Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Magic and Judaism

With the storms created over science and Torah, we seem to overlook a very big chink in the armor of the debate, magic. How do we begin to play with notions that the Chachamim understood relativity, string theory or quantum mechanics from the Torah and Talmud, when they seem to promote the notions of nonsense, such as astrology, black magic, fortunetelling, magic medicine and superstition. In fact, the debate in the Torah is whether the Torah forbid them because they are true, but we cannot use them (e.g. the Ramban et al), or whether they are forbidden because they are simply foolishness (e.g. the Rambam et al). A good summary of this debate can be found here; (Sorry, I will learn to code HTML one day and link this properly.)

Where does that leave us, the modern people who do not believe in these things?

Worse, it seems that major portions of the Jewish community believe in magic so much that even non-Jewish magic will do. Alternative medicine is big business and alternative practitioners abound in the Jewish community. Acupuncture, the manipulation of imaginary "meridians" through imaginary organs, to promote the flow of imaginary "chi", is immensely popular. (See and search for a full discussion of these subjects) Homeopathy, the outdated and scientifically disprovable notion from the late 1700s that like cures like when diluted to nonexistent levels is still the favored method of treatment and cure for many people. And the Rabbis are just as supportive of these things as anyone else.

In Israel, mekubalim are running around giving psychic advice, giving out "kamia" (magic amulets), even giving medical advice or doing magic cures, all with tacit support from rabbis, or at least wink wink from rabbis and authorities.

How deeply does the Orthodox Jew have to be involved or at least believe in magic in order to remain frum?

As a test case, I would like to propose a simple test for the infamous pidgeon cure for hepatitis. If you have been around hassidic or other hareidi type communities for any length of time, you have no doubt heard of the ability of some people to cure hepatitis by placing pidgeons on the patient's navel. This procedure requires no double blind procedure, since the effects are apparent. Let us set up a study of 100 patients who have untreated hepatitis, and administer the pidgeon cure. Measure bilirubin and any other liver health factors before the procedure, immediately after the procedure and at regular intervals for a short time thereafter. Since, we are dealing with a potentially deadly illness, obviously, medical professionals should be involved so as not to prevent a patient from getting actual effective treatment in due time. At the end of the study, we would have plenty of actual numbers to talk about that are not affected by the placebo effect or other factors. Either we will finally scientifically dispense with this notion, or we will find some medical paradigm that cures a deadly disease.

Also, I have heard it claimed that this treatment has some ancient Jewish source, but I am unable to find anyone who can locate it, proponent or opponent. Can anyone refer me to an old Jewish source of this pidgeon practice?

Sin of the Golden Calf

A drashah on 3300 years of golden calves - I will summarize for clarity

We see that the women of Israel gave their copper mirrors to the build the Kiyor, the basin from which the Kohen purified his hands and feet to enter the Holy Service.This copper was obviously very refined and pure or it couldn't have been useful as a mirror.

The men gave the gold to make the Golden Calf. According to medrash, Aharon through the gold in the fire and it emerged a fully formed calf and it breathed and even danced, as fully mobile as a live calf. They celebrated saying that this calf succeeded Moshe Rabbeinu.

The questions are:
1) How could people who had just experienced Matan Torah commit the sin of idol worship only 40 days after G-d had spoken to them directly?
2) If they thought Moshe was dead, why did they try to build a successor, rather than appoint someone else?
3) Was it the Erev Rav or the Jews who were to blame?
4) An idol can be nullified by breaking the nose. Why was this one ground to dust?
5) Why were the Leviyim chosen to exact the revenge?
6) Why did Moshe smash the Luchos because of this sin? Why didn't he just remind them of its precepts and demand that they do Tshuva?

Copper represents the service of mitzvos. The women were not required to learn Torah, so they purified their service of Mitzvos and invested that service into sanctifying the Mishkan.

Gold represents Torah learning. The men took possession of the gold and demanded that Aharon use it to replace their fallen Torah leader. He threw the gold into the fire and it emerged as a golden calf. The Torah learning took on a life of its own, not as Torah learning itself, but as a derech, a particular way of life that becomes habitual, and is sustained through some filtered method of Torah learning. It grows and lives quite independently of any leader, of any halacha or of any sense. It can be marginally justified in halacha (as shown by the many halacha justifications for the Golden Calf), but it creates a way of life that is totally opposite to the intent of the Torah.

The purpose of the Torah is to bring unity, achdus of the Jewish people. Shtick, derech, minhag or whatever other forms it takes, when used for promoting self importance, "us vs. them" mentality, "I would never eat their hechsher" "I would never daven there" "I wouldn't let their books in my house" "I would never let my daughter marry them" "I ...", it begins to live, breathe and even celebrate on its own. The person, Baal HaShtick thinks that he is just adding on to his derech, his Rebbe etc., just as they believed that the calf succeeded Moshe. But in reality, the Torah tells us that it is the opposite; it is tantamount to idol worship. It causes division and promotes self superiority, rather than unity, achdus.

That is why the Mefarshim attribute it to the Eirev Rav. Rav represents division and strife, as in Eisav's exclamation "Yesh li rav", I have many separate things, whereas Yaakov said "Yesh li kol", I have everything together. So they were a mixture (Eirev) of separate people (Rav) rather than a unified people. That is why it says that the Eirav Rav came up "with them", in other words not among them, but separate from them. So the Eirev Rav was the faction of the people who felt that their derech made them superior to rest of the Jewish people.

Therefore, the Leviyim had to destroy them. It says of the Leviyim that all of them were clean of the sin of the calf. This is shown by the very name, Levi, "This time my husband will accompany (Yelaveh) me". The name demonstrates that Levi represents unity and inclusion, which is the very opposite of the mentality of the golden calf.

Moshe did not stop at destroying the calf halachically, because it was no ordinary idol. It took on life force. It had to be ground to powder, completely without any of its previous substance. Such substance cannot grow the Jewish people, even in small measure.

Moshe then smashed the Luchos. He realized that this is what had become of their Torah learning. The Torah had to be regiven, effectively, because of the way they had chosen to use it. It had to be regiven this time, with reference to Teshuva and a fully prepared Teshuva. The Talmud says that every punishment meted out to the Jewish people contains a measure of punishment for the golden calf. That is because every sin of the Jewish people can be traced to this destructive, anti Torah trait.

I will return to my subject presently, but the golden calf evokes musar, even though present company is obviously not in need of such musar. I should direct it at those hareidim that think they are the only true Jews, or those nutty Chabadniks who think that they invented Rebbes and Moshiach, or those Misnagdim who only learn to pump up their own Rabbanus or those people over in that shul where I would never daven and never eat their food, or those people who go around with knitted yarmulkes, singing HaTikva or those ...

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Short diversion

Follow the link to glimpse a small taste of what a religious-run Israel would be like.

Natalie Portman, a sabra movie star, is not known for being particularly racy in movies. She came to prominance as the rebel queen in the prequel Star Wars movies. The article about the scene she shot in the car park by the Kotel is disturbing. Apparently, she kisses her co-star in the scene they were shooting. But, big brother was indeed out there and made front page headlines throughout the world.

THIS JUST IN!!! We interrupt our program to bring you this news flash!
Jews who are less observant than you may be doing things of which you disapprove. Please do not panic or take vigilante action. Authorities are working to completely insulate you and your family from this danger. Please stay indoors, cover all windows with opaque plastic, use opaque protective goggles, and foam earplugs. At all costs avoid contact with anyone in the Chiloni world.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program, which you cannot watch anyway because you are too frum.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

School science and Creationism

How should the evidence of geology, biology etc. as it relates to the frum school be taught? Much ink is spent on this subject in eduction circles. How can we temper the evidence of science with the Torah account of creation, the early earth and the early human race. The answer is shockingly simple, so simple in fact that the great educational minds of our century have cleanly missed it.

TEACH THEM SCIENCE!!!! And put those stones away! I can explain. I said, PUT IT DOWN! That's better.

In science classes we should teach students all about science. Unique approach. Teach them what a scientific theory is, what a scientific method is, why they are important. Teach them what observation is, what interpolation and extrapolation are, why we might conclude X or Y from this evidence, what the premises are. Teach them the history of each theory, what questions it answers, what questions it leaves open, what its strengths and weaknesses are. In short, teach them to think critically with all the facts in front of them. Teach them the same way we teach Talmud and everything else. Make them ask questions; questions are good. Give them science's answers or tell them we have none. Tell them that new discoveries may answer these questions next year or in 200 years.

Then what will become of Chumash? It will be a catalyst for yet more questions. And it will be a springboard for answering questions, because the children will have learned that there is nothing wrong with questions, nothing wrong with not having answers today, and that few questions that do not merit further exploration. Allow them to form an opinion. Allow them to make it their opinion, rather than just a copy of someone else's "correct" opinion.

We must resist the urge to teach dogmatically. Let them hear it all, absorb it all, and understand what is observed, what is extrapolated and what the difference is. Teach them where the Torah seems to contradict these theories and where it seems to sustain them. Teach them to respect knowledge and reason. If we don't, we may find that they turn their disrespect against what we want them to hold dear.

Let's resist the urge to obfuscate facts to sustain dogma. If we do not trust them to form opinions, they will grow up to suspect yours. We may unwittingly teach them that there are facts that we fear. Are there facts that you fear? If there are, you may not want to use your education as a template for that of your children.

That's it in a nutshell. Teach science in science class. Teach Chumash in Chumash class. Trust your child to be the Chacham and not the Aino Yodeah Lish'ol.

Just a short conclusion on "intelligent design". In the old days, it was considered "weak faith" to go to doctor, because G-d is our doctor. However, we understand that it is G-d who gives the power to the doctor to heal. The same is true of intelligent design. We should learn in Torah classes that the universe was created by intelligent design, regardless of the mechanisms that we discover in science class. It is not "weak faith" to believe that G-d created the universe in this or that particular way. If it seems to contradict something inTorah, let the question be asked, not swept under the carpet. We may just find the sky isn't falling.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Did the Chabad Rebbe die?

Before we delve into this, I would just like to preface by saying that I have no personal stake or "side" in this discussion. I actually enjoy controversial subjects, if you hadn't yet figured that out, and I will entertain (not accept, entertain) any proposition that has logical defense that does descend into sophistic "prove it isn't so" spins.

For those who say the Chabad Rebbe is dead, they have some very compelling evidence. Namely, they have satisfied "habeas corpus". We have a body, a gravesite, no controversy surrounding the whereabouts of the body of the Chabad Rebbe. He has not been seen nor heard from (at least verifiably) since his assumed death in 1994. I didn't even need DNA or forensics for this.

For those who say that the CR lives, there are two categories. There are those who say that the CR lives on spiritually as a Tzadik, as all tzadikim. They would quote kabalah, that a tzadik is more alive after he leaves the world. They would say that a tzadik lives on in his teachings which are his true self, along the lines of the Tanya's explanation of the difference between a tzadik and a benoni. I am at a loss as to what they mean by this. How is the CR different in this than any of the multitude of tzadikim before him? For instance, if Yosef Karo, Moshe Isserles, Ran, Rif etc. are tzadikim, are they dead or alive in this view? How about the other Chabad Rebbes? Are they all alive? If you answer that they all are indeed alive, you have redefined alive in a consistent manner. You have conceded though that there is nothing special about the CR being "alive", except that you are saying that he is a tzadik. The physical evidence presents no problem. Kol HaKavod.

Then, there is the second category. There are those who say that the CR's death is different than other tzadikim, in that it is physical life. The physical evidence is problematic, so they answer with two parallels. During the Golden Calf experience, the people were shown that Moshe had died, in order to entice them to rebel. This is fairly weak, since they didn't have an actual body in that case and Moshe was indeed still alive. The information was deceptive, so the case is not a real parallel. So, they answer that Yaakov did not die. As Rashi brings from Aggada, even though they presented physical evidence that he had been buried and prepared as a corpse (I do not like the translation "embalm", for Chanata), nonetheless, he was only considered to have died. This explains the use of the word "Vayigva" rather than the more direct "vaYamas". In the case of Yaakov though, we have a pasuk that we must learn. Nontheless, we have a direct parallel. There is no telling what this really means, though. Would we say that, if his wife were alive, she could marry? If we can assign an aggada to an actual person, how do we know that it won't apply to others? What marked the CR as having this medrash apply to him, whereas others are distinguished as not having it apply to them? The question is immensely important. How can we ever permit any widow to remarry if undisputed appearance of death, burial and even preparing the corpse are not acceptable as evidence? One might answer that halacha uses assumption rather than proof, but even what the witnesses are expected to return in the case of an agunah is the evidence of appearance of death, based on the assumption that this is enough to assume death. This argument turns that very assumption on its head and invalidates halachas on which rests "misa v'kares". Another obvious problem is that when someone is dead - to all appearances - and one insists that that person is still alive, what exactly are they saying? In more clinical terms, what properties are different between the living and dead? We must determine this before we can assert that the difference does indeed exist. I deeply fear that most of the people who hold this view of the CR have not even thought it through to that extent.

So all in all, the primary question is not whether the CR died, but what do adherents mean when they say that he is still alive?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Rambam's Astronomy

Let's begin with the Mishna Torah's interesting views on astronomy. They are essentially the same as Ptolemy had them in the 2nd century. Many modifications had been made in the millenium preceding the Rambam, but the worldview was the same. The sun was thought to be much closer and smaller than it really is. The moon's distance was thought to vary greatly. There was nothing larger than the sun or smaller than Mercury. All the stars were essentially the same distance from earth. Amazingly, Chabad philosophy, among others, holds that the Rambam wrote these matters as halacha. Therefore, they are accurate in literal reality. More amazingly, the Rambam himself explains in Moreh Nevuchim that the science that he brings is not from Masorah, but is only the science of the times. I'd have to challenge the Chabad notion. Here's some detail:

In Ptolemaic worldview, each element of the physical world existed below the earth, on the earth or up to the orbit of the moon. The perigee of the moon, the front edge of the galgal, began a spiritual realm where the celestial bodies began. Both the body and the track that drives its motion were intellectual beings. The apogee of the body ended the galgal and began the next. The Rambam allows no space between the galgalim. Thus, the apogee of the moon is the perigee of Mercury. The apogee of Mercury is the perigee of Venus, followed by the sun and so forth out to Saturn. Then, was the star galgal which went slowly and then the empty retrograde galgal that drove the sky. The outer planets were not yet known. It is important to remember that gravity was not part of the equation yet, so there was no obvious problem with Venus being so close to the sun nor with galgalim driving celestial bodies in motion.

The moon was approximated at 1/40th the size of earth and the sun at 187 times. Of course these were based on estimates of distance that were completely wrong. While the Rambam does not bring any distances, the Talmud says that from one Rakia to the next was 500 years. At 30 miles a day (40 parsahs), we can estimate that each galgal was about 5.5 million miles. The Rambam does not bring this in Mishna Torah, though the first Chabad Rebbe brings it in the Tanya as a literal example.

Questions abound in this. For one, there is no way to resolve the moon and sun to their sizes using the same scale, volume, radius etc. Nor can we resolve that the sun is the largest and Mercury is the smallest, by volume, radius, apparent magnitude, actual magnitude etc. We know the exact distance to the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as we could not have gotten spacecraft there successfully without that knowledge. We realize that gravity, rather than galgalim drive the planets. We do not understand how the inanimate rocks and gases of space nor the imaginary galgalim can be intelligent.

The short answers:
1) Chabad has explained that the geocentric universe is not a problem given the theory of relativity of motion. Hence, we cannot resolve whether the sun orbits the earth or vise versa.

Fair enough. But that only applies to a two body system. Given the Rambam's model, Venus and Mercury must always be closer to earth than the sun, since he holds that the galgalim never cross. But, in the heliocentric model, it must happen frequently that these two bodies are on the far side of the sun. Remember, we have landed a probe on Venus; we know where it is. We know without doubt that it does indeed go behind the sun. (I hope we don't get an argument on that.)

2) Chabad has explained that we do not know to what the 187 factor of the size of the sun refers. There may be a layer of the sun that fits this measurement.

Fair enough. Ignorance is rarely acceptable as proof, but, remarkably, Ptolemy has the same measurement, presumably for the entire sun. There is no measurement for which the sun is 187 times the size of earth and that for the same measurement, the moon is 1/40th. One would think that the 187 factor was relevant to something obvious and observable. That is all that they had.

3) To the above, they answer that Ptolemy copied the work of the Bnei Yisachar, the Jewish sages who were experts on astronomy.

Really??? Then why does the Rambam reference the "Greek Sages" in this section of Mishna Torah? And if it was secret, as the Rambam implies, how did Ptolemy get it but the Rambam did not. Also, in Pesachim 94b, why do the Jewish sages have ideas that are markedly different than the Ptolemaic model? And let's not lose sight of the fact that Ptolemy was WRONG!!!

4) Some of the facts can be resolved with known phenomena. For instance, gravity may be the same as galgalim.

Perhaps, but I cannot glue a head, ears and trunk together and create a living elephant. The view as a whole is completely inconsistent with reality. It is completely consistent with the science of the Rambam's time.

I could certainly go on and on, but I will not torment you, friend. The answer is clear and obvious. The only conclusion is that the Rambam did not get this from a little bird at Mt. Sinai, as he said himself. To this, they will offer that the Chabad Rebbe knew as I do that the physical facts and the Rambam's own statements were problematic, but he insisted on this stance anyway, due to the fact that it is stated as halacha, which must be true. Assuming that the source is the Chabad Rebbe - I'll take them at their word - I'd have to put the question to him. Though he has been dead for over 10 years, some Chabad Chasidim claim that they can still communicate with him and he with them. So now we even have a test for this notion as well.

(Note: I have left out references for brevity and the fact that they chop up the point to the casual reader. The astronomy facts, however, are not controversial and are well known, as are the Rambam's statements.)

Rambam's Science

From the beginning, the Rambam revolutionized Torah, by analyzing it using the scientific yardsticks available at the time. He states in unambiguous terms in "Guide to the Perplexed that these facts that he brings are NOT based on traditional Jewish texts, but on scientific observations of his time. Avraham ben HaRambam restates this in similar unabiguous terms in his work. I have not made citations since they are well known and obvious. Among these facts brought in Mishna Torah are that the Ptolemaic system of Astronomy, immobile Earth at the center, Sun, moon, planets and stars orbiting it, is essentially the correct theory, that lice, worms and certain other creatures are spontaneously generated from rot, garbage or mud, a problematic view of female anatomy and others prominent in his day.

So far, there is no question on the Rambam. He was simply quoting facts as they knew them. However, certain Torah scholars have proposed that since this book is "halacha", and since halacha is eternal and true, that we can conclude that these facts were also intended to be given the weight of halacha truth.

How are we to continue a system of law, based on eyewitnesses and presumption of honesty, if we are told that in all matters we cannot even trust our observations. How are we supposed to sustain halachic assumptions based on cause and effect, when we essentially deny cause and effect. (Note that some modern types even openly endorse this divorce of cause and effect scientifically using scanty quantum mechanics knowledge, loosely based on Heisenberg and teh Copenhagen interpretation.) We will discuss these subjects individually of course, but overall, I will simply begin by offering that a real world philosophy based on such notions is at least bizarre. We will also be discussing the efficacy of magic, superstition, its place in Judaism and its modern forms, such as alternative medicine, psychics and Eastern philosophies.