Friday, April 27, 2012

Yom HaAtzmaut and Irrationality – The Same Tired Canard

Rabbi Slifkin asks:
What is the connection between Yom Ha-Atzmaut and rationalism?
He then goes on to suggest that
the rationalist/ non-rationalist divide serves to explain one very minor aspect of the dispute between those who celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and those who do not.
How so? Simple. Chareidim are backward, irrational people who believe in dwarfs, giants and superhuman “Chazal-men” who can incinerate evildoers with a single glance. In addition, Chareidim believe that Chazal were spiritual ubermenschen whose saintliness far surpassed our current ability to comprehend. Accordingly, only Chazal’s innovations are capable of possessing religious significance. The State of Israel was founded by plain people like you and I and sometimes even (gasp) irreligious people and therefore, by definition, is incapable of representing any true religious significance.

On the other hand, “rationalists” understand that there is not much difference between us and people during the times of, say, Chazal, or even people of biblical times. Accordingly, there is nothing special about Chazal that grants their actions or innovations anymore spiritual significance then even the irreligious of today. If they could do it, we could do it. Ergo, this partially accounts for the tendency of rationalists to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and for the non-rationalists (read: irrationalists) to eschew any involvement in same.

Normally when I read such outlandish depictions I just roll my eyes and move on. But every once in a while it pays to stop and evaluate the extent to which the Rationalist Judaism Blog is willing to stoop to promote the tired old canard of “backward irrational Chareidism”. Ironically, some of what Rabbi Slifkin says is true. But isn’t this how demagoguery works? The position that needs to be defeated is portrayed in exaggerated terms in order to make it look irrational to the audience.

For the record, Chareidim don’t think that Chazal were physically superhuman. However, there is evidence that the further back you go the more physically robust mankind was. For instance, today the average lifespan (in developed countries) is probably between 70 and 80 years. But for thousands of years it was normal for people to live much longer than that. Rabbi Slifkin mentions the Avos. Well, all three lived a lot longer than anyone today. Rabbi Slifkin mentions biblical times. I wonder if he believes that anyone today is capable of confronting a lion or a bear. Actually, according to the meforshim Dovid was confronted by three lions, not one! In shiras Dovid King David describes himself as attacking a whole regiment of men while leaping, in full armor, over a wall!

In Shmuel II Dovid lists his mighty warriors. The first is Adino the Etzni who singlehandedly slew 800 men! A bit later Binayahu is described as slaying a lion in a pit (no room to maneuver) on a snowy day (unsure footing)! I’d like to see Arnold Schwarzenegger slay a lion. The strongest men today simply cannot compete with the strong men of antiquity.

Even during the times of Chazal the gemara describes a process called kida where the individual is perfectly horizontal with the ground yet only his fingers are touching the floor. That’s some feat! But apparently there were several chachamim(!) who regularly performed this ritual in front of the masses during simchas beis ha’shoeva. In fact, Josephus himself  mentions that the Roman emperor was having trouble with criminals in a certain district and no matter what the emperor did he was unable to enforce the rule of law. So he hired Jewish(!) mercenaries who are described by Josephus as being able to uproot cedar trees with their bare hands while riding on horseback! The mercenaries were tasked with addressing the problem of the criminal element and shortly thereafter the entire district quieted down.

Is it really irrational to believe that the men of antiquity were fitter than their distant descendants? Certainly not. But all this is irrelevant. The real issue here is the spiritual status of the earlier generations, not their physical prowess. The question that needs to be asked is: Is it irrational to believe that Chazal and people of biblical times towered above us in spiritual accomplishment? This question will be dealt with in the following post bi’ezras Hashem.

Why do most Chareidim choose not to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaus? This too will be addressed in the following posts.


  1. I've actually performed "kida" on ten fingers, but there are been people who can do it on six or eight fingers(we don't use the word kida to describe it of course)if you use your whole palms it's called a full planche, and if you only use your fingers it's called a full finger planche.

    You might not believe what the body is capable of until you experience it, but under the right tactical training, physical conditioning, and practice - I'm not so sure someone like Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler wouldn't be able to go toe to toe with a lion (granted these are people who have artificially developed their musculature and bone density far beyond natural limits even more than Arnold did, but you get what I mean).

  2. Avi,

    Your comment here and on the Credible Science post went into moderation because I have the Comments duration set to 45 days. I am only one of two administrators on this blog and the other administrator insists we put time limits on comments. He is the primary so I have to follow his request. Besides, it makes sense. I published your comment here but from now on please comment on current posts. It is too difficult to constantly check ancient posts for possible comments.

    I've actually performed "kida" on ten fingers

    You’re my hero! :-)

    You might not believe what the body is capable of until you experience it, but under the right tactical training, physical conditioning, and practice - I'm not so sure someone like Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler wouldn't be able to go toe to toe with a lion

    I don’t know who these people are but I highly doubt they would survive an encounter with a lion. Male lions weigh 500 pounds, all muscle. If even one swat from the lion’s powerful foreleg connected, it would easily knock them down. And the lion has claws too! And powerful jaws with sharp teeth. In any case, Dovid hamelech was a shepherd who spent his time playing on the harp as he tended the sheep. He didn’t sign up in the school of tactical training for lion killing. His talents were natural. Also, he was accosted by three lions! Actually, I find it difficult to even imagine how a human being can walk away from such an encounter.