Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sinning Bare-Headed

Igros Moshe O.C. 2:95
“And on the matter of entering a theater or movies, behold, it is something forbidden, and how is it relevant to permit removing one’s hat and being bare headed for it? He adds sin on top of his sin. And if the question is about one who is seized by his inclination to go there, and will not listen to not going, perhaps it is good that he remove his hat so that there will not be a chilul Hashem, since they will not know he is a Torah observant Jew. This is a great reason but only if intended l’shem shemayim. However since it is implausible to say that one seized by the inclination actually has intent l’shem shamayim, rather to belittle the matter even further with uncovering his head, therefore there is nothing to permit it.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kol Koreh against Gezel Sheina

HaMercaz has a notice by the Rabbanim of Kiriyat Sanz requesting that it's residents not to work on constructing their Succos after 10 P.M. out of consideration for their neighbors and their sleep, especially the elderly, children, and the ill.

ודברים אלו נוגעים לשכנים ומדות שבין אדם לחברו שאין יום הכיפורים מכפר

ורח"ל דבר שגורם למחלוקת בין השכנים וכדי שלא יהיה ח"ו מצוה הבאה בעבירה

"And these maters are relevant to neighbors and good manners 'between a person and his fellow' about which Yom Kippur doesn't atone.

And God forbid that something should descend into strife between neighbors, so that it will not be (chas v'Shalom) a 'mitzvah that comes by way of a transgression.'

Some how notices like this don't get as wide of circulation on line as more "sensational" ones.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rav Chaim Berlin zt'l on Chassidim

The Seforim Blog has a very interesting, and I believe important, psak of Rav Chaim Berlin zt'l, which apparently has been left out of a new edition of his teshuvos:

ולהתפלל בבית הכנסת של החסידים אין שום חשש בזה, וגזירת רבינו הגר"א ז"ל לא הי' אלא בזמנו שהקילו אז בכבוד תלמידי חכמים לומדי תורה, ולא כן בימינו שהחסידים חולקים כבוד לכל לומדי תורה והם יראי ה' ושומרים תורה ומצוה

"And to pray in a Chassidic synagogue, there isn't any reason to be concerned about this. The decree of our Master the Gra z'l (HaGoan Rav Eliyahu zt'l, the Vilna Gaon) was only in his time since they were lax then regarding the honor of scholars who study Torah, and this is not so on our days when the Chassidim give honor to all students of Torah, and they are God fearing and observe Torah and Mitzvos."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Parshas Vayeira: The Expulsion of Hagar

I apologize for allowing Shabbos to pass without having posted on the parsha. Truthfully the only thing I could think of was a counter-missionary theme which I just couldn’t bring myself to write. There’s a lot I want to write on that topic but I burnt out a long time ago. Then, over Shabbos, the obvious post came to me.

In parshas Vayeira we read of Hagar being expelled from the house of Avraham Avinu after Yishmael’s behavior proves to be a spiritual and/or physical danger to Yitzchak. The more attentive may have noticed that it was only the parsha before when we read that Hagar had previously left Avraham’s household. The similarities are obvious. In either instance we find that Hagar leaves in reaction to Sarah Imeinu and subsequently is found in the desert by an angel near water.

But from there the two passages drastically differ. On the one hand we see that the earlier account in Chapter 16 uses the name of Hashem throughout, while our account (Chapter 21) uses Eloqim. It is little surprise then, that proponents of the Document Hypothesis attribute the former account to J (at least those verses which deal with Hagar running away, there are a few verses which are attributed to P) while the later account is attributed to E.

Other differences, however, are much more significant to the narrative and seem to imply that we are dealing with two entirely separate incidents and not merely different traditions of one event being preserved along side each other. Even without being familiar with the narratives the astute reader may have noticed above that the narrative in our Parsha is about Hagar being expelled while the prior account is one of her running away. In the earlier account it was her decision, albeit in order to escape Sarah, while in our parsha the decision was made for her. In our parshah she is expelled along with Yishmael, because of Yishmael’s behavior, while in the earlier account Yishmael had yet to be born and the friction in the household was attributed to her attitude. In the first account she is found safe beside a spring of water, while in the later she and Yishmael are saved from dying of thirst by the angel.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two accounts is that in the initial account Hagar is instructed by the angel to return. The account in our parsha represents a final departure of Hagar and Yishmael from Avraham’s household. Without the later account there is no final resolution of the conflict in the former. This is especially so when we consider that the angel’s instruction for Hagar to return was by no means accompanied by any assurance that things would be easier, but rather that she was expected to submit to Sarah (16:9) and that the son she was to bear was going to live a life of conflict (16:12). To place our parsha’s narrative in, essentially, a separate book would leave the story incomplete. In fact, as near as I can tell “J” never really gets around to Yishmael even being born much less give any indication of the outcome of the instruction to return.

Hagar’s relationship with Sarah was broken. Although God’s Attribute of Mercy, indicated by the use of the name Hashem, assured that Yishmael had the benefit of spending his formative years in the presence of Avraham his father (an experience which undoubtedly made it easier for him to eventually do teshuva), this was not a long term solution. The issues which created the initial conflict were not resolved and eventually were manifest in Yishmael, at which point God with His Attribute of Judgment sided with Sarah that they could not stay and risk harming the well being of Yitzchak. It is hardly unprecedented for a troubled family to “reconcile” only to once again face separation when the problems continue or worsen. These two accounts are much more coherent when taken together than as two competing versions of the same story.

Chayei Sarah: The Eliezer Doublet

The bulk of Parshas Chayei Sarah is the well known account of Avrohom sending his servant, whom we are told is Eliezer (see Genesis 15:2), to find a wife from among Avrohom’s family for his son Yitzchok (Genesis 24). After traveling to Aram Naharim he waited by the well and prayed that God would send Yitzchok a proper shidduch to be identified by responding to his request for water with an offer to water his camels also. Rivka arrives and exceeds expectation.

When Rivka and Eliezer arrived at her home to meet her family, relatives of Avrohom, we are confronted with one of the clearest examples of a repetitive narrative to be found in the Chumash. Sixteen pesukim, almost as much as either of the two other narratives in this parsha, are dedicated to Eliezer telling Rivka’s family about the events we have just read about, with a few small differences.

From a purely stylistic standpoint this is hugely redundant. It, for all practical purposes, could be described as a doublet, “A doublet is a case of the same story being told twice. Even in translation it is easy to observe that biblical stories often appear with variation in detail in two different places in the Bible. There are two different stories of the creation of the world. There are two stories of the covenant between God and the patriarch Abraham…” (Who Wrote the Bible? Richard Elliot Freedman, page 22). Why was it necessary to give a full review rather than simply a generic one similar to that found in verse 30, “Thus has the man spoken to me”? Certainly this passage is much more repetitive, and more noticeable, than the account of creation found in Genesis 2.

But while this narrative has the stylistic difficulty which otherwise suggest to academics that we have multiple sources, such a position isn’t really helpful here. This repetition is totally dependant upon the original. The context of the account is clearly one of Eliezer telling the story, which requires the events to have already transpired. Furthermore, we might note, that the use of the divine names in either part of the narrative is consistent.

Presumably for these very reasons this narrative, despite its repetitive nature, is attributed in its entirety to “J” by Freidman (ibid page 248) and is not really considered a doublet. So while it may be argued that generally it is easier to attribute such “redundant” accounts to multiple sources in this case we are simply faced with the fact that the author/editor/redactor was content with presenting the material in a way that we would not choose stylistically. And when one notes the subtle differences I would argue that at least in this case “Those who defended the traditional belief” and argued that the differences “came to teach us a lesson by their ‘apparent’ contradiction” where correct. (see ibid page 22).

יפה שיחתן של עבדי אבות לפני המקום מתורתן של בניהם
R. Gil Student has followed up his post Seven Unconvincing Arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis with the veryinteresting Lot and the Flood.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Natural Selection is Apikorses. Period. (כנ"ל anyways)

In light of my earlier discussion on Creation Yesh m’Ayin inevitably leading to the appearance of age (and perhaps best thought of as actual "Retroactive Existence") prior to that creation, one might recognize that I have a tendency to let empirical science operate according to its own methods and assumptions and see no inherent need to conform its conclusions to the Torah and certainly no need to conform Torah to its conclusions. I suspect that there are those who will see such an approach as either radically liberal and to still others it will appear stubbornly conservative. For the most part I believe that the same conclusions apply to the evidence of the fossil record and genetics (I know I still owe you a post on this one) with respect to the Theory of Evolution. There is one important caveat to my position on Evolution that I must discuss.

Reading various discussions amongst Orthodox Jews regarding how to relate to Evolution, and works which discuss it, I was always aggravated by two interrelated problems. One was that the primary focus was always on the “history” side of the equation, which I found to be of little to no consequence. The second was those who sought to live their lives and form their opinions based on Torah, but found it absolutely inconceivable that one could identify Evolution as heresy (even though HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt’l paskened to edit/censor textbooks which contained such references[1]). The common denominator to either issue is the overlooking the real problem with evolution: Natural Selection.

natural selection the mechanism proposed by Charles DARWIN by which gradual evolutionary changes take place. Organisms that are better adapted to the environment in which they live produce more viable young, increasing their proportion in the population and, therefore, being selected. Such a mechanism depends on the variability of individuals within the population. The variability arises through MUTATION, the beneficial mutants being preserved by NATURAL SELECTION.” (The Harper Collins Dictionary: Biology, Page 377).
For the theist who seeks to incorporate Evolution into his or her worldview, whether due to not wishing to seem as a boor to academia or due to an actual understanding and acceptance of the empirical evidence which underlies Evolution, I believe the full implication of Natural Selection and its philosophical significance have been overshadowed. The notion that variations in a population allow them to adapt better to their environment and in turn to be more successful in producing offspring is essentially observable so in light of the other evidence it does not seem improbable to attribute such adaptation could lead to speciation given sufficient time.

Nevertheless “Natural Selection” is not just “natural selection” of variations which help the species adapt. More is implied by the term.

“This thesis is the Principle of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. It asserts that natural selection operating on variations is not only a sufficient condition for the origin of a species but also the only sufficient condition[2] for the origin of any species” (The Logic and Methodology of Science and Pseudoscience, Fred Wilson, page 150).

Not only can such a process be understood as a theory in accordance with the laws of nature, but it can and should be understood as in and of itself sufficient to explain the existence of life and all of its species without any divine guidance. Any attempt at suggesting a Creator’s involvement is unnecessary and undesirable. “Guided” evolution is anathema to “Natural Selection”.

This distinction is not merely the later spin of those antagonistic to faith. Already in Darwin’s writings we read such an implication.

“Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some have even imagined that natural selection induces variability, whereas it only implies the preservation of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its condition of life…Others have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals which becomes modified; and it has even been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them! It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity” (The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin Chapter 4 page 89, Mentor Edition).

Darwin found it necessary to respond to early detractors who did not find his use of the term “natural selection” materialistic enough. Whether a deity, choice of the animal itself, or a force in and of itself, their understanding of “natural selection” was deemed to be too active. Darwin reassured them “natural selection” was merely a passive description of the positive outcome brought by random changes which proved beneficial to that species. “Natural Selection” is only personified by verbal necessity, in truth it meant to obviate the need for such active design of variation. It is a strictly material process which allows the clock to function in the absence of the clockmaker, if indeed there was a clock maker.

Such a view is unacceptable within Judaism. It is one thing to interpret data in exclusively according to the laws of Nature. It is quite another to declare the laws of Nature independent of the Creator. The laws of Nature are entirely dependent upon the existence of Hashem, “If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist” (Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 1:3). While one may recognize that something has a naturalistic explanation one may not deny God’s active participation since nature itself is an act of God.

This is the real the heart of the conflict between Torah and Evolution and the common philosophy of science in the academic world today. Prior to the theory of Evolution many issues which we consider conflicts between religion and science had arisen, but none had led to such a degree of agnosticism and atheism. While material explanations could be found for the works of nature, the existence of the Universe and especially life in its complexity testified to the existence of a Designer. But Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection” seemed to provide the mechanism by which, by chance, variations could lead to the multiplicity of life forms on Earth. “The British biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken defender of Darwin and nonbeliever famously wrote that evolution ‘made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (Newsweek Nov. 18, 2005 page 56). Even life, it seemed, could now be understood as originating in a strictly materialist way without resorting to a Creator.

Darwin was not, however, the first to suggest life in its complexity originated through a serious of chances.

First Theory—There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe;…This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atom, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident…Aristotle has proved the absurdity of the theory, that the whole Universe could have originated by chance; he has shown that, on the contrary, there is a being that rules and governs the Universe. Guide to the Perplexed 282

“But it would be quite useless to mention the opinions of those who do not recognize the existence of God, but believe that the existing state of things is the result of accidental combination and separation of the elements, and that the Universe has no Ruler or Governor. Such is the theory of Epicurus and his school, and similar philosophers, as stated by Alexander [Aphrodisiensis]; it would be superfluous to repeat their views, since the existence of G-d has been demonstrated whilst their theory is built upon a basis proved to be untenable.” (Guide to the Perplexed page 173, emphasis mine)

The Aruch explains that the Hebrew term for “heretic”, Apikores, was derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus’ belief that the world was the result of accident and chance could be understood as the archetypal k’firah (heresy). But Epicurus’ approach wasn’t rejected because it failed to provide a natural history account of the origin of the species; it was rejected because any such scenario based on chance was in-credible. Darwin’s observations about the fossil record, variations in species allowing them to adapt better, and his recognition that better adaptation increases the possibility of survival and reproduction produced a theory which far exceeded anything Epicurus could have produced in his wildest dreams with respect to a natural history. But Darwin’s theory did no more to show that such natural processes could be plausibly understood as accidental occurrences independent of Design. The argument from design doesn’t assert that we cannot account for creation by “natural means”. Rather it argues that it cannot be relegated to chance. To the materialist who believed that if God existed, He played no active part in the running of the world, the possibility of explaining our development according to natural laws was automatically equated with confirmation of this materialistic assumption. But there is a difference between explaining a process, albeit “natural”, and demonstrating that process is possible by mere chance. As evidence for strict materialism “Natural Selection” was preaching to the choir. It allowed an atheist to feel “intellectually fulfilled”, but in truth it only pushed the argument from design under the rug.

The difficulty with Natural Selection is not the process but the philosophical assumption that is bundled in with the term in its standard use. Undoubtedly there are many scientists who in their own philosophy of science are much more liberal in their understanding of “natural selection”. They may not have difficulty understanding it as a naturalistic explanation that does not demand rejection of the supernatural, or at least are not bothered by those who take such an approach. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for a theist to speak of “natural selection”, but despite the clear overlap in meaning it is essentially only verbal agreement. We may accept survival of the fittest as a natural law, not as a self-sufficient explination for the creation of the species. Perhaps a book which speaks of natural selection without explicitly discussing its hard-line philosophical rejection of the supernatural may not be strictly prohibited, but it might be analogous to a Christian discussion on the Unity of God which doesn’t directly address their belief in the Trinity.[3] Should such need arise one must consult a competent Posek. Any work which speaks of “Natural Selection” in such a way that it is obviously meant to preclude the need, or even possibility, of the Divine is heretical and forbidden to be read by Jewish law other than the purposes of refuting them. Regardless of one’s feelings regarding evolution, Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection contains elements which are heretical and forbidden by Jewish law to believe or to study.

[1]It appears to me that while Rav Feinstein zt’l did not explicitly mention evolution etc. but being a p’sak on practical halachah the only reasonable inference is it discussed such subject matter and it is impossible to infer he spoke of only hypothetical k’firah.

[2]“A sufficient condition for the occurrence of an event is a circumstance in whose presence the event must occur.” (Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi, page 400, bold mine)

[3]The difference being one can think of better reasons to learn from a science textbook than a Christian theological discussion of G-d’s unity but…

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Parshas Lech Lecha: The Master of the Mansion

Our tradition begins with Avrohom Avinu. He is the physical, but even more so the spiritual, father of the Jewish people. The narrative of the Chumash does not enlighten us on the youth of Avrohom Avinu or the origin of his awareness of Hashem. Upon our “introduction” to him he is already receiving the prophetic instruction to leave his homeland for Eretz Ca’anan. Chazal, whether by tradition, inference from the text, or homily, provide us much more information about this period. We are given a glimpse into the world of Avrohom and how he came into recognition of the Holy One blessed be He. This information was not transmitted out of mere historical or biographical curiosity, but in an effort to implant the emunah of Avrohom into our own hearts.

בראשית רבה לך לך לט:א

א"ר יצחק משל לאחד שהיה עובר ממקום למקום. וראה
בירה אחת דולקת. אמר תאמר שהבירה הזו בלא מנהיג. הציץ עליו בעל הבירה. א"ל אני הוא
בעל הבירה. כך לפי שהיה בעל העולם

In the B’reishis Rabba on Parshas Lech Lecha (39:1) R. Yitzchak relates that Avrohom Avinu was like a traveler who encountered a certain mansion. The traveler wondered if it were possible that such a mansion could be without a master. It is not consistent without our experience for mansions to occur on their own. The existence of the mansion leads one to infer that there is a master responsible for its existence and maintenance.

Rav Sa’adia Goan uses a similar analogy in his “Emunos v’Deos”:

Furthermore I say that if they are right, so far as their doctrine of chance is concerned, let them show us or state that it is possible for the parts of a house, namely the stones and the wood, to unite by themselves and fall into order and combine so as to constitute a house.[1]

Avrohom Avinu, with his great spiritual sensitivity and purity of heart, was able to perceive that the very existence of the world implied that there was a Creator. This point was made later on by the Creator Himself in His rhetorical question to the prophet Yeshayahu, “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these, who takes out their host by number; all of them He calls by name; because of His great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26) Similarly we read in T’hillim, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork” (19:2).

Avrohom Avinu was able to see more clearly the very basic inference which is at the heart of the nearly universal human search for the divine. We must therefore attempt to understand why the entire world isn’t similarly enlightened by this truth even as they maintain a basic cognizance of it.

First we must recognize the nature of the inference here. The Rambam in his Moreh Nuvachim[2] addresses this inference, and employs it, but does not find it sufficient. Due to the prevailing (and ancient) disagreement among the philosophers about whether the universe had a beginning or not, the argument would not be compelling, not be conclusive, for those who held the opinion that the universe was eternal (a position that I do not believe has much relevance today). The Rambam felt that it was the best approach to take was to provide such arguments that would not be refutable. The Rambam wanted the existence of the Creator to be demonstrated conclusively. Similarly we have the Kuzari who argues that Moshe Rabbeinu identified God as the “God of the Hebrews” when speaking to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:16) rather than as the “God of heaven and earth” or as the Creator, since Pharaoh would have denied creation.[3] We must therefore consider the two types of arguments as are known from the science of logic, a deductive argument and an inductive argument. A deductive argument is one where, insofar as the premises are correct, the conclusion is demonstrably proven from those premises and nothing more could be added that could possible change the truth of that conclusion. An inductive argument, on the other hand is one where the conclusion follows logically from the premises but there remains a possibility, even if it is an exceedingly remote one, that the conclusion could be shown incorrect if other proof where presented. While fools can grandstand and ignore the truth of any conclusion no matter how firmly established, the correctness of an inductive argument is clearly more subjective and it is much easier to ignore such an argument’s strength and still hold a pretext of reason. Both the Rambam and the Kuzari seemed to recognize that our inference was of this later category of inductive reasoning and felt that in the various contexts another approach was more appropriate.

We should not, however, mistakenly assume that this represents a חסרון in the reasoning חו״ש. Much of what we “know” is based off of inductive reasoning, and insofar as very few premises, if any, are actually known with absolute certainty, most of our reasoning has a strong inductive element. Despite all of the interesting and perhaps at times useful philosophical/epistemological questions one might pose, we would be intellectually paralyzed without such inductive reasoning. While the Rambam, like other philosophers, would prefer a deductive argument which provides demonstrable proof, I believe that the majority of our Rabbi’s (especially among the Acharonim) have guided us down the path of Emunah Peshuta. We are not asked to believe that which there is no reason to believe, but we are expected to content ourselves with the very basic truth that if not impossible, then it is inconceivable that creation not have a Creator.

Furthermore, this cloud of uncertainty, as slight as it is, plays a very important, even essential, role. Insofar as the existence of the Creator is the fundamental truth with which mankind must reckon, God’s plan for man having free choice (which cannot be dealt with at length here) would require that there be an alternative explanation to the existence of the world than a Creator. While this alternative does not have to be “possible” strictly speaking, it must at least seem plausible enough that those who so chose can grasp onto such a position, while at the same time not so compelling as to render one blameless for accepting it.

With this in mind it is worthwhile to consider the moshol used by Rabbi Akiva to illustrate this idea (which I have not seen inside yet). It is related that a certain heretic approached Rabbi Akiva challenging him to demonstrate God’s existence. Rabbi Akiva replied by asking that the heretic demonstrate how his garment came into being. The analogy of a garment is particularly apt, since the purpose of a garment is to conceal. A person is both concealed by his garments, and identified with them as was the case with Yosef when he approached his brothers. Nature, creation, conceals the Creator while testifying to His existence.

On the one hand we should beware and recognize that while we can infer the Creator from creation, we can infer very little else. Knowledge of the Creator, His will and His attributes, cannot be attained by philosophical speculation but only Revelation. We might suppose certain things based on analogy from human intelligence but that is an exceedingly imperfect analogy (though perhaps more fruitful than a dogmatic agnosticism in absence of Revelation). Ultimately even Avrohom was dependant upon the “Master of the Mansion” revealing Himself and the Divrei Chaim on this parsha explains that had this not been the case even Avrohom Avinu would have been ensnared by the pitfalls of philosophical speculation חו״ש. We can rightly infer that there is a Creator of creation but we should not conflate that conclusion with evidence for a specific theological system (correct or not) since that is a matter of revelation and not philosophical enquiry.

On the other hand we must not engage in sophomoric attempts at denying this very basic inference from analogy. Again, analogies are often precarious things, and formalizing them begs us to analyze whether they are sound. But analogy is not either/or, it is a matter of judgment. It seems to me that when our initial instinct does not find it plausible that everything is the result of chance, as is the case with most people, this is a less biased analysis than an overly technical one which tries to find dissimilarities when in any other situation we would not conclude that something observed was merely the product of natural chance. We must refuse to find philosophical loopholes to avoid this obvious realization. We may not be able to find a philosophically sound definition of knowledge, by comparison, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t fail a lie detector test if we denied ‘knowledge’ of an event we had witnessed.

And we must beware, then, that we do not become presumptuous and dismiss this fundamental evidence for the Creator based on a mere “possibility” to the contrary. It is certainly a ploy of the yetzer hara for us to dismiss an argument found in the Rishonim, Geonim, Chazal, and the Nevi’im! One should know that to “believe” in something that one feels there is no reason to believe in is an impossibility. Such “belief” is fantasy and make-believe, one doesn’t believe, they wish it to be. That is not to say, חו״ש, that those who profess such a position are not believers. Indeed the descendants of Avrohom are “believers the sons of believers” and I recall hearing, in the name of one of the Rebbes from Ger I believe, that even when faced with doubt one must have emunah that one really has emunah. Rather an individual does have reason, correct or otherwise, to establish their emunah, but such a denial has a corrosive effect which will damage their emunah or even lead them or those they influence to a place of bitter waters ר״ל.

The path of Avrohom is, it seems to me, the path of Emunah Peshuta, an embrace of the simple recognition that creation has a Creator and embracing that the Creator has revealed Himself, to Avrohom through prophecy and to us through His Torah. One does not need to engage in endless enquiries in search of demonstrative proofs but recognize that we have sufficient reason to believe. Conversely emunah does not require that one does not ‘know” one’s belief is true, the Torah tells us that the B’nei Yisroel had faith in Hashem and Moshe even though they certainly “knew” as well, having witnessed open miracles and having attained prophecy. Rather we should not concede that it is even logically possible that the world not have a Creator. We should not pretend that we can believe in that which we deny reason to believe in, but we should neither pretend that our intellect is the final authority and is capable in finding all of the answer about the metaphysical realm.

[1] The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Rav Sa’adia Gaon page 75 trans. Samuel Rosenblatt, Yale University Press.
[2] See page 110, 111
[3] 1:25, Metzudah page 3, 5.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Here Gosse Nothing...

One particularly obnoxious objection against resolving the age of the universe is the attempt to "pasul" it as a Christian idea since this was the approach that the Christian Philip Henry Gosse put for in his work Omphalos.

This is 1000% disingenuous.

Omphalos was, for better or for worse, DOA. It had little or no influence. My experience may be anecdotal but as someone who had an interest in Christian apologetics let me state clearly that I not once did I run into this line of reasoning being utilized by Christians to reconcile the Biblical account of creation with science.

In addition to the obvious ad hominem overtones, it is a fallacy of post hoc ergo proper hoc. While one might argue that one should not (or that traditionalist who take this approach teach that one should not) adopt non-Jewish religious teachings, there is clearly no prohibition against believing something because non-Jews believe it as well. With that in mind there is there is very little reason to believe that Omphalos played a role in this approach being introduced into the Jewish community.

It is not uncommon for two independent, or even competing, people to introduce theories which are, or are nearly, identical. I will spare you the cliche, but when confronted with a problem and given the same body of evidence it is not a novel thing for people to reach the same conclusion independently.

While Judaism does not accept the sola scriptura stance of traditional protestant Christianity, we have noted that it normally requires that a verses plain meaning be retained. Confronted with the same problem, namely the scientific evidence for a much much older universe, there are only so many possible solutions. From liberal allegorization to radical scepticism of science, one can find manifestations of each approach among either Jews or Christians but by far the "Gosse Theory" is the one I have found least likely to be expressed by Christians. I could almost exclude the instances I have encountered of Christians taking this approach to Gosse himself. An independent origin for this approach at reconciliation is as plausible, if not more, than that of borrowing.

This is reflected in my own experience. I had written on the "Gosse Theory", privately at least, before ever having heard the term. While I probably had heard generic assertions that God could create an old looking world, I had never seen this developed into a theory. It was a mere afterthought of those Christians who took a much more dismissive view of scientific opinion. I certainly never saw it argued that apparent age is a logical necessity from the text nor that it meant that one need not dismiss the Science behind evolution or the Big Bang.

In short it is ridiculous to object to an argument which seeks to establish the truth of Torah because it is accepted by Christians as well, especially when there is no evidence to support that the argument was actually adopted from Christians.

Parshas Noach: Evidence for a Global Flood?

When I was younger, much much younger, I had a plan. I and a couple of my friends where going to be missionaries. Well not just missionaries, we were going to “plant churches” all across the world, particularly in places such as along south Asia, roughly along the sailing route between California and the Middle East. And we were going to do it on a life size replica of Noah’s Ark, which would also serve as confirming evidence that a pair of each species could actually fit into the dimensions given by the Bible. And did I mention the part about underwater archeology in the Red Sea?

After being introduced to Judaism I found out that Razal had a much keener grasp of the obvious than I did at eleven (not that it doesn’t hold true now as well) noting that while the Biblical flood was an open miracle the ability for the Ark to fit all species was a more inconspicuous one.

While my dreams reflected an over active imagination and a degree of immaturity excusable for a child, the truth is that I’m not sure how rare the underlying fallacy of my reasoning is even among adults. My fundamental error was to approach a miracle as a natural phenomenon, or more specifically to try to apply naturalistic standards to a supernatural event. Without making a judgment on the possibility of miracles one can still say recognize that it is circular reasoning to falsify a miracle, or all miracles, because the do not conform to the laws of nature.

With the account of the Mabul, the flood of Noah, I see this reflected on either side of the spectrum. On the one hand in my life I have chanced upon unknown numbers media pieces on “evidence” of Noah’s flood whether it is Christian apologetic material or pop television specials which provide a fuzzy and inaccurate blend of traditional and academic. In addition to the aforementioned problem these specials seem to be significantly chronologically challenged, though their primary audience is probably not so concerned with such details.

On the other hand we have those who, in the face of a lack of evidence for such a global flood, conclude that this account [also] must be considered allegorical. While my overriding discomfort of removing a passage from its simple meaning without textual basis has already been noted and supported, R. Harry Maryles of Haemtza once noted that his mentor HaRav Aaron Soloveitchik zt’l considered the allegorization of the Mabul to be kefirah (or was it only almost kefirah?). While I can only speculate, I would speculate that it was not that the Mabul was so significant but more that to allegorize such a major Biblical account without any textual or traditional basis would undermine the entire pshat of the Chumash. Perhaps it is not so much that allegorization to the exclusion of the pshat is a slippery slope, but rather more of a sudden drop off after B’reshis -- where at least the ambiguity of the meaning of “day” prior to the creation of the sun etc. provided basis for a second look.

When I was younger, yes about the same age I was earlier in the piece, the river bed down stream was about four or five times the size of the river itself for a certain stretch. Sticking up from the gravel where a number of dead trees. Their blackened trunks lacked any real branches to speak of. Initially I had always assumed that they had burnt in the fires of 1987, just prior to my moving there. Only later did I find out that they had been killed by flood (again, had my grasp of the obvious been keener I would have realized that for trees to burn at the very bottom of the valley would require that the fire travel farther down the mountain than the remaining trees would suggest that it had).

According to chapter 8 verse 11, Noah new that the waters had receded when the dove returned with an olive leaf in its beak. This olive tree was underwater for a much longer period of time than those trees in the valley had been, and it was submerged! Yet Noah’s dove was able to bring back an olive leaf, an image which today is associated with peace. But unlike the flooding of the river back home which was a natural occurrence there is not pretence of nature with respect to the Mabul. To infer effects of the Mabul from the effects of a natural flood is fundamentally a poor analogy. While a miracle would affect the natural, since that is the stage upon which it takes place, the effect can only be recognized by observation not inference. I can assure you that people throughout the ages have seen the effects of natural floods but I doubt that any of them experienced a crisis of faith because the read that the dove found an olive branch on a tree that spent months underwater.

Very briefly, some wish to argue in favor of a limited/local flood. To support this they reference the midrash which says that Eretz Yisroel wasn’t included in the Mabul. Of course the most obvious question is since when to we treat the midrash as “historical” and uproot the Pshat? Second of all, this is basically equivocation. The midrash speaks of a “limited” Mabul insofar as it was limited to places other than Eretz Yisroel but it is still a global flood. The Midrash doesn’t negate that where it not for Noah and the Ark the flood would have left man and animal kind extinct.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Because to dan l'kaf chov is a lack of "Derech Eretz"

This is adapted from a comment made on the post at the Divrei Chaim Blog hachanos for mitzvos - how NOT to buy an esrog or build a sukkah.

I too would like to see an increased appreciation for derech eretz as it applies in our general culture. There are, however a couple of points which I think need to be recognized.

In the 1950's there was an occurrence of mass hysteria known as The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic. People, it would seem, started "looking at their window" rather than "through them" and noticed the typical cracks caused by small rocks and the like, and attributed them to nefarious causes. The human mind can be very selective in what it notices, and susceptible to suggestion as well. A caricature of Frum Yidden having poor manners is going to make it much more likely that confirming examples will be noticed, whether out of antagonism or a sense that it reflects poorly on the observer as well. I would argue that had the situation been reversed it is not anywhere near as likely that it would have been noticed as reflecting well on the son. This isn't a criticism, it is just natural.

Secondly, I have worked in customer service, both Jewish and general, and I can tell you that even in the general culture, among affluent educated people, it is often that common courtesy is observed in the breach. I can also tell you that while I have not had a lot of interaction with the larger "Frum" world my experience has been that they may often not be as "sociable", but among my Jewish customers they have not generally been the one's who have caused a scene. Yes, this is very anecdotal but it is my experience.

Finally derech eretz is subjective. I have a non-Jewish coworker of European birth who finds our affinity about such customs as saying please and thank you as being phony and insincere. When you are purchasing from someone you are doing them a favor. Of course in such a case as this they are also doing you a favor by providing something you need. I see nothing wrong if in a particular culture please and thank you are reserved for less casual interactions. In the end the merchant set up shop to make money.

But I still tell my coworker to use please and thank you to those in his charge because when and where it is customary to do so it is rude not to regardless.

Thanks, :)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Parshas B’reishis: In the Beginning, Brias HaOlam according to the Torah and the contemporary scientific understanding

The most obvious challenge, though perhaps not the most difficult one, which modern science presents to Torah Judaism is the radically divergent picture modern science paints of the origin of the universe and the species from that which we are told in the opening verses of the Torah. It is well known, of course, that Midrashic sources offer various teachings that are much more compatible with the contemporary scientific view but we are nevertheless still left with the pshat of B’reshis. Although true in their own right, midrashim are generally recognized as not being literal while as we have discussed in the post "What Problem?" the natural and traditional position is that any allegorical meaning compliments the literal, not replace it.

For most, whose allegiance to both science and the Bible tend to be a bit peripheral, the resolution can be a bit fuzzy but is often based on understanding the term day (יוֹם) as a long period. This has certain appeal insofar as יוֹם is used in the Bible symbolically to refer to longer periods of time. Likewise it doesn't take modern science to question the meaning of the term "day" before the sun was created. This approach is difficult however since the terms עֶרֶב and בקֶר (evening and morning) seem to suggest that the Torah means "day" in the conventional sense. Likewise Chagiga 12a lists the length of day and night as among that which was created on the first day, a clear indication that Chazal also understood day in the conventional sense. See here for more traditional sources which take a similar approach: I would suggest that their is a better approach which not only accounts for the difference between the age of the universe in the different views, but other areas of dispute as well.

In the Garden of Eden

When one thinks about it the very story of the Garden of Eden is an almost Gettier-esqu thought experiment. Taking the story in the most straightforward and literal way, if one where to suddenly find oneself being present moments after the creation of Adam, or viewing a photograph of that moment, one would certainly be justified in believing that the subject you were viewing, and the entire scene, was older than even the entire six day history of the universe. Such a narrative does not presume that Adam was a zygote, trees as saplings, or the landscape free from the effects of erosion. When we speak of the age of the universe in scientific terms we are not speaking about the measurement of time passed, but the effects of time passed. It is not possible to envision a scenario in which the Garden of Eden did not appear older than the actual six day history of the world! It is not simply a matter of that it would be possible for an omnipotent Creator to make a world that seems older, it is that it is not possible that a universe which functions similar to ours would not appear older where an omnipotent Creator to create such a garden from nothing. And it is in exactly this manner that Chazal tell us that the world was created,“R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature, their full capacities, and their full beauty” (Rosh HaShanah 11a) about which you may recall that the Rambam said, “Note this likewise, for it includes a principle fully established” (Guide 2:30, page 216).

Isn't that deceptive?

It is no more deceptive than creating a world which looks like it happened through blind chance over millions of years and then telling mankind it was created in six days a couple centuries previously and giving no indication that the story was simply an allegory. In fact, insofar as such "pre-history" is a logical necessity in the narrative I would argue it is a lot less deceptive.

Such an objection may have some strength from a materialistic perspective but it has almost no weight theologically once we have accepted that there is a Creator. The fact is that God has, clearly, concealed Himself. We cannot directly observe His existence or presence. Universe, עולם, comes from the same root as "to conceal." Such concealment is a prerequisite for free will, which is a fundamental component for Gods plan for the world. As we will elaborate upon later, this pre-history furthers this goal of providing man with free-will.

It does not seem necessary to conceptualize this “pre-historic” time as “imaginary”. Is it any less real than yesterday is today? When we look at physical objects we measure, to whatever degree of accuracy possible, the effect of time. We can generally make, at least rough, estimates about people’s age or the countless other objects based on “appearance”. We measure based on physical features not with a stopwatch. When we gaze at the stars we are making observations just as much as if we where looking across the room, except what we observe took place long before Creation. According to the notion that the past maintains an existence even in the presence, there is no difficulty in assuming that the “pre-history” was then created “yesh m’ayin” just as the rest of creation.

I wasn't born yesterday!

It has been objected, I believe I saw one blog attribute it to Amisov, that one could likewise argue that we were really created yesterday and that all of our memories and experiences where programmed in (this reminds me of one of the last movies I saw in a theater).

This, frankly, totally misses the point and significance of this argument. This argument shows, conclusively, that evidence of a prior age in the physical universe or organic life does not constitute a refutation of the Genesis account. It does not presume to demonstrate that it is true, the justification for accepting the Genesis account may be related but it is a different discussion. It must be conceded that there exists a discrepancy but when there is strong reason to accept the Genesis account it represents no great hurdle in doing so, and while the discrepancy may assume larger proportions if such evidence is not as strong it nevertheless remains circular reasoning to falsify an account because of factors which can be inferred from that account.

So much history, so little time!

Others object that while we can correctly infer prior age it is a stretch to say this accounts for the great length of time we see in the scientific evidence. The reasoning here is faulty. The account implies prior age but not how much. It is every bit as much an argument from silence to argue a minimal amount of prior age based on the text as it is to attribute untold eons of prior age based solely on the text. The account only gives us a general indication of the prior age, and that only inferred by necessity. To determine how "old" the universe appeared we have no other means at our disposal than science, it is every bit as much arbitrary to assume a short period as it is to assume a long one.

Why would God create the world so old?

It is worthwhile to bear in mind Guiding Principle #8 that our inability to understand the motive for doing something doesn't mean it wasn't done. This pre-history functions as the prologue to the story of the natural world (the very nice analogy of a prologue came from my 10 year old daughter Rochel). If the stage is set at the Garden of Eden then it was the pre-history which set the stage. It is from that "history" that we derive scientific concept (be they biological, geological, or what have you) which help us with contemporary scientific issues. For the scientist this prologue is a vital tool in understanding the story today. Indeed it is not uncommon to hear theists who object to a literal approach to Genesis argue that modern technologies and advances are due to the science made possible by this prologue.

Likewise for the accomplished Talmid Chacham such information about natural process could give rise to new ways of communicating Torah ideas through allegory and analogy, much as Rabbi Akiva’s inference about his own ability to learn Torah by observing a rock which had been pierced by water even though such a process would seemingly have taken much longer than the time since Creation.

Perhaps most importantly is that it provides a framework to understand the world without resort to the supernatural which is fundamental to the balance necessary to allow for true free will. Throughout history, even today, man has always tended to infer that creation has a creator, but another option must be available. Particularly in our era when man has a much greater understanding of the complexities of nature it not having a naturalist explanation for the origins of the universe would too greatly compel man to accept the notion of a creator. That is not to say a purely materialistic explanation is really a valid option, but it must be palatable enough for those who wish to deny God refuge. Indeed I do not believe that these naturalistic explanations counter the argument from design but rather provide a naturalistic process which essentially describes the steps without fundamentally addressing how the cumulative result could plausibly occur unaided. This is something which I should develop further in its own post.

Let Science be Science

The beauty of this approach, it seems to me, is largely overlooked. It really provides a GREAT opportunity for free inquiry. The natural history can speak for itself and is useful in it's context. It is, almost, a case of Elu v'Elu (remember after all that one of the cases about which this term was used is whether the universe was created in Nissan or Tishei).

So if we accept, at least for the sake of argument, that we have sound reason to believe in the Torah then we must recognize that apparent age is a necessary inference from the text. We do not have basis, however, to speculate from the text whether it is a great or small amount of time. We must remember that the default position is that a verse does not depart from it's simple meaning (pshat) and that since the Rambam holds the common ancestry of man in the person of Adam (see Guiding Principle #4) that he would apparently expect demonstrative proof to allow for a complete allegorization of the passage. We should also remember that according to Rav Sa'adia Gaon we only allegorize away the pshat when there is NO other alternative. We should also bear in mind it is one thing to say the narrative is a mashal, it is quite another to provide a coherent and compelling nimshal. We have neither need nor evidence to accept an allegorical interpretation over the simple meaning of the text.

For those of you who recognize this as the Gosse Theory I will, bli neder, post about that more soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Guiding" Principles: The Guide for the Perplexed and today's Age of the Universe question

While I have done more than a bit of touring the J-Blogosphere, those which I visit quickly became basically canonized and remains very similar today as it was when I began. Recently, however, I have ventured off my beaten path more than usual in an attempt to, Post meaningful comments to other blogs and put your URL in the appropriate place." In doing so I had a bit of a back and forth with the blogger "Orthoprax" who was commenting at "LubabNoMore"'s blog. He commented that the Rambam took a "very non-literal [approach] to scripture." In response I cited the comment of the Rambam which I discussed in What Problem? which I argued constitutes a major restriction on replacing pshat with allegory and that the science which the Rambam based his decision to allegorize B'reshis was now irrelevant. To this he responded:

"And? The implication is that if Maimonides lived today and knew today's science, he would likely be even more allegorical in his approach."

I don't think it is of much value to speculate on what the Rambam would believe but, in a way, I suspect he is correct. The question can, however, serve as an introduction into my position on the Age of the Universe issues. While I'm not really into guessing what the Rambam would say, I think it is worthwhile to look at what he did say and I believe we will find a number of ideas that lend themselves to my approach.

1. Be Cautious about what you deem "Impossible"

Impossible is a very big word. The fact that you find a certain scenario or resolution improbable doesn't mean it isn't so. The Rambam warns that if one, "reject[s] things as impossible which have never been proved to be impossible, or which are in fact possible, though their possibility be very remote, then you will be like Elisha Aher; you will not only fail to become perfect, but will become exceedingly imperfect" (Guide 1:32, Freidlander page 42, emphasis mine). To conflate improbable with impossible can, or does, lead to incorrect conclusions and even heresy ח"ו .

2. Allegory doesn't solve all problems

Allegoization is, or can be, a tool. That doesn't mean it is the best one for the job or that it will always work: “A mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument” (Guide 2:25, page 199). As we have noted in What Problem? that allegory is generally not meant to supersede the pshat, and the Rambam tells us here that to do so is essentially a last resort.

Furthermore, the Rambam recognizes that one cannot allegorize away every conflict, "If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we would be forced to other opinions"( ibid, page 200).

3. Fundamental Principles may only be set aside by demonstrative proof

Fundamental Principles, not to be confused with Principles of Faith (the denial of which is heresy) shouldn't be allegorized away unless one has demonstrative proof (i.e. a deductive argument with premises which are certainly true) requires that they be:

I mention this lest you be deceived; for a person might some day, by some objection which he raises, shake your belief in the theory of Creation, and then mislead you; you would then adopt the theory [of the Eternity of the Universe], which is contrary to the fundamental principles of our religion, and lead to "speaking words that turn away from God." you must rather have suspicion against your own reason, and accept the theory taught by two prophets who have laid the foundation for the existing order in the religious and social relations of mankind. Only demonstrative proof should be able to make you abandon the theory of the creation; but such a proof does not exist in Nature. (ibid 2:23, page 195)
I believe that this was the quote I had in mind when I wrote, "I have seen passages in the Guide that seem to go even further in restricting allegorizing." Here the Rambam goes even further. Previously it would seem that he would allow allegorizing even if another option was available as long as it did not seem as strong. When it comes to a "fundamental principle", however, the Rambam seems to agree with the general approach of Rav Sa'adia Gaon that only when there is no other reconciliation possible is allegorization (to the exclusion of the p'shat) acceptable.
In this regard I think the Rambam's words apply more broadly, that "such a proof does not exist." With demonstrative proofs being for all practical purposes philosophically impossible at this point is no trump card which can lead to uprooting the pshat in favor of allegory when it comes to fundamental principals at least.
4. It is a fundamental principle that mankind descended from one individual, Adam

Again, bear in mind the Rambam's distinction between a fundamental principle and a principle of faith, but we read, "It is one of the fundamental principles of the Law that the Universe has been created ex nihilo, and that of the human race, one individual being, Adam, was created." (Ibid 3:50, page 381) The common ancestry of mankind from Adam is a fundamental principle that should only be allegorized away because of a demonstrative proof, but not when there is an alternative even if it seems improbable.
5. Beings were formed "fully developed" at Creation
The Rambam, citing no less of an authority on Jewish belief than the Talmud writes:

Note also the saying of our Sages:When the Universe was created, all things were created with size, intellect, and beauty fully developed, i.e. everything was created perfect in magnitude and form, and endowed with the most suitable properties; thew word zibyonam (their beauty) used here has the same meaning as zebi,'glory'" (Ezek. xx. 6). Note this likewise, for it includes a principle fully established. (ibid 3:30)
Now I cannot say for certain that this "principle" fully established is a "fundamental principle" but it would seem that this is an important idea in Jewish thought and the thought of the Rambam in particular.
6. One cannot ignore the miraculous when contemplating the acts of an omnipotent Creator

The Rambam writes, "Accepting the Creation, we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is remove." (2:25, page 199-200). It seems almost too obvious to mention, but it seems to me that all to often the materialistic presumptions of science (i.e nature) get artificially superimposed on the inherently supernatural act of creation.
Likewise we are told that the laws of nature were not fixed until the end of the six days of creation, "All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed." (ibid 2:30, page 216). While I'm not sure this is necessary for my approach, per se, I think it is an idea worth keeping in mind in relation to this topic.
7. Be modest when approaching Scripture
The Rambam encouraged a cautious, conservative approach to Scripture: "You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lust and appetites, and glance over its content as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition." (1:2, page 15)
Similarly he warns, "when he is in doubt about anything, or unable to find a proof for the object of his inquiry, he must not at once abandon, reject, or deny it; he must modestly keep back, and from regard to the honour of his Creator, hesitate[from uttering an opinion] and pause." (1:32, page 43)
8. It is not productive to speculate why God would choose a certain option

The inability to determine motive in no way indicates that something didn't occur. This is so with humans and it is certainly so with God whose "ways are not our ways."

We might be asked, Why has God inspired a certain person and not another? why has He revealed the Law to one particular nation, and at one particular time? why has He commanded this, and forbidden that? why has He shown through a prophet certain miracles? what is the object of these laws? and why has He not made the commandments and the prohibitions part of our nature, if it was His object that we should live in accordance with them? We answer to all this questions: He willed it so; or, His wisdom decided so. Just as He created the world according to His will, at a certain time, in a certain form, and upon a peculiar time, so we do not know why His will or wisdom determined any of the things mentioned in the preceding question. (2:25, page 200)

9. It is contrary to Torah to concede the possibility of the Universe existing without God even if one does accept that God does actually exist

"If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist." (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 1:2, Moznaim Translation)

Alright, that wasn't from the Guide, but it illustrates the Rambam's view nonetheless.

10. The Opinion of Chazal should be given due respect

Earlier we cited, "All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed." (ibid 2:30, page 216). The Rambam here emphasises the consensus of Chazal and gives it a great deal of weight.

So, while one may not find each of these ideas equally acceptable (though I believe they are generally sound) I believe they give us some important insight into the Rambam's thinking as it might pertain to our topic. And I believe following these ideas through to their logical conclusion would give much more support to the approach I favor, and hope to present soon, than to a blanket assertion of the Creation account as being an allegory.


I have long noticed that there are those who participate in inner-Orthodox discussion who seem downright flippant about the notion of heresy. Define them as you will but it is clear that there are things which are beyond the pale. While some of this can be attributed to orthopraxy, I do not think that is the entirety of the issue.

I do not now recall the exact topic, nor the exact blog, but I remember that while discussing a position which was theologically problematic (or at least challenged) but was in conformance to (or along the lines of) the scientific/academic view, a commenter quipped, "Just tell yourself, 'If its true, then it cannot be heresy.'" This is a very misguided approach, and is another example of being neither emunah peshuta nor rationalism.

The question of whether something is true is related to, but separate from, whether something is heretical. Heresy is a belief which is mutually exclusive with the affirmation of a particular religious faith. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant to the question whether a belief is consistent with a particular religion. Establishing the truth of a "heretical" falsifies the religion for which a belief is heretical.

The Rambam wrote, "If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we would be forced to other opinions" page 200. It may be debatable whether a certain position is heresy or not, but the fact that something is true isn't the determinant. And "אם יעלה על הדעת", one where to imagine, that something the Judaism was heresy were true, that would falsify Judaism. The two positions are mutually exclusive.

Conversely, if we have good reason to believe Judaism is true then if it is established that something which seems true is in fact heretical, then perhaps we should be a bit more skeptical than we might initially be inclined to be. If it is heretical then reconciliation is not possible and we must weigh the apparent "truth" against the weight of our reason for accepting Torah. If I did not believe that in each case the scale tips in favor of Torah, I wouldn't be "here".

Monday, October 6, 2008

Big Tent or a Clean House?

I like people, and I like to get along. All in all I am more comfortable with an Orthodoxy where those who don't agree 100% are comfortable. I'm not into breaking bruised reeds or extinguishing flickering flax. I am nevertheless highly uncomfortable with the notion of "orthoprax" individuals who reject Orthodoxy beliefs yet conceal this fact and participate in Orthodox life as though they were too.

I realize that the virtual world of Jewish blogs is going to magnify the extent of this phenomenon since it is a neighborhood ideal for them to meet like minded people and they where among the first inhabitants. Would I really be happier if these people hoped in their cars and drove to McDonalds next Shabbos? No, of course not. I am nevertheless very ambivalent about their presence.

A commenter at R. Gil's recently wrote,

People do go off the derech after they learn the DH. They just become orthoprax, rather than orthodox. I'm one of them. Maybe there are many more here. I have a family I love, including a wife who knows absolutely nothing about biblical scholarship. I have friends I cherish, I enjoy the intellectual fun of learning. I am part of a supporting and caring community, which is miles ahead of atheists who have no community at all. Should I throw all of that away just because they are not based on truth? Is observance of the Sabbath and kosher eating (at home) such a price to pay for happiness? Should I cause anguish to my parents who would not understand this, just to be intelectually honest? I dont think so. http://www.haloscan.com/comments/hirhurim/3055200867440808106/#598363
This individual entirely misses the point, it is not a matter of "intellectual honesty", it is a matter of personal honesty. It is a matter of integrity. When I had just engaged my wife I began to seriously doubt that there was reason to believe that the New Testament was inspired. As we sat in the parking lot before entering the store to buy her engagement ring I revealed these doubts to her...because I owed it to her. She married me anyways, neither of us realizing where my line of reasoning would wind up. When I concluded that not only did I not believe in the New Testament but I felt that there was reason to believe that Oso HaIsh was not the Messiah I resigned my membership and left my congregation.

As it stands, you remain like a Sabbatean, outwardly observant but in truth rejecting Judaism. You take advantage of the benifits to being part of the community, but privately corrode away at the beliefs which formed that community. And now with the veil of the Internet you do so actively and derisively. I think your presence is hurtful, but I don't want you to leave either.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yom Teruah is "Rosh HaShannah"

It is well known, of course, that the Chumash identifies the month of Nissan (during which we were redeemed from Egypt) as the beginning of the Jewish year. What I haven't seen as clearly recognized is that the month of Tishrei is not only identified as a "new year" by our Sages but is based in the T'nakh:

Three pilgrimage festivals shall you celebrate for Me during the year. You shall observe the Festival of Matzos; seven days shall you eat matzos, as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for in it you left Egypt; you shall not be seen before Me empty-handed. And the Festival of the Harvest [Shavuos] of the first fruits of your labor that you sow in the field; and the Festival of Ingathering [Succos] at the close of the year when you gather in your work from the field. (Ex. 20:14-16, Artscroll)
And emphasizing that the close of one year is the beginning of another:

You shall count for yourself seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years seven times; the years of the seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be for you forty-nine years.You shall sound a broken blast on the shofar, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:8-10)
We see clearly that the Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin in Tishrei. The Navi Yechezkel goes on to call "the tenth day of the month" which is most appropriately identified as Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement, the only holiday which falls on the 10th of the month and which marks the liberation at the start of the Jubilee year as we just saw) "b'Rosh Hashannah", at the beginning of the year (Ezekiel 40:1).

It is incontestable that Tishrei marks the transition from one year to the other. It is also incontestable that while the Exodus took place in the middle of Nissan, the begging of Nissan is regarded as the "New Year". It is therefore clear that while the month of Tishrei has the character of the start of the year, it is implicit that the specific day to associate as being the "New Year" would be the first day of the month...Yom HaTeruah, which is not given explicit significance in Chumash.

I'm Sorry

Wow, I cannot believe I've gone almost the entire week without a post! I apologize to all my readers. That you have borne this in silence is a testament to your great patience.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Problem?

In order to find a suitable approach to understanding the relationship between contemporary scientific theories and the creation of the world as described in the opening chapters of Genesis, it is necessary to first establish that there is indeed a conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that we need to show that there is a “problem” insofar as this problem has been center stage in the public controversy between religion and science. The antagonism between the scientific community and “fundamentalist” Christianity over the theory of Evolution and how it and related issues are taught in public school is one which it is near impossible for anyone to be unfamiliar with. While most laity have various ways of bridging their religious and scientific beliefs, in truth most secularists (including the Jewish ones) have not found those methods any more compelling than the Christians who believe the Bible to actually be the Word of God do.

However among most religious Jews the situation is significantly different. Traditional Judaism’s acceptance of the Torah as the word of God matches if not surpasses that of fundamentalist Christianity. To speak of Mosaic authorship of the Torah is, essentially, heretical. Moshe Rebbeinu was not more that a transcriptionist of Hashem’s words. Nevertheless, or rather therefore, we approach the text with much more nuance than common among Fundamentalist Christians. Ours is the Psalmists plea, “Unveil my eyes that I my perceive wonders from Your Torah.” (Psalms 119:17). The Torah, not only from beginning to end but its depth as well, is plumbed.

The Midrashic literature springs from this depth of the Torah. The classic Midrashim are authoritative in Judaism and bring us lessons from the Torah on nearly any conceivable topic. Most importantly for our discussion are those Midrashim which discuss the creation of the world. It is in light of these Midrashim that many, if not most, religious Jews find little contention between their acceptance of the Torah and their acceptance of the contemporary scientific views of the origin of the man and the universe.

The solution is nevertheless more elusive. In addition to other difficulties which we will discuss in subsequent sections we are first and foremost confronted with the fact that allegorical interpretations are generally understood as additional meaning to the text, not meant to replace the literal meaning. The existence of these Midrashim does not cause the simple meaning of the opening chapters of Genesis to dissipate.

This concept is found explicitly in the Talmud in the saying, “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ”, “a verse doesn’t depart from its simple meaning” (see Yevamos 24a). The reluctance to depart from the simple meaning of the Torah is found even, or particularly, among those who discuss the permissibility of allegorizing. Rav Sa’adia Gaon writes, “We, the congregation of Israelites, accept in its literal sense and its universally recognized meaning whatever is recorded in the books of God and have been transmitted to us” (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, page 415). Although Sa’adia Gaon did recognize the permissibility of interpreting Torah narratives allegorically he established certain prerequisites. When a literal reading of scripture was not possible to reconcile with logic, i.e. science, it was permissible to understand it allegorically. Insofar as the truth of the Torah is axiomatic, apparent conflict demands resolution (even a difficult one) rather than dismissal.

In his article “On the Limits of Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture from an Orthodox Perspective” (Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 10), Josh L. Golding takes issue with this saying of Chazal as being the source for a preference for literal interpretation insofar as each instance it is used in the Talmud it is cited within the context of practical law. He speculatively infers that,
Therefore, the Sages of the Talmud may well have considered the Scriptural passages involving events and personalities wide open, even le-khatehillah (ab initio), to purely non-literal interpretation, while legal and penal passages are generally not.(page 42).
That this is an argument from silence is highlighted by he fact that he immediately proceeds challenge Sa’adia Goan’s source for saying that narratives cannot be taken non-literally! Nor does he seem to recognize that the Rambam, perhaps the best known authority to allegorize “liberally”, restricts when one may do so, giving preference to the literal meaning:“A mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument” (Guide to the Perplexed, Yale, page 199).

The truth is we do not need such maxim for us to take a work at face value when it presents us with no indication that it's author was simply allegorizing. This is especially true when only selection are to be understood as pure allegory while other parts of the narrative are to be taken literal.

Rav Sa'adia Gaon prohibits allegorizing the Torah except when there is not any other way to achieve reconciliation. The Rambam rejects it at least as long as another option is as acceptable. I have seen passages in the Guide that seem to go even further in resticting allegorizing. In either instance allegorization is essentially b'dieved. Allegorization (to the exclusion of the Peshat) is a way of reconciling two conflicting established "truths", it is only permissible when there IS a problem. This is a far cry from using allegorization as a way "accept" a narrative one finds otherwise untenable, to make it "possible" to accept a story one would otherwise object. In my opinion the latter is neither rationalism nor is it emunah peshuta.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Beitzei Kinim—Lice (?), Mice (or Squirrels), and Spontaneous Generation III

In arguing that it is not reasonable to suggest that "our lice" are different than those mentioned by Chazal, Rabbi Slifkin argues:
An additional argument against the explanation [that the "kinim" mentioned by Chazal are a different otherwise unknown species which does in fact reproduce spontaneously] is that throughout the ages, the commentaries on the Talmud and halachah spoke of the permissibility of killing lice on Shabbos due to their spontaneous generation. The recent authorities, such as the Chafetz Chaim, where writing in living memory; they were certainly speaking of the same lice with which we are familiar. (Mysterious Creatures page 198-199)
Although R. Slifkn suggest we essentially have a living "mesorah" about the identity of "kinim" it seems that it may not be that simple. The Chafetz Chaim (M.B. 316:35) gives a discription of a "parosh", implying there was some ambiguity which needed clarification. Indeed the translation by Feldheim Publishers on this Mishneh Berurah includes a footnote which says:
One is a flea (parosh) and the other is a louse (kinah), but there is a dispute among the Poskim as to which is which. (page 241)
It would seem that there is some controversy about the identity of this species. While I am not inclined to suggest this provides a great solution to the challenge we are presented with I think it is worthwhile that this argument is not as sound as it would seem.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Beitzei Kinim—Lice (?), Mice (or Squirrels), and Spontaneous Generation II

In the previous post I argued that we may be trying to infer to much to argue that their description of the reproduction of kinim and similar species in accordance with human observation meant that the accepted the theory of abiogenesis, in those instances at least. There is another significant factor aspect we must consider is that Abaye in Shabbos 107b does seem to object to the idea that a species doesn't reproduce. Given this I think it is important to bear in mind he following concept:

For we have an accepted principle from the ancient rabbis, may their memories be blessed, that no objection raised in the Gemora [against an authority's position] totally disproves [that position]. It is only an objection [strong enough to discredit the theory] in the eyes of the opponents raising it. (Chiddushay HaRamban p.2 on Bava Bassra 2b cited on page 15 of Dynamics of Dispute by Rabbi Zvi Lampel, Judaica
While the Gemara cites an alternative to Abaye's evidence for the reproduction of kinim, it can not be said that it demonstrated conclusively that Abaye was incorrect in arguing that kinim reproduce. Similarly, and I believe relevant not only to this question but the general approach of the previous post:

For everyone who studies our Talmud knows that when our commentators disagree over something, no one of them has any absolute proofs for his side, now matter how many difficulties he can raise against his opponent. Our subject is not simple mathematics, in which only one conclusion can possibly be reached. In every talmudic dispute, all our strength and might is devoted to laying aside one opinion in preference to another by means of logical evidence. We then interpret all [related] statements in that light, sometimes in a forced way. We give the seal of approval to the total picture which seems easiest to accept, considering all the data involved. This is our goal and the goal of every G-d-fearing scholar of talmudic science. (Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Milchomos Hashem, cited ibid page 16, emphasis added)

It may strike some as very counter-intuitive to argue that R. Eliezer wasn't describing abiogenesis but I believe that is because most not only have a basic familiarity with modern biology but in the process where taught about the theories it supplanted. Indeed I would suggest most of us may have as much or more familiarity about the theory of abiogenesis, of spontaneous generation, that most layman did when it was accepted by the naturalists. Our cognizance about these issues is not the result of personal intellectual curiosity but of the aggressive education we have received in the modern era. While there where certainly those who did, it is a bit anachronistic to expect that when the average spoke of "sunrise" it implied to them that the sun rotated around the earth when viewed from outside the solar system. Likewise I think it is a bit to much to infer a reproductive theory from Chazal's description of things from the standpoint of a human observer. As such I think it it is prudent to be very caution about reading too much into their words especially when it leads to attributing error to those about whom it is said "nevuah was taken from the Nevi'im and given to the Chachamim" (Bava Basra 12a).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beitzei Kinim—Lice (?), Mice (or Squirrels), and Spontaneous Generation

In a number of places throughout Torah literature one finds themselves confronted with passages which suggest that certain species do not reproduce in a typical fashion. In fact they seem to come, as it were, from thin air. To be more precise we see accounts in the Gemara of lice which do not have eggs and the Rishonim explain come from dirt or sweat and mice which grow out of mud. It would seem clear that Chazal subscribe to the rejected theory of “Spontaneous Generation”. We see Torah authorities trying to grapple with the difficulty presented by this subject even prior to universal agreement being reachedin the scientific community that spontaneous generation does not occur. For an excellent discussion of the halachic ramification of the topic see The Science in Torah, chapter 4 by Rabbi Dr.Yehudah (Leo) Levi שליט״א. There he shows that the microscopic origin of certain species isn’t halachiclly significant so that the falsity of “spontaneous generation” doesn’t negate the ruling. Nevertheless it seems to me there is a little more to be considered on the topic.

“Spontaneous generation” was a belief that certain species came into existence from things such as dirt and waste rather than by reproduction. It was a widely accepted belief until the last couple centuries.
Spontaneous generation or abiogenesis a discredited belief that living organisms can arise from nonliving things. It was finally shown to be untrue by PASTURE in his famous swan-neck flask experiments.[1] The Harper Collins Dictionary: Biology, Page 501

In light of this concept and its rejection people have grappled with how to relate to the passages in Chazal which address the concept. In the most significant discussion we find that Chazal permit one to kill kinim (כִינִים) on Shabbos because they are not “fruitful and multiply” since they have no eggs. One is liable for killing a parosh (פַּרְעוֹשׁ) which is fruitful and multiplies (Shabbos 107b). “Kinim” are parasites which live on humans and are generally translated as lice. There are different varieties of lice but they typically have eggs, known as nits, which are easily observable (ask parents of small children and school nurses), while kinim had no observable eggs. As usual it is difficult to precisely identify and translate the species in question, and Soncino translates kinim generically as “vermin”. Parosh is typically translated as “flea”. Rashi and Tosefos (on Shabbos 12a) explain that lice “swarm” from human sweat, while Tosefos explains that the parosh comes from the dust (ibid). The second major discussion is the Minshah on Chullin 126b and the subsequent Gemara, which discuss a rodent which is half flesh and half dirt. The implications of such a creature, once the full length has developed but having died prior to completely transforming to flesh, on ritual purity is there discussed. Achbar (עַכְבָּר) is generally translated as mouse but Rashi understands it to refer to squirrel in this context. This creature is also referenced in Sanhedrin 91a by R. Ammi as evidence that it is not impossible that the dead can be resurrected from the dust.

Now with respect to the Achbar we see what can only be understood as classical spontaneous generation, dirt becoming a rodent. But insofar as the ruling depends on one determining that the entire length has been developed it only is applicable if one observes (and has contact relevant to ritual purity) such a creature. And since Chazal clearly did not discuss this for the biological speculation we must conclude that either Chazal themselves witnessed such an achbar and its development, or they relied on the testimony of naturalists of their own day.[2] But while the Chullin passage implies the existence of such a rodent by discussing its halachic implication, R. Ammi actually asserts its existence. It is significant to note that the opinion of contemporary science not withstanding, R. Ammi’s argument remains sound. R. Ammi is responding to the objection of a min who, without specific evidence, rejected the possibility of resurrection based on the contemporary understanding of what is possible and what is impossible. R. Ammi showed, using the same contemporary understanding, a counter-example to the min’s assertion. R. Ammi showed that the min’s argument was not supported by the scientific evidence, but an oversimplification of the contemporary, albeit flawed, science. Since his opponant's argument was premised upon such assumptions, R. Ammi’s reasoning argument was valid.

Because of its more practical nature the passage concerning kinim is the basis for most discussion on this topic. It strikes me as somewhat presumptive to attempt to read Chazal’s mind with regards to the precise nature of the reproductive habits of kinim and so forth. The Sages of the Gemara where, by definition, experts in the Mishnah and therefore familiar with the approach of the naturalists of their day referenced in the above mishnah in Chullin. It is possible, or even probable, that acceptance of natural selection was not exclusive to R. Ammi or even the author(s) of that mishnah. Nevertheless we must bear in mind that they had no intent to explain the life cycle of the louse. Rather their discussion was to discuss the significance of difference between their generation and that of other species. We need to recognize that much of what we know about science, that which seems second nature, was long overlooked or under-considered. Science is “a creative endeavor” (Physics 3rd Edition, Douglas C. Giancoli page 13) and its theories “may be compared, as creative achievements, with great works of art or literature.” (ibid page 2). The “scientist” must first recognize the problem, which itself may take a good deal of imagination and then be inspired to search for solutions base on the evidence. While Chazal where geniuses and scholars in their own right, and it is reasonable to expect they had a healthy thirst for knowledge, it would be an assumption to say that they were particularly perturbed by the precise manner in which new kinim developed.

Chazal certainly did not believe that such creatures were a product of creation ex nihlo (Yesh m’Ayin), that is to say they did have a material origin. It is only with the advance of modern science that man has become so confident that all the mysteries of the world can be solved. I see no reason to believe that Chazal sought to explain phenomenoney they could not observe with the resources available to them. We have noted that halachiclly speaking there is no significance to phenomenon which cannot be observed. Although nits (the "egg" of lice) and nymphs (newly hatched lice) are visable, barely, to the naked eye it seems biologically possible that this was not the case in previous centuries.As such Chazal’s inquiry into the “birth” of lice noted they were not, to use the expression from Genesis, “fruitful and multiply”, i.e. they did not bear “fruit.” So continues the Gemara which counters with a b’raisa which seems to refer to “eggs of fleas, i.e “fruit”, but it is concluded that “eggs of fleas” (beitzei kinim) was actually a species in and of itself. So while all species may have a biogenesis, the microscopic eggs of the lice in question are not “fruit” or “eggs” from a halachic standpoint, the only standpoint we are certain that Chazal were concerned with.

At first glance it would seem counter-intuitive, some might say foolish, to suggest that Chazal did not have “spontaneous generation” in mind per se. Even conceding that they were not particularly interested in the biology we are nevertheless faced with the fact they were certainly familiar with the Mishnah in Chullin and it would seem hard to suggest that it did not provide the background for their understanding of this passage. In truth we see that despite the certainty that they knew of the passage in Chullin we find that it is not factored into the discussion when it would seem to be most relative. On Shabbos 107b Abaye queries the assertion that kinim do not lay eggs, based on a b’raisa which specifically mentions “beitzei kinim”, eggs of kinim. Had Abaye seen the discussion in Chullin applicable here he would have seen no difficulty. That sugya distinguishes between most achbarim which are fruitful and multiply and those which are formed from dirt. A b’raisa which discusses kinim laying eggs would not conflict with a passage which discusses kinim which do not. Conversely R. Yirmiah responds to Abaye by positing that “beitzei kinim” is actually the name of a specific species. Even when Abaye challenges that assertion by bringing another (otherwise unknown) reference to beitzei kinim R. Yirmiah sees it more likely that the passage speaks of a separate species than to suggest that some kinim lay eggs and some do not, just as we see in Chullin that some achbarim reproduce and some form from dirt. It might not be too strong to suggest that despite the reference to spontaneous generation we detect a degree of skepticism on R. Ammi’s part about the possibility of kinim not coming from eggs despite the “scientific” opinion of the day. R. Yirmiah, however, is only concerned with what is the observable phenomenon, unbothered with the possibility of such observations nor interested in conforming the observations with related “scientific” theories.

Rashi’s explanation (Shabbos 12a “מתירין”) that kinim “אֵינָהּ פָּרָה וְרָבָה אֶלָּא מִבְּשַׁר אָדָם הִיא שׁוֹרֶצֶת”, are not “fruitful and multiply” but “swarm” from the flesh of man. The root of שׁוֹרֶצֶת means to swarm but can imply reproduce. It is the same root used to describe the eight swarming “unclean” creatures (including the achbar) mentioned in Leviticus 11:29-30. In this context it is interesting to note that the Gemara in Chullin 127a explains the need to discuss the half dirt/half flesh achbar since the Torah’s use of the term shoretz (שורץ) may lead one to conclude that it only applies to those which משריץ, reproduce.
But perhaps it is not so but that the expression that creep signifies all that breed can render unclean, but those that do not breed cannot render unclean, and so I would exclude the mouse which is half flesh and half earth since it doesn’t breed. (Hullin 127a Traditional Press, New York City New York, Translated by Eli Chashdan, M.A., Edited by Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein B.A., Ph. D., D. Lit.).
שרץ in the sense of reproduction, is denied of the “spontaneously generated” achbar. It might then be better to understand Rashi’s words as discussing the visible origins of kinim being “swarming” from human skin as opposed to hatching from eggs. Nor do I think that in is necessary to infer from the Tosefos which state lice “go forth” from the earth or “come from” human sweat[3] that they mean to suggest that the dirt or sweat converted into kinim. Rather the Tosefos’ concern is identification and they discuss the visible origination, using verbs which can imply spacial origin not generation. Parasites whose birth cannot be attributed to eggs [which we now know are microscopic] but are rather first seen in sweat or in dirt, it is these species which the Gemara discusses explains Tosefos. Still most recent authorities have clearly identified the words of Chazal with spontaneous generation. Indeed as time progressed it is more likely that the authorities who spoke on the topic made the connection to this widely accepted belief. But it seems that most major commentators on the Talmud, or relevant portions of Shulchon Oruch do not tie the discussion of kinim to the case of the achbar, nor does the language present anywhere near a definitive description of spontaneous generation. Even those, such as the Mishnah Berurah 316:38, which negate involvement of parents (males and females) can be understood as such insofar as there is no observable link between the parents and offspring.[4] Chazal had no basis to speculate on a microscopic genesis for lice or other species, similar to the concept אין לדיין רק מה שעיניו רואות (San. 6b).

In truth I do not think it can be established that did not have in mind “spontaneous generation”, but even without being fully aware or in full acceptance of the assumptions of spontaneous generation, the idea certainly influenced how the masses described the phenomenon. There is no other way people could have described the observable without resorting to assumption or speculation which they could not provide evidence to support. So too with respect to the rulings in the Gemara, and to an extent its commentators. I do not believe that we have enough information to conclude that they, on the whole, did accept spontaneous generation. Acceptance or rejection requires consideration and I’m unsure that it was a topic of wide interest, and even in the relevant discussion its relevance was limited. I believe this, pardon the term “agnostic”, approach sufficiently accounts for the various ways species are said to be “from” various non-living matter, the passages describe their origin from the observable facts without specific interest in or speculation about the unobservable and therefore insignificant microscopic world. We have no indication that their interest in such reproduction was biological curiosity, only halachic significance which is limited to the observable. In the end while I don’t think Chazal, or any Posek, can be faulted for deferring to the opinion of specialist of their day I find it unnecessary to conclude that Chazal widely accepted a belief which was erroneous based off of unnecessary inferences from their words.

And while it may not be directly relevant it is noteworthy that spontaneous generation has not been entirely abandoned by contemporary science. It is, at least with regards to the earliest organism, the mechanism by which evolution explains the origin of life. While I’ve seen those who object to such characterization of evolution, “Current (published 1973) theory holds that spontaneous generation of life from nonliving matter does not occur under present conditions, but that it probably did occur under the conditions existing on the primitive earth when life first arose.” Elements of Biological Science 2nd Edition William T. Keeton, Norton, page 36).

[1] “In 1861 Pasteur at last carried general conviction against spontaneous generation. He boiled meat broth in a flask with a very long thin neck until no bacteria were left. This was shown by the fact that he could now keep the broth in the flask for an indefinite period without change setting in, the narrow neck admitting nothing. Then he broke off the neck and in a few hours the liquid showed micro-organisms, and the meat was in full decay. That the air carried such organisms he proved by twice filtering it through sterile filters and showing that with the first filter, but not the second, he could set up putrefaction.” H.T. Pledge, Science Since 1500, cited in Introduction to Logic, 5th Edition, Irving M. Copi. Page 413)
[2] “As to the possibility that the Sages may have based their description of this creature on reports brought back by explorers rather than on their own personal observations, see the responsum of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch on this and related matters published in HaMayan, Teves 5715 [vol. 16 #2].” Artscroll Mishnah Chullin
[3] Tosefos Shabbos 12a
[4] It is noteworthy that this stronger language seems to originate with the Rambam in M.T. Shabbos 11:2. The Rambam was certainly familiar with the classical notion of spontaneous generation as taught by Aristotle, to whom he gave a great deal of deference on “scientific” matters. As such the Rambam probably did understand the words of Chazal as describing spontaneous generation and wrote accordingly. It does not necessarily follow that those who accepted his rulings and adopted his language likewise understood the language to be an absolute biological account of their reproduction since it fits the observable phenomenon. It is also noteworthy that although clearly accepting the notion of spontaneous generation, when commenting on the Mishnah in Chullin the Rambam finds it necessary to appeal to widespread reports of citing such “mice”. If such reports struck proponents of classical spontaneous generation as incredible, we might better understand why the Sages where reluctant to infer anything from this example outside its immediate context, even where it would seem applicable.