Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Nishtanu Hateva’im..."
[Update here]

"BIU’s Prof. Mordechai Kislev’s discovery [p.12] that figs found at Jericho are the first cultivated crop is among the top six stories...Dated at 11,400 years old, the figs are much smaller than modern ones...people who lived over 2,000 years ago ate the same kinds of olives we eat today. “We found that the olive pit has traits that allow us to characterize the species of the tree on which it grew, even after thousands of years” said Prof. Kislev. “We found two kinds of olives that people from the Massada period used to eat which are still very common in Israel today and haven’t changed for thousands of years.”

So much for overzealous application of the principle Nishtanu Hateva'im ("nature has changed"). Of course, it would be quite reasonable to suggest that differences between flora and fauna we observe today and those we read of from the past, are really matters of demographics -"which breeds with what traits" predominated (were "the average" encountered), then versus now. Noteworthy also is the age of this find; this is thousands of years before Biblical proposals for the advent of "Souled Man", who produce the hallmarks of 'civilization' - developed domestication, advanced ceramics, and architecture (of course, non-authorities in these fields are happy to quibble about what is meant by an 'advance'...). ALL of these have also been dated well before R. Weisz's proposed "great leap forward"; on average, 8-10,000 years old - with less 'advanced' examples reaching much further back in time. Page 18 of the same issue of BIU Today gives some additional research by Prof. Kislev and associates suggesting that this ancient agriculture was a matter of extensive trial and error - not 'quantum leaps' of development. Elsewhere I have proposed that some of what we find of great antiquity may indeed be anachronistic - as in artifacts from another time entirely - before our clocks even began keeping time. Be they artifacts or organisms or technologies (or even knowledge), these would be in some sense remnants of the worlds preceding ours. Each ensuing world being, in a manner recycled from the previous catastrophic 'rebooting'. We are forever finding indications of Homo Sapiens Sapiens being really old, finding "prehistoric species" in fishing nets, the famed "hobbits", etc., I don't know that it's completely insane to suggest that we actually are looking past our official "beginnings", peering into previous worlds', previous civilizations endings. Might be some similar allusions among other posts here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rabbi Joshua Maroof...
Some choice comments. His derech eretz, though not the main selling point for me, is good to read [emph. mine];

"Take an analogy to science rather than technology. How do we know science is a fruitful pursuit? There are many unsolved problems and apparent contradictions that have yet to be reconciled. Yet, we have faith in the scientific method and press forward, hoping for further breakthroughs. Why is this? Why don't we assume that the effectiveness of scientific reasoning is a figment of our imagination, and that the universe is not really accessible to rational investigation?

I believe the answer is as follows: If science were to explain one or two phenomena ONLY, then the existence of a multitude of contradictions and problems would call the whole enterprise into question. But the fact is that science has an excellent track record. It's explanatory power is indisputable because it works, again and again. This gives us faith [here, I would really use "trust", as in emunah -acquired via encounter; our rationality and its reliability are relational (I, II, III) - but not relative], in the scientific method as a viable way to understand the world.

The same is true with Torah methodology. If the analysis of the Talmud and Rishonim made sense once in a while, that would be insufficient basis for accepting the mesorah. But the reality is that, again and again, the more deeply we analyze the Torah, the clearer and more coherent its ideas become [pardon several generalizations, but this strikes me, perhaps wrongly, as a perspective prevalent in the Sephardic world - where breadth of learning, grasp of general ideas and practical applications over obsession on abstractions and pilpul over particular areas, sugyot or even a few words in a Gemara have fostered 'neurotic' disposition among other Jewries]. Just like scientific theories don't "invent" reality, they present its [accessible] order and elegance to us, so too halachic theories represent an underlying reality, they don't create it.

This has been my experience in many, many areas of Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebal Peh, and I think it is especially manifest in the works of people like Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein who, through penetrating to the essence of countless sugyot, demonstrate the unity of halachic thought. However, appreciating the beauty of the Torah requires lots of time and patience, the same that is required for appreciating the beauty of any field of thought...

...With regard to your comments: I don't feel that the beauty of Torah is found in the resolution of contradictions. I see it in the elegance of one of the Rav's Shiurim L'zecher Abba Mori, for example, in which countless halachic phenomena are unified by a central theoretical principle. The sheer quantity of details accounted for by these constructs makes it quite difficult to imagine that they were not a part of authorial intent.

I find the same beauty in the broad-based Shiurim of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, as well as in the "Shavuot Shiurim" of R' Yisroel Chait who is featured on

You may still claim that this is not evidence of a divine system, and can be the result of human ingenuity. But the sheer depth and profundity of the ideas, the constant revelation of new connections between ideas and concepts, makes the notion that it was fabricated seem very far-fetched [can also be evidence of awesomely unified, related worldviews rare in our modern era, not only argued as having one 'author'..but then what is to be said for the origins of such a system, no matter how autopoetic and emergent?].

The existence of problems does not compromise the overall harmony of any system of thought. There are literal contradictions in scientific data and yet science moves on, hoping one day to reconcile them by discovering a new "layer" of understanding from which vantage point all will make sense [or acknowledging that there are domains where scientific methodology does not apply].

In terms of historical, scientific and moral problems with the Torah - each of these is a different kind of problem in its own right - I am not troubled by them at all. The Torah was never understood by Hazal as a literal exposition of science. I am not sure why we follow Christian fundamentalists in assuming that it is, and then being bothered by scientific issues.

Our knowledge of history is fragmentary and tentative, so it cannot really "contradict" anything definitively. There are many, many cases of events and people in Tanach initially branded as "imaginary" and later discovered to have concrete evidence for their existence. You might be interested in the lengthy comments on a post on my blog at [here].

The moral issues are more complex, but suffice it to say that I don't believe that modern conceptions of moral values are inherently superior to ancient ones, and I think that contemporary ones are almost entirely sentimentally based, nearly devoid of cognitive content altogether. So I am not inclined to view them as a challenge...

...The difficulty I have with the Charedi viewpoint is that, as you stated, it is clearly not the viewpoint of Chazal or the majority of Rishonim. Rather than seeing what they do as "bending" the Torah, I see it as an expression of their approach to Torah as a system of theological and legal ideas, not a respository of empirical data about the past or present.

The Charedi world appears to me very, very far from the conception of Torah of the Baalei Hamesorah. And it is the Torah of the Baalei Hamesorah - the people who transmitted the Tanach to us in the first place, along with an approach to understanding it - that I accept as true [and if we must defend something, it is there where defense begins]...

...The Charedi version of Judaism is unacceptable to me for a very simple reason. The very gedolim that they venerate - Rambam, Ramban, etc. - would have rejected their positions on matters of science and history out of hand if they were alive today. Most Charedim would [likewise] consider much of the content of the Moreh Nevuchim, Hovot Halevavot, Emunot V'Deyot, etc., heretical, while simultaneously viewing themselves as the legitimate successors of their authors.

The biggest problem I find with skeptics like GH is that they stack the cards against the Torah and then decide that the Torah isn't plausible. They proceed to condemn anyone who answers their questions as either a fundamentalist apologist or a hidden orthoprax. This insulates some skeptics from real discussion of the issues...

[quoting an exchange between himself and another commenter]
-Notwithstanding the distinctions you make between major and minor differenences[sic], this still demonstrates how fallible Mesorah, Dogma & Belief is.

How so? The halachic system admits for differences of opinion and minhag - the application of halacha is a function of human understanding attempting to grasp the truths of the "field" of halachic science, and therefore it is subject to different theoretical views like any other area of study. This is not a reflection of the fallibility of the system at all. I see it as a strength in some ways - it encourages the exercise of the mind rather than indoctrinating.

In terms of "dogma", I am not sure what you mean by this. All strains of Orthodoxy are in agreement on the very basic principles of Yihud Hashem, TMS, etc., even if they may understand them differently.

-You must admit your bias. I don't know you from Adam, but I suspect that came to your beliefs (especially about Chareidim) because of your background. Had you been born Chareidi or Christian you'd probably be singing a different tune.

I'm sure I have my biases, as we all do. But my upbringing, Jewish education and early and later influences were very, very heterogeneous, ranging from Conservative to MO to Charedi to Lubavitch.

-Do you not think the Chareidim have an explantion [sic] for this? And would you not call that Chareidi response, a form of apologetica?

Of course, I'm sure that they would offer an explanation. I would be interested to hear what it was. Condemning it as apologia a priori is unfair until I've assessed its merits independently. I am just giving my view as to why I don't subscribe to the Charedi view of science and history, etc.

The whole issue of apologetics is thorny for me. If someone raises a philosophical or even scientific problem with evolutionary theory, do we say that the answer of Dawkins is apologetic? Maybe in some cases. But there can be good questions and equally good answers sometimes. Other times, the answers might not be as satisfying immediately. But the more reason I have to believe in a philosophy, ideology, or paradigm, the less likely a particular kashya or set of kashyas will disturb me meanwhile. Isn't this how science works all the time? They went for centuries believing in theories that were rife with problems and contradictions until Einstein came along. And even he only solved part of the puzzle.

-As an aside, I reject the notion of bias of scientists and historians AS A GROOUP [sic] and the notion that they can't be trusted.

Did I say something to indicate that I thought this? I didn't mean to.

When it comes to the hard sciences, I agree with you 100%.

However, in the soft sciences, there is very little stated "As a group" to begin with. Even the most basic premises of different schools of thought are often in dispute.

The amount of data is minimal relative to the quantity of hypothesis, conjecture and theory. And if you think there are a lot of theories and positions in halacha, and that this undermines the system, try examining some books on Biblical archaeology and criticism. The truth is, to be fair, that the same would apply to any area of history or literary criticism. Even the discipline I studied, psychology, is teeming with competing views. I am always extremely suspicious of the proclaimed results of psychological studies, because the interpretations thereof are almost always tangled up and disputed.

-I don't know what you mean by stacking the deck against the Torah. On the contrary, I think that most individuals who turn skeptical as an adult are much dis-concerted and agonize over their findings. I know I was.

I didn't mean to imply any bias on your part against Judaism. I understand that the discoveries you made were painful for you.

It's just that I find that many skeptics are rejecting a form of Judaism that would be foreign to, say, the Rambam or the Ramban. They are rejecting a Judaism that they were taught as children, but this may not be the "real deal".

And oftentimes, especially in the words of GH, I discover a certain superficiality or oversimplification in dealing with philosophical and theological issues that is sure to lead to skepticism or cynicism. I don't mean to impugn anyone or to suggest that many of the skeptics aren't true seekers...

...A mesorah in any field can be perfectly intact but permit machloket. This occurs when specific details can be explained by more than one theoretical construct. For example, let's say two psychoanalytic psychologists are trying to explain the cause of a newly discovered disorder. They may both agree on the fundamentals of their discipline, but have different theories as to where a specific set of observed phenomena "fit in".The same happens in halacha. Two rabbis may have the same data in front of them but may conceptualize it differently and thus reach opposite conclusions with regard to some particulars. This is the essence of the halachic process and the meaning of "Lo Bashamayim Hee."...

...BHB, I hear where you are coming from and I appreciate your perspective to some extent.

I realize that it is because I see the mesorah in a certain light that I am not troubled by the issues that trouble you. I never viewed the Torah as a source of knowledge about the age of the universe or anthropology. To me, it is a philosophical and legal text above all else [but not to the exclusion of all else - as it seems some LWMO are at pains to intimate but not state; another point in his favor over theirs for "Rav" status...]. This is how Hazal understood it, as evidenced by the Midrashim and continued by the Gedolei Harishonim and Aharonim till today.

To briefly respond to your objections to the "built-in shich-cha" concept: Disagreement and dispute is a necessary aspect of any field of knowledge, why should Torah knowledge, also a human enterprise, be any different? The Torah itself anticipates this in several places.

And in terms of major arguments in the Gemara, they are always founded upon some common basis that is shared among all disputants. Rambam expounds upon this at length, and experience proves it true.

With regard to Hashqafic arguments - the reality is that Rambam and Ramban agree on all essentials. The differences between them concern the proper way to approach the study of "Sod", which is outside of the realm of the basic mesorah and would typically be reserved for the independent study of gedolei hador. The mesora I am speaking about is the yesode hadat and the explanations of the 613 mitsvot.

The view I take on the mesora is the same reason why reading the material on Daat Emet and other skeptical sites - something I've done for years - hasn't impressed me. It begins with the premise that, in order for the mesorah to be true, the Rabbis must be infallible, or everything must be literal. And anything you try to build on that foundation is sure to be refuted...

...Rav Ovadiah is an unbelievable halachist and an excellent and generally very sensitive posek. One must have a competent rav for halachic questions, and I don't think anyone would question the choice of Hacham Ovadiah.

However, when it comes to issues of Hashqafa, the Rishonim have stated - take for example, R' Shmuel Hanagid in Mavo Hatalmud - that there is no "pesak" beyond the yesode Hadat. In this area, I am not compelled to follow a rav; as long as I operate within the basic framework of the iqqarim, I can consult traditional sources and/or contemporary gedolim of my choice in order to clarify philosophical issues.

So, to answer your question more succinctly: In the area of Hashqafa, my "Rav" is the Rambam and those who continue in his derech. Obviously, there are many, many rabbanim in the MO world - and even some within charedi ranks - who would "vouch" for my perspective on, say, science and Torah issues.

BTW, Rav Ovadiah himself has a teshuvah in Yabia Omer - the exact citation escapes me, but I recall it being in one of the most recent volumes - in which he discusses science/torah issues and, specifically, the position of the Rambam and his son. He basically says that, though he disagrees with the approach and believes in principle it should be discouraged, he would not stop people who teach these ideas, especially if they are mekarev rechokim. So he is definitely not a zealot in this area...

And on and on. Honestly inspiring in his wisdom and honesty. Even though he hasn't answered my several recent emails...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 90
Arthur C. Clarke, author and creator of "Mysterious World", died in Sri Lanka this week at 90.

I grew up watching reruns of the series, which implanted in my mind many of the speculative explorations on my blog. His passing is also worth noting for the various religious claims made regarding his work, for example the "2001 Principle" website and "Obvious Proof" book...

Clarke was an agnostic who erred on the side of atheism.

This seems to escape everyone who suggests the deep meanings behind "2001; a Space Odyssey" (deep meanings being arguments for Intelligent Design; see Kubrick himself for 'meanings", for ID, see here and here), not unlike was sought regarding the initial Matrix movie (to the rest of the films...and other work of the Wachowski brothers whom I'm still not sure are even Jewish - the general response seems to be "not mikabell!!" section of the Aish Matrix page is entitled "Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged" something of a plug for "going and learning"!...a real appeal to Jewish male egos; you're special, your not like the others [goyim]. etc).

Among other things that escape them is that the exalting and ominously empowering song "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is, pretty obviously, referring to an "exalting and ominously empowering" book by the same arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"...a slight statistical error in the census of the Hindu community"

Thus have the Jewish people been statistically described. Here's Rabbi Cardozo's perspective on a recent meeting betwixt Jewish and Hindu religious leaders in Israel (something of an anniversary for an earlier meeting).

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Maybe it's not such a Bad Idea

In light of recent studies...[recent 'ruling' by Masorti rabbi Simcha Roth
in Israel]

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