Friday, June 29, 2012

What Chazal Knew and What We Know – An Analysis of Rav Hirsch’s Letter

In the previous post we began discussing a letter which was ostensibly written by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in 1876. This post continues our discussion and provides a detailed examination of the first section of the letter, which appears under the sub-heading ‘What Chazal Knew and What We Know’. The purpose of this analysis is to provide the reader with a clear understanding of Rav Hirsch’s hashkafa on the issue of Chazal and Science. For the maximum benefit the reader is encouraged to read Rav Hirsch’s letter first before reading our analysis.

What was Rav Hirsch’s view regarding the scientific statements of Chazal? How did he approach contradictions to Chazal from current scientific attitudes? In order to arrive at a proper conclusion, the following two questions must always be kept in mind.

1) Is the ma’amar Chazal in question based on contemporary science or masoretic tradition?

2) If it is a science-based statement, what is the nature of the contradictory material? Is it a product of current observation/experimentation, or is it merely scientific speculation?

It seems clear from Rav Hirsch’s letter that he relates to Chazal as the authoritative receivers of our Torah traditions. These traditions originate at Sinai and comprise the very essence of our religion. Accordingly, if the ma’amar Chazal in question seems masoretic in nature (e.g. Noach’s flood occurred 1656 years after the creation of the world), the “contradiction” is automatically “resolved”. Current scientific attitudes simply play no role whatsoever when it comes to our mesorah. The only time Rav Hirsch feels the need to address the issue is in a case where the ma’amar Chazal seems to be a reflection of contemporary scientific thought. Such ma’amarei Chazal, says Rav Hirsch, are not part of the received tradition and are therefore open to future modification. An example of this would be the mud mouse in Mas. Sanhedrin.

An honest assessment of Rav Hirsch’s letter would seem to yield the conclusion that on occasion Chazal may have adopted certain scientific attitudes which are not necessarily accurate by today’s standards. And although this writer does not employ such approaches, it is difficult to deny that Rav Hirsch did appeal to them, at least in a limited sense. But is any of this really relevant? Rabbi Slifkin claims that “Rav Hirsch's letters were a powerful weapon in the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-5”, but is this really true?

The answer is no. The controversy that exists between Torah and Science has very little to do with the question of whether Chazal accepted contemporary scientific attitudes such as, say, spontaneous generation. Rav Hirsch makes that clear. He explains that Chazal were simply responding to empirical science as it was presented to them, and only for the purpose of issuing halachic decisions. But Rav Hirsch also makes it clear that when it comes to the theories of the savants,

“only the masses who neither know nor understand the methodology of these disciplines believe all the boasts of our contemporaries”.

On the other hand,

"one who knows and understands how these disciplines function, knows and understands that while it is true that contemporary scholars deserve honor and glory in many matters that they have demonstrated… nevertheless the theories built upon these observations are for the most part no more than very shaky guesses… they all have no solid foundation”

The controversy between Torah and Science is an age-old controversy. In the olden days it was avodah zara. Later on it manifested itself in Greek philosophy, Roman decadence, and theological opposition from the Christians and Islamists. Today the Satan wears the guise of “rationalism” and manifests himself in organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences. It’s all the same thing. It’s opposition to the Torah, period. Like Rambam explains in Igeres Teiman, there are three kinds of opposition. Some come at us physically, some philosophically/theologically, and some combine both methods. And as Rambam concludes there, kulam yovdu, they will all go lost!         

The current controversy between Torah and Science is - as it always was - rooted in their mutually exclusive worldviews. The Torah espouses a Godly and spiritual worldview where as scientism adheres to a godless, materialistic view. Doctrines such as evolution, big bang, and ancient universe theories are diametrically opposed to the Torah’s idea of a recent, sudden, purposeful, meta-natural Creation. Attempts to reconcile the two are futile and Rav Hirsch understood this!

Rabbi Slifkin is guilty of improper conflation. He misuses Rav Hirsch’s principle (i.e. not all of Chazal’s science was received from Sinai) by extending it to all physical descriptions of Chazal, even those which are clearly masoretic in nature. This conflation results in a generally dismissive attitude towards Chazal as evidenced in Rabbi Slifkin’s books and blog writings. This is what the Torah-Science controversy of 2004-05 (otherwise known as “The Slifkin Affair) is really about. Rav Hirsch would never condone such attitudes and in fact was virulently opposed to them.  

This is not the first time this writer has accused Rabbi Slifkin of misrepresenting the issues. However, in Rabbi Slifkin's defense it should be pointed out that he has responded, at least somewhat, to our accusations. For instance, he was accused on this blog of being committed to “showing up Chazal”. To his credit he did not deny the accusation. Rather, he explained that due to the ban on his books he felt compelled to demonstrate that it is not kefira to maintain that Chazal erred in science. I am a bit skeptical of his explanation (his books evinced an attitude of dismissiveness before they were banned; that’s why they were banned!) but in the final analysis this blog is not about Rabbi Slifkin; it is about his publicly stated views. I am happy to accept his justifications but the bottom line is he continues to compare the well-substantiated facts of technological science with the unproven theories of the materialists. This distinction is made by Rav Hirsch in the clearest terms yet Rabbi Slifkin ignores it and instead chooses to misrepresent Rav Hirsch’s view in the service of apology.

As it turns out, Rav Hirsch is aligned with everything this blog has been saying about the unreliable nature of materialistic theories. There is absolutely no reason to imagine that Rav Hirsch is aligned with Rabbi Slifkin’s general views on Torah and Science. It goes without saying that Rav Hirsch would be enormously troubled by Rabbi Slifkin’s dismissive attitude towards Chazal. For an excellent presentation of Rav Hirsch’s real views on evolution and creation, see this post here by YSO.

Comments welcome… 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rav Hirsch and the Science of Chazal

Here’s a question. Why is Rabbi Slifkin so anxious to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal in the field of science? Anyone who has read The Science, Challenge, The Camel, Creatures or Monsters can easily answer this question. For those who haven’t, here’s the answer.

Rabbi Slifkin is a believer. He believes in Hashem and he believes in the Divinity of the Torah. He believes in both Torah she’bichtav (TSB) and Torah she’ba’al peh (TSBP). He understands that the leading sages of each generation are the recipients of TSBP and are charged with transmitting our oral traditions to future generations. Hence, he accepts the halachic pronouncements of our sages (as recorded in the Talmud) without reservation. But this is not the limit of Rabbi Slifkin’s belief system.

Rabbi Slifkin believes in Science. He believes in the pronouncements of the scientific world if they reflect the opinion of the global consensus of scientists in that field. These pronouncements need not be backed by hard evidence. He simply believes. Of course Rabbi Slifkin would deny such an assertion but anyone familiar with the posts on this blog knows that this claim has been proven time and again. For confirmation of Rabbi Slifkin’s unquestioning faith in science, see our analysis of his views in the online article entitled Defending the Mesorah.

So, Rabbi Slifkin believes in the authority of our sages and he also believes in the authority of scientists. When the opinions or statements of one group conflict with the other, a distressing mental state is generated in his mind. In psychology this state is referred to as Cognitive Dissonance. There is only one way to alleviate the mental stress associated with this condition. One of the “cognitions” (i.e. beliefs or premises) must be altered.

Rabbi Slifkin resolves his contradictory beliefs by modifying the nature of Chazal’s authority. When it comes to halacha, they are the final arbiters; but when it comes to nature, scientists are the final arbiters. If the majority of scientists adopt a certain theory, paradigm or description of physical reality, their opinion supersedes that of Chazal. This facile “resolution” is used extensively by Rabbi Slifkin in his books. Every time he encounters a stira between Chazal and Science, Chazal lose out. So for instance, if the consensus of science is that the universe is billions of years old, Chazal’s traditions are rejected in favor of the prevailing academic view.  

So, why is Rabbi Slifkin so anxious to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal in the field of science? Simple. Because it reinforces his personal approach to the resolution of the Torah/Science loggerhead. That’s why he continuously attempts to attribute such approaches to the Rambam and other “rationalist” Rishonim, and why the quote from Rav Hirsch means so much to him. Here it is again.  
In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.
In Rabbi Slifkin’s mind, this quote supports everything he’s been saying for the past ten years! No wonder he likes it so much. But as we mentioned in the previous post, Rav Hirsch’s opinion of Chazal and Science is grossly misrepresented by Rabbi Slifkin. The quote Rabbi Slifkin chooses to delineate from Rav Hirsch’s letter (actually two disparate quotes stuck together to make it appear like one uniform paragraph) is preceded by the following section in the very same letter (my emphases).
What do we tell our pupils when they discover in the words of Chazal statements that do not agree with contemporary secular knowledge, particularly with the natural sciences which have made tremendous forward strides since ancient times?... we are not to keep the pupils from studying these subjects. On the contrary, we are to teach them the methodology of these subjects in a satisfactory and enlightening manner. For only the masses who neither know nor understand the methodology of these disciplines believe all the boasts of our contemporaries that this generation is the wisest of all and that all of nature - in the heavens and on earth - has been revealed to the contemporary sages who from the peaks of their wisdom look down upon all preceding generations.
But one who knows and understands how these disciplines function, knows and understands that while it is true that contemporary scholars deserve honor and glory in many matters that they have demonstrated - measured, weighed, or counted - that were unknown in earlier generations; nevertheless the theories built upon these observations are for the most part no more than very shaky guesses. New hypotheses are proposed daily. What is praised today as unalterable truth, is questioned tomorrow and then ignored. Each is different from the others, but they all have no solid foundation.
Similarly, there are statements in the works of the ancient nations that only 50 to 100 years ago were laughed at or denounced as lies by the wise men of the generation, whereas today’s scholars recognize that there is some truth in them. There are matters of wisdom that were known to the ancients which have been lost and are unknown to the contemporaries. Consequently if we find statements in the works of the ancients that contradict the estimates of our contemporaries, we cannot decide instantly that the former are lies and that the latter are definitely right.
This paints quite a different picture than the one Rabbi Slifkin would like his readers to believe about Rav Hirsch. In the following post we intend, bi’ezras Hashem, to provide an in-depth analysis of Rav Hirsch’s letter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rav Hirsch


Anyone familiar with Rabbi Slifkin’s writings is aware of his attitude regarding Chazal’s knowledge of nature. In a recent post entitled Rav Hirsch Lives!, he reiterates his opinion in this matter. Rabbi Slifkin believes that Chazal’s statements regarding nature are merely a product of the prevailing scientific attitudes held by contemporary naturalists (e.g. Aristotle). Furthermore, he claims that this notion was “normative” amongst the “rationalist Rishonim of Sefarad” but unfortunately produces no clear sources for such an assertion. The closest Rabbi Slifkin ever comes to providing explicit source material in the works of the Sephardic Rishonim can be found here (Rabbi Slifkin refers to this website here) and is limited to three Rishonim (Rambam, R’ Avraham and the Ralbag). Readers of this blog already know that Rabbi Slifkin’s claim has been refuted countless of times in these pages (e.g. here and here).

One of Rabbi Slifkin’s most important sources in support of his idea is Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch ztz’l. In general I have chosen not to comment on this source, for more than one reason. However Rabbi Slifkin’s above-noted post has persuaded me that perhaps a few well-placed comments might be in order.

Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows: 
One of the most significant sources in Torah-Science issues - specifically with regard to Chazal's knowledge of the natural world - is Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's letters on the topic. 
He then goes on to quote Rav Hirsch as follows: 
In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own. 
Ostensibly this quote does seem to support Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude to Chazal’s science. However, all is not as it seems.

Before we make any further comments, it is crucial to note the following. The above letter was not written in Rav Hirsch’s handwriting, was not signed by him, and was not published in his lifetime. Rabbi Slifkin attempts to address this issue by reassuring his readers that the above quote was part of a series of letters to one R. Hile Wechsler and that R. Wechsler’s original handwritten letters to Rav Hirsch are extant. This, claims Rabbi Slifkin, proves that Rav Hirsch must have written this particular letter to R’ Wechsler. Here’s Rabbi Slifkin’s reasoning. 
To maintain a belief that the Hirsch letters were forged, one would have to claim that somebody was consistently intercepting the letters that R. Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled R. Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! Clearly, this scenario is absurd; the Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine. 
Here’s the problem. No one is claiming that the “Hirsch letters were forged”. The claim is that this one particular letter – which was not penned by Rav Hirsch, not signed by Rav Hirsch, and not published by Rav Hirsch – was possibly not composed by Rav Hirsch. In order to prove differently, Rabbi Slifkin would have to produce a copy of R’ Wechsler’s original letter to Rav Hirsch and subsequent letters from R’ Wechsler to Rav Hirsch which clearly refer to the material found in the letter in question. Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin does no such thing. He makes reference to supposedly extant letters and expects his readership to accept the mere existence of these letters as proof of his contention. Well, this reader is far too seasoned to fall for such tricks. Experience has taught me that until evidence is produced, a protagonists’ claims are essentially meaningless.

Notwithstanding the above, our following post will treat Rabbi Slifkin’s quote of Rav Hirsch as authentic. Even if Rav Hirsch did write the letter in question, Rabbi Slifkin extends its parameters far more than Rav Hirsch ever envisioned.

More to come soon…

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Inerrancy of Chazal in Halacha


For the past year or so, readers of Rabbi Slifkin’s Rationalist blog have been inundated with an endless number of posts about matters such as the fallibility of Chazal and the incompetence of our current gedoley Torah. Rabbi Slifkin’s blog was ostensibly launched as a means of explicating the “rationalist” approach to Judaism. But as time went on, the content became less about rationalism and more about petty politics. As it currently stands, the blog functions as little more than a venue for Rabbi Slifkin’s “chareidi bashing”. As one reader commented on that site
[The Rationalist] blog, like R. Slifkin, is an outstanding example of the evolutionary process of which the blogger is so enamored. R. Slifkin was once a right-wing yeshivah student, and evolved into whatever he is currently. This blog began primarily as an exploration into the legacy of rationalist medeival Torah scholars, and has evolved into little more than an alternative version of the anti-semitic failedmessiah blog. 
In view of the endless calumnies perpetuated on the internet against our mesora and the gedoley Torah who are its guardians, it pays every once in a while to discuss the greatness of Chazal, the greatness of Talmud Torah, and the importance of תלמידי חכמים in general. In this case I would like to utilize the comments made by one of the leading poskim of our generation as a means of being michazek our readership in these matters.    

Rav Shlomo Miller shlita is the Rosh Kollel of the Kollel Avreichim of Toronto and also heads the Bais Hora’ah of Lakewood which operates under his auspices. In a recent gathering in Lakewood, Rav Miller spoke to those assembled about the importance of producing competent מורי הוראה. The following is a synopsis of Rav Miller’s comments. For those who understand Yiddish, a video of Rav Miller’s address can be downloaded here.    

Rav Miller began by pointing out that many biney Torah are under the impression that there are two distinct branches of Torah learning. Some strive to become lamdanim (Talmudic scholars) while others attempt to attain proficiency in p’sak halacha. These two pursuits are often seen as exclusive from each other. Accordingly, many people assume that a posek (halachic arbiter) need not be a lamdan. This, explained Rav Miller, is the furthest thing from the truth.

Rav Miller quoted his Rebbi (Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l) that any posek who renders piskey halacha without being thoroughly familiar with the relevant sugyos haGemara is capable of making the most serious errors in halacha. In order to be a proper מורה הוראה, one must also be a lamdan! He must toil over the gemara and delve into its sugyos in all of their amkus (depth).

Rav Miller then quoted the Mishna in Avos (6:6) which states that one of the 48 qualities associated with the acquisition of Torah is the “reluctance to issue halachic rulings” (אינו שמח בהוראה).  Rav Miller explained that the goal of a מורה הוראה is not the issuing of halachic rulings. Rather, the goal is to learn Torah exclusively for the sake of knowing the Torah. To develop a powerful love of Torah and to spare no effort in attaining the אמתת התורה, the truth of the Torah. The goal of every מורה הוראה should be to know halacha, not to pasken halacha. Of course, if שאלות come up they must be responded to. But this is not the matara (end goal) of limud haTorah and is not the end purpose of studying halacha. The matara is Torah Lishma, Torah for the sake of knowing Torah. The end purpose of studying halacha is to come to a clear and unambiguous understanding of the laws of the Torah, to achieve the umko shel halacha, the deepest comprehension of the Torah.  

On a lighter note, Rav Miller went on to quote Rav Zelmele Volozhiner who stated as follows: “People say that learning the poskim without learning the sugyos haGemara is like eating fish without the pepper. But I say that it is like eating pepper without the fish!”

Rav Miller then broached a serious question in hashkafa. We know that the wisdom of the Torah is endless. The Torah is “arukah me’eretz mida u’rechava mini yam”. On the other hand human beings, no matter how great, are mugbalim (limited). We are limited in our capacity for knowledge and limited in the extent of our comprehension. How can any מורה הוראה presume to issue definitive rulings in halacha when there may be so much more that he has not yet understood? Rav Miller answers this question in a most remarkable way.

The pasuk in Mishlei states:
קסם על שפתי מלך במשפט לא ימעל פיו – There is charm on the lips of a king; in judgment his mouth will not deceive (Mishlei 16:10) 
The plain meaning of this verse is that Hashem controls the pronouncements of kings. When a king sits in judgment, he must deal with all kinds of people. But although the accused may sometimes be a deceptive fellow, Hashem nonetheless “charms” the lips of the King such that the proper judgment is dispensed. However, there is a deeper meaning to this pasuk.

The Gra (ad loc.) explains as follows. The term מלך refers to תלמידי חכמים as the gemara states מאן מלכי, רבנן (c.f. Gittin 62a). The lips of Torah sages are like a special charm (from the term קסם קסמים a weaver of charms, or spells). So although a Torah sage may err in reference to the details of the question posed to him, nonetheless his actual p’sak din will “magically” be correct!

The Gra goes on to provide an example of this phenomenon from the gemara in Gittin 77b. The story there is that a certain שכיב מרע (dying man) wrote a גט to his wife so she should not become זקוקה ליבום after his death. He wrote the גט on Friday but did not have the chance to give it to her. Meanwhile his condition worsened on Shabbos and there was a strong חשש that he would die that day. The גט was not able to be taken to her due to the prohibition of מלאכת הוצאה on Shabbos so they brought the issue in front of Rava. Rava paskened that the man should be מקנה the room that the גט was in to his wife. She should then go to the room and be קונה it with a קנין חזקה by opening and closing the door of the room. As soon as she acquires the room, the גט is considered to be in her hand מדין חצר and she is considered מגורשת and no longer זקוקה ליבום.

Rav Ilish was standing in the presence of Rava when he rendered his p’sak halacha and turned to him in protest:
אמר ליה רב עיליש לרבא: מה שקנתה אשה קנה בעלה! – Rav Ilish said to Rava, [the halachic principle is] “whatever a woman acquires belongs to her husband”!
In other words, as soon as the woman would acquire the room, it simultaneously reverts back to the ownership of the husband thus rendering Rava’s suggestion ineffective. Had they followed his suggestion, the woman could have gotten married to another man although she was still זקוקה ליבום! When Rava realized that he had erred, he became chagrined. But then the gemara goes on to say that they discovered that this woman was an ארוסה not a נשואה and the halacha is that we do not apply the principle of מה שקנתה אשה to ארוסות. So although Rava had erred in his assessment based on the details of the question as he understood them at the time, at the end it was discovered that the circumstances were different and the actual p’sak din turned out to be correct. As the Gra explains, Hashem “charmed” Rava’s lips such that his p’sak reflected the circumstances as they really were. This phenomenon, states the Gra, characterizes the nature of all of Chazal’s piskei halacha.

Referring to this principle of the Gra, Rav Miller then went on to explain that the reason Rava was zocheh to such an incredible level of siyata d’shmaya in his Torah was due to his superlative ahavas haTorah. Rava dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah Lishma and therefore Hashem reciprocated by granting him tremendous hatzlacha in his learning.

Rav Miller then wrapped up his presentation with divrei chizuk to the assembled biney Torah. “Rava was indeed zocheh to great siyata d’shmaya, but can people like us ever aspire to be zocheh to such a thing?” asked Rav Miller. And the answer is yes! We must be zocheh to סיעתא דשמיא! We must try to develop a powerful ahavas haTorah on our own personal level of ruchnius. מורי הוראה must be ba’alei middos. Above all, they must possess the מדה of ענוה, humility, and their actions must be לשם שמים. If מורי הוראה do their best to live their lives in accordance with these principles, then surely Hashem will grant them siyata d’shmaya and bless their efforts with success.  עד כאן דברי מורינו

There are many lessons that can be learned from Rav Miller’s short address but I would like to broach two specific topics. Everyone who is familiar with Rabbi Slifkin’s writings knows the extent to which he goes to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal. From his perspective it seems reasonable to adopt the idea that no matter how great Chazal were they were still human and therefore must have occasionally erred in their pronouncements. But based on Rav Miller’s comments we now have a way of understanding the inerrancy of Chazal within the guidelines of rationalism. Yes, it is possible for Chazal to err in their reasoning and yes, on occasion they did err. But when it came to their final halachic pronouncements as recorded in the Talmud Bavli, Hashem granted Rav Ashi siyata d’shmaya l’maala mi’derech hateva! He directed his efforts such that all of the piskei halacha recorded there were al pi amito shel Torah. In truth, I have already suggested such an approach in the past and indeed Rav Yitzchok Isaac Rabinowitz advances a similar approach in his Sefer Doros Rishonim. However, Rav Miller’s words provide a source for this approach while serving to bring it into sharper focus.

The second comment I would like to make is that based on Rav Miller’s address we can understand the “rationality” behind heeding the pronouncements of our gedoley Torah. And although Rav Miller stated his principle in regards to p’sak halacha, it seems reasonable to extend its application to the general pronouncements made by gedoley Torah for the benefit of the Jewish nation. If Hashem assists מורי הוראה in the rendering of their piskey halacha even when they are only relevant to yechidim, then kal va’chomer He assists our gedoley Torah when they issue Torah opinions that are relevant to the entire klal!            

Comments welcome…