Factchecking the Slifkin-Bleich Debate

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The debate over contradictions, real or apparent, between Torah and science has been ongoing for centuries. The feud encompasses not only whether the two can be reconciled but how to do so. The conversation continues with a recent dispute between R. Natan Slifkin and R. J. David Bleich in the pages of Tradition and beyond. The latest round began with an article by R. Bleich, part of his regular column in the journal, on the subject of Anisakis parasites in fish (link, republished in Contemporary Halakhic Problems vol. VI). R. Slifkin wrote a strongly worded letter to the editor about the article (link), to which R. Bleich responded with a highly critical, full-length article (link), to which R. Slifkin further responded in a highly critical manner on his blog (combined in this file: link – PDF).

I wish to address here only a limited aspect of the exchange — the facts. It seems to me that there is a good deal of misunderstanding in the discussion. I will list, in note format which assumes you have read the material, what I believe are the key criticisms and evaluate their accuracy. I will ignore the literary aspects, including tone, style and structure, even though they are important and deserve attention. And while I acknowledge that R. Bleich is a much more credentialed, experienced and frankly impressive scholar, I will set that aside and deal here only with the arguments on their own merits, treating both individuals with equal respect. The term “factchecking” is probably a sensationalist overstatement of this post. The decisions required here are sometimes less than clear cut, for which I will use my judgment.

Some technical notes: I will refer to R. Bleich’s original article as B1, his second article as B2, R. Slifkin’s letter as S1 and his collected blog responses as S2. In parentheses, I will note the page numbers as printed on the page bottom of each file. My comments are enclosed in brackets. In expressing the authors’ points, I will sometimes adapt their own language and other times use my own words.

And now to the issues:

  1. S1(80). In his original article, R. Bleich fails to mention the approach that Sages were wrong on science.

    B2(57). Mentioning that approach is unnecessary. None of R. Bleich’s solutions involve a claim of the Sages’ scientific inerrancy.

    [R. Slifkin is correct that R. Bleich omitted the view that the Sages were wrong on science in the case of parasites in fish (more on this below). However, once omitting that approach, R. Bleich had no need to discuss the general subject of whether the Sages’ science was correct because the approaches he cites entirely avoid the issue.]
  2. S1(80-81). What does the Gemara permit?

    B2(56). The key question is what the Gemara forbade: parasites swallowed by a fish, which are not products of spontaneous generation.
    B2(74). Repeats four suggestions from original article of what the Sages permitted.

    S2(9). Absent viable alternative, the Sages were referring to Anisakis and similar parasites.

    [Both are correct. Clearly, R. Bleich believes he has presented at least one viable alternative. However, according to R. Slifkin’s approach, the key question is what the Gemara permitted. According to R. Bleich’s four approaches, that question is irrelevant.]
  3. S1(79). Resolution of whether Gemara bases decision on spontaneous generation is important.

    B2(56). Anisakis issue is orthogonal to that of spontaneous generation.

    [Again, both are correct. According to the four approaches R. Bleich presents, spontaneous generation is indeed irrelevant to the Anisakis issue. According to R. Slifkin’s approach, it is key.]
  4. S1(79-80). R. Bleich argued based on an appeal to consequences.

    [R. Slifkin is incorrect. R. Bleich only stated – B1(89) – that that no posek has advocated such an approach in regard to parasites in fish.]
  5. B2(79-80). Halakhic decision-making does not involve selecting rejected, idiosyncratic views.

    S2(8). R. Slifkin isn’t making halakhic decisions.

    [R. Slifkin is correct. While this is a halakhic matter, R. Bleich writes a survey column in which he regularly catalogs minority views.]
  6. S1(80). R. Bleich contrives within the Gemara a case in which worms in fish are generally not permitted.
    S1(81). Microscopic approach is anachronistic and apologetic.

    B2(60). There is nothing contrived or anachronistic about the case/approach.

    S2(3). The overwhelming evidence is against the microscopic approach.

    [R. Bleich is correct. While I’m convinced that R. Slifkin’s approach is the most plausible, I don’t see overwhelming evidence and the determination of what is contrived and anachronistic is highly subjective.]
  7. S1(79). An honest reading shows that the Gemara’s ruling is based on spontaneous generation.

    B2(57-62). R. Bleich presents four other readings and shows that they are honest.

    S2(1-5). All other readings are scientifically indefensible.

    [R. Bleich is correct. He is only trying to show that the four approaches maintain internal coherence, i.e. honesty, which is the issue R. Slifkin raised in his letter. R. Bleich is not arguing their plausibility and even explicitly questions the plausibility of some. I believe the microscopic approach is scientifically defensible.]
  8. S2(3). The microscopic approach contradicts the commentaries of the Rishonim.

    [R. Slifkin is incorrect. The microscopic approach explains, rather than contradicts, the terminology of the Talmud and Rishonim. R. Slifkin finds that explanation unconvincing (as do I).]
  9. S1(79). R. Bleich omits the approaches of R. Glasner and R. Herzog.
    S1(80). R. Lampronti and R. Kafach adopted a similar approach regarding lice on Shabbos.

    B2(58). But they did not say so regarding parasites in fish and that is all R. Bleich originally claimed – B1(89). Additionally, R. Lampronti only relied on this approach to lice le-chumra.
    B2(63). The sources R. Slifkin quotes from R. Kafach and R. Herzog do not assert that the Sages relied on incorrect science but can be read to mean nishtaneh ha-teva.

    S2(6). Elsewhere R. Kafach states that the Sages based halakhah on incorrect science and elsewhere R. Herzog says Sages were incorrect on science.

    [R. Bleich is correct that he originally only referred to sources that directly discussed parasites in fish and made no claims beyond it. He even quoted R. Lampronti in footnote 69 to his original article. In his second article, he explicitly addressed only the sources R. Slifkin quoted in his letter. “Elsewhere” is relevant for the topic but not a valid criticism of R. Bleich.

    In my opinion, the other citation from R. Kafach is convincing but the citations from R. Herzog are not self-evidently examples of the Sages basing halakhah on incorrect science.

    R. Slifkin is correct that R. Bleich continues to omit R. Glasner’s view of the Sages’ scientific errancy.]

  10. S1(80). R. Glasner and R. Herzog say that we follow the Gemara’s rulings even when they are based on wrong science, similar to R. Fisher’s approach.

    B2(69). R. Fisher’s approach does not apply to rulings based on empirical error. R. Glasner would follow empirically incorrect Talmudic rulings but not for the reason R. Slifkin asserts.

    [R. Slifkin is correct about R. Glasner and R. Bleich concedes that point.

    R. Bleich appears correct about R. Fisher but I have to reserve judgment until re-reading R. Fisher’s essay more carefully.]

  11. B2(63). Those Rishonim and Acharonim who said that the Sages utilized incorrect science only said so outside the context of halakhah.

    S2(5). There is no reason to distinguish between halakhah and other areas.

    [A case for distinction can be easily made.]

    S2(5). The Sages demonstrably relied on gentile scientists for halakhah.

    [Perhaps only when the scientists of that time were correct.]

    S2(5). R. Eliezer of Metz says halakhah was based on theory sun travels under the earth at night.

    [Refutation requires finding a Rishon or Acharon who explicitly says the Sages based a halakhah on science that the Rishon or Acharon deems incorrect. I believe examples can be found but I haven’t done the homework and careful re-reading required.] [It is not clear to me whether R. Bleich or R. Slifkin is correct about this. I suspect R. Slifkin is correct but he failed to prove it.]
  12. S2(11-Appendix I). R. Bleich’s ruling on brain death stems from his “non-rationalist” approach to the Sages and science.

    [R. Slifkin is incorrect in calling R. Bleich’s approach “non-rationalist” unless he uses this term idiosyncratically. Additionally, this charge is true of nearly every halakhic ruling on brain death, including those of R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Moshe Tendler and Dr. Avraham Steinberg (although not that of R. Nachum Rabinovich).]
  13. S2(12-Appendix II). R. Slifkin quotes a reader who asked R. Hershel Schachter about this issue and R. Schachter explicitly adopt R. Glasner’s approach, that the Sages were mistaken but we must nevertheless follow the Talmudic ruling.

    [This is incorrect. There must have been a miscommunication because R. Schachter recently published an article on the Anisakis issue in the OU journal Mesorah (no. 25). On page 74, R. Schachter quotes R. Glasner and rejects his approach, or at least terms it “difficult to accept,” and then suggests two other approaches. I obtained permission from the OU to post R. Schachter’s article here: link.]

Harsh words often confuse issues and the current debate offers such an example. I attempted here to avoid the sharpness and focus solely on issues. The discussion is certainly not over but can only move forward productively if we continue to speak politely, clearly and on topic.

Please note that comments on literary issues — tone, style and structure — will be deleted due to my desire to avoid discussing those issues here.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

101 comments

  1. You said:

    S2(5). The Sages demonstrably relied on gentile scientists for
    halakhah.
    [Perhaps only when the scientists of that time were correct.]

    How could you possibly know that?

  2. I am very disturbed how much credit Rabbi Slifkin is given The very idea their is a “Bleich – Slifkin ” debate is upsetting. I understand that Rabbi Bleich responded to Rabbi Slifkin so its only fair to describe it that way, but I really don’t understand why he is given so much credit. He is a young scholar who often will make some interesting if not controversial comments. Somehow because of his original ban people respect his opinion as if he was a spokesperson for modern orthodoxy. His views are very often at odds with most leading Rabbi (e.g. time of death) yet people consider them as mainstream opinions.

  3. The microscopic approach explains, rather than contradicts, the terminology of the Talmud and Rishonim. R. Slifkin finds that explanation unconvincing (as do I).]

    Presumably you find it unconvincing because the Rishonim explicitly state that these insects are generated from sweat, dust, etc., rather than saying that their eggs are microscopic. In which case, how is it at all accurate to say that the microscopic approach “explains” their terminology? And since we see other cases of the Talmud and Rishonim accepting spontaneous generation, such as the mud-mouse and fire-salamander, how is it not contrived/ anachronistic to say that here they were referring to microscopic phenomena? Why do you say that this is subjective?

  4. Gil,
    This is an important issue, and you seem to be doing a good job in covering it. but it is a little problematic that you are writing a post assuming that the reader has read the relevant articles, when the bulk of them appeared in Tradition, which is not available to the non-subscriber. I think that it is highly likely that R. Bleich and R. Slifkin might agree to allow their articles to be posted here.

    Ephy,
    This is a littleoff topic, but I cannot let your tematks pass with out comment.
    It is simply false to state that “most leading rabbis” reject brain death. Unless by most you mean more than %50. Slifkins position on this issue, unlike many of his other positions, is not idiosyncratic, but based on a mainstream (if perhaps minority( halakhic opinion

  5. Great post. A couple of observations:

    A) it’s worth noting that a major part of the debate here is “determining the playing field”. R Bleich wants the background assumptions to be those of the Halakhist, who strives for internal coherence and only addresses correspondence to (physical? Empirical? Whatever you want to call it) reality when he/she has to. Rabbi Slifkin, by contrast, is far more interested in whether a positions makes any sense in relation to reality – i.e. correspondence. Thus in a certain sense they’re talking past each other. R Slifkin complains that the approaches mentioned are implausible, Rabbi Bleich insists they are logically consistent, Rabbi Slifkin says they’re still implausible. Gil I have to give you credit for clarifying that aspect of the debate.

    2) on that note I was going to point out that I was surprised at how deferential you wound up being to R Bleich even when you acknowledged that you agree with R Slifkin. And yet 2/3 comments are all appeals to authority (btw I think the second comment up there needs deletion) for Rabbi Bleich! Goes to show how these things work.

    3) in a sense it seems Rabbi Bleich won the battle, but R Slifkin won the war. Rabbi Bleich’s arguments were all to the effect that a lot of positions weren’t *completely* indefensible. So on those narrow terms, he’s correct. But I think any reasonable person cares a lot more about the plausibility of an approach than whether or not someone could maintain it in principle if their life depended on it or something. I. e. people want to know whether an approach correlates with the truth, not with internal coherence. Your thoughts on this last point would be appreciated.

  6. I wasn’t able to access R’ Bleich’s article.

    I think that R Schachter’s use of the Pri Megadim’s (who lived before Pasteur) statement (about the intestinal worms being only assur from safek) as a support for a non-spontaneous generation based explanation for this issur is really interesting.

    Although I guess I am generally more inclined to see these things “holistically,” that definitely made me pause. What are other explanations of the pri megadim/bais yosef approach? Wouldn’t it be possible to say that chazal held that an insect was muttar if it was a. spontaneously generated OR b. grew to a visible size while living in another medium of a specified kind?

    In order to prove that this approach was wrong, you would have to prove that chazal were unaware of the existence of microorganisms. Of course, you couldn’t do that because it is impossible to prove a negative. But you could come close by showing that there is nothing before Van Leeuwenhoek in any Western literature which shows knowledge or suspicion of these microscopic creatures. Is that really the case?

    I guess you could just say that this is the approach of the Pri Migadim (who lived after Van Leeuwenhoek) which he just read into the Bais Yosef…

  7. More on Jon’s point… The unstated point of debate here is whether halakhah is supposed to correspond to the Empirical data. I understand from RYBS’s Lonely Man of Faith why it is natural for a product of contemporary society to take that so for granted that anything else seems contrived. We live in an era of “progress” and at the center of that is Adam I’s success in explaining the world scientifically and using that knowledge to “conquer it”, harness it to our ends, technologically.

    But is the role of halakhah to fix abstract data about the world, or the people living in it?

    No matter now much someone knows about centripital force, when they climb into a “Cyclone” or “Tilt-a-Whirl” at the amusement park and the floor falls out, there is a thrill of excitement. Scientific knowledge isn’t what operates at the gut level. And if the Torah’s mission is to make us more refined and more capable of moral choices, it cannot do so by being paired off with something that we embrace “only” intellectually.

    Thus, I think it is actually less contrived to assume that the Torah works with intuitions rather than empirical facts. If we don’t intuit microscopic eggs or larvae, then their existence or non-existence doesn’t change how I relate to the resulting maggot or worm. Notice Chazal don’t actually speak about things existing or not existing. They speak of “metzius” — that which can be found, and “mamashus” — tangibility. It’s all how we directly experience the world, not how we understand it to be. In a healthy human psyche, those microscopic maggot eggs have no mamashus, we don’t feel them. And halakhah based on them would actually have less leverage in changing the practitioner.

    It’s not an issue of internal coherence vs correspondence. Nor one of how contrived of a connection to empirical data the explanation is. Rather, it’s all about Adam I’s need to comprehend and master the world vs the Torah’s aim to help Adam II redeem himself. Is the relevant world the one outside Adam I, or inside Adam II?

  8. From Wikipedia:

    The existence of microorganisms was hypothesized for many centuries before their actual discovery…

    The Roman Marcus Terentius Varro made references to microbes when he warned against locating a homestead in the vicinity of swamps “because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there by cause serious diseases.”[7]

  9. MDH: How could you possibly know that?

    It’s a suggestion which assumes they had unusual insight into the matter. Certainly a debatable claim.

    Ephy: I am very disturbed how much credit Rabbi Slifkin is given

    Duly noted. But here we are just discussing ideas. If R. Slifkin is correct, it doesn’t matter how old or accomplished he is.

    A Jewish Observer: Presumably you find it unconvincing because the Rishonim explicitly state that these insects are generated from sweat, dust, etc., rather than saying that their eggs are microscopic

    Correct, but the interpretation is that they meant that they appear to be generated from sweat etc.

    And since we see other cases of the Talmud and Rishonim accepting spontaneous generation, such as the mud-mouse and fire-salamander, how is it not contrived/ anachronistic to say that here they were referring to microscopic phenomena?

    I’ve asked that question and was told that certainly the Sages believed in spontaneous generation. But they also believed that Jewish law only deals with visible phenomena. Which of the two are the Gemara utilizing here? It’s debatable but they see the latter as more reasonable.

    Jon: Rabbi Bleich’s arguments were all to the effect that a lot of positions weren’t *completely* indefensible. So on those narrow terms, he’s correct. But I think any reasonable person cares a lot more about the plausibility of an approach than whether or not someone could maintain it in principle if their life depended on it or something.

    I’m not sure he lost on that because after he explains them, he explicitly rejects them as implausible. R. Bleich only seems to accept the microscopic approach. But he treated other poskim with enough respect to show that they are logically consistent. I think that within the beis medrash, that kind of respectful explanation without deference will win the day.

  10. Binyomin Eckstein

    I think it worthwhile to point out that R’ Micha’s analysis above clearly very much relates to subsequent discussion on rationalistjudaism.com, regarding harvesting organs from a body that is “pink and warm,” if neurologically dead.

    From the WSJ article:

    Still, you will have more in common biologically with a living person than with a person whose heart has stopped. Your vital organs will function, you’ll maintain your body temperature, and your wounds will continue to heal. You can still get bedsores, have heart attacks and get fever from infections.

    “I like my dead people cold, stiff, gray and not breathing,” says Dr. Michael A. DeVita of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The brain dead are warm, pink and breathing.”

  11. 1) Could you not have gotten permission from the OU to put R. Schachter’s article right-side-up?

    2) Fact checking is an incorrect title for much of what you are doing. Clarifying the points of disagreement with an occasional fact check thrown in would be a more accurate title. For instance in (7) as you point out, the two authors are using different criteria for “honesty” and “plausibility”–there does not seem to be an issue of fact in dispute.

    3)I think R. Micha Berger gets close to the heart of the issue. But at some point, to use his terminology, what is outside Adam I starts to affect what is inside Adam II. At least for me, at some point the approaches that avoid the issue of what understanding of facts underlay Chazal’s ruling, no matter how internally consistent, fail to address the world I am functioning in.

    4) Although not at issue between R. Bleich and R. Slifkin, at some point one has to be able to address the problem of Talmudic medicine and how we distinguish between that and Chazal’s other statements based on biology. Those who wish to endow Chazal’s medical pronouncements with some sort of spiritual meaning can come, as we have once again learned to our sorrow, to shfichut damim.

  12. GS: S2(5). The Sages demonstrably relied on gentile scientists for
    halakhah.
    [Perhaps only when the scientists of that time were correct.]

    MDH: How could you possibly know that?

    GS: It’s a suggestion which assumes they had unusual insight into the matter. Certainly a debatable claim.

    I think that this issue is very important for understand this debate — if you feel comfortable assuming “unusual insight,” then you are far more likely to fall into Slifkin’s “non-rationalist” camp. But I’m not sure how much it’s debatable — it sounds like dogma to me.

    While we’re on the topic, Slifkin’s “non-rationalist” group is facile and ignores any nuance within the world of his opponents. But for those who need a simple hakira to break the world into us/them, I’m not sure of a better term. Not that I like this one at all.

    And to Ephy who asked why Slifkin gets so much attention — you can blame that on his original opponents. If they’d ignored him, his books wouldn’t have made him as well known in the Jewish world.

  13. “I’ve asked that question and was told that certainly the Sages believed in spontaneous generation. But they also believed that Jewish law only deals with visible phenomena. Which of the two are the Gemara utilizing here? It’s debatable but they see the latter as more reasonable.”

    Why is it more reasonable? Once you accept that they believed in spontaneous generation with mice and salamanders, then when they say that lice are ainan parin veravin, and all the Rishonim say that it means that they come from dust or sweat, isn’t it vastly more reasonable to say that they were also talking about that here?

  14. Moshe Shoshan:It is simply false to state that “most leading rabbis” reject brain death.

    This is not the place to get into a converstation about brain death , but I never said that most Rabbis reject Brain Death. Rabbi Slifkin does not just hold brain death is the time of death, but rather we should ignore the Gemara on the topic since it was unaware of the brain housing the intellect. This is at odds with Rabbi Tendler etc (by Rabbi Slifkin’s own admission) who analyze the Gemara. Rabbi Slifkin will quickly reject any Gemara that discusses anything that deals with the body science etc., just as he does in these articles. Look, it was childish of me to claim to know what most rabbis hold, but my experience has been that “the bigger Rabbis” will be very hesitant to just reject a Gemara. And the fact that young scholar with popular books does so does not make it acceptable.(I’m probably just bitter that so many people view Rabbi Slifkin as a “Maan Damar” with the heavyweights and I don’t think he has earned that right, at least yet)

  15. “But he treated other poskim with enough respect to show that they are logically consistent. I think that within the beis medrash, that kind of respectful explanation without deference will win the day.”

    True, and that’s important. But I think R. Slifkin is also correct that R. Bleich’s presentation in this fashion implies the infallibility view, and – even if indirectly – marginalizes the incorrect science view. If there is a value in promoting awareness (respectfully) of the incorrect science view (and I believe that there is), R. Bleich’s presentation is deficient. To the extent that it’s possible for R. Bleich to have adopted similar deference without implying the infallibility view, I think this R. Slifkin’s critique (the facts; we’re not discussing the tone) is at least fair.

  16. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: Excellent post. However, I may be missing something, but I do not believe you mentioned that R. Bleich attempted to show how even nowadays belief in spontaneous generation may be defended. Even granted he personally does not affirm it, I found his defense the most troubling part of his artcle by far, and on that point I thought R. Slifkin’s response was right on the mark.

  17. A Jewish Observer: Once you accept that they believed in spontaneous generation with mice and salamanders, then when they say that lice are ainan parin veravin, and all the Rishonim say that it means that they come from dust or sweat, isn’t it vastly more reasonable to say that they were also talking about that here?

    They say it in the exact reverse. Chazal and Rishonim never care about sub-visual items so why should it matter whether the parasites spontaneously generated or not?

    Ephy: Rabbi Slifkin does not just hold brain death is the time of death, but rather we should ignore the Gemara on the topic since it was unaware of the brain housing the intellect

    As I indicated in this post, R. Nachum Rabinovich (Siach Nachum, no. 79) holds something similar to this — that the time of death is determined by contemporary science and can change over time.

  18. Dr. Kaplan: Thank you. I don’t really have anything susbtantial to say on that specific matter. I think R. Bleich was right to defend that view but should have been less vigorous in his defense. But just writing that makes me feel nitpicky.

  19. But, as R Bleich notes in his response, the eggs are not sub-visual! And yet the Shulchan Aruch and MB still allow killing them.

  20. J: Yes, that is indeed a problem, although it depends on how you define subvisual.

  21. “I think R. Bleich was right to defend that view”

    Why? I’m getting the sense – and I could be wrong – that you have in mind this strict dichotomy between defending/respecting and rejecting/disrespecting.

  22. The words “battle” and “war” have been deployed in the comments. Both battles and wars generally have something material at stake (e.g. land, property or existence). What are the goals of each side in this debate, what does success for each side look like and what specifically is truly material to the future of Halachic Judaism in this debate?

  23. Lawrence Kaplan

    I don’t think it would have been nit-picking at all.

  24. They say it in the exact reverse. Chazal and Rishonim never care about sub-visual items so why should it matter whether the parasites spontaneously generated or not?

    Because, as others have pointed out, they are not in fact subvisual. So Rav Bleich is forced to say that Chazal were talking about a different kind of lice than those we know and which all the Acharonim assumed Chazal were referring to. Which is one more reason why it is more reasonable to say that Chazal were referring to spontaneous generation. I don’t understand why you said that it can be considered more reasonable to say that Chazal were talking about subvisual phenomena being irrelevant.

  25. The broader issue here is that if one believes, as numerous authorities clearly did, that Chazal possessed no special intuition on scientific matters, then it seems logical to presume that many of the halachos they formulated, whilst based on analysis that we are not entitled to challenge, were applied in a manner than reflected the scientific understanding of the time, which we now know to be incorrect.

    Unless one adopts the view that Chazal were scientifically omniscient, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that if one is not to rewrite the vast swathes of halacha that are based on mistaken factual premises, one needs to come up with a viable mechanism for doing so.

    One point that R. Bleich makes well is that it is not clear if one can find any halachic authorities (besides for R. Glasner – and his approach is tied up with some specific assumptions about the nature of Torah Sheba’al Peh that others may not accept) who explicitly acknowledge this. I searched in R. Neriah Gutel’s ‘Hishtanut HaTevaim’ for such sources, but I couldn’t find anything. Yet it is also seems that the general practice is not to go through the Shulchan Aruch and start erasing the laws that are based on mistaken premises, although one could argue that many of the halachic controversies of recent years are examples of this process occurring.

    So whether or not we can come up with a theological justification for doing so, although this example is more blatant than others in terms of disregarding our knowledge of reality, there are numerous others, which to someone of the mindset that Chazal’s scientific views were totally in tune with those of their era, are exactly the same. True, some are chumros (such as ‘mayim shelanu’) and not kulos, but not all.

    I presume, based on what people like Rav Herzog believed about Chazal’s scientific knowledge in general (and more specifically his critique of those poskim who used Chazal’s characterisation of where a person’s blood comes from to determine parentage), that when they applied Chazal’s pesak about lice to contemporary times that this is what they really meant (and the other sevaros Rav Herzog presents are just l’ravcha d’milsa), but I can’t prove this either. Perhaps this was simply an assumption that didn’t require fleshing out.

    What is really required, as R. Gil mentioned, is for someone to do the hard work of combing halachic literature for similar (or hopefully more explicit) statements.

  26. Lawrence Kaplan

    Moshe Shoshan: I am not sure whether R. Bleich by himself could give permission for his articles to appear here, unless the Editors of Tradition would go along.

  27. Our host writes: I’ve asked that question and was told that certainly the Sages believed in spontaneous generation. But they also believed that Jewish law only deals with visible phenomena. Which of the two are the Gemara utilizing here?

    I’m not sure they’re separable. Why did the Sages, and everyone else of those days for that matter, believe in spontaneous generation? Because before Science replaced Natural Philosophy, there was no notion of a gap between reality and visible phenomena. This proved to be wrong — but the fact that what we directly experience isn’t necessarily what is ends up being irrelavent to us.

  28. Just as a side comment, the late Chief Rabbi of Toronto, R. Gedaliah Felder זצ”ל, once told me in no uncertain terms that sub-microscopic reality is irrelevant halakhically.

  29. Hirhurim: As I indicated in this post, R. Nachum Rabinovich (Siach Nachum, no. 79) holds something similar to this — that the time of death is determined by contemporary science and can change over time.

    This is exactly my point. In each specific example you might find a few Shittos that dismiss the Gemara based on modern science. I’m just pointing out that this is done with great hesitancy and somewhat rarely. Rabbi Tendler I believe dismisses the Gemara about lice, but does not when it comes to determine the time of death. I’m not sure of the distinction but this seems to be the approach of most rabbis I encounter. I don’t see Rabbi Slifkin give a seconds thought to a Gemara regarding science. This is approach I feel is without precedent.

  30. By coincidence, Freeman Dyson has a wonderful piece in the brand new NY Review of Books. It is paywalled, but available on newstands. The final paragraph is:

    The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled. Hermann Weyl, who was one of the main architects of the relativity and quantum revolutions, said to me once, “I always try to combine the true with the beautiful, but when I have to choose one or the other, I usually choose the beautiful.” Following Weyl’s good example, our string cosmologists are making the same choice.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/apr/05/science-rampage-natural-philosophy/

  31. Micha

    “Notice Chazal don’t actually speak about things existing or not existing. They speak of “metzius” — that which can be found, and “mamashus” — tangibility.”

    What do you think “existing” means, etymologically speaking?

    ====
    exist
    c.1600, from Fr. exister (17c.), from L. existere/exsistere “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear; exist, be” (see existence). “The late appearance of the word is remarkable” [OED]. Related: Existed; existing.
    existence
    late 14c., “reality,” from O.Fr. existence, from M.L. existentia/exsistentia, from existentem/exsistentem (nom. existens/exsistens) “existent,” prp. of L. existere/exsistere “stand forth, appear,” and, as a secondary meaning, “exist, be;” from ex- “forth” (see ex-) + sistere “cause to stand” (see assist).

    ====

    If “metziut” doesn’t mean “exist” but means “that which can be found,” well, then “exist” also doesn’t mean “exist,” but “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear,” and so forth.

  32. Lawrence Kaplan

    Jeffrey Wolf: A side point to a side-point The late R. Felder was one of Torinto’s leading rabbonim and a noted posek, but was not its Chief Rabbi. Toronto, unlike Montreal, does NOT have a Chief Rabbi.

  33. The broader issue here is that if one believes, as numerous authorities clearly did, that Chazal possessed no special intuition on scientific matters, then it seems logical to presume that many of the halachos they formulated, whilst based on analysis that we are not entitled to challenge, were applied in a manner than reflected the scientific understanding of the time, which we now know to be incorrect.

    But, as I understand, R. Slifkin’s position is that even in such cases we should not change Halacha. So, I again ask, what does success look like for either side to “win” and why does it matter beyond the pilpul value?

  34. IH – Because according to R. Bleich, if one believes that a halacha is based on mistaken factual assumptions, it should be changed.

  35. Here’s the exact quote from R. Bleich:

    One who believes that Hazal were simply wrong may or not be guilty of heresy but should be intellectually honest in recognizing — as did Pahad Yizhak and Rabbi Kafah before him — that, since no satisfactory theory leading to a different conclusion can be established with certainty, the canons of halakhic decision-making would compel the conclusion that, if Hazal were indeed ignorant of elementary scientific facts, all parasites are forbidden, at least by reason of doubt. Unless, of course, that person rejects the canons of halakhic methodology.

  36. J. — thanks, but I’m still not getting it. From a Halacha le’ma’aseh perspective is there a difference in the outcome of this debate between R. Bleich and R. Slifkin? (I think I get the difference in dogma.)

  37. Yes – whether or not R. Slifkin can eat fish with anisakis worms in them.

  38. Here is a nafka mina — may one drink water out of the tap. It is full of microscopic shrotzim, by the thousands. (This is Rav Moshe’s proof, IIRC, that microscopic beings have no halakhic significance.)

  39. Tal – No, R. Bleich could accept that you can drink water out of the tap (assuming that it is free of copepods). The nafka mina is for organisms that are not microspic.

  40. The nafka mina is for organisms that are not microspic.

    No, the nafka mina is for organisms that were once microscope but are no longer.

    In order to be forbidden, an insect has to have been shortez ba mayim or shoretz al ha’aretz. That’s halacha, not science.

    The issue, as I understand it, is that if an insect swam in the water when microscopic, then implanted itself in the flesh of fish, then grew to a point where it is visible, and since the point of visibility it has always been in the fish’s flesh (muscle). IOW, when it was shortez ba mayim it was invisible, and when it was visible it was not shortez ba mayim. Hence it is a permissible worm.

    If you reject the notion that microscopic things have no halakhic significance, then this insect did indeed shortez ba mayim at one point in its life and is forbidden.

  41. That is exactly the nekudas ha’machlokes.

  42. J. — if you reject the idea that “microscopic things have no halakhic significance” as mere 20th century apologetics, then what is the hetter for drinking water containing microorganims (not copepods). If we could see them they would clearly qualify as shrotzim. Why is that permitted? Why did everyone from Avraham Avinu through the Chofetz Chaim drink such water?

  43. No idea. I don’t reject that so it doesn’t bother me. I also don’t think it applies to killing lice on shabbos as the eggs are visible, but that’s another story.

  44. 2 other possibilities
    A) Nishtaneh hateva and louse eggs are no longer subvisible although they may have been at one time. This is akin to the zaayis = 1/2 or 1/3 egg debate
    or
    B) The gemmara is giving a size criteria ie anything smaller than a louse egg even though visible may be considered irreleevant and as if it were spontaneously generated.

  45. ” The gemmara is giving a size criteria ie anything smaller than a louse egg even though visible may be considered irreleevant and as if it were spontaneously generated.”

    Why is this a possibility? it has zero support from the text of the Gemara or from Rishonim.

  46. >if you reject the idea that “microscopic things have no halakhic significance” as mere 20th century apologetics, then what is the hetter for drinking water containing microorganims

    One could honestly say that

    a) It is 20th century apologetics
    b) They are muttar because the status of microorganisms is a new topic in halacha that has no precedents – and that for various reasons, poskim have asserted that this new category is muttar.

    In other words, the validity of an halachic position does not have to flow from its antiquity or from questionable parshanut of old texts. It could be proposed that the validity of a position flows from a combination of the religious authority of its advocates and its acceptance in the wider religious community.

    That is, a sociological understanding of the development of halacha and not one which tries to pretend that every question has an ancient makor with which it can be solved. Another modern day application of these two different approaches to halacha can be seen in the debate over the international dateline – with the CI demanding it be based on textual sources and his barei-plugta (pretty much everyone else at that time) arguing for a pragmatic/sociological solution.

  47. “Because before Science replaced Natural Philosophy, there was no notion of a gap between reality and visible phenomena.”

    Not true. See:

    The Roman Marcus Terentius Varro made references to microbes when he warned against locating a homestead in the vicinity of swamps “because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there by cause serious diseases.”[7]

    Also, a fertilized egg in the first 40 days is considered “mayim b’alma.” Presumably that would be an example of Chazal denying halachic significance to an organism based on its size alone, and not because of a misconception as to how it got there.

  48. But I didn’t claim that chazal were unique in dealing with the world as experienced. In fact, quite the reverse — I said that what Chazal discussed because halakhah is aimed at shaping people is consistent with what was considered Natural Philosophy because science wasn’t invented yet.

    IOW, “exist” doesn’t mean the same thing as “existere” either.

    However, they ended up at the same place for very different reasons. Greek Philosophy never considered questioning initial observation. The built reason atop commonsensical observation. Halakhah, OTOH, is all about shaping common sense — it is an error to look for answers in empirical truth instead.

  49. “I think it worthwhile to point out that R’ Micha’s analysis above clearly very much relates to subsequent discussion on rationalistjudaism.com, regarding harvesting organs from a body that is “pink and warm,” if neurologically dead.”

    I think it worthwhile to add that R’ Slifkin has adopted the position that even those who view the brain-dead patient as alive should view the patient’s life as lacking value “since he is incapable of thought.”

    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2012/02/dying-to-help.html

    from the post,”Even if one considers the brain-dead person to possibly be alive, his life is certainly worth much less than that of a chayey sha’ah, a terefah, or even a goses, since he is incapable even of thought.”

  50. Oh dear… Nowadays you cant be sure about the quality of the food at all.

  51. I don’t see brain death as really revolving around the same issue.

    Our issue is whether we care about reality as science describes it, or observation as it impacts us on the primal level.

    While determining brain death might involve similar questions, there is one before that — defining “misah” (death) altogether. The question of death in the medical community cannot and should not involve the notion of souls. But what halakhah is trying to determine is where on the line between an awake and lucid person and a gray cold body does the soul leave the body. The word “death” is being used in both the medical and the halachic discussions, but to mean two different things.

    Yes, it could well be that halakhah can’t consider the departure of the soul as depending on a factor that people don’t directly experience, that must be measured with equipment. But that’s ancillary to the primary question.

    To explain by example: I don’t hear those who insist on cessation of heartbeat or breathing as the definition of death say it is because brain activity can only be detected with instruments.

  52. “To explain by example: I don’t hear those who insist on cessation of heartbeat or breathing as the definition of death say it is because brain activity can only be detected with instruments.”

    Good point… but maybe they should be?

  53. Nu, so despite earlier discussion about the goals of the current debate, a large number appear to see it as a proxy for the brain-dead transplantation issue.

  54. It seems clear that the crux of the debate surrounds a set of two interrelated issues and I think we should be asking ourselves if being halachic Jews requires adopting one axis over the other.

    R’ Micha mentioned one of them: 1)Academic vs. halachic/legalistic approach to talmudic literature, personalities and analysis. (I.e. If questions like “what did Chazal really believe?” are relevant to understanding a gemara or not.)
    Others mentioned the issue of 2) entertaining the possibility of Chazal (not individual members–who are certainly fallible– but conglomerate body of scholars and their final decisions) being factually wrong about a given halacha.

    I believe the two are related because a morally binding legal system has to assume that it possess an authentic methodology for arriving at correct decisions and has authentic sources of authority. False methodologies or false sources of authority can’t have a valid claim on our obedience.

    To entertain that Chazal could have rendered a demonstrably, factually mistaken ruling would seem to require one to step out of the halachic system. You can only entertain such a possibility from the outside as an academic. (Orthodox academics apparently need to bifurcate themselves in order to do this on a regular basis.) This is how the two issues are deeply related.

    The notion of a halacha being wrong simply can’t be incorporated into the halachic system and still remain morally binding on its adherents because it forfeits the claim of truth. (Saying we can follow it despite it’s possible lack of truth is what I believe we call Orthopraxy.)

  55. False dichotomy. Perhaps you can rephrase your position without putting words in your opponents mouths and less emotively?

  56. I thought I was being pretty neutral and value free actually.

    The basic point I’m making is about what commands someone’s adherence to a given legal system. Especially one which claims it’s decisions are factually true and internally consistent and should only be followed on that basis? (I would hope that if one’s country of residence promoted laws which were based on demonstrable falsehoods, all things being equal, one would try to emigrate and live in a different country with more reality-based laws.)

    It seems to me that Rabbi Bleich’s main point was that the halachic system claims to be true. This presses us to realize that we have a serious choice to make. Either we commit ourselves to finding how the halacha can be interpreted to be factually true and internally consistent, or you become Orthoprax.
    I don’t see a viable third option. I’m not attacking anybody who wants to suggest a morally coherent third option. I’m open to listening.

  57. Dovid Kornreich: When the gaonim taught Jews not to follow Talmudic medicine, but to listen to the doctors, which of your choices were they taking? How about when R. Gamliel and R. Yehoshua disputed over when Rosh hashana was? I think your dichotomy is false one. One can believe completely in Torah miSinai, recognize the authority of Chazal, accept their halacha as binding, and still recognize that when they applied that halacha to factual circumstances, they could be misled by the quality of their observational tools or the general assumptions in their broader world (like Greek and Persian medicine) into misunderstanding the facts. Chazal’s authority is as accurate transmitters of Torah She b’al peh. Not as biologists and astronomers. What commands our adherence to halacha is belief in its Divine origin; not the medical expertise of Chazal, which we all admit (I hope, given that the Gaonim already said so) came from the physicians of their time, nor their knowledge of astronomy and biology which seems to be of similar provenance.

    Trying to interpret the statements of Chazal on biology to make them factually true seems to me intellectually dishonest, disrespectful of Chazal by treating their words as putty to be molded as we see fit, and likely to backfire practically, as we will interpret them to fit the facts as we understand them today, and then have to reinterpret them as our understanding evolves, making those rabbis who perform these interpretations look at best like apologists and at worst like fools.

  58. Although the scientific ideas underlying Chazal’s anasakis ruling are debatable, those underlying the heter to kill lice on shabbos are not. Kornreich just said that anybody who doesn’t believe in spontaneous generation is an apikores. His statement really should not have been dignified with a response.

  59. “Here’s the exact quote from R. Bleich:
    One who believes that Hazal were simply wrong may or not be guilty of heresy but should be intellectually honest in recognizing — as did Pahad Yizhak and Rabbi Kafah before him — that, since no satisfactory theory leading to a different conclusion can be established with certainty, the canons of halakhic decision-making would compel the conclusion that, if Hazal were indeed ignorant of elementary scientific facts, all parasites are forbidden, at least by reason of doubt. Unless, of course, that person rejects the canons of halakhic methodology.”

    Why does Rav Bleich find it necessary to characterize his analysis on pages 71-73, that begins “The thesis that talmudic canonization of rules based upon erroneous scientific theory renders them binding for posterity might perhaps be justified in an entirely different way” as a theory that can’t be established with certainty? I found Rav Bleich’s presentation on pages 71-73 persuasive, much more persuasive than the explanation R’ Bleich apparently favors that Hazal were discussing sub-clinical phenomena (pages 60-61). We can’t establish with certainty that Hazal were discussing sub-clinical phenomena. We can hardly propose that nishtane hateva is established with certainty. Why is someone who relies on those explanations not compelled to admit that they are uncertain, that the possibility that Hazal were “simply wrong” is real, and that therefore all parasites are forbidden by reason of doubt even to those who “believe” unproven theories that Hazal didn’t err? If it’s ok to rely on unproven theories to assert that Hazal didn’t err, why can’t we rely on unproven theories that halacha takes no cognizance of “right” and “Wrong” or that the science of Hazal’s times is “Right” in the Halacha’s view?
    Maybe I misunderstand, and Rav Bleich would respond that someone who believes that the science that Halacha takes into account is Hazal’s and not ours is accepting the “canons of halakhic methodology” and that this belief is substantively different than the belief that Hazal were “Simply wrong”?

  60. Interesting that you treat Rabbi Bleich and Rabbi Slifkin as equals.

  61. One point on which I am confused is that the notion that microscopic organisms have no halakhic significance appears to be derived, at least for some, from the notion that contemporary science is irrelevant to halakha. The reasoning as I understand it is that the Torah was not given to angels or to individuals who possessed microscopes and therefore can’t have intended that microscopes be used to detect organisms forbidden to eat. Even today, we couldn’t drink water or breathe (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein) if we declared microscopic organisms forbidden. The argument seems to be that even if we were able to remove microscopic organisms from the environment, we wouldn’t be obligated to do so, because the Halakha is, in Rav Bleich’s words, “not based upon ontological reality but upon phenomenological perception.” It’s only a small step in logic to argue, again in Rav Bleich’s words, that “The fact that perceptions of reality, and hence linguistic definitions, have changed is irrelevant if Halakhah was established for eternity in accordance with the perceptions reflected in the nomenclature of the “two thousand years of Torah.” If it’s satisfactory to argue that halakha doesn’t recognize sub-clinical phenomena because phenomenological perception is all that was available to those who received the Torah, why would it not be satisfactory to assert that the underlying principle that permits both drinking water that contains microscopic sheratzim and permits relying on Hazal’s scientific understanding is the same, namely that the Torah doesn’t require us to “advance” beyond ancient understanding of the world? Isn’t the notion that there’s no halakhic significance to microscopic organisms a sub-case of the larger principle that we need not “update” the halakha to take into account modern knowledge and understanding?

  62. ” Isn’t the notion that there’s no halakhic significance to microscopic organisms a sub-case of the larger principle that we need not “update” the halakha to take into account modern knowledge and understanding?”

    Regardless of what people are arguing, the reality is that this is not true. We use watches with exact times for figuring out zmanim. Those devices did not exist X years ago. We no longer go by the time that people are in the market, or other vague time indicators but rather we turn that into a precise minute. The same is true in other areas of halacha as well.

    I wonder, if there were enough micro-organisms in the food or water, such that combined they would equal a kzayit, if such a food or drink would be dissalowed, even though each micr-organism is too small to see. (Based on the Rambam it seems it should)

  63. Another side of this argument, is something which the Education ministry of Jeruselem is sponsoring, with regards to olive sizes on pesach. One of the tag lines in the flier is: “If you believe that the Tora is rational; if you understand that Halakha cannot be divorced from reality; if you feel that many Jews cannot relate to a Tora that just doesn’t make sense…”

    Speaking at the conference amongst others, are R. David Lior, R. David Bar Hayim, and R. Yehoshua Bukh.

    Seems to me, the issue is larger than a particular kashrut or brain-death issue, and perhaps in the years to come, might even be a bigger issue than how one relates to Israel. (Or judging from this blog, women and gays)

  64. I already raised one issue with this train of thought (Mar 16, 5:29am): Who said halakhah is about the world as is? Who said that the truth we need to address is that revealed by physicists, chemists and biologists rather than that revealed by psychologists?

    Another aspect of this error of turning religion into an Adam II pursuit is this notion that halakhah is a pursuit of truth. It’s not an exploration of preexisting facts, but the creation of binding law. A halakhah can’t be “false”, because it’s not a statement about reality.

    There is an undercurrent here of presuming that not only is halakhah based on an objective empiricism, but also that without such a basis the law isn’t binding. That a pesaq based on bad science isn’t law. The Chazon Ish explicitly says that this is not true of anything said by a tanna (or earlier). It seems to me we can take this to mean that yes, any pesaq by an amora or since can be rethought if the assumption is false. Perhaps not.

    Something to explore. But not to take it as a given due to a mistaken understanding of halakhah as a truth system.

    And only then can we discuss whether those assumptions are empirically or existentially defined.

    And aligned with this issue is the exchange between Ephy (Mar 15, 11:22pm) and our host (Mar 16, 6:29am). Ephy asked how we can talk about a dispute between RNS and R’ Bleich, as though RNS has comparable knowledge of how to pasqen and how halakhah works. RGS replied: Duly noted. But here we are just discussing ideas. If R. Slifkin is correct, it doesn’t matter how old or accomplished he is.

    I think the exchange should have reflected more of Jon’s thought from a post made during the interval between them (12:56am): [I]t’s ’s worth noting that a major part of the debate here is “determining the playing field”. R Bleich wants the background assumptions to be those of the Halakhist, who strives for internal coherence and only addresses correspondence to (physical? …) reality when he/she has to. Rabbi Slifkin, by contrast, is far more interested in whether a positions makes any sense in relation to reality – i.e. correspondence. Thus in a certain sense they’re talking past each other. R Slifkin complains that the approaches mentioned are implausible, Rabbi Bleich insists they are logically consistent, Rabbi Slifkin says they’re still implausible.

    The difference between them RNS is an outsider to halakhah-making deciding to tell someone with that experience what fits the norm. And that’s why I think Jon justifies Ephy’s question.

  65. “Who said halakhah is about the world as is? Who said that the truth we need to address is that revealed by physicists, chemists and biologists rather than that revealed by psychologists?”

    Why should it be one over the other? The truth is the truth.

    To say that halacha is just a large collection of legal fictions, is really going against the messora 🙂

  66. Again, all of these discussions are merely pie in the sky until we look at specific examples of where halacha has and hasn’t changed in response to scientific developments. We have to be careful to distinguish between different sorts of developments (i.e. has the reality changed or merely our perception of it) and what sort of halacha we are dealing with (i.e is this an issue of what sort of reality falls under a halachic definition that Chazal themselves made, or where they were applying a pre-existing halacha to the reality as they understood it).

    For example, the halachos of determining whether someone is a mamzer generally do not change because of DNA tests, but many poskim say that the halachos of determining paternity do change. On a totally different issue, there was a machlokes between the Tiferes Yisrael and others as to whether the halacha which permitted urinating on grass (IIRC) because it is not ‘matzmiach’ could be applied nowadays, as we see that it is matzmiach. What were the principles underlying the debate? In which case do we say that there is a chashash of motzi la’az al harishonim? None of this is simple at all, and as far as I am aware, very little work has actually been done on this, besides for a few famous examples, such as the 8-month baby and killing lice on shabbos. I think R. Nachum Rabinovitch’s article (http://www.zomet.org.il/?CategoryID=290&ArticleID=384) presents the most developed approach to the topic, but he still only touches the tip of the iceberg.

  67. Avi, I explained my position in three earlier comments. The purpose of the Torah is to refine souls. Therefore, halakhah should be more concerned with the impact the world makes on people than on an objective assessment of empirical reality.

    Caring about how the law impacts people more than what it says about objects doesn’t make it fictitious.

  68. When is RNS planning to respond to R Gil’s critique?

  69. I’m not sure it requires a response

  70. “micha on March 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm
    Avi, I explained my position in three earlier comments. The purpose of the Torah is to refine souls. Therefore, halakhah should be more concerned with the impact the world makes on people than on an objective assessment of empirical reality.

    Caring about how the law impacts people more than what it says about objects doesn’t make it fictitious.”

    People are impacted by what they know of empirical reality as well. Pretending they aren’t is fictitious.

    It’s one thing to say that there is a limit over what people can and should control in their environment regarding things which can be seen and things which can not be seen. A completely different ball of wax to say that reality doesn’t matter at all.

  71. J, don’t forget the less fancy and obvious changes, such as clocks, or the printing press, or steam engines.

    Also, while writing my response to Micha I was suddenly reminded of the divide amongst people who say that you have to worry about angels and demons in Halacha, vs those who say you don’t. (such as saying Kiddush at the 7th hour of the night, or moving walls in the house) Some people certain view Halacha as caring about non-visible things, or things which are not obviously known about to humans. But those same people who argue about the effects of the Sephirot on your mitzvah observance, don’t seem to normally be concerned with the effects of particle physics, or molecular biology.

  72. Avi, do you refrain from drinking water with mites in it the way you are repulsed(I presume) by the idea of eating cockroaches?

    And conflating this with other issues, such as caring about one metaphysical model or the other, won’t help the conversation any. You’re reducing a discussion of ideas to one of stereotypes. (“But those same people…”)

  73. To Mike S. on March 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm:

    You raise many good counter-examples which can be directly addressed:
    Rabbi Bleich explicitly distinguished between Chazal’s inerrancy in halachic vs. non-halachic contexts.
    Additionally, the Geonim’s warning against employing Talmudic medicine today might simply be due to Nishtaneh Hatevah and not because the remedies of Chazal never worked even in their own time.

    Your example of Kiddush Hachodesh is the exception which proves the rule. There is an explicit drasha of Torah Sheba’al peh to follow the kiddush of Beis din regardless of the observable reality. Absent such a drasha, there is no validity to halachic decision rendered in ignorance of demonstrable facts.

    I’m just quoting Rabbi Bleich on this point. Feel free to disagree with him, but I believe his positions are entirely representative of the world of serious psak halacha in the Orthodox community. (And I don’t think any of your counter-examples are compelling for the reasons I mentioned.)

  74. Again to Mike S.:

    “Trying to interpret the statements of Chazal on biology to make them factually true seems to me intellectually dishonest, disrespectful of Chazal by treating their words as putty to be molded as we see fit, and likely to backfire practically, as we will interpret them to fit the facts as we understand them today, and then have to reinterpret them as our understanding evolves, making those rabbis who perform these interpretations look at best like apologists and at worst like fools.”

    Firstly, I think the Rambam in Moreh III end of chapter 14 disagrees with you:
    http://press.tau.ac.il/perplexed/chapters/chap_3_14.htm
    And in general, I don’t think the Rambam looked apologetic or foolish when he interpreted various statements of Chazal as confirming certain greek philosophical ideas. Do you?

    Secondly, this is exactly what we find all rishonim and achronim doing when they confront difficult statements of Chazal: They all assumed Chazal spoke the truth and they strove mightily to find a way to understand how they were indeed correct.

    So you are certainly right that each generation will re-interpret Chazal in the way which reflect what they understand as the truth. That is indeed what we find and that is what Rabbi Bliech is doing as well. But I believe it shows the utmost reverence for Chazal to take it as axiomatic that whatever they paskened as the final halacha must be true and cannot be false.

    For a possible rationale behind this axiom please read this post:
    http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.com/2012/03/question-of-basic-textual.html

  75. I don’t think that R’ Bleich used the word “Orthopraxy.” According to Dovid Kornreich, Rav Dessler was Orthoprax.

    “There is another approach, one that has been frequently misunderstood. There is a footnote to R’ Eliyahu Dessler’s Michtav MeEliyahu vol. 4 p. 355 that discusses this topic. The editor of this volume and author of the footnote, R’ Aryeh Carmell, recently elaborated on his discussion with Rav Dessler that led to the footnote (Bar Ilan’s BDD Journal 6, Winter 1998 p. ). According to Rav Dessler, the sages used science in two ways. One way was to understand the world based on which they made halachic rulings. For example, they observed which injuries were fatal to a man and therefore ruled that if a man had such an injury his wife could remarry within a year even if the husband’s death could not be verified. In this case, where the science preceded the halacha, a change in science necessitates a change in halacha. If medicine now tells us that such an injury is not fatal then the wife cannot remarry until the husband’s death is verified.

    The second way in which science was used was to explain already existing halachot. In our case, this means that there was a tradition that one is permitted to kill lice on Shabbat. The sages, in their eminently logical ways, tried to explain this halacha based on the then-accepted scientific principle of spontaneous generation. Now that science has changed, the halacha does not need to change with it. The halacha preceded the science and the idea of spontaneous generationi was only an ex post facto explanation. If that explanation is incorrect then another, more suitable explanation should be sought.

    Rav Dessler suggested that halacha is intended for people to follow and therefore only recognizes items that are visible to the naked eye. G-d does not expect us to rule halachically based on information we cannot naturally gather. Since lice eggs are too small to be seen unaided, lice look as if they grow from the item in which they appear and are given the same halachic status as their apparent origin. Since hair and fruit are not living animals that we are prohibited from killing on Shabbat (picking fruit off a tree is a separate prohibition), lice are given that same status.”

  76. I mean, so ridiculous on so many levels. What is Horios about, then?

  77. Rabbi Bleich said his preferred approach is exactly the same as what you’ve just quoted as Rav Dessler’s approach! They are re-interpreting Chazal in order to AVOID saying they believed in spontaneous generation and in order to AVOID concluding they paskened a halacha in error. How exactly is that being Orthoprax?

    And it was Rabbi Bleich who asserted that anyone who 1)believes there was never such a thing as spontaneous generation and 2) believes that this mistaken belief is actually what Chazal based their fundamental understanding of halacha upon (not based on a tradition to which they simply gave a contemporary rationale),
    is questionably heretical.

    So this is the second time you’ve completely distorted what I wrote mor on. Have you no shame?

  78. “I mean, so ridiculous on so many levels. What is Horios about, then?”

    Try reading rabbi Bleich’s article. He cites the Kovetz Shiurim’s approach at length. In short, the mistakes are never about observable factual reality. It is about mistakes in applying the rules of logic or Torah interpretation.

  79. According to Rav Dessler, Chazal DID believe in spontaneous generation.

  80. Dovid – See pages 10-11 of this excellent kuntres from R. Eitam Henkin, on the topic of tolaim, who makes a point that R. Bleich may consider heretical, but to me is obvious (and presumably was not considered heretical by those who gave him a haskama):
    http://www.michtavim.com/EitamHenkin5770.pdf

    The problem is that you see this in terms of ‘error’ versus ‘eternal truth’. Chazal were working with certain constraints, yet they established the halachic definitions which we follow today. It is absolutely obvious that Chazal were working with the science of their times (that’s why they believed, as we see in Bechoros 44b, that urine and semen flow through different tubes – and ‘nishtaneh hateva’ can’t help you make there). Yet it is also obvious that they had the authority to establish halacha. So, barring certain circumstances in which the halacha is subject to change (as described by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch in the article linked to earlier), we work with their definitions.

  81. “Chazal were working with certain constraints, yet they established the halachic definitions which we follow today. It is absolutely obvious that Chazal were working with the science of their times (that’s why they believed, as we see in Bechoros 44b, that urine and semen flow through different tubes – and ‘nishtaneh hateva’ can’t help you make there).”

    As I said above, all poskim distinguish between Chazal as fallible individuals working with the constraints of knowledge of their times, and the final halacha of the Talmud which cannot be based on demonstrable, factual error. The halacha is always re-interpreted to conform to what we currently perceive to be true.
    I’ll review your references when I get the chance.

  82. Look at the entire first category within Rav Dessler’s opinion. For Heaven’s sake.

    Rav Bleich uses restraint. He says “may be heretical.” How is that the same as “obviously contradicting a basic axiom and orthoprax.”?

  83. You seem to fail to realize that the specific rulings of Chazal in specific cases does not generate the halachic principle. It simply reflects it. In the case of an injured man, the principle was, and always is true: “When a man contracts a fatal condition, the woman can remarry within the year.” This halacha is absolutely true and is not based on any demonstrable observable errors of fact. That is all that is required to avoid heresy.

    Similarly in the second category when Rav Dessler talks about the hetter to kill lice on Shabbos, he believes the halacha itself is absolutely true and is not based on any demonstrable observable errors of fact. However Chazal (mis)understood it within their limited scientific framework DOES NOT affect the underlying halachic principle or its applications. So there is nothing questionable in saying taking this approach.

    But what Natan Slifkin promotes is the view that the essential halachic principle of the Talmud was conceived in error and is fundamentally based on their demonstrably false understandings of the world. Yet we are (usually) bound to uphold them in practice out of some vague concept of deference to tradition.
    This, I belive, is Orthopraxy, and both av Dessler and Rabbi Bleich concur that it is questionably heretical.

  84. Principle (“the halacha itself”): All creepy crawlies which are alive because of reproduction are assur.

    Specific Application: Certain creepy crawlies in fish are alive because of spontaneous generation, and are therefore muttar b’achila.

    R’ Slifkin: Actually, they do reproduce. So they are basically muttar (according to “the halacha itself,” but we should still refrain from eating them out of deference to previous generations. (because of nahagu bo issur, which is all over shas and not a “vague concept” at all).

    This is fundamentally different from Rav Dessler’s approach how?

  85. “both av Dessler and Rabbi Bleich concur that it is questionably heretical.”

    What on Earth???

    In whose universe does “disagrees with me” automatically equal “heretical”?

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe took the hashkafic problem of saying that Chazal were wrong about _anything_ extremely seriously. According to him, since it is impossible to prove a negative, Pasteur’s experiments, regardless of their statistic significance, are inconclusive, and we should all take it on emunah that spontaneous generation does in fact happen. I really really don’t think that he thought that people like R’ Bleich and/or Rav Dessler are heretics. (To the best of my knowledge he certainly never said or implied anything of the kind.)

  86. The earlier post should say “assur b’achila.” In fact, the upholding in practice tends to be more meikel than otherwise.

  87. Oh, I see that the problem is being meikel based on the old understanding of science, and not being machmir. Still, R’ Glasner is a posek. Unless he is orthoprax too.

  88. IH wrote:

    “Nu, so despite earlier discussion about the goals of the current debate, a large number appear to see it as a proxy for the brain-dead transplantation issue”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this comment.

  89. To Dovid Kornreich: I agree that Rabbi Bleich’s approach is both common (although not universal) among modern posekim and can be made internally consistent. I have a hard time being convinced it gives correct understanding of the sugya, even when I feel constrained to obey it, halacha l’ma’aseh, in those cases where it has convinced my rebbeim.

    As for the Rambam sounding apologetic and silly, no not really, because I can place him in historical context. Silly and apologetic, however, would be the mildest things I would say about someone who advanced the same positions today, however. Can anyone today suggest that what the Rambam wrote in the 3rd perek of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (the one about the celestial spheres) is really Torah? I hope not. If one were convinced that these beliefs were foundational to Torah, as the Rambam clearly thought in his time, the only rational conclusion one could draw is that, Rachamana litzlan, the Torah is false, chas v’shalom. Given that, unlike the philosophers of Rambam’s time, we are all aware of how rapidly the scientific understanding of the world evolves, it seems to me that modern scholars need to be far more cautious than the Rambam was in trying to conflate Torah with modern science.

  90. And R. Shrira Gaon did not merely say to ignore Talmudic medicine; he gave a reason. Namely, that the medicine found in the Talmud is not mesorah misinai, but based on the observations of their day.

  91. Dovid Kornreich:

    “And it was Rabbi Bleich who asserted that anyone who 1)believes there was never such a thing as spontaneous generation and 2) believes that this mistaken belief is actually what Chazal based their fundamental understanding of halacha upon (not based on a tradition to which they simply gave a contemporary rationale),
    is questionably heretical.”

    Note to the so-called Rationalists here: Everyone unless one claims the earth with life has always existed as Aristotle claimed, has to believe that spontaneous generation started off life. Further that means that if science has anything to say about the origin of life, simply saying it only could have happened once without developing a mechanism at least in theory where it can be repeated is not being scientific.

  92. There is no comparison at all between saying that life arose once in the entire universe from a preexisting self replicating bit of RNA and then took billions of years to evolve into anything as complicated as an insect than claiming that all insects magic themselves out of nowhere.

  93. “Avi, do you refrain from drinking water with mites in it the way you are repulsed(I presume) by the idea of eating cockroaches?

    And conflating this with other issues, such as caring about one metaphysical model or the other, won’t help the conversation any. You’re reducing a discussion of ideas to one of stereotypes. (“But those same people…”)”

    You misunderstand me.
    Re water: Ofcourse not, I did not say that pyschology was not important, I questioned why psychology might be more important than physics, or why Physics might be more important that psychology. They are both equally important. I may not be repulsed by drinking bugs in water, but also, some people are. (germaphobes) And further, even if nobody was repulsed, Rambam seems to say that if you eventually eat a kzayit of them within the requisite time period, than it is assur.

    And I don’t think I’m conflating ideals with stereotypes. There just doesn’t exist a book which both cares on a practical level about the unseen world of angels and demons, and also cares about the unseen world of physics. If we were to be idealistic about the issue, such books would exist.

  94. J. said:

    “There is no comparison at all between saying that life arose once in the entire universe from a preexisting self replicating bit of RNA and then took billions of years to evolve into anything as complicated as an insect than claiming that all insects magic themselves out of nowhere.”

    Unless you develop a theory how either scenario works or doesn’t then the fact of one exception to the rule noticed allows for all. If I see bugs come out of nowhere but have no theory how to prevent it from happening elsewhere then it can happen anytime, no time or sometimes. In any event no one claims it took billions of years of Earth’s history before the advent of insects or any form of life. Nor do we have a theory except if life started elsewhere that could preserve the genetic material needed for life in the water world that was our planet.

  95. To be honest, I’m not even sure if there’s any nafka mina to what you’re saying. Do you maintain that lice used to spontaneously generate but then stopped doing so? Do you therefore conclude that the Shulchan Aruch and MB were wrong to apply that halacha to contemporary lice, or perhaps you believe that lice only stopped spontaneously generating in the 1950s?

  96. I was only talking science here. I’ll leave the Halacha to the Poskim. They’re the ones who can define what should be called scientific fact for Halacha. Rabbi Slifkin’s method just begs the question. It’s one thing to say we need to follow the physicians and realize that that would mean medical Halacha LiMaaseh will change. It is another thing to claim a method of science for Halacha to reckon with especially when what is being espoused as what determines science isn’t a method recognized in science but a corrupted popular version called consensus science. Nature does not recognize peer reviewed magazines. The universe can go on even in the absence of magazines, universities and scientists. We can still have science then. God did not wait till Newton to allow people to know what science says if they so wish in the absence of a formal degree being bestowed upon them. Nothing happens to the brain upon getting a job as a scientist. There are no brain waves being run by a giant internet forcing the majority of scientists to arrive at the truth like a modern version of prophesy.

    J said:”Do you maintain that lice used to spontaneously generate but then stopped doing so? Do you therefore conclude that the Shulchan Aruch and MB were wrong to apply that halacha to contemporary lice, or perhaps you believe that lice only stopped spontaneously generating in the 1950s?”

    If there would be spontaneous independent of a scientific framework it would be called a miracle. Well so was the parting of the sea. Seas don’t split but it split.

  97. To mor on March 19, 2012 at 9:02 pm:

    “both av Dessler and Rabbi Bleich concur that it is questionably heretical.”

    What on Earth???

    In whose universe does “disagrees with me” automatically equal “heretical”?

    I’m simply quoting Rabbi Bleich’s article on page 74:
    “One who believes that Hazal were simply wrong may or not be guilty of heresy…”

    and reporting what Nosson Slifkin himself characterized in Mysterious Creatures on page 204 what Rav Dessler’s view (as cited in Michtav Me’eliyahu page 355-356) was regarding the notion that Chazal could have erred regarding a halachic principle:
    http://books.google.co.il/books?ei=9vhoT7aKBaOY0QHp9fyQCQ&ie=ISO-8859-1&output=html&id=tTIRAQAAIAAJ&dq=mysterious+creatures&q=heresy#search_anchor

    Please try to read the relevant sources first before claiming anything about what I’m saying and distorting it beyond recognition.

  98. To Mike S.:
    “And R. Shrira Gaon did not merely say to ignore Talmudic medicine; he gave a reason. Namely, that the medicine found in the Talmud is not mesorah misinai, but based on the observations of their day.”

    But as very few people who quote him realize, Rav Sherirah Gaon never said Chazal were mistaken.
    His son Rav Hai and others after him explicitly say Chazal’s medicine was quite effective in their time but we can’t use it simply because we don’t know how to apply it correctly.

  99. “and reporting what Nosson Slifkin himself characterized in Mysterious Creatures on page 204 what Rav Dessler’s view (as cited in Michtav Me’eliyahu page 355-356) was regarding the notion that Chazal could have erred regarding a halachic principle:”

    are you sure that “perhaps an element of heresy” is worse than “perhaps an issur kares”?

  100. There are other ways to be machmir against killing lice on Shabbos without invoking the Pachad Yitzchak. This is not the place to elaborate.

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