Thoughts on Judaism

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Mysticism or Science

Generally, we see two sources of knowledge in Judaism, tradition (mesora, kabala), and science (mada, observation).

The Ramban, in his pirush on the Torah proposes some very interesting truths. Where the Torah discusses magic, superstition and the various forms of fortunetelling, the Ramban concludes that fortunetelling is not to'aiva (abomination) like other magic because it is natural to want to know what the future holds. It is just that we are told to listen only to our prophets. He then gives an endorsement of Arab fortunetellers, called tiarin, and concludes that we cannot deny what our eyes see. Obviously, he had seen a very impressive demonstration from such performers. Though, modern magicians can obviously emulate the demonstrations that the Ramban likely saw, it was probably impressive in a prescientific world. The Ramban holds at the beginning of parshas Tazria that reproductive female seed is coagulated blood in the womb which becomes the red or dark parts of the body (including the pupil of the eye), while the male seed contributes the white parts (mirroring the Mishna). According to some, the male seed contributes only the potential of formation, which the Greeks called hyuli. In Parshas Acharei Mos, he proposes that a menstruating woman has powers like a snake to kill with her stare, to see apparitions of blood in a mirror and other common superstitions of the day.

Obviously, these things have since been shown to be false, and there can be little debate about that. So, in the misty eyed world of mystical approach, these Rambans are designated some deep mystical mysterious meaning. In other words, the mysticals designate these sayings as part of mesora. However, nothing can be more obvious than the Ramban spoke these things from "science." Words like "we cannot deny what we see with eyes" indicate two things. One, the Ramban learned truths and ascribed reality to what he saw with his eyes, even if it challenged common interpretations of Torah. Two, these sayings are not from kabala or any secret Jewish wisdom, but are mere observations, albeit likely, leading to mistaken conclusions. In the case of Acharei Mos (19:18 for those following at home), the Ramban even suggests that we test the precept by having a menstruating woman stare into a mirror to see the apparition, in other words, observation to establish truth. (Remember, their mirrors were very poor quality, and this was likely the source of the apparition, if they did indeed see it.)

Rather than admit that the Ramban was wrong on science and builing a rationale based on continued discovery, the "mystical approach" weaves some deep, unsourced, unknown interpretation into his words, making a proven falsity into an eternal part of Torah MiSinai, and the principle of infallibility has played falsely with our Ikarim. The "mystical approach" would have us denounce our own observations as inferior to those of the saintly sage, and we would then be required to declare that the Ramban is right on some spiritual level, but that we are just too limited to understand.

However, I think the Ramban, given the information that we have, would say that he was impressed by fakers and contemporary science but that he understands now that his observations were mistaken. Why do I think so? Because the Rambam and his son, R. Avraham said just that about their own work. The Rambam warns in Moreh that the astronomy that he discusses is not traditional, but only the science of the times. R. Avraham reiterates this in his own book at a more general level. So in their hashkafa, there were two sources of knowledge. There was science, a changing body of observations that bolstered their understanding of tradition, and the tradition itself, which was handed down from Mt. Sinai, halacha and kabala, which was eternal

Thus, the current popular stream has taken medieval science, that has since been shown false in many respects by direct observation, and has made it the 14th Ikar. Since we have made science into Torah, we must now generate the lopsided apologetics to defend the beast that we have created.

What would happen if someone proposed this in "frum" circles? Most probably, he would be called heretic, he would be demonized, any books he had written would be burned, and he would be suspected, at first opportunity, of having jumped ship to a different religion. Of course, I do not know if this would happen today. Perhaps we have learned since the Rambam was so treated. Perhaps not.

PS Rabbi Slifkin, has anyone accused you of converting away from Judaism yet?


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