Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel Shlit'a

Last month Rabbi Slifkin wrote a post criticizing Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel’s position re Science and Torah as expressed in a haskama he wrote for a talmid. Following the link Rabbi Slifkin so graciously provided, I read Rav Wachtfogel’s haskama and for me it was a great chizuk in emunas chachamim. Unsurprisingly, it served as yet another target for Rabbi Slifkin’s ongoing smear-campaign against our gedolei Torah.

For the record, I do not claim to be aligned with every statement Rav Wachtfogel makes in his haskama but I certainly understand the thrust of his message and agree with it wholeheartedly. As such, I’d like to spend a few minutes responding to some of Rabbi Slifkin’s issues with the haskama.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav
Actually, what he claims is that Chazal’s utterances were stated either by Sinaitic tradition or by ruach hakodesh. Ruach Hakodesh is a well known, universally accepted phenomenon in our traditions. Of course, Ruach Hakodesh does not equal infallibility. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was not infallible! (see Rashi, Vayikra 10:20). But the unanimous consensus of our Rishonim and Acharonim is that any statement by Chazal that made it to Talmud Bavli is sacrosanct. This notion has characterized all of the writings of the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim and has served as our derech haTorah since the chasimas haShas 1500 years ago! As Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi explains in Doros Harishonim, it is clear that Hashem granted Rav Ashi an especial measure of siyata di'shmaya (i.e. ruach hakodesh) when composing the Talmud. 

Rabbi Slifkin continues:
Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise.
Really? I think not. Here’s a snippet from the Pirush Hamishnayos L’Harambam that I am fond of quoting on this blog (my translation).

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

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

So Rabbi Slifkin, this should clear up your “astonishment” with Rav Wachtfogel’s reference.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).
He doesn't need to. It’s obvious. But here are some examples. The Torah informs us that the universe was created. The Torah informs us that the universe is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Torah informs us that the universe is purposeful. The Torah informs us that there is life after death. The list is endless! Any universal insights garnered by scientists pale in comparison to the monumental significance of the Torah’s teachings about the nature of the universe. Rav Vachtfogel’s message seems clear. As he writes (my loose translation):
Scientists have been searching for information about the nature of the universe for thousands of years and they have still not managed to comprehend the smallest aspect of its phenomena. Whatever they have revealed is insignificant in comparison to the revelations of the Torah.
The revelations of the Torah are absolute. They are categorically true and are inherent to the nature of the universe whereas the revelations of science are transitory at best. Today margarine is healthy, tomorrow it’s not. Today time is constant, tomorrow its not. Today space is linear; tomorrow gravity seems to make it bend. Today the possible velocity of mass through space seems to max out at 300,000 kilometers per second; tomorrow there seem to be quantum events that result in spooky actions at a distance. The point is, science is an enterprise practiced by limited minds. It is mankind’s attempt to discover the truth of the universe. How can that compare to the revelations of the Torah which ARE the truth of the universe?

In any case, I don’t see Rabbi Slifkin’s issue. It’s not like Rav Vachtfogel is the first person to make this argument. Aish HaTorah has been holding countless seminars demonstrating the incredibly accurate descriptions of the universe depicted in the Bible. Why is Rabbi Slifkin picking on the Rosh Yeshiva?

Rabbi Slifkin makes several more comments in his post. Perhaps for another time…  

Evolution and Space Shuttles

Over Yom Tov I had the pleasure of meeting a young man (let’s call him Zev) who follows this blog. After introducing himself he asked me if I was interested in discussing some of my positions on the blog and I agreed. He then began to pose several challenges in rapid succession. I did my best to respond to him in the limited time we had but there was one particular issue which I took special interest in and which I insisted on discussing with him at length. Unfortunately our discussion was cut short so I’d like to revisit it here.

About three years ago I wrote a series of posts on this blog describing what, in my opinion, was most disturbing about Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to science and Torah in general and evolution and ma’aseh bereishis in particular. I argued that accepting the notion that life evolved naturalistically over hundreds of millions of years effectively cripples one’s ability to discern the presence of the Creator from the beriah. Rabbi Slifkin responded that he discerns the presence of the Creator from the fine-tuned laws of nature and I countered by asserting that the denial of patent design in biological nature is logically inconsistent with the claim of patent design in the laws of nature. In short, I accused him of maintaining an incoherent theology. Zev challenged my rejection of “Rabbi Slifkin’s theology” by quoting none other than my very own rebbi, Rav Avigdor Miller!

On page 30 of Rejoice O Youth, Rabbi Miller writes as follows: 
Youth: What is the ray of hope [of convincing evolutionists that the universe cannot be attributed to chance naturalistic mechanisms and therefore clearly testifies to a Designer – sc] of which you speak? 
Sage: The Evolutionists have blinded themselves against the evidence of the organic world. But the inorganic world is full of marvels of plan and purpose which can open one’s eyes to the Truth… 
Rabbi Miller then goes on to discuss physical properties such as the force of gravity, the atmosphere, and rates of evaporation. Although there are an endless number of possible permutations, the physical laws that govern the aforementioned phenomena all cooperate with each other to allow for an infinitely complex, fully functioning world. They are “finely tuned” for our specific universe despite the fact that the probability of them being so conveniently aligned is statistically nil. This is popularly referred to as “the argument for Intelligent Design from the fine-tuning coincidences in the universe” and is endorsed by Rabbi Slifkin in his book The Science of Torah (pp 39-46) and The Challenge (pp 49-57).

Based on the aforementioned quote from Rejoice O Youth, Zev felt that my accusation against Rabbi Slifkin was in conflict with Rabbi Miller’s statement that even if one denies “design” in the phenomena of life, there is still a “ray of hope” that he will discern it from the laws of nature.

The truth is, Zev is in error. Just before this quote, Rabbi Miller writes (Rejoice, ibid):
I fear that even this (the argument from the fine-tuned laws of nature - sc) will be ignored by them. If they have the hardiness to ascribe to accident all which we have discussed hitherto, they are quite impervious to argument. Men who are not biased are powerfully impressed when they are told of an animal which is able to shoot a suffocating stench against its enemies (skunk), or an animal that is able to present javelins against its enemies (porcupine)… If men are so irresponsible as to ascribe to accident these intricately planned devices, then I fear nothing could move them. 
So, any attempt to persuade an avowed evolutionist of design in the universe is most-likely futile. If they are capable of ascribing the intricately planned phenomena of life to chance naturalistic processes, they are equally capable of ascribing the laws of nature to naturalistic processes, as they in fact do. (Stephen Hawkings’s most recent book claims that all of the laws of physics can be accounted for by the presence of the Law of Gravitation. As he writes: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”)

What does Rabbi Miller mean by “a ray of hope”? Nothing. It is a form of speech. He didn’t actually believe that there is any hope that an evolutionist can discern the trappings of design in the phenomena of the universe. Which brings me to the topic of this post.

In a recent post entitled A Breathtaking Endeavor, Rabbi Slifkin writes:    
…upon seeing it [the space shuttle Endeavor], I …feel a powerful emotion of awe…Why was it such an awesome sight?... it was what the shuttle represented… for people my age, the space shuttle was mankind's most glorious technological achievement… The space shuttle is the pinnacle of man's technological prowess, which in turn is the result of his three-pound brain. Which in turn is the single most complex entity in the known universe - the single greatest and most remarkable element of creation. 
In The Challenge Of Creation, I quoted the following from mathematician Morris Kline: 
“A study of mathematics and its contributions to the sciences exposes a deep question. Mathematics is man-made. The concepts, the broad ideas, the logical standards and methods of reasoning... were fashioned by human beings. Yet with the product of his fallible mind, man has surveyed spaces too vast for his imagination to encompass; he has predicted and shown how to control radio waves which none of our senses can perceive; and he has discovered particles too small to be seen with the most powerful microscope... Some explanation of this marvelous power is called for.” 
Who would predict a universe in which the laws of nature are able to produce a being that can figure out a way to leave its home planet? Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis! 
Evolutionists Rabbi Slifkin! Evolutionists claim that the human brain is the end product of biological evolution over hundreds of millions of years. Actually, it's even worse than that. Evolutionists make the astonishing claim that the human brain began as a chimpanzee brain a mere 7 million years ago and evolved naturalistically to encompass mathematical concepts, ideas, logical standards and methods of reasoning! 

Does Rabbi Slifkin believe in Evolution? If so, what stirred him to proclaim Baruch Oseh Maaseh Bereishis when considering the human brain?

What is wrong with Rabbi Slifkin’s theology? The answer is, it makes no sense.