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.