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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dixie Yid - Thoughts on life and Chassidus: Yesh Boreh L'Olam - There is a Creator! - New Song - Not Yet Released

Reminds me of the Midrash:

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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Endangered Species: Sheidim and Habitat Destruction

In a number of passages scattered throughout the Talmud we see references to the existence of creatures known as “shiedim” (שדים), typically translated as “demons”. Sheidim are malevolent spiritual beings which have some corporeal characteristics. We are cautioned by Chazal against certain activities which could expose one to harm from demons. But how is one to relate to a threat posed by a creature which one has never seen nor known of any actual accounts of others encountering? Perhaps we could more easily accept a spiritual threat, but sheidim seem to present a physical danger.

Perhaps for those who are perturbed with the idea of such creatures the most common approach is to deny the actual existence of sheidim and understand Chazal’s words allegorically. This approach is by no means a modern innovation, but already articulated centuries ago by R. Avraham ben HaRambam:

The second part of the stories consists of such stories as did not a[c]tually occur but were seen in dreams; they speak of them as real stories, because they believed that no thoughtful man would ever mistake them for real facts; as the one (Vol. I, 24.)We are taught (in a Baraitha) R. Ishmael said: “Once upon entering the holy of holies, to prepare incense, I noticed etc.,” and many other similar stories. And the same is true regarding certain stories in which are mentioned the visions of the prophets, how G-d spoke to them, and also the stories of demons. The thoughtless observer who, for the sake of believing, thinks that these things occurred exactly as stated though the facts are contrary to common sense, in doing so, is both foolish and ignorant of the laws of nature. (Introduction to the Agada, Abraham son of Moses Maimonides, translated by Rabbi S. H. Glick in the preface of Volume 1 of his translation of “En Jacob” page XIV).

Rav Avraham views the passages in Chazal as if prefaced with a self-obvious disclaimer that they had occurred in a dream. Demons are not actual beings but imaginary, and there only relevance is the lessons which can be learned from the visions of Chazal. This approach is very difficult, insofar as in the days of the Sages people did believe in concepts such as demons and would have had absolutely no reason to understand these accounts any other way than as had been recounted. Not merely the thoughtless accepted these words according to their apparent meaning but most Rishonim did as well. Would leaving such a fundamental aspect of the narrative not be at least incongruent with the saying of Avtalyon, “Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters [heresy]. The disciples who follow you there may drink and die, and consequently the Name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avos 1:11, Artscroll Siddur Translation)? Furthermore, to reject dogmatically the existence of anything, because of its perceived impossibility despite evidence one would otherwise consider trustworthy is to reach a conclusion a priori rather than based on sound reasoning.

Of course I do not mean to dismiss lightly the explanation of a Rishon. However, I believe that the evidence demands we accept the conclusion of the other Rishonim, particularly considering Rav Avraham’s admonition, “Know that it is your duty to understand that whoever propounds a certain theory or idea and expects that theory or idea to be accepted merely out of respect for the author without proving its truth and reasonableness pursues a wrong method prohibited by both the Torah and human intelligence.” (ibid VII.) In truth some contemporary writers who are disinclined toward a literal existence of demons find it necessary to seek out an explanation other than Rav Avraham’s and understand references to demons being indicative of mental illnesses and delusions.

In addition to the difficulty in a blanket assertion that it would be naturally inferred that these passages had occurred in dreams (which in fact was not obvious to many) we see that the details of the passages are not easily reconciled with that approach or the suggestion that they describe mental illness. While some may indeed conform to such explanation it seems difficult to subscribe to such an explanation when others do not.
Our Rabbis taught: Six things are said concerning demons: in regard to three, they are like the ministering angels; and in regard to three like human beings.‘In regard to three they are like ministering angels’: they have wings like ministering angels; and they fly from one end of the world to on the other like ministering angels; and they…hear from behind the Veil like ministering angels. ‘And in regard to three, they are like human beings’: they eat and drink like human beings, they propagate like human beings, and they die like human beings. (Hagigah 16a, Traditional Press)
Sheidim are explained as having some aspects which are spiritual, like angels, and others which are more material, like humans. Taken literally this passage helps illuminate the answer to our question on how to relate to the danger of a being we never encounter. Taken as part of a dream it is difficult to decipher a message, but at the same time many passages of agadata convey messages other than the literal meaning but whose lesson remain veiled to us. It would be very difficult to take this passage as describing characteristics of mental health issues or advice on avoiding situations which could render one susceptible to mental illness. Another passage takes the discussion outside the realm out of agadata and squarely in the "arba amos shel halacha":

But is there not a possibility that it may be a demon? Rab Judah said: We assume that he can be seen to have the appearance of a man. But the demons also can look like men? — We assume that they see his shadow. But they also have a shadow? — We assume they see a shadow of a shadow. -- R Hanina said: Jonathan my son has taught me that they have a shadow, but not a shadow of a shadow.[1] (Gittin 66a)
The discussion revolves around writing a Get (document of divorce) upon instruction from a man trapped in a pit. It seems very difficult to me to conceive of a reason why Chazal would introduce what they had seen in dreams into a halachic discussion about divorce. Furthermore it is difficult to understand that they meant to object that the instruction had been given in a dream (or imaginary voices due to mental illness) since, while with respect to demons one has reason to assume they appear distinct from a human, there is no reason to believe likewise about a figment of one’s imagination. The very fact that one is imagining a human speaks makes it most likely they speaker will appear human in our imagination as well. Furthermore, while the passage concludes with a way of distinguishing a demon from a person, it seems difficult to accept that Chazal meant to say that our dreams or mental delusions are limited to a shadow, without a shadow of a shadow.

So if we where to concede that sheidim exist we are left with the obvious question of why we never seem to encounter them? When we further examine the relevant passages I believe we will see a picture emerge which provides us with an acceptable understanding.

Our Rabbis taught: there are three reasons why one must not go into a ruin: because of suspicion, of falling debris and of demons… To one [person] an evil spirit may show itself and harm him; to two it may show itself, but without harming them; to three it will not even show itself (Berakoth 3a, 43b, Traditional Press, New York City New York, translated by Maurice Simon, M.A., edited by Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein B.A., Ph.D., D. Lit.)
Both of these passages indicate that one encounters sheidim in solitude. So to we find that one who is traveling alone on a highway must beware of these harmful spiritual forces, “Highways tend to be dangerous places, as has been explained elsewhere [Derech Chaim 3:9], because they are uninhabited and therefore alienated from the world’s essence. The world’s essence is settlement. Highways are apart from settlement; Therefore malevolent forces [פגעים], which are in discord with the world, dominate” (Maharal of Prague, Nesivos Olam: Nesiv HaTorah 1:3, page 49, Artscroll)[2]. Sheidim are “anti-social” so to speak. Highways are like a thin thread of civilization which leads one through the depths of the untamed world. Ruins, “ghost towns”, are remnants of destroyed civilization which have reverted to the wild. The proximity and association of these places to civilization makes it more likely for people to run across them, while there desolation makes them perfect habitation for sheidim. However the thread of civilization of a highway isn’t enough to protect one from sheidim, but such protection is provided by learning Torah or the presence of traveling companions.

We have already noted that sheidim require nourishment[3], procreate, and die. It seems to me that with the passage of time it would be increasingly unlikely that sheidim could flourish as a species. As civilization grew the likelihood that most people encounter such antisocial forces diminished. G-d instructed the B’nei Yisrael to slowly conquer the Canaanite nations lest the land become populated by wild animals while waiting for the Israelites to resettle the barren land. Just as lions and bears are not well suited to city life, nor are sheidim, perhaps even less so in ways. Furthermore it would seem reasonable that even the advance of civilization represented by modern science proceeded, this further infringed upon the habitat of sheidim. As every inch of the globe became explored, measured, mapped, and its nature understood perhaps it became as every bit inhospitable for sheidim as the many growing metropolitan centers.

I believe it has been correctly said: “Concerning the subject of demons, the evil eye, and the evil spirits referred to in the Talmud, there can be no doubt that the Rabbi’s believed in there existence, and consequently we should not attempt to offer other interpretations which will explain them in a sense remote from the literal.” [4] Certainly the contrary view, that the sheidim mentioned in the Talmud where not actual beings, has strong traditional basis, but the evidence has lead Sages throughout the ages to reject that approach. Nevertheless it seems reasonable to assume that one does not run a strong risk of actually encountering such a being these days. It is not merely the case that people of the past were simpletons and we are not so gullible as to believe in such things. Rather the traditional references themselves provide us with an understanding of sheidim that would tend to explain our lack of encounters with them and inability to find to provide scientific evidence. While the ability to contrive a scenario in which something asserted to exist cannot be detected does not provide actual reason to accept its existence, it does give those of us who accept the Mesorah reason not to search for alternative understandings of the word’s of Chazal.

[1] “When the sun is low on the horizon in the morning and evening, it causes objects to cast two shadows, a dark one [closer to the object] and a lighter one [farther from the object]. The lighter one is referred to as the ‘shadow of the shadow’” Artscroll Gittin 66a (2) note 25.
[2] Compare ibid 13:4 (page 283) on Chullin 91a where the Maharal discusses the additional caution a Talmid Chacham must exercise by not going out at night even though they clearly have the merit of Torah to protect them. There he equates the “harmful forces” [המזיקים], which parallel the of פגעים our passage, to the sheidim mentioned in B’rachos 6a.
[3] Reb D.W. related to me a shiur (by Rebe Michael Twirsky shlita?) in which a metaphysical explanation was given for not learning on Nittel Nacht. It was explained that our Torah learning gives koach (“nourishment”?) to the forces of tumah, but these forces are already strengthened on Nitel Nact. If this is true of sheidim then we might understand why they are attracted to Torah scholars in particular (Chullin 91a) and despite their aversion to civilization can be found at the “kallah” gatherings (Berachos 6a). Furthermore the decline of Torah excellence might result in “famine” conditions for the more materialistic sheidim.
[4] (Mebo HaTalmud: The Students Guide through the Talmud, Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Translated by Jacob Shachter, MA. Chapter 31, page 233)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Miracles Vs. Nature

The T’nakh, and latter Jewish tradition, has many accounts of miraculous events. Miracles may be entirely open, like the Exodus from Egypt, or hidden like the redemption of Purim. Miracles may be public or they may be private. For those of us in the modern world, miracles seem distant. Of course open, public miracles are largely distant from us in time. With the rise of modern science they’ve become distant from us conceptually. Our better grasp of the physical principals which guide the universe makes it more difficult to grasp exceptions to those principals and even makes God’s active role in maintaining the universe less perceptible. In response to this distance I have seen two related reactions which I believe we should be vary cautious about, perhaps producing more harm than good.

The first tendency is the naturalization and normalization of miracles. Details of a miracle are either made to conform to a naturalistic explanation or it is asserted that their significance was the prophet’s prediction but the occurrence was fully in line with the laws of nature. Illustrative of the tendency to explain details of miraculous events in harmony with nature we read commenting on Exodus 7:17 “be turned to blood. They shall have the appearance of blood (cf. Joel III, 4. ‘The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood.’).” (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English translation and Commentary, Edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz, C. H. Late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Second Edition London Soncino Press, 1961, page 237) and again on Exodus 7:27 “frogs. This plague, like the preceding, was in general accordance with natural phenomena, but marvelous for both its extent and its intensity.” (ibid page 238) But such an approach is actually quite moderate in comparison to those which negate any supernatural element to miracles.

Now according to Rav Sa’adia Gaon prophetic announcement is indeed a significant aspect of a miracle. It is a prerequisite for God to overturn the otherwise fixed laws of nature:

At this point I find it necessary to make an observation for the purpose of safeguarding [our belief in] the [usual] fixity [of things]. What I have reference to is that the Creator, exalted and magnified be He, does not change the substance of anything unless He first calls the attention of the people to the fact that He is about to effect a change. For [God’s] motive [in the performance of the miracle] is to have men lend credence to His prophet. Where, however, such a motive does not exist, there is no reason for changing any substance. For if we where to assume [purposeless change to be the rule], then our confidence in the fixity of things would be shaken. None of us could then be sure, upon returning to his dwelling and family, whether the All-Wise had not changed their essences, and whether they were not different from the way in which he had left them. (Beliefs and Opinions, Sa’adia Gaon 148)
But such events are indeed supernatural, albeit temporary, departures from the laws of nature. The prior announcement allowed people to draw the desired conclusion about the prophet’s credibility providing a purpose for the supernatural event. Without it the event would not be insignificant but its significance could not be known.

“The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left of the entire story of the creation [of the world] that would not have been divested of its literal meaning, which is the creation and origin of things…The consequence [of the consistent use of this method] would be that there would not be a marvel or miracle left but would have been divested of its literal meaning and thus have become nullified.” (Sa’adia Gaon page 426)

Nor do we find that the Rambam takes a position which deemphasizes the supernatural side of miracles.

If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively. The Allegorists amongst the Mohammedans have done this, and have thereby arrived at absurd conclusions. (Guide page 199)

For allthough the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, the pure and noble hand into a leprous one, without the existence of any natural cause that could effect these or similar phenomena… (ibid 210)
Rambam denied that miracles could be understood within the context of natural phenomenon. To do so would strip them of meaning or necessitate unreasonable hypotheses in the name of rationalism. But after presenting his approach in distinction to that of Aristotle, the Rambam does discuss one significant alternative perspective on miracles:

Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles; they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural; for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He mad it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. If this is really the meaning of the passage referred to, it testifies to the greatness of the author, and it shows that he held it to be impossible that there should be a change in the laws of Nature, or a change in the will of God [as regards the physical properties of things] after they have once been established. He therefore assumes, e.g., that God gave the waters the property of joining together, and of flowing in a downward direction, and of separating only at the time when the Egyptians were drowned, and only in a particular place. (ibid, italics mine)

Very cautiously Rambam suggests an approach to understanding the midrashim which could place miracles under the category of “natural” phenomenon. Miracles were not contrary to the laws of nature but preprogrammed into them. But such an approach is does not render the events any more “natural” than we would otherwise perceive them. God is not merely guiding events to align in an unusual fashion but designing nature to act in a way it otherwise never would. The wind isn’t separating the sea…the water is designed to separate at that point in time. The distinction is theological and not practical. These “natural” laws could not be explained “scientifically”, being un-reproducible by definition. And at most it appears the Rambam viewed this approach as tentative, seeing it unnecessary to reject God overriding nature outright.

We see that Judaism affirms the occurrence of divine intervention in a way which cannot be explained through scientific understanding and experimentation. Whether through foresight or direct intervention God’s active participation in human affairs is not strictly limited to that which we know of as the laws of nature. And though largely limited being by definition the exception to the rule, at least in part because the more overt the miracle the more damage is done to our free will, miracles do happen.

Another approach I see is hesitancy by some to accept any miracle which they are not obligated too. If the skepticism or denial of an event doesn’t qualify one as a heretic then skepticism wins out. This applies not only to overt miracles where nature is overturned, but more hidden miracles where the outcome is otherwise possible but would not have come about had nature run its course. Of course one cannot begrudge another for using discretion. There can be a fine line between a reliable account of what can only be considered an “answered prayer” and an urban legend. People will repeat fictional stories they don’t remember the details of because they like the underlying message. And if they relayed and sketchiness about the details that would likely be lost one the audience relates the story to others (along with the appropriate embellished details for rhetorical value). But to outright dismiss a miraculous account a priori seems incongruent with belief in God’s omnipotence and the efficacy of prayer.

One particularly poignant example of such reluctance asserts, “One must not accept stories of miracles, unless witnessed by masses. This is the reason why God created the event of Mount Sinai as "proof" of His existence. God understands that man must not accept miracles, unless he either sees them, or learns by proof that there were masses at the event who witnessed the miracle. There were no masses at event such as you describe, so by Torah standards, and rationality, we cannot accept such stories.” ( Not only are we not obligated to accept miracles which did not occur in our own presence or that of a multitude, but it is asserted we are actually forbidden to.

Such a standard is artificial. Rationally “masses” of witnesses are almost irrelevant. Logically given the premises that God is omnipotent and has performed miracles there is little reason to reject a miraculous account from a source we would otherwise consider reliable. I would accept the testimony of an individual, but otherwise trustworthy physician who told me seeing someone miraculously overcoming insurmountable illness as being direct Divine intervention much more readily than dozens of acquaintances of such a person. Certainly otherwise reliable people aren’t above suspicion and such an account may contain elements which seem theologically at odds or suggest that our otherwise reliable witness is suspect, but there is not inherent difficulty. But no cannon of logic makes acceptance upon something contingent upon a great number of people witnessing it. Conversely there are events hailed by masses as “miracles” which indeed are not, the crowds being unclear on what has actually transpired or overestimating its significance.

Nor does the Torah place such a standard, in fact according to the Rambam it specifically denied:
Scripture, therefore, declares that no prophet will ever, like Moses, do signs publicly in the presence of friend and enemy, of his followers and his opponents; this is the meaning of the words; ‘And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, etc., in all the signs and wonders, etc., in the sight of all Israel. (Guide 224)
The Revelation at Sinai was foundational, but not prototypical. It was the event which established Who the designer was and allowed us to know Him and to know about Him. Moshe’s miracles were the only ones truly open to the masses. With respect to Moses we read “The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed…all Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them (Yesodei HaTorah 8:1, 2, Moznaim, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger). For others to be established as a prophet they must make a number of true predictions (Yesodei HaTorah 10:2) but even that was unnecessary provided his prophecy had been established by another prophet (ibid 10:5). But once these conditions are met we accept the prophecy of someone who is fit for prophecy even though it is possible such predictions occurred by chance, “It is possible that a person will perform a sign or wonder even though he is not a prophet – rather, the wonder will have [another cause] behind it. It is, nevertheless, a mitzvah to listen to him. Since he is a wise man of stature and fit for prophecy, we accept [his prophecy as true]” (ibid 7:7). And once he has been established we are not permitted to continue to ask for signs or test further (ibid 10:2). We see that, at least with respect to accepting predictions made by one who seems fit for prophecy, Torah expects us to err on the side of emunah. Hyper-skepticism is not encouraged, and certainly not required, by Judiasm.

“Accepting the Creation, we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is removed.” (Guide 199-200). One who was raised with, or heavily exposed to, agnosticism, atheism, and skepticism may find it difficult to relate to the miraculous. Having left Christianity, I too can relate. ‘Once bitten twice shy’, at times I struggle with feelings that the supernatural seems just too in-credible until I contemplate it is only seems unreasonable if one accepts the even more in-credible claims of strict materialism. It may be necessary for some to relate to the miraculous in the most naturalistic way that’s justifiable. But if one does so across the board I believe it should be accompanied by the recognition that it is a sort of “corrective lens” to help us emotionally deal with a deficiency in our perspective of Emunah. It’s no shame to use a crutch to get through those times we need one. But we should recognize our safeikos are emotional baggage from our secular atmosphere and not rational necessities.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dogma Reconsidered: Doctrine, Conviction, and Free Inquiry

Open-mindedness in scientific exploration was one of they key ingredients which allowed modern science to flourish. To be certain this improvement was in a matter of degree. People were never impervious to changing their minds, even if they didn’t want to. Nor are scientists today free from all hints of bias or preconceived notion. But science has fostered an attitude which encourages one to reach conclusions based on evidence rather trying to shape the evidence to one’s hypothesis. Today even that which is well established is, at least hypothetically, subject to revision, “Scientists normally do their work as if the accepted laws and theories were true. But they are obliged to keep an open mind in case new information should alter the validity of any given law or theory.” (Physics: 3rd Edition, Douglas C. Giancoli, page 7).

The new found dedication to open-mindedness was not always easily reconciled with religious beliefs. Particularly hard hit were dogmas, those belief which were so fundamental as to be considered defining aspects of a religious ideology, the rejection of which would exclude you from ideological association with that religion (and typically the promised spiritual benefits thereof). Religious doctrines stifled free inquiry and were excluded from empirical science. Even accepted scientific beliefs and observed facts are theoretically subject to revision. “The vocabulary of “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “law” is unfortunate, since it obscures the important fact that all of the general propositions of science are regarded as hypotheses, never as dogmas.” (Introduction to Logic: Fifth Edition, page 464, Irving M. Copi). To those who have entirely dismissed the supernatural dogma is presented as an anathema to science.

Now the pernicious tendency to cling to ancient theories despite new evidence was not entirely unjustified. Even today a hypothesis must be considered in light of its compatibility with widely accepted scientific theories. While the data may suggest a certain interpretation, it may not prove to be the simplest (and therefore best) once evidence beyond the immediate context is considered. The older theories were accepted in the first place because they succeeded in explaining natural phenomenon based on observation and testing. The strength of the older hypothesis’ in comparison to they younger will undoubtedly temper which is given more weight and which must be reconsidered.

But just as it “is possible…to overstate the importance of the third criterion [compatibility with previously well-established hypotheses]” (Copi, page 469) so to I believe it is possible to overstate the possibility of actually uprooting a truly sound scientific theory and the need to treat everything known as “probably correct”. Most often new evidence will not overturn a solid scientific theory at most it will require small revision. Even the more “radical” revisions only reflect directly on the periphery of existence. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity challenged Newton’s laws but for all practical purposes, “what goes up must come down.” Practically speaking there are many things about the world that we know to be true which we in no-way expect to be proven false, nor should we seriously entertain the possibility.

Therefore what is important is not to deny certainty on every topic under the sun, which no one really does, but to maintain an intellectually honest pursuit of the truth. From my own experience I can attest that doing so can overcome one’s natural bias. When I set forth years ago to investigate “Messianic Prophecies”, I did so with the dogmatic view that those passages in the T’nakh would prove Jesus was the Messiah. I had no serious question about the conclusion. Nevertheless as I inquired into the meanings of the verses, to understand them correctly so as only to present solid evidence, a different picture emerged. While I did not realize it immediately the process ended with me rejecting the very dogma I started out to prove.

In this vein religious ideologies, generally speaking, do not expect us to accept a dogma despite its being false. Rather we are expected to accept them because they are true. If we feel that honest investigation would overturn our faith then we don’t really believe it in the first place. From a religious standpoint it may be better to go forward with such an investigation in order to remove the doubt. That’s not to suggest we must spend our time hunting down answers to every objection we hear, but if we are actually disturbed it may require our attention.

In closing we may benefit from a humble recognition of our limited understanding and own ability to error. The solution to holding an incorrect dogma is not the categorical rejection of all certainty in belief, physical or metaphysical. It is to be honest in our pursuit of the truth. Fear of an undesired conclusion is a lack of faith. We must recognize that there are things we misunderstand or lack a full understanding. We must also that if our belief is on a firm foundation and otherwise sound then their may be resolutions to problems which become apparent that we fail to see do to our own limitations.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New Post at Hirhurim

R. Gil at Hirhurim has posted the next installment of the series that served as motivation to go ahead and start this blog, Permission to believe in God II.

The following topic stood out to me,

However, there are other types of arguments for God’s existence that might not be conclusive or deductive. It could be that the conclusion probably follows from the premises or that it seems reasonable to reach this conclusion from various facts. While these do not satisfy the high standards of the Proof, they are still worthwhile arguments that can inform the religious worldview and imply the rationality of a belief in God’s existence. A non-conclusive proof that is good is still an “Argument,” even if it is not sufficiently definitive to be considered a “Proof.”

This reminded me of comments I made on his earlier post Why Be

'Some Jewish outreach professionals believe that the best way to convince apathetic Jews to become more involved in their religion is by proving, or attempting to prove, that traditional Judaism is the absolute truth.' I don't think it has been true that people expect "absolute proof" since the time of the great Jewish Philosophers. I think by and large the expectation of deductive proof, strictly speaking, is one we just don't have any more. But much of our experience and "knowledge" consists of that which cannot be deductively proven. However one cannot, and should not, expect any significant number of Jews to become attracted to Judaism without inductive evidence for accepting it's claims. It doesn't matter how pretty and attractive it is, many or most will find it too demanding to accept because of aesthetics or will be perfectly
comfortable or content with how they were raised.

I believe that the distinction between evidence and [deductive] proof is a very important one. It is easy to conflate the two concepts since proof would seem to imply something which has been proven it is often used similarly to evidence. I recently had the opportunity to attend a shiur by Rabbi Akiva Tatz where he made a passing reference to such a distinction.

While on the topic, here are a couple of my other comments on that post:

"Excuse me? Since when did Chazal give proofs of the Torah? Since when did they do philosophy as such?"

Um. Since the time of Chazal.

"On the other hand, are you saying that emunah isn't part of Jewish philosophy? That we are not called to stand on the shoulder of giants?"

Emunah is NOT belief in something for no reason and knowledge does not prevent one's belief from being Emunah. The Yidden had Emunah in Hashem and Moshe at the Yam Suf after open miracles there and in Mitzrayim.

“Proofs strike me in general as a means of "selling" Judaism ala a consumer product on a very superficial level. The notion, as advanced by some in the "Kiruv industry" that kiruv is simply a means of marketing and marketing tools known as proofs IMO is a singularly inappropriate and patronizing means of showing someone the depth and profundity of Torah.”

It’s a funny world when suggesting reasons to accept the truth of a position is marketing while techniques which appeal to emotion are legit.

“I agree. Orthodoxy needs to be intellectually satisfying. No one will want to accept a lifestyle that is false.”

Then I think it is important to be clear. A Shabbos meal is a GREAT way to deal with the extra-logical factors which stand as obstacles to people doing teshuvah, but to use is as a substitute for evidence is appeal to emotion and somewhat deceptive, imo. People are equivocating on the word proof. Proof may imply that an argument has been conclusively proven but I don't think that it is used that strictly most of the time. Proof is another word for evidence. The evidence may not make any other option impossible, but we make decisions based on the most likely conclusion we can derive from the evidence we have. Someone commenting on a Jewish blog once argued that 0 + 0 + 0 = 0. That is a poor analogy which flippantly dismisses all inductive reasoning.How can one "believe" something when they affirmatively believe there is NO reason to do so, that there is NO evidence. Show me ANY other example where someone "believes" something based on what they themselves consider to be no evidence.

"The same pathetic genre exists in Muslim and Christian 'outreach' circles as well. (Not that we would ever, Heaven forfend, imitate the goyim...)"

So what? Your grouping them [together] is the fallacy of hasty generalization. Either the evidence stands or it doesn't, and if there is no reason why do you bother? And the fact that other religions also publish material just shows that people have a natural need to hold opinions based on reason. Just because one persons argument is incorrect doesn't mean someone who holds another view also has an incorrect argument.It seems to be somewhat popular on blogs to claim the intellectual high-ground by dismissing arguments to believe in God and His Torah. You may take comfort in not being "duped" for such arguments but if you think that it is somehow "rationalism" to believe something without evidence you need to think things through a little better.

Comments have been slightly edited

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Conflict is Inevitable

Prior to discussing those areas where Torah Judaism is found to be in conflict with science and academia there is a certain realization we must face. While many conflicts may prove to be apparent, due to either a superficial understanding of Judaism or incorrect science, some are much more fundamental. There may be times when the evidence for certain position may be very persuasive and logically appealing, but our (justified) convictions demand a different conclusion. In fact, if we find that on issue after issue we can find no perceptible difference between or view and theirs we must worry that ones beliefs or independent critical thinking has been compromised.

Most conclusions we come to, or beliefs that we accept, are not supported by strict deductive proof. Our line of reasoning is frequently one of compiling, weighing, and reconciling information to arrive at the most likely conclusion based on the known evidence. Even when the specific process of inferring a conclusion from the evidence is more or less deductive, the premises which the argument utilizes are generally only known with a certain degree of certainty. And although I think the question more often than not pointless, the elusiveness of an epistemologically sound definition of knowledge is another factor that can under certain circumstances effect how we might draw conclusions.

Recognizing the extent to which the conclusions we reach are dependant upon what evidence we include for consideration, simple reflection should confirm the great potential for a chasm to develop between the conclusions derived from the perspective of materialism and conclusions of those who admit the supernatural into their world view.

Science as we know and love, and from which have derived so much benefit in the last centuries, operates on certain postulates. In our discussions we will encounter some of these postulates and discuss their importance and their limitations. “Religion”, and Judaism in particular, also asserts that certain things are true. When there is an interface between the scientific and the religious we should rightly expect that at some point the acceptance of truths associated with religion will inevitably lead one to balance the various factors in ways that will at times diverge from the way a materialist would conclude.

Already more than a hundred years ago this observation was made by the great light of German Orthodoxy Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh zt’l, with a passing reference to this idea while discussing the pitfalls of an overzealous dismissal of the academic:

“It is true, of course, that the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” (Torah Im Derech Eretz, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt’l, page 415).

One cannot reasonably expect that academic scholarship would consider such “axiomatic premises” when they hypothesize conclusions, especially given our reticence about encouraging others to adopt our religious world view. For better or worse they do not share our religious convictions. But if we are to assert that certain beliefs are true, or more specifically that we accept certain beliefs, then it would be expected that they be reflected, at least at times, in our conclusions.

Yet when I find there being no “nafka mina” between the belief founded on materialism and a priori rejection of G-d and the supernatural or metaphysical, and the opinions of the religiously faithful, I have to question whether reason isn’t being sacrificed at the expense of appearing rational. At some point one must follow ones beliefs to their logical conclusion and it strikes me as implausible that in every instance of apparent conflict between science and faith that the logical conclusion lies with the more materialistic approach. We should expect that the worldview of a believer and that of an atheist (or even an agnostic) differs on more than simply the direct question of the existence of God. While one cannot presume that this disagreement “should” be manifest on any given individual issue, the genuine acceptance of certain “beliefs” combined with following those beliefs to their logical conclusion (when pertinent to the subject being considered) should inevitably lead to a perceptible difference of opinion with those who reject or do not consider such beliefs. Most importantly, recognizing this inevitability should help us muster the courage of our convictions when confronted with those who disagree with us, even when we cannot dismiss their position as entirely implausible.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chochmah Lishma? The Purpose of Scientific Endeavor

Often times one encounters those who wish to treat the quest for knowledge as inherently good. Education is treated as a virtue and disinterest in excelling in secular knowledge is viewed as sacrilege. “The desire for knowledge for its own sake is more widespread than is generally recognized by anti-intellectualists. It has its roots in the animal curiosity which shows itself in the cosmological question of children and the gossip of adults.” (Introduction to Logic & Scientific Method, Morris R. Cohen and Ernest Nagel, Harcourt, Brace L& World Inc. ©1934, page 399). Outsiders, and indeed some insiders, are confounded by observant Jews who have no interest in interrupting their Torah study to pursue a secular education when it serves no direct purpose.

With the advances in our standard of living and life expectancy brought about through science and universal education it is not difficult to find reason to appreciate for the ברכה that we have been given. But some argue, “Its applications are not the only value of science, however. Science is knowledge and thus and end in itself. The laws and principles discovered in scientific investigation have a value apart from any narrow utility they may possess. This intrinsic value is its satisfaction of curiosity, the fulfillment of the desire to know.” Copi page 458. I do not disagree with this assessment per se, but I disagree that the value described is “intrinsic." Devoid of utilitarian benefit such research is only a value in the same sense as any other hobby or mindless entertainment…and only if one actually finds it enjoyable. Entertainment value is utilitarian, if indeed we consider it a value, and certainly subjective. The only reason why spending one’s life studying biology or physics can be considered more worth than spending one’s life devoted to mastering a role playing game is that the former, with success, will produce benefit for society while the later will only provide entertainment for oneself and one’s associates.

In Torah, only service of God is inherently worthy. Eating, sleeping, and providing for one’s physical needs are only meritorious when done with the intent to serve one’s Creator (O.C. 231). Though we are obligated by Torah to preserve our lives and the lives of others, a life for life’s sake isn’t virtuous. Those actions which we are required to do to preserve our lives must be done not just to satisfy our desire for pleasure, or even existence, but as a means to fulfill God commandments or to make it possible to fulfill God’s commandments. Certainly those activities which we are simply not forbidden to perform but by no means obligated must likewise, according to our own level, contribute to our service of God in some way.

There are different ways that learning secular subjects can potentially contribute to one’s service of God. In his article “Science in Torah life” (Challenge: Torah Views On Science and Its Problems), Rabbi Leo Levi shlita has a comprehensive list of possible motivations for learning secular topics in a way which might meet the qualification that one’s actions be l’shem shamayim. Perhaps most significant is to further one’s Torah knowledge in accordance with the Vilna Gaon’s statement that, “according to how much a man lacks knowledge of the other wisdoms, correspondingly he will lack a hundred-fold of Torah wisdom.” (ibid page 100). Certainly no greater reason to learn secular wisdom could be found than to increase one’s Torah knowledge. But to be l’shem shamayim this must not be a mere justification but one’s actual motivation, and even then must be tempered by the realization that many Rabbinic luminaries both before and after the Gra achieved levels of Torah scholarship we could only dream of with their secular education being less than what we would constitute the bare minimum any of us receive today.[1] Furthermore I believe it fair to say tht not everything which has a college course dedicated to it would be what the Gra considered a “wisdom” that is necessary for acquiring Torah.

At any rate such kavanos and cheshbonos only are helpful when the study of a subject is otherwise permissible. There is certainly a need to consult a Posek when one wishes to pursue secular studies and determine whether any such “l’shem shamayim” purpose for such study was enough to render the general injunction against establishing fixed times for studying chochmah other than Torah (Rama Y.D. 246:4) inapplicable. Likewise it is only permitted provided there is no heresy in the subject matter (ibid, see Igros Moshe Y.D. 3:52 about literature which discusses, but does not advocate, such issues). One needs to determine whether any literature one reads raises problems because it contains romantic or militaristic themes (O.C. 307:16). In short, even when one hopes to learn secular wisdom l’shem shamayim, the ends do not necessarily justify the means, there are halachic issues to be considered (even if in the end it is permitted).

“Chochma”, just as anything else in life, must be acquired l’shem shamayim. Sa’adia Gaon recognized that scientific knowledge provides pleasure, and even “nourishment”, to the soul. However he notes that “Among the scholars there are some who maintain that there exists nothing with which an individual ought to occupy himself in this world except the quest of scientific knowledge” (page 393) but argues “exclusive preoccupation with physical science would constitute an abandonment of the cultivation of the science of religion and religious law, whereas the only reason why the love of the former has been implanted in man is in order that it might support the latter, both together making an excellent combination…” (page 394). Our lives must be centered around our avodas Hashem, and any of our needs must be performed bearing in mind how they directly or indirectly assist in that goal. Within Torah sources we see different possible ways that secular studies can be elevated to holiness, but only when done without violating Torah prohibitions. To actualize that potential for holiness we must purify our motivations and consult proper guidance to assure that we do not transgress relevant halachos.

[1] Presumably one need not be concerned with the levels one is otherwise unable to achieve until “after on has filled his belly with bread and wine”( לאחר שמלא כריסו בשר ויין) Y.D. 246:4, see also Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 4:13.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Argument from Design" and David Hume I

In "The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy" by Norman Melchert we are presented with several issues which David Hume raised against the "Argument from Design." I have not seen this "inside" but it is summarized as follows:

3. The analogy [of the argument from design] is supposed to exist between the production of intelligent human beings and the world as an effect of a supremely intelligent designer. But a number of consequences follow if we take the analogy seriously.

  • Many People cooperate to make a machine; by analogy, the world may have been created through the cooperation of many gods.

  • Wicked and mischievous people may create technological marvels; by analogy, the creator(s) of the world may be wicked and mischievous.

  • Machines are made by mortals; by analogy, may not the gods be mortal?

  • The best clocks are the result of a long history of slow improvements; by analogy,

Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labor lost; many fruitless trials made; and a slow but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making. (D, 36)
The point here is not that any of these possibilities is likely but that analogies always have resemblances in certain respects and differences in others. How do we know which are the similarities in this case and which are the differences? Unless we have some principled way to make this distinction, any one of these conclusions is as justified as the one theists wish to draw.
(4th Edition, Page 421-422)

The seriousness with which this is treated truly disturbs me, but seemingly from both sides of the arguments.

On the one hand he is generally correct that, given only the argument from design creation could be the trial and error product of
malevolent group of mortals. The argument from design simply doesn't address those questions.

But that is, it seems to me, the problem with bringing it up at all. It is simply not relevant. The comparison is between the world and other orderly phenomenon. While I hope to address the question of whether there is a comparison later, that does not seem to be the issue here where we are taking for granted that the comparison exists. As such, while a "design" may have many features, one feature that they all share is a designer. This is not the case with the other possibilities listed which are incidental to the design.

One does not look at a wooden stool and make inferences about whether the craftsman worked alone or whether he was a jerk. If I were to show you a group of 20 such stools, one made by a craftsman another by the inexperienced, one by a saint and the other by a sinner, one by a group the other an individual, some by hand while others by machine, etc. you wouldn't take those "dis-analogies" and conclude that the 20th unidentified stool was not designed.

Artwork may very likely convey something about the artists personality but any inferences are drawn from the specifics of the work not the general existence of coherent design (or in the case of modern art the lack thereof?).

The analogy in the argument from design does not supply us with the necessary information to draw an conclusion about the specifics of design or the designer. This may or may not be done through "inference from design" (Is there such a term?) but that is separate. Design leads to the inference of a designer and the strength of this inference ranges from merely possible to almost certain in conjunction with the complexity exhibited. A similar inference simply doesn't follow necessarily about the nature of the designer.

Hume is, I believe, comparing apples and oranges.