. They remain consistent. And they remain predictable. Only at this point can science begin playing a role.

In order to grasp this idea fully, a few things must be explained up front. There are two distinct branches of science.

1) Operational / Technological

2) Historical / Origin based

The former category is primarily concerned with defining the physical properties of a given entity and defining the laws of nature which govern it. The reason we accept the conclusions of scientists in these fields is because they are nothing more than technical descriptions of physical reality. They have no bearing at all on theology. Their conclusions are all empirically observable and verifiable in the laboratory, and the byproducts of their research are productive and useful in promoting the welfare of mankind and the general human condition.

When it comes to these types of fields, theism is not a contradiction. Some of the greatest scientists in these fields were theists, such as Newton and Einstein. They didn’t feel that their religious beliefs in any way contradicted their work in science. But obviously they never appealed to "God" when attempting to formulate their theories. Just as a plumber doesn’t open up a chumash when he is learning how to thread a pipe, so too an engineer doesn’t look for assistance in thermodynamic theory by opening a mishna berura.

On the other hand, the conclusions of scientists in the Historical/Origin based sciences are an entirely different story. First of all, by their very nature their conclusions are not empirically observable. They theorize about what happened in the past by making backward extrapolations, sometimes vast extrapolations, which are based on the unfounded premise that the current laws of nature were exactly the same all along. This alone should give any intelligent individual pause; how can I possibly justify the unmitigated acceptance of scientific conclusions in these fields without even questioning them? Especially since their conclusions change as often as a baby’s diapers.

Second of all, their field of enterprise has everything to do with theology. For instance, let’s take evolution. Evolution is concerned with attempting to describe precisely how we can account for the incredible variety of endlessly complex life forms present on earth. Evolutionary theory is one theory but Intelligent Design is at least an equally valid theory. Yet the majority of scientists insist that Intelligent Design not be granted any credence at all. Any objective individual would have to ask himself "why not"? But the answer is obvious and is echoed by practically every philosopher of science. Here’s what famous evolutionist Richard Lewontin of Harvard University has to say.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. (Richard C. Lewontin, The New York Review of Books, Billions and Billions of Demons, January 9, 1997)

There's the problem! Intelligent design sounds too much like God. After all, God would be a perfect candidate. And therefore, under no circumstances can we allow a Divine Foot in the door. It’s not that Intelligent Design is inherently flawed in any way. It’s that it countermands their philosophy of materialism. So why shouldn’t we reject their scientific conclusions in these fields? Especially when the Torah openly implies that the evolutionary model is entirely false!

Once we’ve gotten to this point, theistic evolution becomes irrelevant for two reasons. First of all, it is entirely unnecessary and second of all it openly contradicts the Torah’s description of recent, rapid Creation via meta-natural fiat.

This concludes our treatment of the Blind Watchmaker Thesis and why it is not compatible with the Torah. In our next post, we will deal with what I personally feel is most objectionable about Rabbi Slifkin’s theology.