Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Secret Life of Nonsense

It's commonly believed that along with whatever kernels of wisdom the Talmud (and other Jewish scriptures) may contain is a whole mess of silly old folklore and superstition.  On the surface, this assumption is not without merit for the Talmudic Sages apparently believed things like:

"For a fever that strikes daily, one must take a white zuz (coin) and go with it to a salt evaporator, and weigh against it its weight in salt.  He then must tie the salt by the neck opening of his shirt with a strand of hair.  This will cure him of fever."  Or,

"He must sit at the crossroads and when he sees a large ant carrying something he must take the any and place it into a copper tube.  He must then close the tube with lead and seal it with 60 different types of seals.  He must shake the tube and then say to the ant 'your burden upon me and my burden upon you!'"

Seems like a lot of trouble but what do you expect from such ancient and whimsical people?  To those who have a bit of background in Talmudic and mystical exegesis it may be possible to discern the traces of code-words in these "toil and trouble" formulas.  Could it be that they are actually teaching more than they seem to be?  According to several of the great mystics they are doing just that. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna, aka the Vilna Gaon:

"It was decreed that the holy secrets of Moses's teachings would be desecrated by being clothed and hidden in forms such as these strange sounding expositions of the rabbis, rather than being clearly evident.  This is turn, would make it possible for the scoffers of each generation to belittle them."

Why that should be is a longer story but suffice it to say for now that "on the surface the 'Aggadot', the exposition of the rabbis, appear as wasted expressions, God forbid, yet all the secrets of the universe are concealed within them."

How about other discredited beliefs of theses sages such as the belief that the stars are fixed in great spheres that rotate around the Earth or that wine is good for pregnant women or that vermin spontaneously generate?  Doesn't that all call into question everything that they believed?  Actually no, and for three reasons.

The first is that these sages never claimed to possess the totality of human knowledge - rather, they only claimed to have the fundamental tenets of Jewish spirituality.  As such, to have accepted the science of the day (much as we do) or commonly held folk-remedies simply isn't a theological problem.  Had more updated beliefs existed, they would have recorded those.

Secondly, their interest in natural phenomena (science) was largely driven by what baring it had on Jewish law.  Just as everyone knows that there's no such thing as a sunset (as the sun remains still) but doesn't care since it seems to be setting, so too, in a case like spontaneous generation of vermin, inasmuch as it looked to the naked eye that they just sprang up from nowhere, that was enough to base Jewish law off of - the actuality of the matter has no applicable relevance in this case.

Lastly, there is the teaching (along the lines of the Vilna Gaon) that the science of the day that was recorded in the Talmud was actually only intended as a vehicle to teach deeper wisdom.  Consider the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

"The sages recorded much of the esoteric tradition that they had received in matters relating to nature or astronomy.  In other words, they utilized the knowledge of nature and astronomy that was accepted among gentile scholars of their time in order to transmit something else.  Thus, they never intended to teach physical 'facts' concerning these phenomena, but rather to utilize these facts as vehicles for Kabbalistic secrets.  One should therefore not think that they were wrong because a particular model which they used is no longer accepted.  Their intention was to clothe the hidden tradition in the accepted knowledge of their generation.  That very tradition itself could have been clothed in a different garment according to what was accepted (as scientific fact) in other generations."

Like the music of Schoenberg or the writing of Joyce, to the uninitiated it can all come across as so much gibberish.  Those who have the humility to suspend judgement and have taken the time to investigate beyond a superficial first reading may just discover an unforeseen world of surprising order and insight.


  1. "Like the music of Schoenberg or the writing of Joyce, to the uninitiated it can all come across as so much gibberish. Those who have the humility to suspend judgement and have taken the time to investigate beyond a superficial first reading may just discover an unforeseen world of surprising order and insight".

    Never mind the actual article, this last paragraph sums up all what is wrong with it. Comparing an art form to what is supposed to be truth, and nothing but, is very poor.

    If Torah is the sum of all knowledge and is truth I do not accept any ignorance and this poor excuse of "just making do with what is known and accepted today". This is simply another cover-up. The rabbi is trying to suggest that ignorance of the physical is not important as we are only concerned with the spiritual then why have any physical mitzvah? If Mitzvahs come from God and God gave us the Torah which contains all truth then this whole article is worthless mumbo jumbo. And just what are kabbalistic secrets anyway? Just another vehicle to use as a get out clause when proven wrong? Just wave away the problem and say "it's a kabbalistic secret and you wouldn't understand"?

    At least science has the humility to learn and grow. Science is approached completely opposite from religion. Science grows from humility. We are ignorance, we observe, we learn and our knowledge grows. and unlike religion the study of science has the capacity to say "we were wrong". We used to think such and such but after observing this new particle this goes against what we believed so we have to rethink it.

    So think twice before using religion as humility and insight. To say you're never wrong, to claim to know the complete truth, to have nonsense get out clauses and every excuse under the sun to say you're right even when you're wrong is not humility.

    An atheist has more room to accept a god then vice versa.

    1. Abe, thanks for your comment. I wasn't comparing the Torah to writing or music to imply that those two art forms contain any "truth." It is simply a way to illustrate that some things that people regard as disorderly or random are anything but.

      Where are you getting the assertion that the "Torah is the sum of all knowledge?" You seem to be attacking a point that I haven't made. See the Talmud in Pesachim 94B where the sages admit that the gentile knowledge of science is better than theirs - I'd say that was pretty humble.

      You seem to have a bit of an ax to grind here but I don't think it can be applied to the points I've made in this piece...

    2. Well you called it nonsense! I get the personal implications: a bit like the emperor's new clothes. But, by the same logic, I could argue that it's because you only have a superficial perception and are lacking in humility that you don't accept the Gospels, for example. And in that connection, just like Jesus, if rabbis shroud their teachings in mystery, they can hardly blame us ignorant, uninitiated laity for not getting it.

      Abe's point about why the need for practical mitzvot if spiritual matters are of the essence is well made. If a mitzvah is to be performed properly, there is no room for ignorance of the physical. Moreover, if the rabbis cannot even get their physical facts right - stuff which can be verified - how can they expect us to rely upon their teachings of the spiritual, stuff which we have no way of verifying?

      But let's get back on track. We started off talking about the evolution of Hebrew script. Then you asked me what the rabbis are wrong about and I provided some examples. Now, seeing as science has progressed and it can be demonstrated on a chemical level that, for example, it takes much longer than 18 minutes for dough (even with raising agents) to ferment, why don't the Poskim revise the ruling? It's like when a prominent physicist of the last century was asked by a group of rabbinic students if electricity is fire. When he answered "no", no-one took any notice of him, even when he suggested a solution to the offending spark. They didn't really want an honest answer, they were just hoping that his answer would tally with halacha.

      I do not criticise the sages of the Talmud for their factual errors, I criticise current Orthodoxy for continuing to base halacha on those errors. That's why I said Orthodox thinking is frozen in time.


    3. Actually, I have no issue whatever with the notion that what the Gospels say has a more subtle layer of meaning that I am clueless about and as I've very far from knowledgeable about Christianity I have no choice but to admit my ignorance and be open to that possibility.

      However, I really don't understand your point that there is "no room for ignorance of the physical" to be able to perform mitzvot. That's obviously not the case. Very many people shake the lulav without the slightest inkling as to the deeper implications of the act - same with tefillin, kashrut, Shabbat, etc. Just as I don't really know how my car works but am fully able to drive it, so too, I need no special knowledge to do the mitzvot.

      Again, the entire point of this piece is that the Rabbis (Judaism itself) makes no claim that it was in possession of the totality of knowledge. I've brought you three sources thus far - the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, the Talmud and I could quote Sampson Rafael Hirsch as well if you like. To continue to argue against this point that no one is asserting is a classic example of a Straw Man argument.

      It is irrelevant how long the dough chemically takes to ferment - the only question that interests us is how it appears to us (on a practical level). In the same way that we know that the sun does not actually rise or set but all of us agree to call it sun rise and sun set and not say "the Earth has turned x number of degrees," the way halacha works is that it's based on what we can see. Additionally, they may have wanted to build a fence so that even the beginning of fermentation was considered problematic and proscribing it then kept people far from the actual transgression - that's very common (and logical).

      There was a debate as to whether or not light bulbs were considered fire. It furthermore depends on what the sages think and not the physicist. They have more considerations than he does. And this happens to be a good example of how Orthodoxy is not "frozen in time" as we see it examined and dealt with a very new technology. Judaism is partly fixed and partly fluid - that's the way it was designed, the way it always was, and the way it still is.

    4. According to the rabbi (and Judaism itself, apparently) there is room for ignorance when performing a mitzvah and brings the example of shaking the lulav. Yes, i'll give you that. One can shake a lulav and not know it's spiritual meaning. The problem is the example brought is a bad one. Just because you've given importance to shaking leaves around does not mean one cannot shake leaves around without knowing the importance or the supposedly deeper spiritual meaning given to it. So in this case one can perform the mitzvah without knowing the meaning. One problem is the rabbi (and Judaism itself, apparently) has stated that the physical is not important and we're only interested with the spiritual. So what is this shaking of the leaves? Why one leaf and not the other? Why so many conditions on the condition of the leaf or accompanying fruit? Suddenly "knowing" is important! I suggest the one building the car should know how it works and the ones building Judaism should know how it works, why's and the how's. Do not tell me it is irrelevant to know how long the dough takes to chemically ferment to know whether the dough is chametz or not. You mean to tell me it's only how it appears that counts? Well a steak from my local supermarket appears exactly the same as a steak from my local butcher. Well according to rabbis (and Judaism itself, actually) everything is done for erring on the side of caution. But if you don't know how long it takes to ferment then how do you know 18 minutes? Why not 2 minutes? Rabbis (and Judaism itself, apparently) have approached everything from the side of ignorance.

      The rabbi (and Judaism itself, actually) is not fluid. Fluid would be open to changing ones mind when proven wrong. Giving a ruling on something that did not exist yesterday but does so today is not fluid. I understand we live according to some rules (the mitzvahs) and being fluid should mean how it applies today but then refusing to change ones mind when the very reason for the ruling is proven incorrect is not fluid.

    5. I actually never said "that the physical is not important and we're only interested with the spiritual." Clearly, we need both to be able to perform mitzvot. The only point that I have made is that the Jewish sages use the science of their day to clothe various spiritual teachings in. As I've already pointed out several times, there are many sources to support this idea.

      And yes, appearance is a critical component of halacha -this should be obvious. For instance, despite the fact that milk has spilled into a meat dish (which is forbidden to eat) one can nonetheless eat it if the ratio is more than 1 in 60 parts, ie: even though it's there, it doesn't "appear" to be there according to our senses.

      Your butcher example follows this as well. According to Jewish law if one finds a random piece of meat in the street and has no idea where it came from then we determine if the town that it was found in has a Jewish majority or not. If so, eat away as it "appears" to have come from a Jewish butcher.

      Halacha is a complex thing but it's clear that there is actually a good deal of fluidity and human interaction. Yes, it's built to resist change (and for good reason in my opinion) but that's not the same as it not being able to change.

    6. Right, so we could yet make a Christian out of you! But when I referred to the Gospels and the cryptic preaching of Jesus (and the rabbis, by extension), I was thinking of a passage like when Jesus challenged his audience to destroy the Temple, and then claimed that he could re-build it in three days. As an aside, the Gospel text explains that Jesus was actually referring to the symbolic "temple of his body" in his future resurrection. My point is the question of how he expected them to know what he was talking about. They clearly didn't, hence their justified ridicule.

      Yes, you're right, it almost does take a certain ignorance to observe religious rituals, rules and regulations on the part of the laity. But I'm not talking about the "deeper implications" of the rituals. I'm talking about the Poskim, the people responsible for legislating how we actually perform these observances. THEY should know. It takes knowledge of the physical, just as an engineer has to have knowledge of car mechanics (to use your example) to fix the car you drive when it's busted. The physical characteristics of animals are important to determine their kashrut. The Cohen had to be familiar with the symptoms of skin disease in order to pronounce the sufferer clean or defiled. In relation to shabbat, knowledge of the physical is required to determine what constitutes permitted and forbidden activity. And so on.

      The notion that the rabbis were possessed of the totality of knowledge was not my argument, but I object to your equating the rabbis with Judaism itself. Unless, of course, you are talking about "orthodox" Judaism or Rabbinism (i.e., the religion of the 2nd Temple-period rabbis), as distinct from the Mosaic Hebrew religion of the 1st Temple-period. In which case, I would agree with you.

      Oh, so now it's irrelevant how long it takes for dough to ferment. Then why the obsession and insistence on an arbitrary 18/22-minute rule? Why is halacha so intricate and complicated? Why does it matter how high a sukkah has to be or how long a lulav? Then you argue that it's just a question of how it looks on a practical (physical?) level. (In that case, I could prepare a sourdough, roll it flat, bake it and deem it as matzah. Or I could insert any texts, or even no texts, in my tefillin because the cases look OK on the outside.) So, is halacha, in fact, an art and not a science? Fences? Well, even to know when the dough begins to ferment requires knowledge of the physical. (By the way, rabbinic "fences" are surplus to the Torah and, hence, forbidden.) "Sunrise" and "sunset"? You're just playing with semantics.

      You conclude by saying that it's all based on what the sages think anyway, not demonstrable fact. How ridiculous! Why ask the physicist if you're not really concerned with the facts of the matter? No-one is prepared to concede that the sages were wrong on anything. Judaism is partly fixed and partly fluid, you claim, which sounds like you're hedging your bets. And who decides what is "fixed" and what is "fluid"? The rabbis, whose ideas are based merely on what they think! Jewish law lacks logic, rationale and consistency.

      Coming to terms with technological innovations is no major concession. Big deal, so the rabbis were prepared to consider light bulbs. Would it have been better if they had simply ruled that we continue to use candles? I would have thought that science would actually be regarded as an aid to halacha and mitzvah observance, not something that could safely be ignored. You claim that the sages have more considerations than the physicist. On the contrary, the physicist would actually consider and analyse matters in far greater depth than the sages and, thus, be in a better position to make an unbiased decision.


  2. Dear Rabbi,

    Would you consider private email conversations ? If so, can you supply an email. Thanks