Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jesus and the Kuzari Proof

Yowzer! I just stumbled across this article in which the author uses a Kuzari-proof for attesting to the reliability of the resurrection of Jesus:
The primary point you will want to make here is that the New Testament provides both valid contemporary accounts of those who personally profess to have seen Jesus Christ alive and embodied subsequent to his death and burial in the stone tomb (Peter, Paul, John etc...) and contemporary second hand but specific accounts of others who profess to be eyewitnesses of the same (James, the 12, Luke, Mark, the "over 500" 1st Corinthians 15). There are many ways of establishing this that I do not have the time and space to explore in this short essay.

If someone objects that in the discussion of bodily resurrection you have stepped beyond the realm of history and into the realm of "myth" or "faith", simply ask them whether they consider a public event to which hundreds testify as witness to be within the realm of historical inquiry.

If they say "no" then they have delegitimized and discounted whole swathes of human history.

If they say "yes" then you simply suggest that given the multiple attestation and primary source documents available then it is certainly legitimate to recognize the resurrection as an event within the realm of public history.
(Complete article here.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Learning Gemara - Process Versus Content

While never a great lamdin, I used to enjoy learning Gemara a great deal. The twists and turns, the final AHAH insight into the resolution of a sugya, it was really great intellectual stimulation. But as I got older, I noticed that I started to have an increasingly difficult time with Talmud study. My mind would wander, or I'd get very restless. I'd rather be doing something else. I'd rather be playing guitar. I'd rather be reading something else. And if the learning took place during a shiur, even a short lapse of attention left me temporarily clueless, further enhancing the vicious cycle of frustration.

Why was this becoming such a chore? Was age catching up to me? Was I becoming more stupid?? As I investigated the reason for this change in attitude, it came to me that "solving the puzzle at hand" had become the taful and the subject matter had become the ikkur. That is, the content was getting in the way of the process. And not only did I not care about much of the subject matter, but far too much of it represented a morale outlook that offended the sensibilities of my 21st century mind.

Did I really want to learn about the intricacies of the 4 methods of execution discussed at great length in Sanhedrin? Wasn't some of this just a little barbaric? Wasn't death by seraifah (e.g., for the daughter of priest that commits adultery) worthy of the most horrific slasher film?

How about the lengthy discussions relating to yiud in Kiddushin (among with numerous other "problematic" topics there)? Regardless of the cultural justifications for having a minor girl marry her rapist (or having him remunerate the father for the offense), isn't modern day jurisprudence just a bit more enlightened with treating this as a crime of violence that (ideally) requires removing the offender from society?

What about all of that stuff that has zero applicability today - things like the laws of korbanos, of tumah and taharah, of yibum, sota, nazir?

And, my goodness, you can't even learn normative halacha directly from the Talmud so it has little practical value for living one's life as an OrthoPraxic Jew!

Of course, all of this is irrelevant to the OrthoFundie (and even many ModernOrthoNonFundies). You learn because it's a mitzva! You learn because the Torah derives its kedusha from the Oral Law. You learn so that you may know (organ music please) The Mind of God!

But I dunno, to learn about the world around me, I'd much rather read a book on science, mythology, archaeology, or Terry Pratchett (plug here for Small Gods.)

My reverie is broken - finally, some aggadah! (Plug here for The Juggler and the King.) Hopefully it will be long piece that will carry me through to the end of the shiur...

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Myth of the 600,000 - Argument from Silence

As I discussed previously in The Myth of the 600,000 and A VERY Crowded Campsite!, a literal reading of 600,000 adult male Israelites (representing a minimum of 2.5 million people in total) leaving Egypt, living for 40 years in the desert, and then conquering Canaan is logically untenable. For some, such as XGH, this myth is "The question that killed fundamentalist OJ".

I wanted to briefly address one aspect of the 600,000 myth, and that is the lack of any physical evidence of such a large number of Israelites. Here are a few of some of the arguments from OrthoFundies that were mentioned in the comments of the June 2005 Hirhurim post on this subject. (Note that Rabbi Student himself wrote that "no historian accepts that figure", but that he believes "(with perfect faith) that 600,000 men and their families left Egypt."!) [Note: unattributed initials below refer to the original (anonymous?) commentators.]

1)"What evidence would you expect?" Mordechai Housman's comment typifies this oft-stated answer: "How much evidendce [sic] would be there if people ate nothing from the land (they ate manna) around them, and left no garbage? They lived in ananai hakavod (clouds of glory). And people who ate manna did not have to go to the bathroom. Their clothes and shoes did not deteriorate, so they did not leave any materials behind. So what exactly are archeologists expecting to find there? Empty beer cans?" This sentiment is likewise echoed by Toby Katz, Dude, Prof Lawrence Schiffman (according to Observant), and others in the comments there.

(By the way, incredibly, Housman also believes that "the manna came inside edibles bowls...so they ate those too." Sheesh, people actually believe such pablum?)

2) It was a miracle! RBR takes as literal fact the midrash that states that 80% of the people died during the plague of darkness, meaning that he believes that there were 12.5 million Israelites living in Egypt. (By the way, that's almost as much as the most populous urban area in the world, Shanghai, China, and 1/4 the estimated world population of 1000 BCE!) Anyway, he states that the lack of evidence of either the massive 10 million person holocaust or the 2.5 million survivors travelling in the desert is simply "part of the nes".

3) You wouldn't expect to find artifacts. In addition to the miraculous existence in the desert, MNR states that (according to his archaeology professor) "the desert is actually a bad place for sustaining archaological [sic] remains... so no wonder we can't find any existence of the jews [sic] in the desert - we wouldn't expect to."

4) The emunah peshutah argument. Homestar mentions a circular Kuzari-like argument (it must have been true that there were 1/2 million people because you can't make up such a claim). But ultimately he does the "proof would take away emunah" song & dance.

5) The show stopper: Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

Now lets look at why these are lame arguments.

To suggest that the Israelites' clothes didn't wear out so no remnants would be found today is just a straw man argument. No archaeologist is looking for clothes or shoes (or "empty beer cans")! That's silly. Cloth is not going to survive after 3000 years in the desert (although, contrary to the original assertion, dry desert climes are more suitable for the preservation of organic material than less arid regions once said materials are buried and thus removed from exposure to the sun. Microbial decay is accelerated in moister environs.) They are looking for any evidence whatsoever of habitation including pottery shards, glass containers, metal tools, and so forth, which do survive.

Always keep in mind that we are talking about a population the size of the city of Chicago! Now I do not side with the minimalists and claim that there was no desert experience at all, only that such a humongous population would leave behind significant evidence of a 40-year sojourn in the desert. But let's look at the words of noted minimalists, Finkelstein and Silberman as stated in The Bible Unearthed:

"According to the biblical account, the children of Israel wandered in the desert and mountains of the Sinai peninsula, moving around and camping in different places, for a full 40 years. Even if a number of fleeing Israelites (given in the text as 600,000) is wildly exaggerated, or can be interpreted as representing smaller numbers of people, the text describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions. Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been found in Sinai.

It has not been for lack of trying. Repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai, near Saint Catherine's Monastery, has yielded only negative evidence: not a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment.

One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium B.C.E. and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E.

The conclusion - that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible - seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication - if present - would almost certainly be found.

According to the biblical narrative, the children of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea for 38 of the 40 years of the wanderings. The general location of this place is clear from the description of the southern border of the land of Israel in Numbers 34. It has been identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Quedeirat in eastern Sinai, on the border of modern Israel and Egypt. The name Kadesh was probably preserved over the centuries in the name of a nearby smaller spring called Ein Qadis. A small mound with the remains of a Late Iron Age fort stands at the center of this oasis. Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees."

But, Mr Finkelstein, they lived on manna and didn't go to the bathroom and wore the same underwear for 40 years - what would you expect to find??

- The Israelites had lots of jewelry of silver and gold that were given to them by the Egyptians - so much, in fact, that Egypt was "despoiled" (Exodus 12:35).

- Musical instruments! Even Miriam thought to bring entertainment with her when leaving Egypt (Exodus 15:20).

- Plenty of armament, presumably retrieved from the drowned Egyptians, with which they defeated Amalek, killed worshipers of the Golden Calf, defeated the Amorites, killed all the men of Midian, etc. You'd think that a few swords would be left out of all of the tens of thousand killed. Plus don't forget all of that booty in Numbers 31 - they must have missed a shekel or two, no?

- Isaac (in the Hirhurim comments) puts to rest the notion of "edible bowls", quoting Bamidbar 11:8: "The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it." So the Torah explicitly states that they had grinding mills, pots, and mortars. (And let us not forget that famous "why do have milchigs on Shavuos?" question: because after the Jews received the Torah they had to eat uncooked dairy foods until they could kasher their dishes and utensils.)

- How did the people carry water to their tent? Perhaps with clay water jugs? Or did all 2.5 million just trek on over to the Well of Miriam whenever they were thirsty and use their (edible) ladle?

- What about the complex nature of the mishkan? It required among other things looms for weaving the wool, vats for preparing dye and dyeing wool, smelters for fashioning implements of gold, silver, and brass (and for making the Golden Calf!), tools for cutting the boards, presses for making olive oil, knives for slaughtering animals... Read Exodus 25-29 and tell me that this did not require a large number of workers and sophisticated crafting techniques. Surely something would have been left behind at Kadesh-barnea!

- Any clay utensil that becomes tamei (spiritually contaminated) cannot be later rendered tahor (spiritually pure); it must be broken into pieces. Certainly during a 40 year sojourn in the desert numerous ovens would have become tamei for various reasons (oven touched by someone who had contact with a dead body (50,000 or so people must have died every year), lizard dies inside the oven, etc.) and would have been intentionally broken. Where are all of the oven pieces? [Thanks to Wolf for this suggestion.] (Perhaps, however, Moses ruled like Rabbi Eliezer (!) in the "Tanur Shel Achnai" debate (Bava Metzia 59b) and required that all ovens in the desert be built out of clay pieces which would remain tahor...)

The OrthoFundie is really left with one of two arguments:

1) "Nothing was left behind due to a miracle". This argument is irrefutable because it is outside the realm of debate. It is an admission of "I can't discuss this rationally".

2) "Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack". I often see this stated by Biblical literalists when it comes to the Mabul, and get annoyed because in that case there is abundance evidence of lack. Nevertheless, such an argument can indeed be made about the missing 2.5 million (at least insofar as the sojourn in the desert). It may very well be that tomorrow or next year or next century that archaeologists will make a spectacular discovery that will silence the critics once and for all.

But don't hold your breath...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

REVEALED! Photo of Miriam's Well!

I don't know about you, but this is how I picture Miriam's Well. I mean, how else did it travel through the desert? Plus, those feet have to be fast, 'cuz it's gotta run around the Israelite camp and provide the more than 2-1/2 million people their substantial daily water needs.

(For you evolution skeptics, the Well is obviously genetically related to Rincewind's luggage.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rabbi Shimon Schwab & Historic Truth

What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages. What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience... Rather than write the history of our forebears, every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful. That means we have to do without a real history book. We can do without. We do not need realism, we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it onto posterity.
Selected Writings (Lakewood, 1988)

This powerful and revealing quote by R. Schwab doesn't get publicized as often as it should, even on the various Jewish skeptic blogs. So bear with me while I mention it here.

You can find this potent quote in Rabbi J.J. Schacter's article, Facing the Truths of History. Lots more goodies therein - grab it while it is still available (it doesn't seem to be accessible via a search on Edah). Meanwhile, I'll leave you with another quote, this one from Abraham Lincoln:

History is not history unless it is the truth.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Not, not Yam the Semitic deity of the sea, appointed divine kingship by his papa El until Yam was killed by his enemy Baal, but Yet Another Missing Link.*

Flatfish (for example, the quite delicious, but now threatened Dover Sole) are born - similar to other fish - bilaterally symmetric, with one eye on each side of the body. However, at an early stage of development, the left eye migrates to the right side of the head.

The highly asymmetrical nature of flatfish (Pleuronectiformes, or "side swimmers") skulls has been used as ammunition by both scientists - who claimed sudden evolutionary changes - and creationists who continue to argue against (at least macro-) evolution.

But now, a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist has found evidence of transitional fish forms that support the hypothesis that this asymmetrical eye position evolved over thousands to millions of years.

For more details, I refer you to The eyes have it at Nature and A Wandering Eye at Science News (don't forget to check out the two short videos there).

I would also be remiss if I didn't reference The Bat, the Bird, and the Flatfish by Jewish Atheist.

(*Note that "Missing link" usually refers to human transitional species. I just thought that poetic license should rule over using YATS or YAML.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Is Cassuto Treif?

I was reading the Umberto Cassuto commentary on Genesis and thought to ask a local rabbi (with a mostly chareidi bent) about Cassuto. "How is he treated by the mainstream Orthodox world?", I asked. He gave a brief reply that Cassuto was well respected in the frum veldt. I then pulled out my copy and he asked to see it. After leafing through a few pages he responded "I changed my mind". Why?, I asked. "He discusses the Documentary Hypothesis." But, I replied, he attempts to debunk the DH and show the unified nature of Torah. "Yes, but he discusses the Documentary Hypothesis. He definitely isn't learned in yeshivah".

Now I can certainly understand an objection to Cassuto due to his constant references to Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and other myths of the Near East, claiming that these myths were well-known to the Jewish people, often as ancient poetic traditions. That doesn't jive well with those who believe that the Torah arose full-blown as a completely independent and revolutionary document, rather than an evolutionary one that incorporated traditions from earlier paganistic cultures. But Cassuto believed in a single, early author that - while incorporating earlier myths - treated such myths completely different and in keeping with the high ethical values of the people of Israel.

Nevertheless, what I found fascinating was that this rabbi's objections stemmed from the mere discussion of the DH. (I should have asked him about the Hertz Chumash!) I imagine that this attitude is one of "ignore it and it will go away". One could, however, make the case that it is the yeshiva world that has the most to gain by learning Cassuto since they are mostly ignorant of the assertions of the Documentary Hypothesis. It would give them at least a minimal amount of ammunition that they could muster if they are approached with cursory DH challenges. The double-edge sword, of course, is that they might then do a little more digging on their own and end up with their emunah seriously threatened...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Prophetic Anachronism?

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said: 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.' And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities; and the name of the place was called Hormah.
Numbers 21:1-4

Where was the Canaanite city of Arad? Now referred to as "Tel Arad" (in contradistinction to the modern Israeli city of Arad), it was located about 20 miles west of the Dead Sea. The location of Hormah is not so clear, but it was apparently located near Arad. Similarly, the location of Atharim is not positively known, but it was presumably a roadway in southern Canaan (one scholar suggests that it was a primary route between Arad and Kadesh-Barnea).

The obvious problem is that Numbers describes Hormah as being conquered by Israel before the Israelites crossed over into Canaan! Thus, Joshua 12:7,14:

And these are the kings of the country which Joshua and the children of Israel smote on this side Jordan on the west... The king of Hormah, one; the king of Arad, one...

and Judges 1:17:

And Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they smote the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. And the name of the city was called Hormah.

How could the king of Arad war against Israel when the latter were still on the eastern side of the Jordan?? Ramban discusses this chronological problem at considerable length. (Chavel translation used here.) He states that the king of Arad heard of the coming of Bnai Yisrael so he travelled by way of Atharim to the plains of Moab to fight against Israel, that Israel took a vow to dedicate everything that they had if Arad was conquered, and that the vow was finally fulfilled after the death of Joshua at which time they named the city Hormah (="Utter Destruction"). Ramban continues that even though the vow was fulfilled later, Scripture "completed the account here, just like it did in the section regarding the falling of manna". Thus in Exodus 13:35 "And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan".

Ramban mentions another example in Numbers 34:17: "These are the names of the men that shall take possession of the land for you: Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun." This passage, he says, "constitutes a prophecy that these men will live and function at that time, for it is impossible to say that God would specify for them men about whom there was a doubt as to whether they would still be living; for otherwise He should have commanded Joshua at the time of the division of the land. Since the command was given to Moses, we see that the Torah speaks of future events."

Ramban continues with another explanation that also relies on a prophetic understanding of the verses, suggesting that the king and his people were destroyed during the time of Moses and that they named the place of battle Hormah. Later, during the time of Joshua, they called the cities Hormah - because they were utterly destroyed - and they then fulfilled their vow.

I find Ramban's explanation unconvincing, but not primarily because of his reliance on prophecy to explain the chronological problem. Note that he states that the king of Arad heard of the coming of Bnai Yisrael so he [the king] travelled by way of Atharim to the plains of Moab. He thus engages in a twisting of the translation so that the king of Arad travels from Canaan to Moab - rather than have Bnai Yisrael traveling to Canaan - to better fit his exegesis. Now Ramban was certainly more expert than I in Hebrew, but this does seem like a stretch: וַיִּשְׁמַע הַכְּנַעֲנִי מֶלֶךְ-עֲרָד, יֹשֵׁב הַנֶּגֶב, כִּי בָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל, דֶּרֶךְ הָאֲתָרִים;

But my intention is not to argue with Ramban on his translation. It is to simply state that his approach demonstrates one of the fundamental differences between the traditional approach and a scholarly one. The former accepts the notion of prophecy, the latter does not. Thus a traditionalist has no problem explaining an anachronism - such as is found here - as being indicative of a prophetic statement. A Biblical scholar will simply say that it is an error in chronology and thus proof of a later authorship or compilation.

Because an obscure or problematic passage can almost always be made to fit a subsequent historical event after the fact, claims of prophecy are difficult - if not impossible - to falsify. Fans of Nostramadus are guilty of using this to their advantage, as are Christian missionaries and - of course - JOFs (Jewish Orthodox Fundamentalists). Torah code proponents (mostly a subgroup of OrthoFundies) likewise rely on carefully crafted "unfalsifiable code prophecies."

This is one area in which I don't see any room for debate between the assertions of the traditional and scholarly approaches to Bible. One accepts a priori the notion of prophecy, the other denies its existence altogether.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Book of the Wars of the Lord

From there they journeyed and encamped on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that projects from the border of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of YHVH: What He did in the Reed Sea and in the streams of Arnon.
Numbers 21:14-16

What was the "Book of the Wars of the Lord"?

Ibn Ezra: "It was an independent book, in which were written the records of the wars waged by the Lord on behalf of those that fear Him and was probably written in the times of Abraham. Many books have been lost and are no longer extant such as the Words of Nathan and Ido, and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, and the Songs and Proverbs of Solomon".

Aryeh Kaplan mentions a number of opinions regarding this book:
  • it is an ancient lost book (Baalei Tosafot; Ramban; Chizkuni)
  • it existed among the gentiles (Abravanel)
  • it was a book of records kept from Abraham's time (Ibn Ezra; Bachya)
  • it is a self-reference to the Torah: "it is therefore written in this book, 'God's wars'..." (Targum; Lekach Tov; Septuagint)
  • it is the book of Exodus (Midrash Aggadah)
  • it is the book of Deuteronomy (Yehudah HaChassid)
  • it is not actually a book, but the "telling of God's wars" (Rashi; Rashbam; Lekach Tov; Bachya)
Assorted other comments on this mysterious book (most of them unacceptable to the traditional view of Torah):
  • It's another name for Book of the Courses of the Stars (Mekor Hayim)
  • It is Psalms 135 & 136
  • It's the same as Sefer HaYashar of Joshua 10:13
  • It relates the wars of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges and is therefore later than Moses (Lapide)
  • Moses started it but it was continued by later judges and kings and became the basis for the histories of the Old Testament.
  • A book in poetic form that evidently contained songs which celebrate on the one hand victories and heroic deeds and on the other hand the tragic greatness of fallen warriors. Such ancient collections of songs were utilized as sources in the compilation of the narrative to found in the books from Genesis to Kings. (Eissfeldt)
The Hertz Chumash says: "the lines from that book quoted here support the statement that Arnon was the border of Moab. [He then quotes Ibn Ezra's opinion.] There is no further mention of this book in the whole of Scripture. Evidently it was a collection of ballads and songs."

The strangest comment that I came across is from R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: "The Book of the Wars of the Lord, similarly to the Sefer HaYashar, proves that in Moses's time, literary activities was not lacking amongst the people, these would be the 'makers of sagas' of v. 27, those who wrote and sang ballads and epic poems narrating the great deeds which they had experienced, for the benefit of their contemporaries and for later times. But at the same time these references to other books prove that the holy book of God, the Torah itself, does not consist of such compositions." For anyone who doesn't quite follow such skewed logic (and I didn't until reading Hertz), Hirsch is implying that the "alleged compiler" (Hertz's term) would have otherwise indicated his sources as he has done in this instance! To put it another way, any written account is 100% original except where the author mentions his sources...

By the way, one of the best discussions on "lost books" that are mentioned in the Torah can be found in Gil Student's essay On the Authorship of the Torah. What I find most interesting about the article, however, is how he hedges his bets (most likely he needed to keep the article as "kosher" as possible) with this one sentence: "However, and this is crucial, the actual Torah was dictated word for word by G-d to Moshe."

My question to anyone who maintains that the Book of the Wars of the Lord is a separate book (Ibn Ezra, Baalei Tosafot, Ramban, Chizkuni, Abravanel, Bachya, Hirsch, Student): If God's Blueprint to the Universe (the Torah) is designed for all generations, why would he refer the reader to a book that is no longer extant?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 1 - Evolution & Cognitive Dissonance

Hippo Birdie! Today is the anniversary of the Theory of Evolution. In 1858 on this date, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace read their paper on natural selection before the Linnaean Society of London.

But even a long-term experiment in bacterial evolution conducted over 20 years and 30,000 generations of bacteria is not enough to convince some people. Bacteria evolve; Conservapedia demands recount