Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More Segulah Stupidity...

Guess I'm behind the curve because this is the first time I've heard of this nonsense, but if you also have not previously heard about the challah segulah here goes:
If you are baking challah between after Sh'kiya on Wednesday and before Shavuos, and are making enough to make the bracha "hafrashas challah", please email me so that you can be part of the 40 women segulah.
No other explanation was given in the email, but a quick web search turned up an essay by Chabad-nik Rav Yitchak Ginsburgh, gematria extraordinaire. Apparently, the mitzvah of challah is the primary rectification for the nation of Israel abandoning the Land of Israel as a result of the sin of the spies. Since they wandered for 40 years in the desert, I guess having 40 women baking somehow helps to correct that sin. Plus, the gematria of Rachel = 40 when you use the ordinal count of each letter (there is almost always a way to get what you want with gematriot if you are creative enough!), and the mitzvah of challah relates specifically to Rachel.

The amount of superstition that has permeated mainstream RW Orthodoxy is absolutely astounding. But occasionally this obsession with segulot gives birth to a gem of an idea: Rav Ginsburgh suggests that they open up a bakery inside Rachel's tomb!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reb Yoel - "Just Lucky"

R. Itamar Rosenbaum, the progenitor of Nadvorna chassidim ("Ha’admor Hazaken MiNadvorna"), and his very frank opinion of the Satmar Rebbe, R. Yoel Teitelbaum:
When a hasid of Satmar told him that Reb Yoel was the messiah he retorted: "If you were to say that R. Yoel is a great scholar, I would agree. I would also endorse the view that he is a tzadik, a giant among men. But to assert that he is the Messiah, this is ridiculous and preposterous. How could we face the world with him as the messiah?"

He then explained the influence by which R. Yoel wielded such power over such large masses of chassidim in this way: "The owner of a 5th Avenue store is not necessarily superior intellectually to a shopkeeper in the Bronx. The former was just lucky and fortune smiled upon him."

He found it incomprehensible that the Rebbe of Satmar forbade his followers to visit the Western Wall. "If he lived in Israel," said R. Itamar, "he would visit the Wall. Only in heaven is it known who is a genuine rabbi."
I was originally going to make this a "name this quote" contest (complete with a real, honest-to-goodness prize - a hagiography from CIS Publishers.) But I waited too long to post and Google Books has since made available a preview of the book wherein this is found.

Source: Hasidism in Israel: A History of the Hasidic Movement and Its Masters in the Holy Land by Tzvi M. Rabinowicz.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Torah - The Repository of All Scientific Knowledge

"The myriads of petrified Remains which are disclosed by the researches of Geology all tend to prove that our Planet has been occupied in times preceding the Creation of the Human Race, by extinct species of Animals and Vegetables, made up, like living Organic Bodies, of "Clusters of Contrivances," which demonstrate the exercise of stupendous Intelligence and Power. They further show that these extinct forms of Organic Life were so closely allied, by Unity in the principles of their construction, to Classes, Orders, and Families, which make up the existing Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms, that they not only afford an argument of surpassing force, against the doctrines of the Atheist and Polytheist; but supply a chain of connected evidence, amounting to demonstration, of the continuous Being, and of many of the highest Attributes of the One Living and True God."

So says Reverend William Buckland in his introduction to Treatise VI of The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God As Manifested in the Creation. The title of this treatise is "Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology", written in 1836. Buckland was an English geologist and a proponent of creationism, but he was an Old Earth Creationist. Even at a time when geology was in its infancy, he rejected so-called "Flood Geology", recognized that large scale extinctions had occurred many times in the past, and was the first person to describe in depth a dinosaur fossil - Megalosaurus. In short, he was an early Gadol Hador of Geology. (As an aside, one of his hobbies was zoophagy, and he claimed to have eaten his way through the entire animal kingdom - he found mole particularly disgusting!)

What is especially fascinating about Buckland's attempt to reconcile geology and religion, is that it clearly demonstrates that the science of stratigraphy and its correlation with fossil assemblages was not invented by Darwinian dogmatists in an attempt to prove their case. In fact, Buckland shows quite the opposite: many of the early naturalists interpreted what they clearly saw as legitimate scientific observations in such a manner as to support theological beliefs. But Buckland and others did not take the intellectually dishonest approach that many modern day anti-evolutionists are guilty of - claiming that scientists have resorted to a kind of circular reasoning whereby the fossils date the rocks and the rocks date the fossils. Google, for example, evolution OR stratigraphy "circular reasoning" and you'll see that such ludicrous claims are common amongst the Intelligent Design/Creationist propagandists.

Buckland continues:
It may seem just matter of surprise, that many learned and religious men should regard with jealousy and suspicion the study of any natural phenomena, which abound with proofs of some of the highest attributes of the Deity; and should receive with distrust, or total incredulity, the announcement of conclusions, which the geologist deduces from careful and patient investigations of the facts which it is his province to explore. These doubts and difficulties result from the disclosures made by geology, respecting the lapse of very long periods of time before the creation of man. Minds which have long been accustomed to date the origin of the universe, as well as that of the human race from an era of about six thousand years ago, receive reluctantly any information, which if true, demands some new modification of their present ideas of cosmogony; and, as in this respect, Geology has shared the fate of other infant sciences, in being for a while considered hostile to revealed religion; so like them, when fully understood, it will be found a potent and consistent auxiliary to it, exalting our conviction of the Power, end Wisdom, and Goodness of the Creator.
Throughout the book, Buckland recognizes the immature state of the science of his day, yet this is never a reason to doubt its findings. He also repeatedly states that no longer is it appropriate to date the origin of the human race - much less the universe itself - to 6000 years ago. And that it is foolish to look to the Bible for matters of science.
The disappointment of those who look for a detailed account of geological phenomena in the Bible, rests on a gratuitous expectation of finding therein historical information, respecting all the operations of the Creator in times and places with which the human race has no concern; as reasonably might we object that the Mosaic history is imperfect, because it makes no specific mention of the satellites of Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn, as feel disappointment at not finding in it the history of geological phenomena, the details of which may be fit matter for an encyclopedia of science, but are foreign to the objects of a volume intended only to be a guide of religious belief and moral conduct.
Some extreme fideists like to reference such sources as Ben Bag Bag's aphorism in Pirke Avot 5:22: "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it." or Bereshit Rabbah / Zohar: "God looked into the Torah and created the world" to claim that yes, all knowledge - including all scientific knowledge - is indeed in the Torah, but hidden and/or encoded. This would include many adherents of Jewish mystical traditions, such as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as well as some Torah-code advocates. A prime example of those who promulgate an expansive interpretation of "everything is in the Torah" is the radical OrthoFundie that runs FrumTeens, an expert at handpicking quotes from select rabbanim to support his viewpoint to the exclusion of all other legitimate interpretations within Orthodoxy. When it comes to demonstrating the veracity of such a claim with specific examples, however, such individuals can only come up with very generalized and often vague statements from sages of yore (typical lame one: eretz means "running" so the Torah clearly knew that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun. Although FrumTeens is so wacky that he doesn't even admit to this and falls back on the bogus "The earth revolving around the sun is only relative" claim.) In this they are no different from those who use the same technique in an attempt to prove the divinity of the Koran.

Let us close with the following passage of Buckland's. Rather than twisting the overwhelming evidence that fundamentalists find contrary to their deeply held beliefs, those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible word of God would do well to consider it.
We may fairly ask of those persons who consider physical science a fit subject for revelation, what point they can imagine short of a communication of Omniscience, at which such a revelation might have stopped, without imperfections of omission, less in degree, but similar in kind, to that which they impute to the existing narrative of Moses ? A revelation of so much only of astronomy, as was known to Copernicus, would have seemed imperfect after the discoveries of Newton; and a revelation of the science of Newton would have appeared defective to La Place: a revelation of all the chemical knowledge of the eighteenth century would have been as deficient in comparison with the information of the present day, as what is now known in this science will probably appear before the termination of another age; in the whole circle of sciences, there is not one to which this argument may not be extended, until we should require from revelation a full developement of all the mysterious agencies that uphold the mechanism of the material world. Such a revelation might indeed be suited to beings of a more exalted order than mankind, and the attainment of such knowledge of the works as well as of the ways of God, may perhaps form some part of our happiness in a future state; but unless human nature had been constituted otherwise than it is, the above supposed communication of omniscience would have been imparted to creatures, utterly incapable of receiving it, under any past or present moral or physical condition of the human race; and would have been also at variance with the design of all God's other disclosures of himself, the end of which has uniformly been, not to impart intellectual but moral knowledge.
The full on-line text of Volume I of Buckland's work can be found here. Volume II, which consists primarily of fossil illustrations and descriptions can be found here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Evolution - Jesus the Ape God?

"The problem with the Christian church was, if God became man, man can't be a monkey. If man can be God, then man cannot possibly descend from the ape. For that betrays the concept of man worthy of deification. We have no problem with that. We are unhappy to announce that it is quite possible for man to be an animal, and we know that by looking into the behavior of the Christian church."

So says Rabbi Moshe Tendler in a mostly unremarkable - though entertaining - lecture on evolution given a number of years ago. Actually a more appropriate word for the lecture would be schizophrenic. For example, he claims that we are not Bible belt fundamentalists, and that we know how to learn pshat and not take everything in the Torah literally, yet most of the lecture is spent going over the same tired arguments that those same Bible belt fundamentalists employ against the theory of evolution (he seems to be a particular fan of irreducible complexity.) Then he states that he would be able to defend the claim that earth was 5742 years old [planted evidence??] only to say a few sentences later that the rational mind says that the earth is very old. And although he denigrates Darwin by asserting that "with almost no exception, whatever he said was false, whatever he said proved not to be true" (although the examples he gives relate primarily to the fact that there was no science of genetics at the time), he also tosses Darwin a bone by saying that he deserves a hakoras hatov (appreciative thanks) because he recognized the common denominator between man and animal which made possible the many advances of modern medical science.

While spending the majority of his 1-1/2 talk pointing out the supposed problems with the TOE, he states that there is much merit in the theory (but restricted to micro-evolution and not for macro) and nothing in it poses a religious problem to Judaism, except if one claims that evolution is "random", with God removed from the world. Natural selection is a mechanistic approach that doesn't need God. We believe that God is involved in the affairs of man.

Rabbi Tendler states more than once that the world is not 5742 years old, but that OUR world is 5742 (that is, the history of the Jewish people begins with Adam). He pays special attention to the Drush Or HaChaim by Tiferes Yisroel (1782-1860) which discussed a recently discovered mastodon, and which claimed that science finally realized what Jewish commentators had said for a long time - that there were worlds before this one, and each successive world had more advanced species. And Tendler concludes by saying that the one God that gave us the Torah gave us the truths of science and that there is nothing that science discovers that can be in opposition to Torah. We can defend the Torah from any scientific onslaught, but that we should not deny that the onslaught exists. But ultimately the only conflict is in the hearts of people, whether to accept God or not. Our role in life is not just to believe in God, but to act in such a way that others will learn to love God from our love of God.

But the purpose of this post is not to examine the merits or flaws of Rabbi Tendler's argument (yes, all the preceding was a long-winded introduction!), rather it is to examine the quote that I started with. His point was that in the 1800s there was "never a tumult" in the Jewish world regarding the TOE. He neglects to say that this claim holds true today primarily for the Modern Orthodox of which Tendler is a spokesman, for the leaders in the Chareidi / Yeshivah world are almost always as vehemently opposed to the TOE as any Christian fundamentalist. Tendler even admits that some of our schools take a razor blade to excise passages from science texts, though he neglects to add that this was an approach that his father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, advocated since he claimed that belief in evolution is heretical.

Rabbi Tendler asserts that the Christian church has the most fundamental problem with the theory of evolution because of what it implies regarding the divinity of Jesus. And for many years I took this assertion as fact. After all, did not Spain ban the study of science in 1305 because of the fear that the nascent Renaissance (largely a result of the Christian world encountering the vastly superior Islamic culture during the Crusades) would set mens minds free from religious dogma (to paraphrase Max Dimont's Jews Gods & History)? Wasn't it well known how the Church treated the astronomical findings of Copernicus which proved that the Earth was not the center of the universe, culminating in the heresy trial of Galileo? So it was certainly reasonable to take R. Tendler's statement at face value.

I recently wrote on Francisco Ayala in the post The Christian Man's Evolution or God the Abortionist. To recap, he is an esteemed geneticist and evolutionary biologist as well as an Dominican priest, and is a proselytizer for Darwinian evolution. One curious belief of Ayala is that Darwin solved the problem of evil in the world, since natural selection explains the ruthlessness of nature which would otherwise require an intentional act of free will. (Of course, this only covers "natural evil", and not "moral evil" committed by man.) Baal Habos and Orthoprax objected to this as a valid Judeo-Christian religious claim, since it presumes a hands-off deity that left creation to its own devices. Unfortunately, I neglected to include one sentence in the original article: "He refers to science-savvy Christian theologians who present a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection." This clarifies his premise but really doesn't answer their valid objection as it seems internally contradictory. How can a deity be "continuously engaged" in an "undirected" process?

I said that I'd look into Ayala's works to see if he developed this notion in greater detail and addressed the paradox seemingly inherent in it. To date, I have only been able to check out one book of his (inter library loan is being very slow), a thin one called "Darwin and Intelligent Design". In it, he discusses the notion but does not address the obvious dilemma. So I have no answer from Ayala yet. I will, however, actually present a Jewish solution to this problem at a later time.

Nevertheless, the book does clearly demonstrate that Rabbi Tendler is as wrong in his assertions regarding the Church's objection as he is with many other erroneous claims made throughout the lecture. Examples that Ayala quotes include:
  • Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Church father, maintained that many plant and animal species were not created directly by God. Rather, only their potentiality was created and that natural processes later brought about their emergence.
  • Theologians in the middle ages considered the possibility of species changing via natural processes, such as Thomas Aquinas who believed that spontaneous generation was not incompatible with Christian faith.
  • 19th century Protestant theologians such as Charles Hodge (1874) claimed that denial of design in nature is denial of God (and not for the reason that Tendler suggests). Yet others granted evolution as a mechanism of divine intelligence.
  • Of course, the 20th century has seen the widest acceptance of the theory of evolution by prominent Catholic Church authorities, including the big kahunas. Pope Pius XII acknowledged the compatibility of evolution with the Christian faith, and John Paul II in 1996 objected to people using the Bible as containing scientific statements adding that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis but a theory with significant arguments.
Aubrey Moore, in 1891, wrote that "Darwinism appeared, and under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend". Wiki describes him as "the clergyman who more than any other man was responsible for breaking down the antagonisms towards Evolution then widely felt in the English Church". So while there was some antagonism towards the theory, it appears that Rabbi Tendler is 100 years out of date in his claims.

But there can be no debate regarding Tendler's statement that the history of the Christian Church shows us that man can indeed be an animal. After the audience laughter had subsided, Rabbi Tendler next words were "I say that under the roof that houses the holocaust center."