Tuesday, January 31, 2006

January 2006

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Torah and Blogs

In the recent discussion on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), some people accused me of hypocrisy. They claimed that my blog has many different styles, for example:

After reading your blog for 4 months, I have found 4 distinct styles of expression:

C - Cynical
H - Humorous
S - Songfull
P – Photographic

Now either these represent 4 different individuals or are products of what you ate for breakfast the day you wrote the text.

Yet my blog has only one author. (Actually, I was going to claim that my blog is really written by a team of people. But I decided against that since that would mess up my JIB votes, as I hold that multiple author blogs must divide their vote total by the number of authors)

Another commenter claimed that:

‘It is, in fact, rather odd for a blog which features so much repetition to see an argument against the single authorship of the torah based on its repetitions.’

Both these comments were cute, yet I am human. I have mood swings. I also sometimes run out of things to say and so repeat myself, or else I forget I already posted on that subject. Are these commenters really claiming that God has mood swings, that God forgets himself, that the Torah is in effect, God’s Blog (chas vesholom) !?*

Anyway, I still maintain that the DH is a bit of a red herring. Just read the Torah and tell me how it reads! You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (or a Bible critic) to see that it reads like a human book. Some parts are majestic, for example Genesis I, but other parts of very boring, for example Leviticus.

Orthodox Judaism has of course always maintained that there is a deeper meaning to the text. The Zohar goes so far to say that someone who thinks the basic meaning is the only meaning is a fool. Now you may be very skeptical of that position, but you really don’t need the DH to get to be skeptical. Just read the book.

For every DH based question, there is always a ‘frum’ answer. I highly doubt that there is any DH ‘bom’ kashyeh which doesn’t have an answer somewhere in Chazal, Rishonim or Acharonim. Chazal and everyone else noticed most of these issues in the text a long time ago and provided answers. It's not like modern analysis has uncovered some new text questions (except for the Science / Archeology / History questions). So it really boils down to which set of answers sound more convincing. And for most people, the answer to that probably boils down to which set of answers they want to find more convincing.

The Science questions however are more interesting since Science is new, so there isn’t 2,000 years of Rabbinical Biblical Exegesis dealing with it. With the Science questions, we get to make up our own answers and then debate whether they are kefirah or not. Such fun!

So is the Bible God’s blog? Could be. Or maybe it’s the Mesopotamian equivalent of Maven Yavin. I could live with that, as long as it was Divinely Inspired.

But I really hope it’s not the Canaanite Cross-Currents. That would be bad.

* Kudos to S for that phrase.

Science finds religion!

[GH: The New Scientist, a British Science magazine which always likes to have a go at Religion is at it again. This week's issue contains a special report on the evolution of religion. Emunah Threat Level High! Unless you hold all Scientists are just a bunch of atheist reshoim in which case there's nothing unusual here, move along.]

Belief special: How evolution found God
28 January 2006
Robin Dunbar

Do they know what God's thinking?
RELIGIOUS belief is a conundrum. In our everyday lives, most of us make at least some effort to check the truth of claims for ourselves. Yet when it comes to religion, studies show that we are most persuaded by stories that contradict the known laws of physics. Tales of supernatural beings walking on water, raising the dead, passing through walls, foretelling the future, and the like, are universally popular. At the same time, however, we expect our gods to have normal human feelings and emotions. We like our miracles, and those who perform them, to have just the right mix of otherworldliness and everyday characteristics.

Why are we humans so willing to commit to religious beliefs we can never hope to verify? You might well think that question falls outside the realm of scientific investigation. Evolutionary biologists in particular have taken their cue from their own guru, Charles Darwin, and studiously ignored the whole issue of god. But now that is starting to change. It's not clear what has triggered the interest, but a significant factor has probably been the growing recognition that religion is a real evolutionary puzzle. On the face of it, religious behaviour seems to be at odds with everything we biologists hold dear. The reductionist view sees us as merely vehicles for our selfish genes - yet religions embrace charity to strangers, submission to the will of the community, and even martyrdom. No self-respecting baboon or chimpanzee would ever willingly kowtow to the good, the bad or the ugly in quite the same way humans do.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for evolutionary biologists has been recognising that religion might have a functional advantage. If a biological trait has evolved, we want to know what use it is - and by that we mean how does possessing this trait make an individual better adapted to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation. That's not always apparent where religion is concerned. But in recent years, evolutionary biologists including myself have come to realise that there are some important aspects of religion that do seem to have benefits.

Evolutionary biologists have identified at least four ways in which religion might be of benefit in terms of evolutionary fitness. The first is to give sufficient explanatory structure to the universe to allow us to control it, perhaps through the intercession of a spirit world. The second is to make us feel better about life, or at least resigned to its worst vagaries - Marx's "opium of the masses". A third is that religions provide and enforce some kind of moral code, so keeping social order. Finally, religious belief might bring a sense of communality, of group membership.

The first idea - religion as cosmic controller - seems highly plausible, given that many religious practices aim to cure diseases and foretell or influence the future. It was the view favoured by Freud. However, since religious belief does not necessarily enable us to control the vagaries of the world, I find it difficult to see this as the evolutionary force behind the origin of religion. Rather, I suspect that this benefit came about as a by-product once our ancestors had evolved religion for one of the other reasons - and thus had a big enough brain to figure out some metaphysical theories about the world.

The second hypothesis, Marx's opium, seems more promising. In fact, it turns out that religion really does make you feel better. Recent sociological studies have shown that compared with non-religious people, the actively religious are happier, live longer, suffer fewer physical and mental illnesses, and recover faster from medical interventions such as surgery. All this is bad news for those of us who are not religious, but it might at least prompt us to ask why and how religion imparts its feel-good factor. And we'll come back to that later.

The other two options are concerned with individuals benefiting from being part of a cohesive, supportive group. Moral codes play an obvious role in ensuring that group members keep singing from the same hymn sheet. Nevertheless, the sort of formalised moral codes preached and enforced by today's major religions are unlikely to provide much insight into the beginnings of religious belief. They are associated with the rise of the so-called world religions with their bureaucratic structures and the alliance between church and state. Most people who study religion believe that the earliest religions were more like the shamanic religions found in traditional small-scale societies. These are quite individualistic, even though some individuals - shamans, medicine men, wise women, and the like - are acknowledged as having special powers. Shamanic religions are religions of emotion not intellect, with the emphasis on religious experience rather than the imposition of codes of behaviour.

Social glue
In my view, the real benefits of religion in terms of evolutionary fitness have to do with the fourth hypothesis. The idea that religion acts as a kind of glue that holds society together was also favoured by Emil Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. Now, though, we know more about how this works. Religions bond societies because they exploit a whole suite of rituals that are extremely good at triggering the release of endorphins, natural opioids in the brain. Endorphins are part of the body's pain-control system, a slow-acting mechanism that takes over when the various neurological systems of pain control have peaked in their effectiveness. Endorphins come into their own when pain is modest but persistent - then they flood the brain, creating a mild "high". Perhaps that is why religious people often seem so happy. What's more, and here's the rub, endorphins also "tune up" the immune system, which probably explains why religious people are healthier.

This may be why religious rituals so often involve activities that are physically stressful - singing, dancing, repetitive swaying or bobbing movements, awkward postures like kneeling or the lotus position, counting beads, and occasionally even seriously painful activities like self-flagellation. Of course, religion is not the only way to get an endorphin fix. You will also get a high from jogging, swimming or pumping iron, but religion offers something more. When you experience an endorphin rush as part of a group, its effect is ratcheted up massively. In particular, it makes you feel very positive towards other group members. It creates a sense of brotherhood and communality.

Monkey morality
While this may explain the immediate advantage of religion, it raises the question of why we need it at all. The answer, I believe, goes back to the very nature of primate sociality. Monkeys and apes live in an intensely social world in which group-level benefits are achieved through cooperation. In effect, primate social groups, unlike those of almost all other species, are built on implicit social contracts: individuals are obliged to accept that they must forgo some of their more immediate personal demands in the interests of keeping the group together. If you push your personal demands too far, you end up driving everyone else away, and so lose the benefits that the group provides in terms of protection against predators, defence of resources and so on.

The real problem that all such social contract systems face is the "free-rider" - someone who takes the benefits of sociality without paying their share of the costs. Primates need a powerful mechanism to counteract the natural tendency for individuals to free-ride whenever they are given the chance. Monkeys and apes do this through social grooming, an activity that creates trust, which in turn provides the basis for coalitions. Exactly how this works is not yet clear, but what we do know is that endorphins are a vital ingredient. Grooming and being groomed lead to the release of endorphins. Endorphins make individuals feel good, providing an immediate motivation to engage in the activity that bonds the group.

The trouble with grooming as far as our own species is concerned, however, is that it is a one-on-one activity, so it's very time-consuming. At some stage in our evolutionary past, our ancestors began living in groups that were too large for social grooming to provide effective glue. Such large groups would also have been especially prone to exploitation by free-riders. They needed to come up with an alternative method of group bonding. In the past, I have suggested that gossip would have played a role, allowing individuals to perform an activity that provides a similar function to grooming but in small groups rather than one to one. But religion would have taken this a step further, allowing larger groups to bond.

It is important to emphasise, however, that if this account of the origins of religion is right, then it began very much as a small scale phenomenon. Perhaps early religious practices included something like the trance dances found in shamanistic-type religions today. The !Kung San of southern Africa, for example, seek to heal rifts in personal relationships within the community by using music and repetitive dance movement to trigger trances. It is easy to see how this sort of activity could have been beneficial to our ancestors, uniting the group, discouraging free-riders, and so increasing the chances that individuals would survive and reproduce.

However, there is one last issue. Religion is not just about ritual, it also has an important cognitive component - its theology. The endorphin-based group-bonding effects of the rituals only work if everyone does them together. Which is where the theology comes in - it provides the stick and the carrot that make us all turn up regularly. But to create a theology our ancestors needed to evolve cognitive abilities that far exceed those found in any other animal species (see "The origins of religion"). It is these psychological mechanisms that have been exploited down the ages by political elites in various attempts to subjugate the rest of the community. Marx, it seems, was right after all.

The origins of religion
Our ancestors did not always have religion, yet many religious practices seem to have very ancient origins. So when did religion first evolve? Archaeologists have long been fascinated by this question. One indication is burial. Some experts believe this began as far back as 200,000 years ago with the Neanderthals, but the motivation for such cacheing of bodies is ambiguous. So most archaeologists more cautiously define the appearance of religion by looking for evidence of grave goods in burials, since these at least unequivocally imply belief in an afterlife. Deliberate burials of this kind do not occur much before 25,000 years ago. Such burials imply a sophisticated theology, so we can safely assume that these were preceded by a long phase of less sophisticated religious belief. But without evidence on the ground, can we see any further back than this?

I have suggested that there is another way to get an unexpected insight into the question. It comes from asking what kind of mind is required to hold religious beliefs. Take the statement: "I believe that god wants..." To grasp this an individual needs theory of mind - the capacity to understand that another individual (in this case, god) has a mind of his own. Philosophers call this "second-order intentionality" because such statements contain two notions of intent: I believe and god wants. But we need more than this to build a religion.

Third-order intentionality allows me to state: I believe that god wants us to act with righteous intent. At this level, I have personal religion. But if I am to persuade you to join me in this view, I have to add your mind state: I want you to believe that god wants us to act righteously. That's fourth-order intentionality, and it gives us social religion. Even now, you can accept the truth of my statement and still it commits you to nothing. But add a fifth level (I want you to know that we both believe that god wants us to act righteously) and now, if you accept the validity of my claim, you also implicitly accept that you believe it too. Now we have what I call communal religion: together, we can invoke a spiritual force that obliges, perhaps even forces, us to behave in a certain way.

So, communal religion requires fifth-order intentionality, and this also happens to be the limit of most people's capacity as indicated by research done by myself and my colleagues. I think this is no coincidence. The majority of human activities can probably be dealt with using second or third-order intentionality. The two extra layers beyond this undoubtedly come at some considerable neural expense. Since evolution is frugal, there must be some good reason why we have them. The only plausible answer, so far as I can see, is religion. And that's where this line of reasoning can throw light on the origins of religious belief.

As far as we know, all other animals are locked into first-order intentionality, with the exception of great apes who are just about able to cope with second order. If you look at the brains of humans and other animals you find that the level of intentionality they can achieve scales linearly with the volume of grey matter in their frontal lobes (a particularly important part of the brain's processing units). This can be used to work out the level of intentionality our extinct ancestors were capable of - provided you have a fossil skull from which you can measure the overall volume of the brain.

Plotting these values onto a graph, the evidence suggests that as early as 2 million years ago, Homo erectus would have aspired to third-order intentionality, perhaps allowing them to have personal beliefs about the world. Fourth-order intentionality - equating to social religion - appeared with archaic humans around 500,000 years ago. And fifth order didn't appear much before the evolution of anatomically modern humans around 200,000 years ago - early enough to ensure that all living humans share this trait, but late enough to suggest that it was probably a unique adaptation.

In a separate strand of research, my colleagues and I have also found a relationship between the size of the brain's neocortex and social group size in primates. Interestingly, this "social brain hypothesis" predicts that around the time our ancestors evolved the capacity for fifth-order intentionality their community sizes would have exceeded about 120 individuals. Religion may have evolved to provide the mechanism for bonding them into a coherent social unit.


I finally made it into Wikipedia! Most of the entry is incorrect but it's still very flattering. Of course Wikipedia has about as much credibility as the JIB awards but still.

Thanks to tinokshenishbah for the effort. Had I written the entry I would have said the following:

GodolHador is an insanely funny yet deeply intelligent blog. The author tackles complex subjects such as the interface between religion and science in a thoughtful, thought provoking yet always humorous way. It was begun in January 2005 after the author started to read Hirhurim and DovBear and realized he could create a blog which was just as good, if not better. The subsequent Slifkin affair was a fortuitous occurence, both for GodolHador and the JBlogosphere in general.

In the beginning the author ridiculed Ultra Orthodox fundamentalists for their belief in Gosse and similar theories. However, after losing many debates with Skeptics on the same topics, the author began to realize that many of his own Modern Orthodox viewpoints were equally based on faith. The author therefore toned down his rhetoric and began to evaluate which tenets of Judaism were based on faith and which were based on reason. His search for a rational Orthodoxy continues.

The enduring success of the GH blog is not just due to the authors writing skills though. The fact that all subjects are open to discussion, no comments are censored (except for innapropriate 'pritzus' and cursewords) and that a very wide range of participants join in the discussions, from radical atheist skeptics to Lakewood Kollel nicks all contribute to the blog's success.

The author draws on his experiences in both the Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox worlds, and is married to the Rebbetzin Hador and has a growing family. He is employed by a large company which doesn't keep him busy enough, and therefore he has some spare time to blog. Due to a company re-org he now has a new boss and expanded responsibilities (but no promotion or pay rise), and will unfortunately have much less time to devote to his blog in the future.

Monday, January 30, 2006

How much faith do you have?

DovBear has a post about frogs. He doesn’t like the fact that some people believe the Medrash about one big frog splitting into many little ones. I guess the pesukim with Moshe doing magic tricks are okay then? I mean, Moshe was complaining that the people and also Pharaoh might not listen to him, so God gives him some tricks to perform. But what tricks? Turning some water into blood? Not a big deal, any magician can do that trick, just have a vial of dye hidden up your sleeve. Putting his hand under his shirt and pulling it out all leprous? Maybe he just had some white powder or something in there. And the snake trick is obviously easily duplicated by Pharaohs’s magicians. Okay, so Moshe’s snake ended up eating their snakes. Why didn’t God give Moshe some real tricks? How about levitation? Or something really spectacular? Probably the answer is that God still wanted to enable people to have the bechirah to reject the tricks or something like that. It’s all very strange.

Which gets me back to the discussion last week. You really don’t need to come onto the Documentary Hypothesis to be skeptical about the Torah. Just read the book! So why do so many people, even in MO land, get worried about the DH? I think the answer is that Orthodox Jews are brought up from childhood to believe in the Torah, but the DH is never mentioned. Then, later in life, they hear about it for the first time and it’s a huge shock to the system. Of course if they would step back and look objectively at their beliefs, they would realize that any belief in Torah MiSinai is a huge faith based claim, and the amount of Faith they already have (without even realizing it) is enough to counter the DH too. In fact, this is what eventually will happen with most people. While some skeptics think they can destroy Orthodox Judaism by circulating copies of ‘Who Wrote The Bible’, I think it’s not going to happen.

So how much faith is actually required to believe in Torah MiSinai? Of course this is highly debatable, with some Kiruv Clowns claiming they can prove it and no faith is required. But let’s try and make some progress here: I propose a faith measurement scale. Temperature is measured in Celsius ‘c’, and color temperature in Kelvin ‘k’, so let’s define the unit of Faith as a ‘kc’.

Let’s set the base as 0kc. 0kc is where no faith is required to believe in something. For example, for most people today, the fact that the world is a globe is a 0kc belief. (Okay, you still need faith that you’re not just a brain in a jar but let’s not count fundamental assumptions of the entire human race). Let’s set 100kc as the belief in something which is flatly contradicted by all the evidence. For example, to believe the world is flat (nowadays) would require 100kc of faith. Let’s set the mid point (50kc) as the amount of faith required to believe in something where there is no evidence for it or against it, or maybe equal evidence for and against. So for example, maybe believing that JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy takes 50kc’s of faith.

So how much faith does believing in Torah Min Hashamayim take? Some might argue it lies at exactly the 50kc mark. I guess Gosseleib and Keleman would argue it’s between 0kc and 50kc. Skeptics would say it’s somewhere between 50 and 100kc. Of course this would vary depending on the environment you live in. For some Bnei Brak cheder child, it would seem to be a 0kc fact. For a secular academic, it might be 100kc. You can’t expect people to get beyond their circumstances.

But let’s talk about the typical Modern Orthodox Jew. Where does Torah Min Hashamayim in the face of a convincing Documentary Hypothesis lie for them? Maybe a few points higher up the scale than just TMS itself, but there's really not much difference in the grand scheme of things. Where does believing that a single frog multiplied into many frogs lie? Probably at about the exact same point on the scale. So is there any point in arguing about the frogs? Then again, if your entire horizon on the scale is between 72 and 76, and you really like to look down on those 76nicks as being a bunch of crazy chareidim, then maybe the difference between 75.2 and 75.3 is a big deal after all.

It seems to me that the debate boils down to this: Does every decimal point on the scale count? Or, if you are in the high 70’s anyway it really doesn’t make much difference? I’m not sure. My gut is that once you go above 50, I don’t think there’s any difference, as long as your beliefs are fairly harmless and don’t cause you to drink the Koolaid. I know a lot of people will argue with me though, and claim that just because you have some faith, doesn’t mean you have to believe in every crazy bit of nonsense. As someone famous once said [insert your favorite Rebbi’s name here], if you believe in every Rebbishe Maiseh/Miracle/Midrash/Religious Claim/Story in the Torah you are a gullible fool, but if you believe in none then you are an Apikores.

I’m not sure what the Kiruv Clowns would say to this question. Would they argue that the question is flawed, since all of Judaism is below the 50kc mark anyway? I guess so.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dibrah Torah Keloshon Chamesh Bnei Odom

I was debating with Dude last night when suddenly I had a revelation (though maybe not a Divine one). I guess since it was Dude who was my muse I should call it a Dudevinian Revelation.

Dude maintains that the DH is worthless as evidence against the Divinity of the Torah, since the DH assumes human authorship from the get go, and then tries to figure out whether it was one human or multiple humans. However once you realize that the Torah is Divine, that kind of methodology is no longer relevant, since we have no idea how God might write the Torah.

Of course Dude’s reasoning is ludicrous, since *if* it can convincingly be shown that the Bible was written in 5 very different styles, akin to 5 authors, and the motives and methods of those styles neatly tie in to different periods of history, then for most normal people that would be a strike against Torah Min Hashamayim. We can then debate about whether the DH convincingly shows this or not. However you can’t start with the premise that the Torah is Divine, since that’s what the whole debate is about.

But it suddenly struck me that this is all somewhat unnecessary. What if the DH showed that the Torah was written by one author with one particular motive? Would the skeptics all suddenly become believers? Of course not! The DH assumes that the Bible was written by humans because when you read the Bible it looks like a regular book which was written by humans. Without the faith in Torah MiSinai nobody would look at the Bible and say, ‘Wow, only God could have written this!’ (Except maybe with some predictions and similar Aish style ‘proofs’, but I’m taking about form here, not content).

In other words. you really don’t need to come onto the complexities of the DH and start arguing about it. Just read the book! It reads like a regular book. It reads like a book written by a human. In fact, even Chazal acknowledged this. The amount of Faith one would need to counteract the DH (if the DH turned out to be convincing) is about the same amount of Faith that one needs to believe in Torah Min Hashamayim in the first place even without the DH.

Let me expand. We know the famous saying ‘Dibrah Torah Keloshon Bnei Odom’. What does this mean, in effect? Not just that God wrote the Torah in the language of man, but more so, that God wrote the Torah as if a man was writing it. And that’s pretty tricky. In fact, that’s really just as tricky as saying God wrote the Torah as if 5 people wrote it, there’s not much difference.

Does this mean the DH is nonsense? No, I’m not arguing that. All I’m saying is that believers in Torah Min Hashamayim don’t need to be worried about the DH, because a belief in Torah Min Hashamyim itself already discounts all the basic assumptions of the DH anyway.

I doubt Dude meant to say that, but he probably should have.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Scoop! Modern Orthodox Theology on the Documentary Hypothesis

[In which David G blows my mind. Again!!!]

David G is never short of interesting theories. Remember his famous ‘Olam Habah is Now’? That was a classic. Plus his theories are always (apparently) based on genuine 100% guaranteed non kefiradick Rishonim and Acharonim. I say ‘apparently’ because I don’t have access to the sources, and my intense yeshivah education only enables me to read Babylonian Aramaic and not Hebrew. Plus I’m too lazy to look them up anyway.

This time though he outdoes himself. Claiming to be based on impeccable sources, he basically validates key assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis and also Halivni’s peshat. See the following converstaion:

DG: Klal Ysroel as lead by their Rabbis starting from Moshe Rabbeinu to today, have accepted the text as it is and as divine whatever that word means. It is therefore seen as telling a story and interpreting it from its point of view. From a theological stand therefore, it is important to decipher what the point of view it is trying to convey….It is also the way I understand Halivni's explanation in Revelation Restored.

GH: Halivni says straight out that the text we have to day is NOT the original text (and he's not just talking about some minor edits either). He says Ezra reconstructed it from multiple source documents, hence the DH. Are you agreeing with this?

DG: So does Radak in his intro to Melachim (i think). That is exactly my point. There is a text that we,led by Chazal, accept as Divine and now we work with it.

GH: Whoa! Hold on just a minute. You seem to be saying that Ezra's reconstruction was 'Divinely Inspired' hence it was accepted by Klal Yisrael. Am I reading you right???

DG: No I am saying that the texts Ezra used to reconstruct were accepted as variant copies of a divinely inspired document.

GH: Again, so the Torah we have today is an amalgamation of differing copies of an original document. In other words it's not all the original Torah, there's some repetition, mistakes etc. But because Ezra was 'Divinely Inspired' we accept it as Torah. Isn't that what you are saying?

DG: That is an acceptable premise. see S. who claims its messechet soferim which i will look up tonight. It is definitely Radak. There is also a megilas taanis which is interpreted accordingly by I think the doros harishonim.

There you have it folks: Modern Orthodox Theology on the Documentary Hypothesis! You heard it here first. Nobody brings you cutting edge Modern Orthodox Theology like the Godol Hador does!

Now go vote for me in the JIB!

Internally Inconsistent

Different worldviews can sometimes be hard to prove false, especially if the basic premises are based on faith. However one area which can certainly be pointed out as specious is where the worldview forces its adherents into internally inconsistent stances.

I have noticed two such examples so far.

Example 1

Rabbi Gottleib dismissed scientific evidence of an ancient universe by saying it was all planted by God. Gottleib also goes to great lengths to show how there is compelling evidence for Torah MiSinai (TMS). However the evidence is clearly worthless, since that could have been planted by a different God. If the Scientific evidence is incompatible with Torah according to Gottleib, then in effect what we have is two conflicting sets of evidence. One set of TMS evidence, which requires you to explain away the Science evidence with the catch all excuse of ‘Ness/Nissayon’. And then another set of Scientific evidence which (according to Gottleib at least) would require you to explain away the Torah as being man made (since according to Gottleib you can’t say Myth/Moshol). So which set of evidence is stronger? Clearly the Science is stronger than Gottleib’s rather weak ‘worldwide fake story’ hypothesis. Gottleib is disingenuous and inconsistent. Either we look at evidence with a critical eye and draw conclusions from it, or we don’t. Choosing a weaker set of evidence against a stronger set of evidence is a faith based choice, not based on reason. You can’t have it both ways.

Example 2
Y Aharon and Anonymous both bash the Documentary Hypothesis for coming up with ‘implausible’ and ‘stretched’ interpretations of the text of the Chumash, which support the DH theory. Gimme a break! Y Aharon and Anonymous are the masters at inventing implausible and stretched interpretations of the text to support their view that the Torah must be scientifically correct. Remember the ‘Origins’ and the ‘Local Flood’ theories? I like Y Aharon and Anonymous a lot, I have a great deal of respect for them. So I say this lovingly: You guys are full of it! (Full of inconsistency that is.) Either take the Chumash at face value and accept the Gedolim’s worldview on Science, or ‘twist’ the peshat and legitimize the DH derech (if not it's conclusions). You can’t have it both ways.

Nishtaneh Hatevah! Aliyas Hadoros!

Time changes modern human's face
By Rebecca Morelle, BBC News science reporter

Researchers have found that the shape of the human skull has changed significantly over the past 650 years. Modern people possess less prominent features but higher foreheads than our medieval ancestors. Writing in the British Dental Journal, the team took careful measurements of groups of skulls spanning across 30 generations. The scientists said the differences between past and present skull shapes were "striking".

Plague victims
The team used radiographic films of skulls to record extensive measurements taken by a computer. They looked at 30 skulls dating from the mid-14th Century. They had come from the unlucky victims of the plague. The skulls had been excavated from plague pits in the 1980s in London. Another 54 skulls examined by the team were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose which sank off the south coast of England in 1545. All the skulls were compared with 31 recent orthodontic records from the School of Dentistry in Birmingham.

""This new research shows how bones... can provide more knowledge to the scientific community, and ultimately the public"" Professor Robert Foley, Cambridge UniversityThe two principal differences discovered were that our ancestors had more prominent features, but their cranial vault - the distance measured from the eyes to the top of the skull - was smaller.

Dr Peter Rock, lead author of the study and director of orthodontistry at Birmingham University, told the BBC News website: "The astonishing finding is the increased cranial vault heights. "The increase is very considerable. For example, the vault height of the plague skulls were 80mm, and the modern ones were 95mm - that's in the order of 20% bigger, which is really rather a lot."

He suggests that the increase in size may be due to an increase in mental capacity over the ages.

Repatriating bones
The study of human remains has previously fallen into controversy, and a report commissioned by the UK government called for human remains to be repatriated where possible. The ancient skulls used in this study, from which the radiographic films were taken, have either been reburied or are now housed in museums.

Professor Robert Foley is director of the Leverhulme Centre for Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University, and sat on a government working group which has drawn up guidelines on working with human remains. "The study of human remains can provide vital information about our past. There is a huge interest in our biological past - both from an evolutionary and a historical point of view - and research into human bones can tell us a great deal," he said. "This new research shows how bones, and even the records of bones, can provide more knowledge to the scientific community, and ultimately the public."


I really tried to resist plugging myself for the JIBs. After all, it's only a dumb competition, right? However Yaakov Menken convinced me that I'm wrong. He writes:

Media attention, of course, is an important part of providing that voice. If we aim to be the place you go to find a well-articulated Torah perspective on the issues of the day, we need to be “known.” That is why the “Blog Awards” contest is so important—not for our egos, but for our goal of becoming an important outlet for Torah thought to the world.

Hear hear! You must vote for me, not for my ego (chas vesholom), but for the goal of my blog becoming an important outlet for (rational) Torah thought to the world.

So whose the competition? JPost shows the following:

Never heard of half of these blogs, they certainly aren't that popular. DovBear isn't even a religion blog! Unless you call politics a religion, a mistake that many of his commenters make. I would (and did) vote for DovBear for Best Jewish Culture Blog and I would advise you to do the same. But not Religion. No Sir.

As for Renegade Rebbetzin, that's not a religion blog either. Its more of a 'Yap yap yap yap yap yap' Blog. Sure, if JIB had a 'Yap yap yap yap yap yap' category I would vote for RenReb. But unfortunately for her they don't. I took a brief look at Mah Rabu, didn't see much religion there either, also more of a chatty blog.

Beyond Teshuvah is very good I have to admit, but that's like 30 people. No fair!*

As for Cross Currents, that's not a reliion blog! It's politics disguised as religion. When was the last time you had a good hashkafic discussion on Cross Currents? Gimme a break. There was more religion on Mis-nagid's old blog than you will ever see on Cross Currents.

Nice Jewish Girl? An entire blog dedicated to being shomer negiah? Or rather not being shomer negiah?!!! If that blog wins Best Religion I'm converting to Mormonism.

Now Modern Orthodox Woman could have qualified, but she has an untzniusdick picture of Barbie. Thats not Religion, that's Pritzus! Disqualified.

That only leaves me, Lazer Beams and Hirhurim. Now Lazer seems like a sweet guy, but come on, he thinks plants can talk. Is that really the message we want to send out about the Jewish Religion? I think not.

So it's down to me and Hirhurim. I suppose Hirhurim is a Religion blog, if you call the Halachos of Vomiting religion that is. Personally I don't care for vomiting.

So the only logical choice is me. Vote me!

Show the world that rational Orthodoxy is what we want!

A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for rationality!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for freedom of speech!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for asking the hard questions!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for rejecting the dumb answers!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for Konica Minolta!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for Spirituality, Morality and fun!
A vote for Godol Hador is a vote for the future of Klal Yisroel, Bimherah Beyameynu Omeyn!

* Update: Beyond Teshuvah is hysterical. For example:

First of all let’s realize that if it wasn’t for the FFB world, we wouldn’t be here today on this website (obviously Hashem is the ultimate reason we are here). After all, the first BT’s of this past generation were merkaraved by Aish, Ohr Samayach, Neve, etc. All started by FFB’s. So we owe a tremendous hakaros hatov to the FFB world. Did we ever stop and think who kept the light of Torah burning the last 2000 years? That’s right, those FFB’s.

That's right you BTs! Don't forget that it was us FFBs who kept Judaism going through all those long dark years of golus. We were keeping mitzvos while you were quite cheerfully assimilating with the Romans and dancing with the Pagans! We were sitting and learning Torah while you were out drinking with the Christians! And hardest of all, we were eating Kosher Delight while you were fressing MacDonalds. So give us a break already and quit complaining about how you don't like being frum. Disqualified.

Why don’t the Modern Orthodox do Theology?

Hirhurim drags out an old letter from Dr Alan Mittleman (in reaction to a pamphlet about college) which bemoans the state of Theology (Hashkafah) in the Modern Orthodox world. Mittleman says:

Although the authors gingerly suggest that the yeshiva high schools expose their students to “potentially troubling theories such as evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis,” they also recognize that the high schools might “lack the resources to successfully implement this proposition.” Better, then, for it to be dealt with by the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. They are the ones who ought to “articulate sophisticated responses to the complex questions” raised by contemporary Bible scholarship, Jewish Studies, and so forth. But who are these leaders today? Modern Orthodoxy has no one approaching the stature of its late leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

This is an ironic statement, considering that RYBS completely failed to answer any problems with Biblical Criticism etc, in fact he stayed away from those topics completely, simply saying they never troubled him. I posted on that last week.

Mittleman continues:

There is a cautionary tale here about the neglect of theology. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics. It has written off the bolder elements of its own Hirschian legacy, let alone any ongoing engagement with modern philosophy, in favor of an increasingly otherworldly fundamentalism...

Actually the cautionary tale is more about the fact that Modernity doesn't jive with Religion.

Mittleman ends his article thus:

Perhaps American multiculturalism and postmodernism have blunted the urgency of the need. Perhaps the thunder on the Orthodox right has made adherents of Modern Orthodoxy nervous about the deep engagement with culture that good theology requires. Perhaps durable American optimism has persuaded them that you can have it all, contradictions be damned. Whatever the case, the result is the melancholy dilemma reflected in the “Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on Campus”—eager participation in the American dream, accompanied by unsettling American nightmares.

I think he completely failed to state the obvious:

The reason why MO don't do Theology is blindingly obvious - there's nowhere to go.

Anyone who tries it veers off to Conservadoxy and gets shunned, like Yitz Greenberg or similar. You can't possibly reconcile the Documentary Hypothethis, the Mythology of Breishis and the archeological evidence of Yetziat Mitzrayim and the conquest of Israel with Orthodoxy without either becoming a kiruv clown, a Chareidi, or a 'kofer' in the process. (I will leave it to you to judge which option is preferable).

I think we all know this. And I think Gil knows this too.

Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t do Theology on these topics because Modern Orthodoxy CAN’T do Theology on these topics.

Jewish Nation = Enterprise Strategy Team

When I first read the following, advocating inter-marriage, I thought Conservative Apikoris was nuts. Or maybe joking. But maybe he is neither?

Nu, what's so wrong with that strategy [intermarriage] ? Assimilate the gentiles into the Jewish people, and before long, you have a billion Jews walking the earth. No more worries about the disappearance of the Jewish people. Who cares about preserving a dinky little bulls*** tribal nation when the real prize is fulfilling the prophecy of the final paragraph Amidah, that all the nations shall worship God through the Torah.This can be done strictly through intermarriage and conversion of gentile women. (The gentile husbands don't need to become Jewish if they don't want to, their kids will be Jewish.) Other than being more socially tolerant of intermarried families, even the Orthodox don't have to change much else. Sure, the resulting Judaism will have a different flavor than if we keep to the tribalism we have now. But why should we care, such change will take generations, and by the time it happens, we will all be dead. And what right do we have to tell our descendants what style of Judaism they should practice.A billion Jews. All of the nations of the earth observing Torah. So many Jews that it wouldn't be a good idea for the goyim to persecute them. So what if the way they observe Torah isn't the way they're doing it in Flatbush or Monsey or Bnei Brak? Does anyone seriously think that the guys in Flatbush, Monsey, B'nei Brak, etc. are observing the Torah in the way that they did in Jerusalem during the period of King David?The Torah is always evolving. There's no real tradition to "preserve."

So what’s the problem with the above strategy? Of course it’s contrary to Halachah and the Mesorah, that goes without saying. But more than that I don’t think it will work. The whole concept of Judaism is of a small elite who provide the message to the rest of the world. Once you dilute the messengers, you dilute the message too. I don’t think such a program would achieve it’s goals.

I will illustrate my point with a moshol.

Large corporations generally have strategy teams. One of the main problems that the strategy teams always face is getting buy-in to their strategy. They are often perceived to be in an ivory tower, and have trouble getting the ‘execution’ teams to go along with the strategy. One solution to this problem is to dissolve the strategy team, or make it a ‘virtual’ team, i.e. every department is part of the virtual strategy team. This doesn’t work either, because when everyone is strategy, no one is, and everyone reverts back to doing their departmental tactical moves.

The nimshal is clear.

The Jewish nation is the enterprise strategy group for the planet. We set the moral and spiritual direction (or at least we are supposed to), and hopefully influence the rest of the world. The strategy team might not be a doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean we should dissolve (or dilute) the strategy team with a bunch of non strategic thinkers. Instead, we need to beef up the strategy team (with quality rather than quantity).

I told this to my boss last week, and he agreed with me. Though we weren’t talking about Judaism, I think he would agree with me here too.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Zero Tolerance Policies

Candy, Little Boy? (November 1997)
A Colorado Springs, Colo., school district says it did the right thing when it suspended 6-year-old Seamus Morris under the school's zero-tolerance drug policy. The drug? Lemon drops. Taylor Elementary School administrators called an ambulance after a teacher saw the boy give another student some candy, which was a brand teachers didn't recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," a district spokesman said. "It was from a health-food store." A spokesman for St. Claire's Lemon Tarts, however, noted that the candy is indeed sold in Colorado's largest grocery store chain. School officials were not impressed, and not only upheld the half-day suspension, but told the boy's mother that a child who brings candy to school is comparable to a teen who takes a gun to school. (UPI)

Rocket Scientist (March 1999)
David Silverstein, 13, was inspired to build a model rocket after seeing the movie "October Sky", a biography of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam. The boy took his rocket, made out of a potato chip canister and fueled with three match heads, to his Glendale, Ariz., school, where it was found in a search of his locker. School officials classified the toy as a "weapon" and suspended him for the rest of the year based on its "zero-tolerance" weapons policy. The police were also called, and the case is being referred to juvenile authorities. (Arizona Republic)

Bang-Bang, You're Brain-Dead (April 1999)

Administrators saw three students at the Union Colony Charter School in Greeley, Colo., playing with a water gun. According to the school's interpretation of the state's "zero tolerance" weapons law -- which mandates suspension of students who "carry, bring, use or possess a firearm or firearm facsimile at school" -- the unnamed boys have been suspended. According to standard practice in "weapons" cases, the boys must now face expulsion hearings. (UPI)

We are all familiar with Zero Tolerance Policies (ZTPs). They are usually instituted after some kind of awful event, for example the Columbine school massacre. Everyone knows that ZTPs are over the top, extreme and unwarranted under normal circumstances. However the rationale behind a ZTP is similar to the Rambam’s advice on breaking bad middos; if you swing to the other extreme, eventually you may balance out and end up back in the middle.

So what’s my point? Maybe recent bans are simply ZTPs. The Gedolim, concerned that secularism is making inroads into Chareidism, are applying a ZTP to anything they perceive to be non mainstream. They realize it’s extreme, but feel it’s warranted under the circumstances. The problem is of course that ZTPs don’t usually work very well. They usually result in absurd stories like those above, and eventually they get repealed. The ZTP is a quick fix designed to make the electorate happy. However a real long term solution requires much deeper thought than a knee jerk ban.

So what is the real long term solution to secularism? I saw in a comment recently (sorry forgot who or where) that the problem in today’s yeshivot is the fact that (Orthodox) Jewish values are not well taught. Everyone is hammered over the head with Halachah and Gemarah, but the core values of Judaism are secondary. Personally, I would agree with that, at least with respect to my own education. Of course it’s a lot easier to teach a 15 year old a text than values, which may be the cause of the problem.

Some might say that with the overwhelming focus on the minutae of law, the values get lost in the process. (Didn’t someone called Paul once say that?) One of the fundamentals of Judaism is that practice is paramount, and mitoch sheloh lishmah bah lishmah. I really believe in that, and a Judaism consisting of values and no prax will soon become a Judaism consisting of nothing at all. We need the prax, but we need the values too.

I guess what I’m advocating is that schools and yeshivot pay more attention to the contrast between a religious worldview and a secular worldview, and highlite the differences. Maybe a secure and confident Orthodoxy won’t need to run so quickly to implement Zero Tolerance Policies.

Chassan Domim

There are various strange bits in the Torah, but the strangest of all (in my humble opinion) is the Chassan Domim story in last week's parashah. Artscroll translates the posuk as 'Hashem tried to kill Moshe', but then in the commentary goes to some length describing how it was an angel and to do with Bris Milah etc. All very strange and cryptic. I would guess that the Bible Critics have a field day with this story, but I don't read Bible Criticism (chas vesholom).

S, what say you?

Kenneth Seeskin is Da Man!

I just started reading ‘Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides’ by Kenneth Seeskin. What an awesome book, highly recommended. It is expensive though: $55 for less than 200 pages. Seeskin is a philosophy professor at Northwestern, and has published a number of interesting books on the Rambam, all of which I just ordered from Amazon (don’t tell the Rebbetzin). His books include:

Maimonides on the Origin of the World (Cambridge UP, 2005)
Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2001)
Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides (Oxford UP, 2000)
Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age (SUNY Press)
Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed (Behrman House).

I don’t think Seeskin is frum, but I assume he is Jewish. His book reads like a sefer in part, not at all like a dry academic or critical study. Here is one passage:

Monotheism and Skepticism
If we define monotheism in terms of uniqueness and insist on a strict interpretation of the second commandment, we face an immediate difficulty: How do you characterize something truly unique? Recall Maimonides’ claim that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between God and the things created by God. If this is true, every time we look for something in the universe with which to compare God, we will fail. But if there is nothing with which God can be compared, how can we ever know God?

One way to understand the problem is to imagine a spectrum with uniqueness at one end and intelligibility at the other. The more unique God is, the harder it will be for God to fit our concepts or be subsumed under our laws. This Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways”. If our categories always fall short of God, any claim to know God is suspect. As Bahya says, there is an unavoidable paradox: The moment we pretend that God is near to our understanding, we lose God completely.

Wow! He quotes Yishayah and Chovos Halvevos in one paragraph. Gotta love it. Meanwhile, I am learning excerpts from various Rishonim and Acharonim and not finding it too enthralling. I guess that’s a bit weird. Is this a bad sign? I still like Chazal though.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hirhurim: We must always be open to re-evaluation

Hirhurim has a rather strange post about Louis Jacobs and the Slifkin affair. Louis Jacobs is a famous English Rabbi, who though Orthodox (at least originally), accepted the Documentary Hypothesis, and called the Torah 'Man's account of Divine Revelation'. In other words, he believed in Torah Min Hashamayim in the broader sense, but felt that the text of the Torah was man made. Not a position that I don't neccessarily have some sympathy with. I can't really see what Gil's point is, except that both Jacobs and Slifkin came from Manchester, England and were both branded heretics.

Hirhurim says:

We -- meaning this writer but not necessarily only me -- have dug into our trenches. This is, of course, ironic because I really have no opinion on the age of the universe or evolution. I never particularly cared about it and am open to just leaving it as an open question. Are there other possible answers? Perhaps. But are we open to reevaluating our stances?

I think the most intelligent response to this comment was posted by 'Zem', who said:

Every day I re-evaluate whether mice grow from dirt.

Well said Zem.

As far as the facts of science are concerned, there's clearly nothing to re-evaluate. But perhaps there is a deeper meaning to Gil's post. Perhaps Gil is doing a 'Moreh Nevuchim' here. Perhaps the comparison to Louis Jacobs does have some symbolism. Perhaps Gil believes there was a lot of truth in Louis Jacobs' theology. Perhaps Gil realizes that there is something to be said for the Documentary Hypothesis. Perhaps this is Gil's point. What is true is not neccessarily always good for the masses.

[Update: Or perhaps not.]

Clergy endorse Myth/Moshol !

See here!

OK, so most of them don't sound very Orthodox. Or even Jewish. But it's a start! Now, can we start a Rabbi Letter project? How about this:

Within the community of Jewish believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Jews take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Jewish clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Guest Post from David Guttman

[Here is a guest post from David Guttman. Please treat David with respect, as I'm sure you will].

Rambam lists the mitzvah of cleaving to talmidei chachomim as number 6, placing it among the basic theological underpinnings of Judaism – Yichud, ahavah, yirah etc… In doing so he establishes this Mitzvah as one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism. To a contemporary thinker it sounds something like “trust me – I know what I am talking about”. After further reflection it turns out to be quite an important component of our theology. We are required to set ourselves the life goal to understand and know that there is a God who is transcendental and totally outside and beyond a human frame of reference. We come to this a priori as a result of contemplating and asking what is behind our reality. The choices are:

a. all is here eternally by chance without any cause
b. an entity caused all this to come into being.

To research and answer the question requires an enormous amount of effort in understanding reality and what is beyond it – but clearly, whatever the conclusion will be, it will be outside our normal experience and perception. A god that creates out of nothing, and is there before time and physical existence, is outside of the realm of a human being’s experience. So is the concept of eternal physical existence something that we cannot fathom. Knowing this, we have to accept that the answer will not be there at the outset – it will only become clearer as we move along in the process of discovery. I would venture further to say that the final answer is a multi generational goal of thinking humanity which with all the effort may be beyond its reach. A single generation cannot come to an acceptable conclusion, even less a single person in a lifetime. It is the ultimate goal of humanity as we say in our Tefilos during the Yomim Noroim. Even when a person thinks that he gleaned the answer, it is only a fleeting experience that seems clear for an instant and disappears immediately. That is the metaphor of the twirling sword – cherev hamishapeches.

The task is daunting and the Torah and Mitzvos are tools that we received, to use in the process of discovery. There are other choices – other philosophers have developed systems to help one along this process. The legitimate systems all have certain things in common – they require discipline, commitment and perseverance. Whichever system we chose we would have to rely on the knowledge accumulated during past generations.

For one to embark on this project of discovery and chose to explore knowing the magnitude of the problem requires a tremendous sense of urgency and a lot of courage. It is a much less daunting task when one is told that others have somewhat successfully gone this way and have left us a record of their conclusions. It is even more encouraging that some tell us that they have had some experiential insights. Although they can only share the outer layers of their experience, it is helpful to know that it can be and was duplicated, notwithstanding with some differences. It is after all a personal experience. “Keshem sheparzufehem shonos kein deosehem.” Avrohom Ovinu and the Avos are revered as the first who had the courage to embark on the search without the support of past generation’s experience. That is why “Echod hu Avrohom”.

This week’s parsha, God tells Moshe to respond to the Jews when they ask him who sent him and what is his name, that a transcendental God that has to be understood and known “Ehyeh asher Eheyeh” is the power behind Moshe. He immediately tells Moshe to further tell them that He is the God of Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov. Without that tradition that was handed down from earlier generations, it is a rare person that would be willing to embark on such an endeavor. That to my mind is Emunas Chachomim, not blind faith, but a rational and calculated acceptance of past experience related by people who have earned our respect and trust. The greatest obstacle for a person accepting this idea is arrogance. Meod meod havei shfal ruach and Ki toavas hashem kol gvah lev is the key to successful choices.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Is it ethical to be fat?

The Jewish Esisist, err I mean Ecicist, Ethithist, Esithist, Escithist, Esciscist, err guy who answers ethical questions, answers ‘Is it ethical to be fat, when so many people are starving?’ What a gevaldige kashyeh! Here are some kashyes I have:

Is it ethical to be healthy when so many people are sick?
Is it ethical to be smart when so many people are dumb?
Is it ethical to have money when so many people don’t?
Is it ethical to be alive when so many people are dead?

I think the answer to all these questions is probably no. We all agree that life is unfair, and yet we complain to God but don’t do anything about it. If we all starved ourselves and acted dumb, that would really equalize things.

I plan to start today with this dumb post.

UPDATE: Best part of the answer:

Some of our greatest sages were fat, and the Talmud relates that Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon had such large stomachs that when they met, a team of oxen could pass between them without touching them.

It's okay to be fat, because some of Chazal were fat! Amazing logic there. And can somebody please tell the ethicist that midrashim like these are not to be taken literally? Thanks.

Are Canon & Nikon toast?

From Konica-Minoltas Website:

Since July 2005, Sony Corporation (Sony) and Konica Minolta Photo Imaging, Inc. (Konica Minolta PI) have been working on the joint development of digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Sony, Konica Minolta Holdings, Inc. and Konica Minolta PI are pleased to announce that they have decided to transfer a certain portion of Konica Minolta PI ’s assets related to digital SLR cameras to Sony, and at the same time, that Konica Minolta PI will consign its customer service operation for Konica Minolta cameras and related products* to Sony. Agreement to this effect was reached today.

Under this agreement, on March 31 2006, Sony will receive certain assets from Konica Minolta PI that are necessary for the development, design, production and so forth of digital SLR cameras compatible with Konica Minolta PI’s “Maxxum/Dynax lens mount system”.** Sony will accelerate development of new digital SLR cameras based on and compatible with the Maxxum/Dynax lens mount system with a view to marketing these models this summer.

On the basis of its ongoing “selection and concentration”, Konica Minolta Group will concentrate on its core “business technologies” field and its strategic “optics and display devices” field and withdraw from camera business*** as of March 31, 2006. At the same time, Konica Minolta PI will partially transfer certain assets related to digital SLR cameras to Sony.

From April 1 2006, Konica Minolta PI will consign the customer service operations for Konica Minolta cameras and related products* to Sony, and Sony will implement service operations from that date onward.

* Konica Minolta, Konica and Minolta brand film cameras, digital still cameras, lenses, accessories etc.
** An original lens mount system to connect camera body and lens adopted in Konica Minolta Maxxum/Dynax series SLR cameras
*** Excludes production of digital SLR cameras and interchangeable lenses for Sony

So Konica-Minolta have announced that they are exiting the camera business and transferring all their camera assets to Sony. It has been reported for a while that the two companies were jointly working on the next generation of DSLRs, and that the new KM 7Di would have a 10 mp Sony CMOS sensor.

So is this good news or bad news? Takeovers are always difficult, because you never quite know what’s going to happen. However there are still many dedicated Minoltonians in the world, with a huge selection of Minolta mount lenses. And Sony have had their eye on the lucrative DSLR market for a while. This may be a master stroke by Sony. Their electronics expertise is unparalleled, and now coupled with KMs camera expertise it may be a winning combination. They can now take on Canon and Nikon.

What should I do??????

I think I need to ask a shailoh to the Beeyanheitcher Rebbe, the chassidic godol of the camera veldt.

UPDATE: The Beeyanheitcher Shittah for returns on Digital SLR's is only 7 days, not 14 like it is for other photo equipment. Dilemma solved!

Of Blogs and Bans

Great comment on S's blog from D.B. (not DovBear):

> Can you explain to me this hang-up in the blogspere regarding the various 'bans'

Because a blog is the antithesis of a ban.

D.B. 01.18.06 - 5:42 pm #

Very well said. A ban is all about the supression of information. A blog is all about the errmm, ahhhh, (darn it, whats the opposite of supress?) the errr, unsupression of information.

Mormon Nes-Nisayon

Quote from a Mormon blog:

'It may be that God removed any evidence of the Book of Mormon from the earth, in order to force us to seek faith. '

Isn't Nes-Nisayon great? It works for everything! I think I'll use it for my new Zoboomafoo religion:

'It may be that God (i.e. Zoboomafoo) removed all evidence of the Book of Zoboomafoo from the earth, in order to force us to seek faith (in Zoboomafoo)'.

Ah, you may ask, then why does Zoboomafoo still have a show on PBS? The answer is poshut! How can we understand the mind of Zobooomafoo?

Pope has more sechel than Gedolim III

Vatican Paper Hits 'Intelligent Design'
Vatican Newspaper Publishes Article Saying 'Intelligent Design' Not Science
The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican newspaper has published an article saying "intelligent design" is not science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school classrooms only creates confusion.

The article in Tuesday's editions of L'Osservatore Romano was the latest in a series of interventions by Vatican officials including the pope on the issue that has dominated headlines in the United States.

The author, Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, laid out the scientific rationale for Darwin's theory of evolution, saying that in the scientific world, biological evolution "represents the interpretative key of the history of life on Earth."

He lamented that certain American "creationists" had brought the debate back to the "dogmatic" 1800s, and said their arguments weren't science but ideology.

"This isn't how science is done," he wrote. "If the model proposed by Darwin is deemed insufficient, one should look for another, but it's not correct from a methodological point of view to take oneself away from the scientific field pretending to do science."

Intelligent design "doesn't belong to science and the pretext that it be taught as a scientific theory alongside Darwin's explanation is unjustified," he wrote.

"It only creates confusion between the scientific and philosophical and religious planes."

Supporters of "intelligent design" hold that some features of the universe and living things are so complex they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say intelligent design is merely creationism a literal reading of the Bible's story of creation camouflaged in scientific language and say it does not belong in science curriculum.

Facchini said he recognized some Darwin proponents erroneously assume that evolution explains everything. "Better to recognize that the problem from the scientific point of view remains open," he said.

But he concluded: "In a vision that goes beyond the empirical horizon, we can say that we aren't men by chance or by necessity, and that the human experience has a sense and a direction signaled by a superior design."

The article echoed similar arguments by the Vatican's chief astronomer, the Rev. George Coyne, who said "intelligent design" wasn't science and had no place in school classrooms.

Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed in off-the-cuff comments in November that the universe was made by an "intelligent project" and criticized those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order.

Copyright © 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Simcha Coffer & Toby Katz on Dinosaurs

I can never understand why people become so confused regarding the existence of dinosaurs. I don't know precisely when they went extinct, perhaps during the flood. But they were created during a normal (as opposed to a day-age) MB [Maaseh Breishis] and continued their normal existence until they became extinct. Many species have become extinct and many more are constantly becoming extinct. Once we had these huge elephants; no more. Once we had the ferocious sabre tooth tiger, an animal that would dwarf the average lion; no more. What happened? Where are they? They went extinct, that's all.

> I think they lived and died on Thursday or maybe Friday morning, or
> possibly lived and died during the existence of those "many worlds"
> which G-d created and destroyed before this one,

Why do you believe this? What's wrong with saying they existed 5766 years ago and subsequently went extinct? What empirical scientific evidence forces you to jump through the nebulous hoops of boreh olamos etc.?

Oh my gosh Simcha, you're right! There is no evidence that dinosaurs lived million of years ago. Certainly not any empirical scientific evidence. They probably died out in the global flood. Before then, humans co-existed with them quite happily, or maybe not. The Torah doesn't really talk about it but then the Torah doesn't really talk about sabre tooth tigers either, and we know they existed too. Probably they got wiped out in the flood also.

And as for Toby Katz's comment 'Maybe they lived and died on Thursday morning' I guess when day means 2.5 billion years then a morning is about 700 million. Could be, could be. But the dinosaurs went extinct about 65 milllion years ago, so that would put them more in the vicinity of late Friday afternoon, just before shabbos.

Skepticism is a lifestyle choice

Are the skeptics really willing to go the distance?

The inevitable conclusion of skepticism is atheism. Maybe weak atheism, but it’s atheism all the same.

And the inevitable conclusion of atheism is that there is no objective purpose or meaning in life. No objective morality either, from an ideological perspective (this is not to say that atheists have no morals, they leach them from the religious).

But it’s worse than that, there is also no you or me. ‘No you’ I can deal with, but no me? That would be awful. According to the atheists, we are simply mechanistic devices, lumps of gray matter and other goo mechanically responding to stimuli.

The appearance of free will is of course just an illusion, caused by the fact that the number of stimuli and other inputs to the brain is so huge, and the ripple effects of tiny changes can be so massive, that each person is a walking chaos theory (this argument works well with your spouse – try it and see!).

But it’s even worse than that. According to the skeptics, the appearance of consciousness and identity is just an illusion too. You and I are just mechanical, physical devices. There is nothing more to it than that. In fact it’s scientifically impossible (and certainly not rational) to think there could ever be anything more than that.

You may think you are conscious, but of course you aren’t, because a physical device can’t be. Unless you define consciousness as simply the illusion of thinking you are conscious, in which case you could be, but then that’s not such a big deal.

Not only that, but since you don’t have a soul there’s really no difference between you and animals. I mean both have consciousness, and both have brains. What’s so special about humanity? Nothing much, they are just smarter. Maybe it’s moral to shoot a meat eater? Probably, killing animals for food is murder, or at least an accessory to the crime. Of course murder (of humans or animals) is only subjectively ‘wrong’, and it all makes no difference in the end anyway, so you might as well eat that burger. Or kill six million people. Same difference.

Now the atheists will no doubt go on about how we can make our own meaning and morality, and it certainly appears to us that we have consciousness so we should just go with that, and so on. But this is as much clownery as Gosse Theory, or believing that the Flood story is about some local Mesopotamian river breach. It’s not very convincing and nobody is buying it.

The consequences of skepticism are clear:

No God.
No soul.
No purpose.
No meaning.
No you.
No me.

According to skepticism we are all just atoms, in various states of connectivity and activity. And how we got here nobody will ever know. I suppose you can try and make it sound exciting by talking about the wondrous universe and how we are all stardust and all connected but really that’s just Kefirah Clown speak. Everything is just atoms (or maybe quarks). Everything else is just an illusion.

(Though as illusions go, it’s not a bad one.)

Of course the choice is not just between Orthodoxy and Atheism, you could always try some form of Deism (i.e. belief in God but not revealed religion). However Deists are in a bit of a pickle I think. Just what does God want you to do exactly? I suppose they just follow their intuition and hope for the best.

Of the three world views, which would you chose? Skepticism seems a bit of a dead end. It’s also contrary to our evolutionary heritage, since it’s clear that man needs meaning. And Deism isn’t of much practical use.

So I guess the message here is: be true to evolution and chose Theism today!

Faith is a Lifestyle Choice

Warning: Emunah Threat Level: High
Warning: Depression Threat Level: High

Which of the following debates are pointless?

Debate A
Blogger1: This glass is half full.
Blogger2: No! The glass is half empty.

Debate B
Blogger1: I believe that Jesus is God.
Blogger2: No! I believe that Allah is God.

Debate C
Blogger1: All the evidence shows that there was no global flood.
Blogger2: No! I believe there was a global flood.

Debate D
Blogger1: Canon is better because they have a wider range of lenses.
Blogger2: No! Nikon is better because they have better autofocus.

Debate E
Blogger1: Pink Floyd are the best.
Blogger2: No! Supertramp are the best.

Of course all of these are pointless debates. In Debate A, it’s just two different ways of looking at the same thing. In B, the two bloggers have two different belief systems, and in C, somebody is attempting to use reason against faith (or faith against reason). D is pointless because everyone knows that Konica-Minolta is best, and E is pointless because it’s just a matter of personal preference, and anyway, everyone knows they are both the best!

But we need to think about Faith more deeply. What is Faith exactly, and how does it differ from reason?

I think it’s clear that all Faith is based on some reason, and all reason has an element of faith somewhere, if you follow the chain of logical reasoning far back enough. So is there really any difference?

The answer is that for any belief that one may hold, there are usually conflicting pieces of evidence, multiple ways of looking at the same piece of evidence, and variable weights that can be assigned to each piece of evidence.

A rational person totals up the sum of all evidence, for and against, and comes to a rational conclusion. If someone chooses to avoid the reasonable conclusion, and instead chooses to believe in something which is contrary to the evidence, or at least not supported by the evidence, or chooses to assign undue weight to one piece of evidence, then we call that Faith. Of course there could be some reasons behind the Faith, but that doesn’t make it reasonable.

I think it’s also clear that an unexamined Faith is mostly worthless. However examining your Faith is probably mostly pointless, since by definition when you examine your Faith all you see is how it's not that reasonable. If it was reasonable, then it wouldn’t be Faith.

Now some people, especially Maimonideans, will at this point argue that Judaism doesn’t require Faith at all, that Faith is a Christian concept. They will argue that Judaism expects one to be able to rationally prove the existence God, and presumably Torah MiSinai and the rest of the ikkarim too. Well, that may be, but unfortunately it’s not possible, so having that attitude doesn’t help much. In fact it probably makes it worse.

Yesterday I posted a comment from Rav Weinberg that the clearest proof for religion is the feeling it engenders. Unfortunately the Skeptics (correctly) pointed out that feelings are a very poor proof of anything, especially since different religions will create different and contradictory feelings.

So why do people choose Faith? If you really examine it, it usually boils down to one or more the following:

1. Nature
Some people just seem to be born with a strong spiritual side. Of course from a skeptical perspective, this can be explained from an evolutionary perspective.

2. Nurture
Most likely, the vast majority of people have Faith because that is how they were brought up. Christians tend to believe in Jesus, and Orthodox Jews tend to believe in Torah MiSinai. It’s rare to find an Orthodox Jew who believes in Jesus, most people don’t think deeply about the beliefs they were brought up with.

3. Appeal to Consequences
Many people believe because the consequences of not believing are too. These might be emotional, intellectual, spiritual or simply practical consequences.

It’s natural to think that we keep our religion because we have Faith. However, I think that really it’s just the opposite. We choose to have Faith because we want to keep our religion.

Is this a bad thing?

Well, that clearly depends on what the consequences of this choice are. If your Faith compels you to crash airplanes into skyscrapers, it doesn’t seem like such a great choice. (Unless your Faith happens to be the correct one, in which case you’re going to be having lots of fun in Heaven!) On the other hand, if your Faith compels you to do good deeds, then that seems like a good thing. (Unless of course your Faith is incorrect, in which case life is meaningless and so are all your good deeds.)

So, arguing about the consequences of your Faith seems pretty pointless too. If your Faith is correct, then the consequences will be eternal bliss, or similar. If your Faith is incorrect, then the consequences will be eternal damnation, or maybe just a lot of time wasted praying to nothing. Once could make a Pascal’s wager I suppose,and weigh up the different cosnequences, and be try be ‘Yotzeh LeKol Hadeos’, but that could be very tricky, if it’s even possible.

At the end of the day, the inevitable conclusion is that Faith is simply a lifestyle choice. We like our religion, therefore we believe in it, and also in the things that the religion requires us to believe in. Some people will argue passionately against this viewpoint, but I think it’s clear that it’s true.

It’s also clear that all of Orthodoxy requires Faith, not just Ultra Orthodoxy. In fact all of God centered Judaism requires Faith, since the evidence for God isn’t really there either. So is there any point arguing reason against the Fundamentalists when even the LW Modern Orthodox have to be Faith based? Isn’t that quite hypocritical? I guess so.

Some people will argue that at least Modern Orthodoxy is not contrary to the evidence, whereas Fundamentalism is. In other words, Fundamentalism requires more Faith than Modern Orthodoxy. I guess these people hold that Faith isa bad thing, or at least Faith contrary to evidence. I guess that is somewhat true.

Of course the debate then shifts to the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Har Sinai. Are these stories contrary to the evidence, or just not supported by the available evidence? Are these stories a case of absence of evidence, or evidence of absence? Although we are not talking about Scientific evidence, but rather Historical and Archeological evidence, it’s still a worthwhile debate. Probably the only worthwhile debate left to have.

On the other hand, even if it turns out to be evidence of absence, most Orthodox Jews, even some LW ones, would probably still chose to have Faith, so maybe even this debate is pointless. I guess I should just rename my blog ‘The Blog of Pointless Debates’.

Anyone up for some Canon vs. Nikon vs Konica-Minolta?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Faith & Doubt & Elephants

From ’Between East & West’ by Judith Bleich:

R Weinberg well understood the factors that foster skepticism and why it is that persons nurtured by Western culture and influenced by its value system question and struggle with certain aspects of religious law and teaching. It is at times the case, he observed, that, paradoxically, sincere qualms of faith born of intellectual integrity are indicative of a yearning and propensity for belief. …..

R Weinberg’s disciples testify that R Weinberg’s response to individuals struggling with such doubts was consistently understanding and sympathetic and that he shunned apologetics or evasive replies.

First and foremost, R Weinberg emphasizes that faith is nurtured in an atmosphere of intense and lively learning. He refers to the passion and intensity of Torah study, that to a Jew, constitute the quintessential religious experience.….

R Weinberg writes:

"At times, I think in my heart that there is no need for proofs of the truth of religion. A religious experience that generates excitement in the heart and soul constitutes the clearest and most convincing proof."

This is really the only antidote to doubt.

Live it, feel it.

If you don’t feel it, no arguments are ever going to convince you otherwise. If you do feel it, no arguments are ever going to convince you otherwise. Emotion beats Reason every time, hands down, no contest.

I feel the spirituality; hence I’m willing to go along with it, even with some doubts. I suspect that the skeptics are the ones who feel it the least, or more likely even have negative feelings about religion and spirituality. If someone despises Orthodoxy from an emotional perspective, can you really persuade them to practice it? I doubt it. Conversely, if someone loves Torah and Mitzvot, are you really going to persuade them to give it all up? I doubt it.

Of course if the only problem was ‘Western culture and its value system’ it would be easier to counteract it. The problem is History & Science. Actually scratch that, the problem is History. Science we can deal with (so far). So what should we do about History? I say live in the here and now! Live for today! Forget about the past! No point crying over spilt milk. Or spilt 5 trillion trillion trillion tons of water. It happened. It didn’t happen. Get over it already.

Now how’s that for a philosophy! A bit crap really. Oh well, at least enjoy this story about an elephant. (One of the non jumping kind).

While walking through the bush a man comes across an elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seems distressed so the man approaches very carefully. He gets down on one knee and inspects the bottom of the elephant's foot only to find a large thorn deeply embedded.

Carefully and as gently as he can he removes the thorn and the elephant gingerly puts its foot down. The elephant turns to face the man and with a rather stern look on its face, stares at him. For a good ten minutes the man can think of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant turns and walks away.

For years the man ponders the events of that day and wonders whether the elephant was committing his face to memory. Would the elephant recognize him if they were to meet again or would it forget him?

One day the man is walking through the zoo with his son. As they approach the elephant enclosure, one of the elephants turns and walks over to where they are standing at the rail. It stares at him and the man can't help wondering if this is the same elephant. Slowly the man climbs over the railing and makes his way into the enclosure. He walks right up to the elephant and stares back in wonder. Suddenly the elephant wraps its trunk around one of the man's legs and swings him wildly back and forth along the railing killing him.

Not the same elephant then.

Happy birthday to me!

This blog is one year old today! And I only started it as a joke one boring Sunday afternoon. From little acorns great oaks grow. Or something like that.

I must thank one special person without whom none of this would have been possible: Me!

Oh, and of course the Rebbetzin for not absolutely refusing to allow me to blog under any circumstances whatsoever.

I would also like to thank all my devoted readers, commenters and lurkers. And I deeply apologize to all the people I have offended over the course of the last year. Except for you know who of course. You suck!

I must also thank my producer, my writer, my hair stylist, the Beeyanheitch Chassidim and Nokia. And of course R' Rodger Hodgson and R' Rick Davies. Come on guys, can't you two just get along?

Also many thanks to corporate realignment initiatives, corporate reorganziation initiatives and corporate inertia, who provided so much time for me to blog with.

Somebody please call a doctor!

I think Y is feeling unwell. Or maybe his body has been taken over by an alien? Or maybe by Dovid Orlofsky. Y writes:

"Anything in the Chamishah Chumshei Torah that Chazal (and perhaps the Rishonim) have not identified as an allegory or non-literal is, perforce, literal and historically true. Otherwise, the entire structure of Yahadus falls. Someone in your position, who is convinced that the Mabul did not occur (c"v) as an actual Flood, must logically conclude that the Torah is not truthful, and, hence, that Yahadus is based on lies and distortions."

Otherwise the entire structure of Yahadus fails? Are you kidding me? Just what is your goal? The message you are clearly sending to every secheldick person who knows there was no global flood is that the entire structure of Yahadus has just failed. Are you nuts? Maybe your body has been taken over by Mis-nagid? Please, where is that doctor? We need a doctor! Somebody PLEASE call a doctor, now!

Oh no, it gets worse, much worse. Y writes:

"The fact is, if you start from the POV that Torah is a true historical record, given as such to Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar, the opposing position is the "given," and alecha l'havi ra'ayah"

Moiradick! The fact is, if you start from the POV that Zoboomafoo is the Lord and Master of the Universe, the opposing position is the given, and alecha l'havi ra'ayah. What the heck am I talking about? I have no clue! What the heck is Y talking about? He has no clue!


(Doctor Klafter will do nicely, thank you).

Boruch is Back!

Boruch Lokshenbrains is back!

I was so pleased to see that Boruch Lokshenbrains, an old friend of mine, has returned to the Blogosphere. Boruch, we missed you!

Baruch comments on a Hirhurim post about the Lakewood ban on the Internet, and said:

This is not about pornography. For one thing, many of the filters available have proven to be very effective at blocking pornography (although certainly not 100%). For another, kids have been using the Internet to access pornography for 5 years. Why ban now?

[GH: Why can’t the ban be both about pornography and kefirography?]

This is about ideas. The past year or so has seen an explosion in the publishing of ideas hostile to Torah (in fact, some of the people reading this are producers of such ideas).

[GH: Readers of Hirhurim producing Anti-Torah ideas? Chas Vesholom! Surely you jest Boruch. I’m not mekabel.]

You can filter out particular sites, but you cannot filter out ideas.

[GH: Huh? What sense does this make? If you can filter out the site containing the idea, then you can filter out the idea too. Or is Boruch aware of some new HTTP IDEAS protocol, which is able to bypass regular web filtering and impregnate the user with alien concepts?" Classic woolley thinking.]

Harry Maryles, founder, treasurer, secretary, vice president and sole member of Centrist Orthodoxy responded thus:

This is exactly where Charedim and Centrists have their point of departure,

Charedim are isolationists B'Shitah. They will not take a chance on the real world because God, forbid a stray non-Charedi viewpoint might be accepted by a Charedi. They therefore prefer to be B'Chadrei Chadorim so as to maximize any potential contact with any Hashkafa that is not in lock-step with theirs.

We who are in the "Center" believe we should hear all Hashkafos and then use our God given minds to decide what makes the most sense to us. Nor do we fear encountering possible Apikursus because we are firmly grounded in our Hashkafos.

[GH: Yeah, sure.]

For those who are Me-Ketanei Emunah [GH: I guess he means the Chareidim], we have to ask our selves why that is the case. What did they lack in their Torah education that raised such doubts? [GH: Uh, common sense?] They perhaps should not be exposed to streams of thought that may push them over the edge.

[GH: I think this last sentence works equally well if you put a period after the word ‘thought’.]

Additionally there are always going to be doubters that are easily influenced away from a Torah Hashkafa. They don't need the internet. They will find their way to Apikursus just fine as they have long before the internet was invented.

[GH: Not true actually. It’s a lot easier to turn people into Apikorsim through a popular web site, than going door to door. I should know! (Just kidding of course). ]

But none of this means that those of us who are strong in our Hashkafos should be denied learning about Hashkafic views other than our own... even Charedi ones.

[GH: I disagree strongly. We should not pollute the minds of our innocent MO youth with poisonous Chareidi ideology. We must ban it! But seriously, denying that there is any harm in Secular ideology is as goofy as trying to shield yourself from all of it. There is harm of course, since Secular ideology. History, Science etc etc do not match Orthodoxy. And they don’t match Modern Orthodoxy any better than they match Ultra Orthodoxy.

A well known blogger recently asked me to comment on some of BTA’s post regarding Shlomo, and the fact that the Bnei Yisrael seemed to have forgotten about Succot for several hundred years.

My response was that there are answers to all these questions in the yeshivah world. You can either view them as apologetic after the fact answers, or as lechatchilah answers which are emmes. I doubt you could find a ‘bom kashye’ for which there isn't some kind of answer. And there is always the default double whammy answer of ‘It’s all a ness’ followed by ‘How can you dare to question God?’ Of course a reasonable (skeptical) person would look at this and say NFW.

But you don't need to come on to talking about Succos for that. What’s more likely, there was a TBSP and TBSK given at Sinai, or an oral tradition and a written tradition which diverged over time, and the Rabbis worked hard to try and make it fit again?

And you don't even need to come on to that either. What’s more likely, a God appeared on a mountain and gave a chosen people some instructions (including rules about haircuts and pigs etc), or it's all a myth?

My point is, you have to have a certain level of belief to be Orthodox. And that belief is certainly not going to be bolstered by exposure to the outside world. It’s not about choosing which Hashkafos you like, from a menu of available options. It’s about the entire fields of Science, Biblical Studies, ANE Studies, Archeology and History not only NOT providing support for the Orthodox version of events, but in *some* cases providing evidence against it.

At the end of the day, I can’t bring myself to entirely condemn the Chareidi response to modernity, seeing as no one has yet come up with any good alternative. Indeed, the scion of Modern Orthodoxy, RYBS, didn’t address these issues at all. And I don’t see the Centrists making any great progress either. Please note that this is NOT an endorsement of recent bans, don't get me wrong. Requiring us to believe the ridiculous is not a good strategy either. However there should be some middle ground. It's just unfortunate that the middle ground is a double black diamond. That's all.

Rabbi Skeptic

I hate to see Rabbis humiliated, I really do. And if I was ever responsible for such a thing, I apologize and regret my actions. After all, it’s not easy being a Rabbi, ministering to other people, providing care, spiritual and moral guidance, trying to find a meaningful path in a crass, materialistic and somewhat secular world. (I say ‘somewhat’ because depending on where you live you may or may not be surrounded by religious extremists of many different denominations).

So I was saddened to see RYGB get destroyed yet again by Saul Shajnfeld.

I wish these Rabbanim would take my advice – don’t argue against Science! You will lose decisively. A much better approach is to follow Rav Kook and build the ‘Palace of Torah’ above Science. Maybe this time he has learned his lesson.

However it must be said that the skeptic’s alternative is not very appealing. Can you imagine a Skeptic Rabbi? What use would he be?

Lost Teenager: Rabbi Skeptic, should I do s-x, drugs and rock & roll, or devote my life to spiritual and moral causes?
Rabbi Skeptic: Whatever you want my son, it makes no difference. You’re just a random collection of atoms. Your brain is a purely mechanistic device, following nature and nurture influences. It really doesn’t make much difference what you do.
Lost Teenager: Woohooo! Thanks Rabbi Skeptic!

Recently Bereaved Widower: Oy, Rabbi Skeptic, my wife Sadie of just died of a horrible illness, and she was not even 50. I am so distraught. Her life was so tragic.
Rabbi Skeptic: Well you should know she has gone to a better place.
Recently Bereaved Widower: You mean Heaven?
Rabbi Skeptic: No! Her carbon molecules have merged back with the stardust of the Universe. Maybe some of them will become part of a new creature. I suggest you buy a dog.
Recently Bereaved Widower: (Sobs).

Cancer Patient: Rabbi Skeptic, the doctors only gave me a 30% chance of survival, what should I do?
Rabbi Skeptic: Enjoy it while you can. Party like its 1999!
Cancer Patient: Should I pray?
Rabbi Skeptic: Sure!
Cancer Patient: Will it help?
Rabbi Skeptic: No.
Cancer Patient: Oh.

Of course, the skeptics will rant and rave about 'appealing to consequences' and no doubt provide parodies of their own. I look forward to it. However deep down, they know I'm right. If the skeptics had their way, the world would be a bleak place indeed. Even bleaker than it is now.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Rabbi Sander Goldberg: Jews Smart, Goyim Dumb

On The Jewish Worker:

”Let me clarify what I said. I don’t believe Chazal knew modern science. However, they had the intellect and the analytical skills that had they decided to develop advanced machines and mechanisms (technology) instead of learning Torah, the pace of that development would have been so rapid that instead of these things emerging 1900 years later, perhaps they would have emerged in 100 or 200 years. Truth be told, if not for the draconian suppression of knowledge by the Catholic Church for 1500 years, even the goyim would have developed modern technology perhaps 1000 years sooner.


Of course Chazal were smarter; they were on a much higher spiritual plane also. That doesn't imply that they possessed greater knowledge of the physical world. But the greater the brain power, the more capable one is able to study Torah, understand its principles and put them together in a meaningful way that is most likely to reflect the Ratzon Hashem. A great component of the Syata D'Shmaya that Chazal, and Jews throughout the generations were endowed with is their superior intellects. The Gedolim of all the generations were usually geniuses. Once in a while an individual, who perhaps not considered an intellectual genius, but who worked super hard and with great Kavana, made up for his lack of brain power and became a Gadol anyway. I don't believe it was too common.

We see in general Jews are smarter than goyim. Perhaps more importantly, forgetting the bell curve, more super geniuses have come from Jewish ranks than from goyim. You will notice that historically speaking, science and technology took off starting in the early 19th century. It was exactly at this time when the gates to the ghettos were opened and Jews, who departed the Torah world, started investing their brain trust in the world of secular scholarship. We all know about Einstein and Freud, many are familiar with the Manhattan Project, whose top scientists were mostly Jews, but if you study the history of science of the past 150 years carefully, you will find a Jew behind almost every corner. I am not saying that was particularly a good thing, just a fact. Certainly Hashem chose Avraham and his progeny because of his Midos of loyality, kindness, and humility, et al. But it was also absolutely necessary for the Nation who would bear and teach the Torah to be brilliant in mind as well. Once that is the case, that brilliance is not somehow Min Shomayim restricted to Torah learning. It has helped the Jewish people survive in a hostile world, it has helped them to earn a livelihood, and even become rich, and when the doors to the universities opened up for them, Jews capitalized on their innate abilities and started to flow in. Chazal, in their day had the vision and discipline to direct their brainpower for Inyanei Kedusha exclusively and that is why we have much of the Torah Sh'baal Peh intact today. For this we must praise and thank Hashem, and commend and extol Chazal, but I don't think it is healthy or beneficial to fantasize and exaggerate about anything. Keeping the true picture in perspective is a greater accolade to Chazal than to attribute to them powers and knowledge that paints a false picture."

Hmmm. Well, it's true that Ashkenazi Jews have been shown to have unusally high IQs, but I'm not sure you can extrapolate that back to Avraham. Still, I believe it. His comment that 'Chazal could have invented modern technology in a couple of hundred years had they set their minds to it' is quite amusing. Of course once you add in that kind of fudge factor all bets are off. In an ideal world, with everyone working in sync, whats the minimum amount of time it could have possibly taken to get from the Science and Technology of 500 CE to that of 2000 CE? Probably a few hundred years, under the most ideal conditions. Not such a big chiddush really.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Problem with Orthodoxy is ......

Enigma_4U said:

I don't know where you live, GH, but in my neck of the woods, frumkeit is oppressive, demanding and constantly striving for even more strintengy vis-a-vis Halakha. Where I live, reading your blog is looked upon with disapproval. Expressing doubts in creationism can get my children ousted from school. Wearing jeans puts your morality into question. Not installing a filter on your water faucet stamps your identity card with the word "sinner" in bold letters. My neighbor's car has a bumper-sticker saying: Seven days without prayer makes one weak. It may be clever, but it makes me want to bash his windshield with a baseball bat. I'd like to see you come up with a viable Plan C.

This is THE problem with you militant skeptics. You all live in the middle of Boro Park or Monsey. How ridiculous is that! No wonder you have issues with Orthodoxy. Notice how much more relaxed Holy Hyrax is, out on the West Coast. And I'm totally relaxed and I live nowhere near New York.

Orthodoxy is not your problem, Brooklyn is.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Advice for Skeptics

Some people have been complaining to me that this blog has become a skeptics hangout, and is not a place where one is able to have a serious discussion of Torah & Science issues. Well, it’s true that I do seem to attract a lot of skeptics. They all seem to think that I’m about to join their ranks and become fully fledged atheist-orthopraxical. But that's not going to happen. Instead, being the Godol that I am, I shall minister to the skeptics, and try to help them with their doubts.

I certainly believe God exists, mostly because it’s incomprehensible to me that we and everything could be here without a God of some sort. Of course God is incomprehensible also, so I don't gain that much in terms of ultimate comprehensibility. But it makes more sense to me to believe that the Universe came from somewhere and my life has objective meaning, and I’ll let God be the incomprehensible one, rather Him than me. Plus the side benefits of this belief aren’t bad. Yeah yeah, it’s the ‘Goditit’ and ‘Appeal to consequences’ fallacies. So sue me.

As an aside, it’s interesting that many (but not all) of the hard score frum skeptics not only gave up believing in Orthodoxy but also in God too. I wonder had they grown up non-frum or Modern Orthodox if that would have happened.

Once I believe in God, its natural for me to assume that there is some objective purpose in life. Of course if God doesn't exist then there's no purpose, but I believe He does. So what is the purpose? How can we tell?

It might be that the purpose in life is to collect Supertramp albums. (In which case I’m doing pretty good, thank you very much.) Or maybe to watch all episodes of the OC (not doing so well there). Is there anyway at all we can tell?

I think that most people sense a desire to be morally good, and some even feel the need for spirituality. Also, all the world’s religions make competing claims about God and History, but they mostly all agree that you need to strive to be moral and spiritual (though they might disagree on the details and methods). There are some differences of emphasis on Bayn Odom Lamakom and Bayn Odom Lechaveroh, but then again you can find that within Orthodoxy too, so that’s no big deal.

So it seems to me that pretty much everyone from all walks of life agree that it’s important to be moral and ethical, and many people agree that it’s important to be spiritual. Who am I to argue? Also, these are the major goals of Orthodoxy too, so there is no major conflict there.

So next we have to consider religion. Is Judaism the one true religion? Did Sinai happen? Is the Bible the word of God? Do you need to keep every Halachah?

I have to admit that the evidence against some of this might be stronger than the the evidence for, though I haven’t personally researched all of this so I’m only going by anecdotal evidence. However that doesn't mean it's not true. You gotta have faith.

And now for some advice for skeptics. If you are seriously interested in reasearching all of this, I think you basically have to have a plan A and a plan B.

Plan A
Assume that Orthodoxy is (mostly) true, possibly with some changes, ranging from minor tweaks such as ‘Myth/Moshol’ to more major changes e.g. Some parts of the Torah are mans account of Divine Revelation.

Plan B
If the historical claims of Orthodoxy are really bogus, I would still claim that Judaism is one of the best moral/spiritual frameworks out there, offering many benefits, so it makes sense to stay with it. Plus you never know, maybe it is true. Could be.

Or maybe, even if it’s bogus God still wants you to keep it for other reasons. After all, if it’s a good framework which achieves moral and spiritual goals then why wouldn’t He want you to keep it? As long as you don’t occupy Palestine or do other reprehensible things in the name of religion it’s probably a good idea. Of course if you currently live in the West Bank or are Gay, it might be difficult to follow this advice. And if you are a Gay Skeptic living in the Shomron, then you’re particularly screwed in trouble.

But for the rest of you, this can work quite well.

The only a problem with this philosophy of life is that I ran this by another blogger, and their response was:

If you don't believe in the Torah (from Sinai) then being frum is ABSOLUTELY ridiculous.It's like being a witch doctor after medicine was invented. Sure it's nice from a communal perspective, cool, traditional, maybe somehow all that dancing and shaking around makes you feel better. But ultimately it's just foolishness. The day I stop believing in the Torah is the day I stop being frum. I hope and pray that it never happens but frankly Orthoprax is for the spineless.

I guess my advice to you is stick with plan A then.

Good Shabbos!

New! Frum Science

Steg posts about ‘Wrathful Dispersion’ Theory, a new theory rapidly gaining in popularity, that suggests that all the different languages arose because Someone (not saying who) deliberately caused ‘confusion of the tongues’. My brain is a little fried this morning from working on a PowerPoint since 7:30am, so I can’t figure out if this is just an imaginative spoof of ID or if there are really fundamentalists out there who are pushing this. The fundies are so loony that I wouldn’t be surprised. Ku-ku-ri-ku!

But this got me thinking, why stop at ID and WD? We should create a whole new ‘Frum Science’, which answers all the difficulties between modern Science and the Torah. That way, we can engage in Science quite happily with no contradictions at all.

Here are some of my proposed theories.

Global H20 Theory
It is clearly possible that at some point in the past (about 5,000 years ago), a major Global Warming Event occurred. This event, caused by the sudden appearance of about 5 trillion trillion trillion tonns of boiling hot water clearly devastated the planet and everybody who lived on it. This water also had some very special properties (which Scientists today are not aware of), and so didn’t leave any traces. It also all vanished. Where did this water come from? We don’t like to suggest any Names, but clearly it could only have come from Someone capable of magically dropping 5 trillion trillion trillion tones of boiling magic water on the planet, and then removing it all a year, leaving no trace at all. We believe that this theory should be taught alongside traditional geography classes, as it is certainly a credible and very scientific alternative.

Animal Communication Theory
Recent studies have shown that chimpanzees possess a remarkable ability to communicate. It is not a stretch of the imagination to posit that other animals posses such abilities too. For example, parrots can say a few words, and I’ve seen a dog on TV say ‘sausages’. So why not snakes? This theory suggests that a talking snake is in fact possible, or may have been possible in the past. We are not saying exactly who the snake was, or what he may have said, or who he was speaking to at the time, but it’s interesting to note that certain ANE texts do describe a similar occurrence, thus providing further evidence for this theory.

Genetic Lifespan Endurance Theory

Science has made great strides in genetics. It will be possible to some day clone a human, and even alter our genes so that we can live to be 1,000 years old. Today, the longest lifespans typically do not exceed 120, and no one has ever been recorded living past 150 in recent times. However this is clearly due to poor diets and lack of exercise. We suggest that in the distant past, when people ate better, and exercised more frequently, their genes could have been much better, enabling lifespans of 500 or even 930 years. We would like this theory to be taught in History classes. Or maybe Cooking.

Location Based Time Relativity Theory
This theory is an extension of the General Theory of Relativity. It suggests that time can flow at various speeds, which still maintaining the overall rate of flow. For example, 15 billion years could pass by in six 24 hour days. This is a difficult and non intuitive concept to grasp, but true Scientists understand that difficult and non intuitive concepts are the hallmark of modern Science. With this theory, it is clearly possible that the world is in fact 5765 + 6 days old, and those 6 days actually contained 15 billion years worth of time, while still absolutely and definitely remaining 6 days of 24 hours each, of 60 minutes each, of 60 seconds each. And the seconds are normal seconds too! But still 15 billion years passed. Isn’t Science amazing! We think so!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Skeptics get more schar than Rabbanim in the Blogworld

One the one side, you have a bunch of Rabbis and Rabbi types who are wasting everyone’s time with stupid and pointless discussions about evolution and the age of the universe. They are causing tremendous bittul torah and influencing large numbers of Torah true Jews to talk about Science instead of doing some real learning.

On the other side, you have a bunch of skeptics who talk about Torah and Hashkafah all day long, causing people who probably normally wouldn’t even learn that much to engage and think deeply and seriously about God and Torah, which according to the Rambam is one of the main goals of life.

At the end of the day, which group will get more schar? It seems to me that the skeptics will get more schar, while all the Rabbanim are gonna get in trouble big time for all the Bittul Torah they have caused with their idiotic, waste of time, pseudo-science.

More Bittul Torah from Jonathan Rosenblum

Darwinism – Science or Secular Religion?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 11, 2006

In the early 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler set himself the task of battling the cult of science of his time. To his private students in London – mostly teenagers from Orthodox homes who attended public school – he first emphasized how circumscribed is the realm of science, and how little it has to say concerning the ultimate purposes of life.

Next Rabbi Dessler would show the inherent bias from which scientists too suffer. As one of his closest talmidim from that period, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, puts it, "So successful did this method [of revealing the hidden premises and bias] prove that one of his followers, if faced with a conflict between a widely held contemporary view and a tenet of Torah, instead of putting himself on the defensive and groping for apologetics, will immediately endeavor to bring to light the bias, individual, social and otherwise, which has given rise to the divergent viewpoint."

Who is he talking about? Maybe Rav Moshe Shapiro!!

Rabbi Dessler emphasized how the slightest self-interest is sufficient to prejudice the outcome of any decision-making process, and that this applied no less to scientific judgments than any other. He demonstrated the point by taking what might be a prototypical scientist for his example:

"Think of a person who, by the power of his intellect alone, wants to re-examine some fundamental problem – such as was the world created for a purpose. . . . Let us assume that the person possesses a keen intellect, is well-educated and well-informed. However, so far as character is concerned he is pretty average. He has never seriously tackled his moral failings. . . . [Now let us say that] we are talking about a very comprehensive problem . . . . On the solution will depend whether he will be obliged to struggle constantly with his baser desires, . . . or whether he will live with no restraints on his desires apart from those he deigns to place on them. . . ." Can we seriously believe, Rabbi Dessler asked, that he will arrive at a true conclusion merely by the exercise of his intellectual powers?

No, he will arrive at the true conclusion through expererimentation, peer review, and the normal process of Scientific discovery. If you want to talk about truth, which process do you think is more successful: A worldwide community of Scientists all working on the problem with all the checks and balances in place, or a community of a few thousand inexperienced amateur scientists with incredibly strong pre-conceived bias to a literal interpretation of a 3,000 year old text. Don’t be stupid.

Scientists themselves have admitted their own susceptibility to various forms of bias. In his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes scientists’ resistance to abandoning a given paradigm until an acceptable alternative is proposed, no matter how much countervailing evidence has accumulated. Scientists are uncomfortable moving from a position of purported knowledge to one of ignorance. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the leading neo-Darwinists, discusses in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory the ways in which social and career incentives cause scientists to fail to fully grasp the import of the date they observe.

NOWHERE IS THE BIAS OF SCIENTISTS on more prominent display than with respect to the ever roiling debates over Darwinian evolution. Supporters of Darwin often find it convenient to obfuscate the extent to which they view his theory of natural selection among random mutations as a full refutation of all religious belief. But others are more candid. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the best known present day defender of Darwin, famously claims, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." George Gaylord Simpson, another leading Darwinist, states the meaning of evolution: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."

Cornell University’s William Provine plays the role of the prototypical scientist in Rabbi Dessler’s example, proclaiming, "a world strictly organized in accordance with mechanistic principles . . . . implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws. "

These scientists cannot claim that these views are merely the outgrowth of the overwhelming empirical evidence in favor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That theory rests not on empirical observation but on a priori assumptions. In a 1981 lecture at the American Museum of Natural History, Colin Patterson, the chief paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum, observed that both creationism and Darwinian observation are scientifically vacuous concepts, which are held primarily on the basis of faith. Patterson related that he had asked the members of an evolutionary morphology seminar at the University of Chicago to tell him just one thing about evolution that they knew to be true. The response was a long and embarrassed silence.

The scientific naturalism of the Darwinists – the belief that everything can be explained by natural, material forces -- is ultimately founded on rhetorical legerdemain that has nothing to do with science. First step: exclude all non-natural causes as a priori inadmissible. Second step: If Darwinian evolution were true, it would explain the observed taxonomic similarities between different living things. Third step: Since no alternative explanation currently exists to explain those phenomena, Darwinism must be true. (This step, to which Darwinists inevitably have recourse whenever the holes in the theory are pointed out, Philip Johnson astutely notes in Darwin on Trial, is the equivalent of preventing a criminal defendant from presenting an alibi until he can produce the real criminal.) Fourth step: Since Darwinism is true, all explanations based on non-natural causes are vanquished. Note how that which was a priori excluded at the outset is now deemed to have been somehow disproved.

Of course this is how Science works, how else could it work? But none of this has anything to do with evolution being true or false. What exactly is your point JR? You are falling into the silly fundamentalists trap of trying to fight Science. Instead you should embrace Science, but have a proper emunah that this is how God set things up.

Let’s say the Scientists figure out that the odds of life evolving are quite good, considering the way the Universe works. Does that disprove God in any way? Wouldn’t that be MORE of a proof for God, that our Universe is set up for Life? Whichever way you look at it, there is the same amount of proof for God (and it's not 100% either way, but that's a different discussion).

If life is highly improbable, then that can ‘prove’ (not really but you know what I mean) God was involved in jumpstarting it. If life is highly probable, then that 'proves' God was involved in setting up this universe. The only way out of this is to posit an infinite number of Universes, and that just a few happened to produce life. But there is no way we are ever going to prove that, so you can rest comfortably. Really, there is no point at all in attacking the concept of evolution. None.

Colin Patterson was right that the Darwinian theory of life developing through trillions of micromutations, sifted by natural selection, is not scientific. A scientific theory, as defined by Karl Popper, must be falsifiable. When Einstein introduced his General Theory of Relativity, for instance, he offered at the same time a series of bold predictions based on the theory and by which it could be tested.

Instead of constructing such tests for their theory, Darwinists start by assuming the truth of theory and then looking for corroboration, a travesty of Popper’s definition of science. Studies of the fossil record, for instance, that fail to buttress the theory are deemed failures and never published. Gareth Nelson of the American Museum of National History describes the process by which Darwinian "ancestors" are picked: "We’ve got to have some ancestors. We’ll pick those. Why? Because we know that they have to be there, and these are the best candidates. That’s by and large how it has worked. I’m not exaggerating."

According to Darwin, whales, rats, human beings, dophins and tigers all descended from a common small mammal. But the claimed creative power for natural selection has never been observed. The argument for such a power is based on wild extrapolation from the observation that black moths fare better vis-à-vis their natural predators against a sooty backdrop and light colored moths do better against a cleaner backdrop. The fact that different traits within one species may provide a comparative advantage in certain circumstances, however, is a very far cry from proving that natural selection can create new species or account for the vast differences between different species of mammals.

Nor have the Darwinists shown how natural selection could have produced complex systems based on interaction of many separate parts, none of which parts would offer any comparative advantage by itself. The human eye, hemoglobin, the avian feather, the poison of the blowfish (in which neither the poison nor the delivery system would confer any advantage absent the other) are just a few of the large number of examples that cannot be explained. The best Darwinists can offer in response are what Harvard professors Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin call "just-so" stories about how each of the postulated (but never observed) changes in each part of the system conferred some advantage.

Darwin’s theory of gradual change through micromutations filtered through natural selection is filled with holes. Darwin’s theory predicts a vast number of transitional types. But those transitional types are largely absent from the fossil record. Species and groups of species appear suddenly in the fossil record rather than at the end of a chain of evolutionary links. Gould calls the rarity of transitional forms "the trade secret of paleontology. Admits Niles Eldridge, "We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports the story of gradual adoptive change, all the while knowing that it has not."

Darwin himself stated "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive mutations, my theory would absolutely break down." But the fossil record fails to provide, according to paleontologist Stephen Stanley, a singe example of "major morphological transition." Moreover, leading prominent geneticists and mathematicians have concluded that the number of necessary mutations to produce complex systems, like human sight is impossible.

So despite themselves, latter day Darwinists have had to introduce major leaps, or "saltations", into their account of the development of life. Thus University of California geneticists Richard Goldschmidt hypothesized that stable macromutations must somehow be possible, and paleontologist Otto Schindewolf speculated that the first bird somehow hatched from a reptile egg. To account for the problems in the fossil record, Gould and Eldridge developed a theory of punctuated equilibrium, which again introduced large scale changes.

The result, however, was to save Darwin only by rejecting his abhorrence of saltations – i.e., by introducing a deus ex machina in the middle of his naturalistic theory. The terrible choice facing would be defenders of a purely naturalistic account of the development of life is, as Eldridge put it, between maintaining Darwin’s theory, despite its notoriously poor fit with the facts, and positing models that require the "embrace of a rather dubious set of biological propositions."

That scientists are willing to engage in which such wild speculations, absent any mechanism explaining the large jumps in developmental stages they posit, only shows how deeply engrained is their bias in favor of purely natural causes. Some form of Darwinian evolution is, Philip Johnson puts it aptly, the "creation story of scientific naturalism."

The scientists could have spared themselves the effort of saving Darwin, for the effort to preserve a purely mechanistic universe ultimately breaks down in any event over the origin of life itself. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle has described the chances of fashioning a living organism by accident from the pre-biotic soup as roughly equivalent to that of a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and fashioning a Boeing 747. Even the simplest one-cell bacterial cell makes a spaceship seem low-tech by comparison.

Hoyle also discovered that the carbon, the basis of all organic life, could only have been created in the original solar pressure cooker because of the perfect nuclear resonance between two sets of simpler elements. His conclusion: "A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

Just what we always believed.

No, that’s only what the silly fundamentalists believed. The intelligent true maaminim realize that the mechanistic process of evolution is entirely independent of the question of Gods existence and role in the creation and development of the universe. Can you not get some sechel? Stop wasting your time bashing evolution. It’s irrelevant.

There’s only one key point worth noting: God created the universe with a plan, and is constantly involved with it. How He actually achieves that is anyone’s guess. I mean, we all believe in Hashgachah Prattis and that God sees all, it’s even one of the ikkarim. How on earth does that work? Does anyone have a clue? Of course not! We have no idea how a Spiritual entity interacts with the Physical world. And that’s the way it was with creation and evolution too. Arguing about evolution is a complete waste of time, not to mention Bittul Torah.

Why isn't this obvious to people like Jonathan Rosenblum? Or is he just catering to the dummies?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I'm willing

Like I said yesterday, in the bizzaro freak show that is the Avodah discussion group, people come up with new Breishis theories all the time. You gotta love it. Shame about all that bittul Torah though. Here's the latest work of genius:

I'm not among those who say the dinosaurs never existed. Nor am I among those who are sure that they did. Rather, I admit that I do not know, and have not been convinced either way.

That said, I hope it's okay for me to respond on behalf of "those who say they didn't":

G-d put them there. He did it for a reason, and that reason might well have been something OTHER than "to test us".

Specifically, perhaps He put them there so that scientists could someday come and find them and study them, and learn things that would not be known otherwise. I must admit that I do not know of any examples of this knowledge, but I'd bet that some medical discoveries have come from comparing dinosaurs with other animals. If so, then it doesn't really matter whether the dinosaur actually existed or not. What *does* matter, is that HaShem has provided us with a source of information about how to run the world better.

Perhaps there was a way He could have given us this knowledge without resorting to what appears as trickery. Or maybe not. In any case, I am willing to accept the *possibility* that the truth is somewhere along these lines.

[Name withheld to protect the clueless]

How cool is that! The dinosaur bones were planted not to test us (as presumably that would be a silly notion), but rather to provide us with a source of medical information! Chasdei Hashem. Just one question, couldn't God have given us the info in some other way, rather than by creating fake bones? Oh, I forgot, we cannot question God's ways. Silly me.

How about we have a little competition. The most creative explanation for the fake dinosaur bones wins a prize of ..... a dinosaur bone! (Don't get too excited, it's probably fake). But I'm willing to accept the *possibility* you could sell it for medical research and make a fortune!

Heck I'm willing to accept the *possibility* of just about anything. I mean, since God can do anything, and since we cannot question what God does, then in theory anything at all is possible, right? My logic is irrefutable.

There is no Science in Torah, but there is Torah in Science

It’s pretty obvious that there is no Science in Torah, it’s just not there. Maybe you can find some obscure Midrashim talking about people originally having tails, or maybe some Kabbalistic statement about previous generations, but if you are looking for the theory of relativity, or a detailed description of genetics you are not going to find it in Torah. Instead all you will find is a bunch of lunatic Canadian Rabbis (and one Comp Sci guy) thinking they know more about evolution and physics than all the world’s evolutionary biologists and physicists. Yeah, right. And I’m the world expert on Science and Torah. Wait a minute, I am the world expert on Science and Torah!

True, Leo Levi did write a book called ‘The Science in Torah', but he was just joking. And some other guy (I forget his name) wrote a book called ‘The Science of Torah, but he got banned so forget about him

David G asks me:

‘If you agree that there is no Science in Torah, yet there is Torah in Science, then why are you wasting time attacking the idiots? Work on finding God within Science. What I mean is try to figure how a religious man should interpret ontologically the scientific facts of our time.’

This sounds like an excellent idea, and maybe something that people writing Science and Torah books should take heed of. I mean, it’s not like the fundamentalists are ever going to be convinced by reality (or common sense). So instead of trying to convince them of the truth of Science we should instead focus our efforts on figuring out the meaning of evolution from a religious standpoint.

Why did God create the world through billions of years of evolution? What’s the message? What about the dinosaurs? What about the Neanderthals? What about the cave men? (The real ones, not the ones in Kollel – Just kidding).

Maybe it’s time that someone wrote a book called ‘The Torah in Science’! It could show how amazing God is by looking at the Creation. Yes, Avigdor Miller wrote some books like that, but he ruined it by being an idiot fundamentalist when it came to evolution and the like.

The problem is, we have no idea what the Torah in Science is. And it’s not like we have much of a Mesorah on this subject to draw inspiration from. I have heard brave souls advance explanations for some of the above questions, but they were kinda lame. In truth I don’t think anyone is really going to come up with anything spectacular here. So while there may well be Torah in Science, it’s going to be very difficult figuring out what it is. Is it even worth the effort trying?

Why Avodah is Bittul Torah

Seems like I have upset some of the Avodah regulars. Not sure why, was it my 'bizzaro freak show' comment?! Could be. Anyway, my apologies to you guys, I'm sure you are all a swell bunch of people. However I stand by my contention that the endless discussions on Evolution and the Age of the Universe are Bittul Torah.

One of my commenters asked me:

'No offense GH, but do you have any idea from the science point of view? Of either side - support or against evolution?'

Sure I do, at a basic level, but it's irrelevant. Judaism is not about Science. It's bittul zman to discuss the Science in detail, unless (a) You need to for Parnosoh or (b) You get to a better appreciation of Ahavas (or Yiras) Hashem through understanding the incredible (and seemingly natural) way that God evolved the Universe from 'nothing' more than a tiny point of energy.

But jumping through hoops to try and disprove the Scientists is idiotic, they are the experts, not some Rav in Toronto, or some Rishon living 1,000 years ago.

I have faith that God created the world. The exact process by which He did it is the domain of Science, not Religion. Arguing against evolution, an ancient universe or a non global flood is not only moronic, but clearly bittul Torah as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

New Breishis Theory - Mystical/Moshol

The problem with religious Jews who worry about evolution is that they are acting like a bunch of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are dogmatically stuck with the plain meaning of Scripture rather than like frum Jews who have inherited an oral Torah - including mystical traditions. According to the first Mishnah in the second chapter of Hagigah, Ma'aseh Bereishit [Creation] is something so deep, mystical and dangerous that it can only be taught to one student at a time. The plain meaning of the first chapter of Genesis, on the other hand, is regularly taught to classes consisting of dozens of elementary school students. How in the world could any frum Jew mistake a child's reading of Genesis - with its literal days and literal acts of special creation - for the genuine *adult* Jewish understanding of creation alluded to by the Mishnah? The problem with Jews who worry about evolution is not that they are insufficiently rational, but rather that they are insufficiently mystical. On this issue, also check out Rav A.Y. Kook ztz"l's Iggrot 91,134,478 - all conveniently available in English in Tzvi Feldman's ‘Rav A.Y. Kook: Selected Letters’.

Berel Dov Lerner.

This is quite an interesting comment. Ironically, Slifkin’s mehalech in Breishis was quite a mystical one, based on Rav Dessler, but that didn’t help him much. Then again, my sources tell me that the Gedolim were never so concerned about the whole Breishis thing anyway, and they were more bothered about Chazal not knowing Science.

I hesitate to endorse the Mystical theory for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m not quite sure about mysticism in general. Secondly, a skeptic might say that the reason Chazal held the first part of Breishis is mystical is because they didn’t know what it was talking about. However if I were to curb my skepticism for a minute, and maintain an open mind, I guess I could see it. It’s certainly preferable to Ness-Nissayon, and it's basically a variant of Myth/Moshol anyway.

In fact, if we just rename Myth/Moshol to Mystical/Moshol maybe we have a winner!

Must Not See TV

Oh come all ye faithless

A new series depicts religion as dangerous bunk. But is presenter Richard Dawkins just preaching to the converted? By Stephen Phelan

WHEN it comes to the question of its own existence, humanity is roughly divided between three possible answers: “Creation.” “Evolution.” Or, “Don’t know.” In competing for the largest possible audience share, television networks now generally cater to viewers whose beliefs fall into each of those categories, while trying not to alienate any of them. Which makes programmes such as The Root Of All Evil? so rare as to seem almost revolutionary. This new two-part documentary, which begins on Channel 4 tomorrow, asserts that there is no safe or defensible middle ground between science and religion, its thesis being that even the moderate followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are deluded, defective and potentially dangerous.
As writer and presenter of the films, subtitled The God Delusion and The Virus Of Faith, Professor Richard Dawkins agrees that “polemic” is the only word for them. “There are different ways of making a programme like this,” says Dawkins. “One would be to let each viewpoint speak for itself and be very even-handed, which is what the BBC has very often had to do. The other is this kind of single-minded argument, a perspective which makes no attempt to disguise itself.”

As one of the world’s foremost evolutionary scientists , Dawkins has gained exceptional prominence as a professional atheist. Since publishing in 1976 his first neo- Darwinian textbook, The Selfish Gene – which traced the origin and proliferation of the species down to a tiny urgent signal on our DNA strand – he has been on public record as an enemy of God. Or, to put it another way, as an ambassador for rationality. He prefers the latter term. “I would,” he says, “really rather like to be thought of that way.”

It is in this capacity that Dawkins travels to various theological flashpoints – including Lourdes, the American Bible Belt, the Holy Land’s al-Axa mosque and an English faith school called the Phoenix Institute – challenging a full range of beliefs and their advocates. And for an ambassador, he is not particularly diplomatic. The programme takes its cue from a statement Dawkins made immediately after September 11, 2001: “[Religion is] lethally dangerous nonsense. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

With this in mind, Dawkins confronts Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado by comparing the show business techniques of his evangelism to those used in the Nuremberg rally. London Hassidic community leader Rabbi Herschel Gluck is accused of propagating “miseducation”. Jerusalem is described as “the least enlightened place on Earth”; key articles of faith are dismissed as “Bronze Age myth”, “ancient scribblings” or just plain “barking mad”; and God himself is editorialised as “the most vindictive character in all fiction”.

Dawkins is so unequivocal that he may come across as didactic even to those viewers who agree completely. “I don’t suppose I thought too much about the persona I present on television,” he says on reflection. “I mean, I am what I am. But I hope you can see I didn’t browbeat anyone I spoke to. I didn’t interrupt them in the way that certain political interviewers do. I let them speak their lines, and, you could say, gave them enough rope to hang themselves.”

This is probably true. While Pastor Haggard, for example, may have a point when he counter-accuses Dawkins of “intellectual arrogance” on camera, he does himself no favours by later throwing the film crew out of his Christian-industrial mega-compound. “It was a curious business,” says Dawkins. “He didn’t really mind being compared to Josef Goebbels, but then he accused me of calling his children ‘animals’, which I can only assume was a reference to my advocating evolution.”

In the programme’s most dramatic interview, an American-born Jew turned Gaza-based hard-line Muslim called Yousef al-Khattab (formerly Joseph Cohen) announces that he hates atheists as much as Zionists and Christians, and tells us with undisguised menace that we must clean up Western society, where “women are allowed to dress like whores”.

“The odd thing,” says Dawkins, “is that before we started shooting, he was a perfectly nice guy, talking about ordinary things in a nice, smiling way.”

When Dawkins was commissioned for The Root Of All Evil?, he was already writing a book on the same theme, titled The God Delusion. The programme is not a TV adaptation of the book, he insists, but “most of the script for my voice-over and pieces to camera are pretty much taken from it”. Producer Alan Clements will accept credit for the original “uneasy and timely idea” of making a documentary about the apparent “rise of faith and retreat of reason in modern society”. He stands by the finished product 100%. “I think these are important films,” says Clements, “and programmes like this need to be made and watched. But I can’t take credit for the philosophy of it and the way it’s expressed.”

This is, then, for better or worse, a programme that lets Dawkins be Dawkins. His views, already well known, are expressed here with often electrifying clarity. He deconstructs such “fairy stories” as the assumption of the Virgin Mary with witty, angry and rigorous academic passion. But by his own admission, he has nothing particularly new to say, or to learn, about this subject. “I pretty much knew what I was going to find when I started making the films, which didn’t make it any more palatable or acceptable, of course.”

Dawkins describes all religious faith as “a process of non-thinking”, although he seems to have been particularly fired up by the current fusion of free market forces, neo- conservatism and Christianity in the United States, which he equates with the Taliban in its insidiousness. “In Britian, religion is slowly dying the death it deserves. America is very different, a country in the grip of a lunatic religious mania.”

[Thanks to Mis-nagid for warning me of this kefiradick show].

Monday, January 09, 2006

Guest Post From FKM, Seriously!

The Frikkin Kiruv Maniac (I think that's his name) sent me the following song. It's not bad at all, I'm quite impressed. FKM, maybe you should switch to song parodies full time?

"Mis-nagid's song to Godol by Reb Baruch Yoel" (All rights reserved by FKM)
(To the tune of 'Only the good die young')

Go off the derech Godol, don't make me wait,
the OJ bloggers doubt much too late,
but sooner or later they're gonna lose their faith,
weak atheism is the one...

Well they sold you mesorah,
taught you to pray,
built you a prax,
and locked your brain away,
but they don't realize the price that they pay,
the smart people they might have won,
You know the Torah was a myth from day one!
(that's what I said.)

You got a background in science and a degree from an institution,
Yeshiva Rebbes didn't count on me,
were they counting on R' Meiselman from M.I.T.?

They say there's a Heaven for those who won't debate,
some say it's safer but I say it ain't,
I'd rather laugh with the skeptics than try to keep the faith,
the skeptics are much more fun,

The Torah was a myth from day one!

All the Rabbis that I challenged told me that I was going to oblivion,
they didn't care for me,
do they ever say a prayer for me?

Go off
Go off
Go off
Godol don't make me wait,
the frum bloggers start drifting from OJ much too late,
but sooner or later it comes down to fate,
weak atheism is the one,

You know the whole Torah was a myth from "Day One"!

A New Breishis Theory!

Yes folks, it's not everyday that someone comes up with a new angle on Breishis. Well, at least not in the real world. But in the bizzarro freak show that is the Avodah discussion group it happens all the time. Here is the latest and greatest theory, courtesy of one Zev Sero. Zev is debating with Simcha Looney Tunes Coffer (ironically enough) and showing Simcha how in fact the pre-aged Universe makes a lot of sense. Let's listen in for a bit:

Hashem is the Supreme Artist -"ve'en tzayar kelokenu" - and this world is a work of art which He wants to appear completely realistic. So He created a set of consistent rules, and a world which obeys those rules, and whose origin those laws can plausibly explain. At a minimum, He could have written some boring laws, under which populated worlds can just pop up like mushrooms, and nothing lasts very long, so it would be plausible that there were no "very old" trees, rock formations, etc. But that wouldn't have been very interesting.

With the laws of nature as He created them, though, He had to furnish the world with millions of years worth of history, or it would cry out "fake" - that mountain took millions of years to build up and erode, so where are the fossils of all the species that must have existed over that time? So He had to put them in. Now He could have made it all trilobites and ferns and other boring species, but instead He "created" the majestic dinosaurs, and all the other wonders of "prehistory", purely as an artistic exercise.

Such genius! Zev is mamash mekayem the posuk of 'Ki Hi Chochmaschem uVinaschem Leinei Hagoyim'. Just one kashyeh, if God is such an artist, why didn't he just create the world genuinely in 15 billion years, and make it all real? It still could have been a great nissayon because the skeptics would just say there was no God. So why all the fakery? Oh excuse me, I forgot, of course we can't expect to try and understand Gods ways. Silly me.

You know I used to be bothered by how people who learn so much could be so stupid. But now my emunah is even more damaged, because it seems that davkah the people who learn a lot are the ones who are stupid. Can learning too much gemarah actually make you stupid? It seems so. Holy frikkin cow. Why don't you guys just hand the whole religion on a plate to the skeptics? Can somebody please stop the madness???

It's sad, so sad, it's a sad sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd.

More Avodah Crap

Some time waster said this on Avodah:

[Can] we really expect to intelligibly discuss Hashem's motives? How could we possibly know why He would choose to make a pre-aged universe, or not to?

Oy, this is a very silly argument,. Do you understand that this argument works for anything at all? For example, God is really a cuddly lemur called Zoboomafoo, he has a show on PBS. Ah, you may ask, why does the Torah and Mesorah say otherwise? The answer is poshut, how could we expect to intelligibly discuss Zoboomafoo's motives? How could we possibly know why He would choose to pretend he's not a cuddly lemur, or not to?

The problem with the 'pre-aged universe' theory is of course that it doesn't even help very much. It only works for people who are absolutely clueless about Science and History, and think the whole problem with Breishis boils down to fossils and dinosaurs and ancient rocks.

It could explain everything pre day 6 fine, let's even agree to that. But what happens after day 6? We know there were plenty of people around then, and we know there was no global flood. So we know the rest of Breishis pretty much doesn't fit (if read literally) with Science anyway. So what use is the pre-aged universe peshat? You have to come on to saying that everything is a ness anyway, so in the interests of consistency you might as well say its all a ness. The ancient earth theory is not required. It's funny how fundies don't think this stuff through properly. I guess when it comes to facts which contradict their ideology, their brains shut down.

It's sad, so sad, it's a sad sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd.

Rav Ovadyah Yosef Joins the Ban!

[hat tip: Krum]

Rav Ovadyah Yosef has joined in the ban! He says:

I hereby join in the words of the Gedolei Yisrael against the terrible stumbling block that is found in the books written by Nosson Slifkin in English. Several trustworthy, God-fearing, English-speaking, learned men testified before me that these books are full of words of kefira and minus and falisfication of the writings of Chazal, and a desecration of the foundations of faith passed down from generation to generation.Therefore, anyone who has these books in his possession it is forbidden to allow them to remain in his house. And certainly it is forbidden to obtain them, and they are to be treated as books of minus and apikorsus, and and those that watch their souls will remain far from these books and should not rely on the answers set forth in them. And those that listen to us will be safe.

At least he's honest enough to admit he didn't read the books himself. However I have two questions:

1. Who are these honest english speaking men? What is their motivation, a year after the initial bans came out? Why are they still going on about this?

2. What is Ovadyah Yosef's motivation? How many Israeli Sephardim read Feldheim books, or any English books?

I'm not so suprised at the letter itself, Sepharadim are very into the traditions, though aren't they supposed to be big followers of the Rambam? Also, wasn't there a Sephardi Rabbi version Slifkin in Brooklyn who said similar things? We discussed him a few months ago but I forget his name. Shouldn't ROY be banning him instead? Or is it not PC to suggest that Sephardi 'Gedolim' only ban Sephardi 'Kofrim'?

So is anyone left? I guess the Chassidishe Rabbeim have yet to join in. Can we expect letters from the Belzer and Vishnitz dynastys? I would be interested to read the Chassidishe insults, and see if they differ from the Litvishe ones. Also Lubavitch and Neturei Kartah I guess.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book Recommendations from Fundamentalists

In the ongoing debate between the Scientists and the Fundamentalists, many worthy tomes have been written (mostly by the Scientists).

I recently offered the following book recommendation on Evolution: Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

To be fair to the other side, I should mention that RYGB recommends you read a different book. I quote:

Date: Tue, 10 Aug 2004 08:02:44 -0400
From: "Yosef Gavriel & Shoshanah M. Bechhofer" rygb@aishdas.org
Subject: Re: evolution

I am not sure why exactly this issue keeps coming up over and over again.
(For that matter, there are many issues like that on Avodah!).
There are very straightforward and logical reasons to utterly reject non-directed evolution to produce complex biological systems, an utterly preposterous proposition. A wonderful book on the topic is "Yellow and Pink" by William Steig (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY 1984).

Just to be really nice to RYGB, I have reproduced the entire text of Yellow & Pink here:

Two small figures made of wood were lying out in the sun one day, on an old newspaper. One was short, fat, and painted pink; the other was straight, thin, and painted yellow. It was hot and quiet, and they were both wondering.
After a while, the yellow one sat up and focused his gimlet eyes on the pink one. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Pink answered.
“Do you happen to know what we’re doing here?” asked Yellow.
“No,” said Pink. “I don’t even remember getting here.”
“Me neither,” said Yellow, looking all around. There were chickens busy pecking a little way off, and farther back in the field some dreamy cows. “I can’t help wondering,” he went on, “how we got to be here. It all seems new and strange. Who are we?”
Pink looked Yellow over. He found Yellow’s color, his well-chiseled head, his whole form, admirable. “Someone must have made us,” he said.
“How could anyone make something like me, so intricate, so perfect?” Yellow asked. “Or, for that matter, like you. And wouldn’t we know who made us, since we had to be there when we got made?”
“And why,” Yellow added, “would he leave us like this - with no explanation. I say we’re an accident, somehow or other we just happened.”
Pink couldn’t believe what he heard; he started laughing. “You mean these arms I can move this way and that, this head I can turn in any direction, this breathing nose, these walking feet, all of this just happened, by some kind of fluke? That’s preposterous!”
“Don’t laugh,” said Yellow, “Just stop and reflect. With enough time, a thousand, a million, maybe two and a half million years, lots of unusual things could happen. Why not us?”
“Because it’s impossible! It’s absolutely out of the question! How could we just happen? Would you mind explaining?”
Yellow got up and began pacing. He kicked a pebble aside. “Well, it could be something like this, I’m not saying exactly. Suppose a branch broke off a tree and fell on a sharp rock in just the right way, so that one end split open and made legs. So there you have legs.”
“Then winter came and this piece of wood froze and the ice split the mouth open. There’s your mouth. Then maybe on day a big hurricane took that piece of wood and sent it tumbling down a rocky hill with little bushes, and it got bumped and chipped and brushed and shaped this way and that. Sand blowing in the wind might have helped with the smoothing.”
“That piece of wood could have hung around at the bottom of that hill for eons, until one day - Zing! - lightning struck in such a way as to make arms, fingers, toes.”
“All right,” Pink interrupted, “what about eyes? What about ears, what about nostrils?”
Yellow sat down on a stone to do more thinking.
“Eyes,” he said, “could have been made by insects boring in, or by woodpeckers, maybe even by hailstones of exactly the right size hitting repeatedly in just the right place.”
“Hmm,” said Pink. He clasped his hands behind him. “How come we can see out of these holes the woodpecker made? And hear?”
“Because that’ what eyes and ears are for, dummy. What else would you do with them? Those cows over there see with their big eyes. This ant sees with his teeny eyes. We see with ours.”
“Okay,” said Pink. “Let’s say you’re right, just for the sake of conversation. Do you mean to tell me all those odd things happened not only once but twice, so that there’s two of us? The branch fell off the tree, it hit the rock, it rolled down the hill, lightning struck, the woodpecker pecked, etc., etc.”
“Why not?” said Yellow. “In a million years - I didn’t say five seconds - the same thing could easily happen twice over. A million years takes a very long time. Branches do break, winds are always blowing, there’s always some lighting, and some hail, and so forth and so on.”
“But you and I are so different,” said Pink. “How come?”
“That only proves what I’m saying!” cried Yellow. “It’s all accidental! You’re probably a different kind of wood. You must have rolled down a different kind of hill, a soft, mushy one perhaps.”
Pink was not satisfied with these explanations. He suddenly gave Yellow a challenging look. “Explain this,” he said. “How come we’re painted the way we are?”
Yellow took a few circular turns pondering this question. “The paint,” he muttered, “the paint. Well, suppose when we rolled down those hills, or whatever it was we rolled down, we rolled through some paint someone had spilled. Pink for you. Yellow for me.”
“And it came out so neat and symmetrical?” Pink said. “With perfect edges, in just the right places? And there were three drops of white paint in a straight line fro my buttons, and three black drops for yours? What about that, my yellow friend?”
Yellow was silent. He leaned against a tree stump, scratching his wooden head. “I can’t answer all the questions,” he said finally. “Some things will have to remain a mystery. Maybe forever. But why are we arguing on such a fine day?”
Just then a man who needed a haircut came shambling along, humming out of tune.
He picked up Pink and looked him over. Then he picked up Yellow and looked him over. “Nice and dry,” he said.
He tucked them both under his arm and headed back where he’d come from.
“Who is this guy?” Yellow whispered in Pink’s ear.
Pink didn’t know.

[Hat tip: Anonymous]

Confession: I have committed Heresy

I was always a 'Rebel' type of guy, but now I have really committed Heresy, I cannot deny it any longer.

Problems with the traditional Canon were just too great to ignore. I didn't want to make the change, considering my lifelong investment in the old ways, but the temptation was just too great. All the advances in Science and Technology just could not be ignored. I held out for as long as I could but ultimately I gave in. My family are still followers of that tradition, but I have jumped ship and am forging new paths. My apologies for any pain or confusion that this move will cause.

So what is my new religion? In short you could say I'm a 'Min'. And you know what was the final straw? Everything in my old religion was always fuzzy. I had all these issues, and just could never get anything to stay sharply in focus, especially considering the speeds I move at. With my new 'Minos' however, I am sure that everything will become clear.

And the funniest thing? It was a chassidishe guy who persuaded me to change!

See here for more details. Ha!

Warning: Participating on AVODAH is BITTUL TORAH

As a Godol, I occasionally have to ban things. This is an unfortunate, but neccessary, aspect of my job. This week's ban is on the Avodah discussion group. Never in my life have I seen so many Talmidei Chachamim waste so much time discussing and arguing about TOTAL CRAP (excuse my French). What a BITTUL ZMAN! From now on, Avodah is BANNED. It should not be read at all, by anyone, ever. I pray that the idiots on Avodah repent from their evil ways and move on to something more constructive.

If you think I am exaggerating, then please read on. But really, it is a chisaron in your emunas chachamim to argue with me.

Of all the crazy fundamentalists, Coffer & Ostroff are by far the craziest. Even crazier than R Elyashiv and company. They not only reject Myth/Moshol and Kiruv/Kvetch, they even reject Ness/Nissayon! Nothing except an absolutely literal reading of Breishis is acceptable to these guys. Here is a typical post from Coffer on Avodah. I am reproducing it here as a warning to my readers: DO NOT READ AVODAH! It is mamash Bittul Torah of the worst kind.

Firstly, I do not see the necessity of introducing phenomena which are not necessary for kiyum haOlam merely to mislead mankind. Some examples of these phenomena would be fossil evidence, uranium to lead (and other radioactive elements) mixtures possessing decay rates older than 5766 years, ice cores, tree rings etc. The world itself possesses a sufficient level of concealment (olam = he'elem) without introducing these elements which seem entirely incompatible with a young universe. True, Adam and the rest of the beriah were created fully mature, but do we need fossil evidence representing 575 million years of evolution for creatures that never existed during these time periods? Do we need tress or ice cores that represent 10's of thousands of years of seasonal activity which never really occurred? This is why I personally feel that these branches of science must be dealt with head on and cannot merely be swept under the rug of 'hester'. And although I feel most of them have been dealt with satisfactorily, radiometric dating is far from being satisfactorily resolved at this point. Therefore, it is important for us to continue searching until we find the truth.

Second of all, I have been brought up on a diet of Rav Avigdor Miller. Anyone familiar with this giant of machshava knows that the one theme which interminably wove its way through all of his talks was the idea of an awareness of the boreh from the beriah. He saw Hashem in all of the phenomena around him and felt that the beriah was a perfect representation of all of the verities of the Torah. If one studies the beriah with an eye for truth, one will eventually come to all the proper conclusions in MB. Ultimately, nothing in the beriah can contradict the truth of the Torah and the mesorah of our sages. Thus, the beriah, by definition, must demonstrate recency. This is not the time to go into the various proofs for YEC but suffice to say that phenomena which, even after investigation, yield conclusions that are opposed to our mesorah are incongruous with the idea that the beriah is a testimony to the Torah and to Hashem. Therefore, I feel that if there are things in nature which upon initial investigation seem to contradict our mesorah, we *must* work these issues out so that this crucial approach to Avodas Hashem i.e. seeing the truth from the beriah, is not compromised in any way.

Note: The preceding was obviously based upon the notion that the beriah is young. Those who feel that an ancient universe is compatible with the Torah would have no use for my views however bear in mind that the above observations were made in response to R' D. Gottlieb's analysis which was forwarded by him as a defence for a YEC. I am merely pointing out that I am unhappy with his line of reasoning but obviously I concur with his conclusions regarding the age of the beriah.

Simcha Coffer

When is this guy Coffer going to get a clue? Rav Avigdor Miller’s knowledge of Science was PATHETIC. He trotted out old Creationist quack views from the 1950s. He didn’t have a frikkin clue. Jeez man, when are you going to give it up? What a bittul zman.

Mussar Note to self: You must cut down on bittul zman GH! Reading Avodah is THE BIGGEST BITTUL ZMAN on the Internet. Endless discussions on nonsense. Hashem is crying at the Bittul Zman and Bittul Torah on Avodah. DO NOT READ!!!

Why do some Rabbanim get stupid about evolution?


Why is it that fundies and their followers get particularly stupid and idiotic when it comes to evolution? I just don’t understand it, really I don’t. Just what is their motivation? They will go on at length about how evolution is not really science, is not proven, etc etc etc. But what’s the point?

We already know for a fact that there were plenty of people walking around all parts of the planet 10,000 years ago, and we already know for a fact that there was nothing like a global flood, and neither of these two facts are in any way dependent on evolution being true. So clearly we already know for a fact that Breishis cannot possibly be literally true. We may argue about wheter Kiruv-Kvetch or Myth-Moshol is a better approach, but we all agree that it's not literally true. And even the Ness-Nissayon freaks should have no problem with Evolution either. So why bother arguing against evolution? I don’t get it.

It makes no additional difference at all to Torah or the Mesorah whether evolution is proven or not. So maybe you will argue that the problem is not Breishis, but just a philosophical/theological problem in general with the idea of evolution. But a belief in evolution is certainly compatible theologically with a belief in God and Hasgachah Pratis, since evolution could simply be the process by which God chose to create man.

I mean, we all believe in Hashgachah when it comes to the Shoah and similar events in history, even though the Hand of Hashem was hidden there. So why is evolution any different? Why do otherwise intelligent people like RYGB, Der Alter, Yaakov Menken and the like feel the need to bash evolution? Just what do they expect to gain? Would they prefer that evolutionary biologists stop investigating the origins of man and just say Goddidit? Would they prefer that all medical and other research which is based on these theories be invalidated?

I really don’t get it. Can one of these guys please explain their idiocy?


I guess the answer is that in the general war of Science vs the (Literal) Bible, the Bible has been losing big time, which gets the fundamentalists really upset. However, when it comes to evolution, the fundies see an opportunity to score some points, because evolution still has some major holes in it, and it drives the Scientists crazy when the fundies go on about it.

However, this is a really, really bad strategy. Eventually Science is going to close the gaps. Maybe not all of them, but a good many more than now. Then the Rabbanim who placed their faith in the gaps are going to look really really stupid. Well, even more stupid than they currently look. Guys, get a clue! Look at the history of science. Science is cummulative and progressive, it's really extremely unlikely that Science is going to turn out to be all wrong. Sure, some things will get revised, but the chance that one day Science is going to realize that Adam was the first human being and there was a global flood 5000 years ago is LESS than the chance that Jesus Christ really is our Lord and Savior. Or Zoboomafoo.

So here is my advice to all you moronic fundamentalists who spend their time bashing evolution:

Instead of being on the defensive, you should follow Rav Kook and 'Build the palace of Torah on top of Science'. If Scientists discover some new aspect of evolution, what should be your response? 'Mah Rabu Maasechah Hashem, Kulom Bechochmoh Asitah!' How amazing is Hashem, that He could create Mankind from nothing, in such an amazing and apparently natural way, over billions of years.

It's your only hope. (And it annoys the skeptics too).

If you rest your faith on gaps in science, you are doomed. Please get a clue before you are merachek even more people.

Yeshivish Noise (TM)

[Hat tips: S, AddeRabbi]

S posts about a new CD of white noise, produced by Diaspora Yeshiva Kollel Mount Zion Jerusalem:

An original and unique CD “Hokol Kol Yaakov.” Recorded in the halls of Torah study of the holy Eretz Yisrael, and presented in a special way. A background, serving as an aid to strengthen your private Torah study, creating a holy atmosphere and providing the experience of the pleasantness and life of Torah at all times and at all hours. From now on, the Torah world is with you in your home, with the endorsements and blessings of leading Torah authorities.

Sample Track


Also in the Yeshivish Noise series:

Hayodayim Yodai Eisav
Feeling too mellow? Need to rev up your zealousness a little? This tape could be the answer. It contains 5 tracks of background sounds of kannoim plotting the latest bans! Starring Leib Pinter, Yaakov Kalmanowitz and Reuven Shmeltzer. In 5.1 Dolby Surround. 8 Bonus tracks of R Elyashiv giving slightly different pesakim depending on who he is talking to.

Kevudah Bas Melech Penimah
Especially for the ex seminary girl. Do you need some chizuk? Is the secular world getting you down? This compilation CD will certainly lift your spirits. Tracks include the following:

Sounds of Meah Shearim
Hear Meah Shearim vibers as they bake kugel in the kitchen, and shave each others heads.

The Falks at Home
Hear the sounds of the legendary Falk home, in Ir Hakodesh Gateshead. Listen as Rabbi Falk lovingly explains to his wife why her new dress is ‘unrefined’. Listen as Rebbetzin Falk hits him over the head with her bulletproofs.

Shvisi Hashem Lenegdi Tamid
The sounds of a well known Flatbush Shteible during Shacharis. Includes stock tips, sports news and more. An indispensable source of information for the modern chareidi businessman.

Shabbos Yerushalayim!

Remember your yeshivah days in Yerushalayim? How geshmack your shabbos was? And how nowadays you just can’t seem to recreate that holy shabbos atmosphere? Well, we have the solution for you! (Note: should not be played on Shabbos). This white noise tape has all the sounds from those heady days, including the following tracks:

Rechov Sorotzkin

Hear the sounds of 15 yerushalmi kids as they play ball and torment the local stray cats. Includes grand finale when baby kitten gets trapped in dumpster and howls for next 10 hours. A classic!

Rechov Bar Ilan
Recorded during one of the famous Shabbos demonstrations. Includes ‘Shabbes Shabbes’ screaming Toldos Aharonnicks. and mounted policeman continually yelling ‘Azov et Hashetach’, ‘Azov et Hashetach’! Also bonus water cannon track, with elderly chassid screaming ‘Nazi!’. This one will be sure to give you the ‘Meayn Olan Habah’ feeling!

I need a Festschrift for the Wissenschaft of my Weltaunschaung

As you can no doubt guess from the title, I’ve been reading Carmy again.

In fact I just finished reading ‘Engaging Modernity: Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twemtieth Century’ (The Orthodox Forum). It’s a great book, with a variety of essays on Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav YY Weinberg and Rav Herzog and how they each approached the challenges of modernity. The book doesn’t include essays on Rav Kotler or the Chazon Ish, I guess because running in the opposite direction is not counted as an ‘approach to modernity’. I don’t know, it seems to work quite well for many people.

Particularly interesting is Moshe Sokol’s essay on RYBS, entitled ‘Ger Ve-Toshav Anokhi’. (Disclaimer: One of my Rabbeim who is a YU grad says that Sokol’s views on RYBS are not accepted by everyone).

Sokol talks about how the Rav, contrary to popular mythology, did not present a comprehensive philosophy of Orthodoxy and Modernity. In particular, the Rav avoided all discussion of Torah & Science issues, Wissenschaft des Judaism (Positive Historical) issues and Biblical criticism. In fact, all we have from the Rav on these subjects is his famous line that he ‘had never been troubled’ by these, but not being troubled is hardly a comprehensive philosophy.

Sokol contrasts this with Maimonides, who in his Mishneh Torah and more directly in his Guide did attempt to deal with all the questions of his day. Admittedly he had a much easier time of it since the questions of the 11th century don’t compare to the questions of the 20th. Sokol says the following:

‘Several factors may have played a role in Rav Soloveitchik’s avoidance of the problem. First, there is his overwhelmingly philosophical orientation in which abstract ideas and philosophical categories rather than history and text criticism predominate. Second, he may have understood the grave danger to the tradition which these disciplines posed, and without any clear-cut solutions to the problems, which in any case would have fallen outside his personal and professional expertise, he may have felt it would be best simply not to take the problem on.’

And this is a great shame, because there were and are few people more capable than RYBS at dealing with the Wissenschaft and Biblical Criticism issues, and if even he couldn’t do it, then can anyone?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hashgachah Prattis & Ariel Sharon

I am currently learning the inyan of Hashgachah Prattis with a well known personality from the J Blogosphere. We are using Eidensohns ‘Daas Torah’ as our source book. So far, I am extremely impressed with Eidensohn’s bekius, but less impressed with his choice of selections, and the titles he gives them. Most of the time I want to barf. But I guess it is all part of his ‘Trojan Horse’ master plan: Fill most of the book with extremist right wing stuff, and then maybe no one will notice the few kefirah quotes from R Soloveitchik, R SR Hirsh and similar that he snuck in there. Maybe I should rename my blog ‘Daas Torah’ ? Also, I really hope he collected it all those sources manually, and did not use one of those new fangled computers (chas vesholom).

Anyway, from my limited knowledge of Hashgachah Prattis (HP), it seems that there is a machlokes rishonim (probably Rambam vs Ramban), as to whether HP applies all the time to all individuals. Rambam seems to say that it only applies to people of a certain level, while Ramban holds it applies to everyone. There are also debates as to the extent of its application, whether it applies to animals, goyim, the weather etc.

In other words, nobody has any idea, but they all like to push their own theories. And I guess that’s fine. I am also learning Chovos Halvovos with one of my Rabbaim (a very enlightened fellow), and I questioned him as to how he could stomach learning all this stuff (the parts where the CH basically says every penny of your income is pre-determined by God and there’s nothing you can do about it) when it’s obvious that the CH was just giving his own personal philosophy and it wasn’t exactly a mesorah from Sinai. His response was that studying people’s personal religious philosophies was highly stimulating for him. OK, fair enough I guess.

Anyways, back to Sharon. I hope and pray he gets better. Who knows why he had a stroke? It could be due to medical issues, it could also be a punishment for Gaza disengagement. Personally I think the fact that the stroke happened after the successful completion of the disengagement and not before shows that God wanted the disengagement to happen (because it was a very good idea) and so enabled Sharon to live the extra time to ensure it happened. Can you prove me wrong? I don’t think so.

Good Shabbos.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Rabbi Shlomo Miller

I stopped ridiculing Gedolim and Rabbanim so unfortunately I cannot ridicule RSM. However he does sound like a frikkin idiot. But I can't say that. And Coffer isn't much better either. How on earth these guys think they are defending Torah is beyond me. They are just causing more damage. Here is an article about RSM's letter that I found.

Responses to Rabbi Miller
A compilation of comments on the Hirhurim blog and other sources on the Internet

Rabbi Shlomo Miller of Toronto wrote a widely-publicized letter in which he condemned the writings of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. This letter was subsequently translated and annotated by his associate Rabbi Simcha Coffer, who also wrote a response to the Canadian Jewish Tribune article about Rabbi Miller’s letter, and it was posted on his website toriah.org. Many responses to Rabbi Miller’s letter were posted on the Internet in blogs and in comments written on the blogs, which are collected here and edited for clarity. Some were written by an anonymous but well-known professor of Judaic studies cited by N. Klafter, others by N. Klafter and Y. Aharon, and others anonymously. Rabbi Miller’s letter is presented both in the original Hebrew [Deleted] and in its translation by Rabbi Coffer.

As is well-known, the books authored by Slifkin have already been banned by the gedoley yisrael. When I initially came in contact with his writings, I sensed an aura of heresy emanating from them. Indeed, upon further investigation I discovered that his opinions on the six days of creation are definitely heretical. Furthermore, they are boorish in content; he fails to comprehend that all of the laws of physics which prevail today were first established at the end of the six days of creation when Hashem terminated the creative process as represented by the day of Shabbos when “He said to His world, enough”. In reality, the laws of physics which existed during the six days of creation have no parallel to those which we perceive today. Our sages have already stated “two arose on the bed and four descended” meaning that the birth of Kayin and Hevel happened immediately after their conception on the sixth day of creation.

Rabbi Miller’s argument from Kayin and Hevel is perplexing. Since it is ordinarily impossible to bear children a short time after conception, he concludes that the laws of physics – presumably referring to the flow of time – must have been different. But why not simply conclude that the laws of biology were different? Is Rabbi Miller claiming that it is impossible for God to make someone give birth immediately after conception?

Nevertheless, Rabbi Miller chooses instead to state that the laws of physics were different. But what exactly does this mean? How many hours transpired during Eve’s pregnancy? If there were many thousands of hours, then time during the six days of creation was indeed, to all intents and purposes, much more than six regular days. If it was only an hour, then the laws of physics have not changed at all; there was merely a biological miracle which has no bearing on the various lines of evidence for an ancient universe.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the Midrash, which speaks of many events taking place on the sixth day, is speaking in allegory, in which case it is entirely irrelevant to our discussion. This is the approach taken by Rambam, as explained by Abarbanel:
Rambam was stirred [to interpret it allegorically] by the words of Chazal, who said that all this transpired on the sixth day, as this shows that their opinion is that it did not literally take place. For it is impossible that on the sixth day, man was created, placed in Gan Eden, fell into a deep sleep, had his side taken and built (into Chava), and she came to him, and they sinned, and she conceived, and was punished, and man was banished – for without doubt all this is impossible to take place on one day. Rather, all this is abstract and conceptual.
Yet Rabbi Miller’s position is that the laws of nature and the nature of time itself completely changed at the end of the sixth day. But in what meaningful sense was time different during the six days of creation? Rabbi Miller presumably agrees that the universe ended up looking as though it is billions of years old. And if all the laws of physics were speeded up during that time to produce this effect, then it which sense is it meaningful to speak of the six days being ordinary days? It’s just playing with semantics.

Rabbi Miller is doing precisely what he accuses Rabbi Slifkin of doing – interpreting the six days as being something other than six ordinary days. In Rabbi Coffer’s response to the Jewish Tribune article, he defends Rabbi Miller’s position as follows:
There have been several important works authored by leading scientists in their fields discussing the various possible circumstances that could have existed during the incipient stages of the universe which would differ from currently understood laws of physics. Consequently, it would seem that the Talmudic dictum quoted by Rabbi Miller falls squarely within the parameters of current scientific enterprise.
This is simply false. The speculative works to which Rabbi Coffer refers discuss the possibility that at the incipient stages of the universe – the first few moments of its fifteen billion year duration – certain laws of physics may have functioned differently. All these leading scientists would ridicule the idea that their research could be used to show that the universe is only 5766 years old. Rabbi Miller’s usage of the Talmudic dictum falls very, very far indeed outside of the parameters of current scientific enterprise.
Thus, Slifkin’s opinions in these matters are absolute heresy.
Here is an astonishing leap of reasoning. Rabbi Miller is entitled to disagree with Rabbi Slifkin’s explanation of the nature of the six days, no matter how difficult his own explanation. But how does Rabbi Slifkin’s view suddenly become heresy in the fundamentals of the Torah? (Note: in the original Hebrew, Rabbi Miller wrote “heresy in the fundamental foundations of the Torah.” For some reason, Rabbi Coffer seemed to tone this down in his translation.) Since when is it a fundamental of the Torah to believe that the six days of creation were six ordinary days?

Rabbi Coffer offers an explanation for this extraordinary ruling:
In other words, Creation is not a process that finds expression in current laws of physics and thus cannot be defined by it. During the sheyshes yimey bereishis, the laws of physics were entirely different from those that exist today. This is self-evident from the Torah and can be gleaned from Chazal. Furthermore, this has been the collective mesorah of all Jews throughout the ages and in fact was uncontested even by gentiles. When a Jew makes kiddush Friday night, he is specifically proclaiming the truth of this idea and rejecting that of Slifkin’s approach. Since Chazal have portrayed the sheshes yimey bereishis in terms of accelerated processes that have no parallel in our experience, there is no room to interpret maaseh bereishis in terms of what may look to us like millions of years of biological development. Anyone doing so is undermining the Torah and Chazal and is therefore espousing kefira. Cf. Rambam Hilchos Tshuva 3:8.
Granted, the collective mesorah of Jews through the ages before modern science was that the six days were ordinary days. But the question is as to how we understand it since evidence of an ancient earth came to light. As Rav Gedaliah Nadel ztz”l writes:

…The expression "one day" that the Torah uses, according to its literal translation, refers to one [conventional] day. Maimonides and the other early authorities truly held of this view, that each of the six days of creation lasted for one [ordinary] day, because they had no reason to believe otherwise. However, for us, there are indeed such reasons.
The single and popular work dealing with these questions for the last thirty years is Feldheim’s Challenge. Several of the essays in that book propose that the six days of creation were not regular days. This view was also espoused by Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman ztz”l and Rav Eli Munk ztz”l. Is this kefirah that has been widely circulating in the Orthodox community for several decades without anybody noticing?!
With regard to the claim that kiddush is a rejection of any approach that takes the six days as longer than regular days, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell responds to this in Challenge as follows (page 259):

…Others however do not feel that there is any force in this argument. The true nature of God’s creative activity during the six days and the sense in which He can be said to have ‘rested on the seventh day’ must remain forever beyond our comprehension, whether the days are taken literally or metaphorically. It is reasonably clear that the Torah wishes to convey that the six weekdays and Shabbat correspond to some basic structures of reality, and it can make no difference to the concept of Shabbat whether God’s ‘activity’ or ‘inactivity’ is expressed in relation to days, sephirot, or other spiritual constructs.
Rabbi Coffer’s concluding words to his footnote, where he cites Rambam, are greatly misleading. The passage from Rambam to which he refers defines someone who denies the Oral Torah as a heretic. However, Rambam is clearly not referring to anyone who takes parts of the Torah non-literally against rabbinic tradition, since Rambam himself did precisely that on numerous occasions! Rambam elsewhere defines this heretic more precisely as someone who denies the very existence of Oral Torah. He certainly did not refer to someone who disagrees with the scientific pronouncements of Chazal, as Rambam would not have defined himself as a heretic. Thus, there is no basis in Rambam for Rabbi Miller’s startling definition of heresy.
The truth is that he has followed the ways of those who scoff at the sages, like the maskilim who ridiculed the exegeses (drashos) of our sages while considering themselves all-knowing, assuming that only they were able to understand the precise meaning of words in lashon hakodesh.
Rabbi Miller’s accusation of Rabbi Slifkin being someone who “scoffs” at Chazal is echoed in Rabbi Coffer’s response to the Jewish Tribune article, where he describes Rabbi Slifkin as someone who is led to “casually dismiss much of the wisdom of the Talmudic sages.” Yet the facts of the matter are entirely different. Rabbi Slifkin’s books seek to defend Chazal in light of challenges that are raised by anti-religious organizations such as Daat Emet. As part of this task, he respectfully states, on about three occasions (according to his publisher), that Chazal sometimes relied on the science in their era – and he is quoting authorities such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch when he does so, and he only does so after exhausting all other options. Calling this “scoffing” or “casually dismissing much of the wisdom of the sages” is a baseless slur.
Until the Malbim ztvk”l appeared and composed an incredible work on Toras Cohanim to clarify the words of our sages based on the deepest, most fundamental imperatives of lashon hakodesh thereby demonstrating the wonders of Hashem’s Torah and the profound grasp of biblical grammar which our sages possessed. So too in our time, Slifkin advances questions against our sages from current theories and in place of honoring the words of our sages, he denigrates their opinions. If he encounters a question for which he possesses no answer, it would behoove him to say “I have not merited to understand the words of the sages” just as all of our great scholars have done through the ages whenever they encountered a question on a subject in Talmud; “for it is not a thing that is lacking from you” and our sages comment, “for if it is lacking, it is from you” who lack the ability to comprehend. If we approach the Torah and its sages with awe and humility, then we will traverse confidently and not stumble in the fundamentals of our religion as Slifkin has done; the Rambam’s words at the end of the laws of me’ilah are well known: “one’s thought processes in Torah should not be the same as his thoughts in mundane matters”, see there the remainder of his pleasant words.

It is extremely ironic that Rabbi Miller cites Malbim and Rambam as paradigms of the correct approach and uses them to denigrate Rabbi Slifkin. Both of these Torah authorities, when confronted with challenges from science to Torah, did not say “I have not merited to understand” as Rabbi Miller recommends. Instead, they reinterpreted Torah to conform with science, even at the expense of going against Torah giants of earlier generations. Malbim, for example, explicitly rejects all the traditional opinions concerning the nature of the rakia, on the grounds that science has proven them wrong.

Rambam rejects the statements in the Talmud concerning the heavenly spheres producing sound, for the same reason. They saw it as their obligation to give a satisfactory answer, not to say “I do not understand.” And they saw no reason to ascribe infallibility to the Sages. The dictum “for if it is lacking, it is from you,” refers to Torah, not the scientific pronouncements of sages.
The Haggadah delineates the question of the rasha: “of what purpose is this work to you?” [He says “to you” thereby excluding himself. By excluding himself from the community of believers, he denies fundamentals. Therefore blunt his teeth and tell him:] “It is because of this that Hashem did for me when I went out of Egypt”, and the author of the Haggadah comments “for me, but not for him – had he been there, he would not have been redeemed”. The commentaries note that the answer given in the Torah is “and you shall say it is a Passover offering to Hashem” which differs from the answer in the Haggadah. The commentaries explain that when one hears words of heresy, one should not contend with them, however to ourselves, we should respond with words of encouragement, “and you shall say”, but “not to him”, “it is a Passover offering etc.”
Many people were appalled at Rabbi Miller comparing Rabbi Slifkin to a rasha. Rabbi Coffer, in his response to the Jewish Tribune, claims that such was not the intent of Rabbi Miller’s letter:
As far as the alleged comparison to the wicked son of the Hagadah, Rabbi Miller’s words are taken entirely out of context. Nowhere in the letter does Rabbi Miller compare Rabbi Slifkin to the ‘wicked son’. There are obviously some differences in Weltanschauung between certain groups in Orthodox Jewry. Rabbi Miller is aware of this. He is also aware that unfortunately there are certain elements that will spare no effort in maligning Orthodox leadership in an attempt to undermine their words. Just as the teachings of the Hagadah are meant for us but are not directed towards the wicked due to their unwillingness to acknowledge them, so too, the comments in the letter are directed only towards people who are open-minded and are willing to listen as opposed to those who choose to maintain pre-conceived notions. The latter group invariably fall prey to spurious depictions of Orthodox dogma effectively eliminating their partiality and thus their ability to countenance the pronouncements made by leading Orthodox Rabbis. This is the extent of the comparison.

The question is, of course, whether Rabbi Coffer’s interpretation of Rabbi Miller’s letter is accurate. In general, Rabbi Coffer seems to be trying to reduce the harshness of Rabbi Miller’s approach; note that, unlike Rabbi Miller, he does not refer to “Slifkin” but instead to “Rabbi Slifkin.” Are his apologetics for Rabbi Miller accurate? Certainly everyone else understood the letter as comparing Rabbi Slifkin to a rasha. After all, the equation is quite straightforward:

1. Rabbi Slifkin writes that the six days were not ordinary days
2. Rabbi Miller claims that stating that the six days were not ordinary days is heresy
3. Rabbi Miller points out that just as we do not respond to the wicked son, we do not respond to heresy.

By far the most reasonable interpretation is that Rabbi Miller is comparing Rabbi Slifkin to a rasha. If he is not in fact doing so, then it is up to him to clarify this.
Therefore, I have decided to expound upon some matters in order to strengthen the hearts of those who have been exposed to heretical doctrines which claim that our holy Torah is contradicted by the knowledge of scientists; on the contrary, “delve into it, and delve into it, for all is encompassed within it”.
There are some issues that need to be addressed here. First of all, nobody is claiming that Torah is contradicted by science; the claim is only that certain human expositions and commentaries on Torah are contradicted by science. Second, when Rabbi Miller proceeds to claim that there examples of Torah conforming to modern science, this is entirely beside the point. The issue is not as to whether there is ever anything in the Torah that conforms with science. Rather, the question is as to what to do about the numerous instances in which Torah and the statements of the Sages do not conform with science.

Rabbi Slifkin cites numerous authorities that solve such problems by reinterpreting the Torah or stating that Chazal relied on the science of their day. Rabbi Miller cannot simply ignore the authorities that Rabbi Slifkin quotes by claiming that their approaches are heretical without explaining why they are heretical.
Until 400 years ago scientists were not aware that the light which appears to radiate from planets is not inherent light but rather light reflected from the sun. Then Galileo appeared and demonstrated that the light emanating from the “shining” planet Venus is merely reflected light. However, to my mind, this observation can already be gleaned from our sages who referred to this planet by the term “nogah”. The word “nogah” (shining) differs from the word “or” (light) as the Malbim has explained in his commentary on the verse in Chavakuk 3:4, “and nogah will be similar to or”. The Malbim writes that nogah is a term that denotes an object that does not possess inherent light but rather emits a reflected light just as the moon receives the light of the sun and subsequently reflects its rays. Thus, the fact that our sages have assigned the term “nogah” to the planet Venus demonstrates that they understood that this planet did not possess inherent light. If so, we see that knowledge discovered by scientists 400 years ago was already known to our sages over 2000 years ago.

Rabbi Miller states that it is clear (mukach) that Chazal knew that the planets are solid structures which reflect the light of the sun while the rest of the world thought then planets were just ordinary stars, prior to Galileo proving this. He adduces proof from the word nogah, which Chazal used to name Venus, and which the Malbim says means “reflected light.” The problems with this are as manifold. First, if Chazal so clearly knew such facts about the solar system before Galileo, then why did so many Rabbonim reject the heliocentric model of our solar system and consider it to be heresy? Second, the Malbim lived long after Galileo and therefore his definition of nogah cannot be used to demonstrate knowledge prior to Galileo, unless it can be unequivocally proven that the word always carried such a connotation. Third, the word nogah is used in Tenach to describe the light of fire (Yeshayah 4:5) and of stars (Yoel 2:10), both of which possess innate rather than reflected light. Finally, and most devastatingly, if the name nogah
indeed meant that it is a solid structure and not a star, why would only Venus have this name, and not the other planets? This indicates instead that the name nogah refers to a characteristic of Venus that is not shared with other planets. And there is a simple explanation as to why Venus is called nogah – it is the brightest star in the sky after sun and moon.

In light of these points, to say that the name for Venus shows that the sages understood Venus to be a planet rather than a star is a fanciful speculation with more arguments against than in favor; it is very, very far from being mukach.

Regarding the essence of light, scientists first thought that light was composed of particles i.e. the Corpuscular Theory of Light. Later, they showed that light was emitted in waves i.e. the Wave Theory of Light. A hundred years ago, scientists demonstrated that light does possess particle-like qualities and subsequently scientists proposed the Quantum Theory that sometimes light appears as waves and sometimes as particles. Now behold, the Yad Halevi, written by the av beis din of Wurtzberg, has written that the word “or” has its roots in the word “yaroh” (to fling) and denotes the flinging of light particles. There is another word which denotes light “niharah”, see Iyov 3:3: “v’al tofah alav niharah”. To my mind, this word has its roots in the word “nahar” (river) which signifies the concept of waves. If so, these two grammatical representations of the word “or” represent the two differing forms of the phenomenon of light respectively.

Rabbi Miller claims that yarah, “shooting,” conveys the meaning of photons (discrete packets of energy), and that nahar, “river,” conveys the meaning of waves. The problems with this are as follows:

1) Chazal did not invent this word. It is found in the opening passage of the Torah. If this etymology is proven true, it is a demonstration of God’s wisdom, not the Sages, and as such it has no bearing on the discussion.

2) Chazal make no statements which show that they understood light’s photon or wave properties.

3) Relating yarah to photons is way too creative to take seriously. If anything, it relates to the rays of light which appear to “shoot out” from the sun.

4) Relating nahar to waves is not even plausible. Only oceans have waves. Rivers do not have waves.

5) No one would ever think of this if not for already knowing about the photon and wave properties of light. Such creative reinterpretations do not demonstrate anything.

The Gra’s words in Aderes Eliyahu are also noteworthy and are brought down in his name in the book Giviey Gvia Hakesef as follows; darkness is not an absence of light but rather a creation unto itself as it states “who forms light and creates darkness.” Darkness is the substance upon which light operates. In this area the scientists err, not taking into account what the Gra has written [with respect to choshech].

The Vilna Gaon’s view was that of Kalaam, and Rav Saadia Gaon argued against it in Emunos Ve-Dei’os 1:3. Ramban also states that darkness (in non-supernatural circumstances) is the absence of light (Bereishis 1:4 and Shemos 10:23), as does Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:10), and the Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran 3, p. 40 in the Feldman edition). How the Vilna Gaon’s explanation “strengthens the hearts of those who have been exposed to heretical doctrines which claim that our holy Torah is contradicted by the knowledge of scientists” is mystifying. Rabbi Miller has admitted that the Gra’s words are contradicted by the knowledge of science. They are also contradicted by Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban and Ran. Rabbi Miller does not give any evidence at all that would demonstrate that the Gra is correct and Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban, Ran and science are all wrong.

Based on these theories, it might be possible to resolve the conundrums that plague Quantum Theory and to comprehend the existence of Non-Local Reality which is evident from Bell’s Theorem. However, these theories have still not been fully clarified as yet.
Using the Gaon’s explanation to solve a scientific conundrum would be interesting if it were actually done, but Rabbi Miller himself in the letter admits that he does not have a clear understanding of how this could be done. It seems to be a throwback to the ether theory that was promoted in the 19th century. This theory held that light or electro magnetic radiation required a physical medium for propagation, called ether, just like sound or water waves. Unfortunately, this theory was disproved by the Michaelson-Morley experiment which showed that the propagation speed of light was constant regardless of the earth’s motion in space. That experiment was the basis for Einstein's special relativity theory. Now, Rabbi Miller believes that an ether theory must be resurrected in order to account for non-locality and other weird quantum phenomena.

Perhaps Rabbi Miller, or his disciples Rabbi Coffer and Dr. Ostroff, should work on this; there is a Nobel Prize in physics waiting for them if they can pull it off.
Many people have observed that Rabbi Miller’s mention of “Quantum Theory,” “Non-Local Reality” and “Bell’s Theorem” seem to simply be jargon that is thrown in to give the impression to uneducated people that Torah scholars are great experts in physics. Such people may well have their faith in rabbinic authority strengthened as a result. Unfortunately, those who have studied physics have their faith in rabbinic authority seriously weakened instead. One comment on a blog brought this out clearly:

As a professional physicist I was less than taken with Rav Miller's letter. On one hand these rabbonim reject modern science as completely incompetent, and yet at the same time they are trying unsuccessfully to show that Chazal knew all of modern science. It is illogical. Bell’s Inequality vis-a-vis quantum mechanics are in a new field of physics. Like any new field there are problems which have yet to be solved. Rav Miller’s solution of an unknown and unmeasurable field is laughable; if you cannot measure it or detect it how can you know it’s there?! The UFOlogists in the 50’s used to postulate an unknown and unmeasurable field to explain how aliens could come from distant systems at much greater than the speed of light. These buzzwords are to be found all over the internet and in modern popular science books. Just mentioning them does not make you a scientist nor an expert in these fields. Rav Miller has said nothing in his letter which could not have been taken directly from a popular book.
Instead of solving any conflicts between Torah and science, Rabbi Miller has simply further worsened the crisis of faith that many people have when it comes to statements by rabbis concerning science.
I have stepped outside my normal boundaries to expound upon things that are essentially unnecessary for Torah Jews who believe in the Torah and in its sages. But the truth is that in today’s climate, it is necessary to make known that we have no concept whatsoever of the greatness of our sages or the veracity of their words.
While such matters are indeed unnecessary for Torah Jews who possess simple faith in the Torah and in its sages, the truth is that in today’s climate, there are many people who are greatly disturbed by the challenges that science raises to the Torah and its sages. It is very important to bring to light little-known views from our Rishonim and Acharonim which address such difficulties. It is a pity that, rather than provide viable solutions for these conflicts himself, all that Rabbi Miller can do is condemn efforts by others to do so.

One further point should be added. Rabbi Simcha Coffer writes that “The footnotes and endnotes found in this paper are entirely those of the translator.” This is false. The lengthy scientific endnotes (a, b, d and e), which give the impression that Rabbi Coffer possesses considerable scientific expertise, have been simply cut-and-pasted from the Wikipedia website, without any attribution.

RAL: Which way is he gonna go?

[The text comes from a lecture delivered at Yeshiva University in 1987 by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein]

Confronted by evident contradiction, one would of course initially strive to ascertain whether it is apparent or real: to determine, on the one hand, whether indeed the methodology of madda does so inevitably lead to a given conclusion and, on the other, whether the received content of Torah can be interpreted or reinterpreted so as to avert a collision.

This interpretation or reinterpretation may take one of several forms. It may focus narrowly upon the meaning of a particular term. Whether, for instance, the term "vermin which do not multiply and increase" in Shabbat (107b), is to be understood to refer to spontaneous generation -- now out of fashion with some biologists -- or just to a lower level of sexual reproduction.

At another level, one may alter the substance of whole areas by examining them, legitimately, through a different prism. The great model here is Maimonides, whose recourse to the concept of "Torah speaks in the language of man [i.e. in human idiom] (Sifrei, Shelah 112)," on the one hand, and to the mode of allegory on the other, enabled him to interpret so much of Bible and midrash aggadah in a philosophic rather than purely literal, popular vein.

At still a third level, admittedly far more controversial, one might perceive an entire corpus differently. Sensing that incessant eighteenth century debates over scriptual veracity -- largely conducted under rules at least implicitly set down by rationalists -- were leading to a dead end, Coleridge decided to stop searching for piecemeal solutions and rejoined instead with the radical -- in two senses of the term -- view that the Bible was intended to convey moral and spiritual, but not necessarily historical and scientific, truth, thus seeking to undercut the whole debate at one fell swoop.

[passages omitted]

But let there be no mistake about the fundamental stance; when push comes to shove, there can be only one answer: "For eternity, o Lord, Your word stands erect in Heaven" (Ps. 119:89). When all options of reconciliation have expired, devar ha-Shem and only devar ha-Shem reigns supreme. Commitment to it receives normative priority even at the apparent expense of personal intellectual integrity.

[passages omitted]

If our problem were to be dealt with exhaustively, surely a number of important issues yet need to be addressed.

[passages omitted]

Or, to take a similar issue: How far can certain methods be pushed? Maimonides, as I noted earlier, extended somewhat the realm of allegory, not only in dealing in the first Part of the Guide with anthropomorphic terminology, but at times in dealing with whole episodes. The visit of the angels to Abraham, he says, is all a dream. Jacob's encounter with that mysterious stranger is all a dream. And Nahmanides, as we know, criticized him sharply for that. The Vilna Gaon suggested that the book of Jonah essentially is not historical, but an allegory, as one opinion in Baba Batra (15a) -- that which Maimonides in the Guide accepts -- said with regard to the book of Job. And, of course, the question arises, how far can one go in this direction? This is the question which was raised at one point with regard to Philonic interpretation and which became the focus of considerable controversy in Provence in the wake of Maimonides.

[passages omitted]

These are all difficult questions, but surely this is not the opportunity to try to exhaust them all. Each and every one of them requires analysis in depth in its own right. What I sought here is rather to emphasize a particular perspective, an attitude, a stance, a relation, a priority. The priority, I repeat, is one which, within the context of a certain tension, is an attempt somehow to balance the quest for the integration of Torah and madda, to try to stretch both in order to avoid that confrontation, but nevertheless, should confrontation occur, let our priorities as believers be crystal clear: "For eternity, o Lord, Your word stands erect in heaven."

[GH: He is ambiguous and non commital. It figures.]

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Myth Moshol Question

We will very shortly ask Rav Aharon Lichtenstein to pasken on allegorizing Genesis. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is recognized as a Godol BaTorah both in the Modern Orthodox world and also in some sections of the Ultra Orthodox world.

This post will serve as the basis for the question.

A basic assumption is that Scientific theories which are accepted by the majority of Scientists world wide as being in the realm of ‘proven Science’ will be accepted as fact. There is no reason to suspect Scientists of deliberately ignoring evidence, falsifying results on a grand scale, being misled by atheism or similar personal agendas, or other equally ridiculous conspiracy theories.

The following are therefore assumed to be facts:
  1. The existence of large numbers of intelligent, modern homo-sapiens in all 5 continents over the past 10,000 years, and similar humanoids dating back hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.
  2. Geological and other evidence showing that the world is extremely ancient, probably in the order of 4.5 billion years old.
  3. Cosmological and other evidence showing that the Universe is extremely ancient, probably in the order of 13.5 billion years old.
  4. Geological and archeological evidence showing that a global flood did not happen. Note that this is not absence of evidence for a global flood, but rather positive evidence of the non occurrence of a global flood.
Given these facts, it is clear that a basic literal reading of Genesis 1-11 does not conform to reality. In particular, Genesis describes the creation of the Universe and everything in it occurring over 6 days less than 6000 years ago, the subsequent creation ‘from dust’ of an initial Man and Woman less than 6000 years ago, with the entire world’s population being descended from this one couple. Genesis also describes a global flood, with the entire world’s population being destroyed except for Noah and his immediate family, who then go on to repopulate the world.

Some have suggested ‘semi-literal’ readings of the text of Genesis in order to reconcile Genesis with modern science. So for example, in the initial verses of Genesis 1, ‘yom’ doesn’t mean ‘day’ but rather period. In the story of Noach, ‘all’ doesn’t mean ‘all the world’ but rather ‘all the local’.

However, such an attempt is quite misguided since it provides an illusion of reconciliation which in reality has no basis. For example, the creation of vegetation is recorded as happening before the creation of the Sun, which clearly does not conform to Science. Another example is that the Flood story talks about God promising not to perform such a destruction again. Yet if the flood was only a small local flood in one region of the Ancient Near East, why would such a promise be necessary? In fact, such a promise has not even been kept! In addition, the story of Adam & Eve will have to be read as the tale of two special people, even though there were plenty of other people living in the area at the time, which is rather strange to say the least.

There are many examples like this, and it is out of the scope of this article to cover all these examples. However an extensive analysis of all the changes required in the text in order to conform to modern science shows that it requires a severe distortion of the text which in no way conforms to the traditional interpretations, requires manipulation of Science, and also requires a severe stretch of the imagination and is ultimately quite ridiculous.

In addition, other ancient mythologies have been uncovered which have remarkable similarities to the stories in Genesis, including most famously the Epic of Gilgamesh which contains a parallel to the Flood story. The Epic of Gilgamesh would have been known to the ancient Israelites.

All of this has led many scholars, even Orthodox ones, to conclude that the stories in Genesis 1-11 are allegorical, mythological, ‘spiritual truth’ etc, but not intended to be a literal description of historical reality. Chief Rabbi Hertz makes this point explicitly in the Hertz Soncino Chumash published in 1936, which was popular for many years in many Orthodox shuls. Umberto Cassutto provides a detailed analysis of the differences between the Genesis account and other ancient Mythologies, and shows how Genesis seeks to strip the ancient mythologies of their polytheistic and immoral content and replace it with an ethical monotheistic message.

In recent years this approach was also endorsed by Rabbi Shubert Spiro, in an article published in Tradition magazine. All of these scholars base themselves primarily on the Rambam, who appeared to permit allegorization of the Torah where it conflicted with common sense or proven reality. In addition, it seems that Rav Shimshon Refoel Hirsch, The Tiferes Yisrael and Rav Kook all followed this approach. However recent statement by some members of the Ultra-Orthodox world have given the impression that belief in an ancient universe or in evolution is ‘kefirah mamash’.

Therefore, given all the above, we would like to ask the following questions, with regards to Hilchos Kefirah, Megaleh Ponim BaTorah Sheloh Kehalochoh, and similar concerns.

Is it muttar to:

1. Believe that the Universe is 15 billion years old (or thereabouts)?
2. Believe that the Planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old (or thereabouts)?
3. Believe that Adam & Eve are allegorical figures rather than real individuals who lived 6000 years ago?
4. Believe that mankind gradually ‘evolved’ over millions of years (with Divine guidance)?
5. Believe that the story of Gan Eden is an allegory and never actually happened?
6. Believe that there was no global flood?
7. Believe that Noach is an allegorical figure rather than a real individual?
8. Believe that all of Genesis 1-11 is entirely mythological. It may contain some basic truths, and many moral and spiritual lessons, but it no way needs to be ‘reconciled’ with modern Science.

Classic Mail Jewish 1994

From: Marc Shapiro
Date: Sat, 22 Oct 1994 22:42:37 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Science and Torah

I have read with interest the recent discussions re. Science and Torah. It is, however, somewhat unusual that people who appear to be so called modern-Orthodox are presenting Haredi-fundamentalist positions. I would therefore like to share with people what I believe is the Modern Orthodox approach on some of the issues being discussed. I am led to do so after a conversation I had with someone a few weeks ago who confessed that he could no longer be religious since he didn't believe. I asked what he meant when he said he didn't believe and he said that he didn't believe that the world was some 5000 years old and that the entire world was destroyed in the Flood. As he put it, there are hundreds of species of animals and insects in Australia, New Guinea and the rainforest. Did they just get on a boat and sail from Mt. Ararat to their current domiciles? Not to mention the fact that they could never have lived in Noah's area to begin with.

What I said to this man, and what I say now, is what I believe to be the proper response. It is also the one shared by all of the so called Modern Orthodox scholars and intellectuals I have spoken to concerning this question.

This approach is presented in their lectures on Bible and history at the various universities they teach at. If you go to the Association for Jewish Studies convention, where over half the attendees are now Orthodox, you will get the same answer from just about anyone you ask. I am not saying that everyone who is considered a Modern Orthodox philosopher, Bible Scholar or historian shares this view, but certainly the overwhelming number do and everyone I have spoken to agrees. I mention this only to point out that although Modern Orthodox people on this line seem to be advocating one position, the so-called intellectuals of this community have a different position. Understanding this will both broaden the horizons of Modern Orthodox Jews and also allow many of them not to feel intellectually dishonest or consider the Bible simply a collection of fairy tales.

If you ask these Modern Orthodox scholars about the flood (and the Genesis story) you will be told that they are not to be taken literally. Obviously the world is more than five thousand years old and there was never a flood which destroyed the entire world, although this doesn't mean that there was never a localized flood. Of course, by now there is no dispute among Modern Orthodox that the world is billions of years old and I would say that to deny this would ipso facto mean that one can no longer be considered "modern". However, my major purpose here is to discuss the flood since this was not dealt with adequately on Mail Jewish. Most people are probably aware that a number of rishonim took the whole garden of Eden story allegorically and R. Kook writes that it makes no difference for us if in truth there was no Garden of Eden Can this insight be applied to the Flood?

Well the answer which is offered by Modern Orthodox scholars is that the Flood can only be understood by comparison with the Gilgamesh epic and it is in comparing the two that we see the real significance of the Torah's story, which is not trying to teach us history but important lessons about God and his relationship to man. Understood in this fashion, what is significant is the inner meaning of the Torah and not its outer texture which was never meant to be taken literally, and was able to be appreciated much better by the early Israelites who were aware of the Gilgamesh story. The exact point about the inner meaning being important, and not the so-called history, is made by all scholars who have discussed the allegory of the Garden of Eden.

When the flood story is understood in this light (and I cannot elaborate on all the details here) it is obvious that questions such as how the kangaroo got to Australia miss the point.(Although medieval scholars did not discuss the flood in this way, it is perhaps possible to see a precedent for the Modern Orthodox approach in the comments of Joseph ibn Caspi on the rabbinic phrase "The Torah speaks in the Language of Men." His comments are analyzed by Isadore Twersky in his article "Joseph Ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual," in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature vol. 2.

It is further interesting that in adopting this approach, Modern Orthodox scholars are doing something they usually don't do. Usually they argue that their insight into secular subjects allows them to have a better appreciation of the Torah than otherwise would be the case. However, with regard to the Flood story, they are saying that it is literally impossible to understand what the Torah is talking about with knowledge of Gilgamesh. Obviously, the traditional commentators are of very little help in this regard. Now why is it that Modern Orthodox scholars cannot take the story literally? The answer if very simple and I'm sure most people know what I'm going to say. To believe that the entire world was destroyed some four thousand years ago and that we and all the animals are descended from Noah and those in his ark (similarly to believe that we are all descended from a first man named Adam who lived 5000 years ago) is not merely to dispute a certain historical fact, or to deny the existence of say Alexander, Caesar or George Washington. On the contrary, it is this and much more. One who believes in the flood story literally (or in the five thousand year history of the world) rejects the entire historical enterprise. He denies history itself and places himself outside of time. It is pointless to even discuss, never mind argue; with someone who adopts this view since there can be no point of reference between the fundamentalist and the historically minded. Indeed, it makes no sense for the fundamentalist to even attempt to show the historical veracity of what he believes, since as I said above, his very position is a rejection of the validity of all historical meaning. As such any discussion is pointless.

Since Modern Orthodoxy has always accepted the value of history, it is no surprise that the flood story is seen very differently in its scholarly circles than in Haredi circles. If people ask the professors at Bar Ilan's Bible department or history or philosophy departments about the flood and other things the answers will obviously be very different than what is given at traditional yeshivot (I've spoken to a number of the former about this and other issues, primarily about how best to present this material about the flood when teaching undergraduates) Of course, this will not surprise anyone who has studied at this or similar institutions.

To give an illustration which might be helpful, At Bar Ilan's Bible department it is acceptable to engage in Higher Criticism of the Prophets and Hagiographa whereas this is considered heresy at the yeshivot. I think the average Modern Orthodox Jew would also regard this as heresy and Prof. Uriel Simon (currently at Harvard) recently recalled to me the controversy such study created in the early years of the University when members of other faculties wished to ban it as heretical.. I mention this only to point out that there is a difference between what the so called Modern Orthodox intellectuals are doing and what the so called Modern Orthodox laity believe. It seems to me that this needs to be brought more into line.

Marc Shapiro

From: harry.weiss@24stex.com (Harry Weiss)
Date: Thu, 27 Oct 94 11:39:12 -0700
Subject: Flood

I found Marc Shapiro's posting about the flood upsetting. If there was a legitimate basis to question whether the flood actually happened it would have been discussed thousands of years ago. This was the case regarding the book of Job.

It is not a question of being Modern Orthodox vs. non modern. Denying the truth to a part of the Torah is denying the Divinity of the Torah which is absolute K'firah (heresy). These views are not Orthodox in any way. Being Modern Orthodox means fully accepting 100% of the Torah and Ol Malchut Shamaim (the reign of Heaven), while living as a part of modern society.

That fact that Shapiro (or I) cannot fully understand all of the facts behind the flood does not in any way lessen their accuracy. It just indicates our lack of knowledge.

I also question whether denying the Truth of any part of the Torah belongs on this list.


From: Marc Shapiro
Date: Sat, 29 Oct 1994 22:42:45 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: Flood

In response to a couple of private letters, I would like to clarify a few things I wrote in my posting re. the flood, and I hope this will obviate the need to deal with this further, unless there is a significant need.

First, I do not deny that God could, if he wanted, have created the world 5755 years ago, created the fossils, signs of civilization etc. For that matter, he could have created the world 30 years ago and put memories into our minds and created earlier books, buildings etc. However, the best of our religious thinkers have taught us that we need not think in this fashion. We need not adopt Tertullian's credo quia impossible -- I believe because it is impossible. (Actually Tertullian really said certum est quia impossible est -- It is certain becaaue it is impossible).

It is precisely because of this that great sages interpreted the Garden of Eden story allegorically and refused to take literally aggadot. Judaism doesn't require us to leave our intellects at the door. E. g. Obviously it is possible for God to lift Mount Sinai over the head of the Israelites, but must we believe this literally? The whole endeavor to allegorize aggadot is based on the fact that God (and the world) do not behave in a completely outrageous fashion. We don't understand God, but we have an idea about how he interacts in this world, at least that's what Maimonides and his followers thought. Why else reject demons, astrology and other superstitions. Couldn't God have made the world this way? Obviously yes, but the real question is, is it likely that he did so and must we believe this. Maimonides answers no, and I think modern Orthodox Jews agree, although Haredim probably do not.

In my original posting I stated that believing in the truth of the flood (and a 5000 year old world) is more extreme than denying the existence of George Washington. Someone asked me if it isn't the case that we have more evidence for George Washington than for denying the flood. The answer is obviously no. We know about Washington because of one type of evidence, historical, and we have a great deal of this. However, the entire received body of knowledge in just about every field of human study is dependant on the fact that the world is not 5000 years old and that there was not a flood. These facts are the fundamentals of biology, physics, astronomy, history, anthropology, geology, paleontology, zoology, linguistics etc. etc. etc. Belief in a 5000 year old world and a flood which destroyed the world 4000 years ago is a denial of all human knowledge as we know it. It is a retreat into a world of belief, rather than one based on any sort of fact, and one who believes can believe anything he want to. The fundamentalist is not able to prove that Washington lived, only to say that he believes that Washington lives. It is because Modern Orthodox do not wish to live in a world in which the entire accumulated knowledge of all civilization is to be thrown out the window that they cannot take this literally. Pay attention to what I am saying, it is impossible to make sense of anything in this world, in any field of science and many of the social sciences by adopting fundamentalist position. If people wish to live this sort of existence, fine, but one can't pretend that there is any sort of compelling reason for anyone else to. They certainly shouldn't try to put forth all sorts of pseudo-science to convince people of the correctness of their view. I think that when it comes to science, history etc, people would prefer the stated views of the great scholars (and the not so great scholars) at every university in the world. Since none of these people are fundamentalists, doesn't it make sense for the fundamentalists not even to try and touch these areas?

It is worth noting, I think, that although fundamentalism in this country has always been accompanied by anti-intellectualism, this has not been the case in the Jewish world. In fact, with the exception of some Hasidic trends, anti-intellectualism has no roots in recent Jewish history. The people advocating fundamentalist positions are the most intellectual we have. People often say that they can hold the positions they do because they are ignorant of science and history. This is incorrect. It is not that they are ignorant of all these fields; it is rather that they reject them. There is a difference. The proper word to describe this is obscurantism. And I for one don't think it will last forever. One can only go against the obvious facts of our day for so long. Rabbis could declare that Copernicus's views were heretical for only so long before the weight of evidence ran over them. That will happen with fundamentalism, because if they don’t change, no one with any education will still be listening to them.

One final point which is also relevant, since every thing I have been saying touches on how one is to study the Torah. It appears to me that the traditional approach of Bible study is in many respects immature, at least in our day. What was adequate 50 years ago is now no longer so. I remember from my high school days that to study a text in more depth meant to read more commentators. That is, one increased the information intake, but the method of analysis and the forms of questions asked didn't change. When I got to college and studied the same sources again, I was amazed at how the text could come alive, and questions and issues were dealt with that never even entered my mind in high school. I remember speaking to a number of yeshiva students and they were so excited since in Yeshivah Bible was taught in such an immature, sometimes juvenile, fashion whereas Dostoevsky et al were critically analyzed by the new approaches in literature. It was only when they reached college and happened to take the course we did (offered by Reuven Kimelman) that they saw the depth and beauty of the Biblical stories. I realize that it is probably impossible to implement these approaches in high school but wouldn’t it be great if we could apply the same rigor to the Torah (I am referring to the narratives) that we do to western literature? We need not be stuck holding onto only medieval forms of exegesis. The world of exegesis hasn't stood still, and the same insights which modern theories of literature and modern ways of reading text offer us about the great works, will assist us in understanding the Torah. I think in many respects this was Hirsch's message, that Torah, and everything about it, need not be considered shallow when compared to secular studies. This was also R. Hayyim's reason, or one of them, for his analytic method, to show that Talmud study is just as rigorous as secular study. Unfortunately, we need a new Hirsch and a new R. Hayyim, since traditional Bible study in our day does not have the rigor of academic disciplines and we will not be able to attract the best minds if we do not do something about it. Either they will prefer Talmud study, which remains rigorous, or they will choose to study Western literature (or other fields), and Bible study will be left for the less skilled, who are only able to tell you about one more commentary and one more peshat, those who cannot see the forest because of the trees, that is, those who miss the big picture of the Torah.

Marc Shapiro

Cross Currents Says Something Stupid

[DovBear: So whats the chiddush?]

Rabbi Menken says:

To some extent, he overstates his case—he says that there is “no coherent reconciliation between God and Darwin.” That, at least from a Jewish perspective, is simply not true. Let us start from the Medrash which says that just as Adam was 20 years old immediately after he was Created, everything else also looks like it developed in a natural way. Presto: you have an intellectually coherent Jewish theory explaining why the appearance of evolution contradicts nothing in Judaism, regardless of whether or not it ever happened. N.B. It is not my intention to get into a discussion about dinosaur bones or whether this really makes sense in terms of G-d “hiding” Himself in this world, at this juncture. I merely mean to point out that one who believes this has an internally-consistent, coherent model that reconciles G-d with any evidence for Darwin you could possibly imagine.

This is a pretty stupid comment. What he could have said, which would have been far more intelligent, was that evolution contradicts nothing in Judaism because nothing in Judaism (apart from some wacky extremist fundamentalists) says that Breishis I and 2 have to be taken absolutely literally, and that great Jewish scholars such as Rav Kook were okay with evolution. Instead, he gives the Gosse theory, which doesn’t work for the many reasons we have talked about.

There was also a rather pathetic article this week in the Jewish Action from Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman on Zionism, and RYGB has become increasingly clown like on his blog recently. What is going on? Why are all the articulate spokespeople for (LW) UO making such fools of themselves?

My theory is that they are stuck in an even bigger hole than the MOs are. Not only do they have to stick to the ikkarim when debating reality, they also have to be very mindful of being labeled ‘kofrim’ by the lunatic fringe, their own right wing. This makes it almost impossible for them to make any sense at all.

Its sad, so sad, it’s a sad sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd.

How to be Conservative Chareidi – A step by step guide

1. Passionate about Halachah
Your ancestors have been keeping Halachah in the face of tremendous adversity for thousands of years. Halachah has kept the Jewish people together. It provides an awesome framework for spirituality, community, family and all good things.

2. Passionate about Torah
‘Talmud Torah cneged kulom’. We aren’t called the People of the Book for nothing! And we aren’t called the people of the TV at all. Go learn!

3. Passionate about God
It’s all about getting closer to God (or serving God if that works better for you). If you don’t believe in God, then fuggedaboutit. But deep down you believe. Or at least are open to the possibility of there being more to life than just being a semi-random collection of carbon based molecules which will shortly expire.

4. Passionate about Eretz Yisrael & Am Yisrael
Achdus and Israel are important. That doesn’t mean you are anti-disengagement. On the contrary, a true lover of Eretz Yisrael & Am Yisrael will be pro-disengagement. (See R Blau’s effective demolishment of R Emmanuel Feldman’s rather sorry excuse of an article in this month’s Jewish Action).

5. Not so passionate about Dogma and Biblical Literalism
Okay, so some of the dogma is a bit suspect. And so is some of the literature. But don’t focus on that! It will only get you depressed, and then you really will turn into a semi-random collection of carbon based molecules which is shortly about to expire. As the great Rav Gershon Michaels said: You gotta have faith, faith, faith. You gotta have faith!

Okay, so this sounds a bit pathetic. As one wag likes to say ‘"When people discover it's not true, they stop doin' sh*t." And this is the challenge. How can we get people to do sh*t stuff if they are not too sure of the foundations?

I think there are actually two challenges here:

1. Figuring out some intellectually (and theologically) satisfying reasons to continue to do stuff even though some of the foundations might be a bit suspect.

2. Motivating people to then actually go do stuff.

These two points sound like they are the same but I think maybe not. The Conservative Rabbinate had a good go at number 1, but failed miserably at number 2. Can the Conservative Chareidim (or even the LW MO) do a better job?

A Conservative Chareidi!

I was all set to write a post about what being Conservative Chareidi means, and then I saw that Rabbi David Lerner beat me to it (kinda). OK, so he's a bit too Conservative and not quite Chareidi enough, but this article is quite interesting. Here is the best bit:

There is no future in simply tearing down traditional Judaism. While I love wissenschaft, scholarship, as much as the next Jewish Theological Seminary grad (all right, almost as much), it does little for my spiritual health. I cannot tell you how many serious Conservative Jews who attended List College (the JTS undergraduate school) were fed a scathing critique of observant Judaism and traditional theology. Many of them became Orthodox or completely unobservant — a wasted opportunity for our movement.

Far better would be to teach history, even biblical criticism, with reverence for God and Torah, still conveying our text’s uniqueness and majesty. The Torah I teach includes critical Jewish scholarship, but not at the expense of one’s religious life. It was Rabbi Gillman who first taught me that one could believe in critical philosophy and still be an observant Jew.

In retrospect, we as a movement have spent too much time on the history and development of the text and not enough time nurturing the soul. Too much energy knocking down, and not enough energy building up.

Perhaps we do need a new slogan. Let’s try 'Passionate Judaism.'

Let us articulate a passionate Judaism where an evolving halacha stands at the center, struggling with the issues of the day, yet still guiding us through life’s greatest challenges.

Let us cast off our ambivalence and assert our principles: God, Torah and Israel. Let us understand halacha to be supple enough to include women’s full participation in our tradition.

Let us create minyanim faithful to our traditional liturgy, but open enough to incorporate the creative use of meditation and niggunim, melodies without words, to heighten our experience of God.

Let us make Shabbat a day of serious communal encounter with Torah to inspire us both to deepen our own spiritual lives and to reach out to heal the world. Let us incorporate a historical approach into our study, but one that leaves our souls intact.

Let us assert proudly that we are modern Jews who embrace halacha. Let us hold fast to the chain of tradition from Sinai to this moment.

Enough tension — let us embrace a passionate Conservative Judaism.

Let the real Conservative Judaism stand up.

I don't think what he's articulating is the real Conservative Judaism though, it sounds more like Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy to me. Maybe LWMO are the real Conservatives? I guess so.

Someone [very reliable] wrote me the following email:

This past shabbos I heard Rabbi X speak at a shalasheudes. He asked why do we say "veAl haMilchamos" in the al hanissim. shouldn't we remember the victory but not the milchama? Says Rabbi X, quoting, IIRC the Nesivas Shalom (ironically) that the reason is because the "milchama" is not yet over. We continue to fight the misyavnim.

And don't think, said Rabbi X, that the misyavnim of today are the Reform or Conservative. No, they're the Modern Orthodox rabbis (verbatim quote) who want to chepper with bris milah (metzitza bapeh) and shabbos! (eruvin?)

I fully expect that in the next few years we will be hearing the following line from the extremists:

Rabosai, the enemy is no longer the Modern Orthodox. Everyone knows they are treif! No, the enemy are the left wing Chareidim!

Remember, you heard it here first.

RYGB gets destroyed. It's a shame.

The comments on the post I referenced previously from RYGB is really interesting. I don't think I'm being biased if I say that Saul Shajnfeld totally destroys RYGBs arguments. RYGB is an intelligent fellow, so what's going on?

The answer my friends is simple. If you are defending the Torah's account of pre-history, you are doing so out of faith. You are certainly not doing so out of Scientific or Historical accuracy, because if you knew diddly squat about either of those two concepts you would realize that Breishis could not possibly be literally correct.

Defending Breishis out of faith is all very well and good, but if that's your position here is some advice:

Don't get into arguments about facts and reasons! You can't possibly win. Don't be stupid. If your position is based on faith then admit that and move on. Holding a position based on faith, contrary to all evidence, and then trying to argue your case based on evidence is the height of stupidity.

Best closing lines:

RYGB: Indeed, the *only* uninterrupted, ongoing, no reconstruction necessary, no interpretation necessary, chronology of world history is our mesorah.

Saul: With all due respect, I find your responses absurd and an insult to your readers' intelligence, and regret to inform you that you appear to be brain-dead.

OK, so the ad hominem was a bit much, but you can see his frustration building up. I guess some advice for Saul is in order too:

There is no point in getting frustrated when arguing with hard core fundamentalists about Breishis. They are not interested in facts. As RYGB says clearly, their starting (and finishing) position is that Breishis is literally (or maybe slightly semi literally) true. Science and History must conform. No other options are acceptable.

Still, sometimes it can be funny watching the fundamentalists squirm to try and answer all the difficult questions. Very occasionally you can get a breakthrough. However it's often a hollow victory, because usually all that happens is that their entire emunah crumbles and they become a kofer, which was not the intended purpose of the debate. Well, at least not my intended purpose.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Rules of Orthodox Belief v1.0

I have to admit it, I’m jealous of RYGB. First of all, he has a bunch of initials which make him sound like a Godol, very RYBS like. Secondly, the comments on this post are some of the funniest I have seen anywhere. Also RYGB turns very clownish in trying to defend a flood which covered Egypt too. I guess he had to do that, after reading this comment:

I have a great deal of sympathy for the rabbanim who refuse to back off of the traditional literal interpretation of the Torah. The problem with the moshol approach is that it means conceding that chazal and our mesorah are wrong about the fundamental nature of the Torah. How can one be confident in the historical truth of yetzias mitzrayim or matan torah if some parts of the torah turn out not to be true (at least in the literal sense) and our mesorah gives us no basis for determining which parts are true history and which are moshol. Personally, I find this argument so persuasive that I have abandoned my emunah entirely. It has become clear to me that the mesorah itself is simply a fiction.
Mike Skeptic

But I think Mike Skeptic has it backwards. It is precisely because of the fundamentalist insistence on ‘all or nothing’ with respect to the Mesorah, that as soon as Mike figures out that one part is clearly untrue, it quickly degenerates into ‘nothing is true’. However if there was more flexibility (not to mention honesty) about the Mesorah, an ancient myth about a flood would have far less bearing on whether any of Judaism was Divinely Inspired or not.

Still, either way these questions are certainly problematic. I guess we will just have to go with this commenter, and his proof that the beliefs of Orthodoxy are logical (and he wasn’t joking either):

Of course our belief system is logical:

1. The Torah (including written and oral) are [literally] True and definitive.
2. Anything else may contain elements of truth, but only so long as and to the degree consistent with Torah.
3. Where you perceive a contradiction between the Torah and any other source of information (including your senses and your intellect), refer to rule 1.

I think this accurately sums up the opinions of the fundamentalists, and I perceived a similar attitude in my marathon live debate with some Yeshivah guys last week. And this is what did Slifkin in, because he came along with the following set of rules:

1. The Torah (including written and oral) are [semi-literally] True and definitive.
2. Science is True and definitive.
3. Therefore we must reconcile!

As you can see, he got rule 1 partially wrong, and rule 2 very badly wrong, and he paid the price for it.

My rules are as follows:

1. If the global community of experts all agree on something pertaining to their field, then I’ll defer to their judgment. (In Science and in Torah).
2. If the experts can be shown to have a bias which severely distorts their judgment and renders their conclusions incorrect, I will reconsider. (In Science and in Torah).
3. I’m usually right though. (In Science and in Torah).
4. If you disagree, see rule 3.

It's just a flesh wound local flood!

The ‘Local Flood’ chevrah make a case for re-interpreting the word ‘Kol’ to mean ‘all the local’, rather than ‘global’. And I guess they do the same when it says ‘all the heavens’, ‘all the animals’ etc etc. Even though this is not at all implied from the text, let’s give them that poetic license (otherwise known as kefirah) for the moment.

However this still doesn’t help for a number of reasons:

1. The posuk says that from Shem Cham VeYefes ‘all the world was populated’. Even interpreting ‘all’ as meaning ‘all local’ this is very strange. Why would other survivors of the flood, and people from the surrounding unaffected areas not have repopulated the flood zone? Why just three sons of Noach?

2. Even from the perspective of the Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, and even from the perspective of ‘Israelites’ at the time of Noach, or Avraham, the globe was larger than Mesopotamia. People knew of the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Far East. There were well established trade routes, and these civilizations, especially Egypt, have long fairly continuous histories and it’s clear that they were not all wiped out by a global flood 5000 years ago. So why would anyone have understood ‘all’ to mean ‘all local’ and found it convincing, or even true from their perspective? It was never true, even from their perspective.

3. God promises ‘never to destroy the entire world again’. However as we know now, there was only a small local flood. It would have appeared devastating to the local population, but wouldn’t have affected anyone in Egypt, southern Mediterranean, the UK, USA and Australia. Plus, since then there have been many devastating local floods, with the Tsunami last year killing 280,000 people alone. So what exactly was this promise about, and did God even keep it?

4. There is a hypothesis that the flood is a myth based on severe flooding circa 8000 years ago in the black sea. Another theory is that it is based on the end of the Ice Age. Of course neither of these theories fit with the dating or genealogies of the Torah, which was one of the big criticisms of Myth/Moshol, so you haven’t gained much by going with these theories. Also the Noach story can’t fit with the end of the Ice Age, since the boat technology and other technologies and social systems mentioned pre-Noach didn’t exist then.

Am I opposed to the existence of a guy called Noach in a boat with a few animals being saved by God? Of course not! However, after looking at all the available evidence, it just seems highly unlikely that the story of Noach is anything more than Myth/Moshol. Once you reinterpret it to fit with Science, about a small local flood with a guy in a boat with some animals, the story doesn't quite make so much sense anymore (not to mention not fitting with the text).

Of course some people say that about Sinai too, so maybe I should just keep quiet.

My Proof for Intelligent Design

Here is my proof for Intelligent Design. Everyone agrees that at the dawn of 'Creation' there was nothing. Okay, so there was a big ball of energy at a trillion degrees, but still, that's not very useful for browsing the web or making phone calls. Fast forward 15 billion years and we have the Nokia 7710, clearly and purposefully designed. And very well designed too I might add. According to the skeptics, the Universe is simply a collection of evolved atoms in various configurations, which via natural selection produced artifacts which look like they were designed purposefully, but really they were not. They just evolved through natural selection. However the Nokia 7710 was clearly and purposefully designed, so how do the skeptics answer that one? They have no answer.

(Note: This proof also works well with the Canon EOS-5D and the NAD C542.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

String Theory is Mechazek My Emunah

Ever since Albert Einstein wondered whether the world might have been different, physicists have been searching for a “theory of everything” to explain why the universe is the way it is. Now string theory, one of today's leading candidates, is in trouble. A growing number of physicists claim it is ill-defined and based on crude assumptions. Something fundamental is missing, they say. The main complaint is that rather than describing one universe, the theory describes 10500, each with different constants of nature, even different laws of physics.

But the inventor of string theory, physicist Leonard Susskind, sees this “landscape” of universes as a solution rather than a problem. He says it could answer the most perplexing question in physics: why the value of the cosmological constant, which describes the expansion rate of the universe, appears improbably fine-tuned for life. A little bigger or smaller and life could not exist. With an infinite number of universes, says Susskind, there is bound to be one with a cosmological constant like ours.

[GH: Interesting interview with Susskind follows. However this last question is the kicker:]

If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?

I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent - maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation - I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

At the end of the day, everyone agrees that 15 billion years ago there was nothing, and now we have intelligent humans (well, mostly). That's pretty incredible no matter which way you look at it. As the universe seems like it's just a physical place, it's kinda hard to understand how this could have happened by chance, even given an infinite number of chances. Of course 'kinda hard to understand' is no proof of anything, but it seems to be a reasonable conclusion that there's something much bigger out there than what we can (ever?) sense or test. What that 'something' is exactly is more difficult to understand, but that's a different question.

Recommended Reading for Fundamentalists

Bursting the Limits of Time : The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution
by Martin J. S. Rudwick

In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh joined the long-running theological debate on the age of the earth by famously announcing that creation had occurred on October 23, 4004 B.C. Although widely challenged during the Enlightenment, this belief in a six-thousand-year-old planet was only laid to rest during a revolution of discovery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this relatively brief period, geologists reconstructed the immensely long history of the earth-and the relatively recent arrival of human life. Highlighting a discovery that radically altered existing perceptions of a human's place in the universe as much as the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud did, Bursting the Limits of Time is a herculean effort by one of the world's foremost experts on the history of geology and paleontology to sketch this historicization of the natural world in the age of revolution.

Addressing this intellectual revolution for the first time, Rudwick examines the ideas and practices of earth scientists throughout the Western world to show how the story of what we now call "deep time" was pieced together. He explores who was responsible for the discovery of the earth's history, refutes the concept of a rift between science and religion in dating the earth, and details how the study of the history of the earth helped define a new branch of science called geology. Rooting his analysis in a detailed study of primary sources, Rudwick emphasizes the lasting importance of field- and museum-based research of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Bursting the Limits of Time, the culmination of more than three decades of research, is the first detailed account of this monumental phase in the history of science.

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