Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 11 July 2011

Reasonable In A Different Reality

Years ago a cousin of ours was sitting at our dinner table and began to opine on the situation in Israel at the time. Back in those days there was a great deal of condemnation for Israel for its supposedly illegal occupation of Yehuda, Shomron and 'Aza along with its unwillingness to accept the claims of an invented nation of squatters on those land.  (Wow, how times have changed)  Parroting the politically correct line she noted that it would be only just if Israel were to immediately withdraw from all territories conquered in the 1967 war and give money and efforts to the new Arab state that would suddenly spring into being in Yesha.  After all, it was "their land" and Israel had "stolen" it from them.
My father, who has spent years reading extensively on this subject, asked this cousin some basic history questions about Israel, all of them relating to the last (now) 120 years.  When she couldn't answer any of the questions, my father told her she shouldn't talk about things she knows nothing about.  Huffing indignantly she reminded him that she had a PhD in chemistry!
"And how does that qualify you to talk about history?" my father asked.
I am always reminded of this story when I hear rabbonim who are otherwise quite educated in Torah talking about science.  Now, at some point all of us have a unconscious bias towards things we know little to nothing about.  We assume that there must not be much to know or that the material would be easy to understand from a few sound bytes.  Overcoming this bias is so important in making objective decisions about complex topics or even knowing when not to opine about a subject.
Science is incredibly complicated.  Its parameters include literally all of existence from the smallest subatomic particle to the entire universe and all that God saw fit to stick in it.  It has its own specific terminology in which words which, to a layperson, might have another meaning have a very specific one when uttered by a scientist.  In many ways this is similar to Torah, another incredibly complex, expansive and all-inclusive system of thought and knowledge.  Here's a relatively simple example: melachah, when used by the Torah and Talmud does not simply mean "work" or "laborious work" but productive work related to the 39 categories of melachah as defined by the Mishnah in Shabbos.  Bringing a heavy backpack full of books to the nearby shul 45 minutes away would be classified as work in the generic sense of the word but, assuming there's a valid eiruv, it's not melachah.
Here's another example: the word "theory" in layspeak means "a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, incontrast to well-established propositions that are regarded asreporting matters of actual fact."  On the other hand, in science it means "a more orless verified or established explanation accounting for known factsor phenomena."  When we says that we theoretically believe that it might rain tomorrow we are using the former definition.  When we refer to the theory of evolution or relativity we refer to the later.
Unfortunately those trained in science always miss this subtlety or ignore it for the sake of making a point.  How many times has the phrase "Well evolution isn't proven, after all it's only a theory!" or something along those lines been uttered by folks whose knowledge of science is at the grade 8 level or lower (assuming the yeshivah they grew up in taught it at all)?
Rav Yaakov Menken, in his defence of Rav Avi Shafran's recent piece of fluff on evolution, clearly does not understand the difference between "theory" and "theory" which is a shame since I'm sure he does recognize the special legal significance of the world melachah and would happily mock a Reform Jew who says that he observes Shabbos by driving to the golf course because "that ain't work!"  His piece, a response to Rav Natan Slifkin's response to Rav Shafran's piece, fails in the same way Rav Shafran's did originally. (How curious that Rav Menken didn't bother attacking my review as well.  Ah notoriety, you elude me yet again!)
His first stumble is right out of the gate in his first paragraph:
Unfortunately, he misrepresents what Rabbi Shafran had to say, which was entirely reasonable — and on target
As both my piece at Rav Slifkin's showed, Rav Shafran's piece was only reasonable and on target according to Cross Current's unique definition of those words.  

He then goes on to make a beautiful statement showing that he knows nothing about what atheism is:
Bias is found in the beholder, not the concept, and thus the same facts should rightly be said as follows: “you can find devoutly religious people who do or do not believe in evolution, but to a one, atheists profess belief in evolution.
Here's the problem: atheism is not a unified movement with a guiding set of principles that all its members must adhere to.  It is simply the belief that there is no Creator of the Universe out there looking down on us.  One can believe in God and, chas v'shalom, deny Matan Torah or any of the other events recorded in the Bible. An atheist also does not have to "believe" in the theory of evolution.  He could believe that the universe magically popped into existence 5 minutes ago complete with fake memories and fossils to convince everyone that it's ancient.  But he could also believe in God and hold that way as well.  It just so happens that the majority of non-believers happen to feel that the theory of evolution is what best accounts for the current state of the world around us and accept it in the absence of any better or more reasonable explanation.  However, many devoutly religious Jews also accept the theory of evolution as the method which God used to create and develop life on Earth.  It is not against the Torah to believe in evolution as the Cross Currents gang would have you believe.  Rav Menken is again using a black and white argument to maintain his opposition to a Torah viewpoint that contradicts his own and therefore, in his eyes, must be illegitimate.

Rav Menken also demonstrates some difficulties in contradicting himself:
So I do not understand how he can write that “those who oppose evolution inevitably subscribe to a religious worldview in which evolution is theologically problematic at best and usually entirely unacceptable.” To the religious person, it would really make no difference at all if the evidence for Evolution was absolute and overwhelming — because theMedrash says that everything looks as if it were created naturally. Adam was physically a 20-year-old at the moment of his “birth.
Right, he does not understand why Rav Slifkin feels some religious folks have difficulties with evolution and then proves he is possessed of that same dismissive attitude by present two opinions from the Midrash as if they were the sole completely authoritative and only sources on the subject.  Is his knowledge of Torah really that narrow or does he perhaps wishes ours to be so that we'll be more compliant with his hashkafah?

Rabbi Slifkin claims that the antiquity of the universe is something that the “charedi community officially rejects.” This is one of the strawmen to which I referred. Yes, we believe the world is 5771 years old, however this may be defined (there are multiple schools of thought on this point). Yet I am unaware of even one Orthodox person with an education in the hard sciences who believes that, from a scientific perspective, the world appears to be 5771 years old rather than roughly 15 billion. Who are the “charedim who reject it?” I know that someone will comment with the name of someone, somewhere, because every rule has its exception, but do not ignore the issue at hand: if the charedim are “overwhelmingly, critically biased against any evidence supporting it,” as Rabbi Slifkin asserts, then why do they not reject the age of the universe as well? He fails to present any explanation as to why the age of the universe is accepted as scientific fact by the same people who reject evolution as wildly improbable. On the contrary — he pretends that Charedim reject the observed age of the universe, because the truth so flatly rebuts his argument.

There is so much to work with in this paragraph it's difficult to know where to being.  Now, it is important to distinguish between the "official" Chareidi line and the fact that there is some accepted variation on that line including the famous "each day is an era billions of years long" but there are also authorities (see Rav Nachum Eisenstein's famous invoking of Rav Eliashiv's name) who hold that we must take the first chapter of Bereshis completely literally.  Creation lasted 144 hours as we understand hours today.  Anything else is kefirah.  No   Then there is his "why do they not reject the age of the universe as well?"  This is either a lie or ignorance on his part.  For Chareidi thinkers, the universe and the Earth are the same.  Is there a Chareidi authority out there who believes that there was this empty universe just sitting there for billions of years when suddenly poof! Earth and everything around it suddenly appeared?  Rav Slifkin's point is, despite Rav Menken's obfuscation, completely legitimate.
Yet it is at the end that Rav Menken shows his ignorance of science:
Rabbi Slifkin correctly notes that a scientific theory is “a hypothesis corroborated by observation of facts which makes testable predictions.” He fails to mention that by this definition, evolution is no theory. He links to a post which purports to demonstrate that new species have been observed; they are, to a one, vacuous. Variations within species are nothing new, to the point that a Great Dane cannot interbreed with a Chihuahua. Biologists define species very narrowly, which is fine from a taxonomy perspective, but changes limited to these levels of precision are not evidence of the types of wholesale changes required by evolution.
First of all, a Great Dane and a chihauhau cannot mate because of size considerations.  Other breeds of dogs are successfully interbred all the time.  Has Rav Menken never heard of a pitbull?  Didn't he ever wonder where it came from?  Secondly, there is plenty of evidence in the fossil record for macroevolution and in the laboratory for microevolution.  Yes, the fossil record is incomplete and there are still questions that need to be answered but there is too much evidence to claim that every species on Earth that exists today (along with the ones we've wiped out over the last few centuries) popped into existence exactly as they are now exactly 5771 years ago.  The idea of progressive development of the species remains the best way to explain how things have developed the way they have.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent in labs at the world’s finest universities, attempting to accelerate the process, and their hands are empty. There is no evidence, after repeated testing, yet the wild conjecture behind all this research is still called not merely a theory, but accepted as proven fact. Excuse me?  They haven't managed to accelerate a tens of millions of years process into a few months?  My God, what are those scientists doing?  Sitting around, drinking coffee and occasionally flipping through a few pages of some thick books written in technical language specific to the field?  Oh hang out, that's kollel.  My mistake.
Rav Menken's defence of Rav Shafran proves two things: the idea that to be a "Torah-true" Jew you must believe in an untenable understanding of Bereshis is alive and well.  It also proves that you don't have to be a scientist to make important conclusions about it.  Once again, my father's quote, paraphrased:
"And how does that qualify you to talk about science?"

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

My God, what are those scientists doing? Sitting around, drinking coffee and occasionally flipping through a few pages of some thick books written in technical language specific to the field? Oh hang out, that's kollel. My mistake.


again, your father's quote, paraphrased:
"And how does that qualify you to talk about kollelim?"

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Been there, seen that.

Rosten said...

"But there are also authorities (see Rav Nachum Eisenstein's famous invoking of Rav Eliashiv's name) who hold that we must take the first chapter of Bereshis completely literally."

This is against the Rambam.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Right, but first, many of Rambam's contemporaries held he was totally wrong.
In addition, it was again said in Rav Eliashiv's name that if he could ban the study of Moreh Nevuchim he would because of stuff like this.

Rosten said...

What I am trying to say is that the yidishkeit of the Rambam and the pseudo yidiskeit of OJ is two completely separate things.
But i would like to go further and suggest tat the rambam perhaps had a little better understanding of what The Torah is about than the people who attack him. and yet have nothing to show for their "gedolim" statis.

jrs said...

people seizing on the Rambam as some sort of avatar of contemporary, openminded, scientifically enlightened Torah Judaism are so off-base---they basically like to portray him as sort of Medieval proto-MO Jew who said it's OK to question everything. This image has as much historical validity & nuance as the chassidishe coloring books showing the Jews at Har Sinai with shtreimels & payos.

RMBM was certainly intellectually brave, controversial and a seeker of truth. But he was also, like all people of his time, fairly authoritarian and undoubtedly held many views on many topics that would not go down so well with a modern orthodox Jew today---or vice versa.

Devorah said...

First of all, dear God in heaven, make proper paragraphs. This post was extremely difficult to read. It's also hard to tell which POV is in which font.

That being said, I've always felt that accepting that the world was billions of years old based on reasoning that a "day" wasn't really a day as we know it, because the sun wasn't there.

Often times, Rashi will point out the translation of a word in Torah based on its usage or a shoresh found earlier in the text. Therefore, it stands to reason that a "yom" mentioned anywhere else should be equal to a "yom" mentioned previously. If a day wasn't really a day, God would have used another shoresh or word in place of the word "yom" to connote another type of time measurement.

Some of our greatest measurements in evolutionary biology is based on the concept that pressure, atmosphere, and time stayed relatively constant for radioactive particles to degrade from various isotopes. It's not that big of a stretch to assume that in the times of "tohu and vohu", and the emerging creation of the world, these constants would have been wildly in flux.

Devorah said...

Sorry, I meant to say above that accepting this "yom was different!" rationale makes little sense.

Rosten said...

I DID NOT MEAN THAT THE RAMBAM WOULD AGREE WITH MO. My point was that there is no current day version of yidishkeit that could possible be anything the Rambam would agree with.

Neandershort said...

Devorah -

The time it takes for a sample of a radioactive isotope to decay is not dependent on atmospheric pressure, which varies in space and time even today. It is a product of internal forces in the atomic nucleus and is constant.
Science has nothing to say about any state of affairs where the laws of nature were not in operation, but there is not a scintilla of physical evidence that that was ever the case.