Sunday, May 25, 2008

A VERY Crowded Campsite!

The number 600,000 is firmly embedded in the Jewish psyche. It is, of course, the (approximate) figure that the Torah gives to the number of adult (age 20 and over) Jewish males in both the census of Bamidbar chapters 1 and 2, and the later census of chapter 26. This number has been extended to various mystical ideas such as the number of root Jewish souls, the number of letters of the Torah, and the number of interpretations of Torah.

However, numerous objections have been raised to the 600,000 figure, based on such considerations as our current estimations of the population of the ancient world, the ability of the land of Goshen to support this number of people, such a huge number of people being able to cross the Yam Suf in any reasonable amount of time, the absense of evidence of such a large number of people entering into Canaan en masse, etc. An excellent discussion can be found in Colin Humphreys' The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories. Chapter 8 - "How Many People Were In The Exodus" - goes into detail regarding both the problem and a solution based on interpreting eleph as "troop" instead of "one thousand".

There is another serious objection that I have not seen raised before.

Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah is a masterpiece. For those who think that it is merely a translation of the Torah into modern English, look again! The prodigious and well-researched footnotes that refer to a plethora of classical Jewish commentaries, plus the maps, tables, and charts make this a must-have for any Jewish library. But a curious thought arose when I looked at Plate 26 on "The Camp". I have added some notes to the chart which gives one a better understanding of a major problem that results when ones accepts a literal approach to 600,000 in conjunction with the asserted layout of the Israelite camp in the desert. (Click on the image to make it more legible.)

The problem? Population density! Up to now I've only mentioned the adult male population for each tribe. One typically sees a number of two to three million Jews in total (although based on the fecundity of Jewish women that is often invoked in midrashim, 1-2 children per family seems to be extremely conservative.) We'll use the commonly given figure of 2.5 million people living inside an area of 5 square miles. This gives each person less than 60 square feet of total space, space that also had to accommodate sleeping, eating utensils, etc. (For the purpose of this discussion we'll grant the fundamentalist various well-known miracles that obviated the need for latrines or areas for food storage. Animals would have been kept outside the habitable areas of the camp.) For comparison, this is 14 times the population density of the densest city in the world - Mumbai, India! And Mumbai, of course, can accommodate this density only because of the many tall apartment buildings; the Israelites all lived on the ground floor.

It would have been bad enough for the tribe of Manasseh, the least populous of the tribes with about 92 square feet per person (again, assuming a total population of adult males * 4) but Yehudah? Less than 40 square feet per person! (If you are an average height male of 5' 9", hold a one foot ruler in each hand grasping each one at the 4 inch mark, extend your arms to each side and rotate 360 degrees. That's how much personal space you would have.) Sometimes it just doesn't pay to be the BMS (Big Macher Shevet)!

Again, the population density would be even more preposterous if one were to use a more reasonable number of children per family - the 2.5 million number assumes that every male was married with only 2 kids! (Who did they think they were, Modern Orthodox??)

Jews have lived in extremely crowded conditions before. The Warsaw Ghetto is an unfortunate - but notable - example, but at its worst the maximum population density was only half that of the supposed desert camp population and the ghetto consisted of mostly multi-story buildings. Keep in mind that the ancient Israelites supposedly lived in such conditions for 40 years...

Regarding the proposed dimensions of the camp, Rabbi Kaplan refers to Rashi on Bamidbar 35:5, even though the latter passage speaks of the areas that the Leviim will inhabit once they conquer the land of Israel. Perhaps this was learned out by a gezerah shava (סָבִיב)? In any event, I haven't come across any other source that posits what the area of the camp was, so this is certainly not the strongest argument that can be made against the fundamentalist approach which insists on a literal interpretation of 600,000. It's more of a little chip off of the already crumbled edifice of Biblical literalism.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Science and Religion, A Buddhist Approach

Although I'm generally not keen on creating blog posts that consist only of quoting someone else's writings, this particular passage from The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama, is especially insightful and relates quite nicely to many of the Torah vs Science discussions that surface on a regular basis in blogland and elsewhere. So, at the risk on treading into territory that is more apropos to an XGH post (the topic, not the reference to original content), here is an excerpt from Chapter Two - Encounter With Science.

Although Buddhism has come to evolve as a religion with a characteristic body of scriptures and rituals, strictly speaking, in Buddhism scriptural authority cannot outweigh an understanding based on reason and experience. In fact the Buddha himself, in a famous statement, undermines the scriptural authority of his own words when he exhorts his followers not to accept the validity of his teachings simply on the basis of reverence to him. Just as a seasoned goldsmith would test the purity of his gold through a meticulous process of examination, the Buddha advises that people should test the truth of what he has said through reasoned examination and personal experiment. Therefore, when it comes to validating the truth of a claim, Buddhism accords greatest authority to experience, with reason second and scripture last. The great masters of the Nalanda school of Indian Buddhism, from which Tibetan Buddhism sprang, continued to apply the spirit of the Buddha's advice in their rigorous and critical examination of the Buddha's own teachings.

In one sense the methods of science and Buddhism are different: scientific investigation proceeds by experiments using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience. But both share a strong empirical basis. if science shows something to exist or to be non-existent (which is not the some as not finding it), then we must acknowledge that as a fact. lf a hypothesis is tested and found to be true. we must accept it. Likewise, Buddhism must accept the facts – whether found by science or found by contemplative insight. If, when we investigate something, we find there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality – even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with a deeply held opinion or view. So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different.

By contrast with religion, one significant characteristic of science is the absence of an appeal to scriptural authority as a source of validating truth claims. All truths in science must be demonstrated either though experiment or through mathematical proof. The idea that something must be so because Newton or Einstein said so is simply not scientific. So an inquiry has to proceed from a state of openness with respect to the question at issue and to what the answer might be, a state of mind which I think of as healthy skepticism. This kind of openness can make individuals receptive to fresh insights and new discoveries, and when it is combined with the natural human quest for understanding, this stance can lead to a profound expanding of our horizons. Of course, this does not mean that all practitioners of science live up to this ideal. Some may indeed be caught in earlier paradigms.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Parashat Behar: Bad Proofs of Torah #4 - The Sabbatical Year

"There are many Biblical commandments which due to their very nature could not have been thought of and promulgated by any human mind and will. No human leader would ever contemplate introducing such ordinances to his follows and no human ruler, no matter how strong and forceful, could ever impose such absurd whims of his upon any people, least of all the People of Israel" - Rabbi Eli Gottlieb.

Among the many bad proofs of the divine nature of Torah (Hey Kids, Collect Them All!) is the Sabbatical year. The posting title says "Bad Proofs of Torah #4", for this is Gottlieb's fourth "proof" in his book, The Inescapable Truth a Sound Approach to Genuine Religion. For now, let's ignore the intrinsic logical fallacies that are apparent in his introduction above, and hear the rabbi out.

Gottlieb states how difficult it would be for an agricultural society to follow such a commandment. It would be irresponsible to suggest such a law and would have been an absurdity to expect a whole nation to accept it. Why would a human ruler ever want to order his people to accept a foolish observance which would pose a real economic and physical danger? How could a human ruler guarantee the needs of the people which only nature normally provides?

Although not specifically stated by Gottlieb, this is also one of numerous "proofs by way of a falsifiable miracle" [my terminology] that is used by kiruv organizations such as Aish Hatorah. The assertion is "why would a human leader include a commandment that relies on a miracle? The first time that the miracle didn't occur, the people would say 'What the hey? I was promised X and God didn't deliver - I'm not following all of this nonsense!' Only God would therefore create such a commandment."

Now let's list all of the problems with this proof which basically revolves around the question "would a human leader to create such a law"? In the words of the renowned Jerome Lester Horwitz, soitenly!

1) First, we cannot presume to know the psychology of a religious leader that has been dead for more than 3000 years. We cannot know the psychology of the people he was leading. We have a cultural mind-set that is just too far removed from people of the Iron Age. We therefore cannot state what would be "reasonable" or "unreasonable" for a human leader to include in his set of laws.

2) This is not a "falsifiable proof" as no miracle was needed. Justification could always be made in the absence of a miraculous 6th year. As in "Because of the sins of the people, they did not merit a bountiful year." Which leads me to:

3) There is no evidence in any Biblical book to suggest that the Jewish nation actually kept the Sabbatical year for crops! To the contrary, there are only numerous passages that suggest that they didn't keep it, and attributed exile and other punishments as a result of their neglect of the commandment.

And they burnt the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia; to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had been paid her sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill threescore and ten years. - 2 Chronicles 36:19-21.

Likewise, there is no suggestion within the oral tradition that Shmittah was observed. The discussions are relegated to legal details of the commandment.

4) Some scholars suggest that the Shmittah year was always theoretical, meant to convey theological lessons. This is similar to other laws that Chazal states were never operative nor ever will be, such as the Ir Hanidachas (city that had turned to idol worship and must be completely annihilated) of Devarim 13:13 or the Ben Sorer U'Moreh (rebellious son) of Devarim 1:18.

Certain provisions of the Shmittah and Yovel years are reminiscent of earlier Babylonian laws (e.g., the clean slate proclamations of debt cancellation and land restoration). But what about the specific requirements to let the land lie fallow? Is it a uniquely Jewish innovation? Again, the answer is no.

Letting the land lie fallow on a regular basis confers numerous benefits including reduction of pests and diseases in the absence of a host crop, and replenishments of nutrients. (Crop rotation was later used to accomplish the same thing. Now, of course, we rely on fertilizers and pesticides and are paying dearly for our profligate use of them.)

Indeed, the collapse of the Sumerian civilization was likely caused by not letting their land lie fallow! The hot climate in the "fertile crescent" evaporated most of the irrigation water, leaving behind salts. Eventually, too much salt had accumulated and wheat would no longer grow. Letting the land lie fallow for several years effectively reclaimed the land by the slow leaching downward of salt. The Sumerian rulers, however, demanded increased food production in order to extend their civilization. The farmers initially switched from wheat to barley as it is more salt tolerant, but eventually even the barley crops started to fail. In one of the earliest recorded environmental disasters, "the earth turned white" due to the salt. As a result of malnutrition, a weakened army, and peasant revolt, the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadian empire. Thus, one thousand years before the traditional time of the giving of the Torah, it was already a well known fact in the Ancient Near East that letting the land lie fallow was a critically important agricultural practice. (Though completely unnecessary in the Nile regions of Egypt due to the annual inundation.)

The uniquely Jewish innovation, of course, was to turn sound agricultural technique into one of deep religious significance. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha said it more eloquently than I ever could:

The Shmitta commandment expresses an important ideal of Torah teaching. The very language used by the Bible that "the land rest" speaks of a relationship between nature and man from which modern man in an industrialized society has become dangerously alienated. The Shabbat Shabbaton, the great Shabbat that the land should have as a "Shabbat unto God" – a phrasing very similar to the one used for the Sabbath observance by man – suggests an intimacy of God-Nature relationship that limits man's proprietorship over the land. The Shmittah year frees the land from total human ownership. The yield of the land in that year, whatever grows without human effort, is ownerless and is available for all, including the animals of the earth. The philosophy of the interrelatedness of all life within itself and with its Creator is the seed for vital ecological and socio-ethical insights, responsibility. and promise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

New Movie - "The Heretic" - Soon To Be Released!

(Click on the image to make it more readable...)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ezekiel Sez - The Torah is NOT Forever!

For those of you who enjoy a shnapps at the kiddush club, you missed a very interesting and controversial haftorah last Shabbos.

Ezekiel 44:15-18: "But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of My sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from Me, they shall come near to Me to minister unto Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer unto Me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD; they shall enter into My sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister unto Me, and they shall keep My charge. And it shall be that when they enter in at the gates of the inner court, they shall be clothed with linen garments; and no wool shall come upon them, while they minister in the gates of the inner court, and within. They shall have linen tires upon their heads, and shall have linen breeches upon their loins; they shall not gird themselves with any thing that causeth sweat."

21-22: "Neither shall any priest drink wine, when they enter into the inner court. Neither shall they take for their wives a widow, nor her that is put away; but they shall take virgins of the seed of the house of Israel, or a widow that is the widow of a priest."

Although Ezekiel is addressing the Jews during the Babylonian exile, the last nine chapters are generally understood by traditionalists as referring to a prophecy of messianic times. And two obvious problems are seen in the aforementioned passages.

First, kohanim wore garments of linen and of wool. Specifically, the avneit, belt, was made of shaatnez (a weave of linen and wool). (In addition, the Kohen Gadol wore a number of garments of shaatnez, such as the ephod, robe.)

The second problem relates to the marriage restrictions of a kohen. There is no requirement for a kohen to marry a virgin nor is there any prohibition to marry a widow. These restrictions apply only to the Kohen Gadol (Vayikra 21:13-14); a Kohen Hedyot (ordinary kohen) is only prohibited to marry a divorcee or a chalalah (Vayikra 21:7).

If you recall, Rambam's Ninth Principle in his Ikkarim of Emunah says that "the Torah will never be abrogated, in whole or in part, and God will never give another Torah." So is "Ezekiel arguing with Rambam"?

The issue of linen-only garments is not really much of a problem. It is generally agreed that the avneit of the Kohen Gadol was woven linen and wool (see Shmos 39:29. The colored material - techeiles, etc. - refers to the wool component.) Although Rambam, in Klei Hamikdash 8:1, says that the avneit of a Kohen Hedyot (ordinary kohain) was wool and linen just like that of the Kohen Gadol, this is actually a dispute in the gemara (Yoma 6a and elsewhere) and it may have indeed been made entirely of linen. Rashi posits that the pasuk in Ezekiel is actually talking about the Kohen Gadol during Yom Kippur based on הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית (inner court), equating it with the Kadosh haKedoshim. As described in Vayikra 16:4, the Kohen Gadol wore only four garments during the Yom Kippur service, all of which were linen-only. However, this is a very weak answer which is completely contrary to both the context and the continued use of plural forms (an objection of the Radak who thus derives that it is talking about all kohanim), as well as the obvious references to the inner courtyard in Chapter 40 and elsewhere that distinguish it from the Holy of Holies.

The restrictions regarding virgins and widows is much more problematic. Rashi, once again, claims that the requirement here to marry a virgin is for the Kohen Gadol and that the permission to marry widows applies to ordinary kohanim. He thus splits up the pasuk in a very awkward way. Radak is likewise consistent, saying that the pasuk as a whole refers to ordinary kohanim and reflects a new requirement based on their increased kedusha in the future. Read it inside; I think you'll find that Radak makes much more sense overall.

Problems in Ezekiel [including the architecture of the Third Temple] were apparent in the 3rd century CE, as described in the Talmud Bavli, Shabbos 13B: "R. Yehudah said in Rab's name: In truth, that man, Hananiah son of Hezekiah by name, is to be remembered for blessing; but for him, the Book of Ezekiel would have been withdrawn, for its words contradicted the Torah. What did he do? Three hundred barrels of oil were taken up to him and he sat in an upper chamber and reconciled them." Chagigah 13A also describes this story, and gives an additional reason for why Chazal almost withdrew Ezekiel - a young student who got crisped for delving into Chashmal. See Rashi there who explains another apparent contradiction based on Ezekiel 44:31 which suggests that perhaps n'veilah is only prohibited to priests. [Note that these gemaras are additionally fascinating for insight into the process of the canonization of TaNaCh!]

While I don't shy away from suggestions that rely on the Documentary Hypothesis, I'm not even going to suggest that Ezekiel had a different text of the Torah, nor do I have any clue whether DH scholars explain these contradictions as such. Instead, I'm going to go back to the title of this post - "Ezekiel Sez - The Torah is NOT Forever!" Marc B. Shapiro, in The Limits of Orthodox Theology, devotes a chapter to this principle, and demonstrates convincingly that numerous rabbinic sources ranging from Chazal (Niddah 61b, Kiddushin 72b) through the Rishonim (Albo) and the Acharonim (the Ari, Rav Kook) have promulgated ideas that obviously disagree with Rambam's 9th. R. Yaakov Emden had very strong words for the Rambam stating "We absolutely do not admit that which Maimonides laid down, that the entire Torah will not change, for there is no decisive proof for this - neither from reason and logic nor from the Bible. Verily, the Sages tell us that the Holy One will give a new Torah in the future. If our King should wish to change the Torah, or exchange it for another, whatever the King wishes, whether it be to descend on Mount Sinai or another of the mighty mountains, or even a valley, there to appear a second time before the eyes of all the living, we would be the first to do His will, whatever be His bidding."

The Radak obviously concurs with these dissenters, or at least believes that Ezekiel did so!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Korban Pesach Redux

In my most recent post, Boil a Cow, Roast a Lamb, I described the two accounts of preparing the Pesach offereing in the Torah, one of which (Exodus 12) clearly states that it is to be roasted and not cooked in water, the other (Deuteronomy 16) stating that it is to be cooked. Of course, we know that normative halacha states quite clearly that it must be roasted in fire and that cooking it in water renders it posul.

I had a chance to do some additional research over Pesach, including asking a number of different people about this discrepancy.

First, almost every translation of "bishul" in Deuteronomy renders it as "roast", including the various Artscroll Chumashim (naturally), Hertz, Sharfman Linear, Koren, and the JPS. Aryeh Kaplan's Living Torah is an exception, and he uses the word "cook" although a footnote quotes Rashi and Bachya, who state that cook in this instance means to roast. And indeed, almost everyone I asked said that cook is just a generic term. Like if you tell someone, "I'm cooking chicken for Shabbos" that might mean roasting/broiling, baking, boiling (but only in my soup, thank you!). But while such a loose way with words works in English, Hebrew is much more precise. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon indicates that bishul means to boil or seethe and quotes various sources in Tanach in which it is clearly interpreted as "boil" and which said translations above also render it as such! One of many examples is Leviticus 8:31 which discusses korbanos to be offered during the inauguration of the Kohanim. It uses the exact same term וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ, and every translation mentioned above translate it as "boil" - except Artscroll (naturally) and Kaplan who use the more neutral English term "cook" (at least Kaplan is consistent). Nobody, however, says "roast" because that isn't what it means. Obviously, accurately translating Deuteronomy 16:7 is a problem, and translators relied on a contextual understanding of the word based on the Oral tradition. Interestingly, one of the other numerous sources that B-D-B references for "boil" is Deuteronomy 16:7! Gezerah shavah anyone?

I did, however, leave out an important commentator until now: R. Shimshon Hirsch. He devotes an entire paragraph to discuss the phraseology of Deut. 16:7. We think that the general term bishul, to cook, which includes both roasting and boiling is used here because here it is considering not only the Pesach offering but also the Chagigah which is really what is new in the chapter on Pesach and of which verses 2 and 4 spoke... Agreeing with this way of taking it would also be the proof that is brought in Nedarim 49a, that under the term bishul the idea of tzli is also included, not from our text, which after all is closest to hand, but from Chron. II, 35:13.

R. Hirsch is making an interesting point that a generic term is used here because pasuk is also including the Chagigah (the "Cow" in my previous entry) which did not have to be roasted.

The Talmud on Nedarim 49a, by the way states thusly: (Mishnah): He who vows not to eat what is cooked is permitted to eat what is roasted or seethed... (Gemara) We learn in a braissah, R. Yoshiah forbids [i.e., is forbidden to eat what is roasted, contrary to the first part of the Mishnah]. And even though there is no proof of this, there is some indication, for it says "And they boiled the Passover in fire according to the law." [Chron. II, 35:13].

As I previously blogged, the Chronicles reference only indicates what was common practice hundreds of years later during the time of Ezra; it really has no bearing on the possibility that there might have been separate traditions that were only later reconciled. Nevertheless, R. Hirsch at least has a somewhat convincing answer for the seemingly anachronistic use of וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ

Finally, there is this explanation given to me by an expert in Rabbinics that is quite fascinating. It is a distinctly non-traditional one, but may be slightly more palatable to those opposed to anything that smacks of a Documentary Hypothesis. (Of course, such individuals would probably dismiss the idea that there is any kind of problem with these two passages because "the Oral Tradition clarifies everything for us".)

This rabbi claims that the two accounts of Exodus and Deuteronomy are completely separate and distinct commands. Reading Exodus 12 carefully there is:

  1. 1-11: Designation of a lamb on the 10th day of the first month (Aviv/Nissan). On the 14th, it is killed and the blood is put on the door posts & lintel. It is to be eaten that night, roasted and with bitter herbs. It is not to be eaten raw or with water, nothing is to be left over to morning. The remains are to be burned. The people are to eat the offering in haste [ready to leave Egypt].
  2. 12-13: A description what God will do to the Egyptians.
  3. 14-20: The command to keep this day as a memorial feast to God for all generations. The memorial consists of eating matzoh and unleavened bread!
  4. 21-28: Moshe commands the elders to kill the Pesach lamb, to put the blood on the door posts. This service is also to be done forever! (As an aside, note that verse 26 is found in the Haggadah, but it is obviously not the intent of this verse to suggest that a rasha is asking the question!)

Thus, it seems that there are separate commands regarding matzoh and the Pesach offering (which is a "zevach" here, and not a korban.) We still keep the commandment of matzoh, but as far as I know, Jews have never kept the Pesach offering described here, except in Egypt! But note that the Samaritans still put blood on their doors with bitter herbs. See here.

Now what about the command in Deuteronomy? It is well-accepted that Bnai Yisroel never kept Passover during their 40 years in the desert; Moshe is now giving them instructions as to how to keep it when they enter Israel. The Pesach offering now becomes a korban Pesach. What is the difference? It cannot be offered in "thy gates", but only in a designated place (traveling tabernacle, public bamot, or - eventually and exclusively - the Beit Hamikdash). And how are korbanot prepared? Any way you want! The only restrictions relate to time and place, and not with how they are prepared. You want to roast it with barbeque sauce, or cook it with duck sauce? Gezunter heit!

This explanation - while intriguing - still begs an obvious question: both accounts state that the Pesach offering is for future generations. Even if one is not bothered by the definition of bishul, what about the other aspects of its preparation? Did Moses change what God originally commanded and why? Was he on the Homeowner's Association and opposed to messy, bloody doorposts? Or do the Samaritans perhaps have a more accurate mesorah??