Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Slifkinless Science and Halakha Post

Tonight I went to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's Henry Guttman Memorial Lecture at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rav Dov Linzer's lecture was titled Science and Halakha: Strategies and Sympathies, and discussed the conflicting values and sympathies that led to various halakhic authorities over time taking different strategies as to what to do when science and halakha conflict.

For example, there was (of course) the RMB"M, who valued empirical truth over defending what some see as the honor or stature of Hhazal:
You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.
Guide of the Perplexed III:14

And there was RShB"A, who valued defending the honor or authority of Hhazal over observable fact:
And if this person [who testifies that an animal declared terminal by the Talmud survived a full year] holds firm to his error and says, "No! For I like to be oppositional! I know what I saw, and I will follow it!" We shall say to him, "To spread evil report against the Sages is impossible." And this witness and a thousand like him should be rejected, before we nullify one dot from what was agreed upon by the holy Sages of Israel, the prophets, the sons of prophets, and matters that were said to Moshe from Sinai.
Responsa RShB"A 1:98

What was really interesting, though, was the position of Hhakham Tzevi Ashkenazi (he who held that everyone must keep one day of yomtov in The Land and two days Outside The Land, no matter where you're from or where you're going) who granted authority to empirically-researched Scientific Fact over both seemingly-Trustworthy Testimony and Reality As Described By The Sages:
All those who say it [=a chicken that supposedly was shechted and then found out to lack a heart] is a treifa are in error. Because the matter is clear to anyone who has the heart of a wise person in him and that has a brain in his head, that it is impossible for any living creature in the world to live even for a minute without a heart, and that it should be like a healthy animal. The only case of a "removed heart" [that the Rabbis were referring to] is where immediately after the heart was cut out of the animal it was slaughtered ... And in this case the matter is clear that the heart fell when its stomach was opened, and the cat ate it. And although this is self-evident, and there is no need to bring any proof to this, but to silence the fools who jump to give rulings, beold I found in the Kesef Mishneh, Laws of Schechita, chapter 10, that he explains that Rambam did not list the case of a heart that was removed, or an animal that was born without a heart, and he writes: "Rambam did not list organs that if they are removed it is impossible for the animal to live for even one minute."
Responsa Hhakham Tzevi 74
[One must reject testimony when one knows it is false.] And it was for this purpose that the Rashba toiled in that responsum to bring clear proofs that one cannot reject the Sages' statement that the treifot cannot live under any circumstances for more than twelve months, and that one who testifies to the contrary is testifying falsely. And even if many come and testify likewise, they are all false witnesses, and this was the foundation and the root that Rashba in his great wisdom toiled to establish, as is evident to anyone who studies his words well. And I will bring futher evidence that we are not concerned for the possibility of miracles, and if witnesses come and testify against what we know to be the natural way of the world, we will say that they are false witnesses, and that Nature remains unaltered. As we say in Rosh Hashana, "If the new moon began before noon, then it was seen before sunset, and if it began after noon, then it could not be seen before sunset. Why does this matter? Said Rav Ashi, 'To contradict witnesses.'"
Responsa Hhakham Tzevi 77

The Hhakham Tzevi seemed to hold that Hhazal's inclusion of an "animal missing a necessary organ" in the list of 'terminal' (tereifa) animals only meant an animal which had an organ removed immediately before shekhita, so it was still alive — since obviously an animal missing a necessary organ couldn't survive longer than a few seconds, much less any significant amount of time less than a full year. So in contrast to R' Yonatan Eibishitz, who wrote passionately against him, he used scientific/medical knowledge to pretty much define away a halakhic category. R' Eibishitz said that such a seemingly heartless chicken would have to be a tereifa, and therefore treif, while Hhakham Tzevi said that since a healthy heartless chicken is impossible, it must only be seemingly heartless, but actually had one, and be kosher — even if reliable witnesses testified that they saw no heart when they cut up the chicken!

Another interesting source was R' Moshe Feinstein's ruling that a man who had a testicular operation to enable him to have children could marry, against an explicit Talmudic source that defined anyone with a hole in their (='his' here) testicle as a petzu‘a daka who is forbidden from marrying due to the fact that he can't have children:
We thus see that unless we are compelled otherwise, we should assume that matters that are dependant on Nature should be based on the assessment of the rabbis of every given time.
Iggrot Moshe EH 2:3

Something at the end that I found the most interesting was R' Eliyahu Dessler's opinion that when Hhazal gave a reason for a halakhic ruling, they were only giving one — but not the necessarily most important — reason, and therefore we can't change the halakhic ruling based on new circumstances:
For when it comes to the explanations based on nature, it is not that the assumption of nature was the basis for the ruling, but the opposite — the ruling (which was known through tradition) was in need of an explanation, and the explanation that the Gemara gives is not the only explanation possible for this ruling. So, if in certain cases the Gemara gave explanations that were based on the science of their times, it is our responsibility to seek out other explanations that through them the ruling can be established on a firm foundation, based on the science of our times.
Michtav mEliyahu 4 page 355 note 4

What I find particularly interesting about R' Dessler's assumption of pre-existing law is that while this opinion today seems to be more popular among the more non-rationalistic streams of Jewish legal theory, it was in the middle ages pushed by the rationalist pashtanim like RD"Q, who claimed that all of the Sages' derivations of laws from verses in the Torah was nothing more than mnemonics and asmakhta — Torah Shebe‘al Peh actually stands on its own as an independent and pre-existent code that didn't need human development.

NOTE: translations of sources are from R' Linzer's bilingual source sheets.


Blogger Lipman said...

Big deal: the Rambam - a velshe pilesufye koifer, the Chachm Tzvi - a daitsher, and Reb Moishe - a Modern "Orthodox".

10/18/2006 3:06 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

1. The Rambam was Welsh?

2. What's up with the Hhakham Tzevi's title and lastname, anyway? Did his family leave Ashkenaz and then move back?

3. Do you think anyone would really call R' Moshe any variety of or slur based on MO?

10/18/2006 6:54 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

I hereby proclaim a Hherem against you for using a double H.

10/18/2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

1. Is "velshe" related to "Velish" (the Sepharadi Torah-Scroll script)?

2. That family had kooky non-surnames. (Ya`akov Emden ben Tzvi'Hersh Ashkenazzi ben the Sha`are Efraim)...

3. Huh? MO?

10/18/2006 10:12 AM  
Anonymous PM [annoyed, frustrated, Y]F said...

Listen, I know all of you are frustrated with chareidim on this issue(and of course many others), but such name calling is not constructive and clearly forbidden. I don't care if any of them do similar things, that doesn't permit you to say it. Its just wrong. I'm tired of the insults from both sides, its time for everyone to act correctly.

10/18/2006 1:43 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Huh? Only one person has so far referenced hhareidi stereotypes... unless the rest of our silence on the matter means we agree?

10/18/2006 2:27 PM  
Anonymous pmyf said...

you are all obligated to protest and noone did, but silence is a sign that the statement is permitted. But I'm sorry for targetting everyone, I shouldn't have accused you all.

10/18/2006 2:42 PM  
Blogger Lab Rab said...

Just wanted to chime in that I'm also a big fan of that Michtav Me'eliyahu. It raises a good compromise option. Ultimately, however, different areas of law will have different solutions to the problem. Some (eg medical areas and pikuach nefesh) are inherently defined as being contingent of the science of the day. Others (like treifot) are pure and inviolate categories.

10/18/2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


What's interesting about that result, as R' Linzer pointed out, is that the same rules of defining tereifa are applied differently whether the tereifa is an animal that may or may not be kosher, or a human being whose life you want to save on Shabbos!

10/18/2006 5:29 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Is "velshe" related to "Velish" (the Sepharadi Torah-Scroll script)?

Yes. The i in Velish is a sign for ə, an epenthetic vowel (anaptyxis, svarabhakti). In older German, welsch (also wellisch) means 'Romanic', and Wende, wendisch/windisch 'Slavic', especially the respective neighbouring people, so that welsch often simply meant 'Italian' or 'French', and wendisch 'Sorbian', 'Czech' or 'Slovenian'. In Yiddish, it came to mean 'Spanish/Portuguese', in other words ספרדי. It's in fact basically the same word as Welsh and Walloon. In regional older German, there was (is?) even a verb welschen. Look up wälschen etc. in that dictionary, if you want more compounds.

10/19/2006 3:19 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...


I don't understand why you're so repulsed. That was meant as harmless fun, and in fact, it could have come from a chareidist just as well either actually mildly joking about the three, or with mild self-irony.

Apart from that, the Rambem is sometimes seen as a less relevant pôsek in the eyes of Ashkenazzim, and he is sometimes seen as a bit suspicious by chareidists because of his philosophy as well as some halachic rulings.

Poskem that lived in Germany, say, from the Maharil on - and even including him - aren't taken seriously as well, simply because they were in Germany which is retrospectively seen as strange in customs and very lax in observance (both of which are wrong).

And R' Môshe Fainshtein is often seen as too lax, explained and "excused" by shaas haddechak - he paskened not for Bnei Tôre. But if you like, replace the MO reproach by claiming he never said so, is quoted out of context because he ruled in a concrete case the circumstances of which we don't know so we can't learn any haloche lemaase from this tshuve, and anyway, his son falsified the tshuves when he edited and published them.

10/19/2006 3:34 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

What's up with the Hhakham Tzevi's title and lastname, anyway? Did his family leave Ashkenaz and then move back?

Yes, Moravia -> Salonica -> Amsterdam and Altona/Hamburg (ir ve-em beyisrol). IIRC, he received both the 'hacham' and the 'Ashkenazzi' epitheta when he was in Salonica. He and his son, the Yabetz, used to add ס"ט to their signatures, but contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean ספרדי טהור, though he might have picked up this vellishe custom in Salonica, too.

10/19/2006 3:53 AM  
Anonymous brother esav said...

What does samech-tet mean?

10/19/2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Ah, interesting... Germanic root *walh- "foreigner", i.e. 'those weird people who don't speak a Germanic language'.

10/19/2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>What does samech-tet mean?

I agree. Do tell. Don't be so coy, Lipman. :)

10/19/2006 10:43 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i think he doesn't want to tell us because it stands for סוֹפֵר טֻרְטְלִים

10/19/2006 10:45 AM  
Anonymous pmyf said...

it is quite irrelevant if its harmless fun. I don't feel like arguing, just please realize that harmless fun isn't always harmless.

10/19/2006 1:28 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

pmyf (what does that stand for, by the way, or have I jsut forgotten?),

it's difficult to react to reproaches (in order to better my ways - I take that serious) if you confine them to diffuse statements.

If you write paradox things like "A is not A", I suppose you mean - in our case - that what I subjectively consider harmless might not be harmless objectively, and/or subjectively in your eyes, in general readers' eyes, or in the eyes of the, or some of the, people I referred to, that is chareidim/-ists.

Now this is worth a thought, of course, and I think the less evil-tongued do consider this at least subconsciously.

Please take into account that
A. It was clearly not literal. A slight exaggeration, which is a standard feature of the literary device of satire, was in place and obvious.
B. Satire or not, the content is objectively not far-fetched. In fact, the exaggeration is in ascribing this view to the whole group rather than to parts of it.
C. The referred people probably are the first to smile, maybe even in agreement. Those who'd agree obviously wouldn't regard this slander.

Now, very importantly:
D. If, as opposed to some chareidists, you regard this judgment of the Rambem etc. as wrong and bad, and therefore my posting about it as loshen hore on chareidists (= they do something incorrect, but I shouldn't talk about it), then what's the difference to the following sentence:

Chareidim tend to wear black hats and suits.

I, for example, have no problem with that on an individual basis, but I think it is wrong as a compulsive thing. So, is the paragraph in italics loshen hore?

10/20/2006 4:24 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

סוֹפֵר טֻרְטְלִים?

I know tartelim as in pastry, and I know turtles, but both don't really seem to make sense here.

Anyway, what ס"ט means is the matter of many discussions and frankly, none of the explanations are satisfying.

ספרדי טהור - but it was used by Ashkenazzim, too, and in regions like Morocco that have both "Spanish" Jews and "Arab" Jews, they mixed early on, so that it doesn't make sense. Also, what's the point? - I don't know other sources for a feeling of superiority of Sefardim over older Moroccans. The similar explanation that it is used by families who didn't mix with Christians in those hard times in Spain doesn't convince me either. It's come up probably because people anachronistically understand ספרדי to mean 'Sefardic', not 'Spanish'. At the period, a ספרדי could as well be a Christian or Muslim Spaniard. Would have made much more sense to say יהודי טהור or the like.
Nevertheless, it seems that some people use this as "purely Sefardic" today, to fight the nonsense that all non-Ashkenazzim are Sefardic.

סנטו - I think those who came up with this idea were too much influenced by the abbreviation St. in Latin script languages. Even "marranos" wouldn't use santo for after a martyr's name, and then you haven't explained yet why, say, the son of Moshe ben Yangakob the Martyr is called Yishak ben Moshe the Martyr.

סופו טוב or סיפיה טב - but this is something you'd write after another person's name, not your own. Ever heard someone say "Hi, I'm Becky shlit"e. I'll be your waiter tonight"? But still, it's possible in theory.

סין טין - Aramaic for the Hebrew עפר ואפר. That is my favourite, it just has the small difficulty that you'd rather expect סין וטין. This is something you wouldn't append to another's name, and in fact, it isn't. (If it's one of the others, you'd have to explain why it's never applied to the addressed person's name or when speaking about third persons.) The phrase - with the vov - appears once in the Bar-Ilan CD-ROM, in a tshuve of the Chide, and just in normal text, not about any person or name. Without the vov - zero hits.

If you have any better ideas - welcome!

10/20/2006 5:08 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

PMYF is my Progressively More Yeshivish Friend, who i tried re-pseudonyming "Ághám", but he prefered PMYF.

"turtle-counter" was just a joke :-P .

10/20/2006 9:39 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

PMYF - right, I had forgotten.

turtle-counter: I thought as much, and understood it was a joke, I just didn't get it.

10/22/2006 4:23 AM  

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