Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interesting Posts and Articles #215

  1. Wolfish Musings makes the point that being uninformed is not the same as being stupid. This as a reaction to a Yeshiva World Coffee Room discussion, where someone asked, in terms of arguing on various rabbis about scientific facts, whether the person arguing was:
    Smarter than the Rema, the Maharal, Aruch Hashulchan, Chasam Sofer, Rabbeinu Bachyai, the Alshich, the Radvaz, and the Chida combined?

    Smarter than any one of them.
  2. In a comment thread at Emes veEmunah, someone raises the issue of Rav Kanievsky apparently believing that gentiles have a different number of teeth than Jews, and the possible ramifications in terms of whether one should rely of him for pesak, (I would say) especially in matters pertaining to science. To which Rabbi Maryles wrote:
    a) I don't believe he said or wrote that.
    b) If he did it must have been in some sort of metaphysical or allegorical context - the meaning of which I have no clue.
    (a) is always possible, despite it having appeared in print as an answer from him, together with a lot of additional details. (See here.) And despite that we see other frum rabbis in Israel saying the same (see here and here). There is always the danger of misattribution to Rabbi Kanievsky.

    In terms of (b), as I wrote there, the details of what was written make it clear that he did not intend this in some sort of metaphysical or allegorical context. (See here, again.) The Midrash Talpiyot asks it as a question based in metzius, and proving it via appeal to his relative who is an expert on medicine and halacha, and proving it via a story about an anti-Semitic dentist in America demonstrates that he intended it absolutely literally.

    But I think that we can learn a lot from this reaction. And from his reaction, a little bit down, that:
    I can't speak for RCK but I can't believe he would deny the actual Metzius. Would he look at the moon and say it is the sun? There has to be an explanation for this. He is not an imbecile.
    As Wolfish Musings noted (see previous item), one need not be stupid, or an imbecile, to get scientific facts wrong. While the very idea of a different number of teeth sounds strange to us, we are not chareidim living in Bnei Brak. We have a much greater secular education, as well as exposure to gentiles, such that they are not alien creatures, but humans just like us. And even Rav Kanievsky thought it was a bit strange, and so he did his due diligence, or what is due diligence in chareidi circles. He asked an expert, his brother-in-law who is an expert on medical halacha, and who is the rav of a hospital in Bnei Brak, who confirmed it was true by way of an actual story about an anti-Semitic dentist in the US. That we would recognize it as an urban legend is not pertinent.

    Similarly, Rav Yaakov Emden was not an imbecile for believing accounts that gold grew on trees in Tokaj, because the world is a strange place, in his scientific worldview such things were strange but not impossible, and the gemara says that this very thing happened with trees planted by Shlomo Hamelech.

    But there is this attitude that we are smart, and Chazal or great contemporary rabbis are smart, and so we must be in agreement. And that if we are not in agreement, either we are heretics and idiots, or else we are saying that they are idiots. And so the inclination to remake Chazal, or post-Talmudic Sages, in our own image. And so Rav Kanievsky must have meant this allegorically.

    But he didn't, and similarly in many instances Chazal might well have intended literally various midrashic statements which we find implausible. This is why I am a big fan of evaluating sources on their own merits. Afterwards, if we find it implausible, we can either blame ourselves or accept that we differ from them and believe we are correct.

  3. At Mother In Israel, the problem of insects infesting schach, where the insect might end up being consumed. Mekubal, in the comments, makes a valid point about the tradeoff with the "solution" of spraying one's schach with pesticide.

  4. At Reason Online, questioning the science of shaken baby syndrome, with the end result that many innocent people may be in prison as a result of shaky science.

  5. At Snopes, a confirmation of a rumor of exploding Pyrex. This is a case where Pyrex is no longer borosilicate, (and being manufactured by a different company,) despite it retaining the name.

  6. At the Yeshiva World, efforts by various rabbonim to close the age gap in shidduchim, to help solve the shidduch crisis.

  7. PETA tries to discourage Jews from performing kapporos on chickens. Or at least wants to publicly decry the practice. While my sentiments are with Rav Yosef Karo and others, that this is a superstitious and possibly halachically iffy practice, I don't think that they are going to persuade frum Jews in this way. Selective citation of Rav Yosef Karo, where the Rama ruled otherwise, will not impress.

  8. Rabbi Slifkin answers a question about a ruby segulah, which has bases in Jewish sources, and whether there are any objections to it. He notes that this was also discussed on Hirhurim a while back. See also the discussion of this at the Zchus Avos Yagen Aleinu blog. Some aspects of it may be simply faulty scientific beliefs about the physical properties of this gem. If so, back then it might have been mere faulty science, whereas nowadays it would be buying into a superstitious practice.

  9. Here on parshablog, the Sun in Giveon and the Natural Order, which relates to an Ibn Ezra on this week's parsha.


Yosef Greenberg said...


It's a Gemara in Gittin 7. (Gemara lo shemiu lei) Interestingly, that same Gemara mentions Eilu Ve'eilu.


Did you previously have this minhag and dropped it?

ZB said...

“But he didn't, and similarly in many instances Chazal might well have intended literally various midrashic statements which we find implausible.”

Josh, concerning your post regarding comment #2. I agree with you in general regarding scientific matters and when its regarding modern day (and in general Charaidi) rabbanim. However with regards to Chaza"l, I disagree with you regarding their aggadic pronouncements that have in our eyes incomprehensible statements concerning the physical world, and agree with the Rambam on this. My reasoning is because we understand (to an extant) where today’s Rabbanim are coming from, and therefore we can assume certain things from their statements. However with regard to Chaza"l and statements made 1600 years ago, our knowledge of that culture is much weaker. Therefore even though, potentially, any civilization can think anything is possible, even if it boggles our modern mind. We don't really know what Chaza"l was referring to when for instance they talk about Og lifting a mountain. Therefore, while it is POSSIBLE anybody can think of anything. At some point you need to use rational reasoning, that without significant proof that contemporary culture considered that phenomena to be normal, we would therefore need to assume that Chaza"l was being allegorical. Again I am referring ONLY to aggadic statements that Chaza"l made that aren’t' medical or scientific in nature, and therefore could easily be interpreted allegorically. I know you have disagreed with the Rambam on his approach before on aggadic statements from Chaza"l, and therefore I diverge with you concerning this. I understand you want to evaluate every statement on its on accord, however in my opinion our default opinion should be that implausible aggadic statements are allegorical in nature, unless there is significant evidence that in the Talmudic-era the consensus was that this improbable statement was true.

ZB said...

And one more point to what I mentioned above, the danger of assigning implausable arguements towards Chaza"l is twofold.

1. As per the Rambam we risk making out Chaza"l as being not to bright c"v. And the only way to alleviate this concern is if we showed evidence that this mentality was considered mainstream.

2. We risk losing out on what Chaza"l was trying to tell us, if we are assuming they are talking literaly and in essence they are giving us allegorical and therefore philosphical statements.

joshwaxman said...

"It's a Gemara in Gittin 7"
where? i don't see it.

"Did you previously have this minhag and dropped it?"
not really. my family's minhag was, as far as i understand it, to do it with money. but not that using a chicken is not to be done, as far as i know. thus, once in elementary school and once in israel, they waved a chicken over my head. (in elementary school, i was too young to take control, i guess, and in israel, everyone stood around tables in the cafeteria and one guy carried the chicken around, passing it over everyone's head.)

still, ramban tried to get rid of this custom, even though it was already entrenched as a minhag. and the mechaber considers it a minhag shtus. so while on this matter i am not being super-bold, it seems that minhag should not stand in the way of halting this.


joshwaxman said...

thanks for you comments. i'll see what i get time to respond to.

"and agree with the Rambam on this"
i also agree with Rambam some time. it certainly should be one tool in our arsenal. and some of these cases, such as such a giant Og, quite plausibly are allegorical.

"we risk making out Chaza"l as being not to bright c"v. And the only way to alleviate this concern is if we showed evidence that this mentality was considered mainstream."
i agree that it is a danger. particularly if it is not the case. on the other hand, *if* it is the truth, then so be it and we grapple with it.
the danger can also be cast as towards ourselves thinking this, or the hamon am thinking this. i am not so sure how much i would weigh this danger. and given what we don't know about the mentality back then, and given enough examples of Chazal being extremely bright but sharing the mentality of back then, i would feel comfortable extrapolating to other examples, even where we don't have concrete evidence, that Chazal were not being dopes.

"We risk losing out on what Chaza"l was trying to tell us"
indeed, that is a danger. the opposite danger, though, is that we read our own messages into Chazal. even where they were speaking allegorically, i would bet that the vast majority of philosophical interpretations and kabbalistic pnimiyus interpretations, while creative and brilliant, were not what Chazal intended. in which case we recast Chazal in our own image, and justify whatever new beliefs and philosophies we want to justify, calling it the message Chazal intended. Because we do indeed lack a masorah of which are allegorical, and of the precise allegorical meaning. The literal interpretation is more conservative in this respect. Only deciding it is allegorical if the content and/or context compel it, and deducing the meaning from internal cues rather than ideas imposed from without, can help ensure the integrity of the allegorical messages that do make it out.

Don't take my opposition as total disagreement, though. There is, imho, much merit to what you wrote, and I would have written much of it myself. I think there is merit to both sides here.

kol tuv,

Yosef Greenberg said...

Sorry, its on 6b.

"א"ל אביי אטו כל דלא ידע הא דר' יצחק לאו גברא רבה הוא בשלמא מילתא דתליא בסברא לחיי הא גמרא היא וגמרא לא שמיע ליה"


"א"ל אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן זבוב מצא ולא הקפיד נימא מצא והקפיד"

Is doing it with money less an issue?

ZB said...

"indeed, that is a danger. the opposite danger, though, is that we read our own messages into Chazal. even where they were speaking allegorically. i would bet that the vast majority of philosophical interpretations and kabbalistic pnimiyus interpretations, while creative and brilliant, were not what Chazal intended"

Of course. Anything in life there are always dangers on both side of the fence. The question is how best go about seeking what Chaza"l was attempting to convey to us. So while I don't necessarily agree with putting in Kabbalistic esoteric approaches to the Gemora, I don't feel its a either/or approach. We can reasonably limit how much we read into the Gemora, yet at the same time give them the benefit of the doubt when we have uncertainty. Also in my opinion, I don't have that big of an issue with the ahistoric school, esp. when its involving literature. While its important to see what Chaza"l meant to convey to us, its also important for people to see themselves in Chaza"l. While this obviously can lead to distortion of what Chaza"l really meant, and can also lead to people not even attempting to find the truth, it still holds value. This is a very complicated subject, which I believe was a debate in Hakirah between Dr. Shapiro and Rabbi Buchman, I believe that in moderation and in the correct framework, there still is value in the ahistoric approach. Because what people read in the words of Chaza”l is still very important, and if done sensibly and rationally can even be what Chaza”l would have themselves thought of if they lived in a different era. Therefore both approaches are areas that can lead to either falsehood or truth, even though the vast majority of people who learn Gemora use one approach or the other without ever attempting to integrate them.

Also you might reply that I am being "frum" in this matter (which is ok with me :-)). But I feel that there is dual purpose in learning Gemorah and Torah. One is getting the intellectual knowledge that it is trying to convey to us. And two, using it to change our own self. Therefore learning is not merely an academic pursuit, it is also a religious, moral, and ethical pursuit. While I believe people who use the ahistorical approach sometimes lose sight of what the Gemorah/Torah is trying to convey to us (by substituting their own pshat into the Gemorah), this doesn't mean to totally discard that learning Gemorah/Torah is valuable in of itself. Therefore, I believe, the ahistoric approach is valuable (if it is done in a reasonable matter) which is not generally true with other academic matters.

Finally I only am comfortable using an ahistoric approach with regard to aggadata, in terms of halacha its an entirely different subject.

I understand we aren’t so far away in how we approach these matters, but I still feel it’s important to flesh out these important ideas.

joshwaxman said...

thanks; and thanks.

in terms of money, it seems to me slightly less of an issue, in terms of superstition.

first, we don't see things clearly associated with Darkei Emori in the Tosefta as regards it. for example, insistence on a while chicken was both an inyan in terms of shlugging kapporos and in terms of superstition.

also, there are problematic aspects of making it almost into a korban eaten bachutz - an animal (used to even be a sheep) taking one's place going to death in atonement of one's sins.

the geonic practice of using a plant, which was tossed in the river (kind of like tashlich) was weird, but even that does not seem as problematic.

using money can easily be cast as tzedaka, which it is (and tzedaka tatzil mimavet -- yes, I know the chickens go to tzedaka as well), and something along the lines of kofer.

there are also no issues of tzaar baalei chayim in the treatment of the chickens, or of kashrus in the even of massive unsupervised shechita.

of course, i would guess people only use the money as a substitute for the chicken minhag, so i can see possible negative aspects of that. and people can invest it with false and superstitious belief. you are certainly correct in that. so it also perhaps should be eliminated as a minhag shtus. though that does not strike me as as "critical".



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