Thoughts on Judaism

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

DaatEmet's Zoo

DaatEmet has written a pamphlet and an essay on animals in Chazal and halacha. Not to steal the thunder of R. Slifkin, I will just say the few words that allow the explorer to get a summary of the issues. They definitely amount to a punt for the home team, but it is important to understand why that is. This case is good to illustrate how the kiruv should field a question of this type.

The pamphlet addresses the hare, hyrax and camel. The Torah says that kosher animals have two indicators, split hooves and chewing the cud. Rashi and other Rishonim make clear that "maaleh gairah" means to bring the food back up (ma'alah) through the neck (garon). However, the camel is a classic ruminant. The hare and hyrax do not ruminate in this manner. The apologist is left with four possible answers, none of them very satisfying.

1) The Hirsch answer: Shafan and arnevet are unknown animals that do ruminate.
2) Their mouth and nose movements appear to the lay observer like rumination.
3) The hare and hyrax do indeed process and reprocess food in a manner similar in digestion to rumination, though it is not regurgitation and cud chewing.
4) They do indeed ruminate, though we have not witnessed the matter.

Answer 1 is a punt, plain and simple. There is no basis to say this other than to dodge the contradiction. These words are used throughout Tanach and Talmud and no one questions what they are in any place except this one. Nor does Hirsch try to equate the words with any known or theoretical animal. DE has a field day with this one.

Answer 2 is more in line with what we have seen in arguing on DE before. The layman must make the determination, and it is the layman, rather than the scientist who might mistake the masticulation for rumination. This is weaker in this case, because the gemorra states, as Aish Hatorah unfortunately trumpeted in kiruv pamphlets galore, that these 4, the hare, hyrax, pig, and camel are the only four in the world with one kosher indicator but not both. Obviously, there are many animals, like kangaroos, for instance, which appear to ruminate, but do not. South American camel relatives actually do some form of rumination, but are not listed, nor would the LAYMAN refer to them as camels. This leads into what DE says in the essay, that Chazal did not have any special knowledge of animals, certainly not animals that were not discovered in their times. I would contend that when they say that these are "all the animals in the world", they are only referring to discovered animals. Obviously, they can make no conclusion about undiscovered animals. DE brings the words, "was Moshe a bowman or hunter, that he should know?" as proof that he meant all animals that would ever be discovered. However, these words emphasize the opposite. He only meant those animals that would have BEEN KNOWN by a bowman or hunter, not those that would have required prophecy. Anyway, the Torah is satisfied by this answer, but not the common interpretation of the gemorra. In fact, animals that a bowman or hunter would have known in the Middle East, rodents, appear to ruminate.

Answer 3 trivializes the matter. In the Gutnik Chumash, the editor notes that hares eat soft pellets that pass through their digestive system and come out the rectum. These are separate entities from fecal material, but technically, they are digested and redigested so the process is similar to rumination. This "cacotrophy" is unique to rabbits and hares. Similarly, the hyrax has a stomach extension that is peculiar within its kind. It could be seen as redigesting. This is sort of the opposite approach to answer two. Here we broaden the definition of maaleh gairah, so that ONLY a SCIENTIST can distinguish the indicator. IMO, this makes the indicator useless. It also trivializes the indicator. Once I broaden maaleh gairah, why am I including cacotrophy and double maw, and not including animals who eat from amongst their feces, like rats and horses. Not only that, if pigs have a split hoof, but do not chew cud, but they do eat from amongst feces, and if I extend maaleh gairah to redigestion, then why aren't pigs kosher? There is no reason why redigestion of one type should be included, but not another type. Thus, it is the same sophistry as answer 1. It answers this question, but one would not have derived the answer as a distinction without the question. Which ever animal I want to include, I just find a uniqueness about their digestion and call it maaleh gairah. It also requires the fundamentalist to go against the consensus of Rishonim in redefining maaleh gairah. All of them say that rumination means bringing it back up, as Rashi in parshas Shmini.

Answer 4 is the typical fundamentalist, Gossean burp. It gets a little support in this case, because a 1975 study claimed to confirm that hyraxes do indeed chew their cud for very short periods during a 24 hour period. The study claimed to witness the cud chewing, though I have not seen any peer review. This is still weak on grounds that it is not much of an indicator if only one study under 24 hour surveillance could show evidence, so how could the average observer ever see it. It does not help our friend, the hare, either. However, since someone says that hyraxes chew their cud, who is to say that hares do not. Maybe they do, and more studies will show that they do at some time. If the Torah says that they do, then we just don't understand how they do, but they do. Uhhhh .... OK.

R. Slifkin has already written extensively on the evidence in The Camel, The Hare and the Hyrax, so I hope this summary is helpful, but it is rehashing. So, DE has a strong point on this one. However, kiruvistim should not be hiding on these points. One, they should admit that the Chazal knew nothing of animals to which they had not been exposed and drop all proofs of Torah min HaShamayim from the 4 animals and animal based prophecies as proof. Two, they should declare that, while we do not understand how this matter correlates with Torah, we must continue to ask the question. Ultimately, with some data that does not exist today, we may obtain an answer that does indeed correlate clearly, without stretching or forcing, but we do not yet have that answer. Nor should there be a time limit, since scientific discovery is not limited by time. (This is a bit answer 4-ish, but that is OK as long as you acknowledge the weakness of it, that it has not been shown, and that any answer is speculative.) Three, they should acknowledge that such questions broaden the base of Torah learning and interest, and that only by encouraging the question to be asked, will it ever be answered. Four, they should state they they are not afraid of questions that they cannot currently answer, because they are confident that an answer will one day present itself. In short, they should acknowledge that it is a good question, and like all good questions, it is good that we have Jews knowledgeable enough to help us extend our study of Torah.

I have not used a lot of links in this, but the matters discussed are pretty open to google search.

Monday, January 30, 2006

My karma killed your dogma

We will pick up with the DaatEmet presently, but I wanted to pause to say a word about dogma. I have rarely found a less attractive trait among the thinkers of the world than dogmatic zeal. Dogma chews up the intellect and defecates it indiscriminately about the psyche. Dogma comes in all breeds, but it inevitably turns into pit bull. What is it?

Looking in the only definitive resource, the Rebel's Dictionary, dogma is the fervent drive to declare my values infallible and impose them upon you. With dogma, the vice of closedmindedness becomes the virtues of fervor and resolve. The virtue of self-examination becomes the vice of equivocation. The virtue of humility becomes the vice of liberality. The virtue of independent thought becomes the vice of rebelling. The virtue of diversity becomes the vice of diversity. And, most importantly, the virtue of reconsidering and changing a bad direction becomes the vice of heresy. Dogma is standing water that stagnates by its very nature and grows mildew on anything that comes near, causing the most beautiful cloth to smell repelant. It is a spiritual supernova, spewing forth loudly and brightly, followed inevitably by a spiritual black hole, falling in on itself and dying under its own weight for eternity.

It is the sign of the ketana emana (ye of little faith). The drive to make sure that others do not disagree with his beliefs, that they understand that they are not allowed to disagree, that it is a grave sin to disagree, that it is HERESY, is firmly rooted in personal insecurity with one's own belief system. He assures that he will not have to face tough questions, that he will not have to do the hard work of self examination, that he will not have to punt on any important question, but that he can firmly march forward with full faith that he and his are right, beyond common sense, beyond the casual sweeping aside of personal judgement, and beyond any need to wonder.

Curiosity may kill the cat, but the greater fear is that it will kill the dogma. Good riddance.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Daat Emet - PI

The value of PI, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, has been determined to millions of decimal places and growing. Just plug it into the formula and determine the next place. There is no observation. It is all mathematical.

The ancients saw PI as 3. Even by Ptolemaic times, it was known to be approximately 1/7 more. Even more precisely, a circle is the superset of all points equidistant from a given point, called the center. Any observer with a stick and piece of string can see that Pi is a bit more than 3. However, the mishna in Eruvin 13b states that we can assume that it is 3. The Rambam says that it is imprecise and approximate. DaatEmet characterizes this as a "trick", bringing the gemorra and a famous pasuk. His essay is here. The argument centers on the Yam HaMutzak, the Gemorra's Pircha, and the Tosfos.

As you can read yourself, the essay asserts that the measurement of the circular molten sea was exact, and that the Tosfos relates it to the case of the round scrolls fitting in the ark, and asks on why the Gemorra uses 3 when the mathematicians are more precise. And according to Tosfos, it is a good question. However, for our purposes, it is fairly weak, given one obvious fact. The entire concept of PI only applies to perfect geometric circles. A rough circle like the Yam Hamutzak might have had a precisely 3 to one ratio. Certainly the scrolls in the ark are not perfect circles since they are flexible.

Going back to the principle that the halacha must be discernable, not to the engineering professional, but to the common person who is erecting an Eruv, it makes no sense to require him to make 3 1/7x measurements. How do you do that with no tools or particular skills assumed? Answer: round it off to something easy, that is within the parameter, like 3 to 1. For rough circles, it is close enough.

Conveniently, DE leaves out the next part of the mishna, that all circular things in halacha are considered squares for the purpose of measurement. If an Eruv is round, we square it off and one may carry in the corners of the square, even though this adds area to the Eruv. In hilchos Shabbas 12:17-18, the Rambam explains that a person may carry 4 amos. This would form a perfect geometric circle by definition. However, he is patur within the diagonal of a square of 4 amos, which 4 times the square root of 2. So the area of a circle is never an issue as one can use an approximation and still be within the schar hapinot.

The issue would arise l'kulah (like the succah case that he brings) e.g. when one needs a 4 x 4 amos square and has a circumference to measure. Halachically, if the circumference were 12 amos, the bayis, succah or whatever would be 4 x 4, but in reality, it would be a little less. The truth is though, this is also approximate by nature. Eruvin are not perfect circles, nor are ceiling beams and the halacha gives us a reasonable way to approximate. Since the method is halachic assumption, we can presume that the halacha accomplishes what it wishes to accomplish. IOW, we are not required to fulfill the halachic measurement precisely, but to be under the reasonable, halachically accepted presumption that we did so. Many, many places in halacha presuppose that we do not have the means to be exact and allow us, require us to estimate.

So, Tosfos aside, the Gemorra pircha "still we must subtract" is a moot point with regard to exact measurement. So again, the fundamentalists are confounded, but halacha is not particularly in question here.

Note: DE's point about Kav and Kavah is well taken. How do we know how to apply the gematrias to make this work. To find some particular combination that gives us an answer that we like is no big trick. How do we know to divide them? How do we know to add three? And if the purpose was to show us the exact value of Pi, instead of an approximation, why wasn't it even closer?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Daat Emet - Niddah

Originally, I had wanted to do a full examination of the DaatEmet pamphlets and essays. DaatEmet is a former yeshiva talmid in Israel, who publishes his questions and runs an organization that helps charedim leave the charedi world. From his writing and goals, he seems to be a "weak atheist" type, who rejects Judasim as internally inconsistent. Implications have been made that the site is connected with hate organizations, and I have no doubt that antisemites use some of this type of information to nefarious ends, but I do not really have indication of the truth or falsity of any of this.

However, our esteemed orthoskeptic sites have tackled many of these issues. So, I will take some select essays to examine and make a brief explanation of a few of the issues. The first is his essay on Chazal and the laws of niddah. His essay is here.

His main charges are that Chazal did not understand the structure of the female anatomy and paskened based on complete falsity. However, on careful examination, with an understanding of how this matter was understood by the sages, we will see what we would expect to see, that the Chazal were not infallible in their knowledge of anatomy nor their acceptance of common superstition, but that the basic pesak, the mesora is not materially affected.

His scientific examination is factual. Menstrual blood is not different from any other blood, though it was commonly believed to be an evil omen in ancient times, and it was commonly believed to be materially different than regular blood. The Ramban in Acharei mos 19:18 is one that I have mentioned before in this blog. The Ramban does seem to have been receptive to certain superstitions, among them that a woman who is bleeding can kill with her stare and can see the blood spots in a mirror. As I mentioned, this was more likely related to the poor quality of mirrors at that time than to any apparition. He also brings down the Chasam Sofer, who states outright that there are parts of the niddah description that to not mesh with the reality, especially according to Rashi and Tosfos. However, a look at the Rambam should show us where the real problems are.

The Mishna states that "The chachamim created an analogy", comparing the female lower abdominal anatomy to a three tiered building. Here is the text and below is a fair translation from Rambam halacha Issurei Biya 5:3-4:

3 The chachamim created an analogy regarding a woman: The womb, where the child is born, is called the "source", and the place where the blood of regular and irregular menstruation exits is called the "room", because it is inside. And the neck of the womb (Rebel notes: the cervix), which is the place which is constricted at its head (Rebel notes: the mucus plug) at the time of pregnancy so that the fetus will not descend and it opens wide at the time of birth, is called the "hallway" because it is an entry way to the womb. At the time of full insertion, the "limb" enters the "hallway" but does not reach its head inside, but is short by inches.
4 And above the room and the hallway, between the room and the hallway, is the place of the two "testicles" of the woman, and the paths in them prepare her seed. This place is called the "attic". And there is a semblance of a hole open from the attic to the roof of the hallway, and this is called the "holding pen". And the limb enters beyond the holding pen at the time of full insertion

At this point, the Rambam explains that blood from the "room" causes impurity. Blood from the attic doesn't cause impurity, and blood from the "hallway", if it is beyond the holding pen, causes impurity, since it is assumed to be from the womb, and if it is in front of the holding pen, it is a safek or doubt whether it came from the room or the attic. The DaatEmet wonders at this, and says that it does not fit with reality.

However, it does for the most part with an obvious observation. The Rambam describes the "head of the hallway" and the "roof of the hallway". What is the difference between the two, as the head must also be the roof. However, visualize the woman laying on her back, and we have a direct correlation of all the elements. The womb is still correctly placed. The hallway is the vaginal cavity. The head of the hallway is the outside of the cervix. The "testicles of the woman" are the ovaries. The "paths" are the Fallopian tubes, albeit incorrectly described as being in the ovaries. (The ancients probably visualized the process of female seed emission as blood being emitted at orgasm, just as the male process works with sperm, only inside.) The attic is the bladder, albeit incorrectly described as containing the ovaries. (Given the actual proximity, the unskilled viewer might think that the ovaries were inside the bladder.) The "holding pen" is the urethra. Thus, blood emanating from the reproductive system causes
impurity, while blood from the urinary system does not.

There are other descriptions in the Gemora which I will mention briefly. There are said to be "teeth" near the cervix. I think this refers to roof of the vaginal cavity, which might be described as teeth. The Rambam, in his explanation of the mishnah, has the Fallopian tubes connecting at the cervix, whereas they actually connect at the top of the womb.

DE also brings other points of contention showing that the Chazal thought some common misconceptions of their day, that menstrual blood turns to breast milk, that the fetus dwells in different places, and the Rishonim as well, had some common superstitions and misconceptions about menstruation.

In the end, however, the Rambam in halacha is essentially correct, and his imprecise knowledge of the anatomy does not really affect the halacha. DE tries to build this into a case where the psak has nothing at all to do with the reality, but we see that essentially, we can say that blood that is related to the reproductive system is impure, and blood related to the unrinary system is not. Doubt goes to the stricter side, since the matter is from the Torah.

DE adds that menstrual blood is not materially different than the blood of wound and should not be impure. IMO, this is unfounded. In halacha, we make reasonable assumptions all the time. If we can reasonably assume that the woman had some externally caused wound, we can differentiate between that and the menstrual type bleeding. Again, halacha is described so that a layman observer can make a determination, not so that a scientist is required to describe what is really going on. Fundamentalists will still have trouble with DE on this, but halacha does not. If you disagree, please comment and state why. If there are points in the essay that I have not covered or have covered insufficiently, also please comment.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Just Plain Weird

BTA has just asked a question about the ikkarim. Are they too hard to believe? My response to him is that they seem pretty straight forward except for 12 and 13, Moshiach and Techiya. These seem to be ones that, if you were not indoctrinated, they never would have occurred to you. Whereas, by navua, for instance, if it is not true, then why begin with it. If it is the source of the things we believe, then naturally it is an ikar, and without it, you are not practicing Judaism or even part of Judaism. IOW, once it disappears, there is no more semblance of Judaism. In comparison, 12 and 13 seem "extra", that if they were discarded, it would have little effect on day to day Judaism. Nonetheless, the Rambam considered tthese beliefs central.

In the course of discussing the Chartumei Mitzrayim, the discussion wended around to magic, the Rambam's pronouncement that there is no magic (AZ 11:15) the Rambam's general view on kishuf (the deed rather than the accomplishment is the issur), and whether there really is or was magic and magicians. One of the esteemed Talmidei Chachamim (not sarcastic, a true TC and gentleman) asserted the Golem of Prague as proof that magic (holy and nonholy) was real. Another asserted that nonJewish history affirms this. Thank G-d there was whiskey on the table.

So, BTA, are the ikarim too hard to believe? Who are you talking to?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Whose Teva?

In the time of Techiyas HaMaisim, all of the tzadikim will return to the world. Question is whose world will they return to? For instance, the Rambam writes 2 perakim in MT, hilchos Dayos on good health practices, which are different than those written in the Talmud. Many of these health practices and facts are different than what we find today. The obvious answer is that nature has changed, nishtaneh hateva. These matters are halacha, so that good health is an obligation, not just avoiding illness. One could argue that cures are not relevant after Techiyas Hamaisim, but optimal health would still be.

The question is, when Talmudic Rabbis return, will they return to current nature or to nature as it was in their times? Will they require different halachas? Based on what? And if we change the halacha based on their nature, why is it anathema that we change halacha based on our changed nature? Why is that a nonfrum concept?

And while we are at it, will the planets continue to go around the sun or will they revert to nature at the time of the Rambam and go around the Earth, well roughly anyway? Or will nature revert to the Talmudic time and have the sun go through the rakia, eliminating all time zones and unifying the calculation of the entry and exit of Shabas for the entire world?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ariel Sharon

A heartfelt wish that the Jewish hero, Ariel Sharon, should have a refuah shlaima. His brash courage as a war hero led Israel through its toughest times and forced the Arab world to think peace, when decades of poor leadership had led them to be intransigent. Ariel Sharon will always be the man who advocated peace through strength, and I, for one, thank him for the courage that took him across the Suez, stood firm against Arafat, and yet was willing to deal with any Arab leadership that might bring their people to a modern place.

Sadly, he may be remembered for the ill advised but inevitable Gaza evacuation. When he took office, Israel was experiencing bomb attacks almost daily. He sent troops 100 yards into Arab Gaza to the condemnation of almost every government. Through his initiatives, the army uprooted much of the terrorist weed in the West Bank, and won the respect of a US administration. Rather than calls to abandon and deal, the US responded that "Israel has the right to defend itself". Believe it or not, this is the first time that this was ever heard from a US administration, even in response to the most blatant aggression. His rash, blunt, arrogant pure sabraness won him many enemies and admirers.

And yes, the Jblog prophets are rearing up their foolish heads to tell us why this has befallen Sharon. But let's just put them aside for long enough to thank Ariel ben Vera, and pray that Hashem give him peace and comfort. Read a book about the war in 1973, and remind yourself what he meant to the Jewish people in their hour of need.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Daat Emet

Because there is a link in my blogroll to Daat Emet, I have been getting anonymous comments that are part of a coordinated effort to attack Daat Emet or at least reduce its publicity. On this blog, it is listed under SKEPTICS and is uniquely designated ANTI-FRUM. Like many antifrum skeptics, the site examines many of the same subjects that we examine in Jblogs, and he comes to conclusions that overreach and pontificate. On the other hand, he brings sources, quotes relevant Talmud, rishonim and acharonim, and states his premises and conclusions, according to his understanding. In the process he brings a relevant point of view to the table, one that would certainly be influential to someone seeking get a comprehensive look at a particular difficult issue in these areas, if that person were already disposed to be skeptical. I had also intended to do some examination of his conclusions and write my responses, which I felt were valid and which were overreached. His essays are usually long and involved. Perhaps the time has come.

Nonetheless, the link remains relevant to the discussion and remains here as it should. Probably, those who have a simplistic view of the world (Linked there=bad, not linked=good) will not be satisfied with this, and they will somehow lump me in with the "bad guys" somewhere, if that has not already happened. Sadly, they only feed the fire that is consuming the frum world from the bottom (its children) up. Nowadays, we do far more service to discuss, argue and even concede that we do not know some things, than in trying to silence the opposition. You heard it here first.