Monday, January 28, 2013

Torah MiSinai

Professor Martin Lockshin teaches Humanities and Hebrew at York University in Toronto. In a recent article in the Canadian Jewish News, Lockshin reviews a “courageous new book” by Rabbi Norman Solomon entitled “Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith”. This is not the proper forum for a detailed refutation of Rabbi Solomon’s thesis, but some of Professor Lockshin’s comments do call for a response.

Lockshin writes as follows:
Usually “Torah from heaven” in Orthodox circles is understood to mean that God dictated the entire text of the first five books of the Bible (with the possible exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy) to Moses, who then wrote it down.
So far, so good.  
Furthermore, the text of the Torah scroll that we have in our synagogues today is precisely what Moses wrote.
Unfortunately, this idea is not part of the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven” and is, most likely, not correct. Anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with Rabbinic literature (Talmud, Midrashim, and subsequent halachic texts), knows that the Torah scrolls we possess today are not necessarily identical, letter for letter, with what Moses wrote. Yes, the sentences – along with the message they convey – are indeed the same. However, the precise spelling of the words has, in some cases, been lost to us. The biblical phenomenon of Defective and Plene Spellings (chaseiros v’yisairos) is well-known to students of the Talmud and is clearly not dogmatic to the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven”. This point cannot be overemphasized. Its assumption renders the vast majority of issues raised by Solomon/Lockshin irrelevant.

Lockshin continues:
But Rabbi Solomon notes that the Hebrew word “torah” in the Bible just means “teaching” or “instruction.”… Only many centuries after Moses did people begin to use the word Torah to refer to the first five books of the Bible and did anyone write down the claim that Moses was the author of the so-called Five Books of Moses.
This remark is a product of rank ignorance. The very first book after the Torah makes several references to the “Book of the Torah of Moshe” and the “Book of the Torah”. When Joshua (chapter 8) gathers the people to fulfill the covenant at Mount Gerizim and Eival, he does so in conformance with the “Book of the Torah of Moshe” and the “Book of the Torah”. Joshua built an altar at Mount Eival “as was instructed in the Book of the Torah of Moshe” and wrote the “Repetition of the Torah” on large rocks “as Moshe wrote down for the Jewish nation”. He then “read all of the words of the Torah, the blessings and the curses in conformity with all that was written in the Book of the Torah”! Jews have been referring to the teachings of Moses as the Book of the Torah from the day he died. The claim that it took centuries for this to occur is patently false.

Lockshin writes:
Rabbi Solomon argues further that historical scholarship makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy, or that our text of the Torah today is identical to the original one. The Talmud often quotes biblical verses whose wording or spelling differs from our own (as do Rashi and basically every other Bible commentator who lived before the days of the printing press).
Ever since Julius Wellhausen and the advent of biblical criticism, modern academia has been on a mission to undermine the historical authenticity of the Torah. In line with this attitude, Lockshin quotes the same old tired canard of the Bible critics, to wit, “historical scholarship makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy”. He then repeats his original error of conflation by attempting to identify “absolute textual identicalness” with the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven”. As we noted above, there are several examples of defective and plene spellings in our traditional rabbinic literature. This phenomenon was fully acknowledged by our sages. The doctrine of Torah from Heaven is in no way compromised by this fact.

There is much more to say on this topic, perhaps for another time. Comments welcome.

Simcha Coffer
Toronto, Ontario                     

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lice: response to NS

Dear Natan
A few days ago I published a very short version of my approach regarding the biological characteristics of lice as related to the Talmudic statement in Masechet Shabbat 107b (
In your blogspot you said that the four refutations you wrote on your website refute my approach.
I will copy your four claims verbatim (emphasis mine) and I will try B”H to analyze them by interspersing my comments:

NS: Some have attempted to defend the notion of the scientific infallibility of the Talmud, or at least the applicability of this ruling, by reinterpreting this statement about lice. A popular argument is that the Sages actually meant only that the eggs of lice are halachically insignificant due to their small size, not that they do not exist.

1.1. IB 20/Jan/13:
I did not claim that.

NS: Similarly, some claim that the life-force of a louse is not halachically classified as an animal life-force (just as a plant is alive and yet is not classified in a halachah as a living creature). An alternate claim that is advanced is that since the eggs or larvae require this particular environment in which to develop, it can be said that they are generated from there.

1.2. IB 20/Jan/13:
Although these are not my claims, some could think that my approach can be categorized together with the two above. Thus, I will try to analyze the continuation of your “refutations” as they could theoretically apply to my approach. Please continue reading.

NS: However, there are numerous problems with such explanations, notwithstanding their obvious appeal.

1.3. IB 20/Jan/13:
I agree that “appeal” is not enough.

NS: First, there is no independent evidence for these explanations; they are presented simply on the grounds that there could not be a scientific error in the Talmud.

1.4. IB 20/Jan/13:
Although absence of “independent evidence” is not an evidence that Chaza”l did not mean that particular suggested explanation on their statements about lice, nevertheless I want to present the following that could be an independent evidence.
I have found three[1] [2] [3]  Rishonim that clearly spoke about the “nits” (the eggs of lice), so they understood that there are lice and additionally there are egg-lice (besides the “betze kinim” a type of organism which is called eggs of lice).

NS: Yet, as we discussed in the introduction to this work, most authorities understand that the Sages of the Talmud did make a scientific error in believing that the sun passes behind the sky at night.

1.5. IB 20/Jan/13:
Undoubtedly this is an important issue I have also written about; but by now, it is beyond the scope of this short analysis on the reproduction of lice.

NS: And since the Sages spoke of a mouse that grows from dirt, they clearly did believe in spontaneous generation.

1.6. IB 20/Jan/13:
I do not agree that it is so “clear” in the case of the mouse that you have mentioned.
I will write B”H my view on this specific case you mentioned. But it should be clear that a detailed discussion of the mouse, is beyond the scope of this short analysis on the reproduction of lice.
In the case of this Talmudical “half-mouse” we are not discussing inanimate matter transforming into animate matter, but soil that is already an integral part of a preexisting living entity, which transforms (by an unidentified process) to organic material.
In this soil, maybe there were already organic residua, or certain organic material migrated from the flesh-part to the soil-part, and then became flesh.
Today we know from the cloning of Dolly, that from a single cell, we may obtain a complete organism, not only from a zygote, but even, a differentiated cell may recover its totipotentiality.
Therefore the case of the half-mouse is not a “clear” case of spontaneous generation (ד"ע).

NS: Thus there is no reason to accept that they could not have believed that lice generate this way, which was the common belief in their era.

1.7. IB 20/Jan/13:
We have found some cases where Chazal “scientific” statements were independent from which was the common belief in their era.

NS: Second, the words of the Talmud say nothing about the eggs being halachically insignificant, or about the life-force of lice not being like that of other animals. It simply states that they do not reproduce sexually.

2.1. IB 20/Jan/13:
I could not find the latter in Chazal writings.

NS: While it is not impossible that this could be a shorthand reference for something else, the burden of proof is certainly upon those who would make such a claim. Especially since, in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate, it is highly unreasonable to state that when the Sages spoke of lice as not reproducing sexually, they intended a different meaning entirely.

2.2. IB 20/Jan/13:
See above 1.7 and 2.1

Third, such explanations are inconsistent with the views of the traditional Talmudic commentators. Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Tosafos and others all state that lice spontaneously generate from sweat or dust. True, it is not impossible that they misunderstood the nature of the Talmud’s ruling—indeed, we posited similarly in the case of mermaids. Yet in the case of mermaids, there was compelling textual evidence that the Talmud was referring to dolphins instead; here, no such evidence exists. Furthermore, those who posit that the Talmudic statement about lice must be scientifically correct are usually the same people who are reluctant to posit that the traditional commentators all erred in their understanding of the Talmud.

3.1. IB 20/Jan/13:
The apparent inconsistency between my approach and the Rishonim’s commentaries is addressed in the Hebrew expanded version of my article on lice.
Please see the linked document.

NS: The final objection to such reinterpretations of the Talmud’s statement is that there is a straightforward refutation from the continuation of the Talmud: 
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the horns of aurochsen to the eggs of lice” (which shows that lice come from eggs)? — That refers to a type [of organism] which is called eggs of lice (but not that lice actually hatch from these).
If the Sages were not denying the existence of lice eggs, why do they reject the simple meaning of the statement that speaks about God sustaining the eggs of lice, and resort to difficult explanations instead? Let them simply state that although lice do hatch from eggs, these are too small to be halachically significant! It therefore seems that they did not consider this possibility. (I am aware that some claim that the Talmud means that since the eggs are halachically insignificant, they cannot be the subject of the statement about lice eggs. However such a reading is highly contrived, lacks any evidence, and is certainly not how the Rishonim and Acharonim understood the Talmud.)

4.1. IB 20/Jan/13:
The apparent inconsistency between my approach and the Gemara-text is addressed in the Hebrew expanded version of my article on lice.
Please see the linked document.

P.S. IB 20/Jan/13:
I am ready B”H to analyze comments directly related to our issue:

[1] ע' רבינו חננאל על שבת דף ק"ז עמוד ב' (נמצא בדף ק"ח.)
[2] ספר הרוקח הגדול, רבינו אלעזר מגרמיזא. הלכות שבת, ס' ע"ח וע"ט
[3] ראבי"ה (רבי אליעזר בן יואל הלוי) ח"א - מסכת שבת סימן רל"ו

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lice redux: don't debate your critics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Louse biology in today´s Daf Yomi


In today’s Daf Yomi the famous matter of "kina ena para veraba" is mentioned.

In our forthcoming book "The enigma of the Biblical Shafan" we have included a short English appendix on this issue and also an expanded Hebrew version.

Please follow the link (here) for a version without footnotes and illustrations.