Sunday, December 11, 2011

Torah/Science Authority

Before I begin I would like to apologize to our readers for my extended absence. Unfortunately my father-in-law was niftar shortly after Succos and this threw our family for a loop. Rabbi Slifkin has penned several note-worthy posts in the past month or so but one stands out from all the rest. Here are some comments in response to Rabbi Slifkin’s post entitled "The PerfectTorah-Science Authority" - Fact or Fiction?

Note: I have never met Rabbi Meiselman nor have I ever discussed his particular views on ma’aseh bereishis with him. In keeping with the mandate of this blog, the following comments are directed solely at Rabbi Slifkin’s stated views.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:     
2. "Rabbi Meiselman posits that no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal."
This, of course, is absolutely correct. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the commentaries on ma’aseh bereishis understands the truth of this statement. Of course this does not mean to exclude the fact that ma’aseh bereishis possesses an endless amount of esoteric wisdom but all this is in addition to the literal sense of the words. 
Then Rabbi Meiselman is wrong. Rambam explicitly writes that: The account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts. (Guide For The Perplexed, 2:29)
This passage from the Rambam is entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand. The qualification “in all its parts” refers to certain specific events that occurred to Adam and Chava in Gan Eden on the sixth day of creation as Rambam goes on to explain in the following chapter. It does not detract from the literalness of the Creation process itself.
Furthermore, according to the explanation of Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, Rambam was of the view that the "Six Days" are not time periods at all.
This too is irrelevant, as shall be explained shortly. However it must first be pointed out that Rabbi Slifkin’s quotation from Abarbanel comprises his initial view of Rambam. Ultimately Abarbanel admits that all of the details of the Creation process itself as delineated in the first perek of Bereishis were taken literally by the Rambam. Here is Abarbanel’s final opinion regarding Rambam:

"Behold you see that the opinion of the Rav (the Rambam) was not that all of ma'aseh bereishis was an allegory, rather, only a small part of it (some elements in the second chapter of Bereishis, not the first), and that all which is mentioned [in the Torah] regarding the activity of the six days, from the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all of the phenomena, and the creation of Adam and his wife, up until [the passage of] "va'yichulu", have no allegory whatsoever for everything was [understood as] literal to him and therefore you will see that in this very chapter, #30 in the second section, in all which the Rav has explicated regarding the activity of the six days, he did not make [of ma'aseh bereishis] an allegory or a hint (pirush tzurayi oh remez) at all. (Pirush Abarbanel al haTorah, Sons of Arbael Publishing, Jerusalem 1964, Bereishis pg. 86)

So, Rabbi Slifkin’s attempt to lump Abarbanel with Akeidas Yitchak and Shem Tov is obviously flawed.

As far as Akeidas Yitzchak and Shem Tov, this author has several issues with Rabbi Slifkin’s reliance on these two commentaries as proof of Rambam’s opinion. Nonetheless, we choose not to discuss them here and instead grant Rabbi Slifkin his position. But as we mentioned above, it is irrelevant to the matter at hand.

The Gemara in Chagiga (12a) and the Medrash Rabah (Bereishis 1:14) both state that Shamayim, Aretz and everything in them were really all created on the first day. This is Chazal’s opinion and is based on solid derashos in the pesukim themselves. Chazal’s description must be accepted as part of the Torah’s description of ma’aseh bereishis. So although the pesukim seem to tell us that there was a brand new creation on each one of the six days, Torah she'baal peh informs us that this was not so. Does this mean that when the pasuk says Yehi Ohr this is to be understood allegorically? Or when the pasuk says Yishritzu haMayim, that it is to be understood allegorically? Of course not! Chazal understood that Hashem directly created each and every one of the phenomena mentioned in ma’aseh bereishis. There is absolutely no doubt about that. If so, why are they differentiated out into six days?

Rambam explains this clearly in the Moreh (2:30) based on Chazal’s description in the medrash (MR Bereishis 12:4). The six days of creation mark the appearance of the various phenomena that would ultimately function in the way envisioned by Hashem. The example the Rambam gives is to a farmer who plants a variety of different seeds. Some products appear on one day while others appear on another. So the six days themselves are also literal according to Rambam. However he follows Chazal’s opinion that the six days did not mark brand new creations but rather established the “seeds” of the various phenomena which already existed from the first day.

However, there is another way to understand the “six day conundrum”. Everything was indeed created on the first day as Chazal sate, and everything was fully functional on the first day too. The reason the Torah distinguished between the various phenomena of the universe is to inform us that certain phenomena possess a logical precedence to other phenomena. The Torah provides us with an hierarchal description of creation in order to stimulate our understanding of the structure of the universe. Ralbag (beginning of his pirush on Bereishis) offers both explanations, the farmer-seed explanation and the hierarchal explanation and considers both acceptable. And as Rabbi Slifkin points out, Akeidas Yitzchak and Shem Tov attribute the latter explanation to the Rambam. But all this is irrelevant. 

Every Rishon maintains that the creative process described in ma’aseh bereishis is literal. Every Rishon maintains that Hashem was directly responsible for the creation of all of the phenomena of our world. Every Rishon maintains that ma’aseh bereishis was a recent and supernatural event. The only issue here is the status of the six days themselves. Did everything appear on the first day or did the phenomena slowly appear and become organized as Hashem desired over six days. The only reason there is even an issue with the status of the six days is because Chazal themselves inform us that everything was created on the first day. Within context of the aforementioned, Rabbi Meiselman’s position that “no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal” is perfectly valid.

Rabbi Slifkin believes that the world is billions of years old. Rabbi Slifkin believes that Adam and Chava are not the progenitors of all mankind. The fact is, Rabbi Slifkin believes that the physical description of ma’aseh bereishis as depicted in the Torah never happened! Rather, he believes that the entire episode is purely allegorical and refers to some kind of spiritual infrastructure. All this is in direct contradiction to our unanimous mesorah of 3000 years as depicted in Chazal and Rishonim. All Rishonim…

It is one thing if Rabbi Slifkin feels justified in rejecting our mesorah in favor of the current scientific view. It is another thing entirely for him to justify his position by challenging the unanimity of our mesorah with the Akeidas Yitzchak and the Ralbag. The former, while misguided, can at least be understood whereas the latter is wholly untenable.              

In the following post we will deal with Rabbi Slifkin’s issue from the “mud-mouse” bi’ezras Hashem.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Open Orthodoxy - Part 2

We wrote a bit about Open Orthodoxy in our previous post but I feel that more needs to be said. As per the mandate of this blog we will use Rabbi Slifkin’s comments from his post on this topic as a springboard, simultaneously analyzing his reaction to Open Orthodoxy’s feminist dogma while offering some of our own insights regarding Jewish feminism in general.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
There is a raging controversy regarding "Open Orthodoxy" and especially its changes to the role of women in Judaism. I must confess that I am really, really not "up" on it.

This author makes the same confession. Nonetheless, the comments that will be made here which relate to halacha have been researched.

Rabbi Slifkin:
With that introduction, let me draw your attention to a source that recently crossed my path, and to an observation.
First, the source. Embarrassed apologies if I am late to the party with this one, but the idea that only a modern feminist Reformer would be dissatisfied with the berachah of shelo asani ishah appears to be neatly refuted by this Italian woman's siddur from 1471, which changes the berachah of she-asani kirtzono to she-asisani ishah ve-lo ish: 
Rabbi Slifkin is committing an error of conflation. Let’s delineate Open Orthodoxy’s claims re the aforementioned bracha and compare them with the brachos found in this Italian siddur.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a prominent exponent of Open Orthodoxy, YCT advisory board member, and a member of the RCA, justifies his omission of the bracha shelo asani isha as follows: “Each morning we actually reinforce the inherited prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men… I cannot take God’s Name in the context of this blessing anymore. I suspect, at this point in history, that it constitutes a desecration of the Name, God forbid. In time-honored rabbinic tradition, "better to sit and not do.”

Now let’s compare this to Rabbi Slifkin’s Italian siddur. If you notice, there are three brachos there which do not appear in our siddur, and all relate to women. 1) that You made me a woman and not a man 2) that You did not make me a slave or maidservant 3) that you did not make me a female gentile.

This siddur was obviously written specifically for women! It doesn’t just omit shelo assani isha. It also omits shelo asani goy and shelo asani aved.

Kanefsky has a problem. He would like to imagine that there is perfect equality between men and women and therefore he would like to eliminate the bracha of shelo assani isha entirely. The Italian Siddur makes no such attempt. In fact the printer makes it clear that there are differences between men and women and some of those differences reflect positively in women’s favor. That’s why the woman says shelo assani Ish!

Now, from a halachic perspective the Italian siddur is not so bad. The gemara in Menachos (43b) mentions the obligation of stating three berachos each day, that He didn’t make me 1) a gentile, 2) a slave, 3) a woman. All three berachos are expressed in lashon zachar. Apparently the Italian Siddur attempted to modify the grammar of these berachos such that they accurately reflect the female condition. Admittedly its initial modification, “that You made me a woman and not a man”, is interesting. But it should, be noted that our standard nusach, “sh’asani kir’tzono”, is not found in the gemara. It was a subsequent addition. In fact, R’ Yaakov Emden in his siddur feels that women should not make this bracha with shem u’malchus because it does not appear in Chazal. Also, he feels the brachos of shelo asani goy/eved should be modified to reflect lashon nikeiva, just as it appears in the Italian Siddur, but a woman shouldn’t say it with shem u’malchus because, once again, it does not appear in Chazal.

Of course, I am not advocating that women should follow the nusach in the Italian Siddur. But it is a fact that many Jews over the course of history attempted to add brachos to the accepted seder. Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 46:8) makes reference to such people and claims they are mistaken but that’s it. Adding is not so bad. Deleting is an entirely different story!

Open Orthodoxy would like to see the bracha of shelo assani isha deleted from the siddur. They are attempting to be meshaneh mi’mat’beah she’tavu chachamim (see Berachos 11, Yad Hil. Kerias Shema 1) and this is entirely unacceptable, both halachically and philosophically.

Our next post will deal with Rabbi Slifkin’s remark re the prayer Hanosein Teshua L’mlachim.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Open Orthodoxy

Rabbi Slifkin wrote a bit about Open Orthodoxy here. I’m jotting down some of my musings. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Rabbi Slifkin's blog.  
Personally, I am fairly conservative, with a small "c," from a halachic standpoint. I believe that in order for Orthodoxy to survive, it must follow the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog, whereby we accept the authority of Chazal regardless of whether we agree with their reasoning. I believe that, in the face of contemporary challenges to the halachic lifestyle and ideology, a certain amount of stubborn rigidity is required…
This is a highly curious statement. Rabbi Slifkin has made it his life’s career to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal while simultaneously mitigating the authority of their most distinguished and effective promulgators i.e. our gedoley Yisrael. If he truly believes that the only way Orthodoxy can survive is by accepting the authority of Chazal, perhaps he should consider modifying his career a bit.
I see God as undeniably and necessarily unequal in His distribution of opportunities.
I agree, but only partially. There is no question that men possess a lot more opportunities than women and that this is a necessary arrangement. But “more” in this context refers to quantity, not quality. When it comes to a qualitative distribution of opportunities, women are almost on par with men. Some say even more. I personally wouldn't say that because men have the mitzvah of Talmud Torah and women don’t. And Chazal even go so far as to ask “nashim ba’mai ka’zachu”? But there’s no question that from a functional standpoint they are basically equals inasmuch as their respective roles are indispensable to eachother, to the family unit as a whole and to the ongoing perpetuation and welfare of mankind in general.

So if from a functional perspective a women’s role is just as important as a man’s, why do men make the bracha of shelo asani isha? Is it simply because they get the opportunity to do more mitzvos? Maybe. But I’m in kiruv and I know this response rings hollow in the ears of many of the teenage girls and women in my audience. Here’s a response I developed based on the teachings of my rebbi, one which I believe is emes l’amito (although not necessarily the only reason).

If you take a look at the birchos ha’shachar you will notice that each and every bracha constitutes a form of our expression of hakaras hatov to Hashem for the physical benefits He bestows upon us! We thank Him for our eyesight, we thank Him for our balance, we thank Him for our strength and we thank Him for our clothing. We even thank Him for our alarm clocks (first bracha).

What about the more ethereal blessings? Well, even they possess a physical connotation. Ozer Yisrael b’gvura refers to our belts. Oter Yisrael b’sifa’ara refers to our hats.  She’asah li kol tzorki refers to our shoes. It all relates to the physical benefits Hashem bestows upon us on a daily basis.

In view of this, the bracha of shelo asani isha is simple to understand. How so? Let’s delineate some physical benefits men have over women.

Men are stronger than women. Men are taller than women. Men are faster than women. Men are more capable of defending themselves than women. In general, men are more independent than women. A bachur can walk to shul at night for a late ma’ariv. A girl cannot (or at least should not) venture outside on the street at night alone. Men do not undergo the physical pains of child-birth. If a man wants to have a child(ren), he does not have to undergo the pains of child-bearing. He doesn’t experience morning sickness. His strength doesn’t wane. His emotional state remains stable (as stable as it normally is anyway) and his ankles don’t bloat. Women are generally dependant on men for their physical well-being and their societal status. Women are generally subjugated to the will of their husbands (at least they should be). These are only a few of the physical benefits men enjoy over women.

In this world men have it better than women. Accordingly men are obligated to thank Hashem for this benefit. Hence the bracha shelo asani isha. You might ask, why state the bracha in the negative? The answer is two-fold. Practically it is too time-consuming to thank Hashem for each and every physical benefit we enjoy over women. When would we find time to eat breakfast? A bracha stated in the negative covers all the details (although every man should have a particular benefit in mind when he makes the bracha).

Second of all, sometimes things stated in the negative serve to enhance our appreciation of the positive. By stating shelo asani isha we start thinking of all the physical encumbrances women possess and this helps us realize how grateful we as men need to be to Hashem for what He gave us. There is a kabbalistic concept in Chazal referred to as “yisron ha’or min ha’choshech”; the superiority of light when contrasted with darkness. A flashlight is not appreciated during the day as much as it is at night…      

But what about the intrinsic value of women in comparison to men? Does all this make a man more important than a woman? Of course not! Does it make his Neshama superior to that of a woman? No way. Is his chelek l’olam haba any more assured? Not at all. In fact, Chazal state that the “promise” to women (of a share in the world to come) is greater than that of the promise to men (see Maharal in his dissertation to Shabbos Shuva). In the world to come men and women will be perfectly equal. We will all sit together and sing to Hashem. No mechitzos in olam habba. No problems with kol isha...

I see it as being perfectly reasonable, as well as strongly supported by modern science, to state that the differences between men and women extend beyond their physical differences.
And I am way too suspicious of the transient nature of contemporary morality to demand that Judaism conform to it.
Actually Rabbi Slifkin should never demand that Judaism conform to outside morality, even non-contemporary morality. The old morality of the umos ha-olam was no better than today’s morality. Besides, our morality is divinely revealed and transmitted via our mesorah. It doesn’t have any competitors…  

Good Shabbos to our readers!

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chareidi Judaism

In a recent post entitled Charedi Judaism at a Crossroads, Rabbi Slifkin discusses certain issues in the Chareidi world which he considers problematic. I’ve jotted down a few random musings which came to mind. The truth is, I thought long and hard before writing this post. I don’t like to write about politics. Too much subjectivity; too many variables to account for, too much fluidity associated with its fundamental premises. And on the flip side, we have Rabbi Slifkin.

Rabbi Slifkin is an expert in politics. Ever since his books were banned he has gone on a political campaign to clear his name. And while I can’t say that I blame him for his initial response, the fact that he chooses to maintain his campaign on an ongoing basis has caused him to adopt and promote ideas and ideologies that are not only foreign to our traditions, but oftentimes undermine the very fabric of our religion. But this is not the topic of our post. Our topic is politics. So let’s talk politics.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:

What should the Orthodox rabbinate do about the Charedi far-right?

Charedi far-right? To my mind that’s a buzz word used by Modern Orthodox (MO) pundits to imply disparity amongst the Orthodox. But is there really a fundamental division in the ranks of Traditional Orthodox Jewry (TOJ)? Like any other conglomeration of individuals united by a common goal, TOJ enjoys a wide spectrum of personalities and backgrounds, chasidish, litvish, heimish, yekish, yeshivish, etc. They like to bicker amongst each other and they like to consider their personal Rabbi/Rebbe/Rosh Yeshiva as one of the most important leaders of klal Yisrael. But after all is said and done there are some minimum requirements which must be satisfied in order for one to consider himself a member of TOJ. Chief amongst them is reverence for our Torah leaders.

You know why Rabbi Slifkin refers to certain individuals as “Charedi far-right”? Because these individuals are most vociferous in upholding the authority of our gedolei Torah. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that this attitude is a fundamental dogma which undergirds the very essence of TOJ. (There is of course an alternative possibility. Rabbi Slifkin does indeed understand this state of affairs and is trying his best to undermine it.) Every individual who associates himself with TOJ accepts this principle, more or less. Some do it sincerely. Some only pay lip service. And some are somewhere in between. But if you want to be a member of the TOJ club, acceptance of Torah authority is a minimum requirement.            

Rabbi Slifkin:

The question threatened to split the Orthodox world after the bans on Kamenetzky, Slifkin and Lipa, the silence on Tropper, the neglect of the abuse issue, and the economic collapse of the Charedi world.

“Threatened to split”… Doubtful. I happen to be a card-carrying member of the chareidi world and I did not sense any impending split amongst our ranks. The fact is there is no split. Sometimes however, there is, unfortunately, a defection from our ranks. This occurs for several reasons chief amongst them the influence of Western culture and ideology. And sometimes we are even undermined from within. Rabbi Slifkin considers himself an explicator of rational Judaism but unfortunately his approach is not seen that way by our gedoley Yisrael. They see it as a form of undermining rational Judaism. The fact that Rabbi Slifkin chooses to take on the vast body of gedoley Torah puts him squarely outside the confines of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and makes his personal theology very tenuous indeed.   

Rabbi Slifkin:

Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest an understanding of mesorah fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Orthodox world, whereby mesorah means "what we do" as opposed to "what was traditionally done"?

It sure does! According to TJO, “what we do” must always be informed by “what was traditionally done”. This is not to say that Judaism cannot invent new customs or respond to new challenges with innovative approaches. But everything must be within the spirit of our mesorah. If not, all is lost… 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rambam and Chazal - Part 2

In his post entitled Musta Jew Believe Anything?, Rabbi Slifkin endorses M. Kellner’s view that Maimonidean theology considers the refinement of the intellect as the goal of Judaism whereas the “normative” approach to Judaism considers the physical performance of mitzvos as the ultimate achievement of mankind. And while this author strongly disagrees with this characterization, the purpose of this blog entry is not to point out the fallacies inherent in this attitude. Rather, its function is the analysis of the evidence Rabbi Slifkin delineates in support of his position. Here’s what he writes:

The most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism emerges from comparing the Talmud's discussion of conversion to Judaism with that of Rambam.

Rabbi Slifkin then juxtaposes the following two quotes, the first from the gemara, the second from the Rambam.

The Rabbis taught: If someone comes to convert, we say to him: “Why do you see fit to convert… If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. We inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot… we do not overwhelm him, and we are not exacting with him… (Yevamos 47a)

And here is how Rambam paraphrases it:

How do we accept righteous converts… When a gentile comes to convert… we say to him, “Why do you see fit to convert… If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. And we inform him of the fundamentals of religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we dwell upon this at length. And we inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot, but we do not dwell upon this at length… (Hilchos Issurei Biyah 14:1-2)

Rabbi Slifkin then makes the following comment:

Look at the sentence that Rambam inserted! One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them…

There can be “no denying” the “tremendous gulf”… all due to the insertion of one sentence… amazing.

First of all, any seasoned yeshiva man understands that Rambam’s halachos often contain subtle variations from the text of the Talmud. In fact, one of our largest bodies of literature is dedicated specifically to the explication of the Rambam when he seems to diverge from the pashtus of the gemara. The underlying idea which weaves its way through this unique corpus of scholarship is the awareness that Rambam must ultimately be reconciled with the gemara. There are over three hundred books written on the Yad HaChazaka and all of them adhere to this principle. Accordingly, the first place Rabbi Slifkin should have looked is in the mifarshei haRambam. Had he done so, he would have found the following: 

1) Rambam Hil. Issurei Biya 14:1-2 – Informing a potential convert of the fundamentals of religion is not the only thing Rambam added in paraphrasing the Braisa in Yevamos. He also added the halacha of hatafas dam bris for a ger who is born mahul (making a cut and drawing a small amount of blood in a case where the potential convert is born without a foreskin). This clearly blunts the force of Rabbi Slifkin’s argument from Rambam’s other addition.    

2) Magid Mishna (ad loc.) – Magid Mishna explains that although Rambam’s dictum (delineating at length the prohibition of idolatry) is not found in the Braisa, Rambam added it because he felt that it was pashut. The process of conversion entails a fundamental change of attitude, the adoption of a brand new theology. Naturally the basic tenets of Judaism must be explained at length. Anyone reading the MM can clearly see that his explanation is specifically designed to reconcile the Rambam with the Gemara, not to put the two at odds.

3) Keser Mishna (ad loc.) – Keser Mishna not only concurs with Magid Mishna’s interpretation of the Rambam, he presents an indication that MM is correct from the gemara itself (the following is a Talmudic line of reasoning).

Maharsha (ad loc.) questions the necessity of informing a potential convert of the prohibition of idolatry (Naomi and Rus – Yevamos 47b). After all, gentiles are already prohibited from same. Based on this question, Keser Mishna concludes that the implication of the gemara is that the Oneness of Hashem (i.e. the rejection of idolatry) must be explained to the convert at length (as opposed to a discussion of the physical mitzvos which requires brevity). According to Keser Mishna the gemara itself is a plausible source for the Rambam’s halacha. The conclusion MM arrived at is actually indicated in the very words of Chazal.

4) Aruch La’ner (ad loc.). AL broaches Rabbi Sifkin’s question. In fact he expands on it. Not only is the obligation to discus the fundamentals of Judaism absent from the Braisa, the very notion that one must expand upon them (at length) contravenes the spirit of the Braisa which enjoins brevity. AL posits the following.

During the course of discussion, the Braisa suddenly inserts the injunction that we must inform the potential convert that the Jewish nation is unable to receive an abundance of affliction. What is this doing in the middle of the Braisa? The answer is, since we have frightened the potential convert by telling him so much about our afflictions (afflicted, harassed, downtrodden, oppressed etc.) we switch tracks and console him. We let him know that there is a limit to the afflictions of our nation. This idea is in line with the other words of consolation the Braisa lists (e.g. reward for mitzvos).

This pattern, claims AL, is the source for Rambam’s assertion. The gemara (47b) explains that the reason we are brief with a potential convert is because we learn from Naomi and Rus and in that case Naomi was warning Rus, not encouraging her. From this we see that the concept of brevity applies only to negative reinforcement. The implication is that speaking positively about our religion, speaking words which explain its tenets and compel the convert to keep them is exempt from the injunction of “brevity”. On the contrary, it is encouraged. This is why Rambam maintains that we should speak at length to the convert about the fundamentals of our religion.

5) Rashi states openly that the injunction of brevity applies solely to words of “warning” (47b s.v. v’ein).

In view of the preceding shakla v’tarya, in view of the fact that the Rambam adds more than just the injunction for teaching fundamentals, in view of the opinion of the Magid Mishnah, the Keser Mishna, the Aruch La’Ner, Rashi, and the implication from Maharsha’s question, it would seem clear that Rambam can easily be aligned with Chazal.

The preceding presentation was a standard Talmudic analysis of the sugya at hand. It was not too complicated and did not require the invocation of “deep reasoning powers” (pilpul). Rabbi Slifkin could have easily researched the sugya just as we did. Instead he chose to draw the most outlandish conclusions based on an extra sentence in the Rambam without any research whatsoever. Had he investigated the sugya properly, he would have never claimed that the supposed gulf between Rambam and Chazal is “undeniable”, at least not on the heels of his quotation from the Rambam in Hil. IB.

This concludes our treatment of the Gemara in Yevamos and the Rambam in Hil. Issurei Biya. Comments welcome…

Rambam and Chazal - Part 1

This post is a continuation of our recent post entitled The Heart of the Matter and is written specifically for the purpose of responding to one of the remarks found in the comments section of the aforementioned post.

In his post entitled “Must a Jew Believe Anything?”, Rabbi Slifkin discusses some of M. Kellner’s views on the philosophy of Maimonides. Since Rabbi Slifkin enthusiastically endorses Kellner’s ideas, it behooves us to analyze the Kellner/Slifkin approach to see if it satisfies the rigorous standards of mainstream Torah scholarship.

Rabbi Slifkin, quoting M. Kellner, avers that Rambam’s primary theological focus is the status of the mind. According to Rabbi Slifkin, Rambam understood the goal of Judaism as the perfection of the intellect. Accordingly, it would seem to follow that the commandments of the Torah which enjoin physical activity do not possess independent qualities of goodness. In and of themselves they do not serve to increase the quality of the human condition; rather, they are vehicles for the refinement of the human mind, the intellect.

And while there is certainly room to dispute this notion, on a certain level it seems valid, enjoying support both in the works of Maimonides and Chazal. For instance, the Medrash Tanchuma (Shemini 8) asks:

Does the Holy One, Blessed be He really care if we slaughter an animal and eat it…or does He care if we eat pure [animals] or impure?... Behold the commandments were given only to perfect mankind…                     

But then Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).

Here’s where the Kellner/Slifkin approach begins to deteriorate. Ra’avad is clearly not disputing Rambam’s inclusion of Divine Corporeality into the categories of Heresy because he believed that people who do mitzvos are fine Jews despite their beliefs, and even better than the Rambam. If this was so, he would have disputed all five categories of heresy, not just corporeality. Ra’avad explains his position! The reason he disputes the specific category of Corporeality is because both the Torah and Chazal consistently use anthropomorphic descriptions of God. As such, Ra’avad considered the adoption of corporeality a legitimate error as opposed to the adoption of a heretical belief. See Kesef Mishna ad loc. who concurs with this understanding of the Ra’avad. Also, see Sefer haIkkarim for an alternative (and vastly toned down) version of the Ra’avad’s comment and an in-depth treatment of the machlokes between the Rambam and Ra’avad. Anyone studying these sources will immediately discern the erroneousness of the Kellner/Slifkin approach to the comment of the Ra’avad.

Unfortunately we have not yet addressed the concerns of the commenter mentioned at the beginning of this post. Accordingly, part 2 of this post will B’H continue with an extensive treatment of Rabbi Slifkin’s assertion that the contrast between the Braisa in Yevamos (47a) which outlines the parameters of proper conversion and the Rambam’s paraphrasing of that Braisa in the Yad serves as “the most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism”.    

Stay tuned…

Rambam and Greek Astronomy

In our previous post, we wrote as follows:

Furthermore, he [Rambam] makes countless scientific type statements (i.e. statements which relate to various laws of nature such as ein bishul achar bishul etc.) that are based entirely on Chazal with nary a twitter of dissent. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding not only the halachos of Chazal but also their science.

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)

Now before we go on it is important to note that in order to dismiss the view of the sages the Rambam first appealed 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 when compared to that of the Greek's seems incongruous with the Rambam’s characterization of our sage’s wisdom. After all, wasn’t it the Rambam himself who stated in Pirush Mishnayos that:

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…

The implication is that our ba’alei mesorah were somehow aware of the greatest truths that all of the naturalists, all of the philosophers, all of the sages of the nations were able to reveal. If so, 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 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)

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 126,007 days and 1 hour. Thus, the average lunation in terms of days would be 3,024,169 hours divided by 24 divided by 4,267 lunations equaling 29.53059 days. This is astounding as it is only one half second off from present day calculations for the average Sinodic month!

(To the reader: I do not have a copy of Feldman’s book. If memory serves, I was informed of this calculation by one of my colleagues. I double checked the math and it works but if someone has access to Feldman’s book (Rabbinical Mathematics and Astronomy) I would appreciate verification of the above.)

In conclusion, the fact that the Rambam accepted one or two statements of the Greek astronomers over those of Chazal is an aberration. It is an extremely rare exception and can in no way be used as an indication of how the Rambam felt regarding the status of Chazal’s scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, the academic world loves to tout this instance as an example (of supposedly many more examples) of the Rambam’s general attitude to Chazal. What is even more unfortunate is that they’ve managed to infiltrate our ranks. They’ve managed to generate a whole deal of obfuscation and even managed to influence one of our more talented Chareidi (former) brethren to adopt their views and make it the clarion call of his Rationalist Blog. Chaval al di’avdin… 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin gives the nod to Menachem Kellner’s book Must a Jew Believe Anything. In so doing, Rabbi Slifkin once again brings into sharp focus the raison d'être of this blog. Rabbi Slifkin writes that “One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them”. This, of course, is the fundamental premise which informs the field of “Maimonidean studies” in Western academic scholarship. It is also the furthest thing from the truth. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Rambam’s works understands the absurdity of such an assertion.

First of all, a simple appeal to common sense reveals the fallacy of Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to the Rambam. The Rambam’s most important work, the Yad haChazaka, is based entirely on the words of Chazal (other than the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodei haTorah where the Rambam takes some of his ideas from Greek philosophy). Now, as a free and independent thinker, what are the statistical probabilities that the Rambam would concur with Chazal’s opinions in each and every one of his myriad halachos? If the term ‘impossible’ could ever be employed, this scenario would surely be a prime candidate. And yet the Rambam never digresses from Chazal. The entire Yad is the Rambam’s expressed opinion based solely on what he understood as the final conclusions of our sages both in matters which pertain to actions and matters which pertain to attitudes of the mind.

Furthermore, he makes countless scientific type statements (i.e. statements which relate to various laws of nature such as ein bishul achar bishul etc.) that are based entirely on Chazal with nary a twitter of dissent. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding not only the halachos of Chazal but also their science.

The truth is the Rambam’s opinion of Chazal was so elevated that he annulled himself entirely to their view. If one wishes to understand the ‘essence’ of the Rambam in these matters, to understand the underlying premise which pervades all of his writings, the following select quotations from the Rambam’s preface to his Pirush HaMishnayos are edifying. The translation is mine and is based on Kapach’s edition of Pirush HaMishnayos l’Harambam.    

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

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

Well, there we go. 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 the opinions of the sages are far from a proper understanding of the Rambam’s true weltanschauung. The Western academic view of the Rambam amounts to nothing more than intellectual sophistry if not outright dishonesty. Dovid haMelech’s saying comes to mind: “lo yadu, v’lo yavinu, ba’chasheicha yis’halachu”.

Now to be fair it is well-known that Rambam was criticized by many gedolim for his involvement in philosophy. The Gra asserts that philosophy caused the Rambam to err in some of his Torah conclusions and the truth is the Rambam himself bemoans the fact that whereas initially he set out to make philosophy a handmaiden to the Torah, ultimately it became a competitor. But none of this detracts from what we are saying v'hameivin yavin.       

Monday, September 26, 2011

Credible Science

Recently a group of scientists with the European Organization for Nuclear Research reported that over a three year period they had fired 15,000 neutrino beams approximately 750 kilometers away to a lab in Italy and found that the beams arrived 6 billionths of a second faster than the speed of light. Before announcing what they had found, the physicists working on the experiment claim that they checked and rechecked their findings over many months eliminating anything that could have produced a misreading. They then presented their findings to a room full of skeptical scientists.

Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

A number of people wrote to me about last week's report that a group of scientists at CERN tentatively claimed to have measured neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light - which modern science, based on special relativity, deems impossible. "If scientists were wrong about this, then maybe they were wrong about everything!" Maybe the universe isn't really 14 billion years old - maybe it's only 5771 years old!

To this question, Rabbi Slifkin offers the following sagely response.

Of course, the correct view is that some scientific facts are better grounded than others. Scientists might have to change their mind one day about the universe being 14 billion years old, but they are not going to discover that it is only a few thousand years old… For the non-specialist, it might be difficult to determine how well-established different scientific facts are. But it should be relatively easy to find out that the issues which concern (some) Jews - the antiquity of the universe, the common ancestry of living creatures, the non-existence of a global Flood… are very well grounded and will not ever be overturned.

All I can do is shake my head in disbelief, or perhaps, despair. For those interested in the truth, here are some facts.

Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has been tested thousands of times in the past hundred years. It is hard to find a more solidly based “scientific fact” than Special Relativity (SR). The CERN report is startling! And if it turns out to be true, it has the potential of overturning the entire science of Physics as we know it.

Here’s another fact. Evolutionary Common Ancestry (ECA) has never been tested, not even once! The entire theory is based on wild and un-testable speculation, nothing else. Furthermore, there isn’t even a shred of evidence for ECA. On the contrary, the fossil record reveals the sudden appearance of life-forms, a scenario that is diametrically opposed to that of ECA.

Here’s yet another fact. The age of the universe (13.7byr) is based on a theory which is entirely speculative. Big Bang Cosmology (BBC) is based on assumptions that have never been proven. Its fundamental tenets are opposed by contradictory evidence which can only be reconciled by inventing hypothetical entities which have never been observed to exist.

To equate SR with ECA and BBC is the height of scientific folly. The former is founded on solid evidence and extensive experimentation. The latter two are not. The fact that Rabbi Slifkin is able to equate SR with ECA and BBC, indeed even consider the latter two more well-founded than the former, clearly demonstrates his lack of understanding regarding the level of scientific evidence attributable to these theories. The truth is Rabbi Slifkin’s readers are right. If even Special Relativity can be questioned this should serve as a wake-up call to people like Rabbi Slifkin who allow silly theories like ECA to mold their theology in direct contradiction to our well-supported and rational traditions.  

As far as the non-existence of the global flood, I would love to know how scientists are absolutely sure this phenomenon never existed. I would also like to know how Rabbi Slifkin accounts for the presence of marine fossils on the tops of mountains all over the world. This, of course, is only one of many lines of evidence for a global flood. The Christian creationists have done a lovely job documenting the evidence for a global flood and the evidence is compelling. And although they deserve a big yasher koach for their efforts, it’s really too bad. We should be the ones on the forefront of defending the Torah. Instead, we are doing our best to align ourselves with the speculative drivel of the atheistic scientific community in direct contradiction to our ancient and well-founded traditions. Shame on us...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Esrogim – More of the Same

In response to our previous post, Rabbi Slifkin posted a clarification of his original position. Unfortunately his elucidation did not provide any clarity. In fact, it had the complete opposite effect. Here are his words followed by our analysis.

Rav Ettlinger was well aware that there is no absolute frame of reference. Indeed, in formulating his question, he himself says that the same question applies the other way around… But in my view… this sort of question would not be asked today. It would be inconceivable to us to be concerned about the position of the tree in Australia relative to Israel, and vice-versa… This question was only asked by Rav Ettlinger because people at that time were still in the process of internalizing the knowledge of the shape of the world…

As they say in the colloquial, this is bubba maasos! Rabbi Etlinger penned his  teshuva over 350 years after mankind became aware that the world was round! On the contrary, it was this awareness, and its internalization, that was the very cause of Rabbi Etlinger’s halachic quandary. Since the world is round, therefore the derech gidul is different in Australia than it is in Israel and we now have a sha’ala; which frame of reference should be used to define the halachic requirement of derech gidulo? Should we use the geographical growth of the lulav, or should we use the geographical location of its owner? Without a round world, an upside-down lulav sha’ala would be incoherent.

All this is obvious to the unbiased individual. Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin is on a mission. He is constantly on the lookout for examples which, to his mind, demonstrate the fallibility of our ba’alei mesorah. His eagerness to demonstrate the advanced sensibilities of the modern man over his predecessors is what caused him to pen his original erroneous post. And it is precisely this eagerness which caused him to defend his position with an argument that is as equally erroneous as his initial one.

Please note: It is not my intention to highlight Rabbi Slifkin’s personal failings chs’v. This blog is above that (I hope). The purpose of this blog is to defend the validity of our mesorah against its attackers, foreign (goyim) or domestic (yidden). Rabbi Slifkin is a young, talented rabbi and a prolific writer. Unfortunately, he is on the wrong side of the fence.

Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

even we today have still not entirely internalized the correct view, and we feel uncomfortable with an "upside-down" map of the world.

This has nothing to do with the mandate of this blog but I’d like to comment on this statement.

First of all, we will always be uncomfortable with an upside-down map of the world. It is no different than trying to read a book upside down. We are used to seeing maps with North on top and South on the bottom. If one day they decide to make maps with South on top, then our previous comfort level will eventually change to conform to the new convention.

Second of all, I think I can offer an explanation as to why North was chosen as an absolute frame of reference (the other cardinal directions are defined as degrees from North) while simultaneously explaining why North is considered up and South down.

There are many stars in the sky and their seeming position changes over the course of the night as they appear to rotate around the earth’s celestial axis. Imagine a pole which travels through the center of the earth and upon which the earth rotates. This imaginary pole goes way up into the sky and the stars seem to change their positions at night as they rotate around this pole. Actually the earth is rotating and the stars are stationary but this is what appears to be happening. However, there is one visible exception to this rule.

The star Polaris remains relatively fixed above the North Pole. It is defined as the prominent (i.e. visible to the naked eye) star which lies directly overhead when viewed from the North Pole. Historically the North Star has served as an indispensible tool for purposes of navigation. This explains why North was chosen as an absolute frame of reference for the four cardinal directions and it also explains why North is synonymous with an upwards direction. How? Since North is identified as the direction which possesses a fixed star above it, it is thus used as the absolute direction from which the other directions flow. And since the defining element of the direction North is a star which is fixed above it in space, any point on earth below the North Pole is considered further below this star thereby making the direction North on earth an upwards direction.

I’m not such a chacham. I’m sure I read this somewhere, sometime. I just can’t find it right now. Maybe I’m wrong… comments welcome…

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lulavim and Rationalism

In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin tries to explain his rationalist approach to the statements of Chazal. He justifies this approach by pointing out that just because someone errs does not make him stupid. The adoption of this attitude is supposed to make it easier for the reader to swallow his rationalist approach to Chazal. It goes without saying that the authors of this blog possess a radically different opinion of the concept of "Rationalism" and how it interfaces with the statements of Chazal. But now is not the time and place. What I’d like to focus on is Rabbi Slifkin’s example. In his eagerness to demonstrate his point, he commits a serious blunder while simultaneously contravening his very own justification for Rationalism.

In reference to the halachic question of which direction an Australian lulav should be held by one who is celebrating Succos in the northern hemisphere, Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

No less an authority than Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, famed author of Aruch LaNer and a university graduate, discussed this question. He suggested that it was more reasonable that they should be held in the normal position. Others, however, apparently disagreed. To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference! This case exemplifies the challenge that I have faced many times in teaching the rationalist approach to Chazal. Very few people are able to appreciate that errors made by people in very different eras and cultures do not reflect any sort of stupidity.

Wait a minute! R’ Yaakov Etlinger lived in the nineteenth century! He died just before Albert Einstein was born. He was aware of the law of gravity, he was aware of the vastness of space, and he was aware that the world was round. Concordantly, he should have been aware that people in Australia were not “upside down”. If his shaa’la hinged on the fact that Australians are "upside-down", it sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it? According to Rabbi Slifkin, any “modern reader” understands the ludicrousness of this position. Why didn’t Rabbi Etlinger understand it?

The answer is, Rabbi Etlinger was not stupid at all. On the contrary, anyone who believes that Rabbi Etlinger committed such a serious faux pas is lacking in plain common sense. Rabbi Etlinger was not talking about Australians; he was talking about Australian lulavim and the direction they grow. When it comes to the concept of derech gidulo, there most definitely is an absolute frame of reference. It’s very simple. The direction a lulav grows in Australia is diametrically opposed to the direction a lulav grows in Alaska. Thus, an individual holding an Australian lulav in Alaska derech gidul of Alaska is holding the lulav upside down in reference to the derech gidul of Australia. This concept is simple. It requires a minimum of thought to grasp. So why didn’t Rabbi Slifkin pick up on it? There is a saying amongst our sages: ha’ahava mikalkeles es ha’shura. Loosely translated, "personal involvement corrupts common sense".

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last of the hyrax

Slifkin writes "we should not be viewing the Torah as some sort of ultimate scientific text reflecting perfect Divine knowledge of the physical universe". It is an imperfect flawed document and thus although the hyrax does not practice classical rumination, caecotrophy, and possibly not even merycism, Slifkin writes that nevertheless the hyrax is the shafan because: “Rumination-style movement of the mouth of the animal in a way which would lead the people who were living in the times of Matan Torah to believe that the animal is a true ruminant (brings up the cud) would be enough for that animal to be considered Maaleh Gerah”.

Slifkin’s approach is puzzling. As I stated earlier, he is asserting a metaphysical falsehood. G-d is the transcendent Creator of the universe. In the context of the four types of animals that have only one sign of kashrut, the Talmud describes G-d as the שליט בעולמו the Ruler of His world, the One Who knows the animals that He Created and Who has codified His Divine Wisdom for us in the Torah. The Ramban talks about the wisdom of King Solomon to whom “G-d had given wisdom and knowledge, derived it all from the Torah, and from it studied until he knew the secret of all things created” (see Ramban’s introduction to the Chumash).

In this context, it would not be surprising that the Torah might be talking about rabbits, whether they were native to the land of Israel or not. In fact the Torah and the Tanach do refer to animals apparently not native to the land of Israel (such as the elephant, giraffe, monkey and peacock). What is surprising is that Slifkin, as a believing Jew, finds all this difficult, given that the Rishonim and Rav Hirsch describe shafan as a rabbit, and given that the Targum uses a word for shafan whose root meaning is a hopping/dancing rabbit-like species. Now to Slifkin’s latest blog aptly titled Last of the hyrax (August 28, 2011). He writes:

Jonathan/Yoel Ostroff is a follower of Rav Shlomo Miller from Toronto, and a passionate advocate of the idea that the universe was created 5771 years ago.
Slifkin might well want to look at his kesuva for the date of the world at the time of his marriage. So what is the intention of his above remark? How does it add to the shafan discussion? Yes, I have looked into modern dating dating methods and have found them to be based on many untested suppositions and inconsistent with each other (readers may want to look into some older debates on Avodah). Slifkin believes in a 13.7 billion year “big bang” universe. Perhaps he is not aware of how many unsubstantiated assumptions that commits him to. See here for six of them. Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, a believer in big bang cosmology writes:
“Nevertheless, there is one great uncertainty that hangs like a dark cloud over the standard model. Underlying all the calculations described in this chapter is the Cosmological Principle, the assumption that the universe is homogenous and isotropic. (By homogenous we mean that the universe looks the same to any observer who is carried along by the general expansion of the universe, wherever that observer may be located; by “isotropic” we mean that the universe looks the same in all directions to such an observer.) … However, we have no
evidence that the Cosmological Principle was valid at earlier times.
[WEINBERG, S., The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, Basic Books, New York, 1993. page 119-120.]


I would be happy to debate big bang cosmology with Slifkin. So here is an open challenge! Natan -- would you like to debate big bang cosmology? There are now more problems than I identified in my earlier article and this would make a good test of your “rationalist” pressuppositions. If you do not wish to debate your embrace of big bang cosmology then kindly refrain from entering the dating game!
So yes, I take our mesora seriously and we are in the year 5771 according to Maimonides and our baalei mesora (see here). Slifkin writes:

He is also known to to readers of this blog as someone with bizarre debating tactics who consistently distorts my views regarding both the science and theology of evolution.
See the post “R. Slifkin and mental illness” here for more on his debating style (also here). Slifkin continues:
He has now entered the hyrax fray, with a post for which the commenting feature appears to be currently disabled. As a result, I am responding to his comments here.
So far as I can tell comments are enabled and Slifkin is free to comment as always. Slifkin continues:

1. The fact that Alexander Kohut, Marcus Jastrow and other such scholars of language explained the shafan to be the rabbit is irrelevant. It is knowledge of animals, not Aramaic, which is relevant here. The European Rishonim and many later European scholars were entirely unfamiliar with the hyrax. So of course they would translate shafan and its Aramaic translation of tafza into an animal that they knew of - they could not and would not translate it with a word that would have no meaning for them or their readers! This is just as they mistakenly thought that the tzvi was a hirsch (deer) - in spite of the Gemara which says that its horns are not branched. (Is Ostroff going to argue that the tzvi is in fact the deer?) In fact, what Ostroff - significantly - does not mention is that Jastrow presents the alternative translation of "coney" - itself a term which was sometimes used for rabbits and sometimes for hyraxes - and he may well have meant the latter, in light of his presenting it as an alternative to rabbit.
The Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonasan ben Uziel translate shafan as טפזא. Now what does that mean? For that we go to experts in Aramaic such as Jastrow and Kohut who say it is a rabbit (Jastrow) or hopping animal similar to the hare (Kohut). How does Slifkin know that Kohut, for example, who was in contact with German scholarship, did not know of the hyrax? Can Slifkin produce an Aramaic expert in the Targum who translates טפזא as hyrax?

2. Having personally owned both rabbits and hyraxes, and having spent many hours observing them in captivity and in the wild, I can attest that the hyrax is much more of a tafza/ jumper than the rabbit! Rabbits rarely jump in the wild; hyraxes do it all the time, in order to get from rock to rock, and they are much better at it than rabbits. The hyrax is also much LESS of a sheretz than the rabbit.

Hyraxes used to play in the veld near where I grew up (a flat grass area with very few rocks). I do not recall them having the characteristic hopping action of rabbits, although they are good at jumping from rock to rock. Their normal gait is waddle/creep as I recall it.
Aruch HaShalem refers to the fact that the טפזא has unequal legs. Their large hind legs may be what gives the rabbit their characteristic hopping motion. The link here describe hyraxes as having "short legs" (as I recall it too), and perhaps it is more a sheretz than a chaya, and hence not even a candidate for shafan. Dr Betech has referred me to "The behavior guide to African mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores", Richard Estes, 1992, page 252 which describes hyraxes as “moving in a creeping walk”.

Slifkin is free to bring sources that support his observations.
The rabbit fits all the criteria of the Talmud and meforshim. The hyrax does not. Here are six problems with identifying the shafan as the hyrax.
It seems to me that Slifkin’s post is aptly named  “Last of the hyrax”.

3. Ostroff cites the the example of monkeys and peacocks, mentioned in Tenach, as examples of Tenach speaking about non-local animals. But these were brought as royal gifts, and are highlighted as such. What evidence is there that rabbits were brought? Furthermore, the pesukim in Tehillim and Mishlei specifically describe the shafan in its natural habitat. Is it possible that David was told about that, or knew it by ruach hakodesh? Sure, it's possible. But is it remotely reasonable, in comparison to saying that he was talking about a local animal with which everyone was familiar and was known in other dialects by the same name? Only if one is an extremely irrational person. When David speaks about the aryeh roaring, is it possible that he is actually speaking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, which he knew about via ruach hakodesh? Sure. (And if the aryeh is really the T-Rex, perhaps you can resolve the Gemara which gives a gestation period for the aryeh that is different from that known with lions!) But is it remotely reasonable to say this?
4. Ostroff writes that "The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a supeficial reading of the psalm." But what does that even mean? Yes, it makes mention of the sun, which shines over the whole world. But does it talk about octopi or supernova or quarks? If so, I must have missed that passuk! Barchi Nafshi is speaking about the entirety of creation - from the perspective of its author!
The lion as T-rex example is just silly! To be more serious, how does Slifkin know that King David was not familiar with the rabbit? Perhaps some were brought to Eretz Yisroel as in the days of Shlomo when monkeys and peacocks were brought from Tarshish (possibly Cathage, North Africa). Why is it not relevant to know that animals were brought to Eretz Yisroel from faraway places? If monkeys and peacocks could arrive from Tarshish, why could rabbits not come from Tarshish or Spain?. Perhaps King David was told about these animals by others who had seen them. Or perhaps he and King Solomon (see Ramban above) knew through ruach hakodesh. The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a superficial reading of the psalm. I don't know how Slifkin knows for a fact  that this psalm is limited to phenomena in Eretz Yisroel?
And yes, the Borchi Nashi reviews parts of the meta-natural creation of the world in six days as also described in the Torah. This is not something that any human observed. And this psalm does address the entirety of creation (see Radak and Malbim).

5. Ostroff writes that "As you say, of course, He knows about the rabbits in Spain and elsewhere. So what is so difficult about Him writing about them in His Torah of Truth?" Because nobody would have had a clue what He was talking about. That's why He doesn't say the halachos of electricity or donor IVF (which would have been EXTREMELY useful), or describe anything else with which the ancient Jews were not familiar. Is there a single counterexample? And there is also the matter of Tehillim and Mishlei.
6. Ostroff makes the following incredible statement: "Your position is based on just too many suppositions."
That is too funny!

My position is based on translating shafan as the animal which is called by a similar name in local languages, which matches the descriptions given in the pesukim better than any other animal, which was very familiar to the Jewish People, and which is identified as such by those (such as Saadiah) who actually lived in the region, as well as by virtually every other researcher of this topic (without an anti-rationalist perspective).
Dr. Betech has researched Rav Saadiah use of the word "wabar" (meaning "hair or wool"). A few observations. 1. Rav Saadia's did not describe any specific characteristic of the animal that would force us to recognize its identity; he just called used the word "wabar", meaning hairy. Although this word is the modern common name in certain Arabic countries to name the hyrax, nevertheless we have not seen any proof (yet) that this was his intended meaning one thousand years ago. This is opposed to the case of Jastrow and Kohut who were experts in the Aramaic language of the Targum and who added additional qualities not found in the hyrax. 2. There is the possibility that Rav Saadia Gaon z"l was referring to the rabbit, which is no less hairy than the hyrax, and has wool no less valuable than the hyrax. 3. Ibn Ezra questions the reliability of Rab Saadia Gaon’s translations of the animals mentioned in the Torah.
אבן עזרא בראשית ב' י"ב
...רק שתרגם החוילה כפי צרכו, כי אין לו קבלה. וכן עשה במשפחות, ובמדינות ובחיות ובעופות ובאבנים. אולי בחלום ראם. וכבר טעה במקצתם כאשר אפרש במקומו. א"כ לא נשען על חלומותיו, אולי עשה כן לכבוד השם, בעבור שתרגם התורה בלשון ישמעאל ובכתיבתם, שלא יאמרו כי יש בתורה מצות לא ידענום.
Ostroff's position is based on the idea that David and Shlomo were speaking about a South African animal (the European rabbits don't hide in rocks) which they happened to know about via a hypothetical and inexplicable import, or by ruach hakodesh (even though there is no precedent for ruach hakodesh being used in this way), and then mentioned its behavior in its natural habitat to their readers/listeners even though none of them had seen one, and even though there is no other such case of the natural habits of foreign animals anywhere in Tenach - and they did so with a name that just so happens to be used by other peoples in the area to refer to a local animal that matches the description in the pesukim, and which lives together with the ibex that are mentioned in the same passuk! Furthermore, it means describing an unfamiliar animal in place of a familiar one which would be much more meaningful for them to tell the Jewish People about! If you want the nation to ponder God's wisdom as manifest in animals that hide in the rocks, why neglect describing the local animal which does that, in favor of describing a Southern African animal that none of them have ever seen - especially when in every other case that you mention animals, you describe familiar ones? (Honestly, does anyone think that ancient Jews in Israel saying Tehillim would have said "Hey, this is interesting, it's talking about a South African rock rabbit!") And Ostroff's alleged reasons for doing this are flimsy in the extreme - based EXCLUSIVELY on European translations by people who lacked knowledge of animals of Israel!
It is especially ironic that Ostroff claims to be "open to all reasonable possibilities"!
I know, I really shouldn't waste my time with Ostroff. Still, this topic is very dear to me, so I couldn't resist
Slifkin’s remarks are puzzling.
  • Dismiss experts in Targum translation without bringing opposing experts who demur.
  • Ask us to trust to his observations on the characteristic hyrax gait over that of the rabbit without sources to back his claim and in opposition to sources that appear to indicate that the hyrax is a sheretz rather than a chayah, i.e. that it has short legs and creeps.
  • Assume that our mesora (Targum, Rishonim, Rav Hirsch) is wrong.
  • Assume that there were never rabbits in the Middle East, or that they were never imported or at least described, even though they existed in Spain, North Africa etc.
  • Assume that the psalm Borchi Nafshi is limited to phenomena in the land of Israel (contra Radak and Malbim) and was not written with ruach hakodeh.
  • Assume that Hashem did not write about rabbits, even though the Talmud with respect to our very discussion calls Hashem שליט בעולמו the Ruler of our World, the one who knows all the animal that He created.
Puzzling indeed. If that is what “rational Judaism” is then count me out.
Now there is much more to say on this whole topic and Slifkin would not be wasting his time following up on the issues that we raised. Otherwise he will have to wait for Dr. Betech to publish his manuscript (still in the research stage at this point), and that might take some time. The best is yet to come, but the wait will be worth it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Today is Shafan Day

Slifkin writes (Thursday, August 25, 2011):

Two of my readers told me last week that whenever they see the word "hyrax" in a post, they stop reading. I am sympathetic to that, but if you are such a person, I urge you to make today an exception! This post is more about the general idea of Rishonim having ruach hakodesh; the hyrax is only appearing incidentally.

Today is Hyrax Day - the day that Daf Yomi studies Chullin 59b, which launches the discussion of the camel, the hare and the hyrax. There are those who suggest that the shafan is not the hyrax, but instead is the rabbit. Previously, I noted that the reason why some Rishonim (medieval Torah scholars) believed that is that they lived in Spain, and were thus familiar with rabbits, but not with hyraxes. The shafan of the Chumash, Mishlei and Tehillim, on the other hand, must have been an animal from the Land of Israel - and in Israel there are plenty of hyraxes (there is one ten feet away from me right now!) but no rabbits.
Slifkin writes that "we should not be viewing the Torah as some sort of ultimate scientific text reflecting perfect Divine knowledge of the physical universe". Slifkin's statements are both a scientific (see previous posts by Dr. Betech) and a metaphysical falsehood. Here are some of the problems with his statement quoted above.

1. It is not only the Rishonim who translated shafan as rabbit. The authors of the Targumim were familiar with our mesora (and with the Middle East) and they translate Shafan as טפזא (jumping). The Aruch Hashalem in one translation of טפזא has springhasse, i.e. jumping rabbit. Jastrow also translates טפזא as rabbit.

2. David Hamelech in Tehillim (also inspired by ruach Hakodesh) is addressing all of creation, not just the land of Israel. See for example how Radak and Malbim explain Borchi Nafshi. In the Tanach we are told about new animals brought to Eretz Yisroel in the times of Shlomo Hamelech.

The Talmud in Chulin 59a describes Hashem as Shalit beolamo, i.e.  the Ruler of the His World, the One Who knows that only the camel is maaleh geira and yet tamei. ... So, of course, Hashem knows all the animals of this world. Who could think otherwise?

I wish all our readers Shabbat Shalom. This week's parsha (and this week's daf yomi) are indeed providential. There is an additional mitzvah in learning about all the signs of kosher animals, to know how to distinguish between those animals that are tamei and those that are tahor.