Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Theological Absurdities

In a private group communication, I had expressed my rejection of R' Avigdor Miller on the basis of having read a few pages of his book "Rejoice O Youth," at the recommendation of a Chasidic friend. R' Miller sets out to explain the young-earth anti-Darwin perspective as being the proper position for a Jew to hold. To do that, he says that you have to start from ground zero, assuming that scientists are insincere and lying.

Being related to many scientists, whose good-faith I take for granted regardless of their theology, and having some (minimal) science training, I was ready to throw the book across the room. But I just put it down (it not being mine), and decided I wasn't going to try R' Miller any more.

Someone responded that, to be fair, I should try to understand such positions, given that various major Talmidei Chachamim held them, such as R' Miller or the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I disagree. If Talmidei Chachomim held such positions, I have to believe it was based on one form or another of ignorance. Knowledge of Torah does not automatically confer expertise in non-Torah areas, nor does it confer the ability to judge among extra-Torah ideas. It does, however, confer a bias in favor of opinions expressed by other Torah scholars that may disagree with scholars in other fields, even where those opinions and fields may be orthogonal to Torah.

But a lot of these positions are absurd. They are logically inconsistent, and theologically difficult. We Jews don't say, Credo quia absurdum est, but we do say, the seal of God is Truth, which idea is derived from the final letters of bara Elokim et, the beginning of Creation. What God communicates to us, through Torah or the physical world, is Truth. And, as the Meiri and Rashi and other Rishonim say, if it's clear that the text cannot be literally true, there's still an allegorical Truth to it. Textual interpretation is malleable (up to a point); physical reality is real truth.

Young earth, the idea that the Universe is no more than 5770 (+162) years old, requires one to posit that not only are all scientists anti-religious liars, but that all science is wrong - even that which produces the life-saving medicine that cures your cellulitis infection, or strep infection, or metal poisoning, or which allows surgeons to stop your heart for some hours while they repair it, etc. It requires one to believe that God is lying to us through physical reality - that the Universe, that behaves as if it were older than 5800 years in factor after factor after factor, from radioisotopes to erosion to fossilization to species diversity, is a all a sham.

Now, for people who believe that the entire universe is just a figment of God's imagination, I can see that. One such system is the Lubavitch "upper unity", where all physical reality is just as much "God-stuff" as the soul or the Infinite Nothingness, but is masked (by itself) from being perceived by us (who are itself). But that way leads to logical absurdities too, in terms of "how do I know the universe wasn't created 5 minutes ago?" Answer: there's no way to tell, therefore, there's no evidence the Torah was ever given to us, and therefore Judaism is false from page one.

So I guess, to be charitable, we can attribute the Lubavitcher Rebbe's young-earthism to

1) a lack of scientific training (his engineering trade school, ESTP, today requires only one semester of physics, even less than I got and a lot less theologically problematic, at the undergrad level, than say biology or geology). I don't imagine he had even the equivalent of high-school biology in preparing himself for secular university studies.

2) a belief that the universe does not have real existence

3) faith in certain earlier sages, who knew even less about science than he did, but who adopted, unfortunately, an obscurantist approach to the new biology and geology of the 19th century. As opposed to, say, the Tiferes Yisroel, who managed to incorporate physical reality into his worldview.

Similarly, I had an encounter with R' Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet once, when he came to speak as a scholar-in-residence at my old synagogue in Park Slope. At the time, I was still trying to convince myself of the plausibility of a Divinely-originated (rather than human-originated) Oral Torah; I felt it was the last hurdle keeping me from calling myself "Orthodox."

I had been bothered by the argument that "the Oral Torah supports the authenticity of the Written Torah; the Written Torah supports the authenticity of the Oral Torah," and found an excuse to find out if he held that position. He did, and he and I argued fruitlessly for a while, my trying to get him to see that it was a circular argument, and in fact, he was just basing his belief on, well, belief. He could not see past his religious biases; his philosophic training (and philosophy almost always begins with Logic, be it from Aristotle or Quine) fell by the wayside in the face of a challenge to dogmatic Truth.

I'm not trying to davka pick on Lubavitch here, it's just that they put themselves and their beliefs up for public view and argumentation, in English, more than other groups.

So, like it or not, my most charitable, caf-zchus explanation for major Rabbinic figures believing things that seem absurd to me, is that they just don't know any better, and their priority being Torah, aren't actually all that interested, nor do they really have the time, to learn enough to know better.

R' Dr. Alan Brill, in one of his YU course tapes, notes that until the mid-19th century, when it became an issue for young-earth Christians, Torah scholars did not insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2. In fact, he gave a whole catalogue of allegorical explanations, by various Rishonim and Acharonim, and noted that (following Rashi) NOBODY took it literally until then. So in effect, it seems to me, insistence on a young Earth might be chukos hagoyim, and inconsistent with our Mesorah. Similarly, R' Hershel Billet has no problem with the various modern reconciliations of physical reality and Genesis on the age of the Universe.

Now, science is not without its dogmas, its paradigms, its blind spots either, as Thomas Kuhn explained so well in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But as evidence builds up for new theories, it is not totally inflexible. Given sufficient evidence, scientists will change their minds to fit the better perception of reality. And scientists do have their biases for or against religion, which will affect the way they think.

An evolutionary biologist of long acquaintance, who is inclined towards atheism, while admitting that current theories of evolution do not adequately explain the diversity of species, is willing to wait for a naturalistic answer to be found, while I might take a God-of-the-gaps position, and say that God is directing evolution to produce Man and sufficient biota to support him, at this particular moment in geologic time.

For me, the Grand Canyon is evidence of God's hand in an old Earth - that the Canyon, and humanity, each exist in an eyeblink of geologic time; but He placed both of us on the Earth at the same time, giving us the sense of beauty and awe to appreciate His handiwork on the large scale.


Garnel Ironheart said...

A lot of it is due to the assumption Chareidi leaders make that science is like any other religion - a group of beliefs based on dogma that must be accepted. Hence scientists are like Chrisians and Muslims who contradict Judaism, just plain wrong.
Another problem is that many activist scientists are quite happy to portray science as a religion that rejects and disproves other religions, adding to the sense of threat.
Finally, historically science was more dogmatic, like any religion so the sense of competition was genuine. The advent of the scientific method changed all that but the Chareidim don't seem to understand it.
The main difference, of course, is that scientific method. If a scientist says that acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s2 it's not because of some revelation but because this is a testable fact. Thus if the scientists say the Earth is billions of years old, they do so because they can repeatedly use the same method to check and come up with the same result. Yes, there are margins of error but these are acknowledged in the results.
As Rav Sliffkin once said, to prove an old Earth you don't have to prove the world is millions of years old, you just have to prove it's 1 year older than our traditional count. Now, since it's possible to prove continuous civilization has been around longer than the traditional date of the flood, you don't even have to get into an argument about the age of the world. Before you get there, you have to explain the Flood. (By the way, there are explanations but they rely on a non-literal reading of the text and an understanding of literary styles prevalent at the time Moshe received the Torah)
Arguing with people about this is a waste of time. Those who believe in a young Earth will simply dismiss your proof as lies. Don't teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

micha said...

Garnel's point is the opposite of the one I tried making in that earlier conversation.

My feeling is that chareidi gedolim may hold positions that I disagree with, but they aren't idiots, they don't embrace the absurd, and if I bothered to learn where they are coming from, I would see that.

This quick dismissal and comparison to pigs is simply trying to gain security, not knowledge.

I'm not saying the young earth position makes more sense to me. For that reason, I think the second half of Thanbo's post is off-topic -- by now we all know the arguments for the Old Universe positions. The question is being like Beis Hillel, and being able to present Beis Shammai's perspective as well.


thanbo said...

Why is the second part of my post "off-topic"? It's my own post!

The topic being, people who make pronouncements about theology based on faulty logic or knowledge.

Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel based their opinions on Eilu v'Eilu - both working from the same database of Torah knowledge that originated at Sinai. They may have had different traditions from different chains of teachers, but everyone agreed on the ground rules, and the commonality of purpose.

Here, though, whether the issue is lack of sufficient knowledge about non-Torah fields, or religious bias blinding one to logical necessity, I see no need to maintain respect for ideas that are absurd, even if expressed by Torah sages, in whose own field I cannot but have respect.

micha said...

You don't like "off topic"? How about "you change topics in the middle of the post from whether one should respectfully consider positions that one disagrees with rather than a summary pronouncement (as in the subject line) of 'absurd'".

You decided you know why they disagree. You also decided beforehand the idea is absurd and thus not worth the exploration to find out if there isn't a more significant reason.



thanbo said...

In both cases I posited a reason why they disagree. That's called "dan lecaf zchus". Because otherwise, there is no good reason that I can think of, and they must be evil people who are promoting absurd ideas to fool their followers into denigrating outsiders, or to make Judaism a laughingstock in the world.

Is it worse to believe that, or to believe they're misguided and biased by their background?

I don't see you justifying these ideas either, if you're going to promote Beis Hillel vs. Beis Shammai as a reason to put me down for this. You're just dumping on me, without actually offering an alternative reading that is more complimentary.

R' Miller simply denigrates the other side ab initio. That's not a Beis Hillel position, more of a Rav Shach position. As for yblc"t R' Schochet, he wasn't talking about the other side at all - which is pretty much Beis Shammai.

If we are supposed to learn ethics from Talmidei Chachamim, what are we to learn from these? That demonizing the other is a good thing? That dismissing their arguments is a proper way to proceed?

Really, in both cases, there is a simple way out, to say "I don't know." I don't have the expertise, I don't have the knowledge, it's not my field, it's not my place to judge. Tradition says this, but it doesn't jibe with physical reality, so one doesn't die from a question. Or, in R' Schochet's case, I believe because I believe, and logic doesn't enter into it - of course logic will be tied in knots by something beyond logic. But he couldn't see his way out of it.

Why is it that only the "modern" has to surrender to "men starbt nit fun a kashye", never the "traditionalist"? Sometimes tradition is based on Torah, sometimes it's based on common wisdom of an earlier age, which can be proven wrong. And sometimes Truth doesn't depend on the specifics of one era's science. I was reading a work of Chassidus that made a point about physical matter being compounds of the four elements. The point is the same whether there are four or 114 elements. The details of the science don't matter.

Who wants to be on the delegitimized side? Did the Chasidim spend a lot of time fighting with Misnagdim, or did they just go on with their lives?

And Garnel has a real point in that both some scientists, and some religionists, falsely painted science as an alternative to religion, rather than a complement thereto. But the scientific revolution happened 500 years ago, when science shifted from trying to answer "why", and instead went to answer "how". "Why" was left to God to answer.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Micha, the problem with your position is that trying to understand them from their point of view is great -- but it's anthropology. It's "the history of nonsense is scholarship."

micha said...

MFMD: My problem is with your assumption that it's nonsense. This is a closed-mindedness of exactly the sort you're accusing them of.

We're talking about very bright and learned people. You three are summarily dismissing their thoughts rather than trying to see whether it's nonsense, absurd, the product of closed-mindedness, etc...

Is eilu va'eilu only real when it's a rejection of your own shitah at stake?


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I didn't say it's nonsense (or didn't mean to), I said it's anthropology -- from our perspective, just as our perspective is heresy from theirs. I was alluding to a famous comment about the history of nonsense, which I'm sure you're familiar with, by way of illustration. These things are never nonsense per se. They're highly interesting, serious, but generally obsolete. Bright and learned people, of course. Bright and learned people were alchemists, and in the process they invented chemistry. But that doesn't mean we should be alchemists. The question is, why would anyone be an alchemist today? There might be some highly interesting historical reasons for it, but that doesn't make alchemy another kind of chemistry.

I'm afraid this isn't elu ve-elu at all, but what is one to do when it's either heresy or nonsense?

thanbo said...


That last line of yours didn't make sense to me in relation to the rest of your post. Maybe you left out a word?

Here's a stab at it: What constitutes a "shitah"? If you mean "halachic or aggadic shitah", I'd say yes. But if shitah can include a rejection of physical reality, especially in a matter that does not touch halacha, I'd be hard-pressed to include it in eilu v'eilu.

The Mishnah itself says that Torah is not concerned with cosmogony (Hagigah 2:1), but some traditionalists are unwilling to admit when they are out of their depth. How is that eilu v'eilu? How is it not knowledge and ignorance, parallel to some kid asking a klutz kashe in shiur? The kid doesn't know any better, and isn't thinking the right way yet, so he asks a dumb question.

Unless you accept the postwar idea of Daas Torah, that knowledge of Torah allows one to pronounce authoritatively on fields where one has no real training.

I prefer R' Simcha Weinberg's definition, which teeters perilously close to giving psak from the gut and then justifying it, but at least it confines itself to the Torah's areas of study.

The point is, it *is* nonsense, and nothing you've said has convinced me otherwise. You've just been berating me for dismissing their nonsense, but not offering any better caf-zchus explanation. If you did that, and were reasonably convincing, I'd be happy to accept it. But it leads me to wonder what you yourself feel about these kinds of ideas coming from the mouths and keyboards of people who otherwise command respect. E.g., ROY's political pronouncements. Greatest haham of the generation, but with the apparent political sense of a mushroom. And I don't have a comparable body of positive ideas and information about RAM which would counterbalance the negative impression gained from "Rejoice O Youth." Just that he's a demagogue that a lot of people like as a speaker, but a lot of other people don't like because of his ideas. Including, apparently, yourself. So why are you berating me again?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I reread your comment more closely and I see I didn't adequately address it.

I am doing none of the things you said. In fact, I am someone who spends a great deal of time reading non-Jewish works which are hundreds of years old, relating to all manner of Jewish subjects. For example, about 300 years ago there was a minor Christian movement which may be termed Mishnaists. These were Christians who believed that the Mishnah was far from the fallible traditions of man, which Christianity traditionally held in such contempt. Rather, the Mishnah contained many true ancient Jewish interpretations of the Torah, and records of genuine Jewish practice, which could shed light on many Bible passages in both the Old and New Testaments. This led Surenhuys to translate the Mishnah, with the perushim of the Rambam and Bertinoro into Latin. An English clergyman of the same opinion, William Wotton, translated Massekhtos Shabbos and Eruvin into English, with a commentary derived from these sources, and wrote a 300 page book explaining how valuable the Mishnah is.

I suspect that you are totally convinced that the Mishnah is the key to a Christian understanding of the Bible? These were very smart and very serious men, and there's nothing ridiculous about trying to understand what they were thinking and why, and many pearls are to be found in their writings. But it's not going to make me a Christian Mishnaist. It can be richly rewarding to delve into different worldviews; the anthropologist and historian shouldn't be a mocker of his or her subject of study. If you'll protest that such an attitude is a terrible bizayon to talmud Torah, I would say that's not the case. One needn't be open to the possibility of sirenes to nonetheless hold Rashi in the deepest veneration. But one can only actually adopt the points of view of his one can adopt, am I wrong? Actually, contemporaries make it much harder, because no one ought to expect Rashi or Mishnah scholars from 300 years ago to agreeably conform to patterns of thinking and scholarship which were unavailable. As for contemporaries like R. Miller, it is indeed interesting to look at his writings as one phase in the history of Jewish scholarship, but one still notices the partial citations from National Geographic and news clippings that much of his writings are peppered with. Intersting? Sure. Comprehensible from his point of view? Undoubtedly. Another kind of truth?

Joe in Australia said...

I'm not actually sure that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe believed in a young earth per se. All I've seen on the subject is a letter in which someone asked how you could reconcile a young earth with dinosaur fossils. The Rebbe gave him the Omphalos answer, that the world was created with the fossils present. But does that mean that he actually believed the answer, or was he just giving someone the answer he needed?

thanbo said...

Well, our ZS certainly believes it, based on something similar - that the Divine Artist created a trompe l'oeil, a photorealistic rendition of an old earth. But that suffers from the same weakness as any other version of the "omphalos" explanation.

Why "omphalos?" Isn't that a bellybutton?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Right, Adam had a bellybutton even though he was never attached to a placenta, according to this paradigm (new earth, looks old or authentic, just like Adam).

Joe in Australia said...

MFMcD has it, but here's a link to it in more detail.

And a young earth has more problems than dinosaur fossils, but there's no need to get into that here.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Can I get a word in edgewise? Thank you.

Micha, intellectual brilliance can go hand in hand with a closed mind. Are the gedolim who believe in a young Earth extremely intelligent and pious men? Yes, absolutely and I would never imply otherwise. Have they ab initio discarded the possibility that their understanding of the age of the universe might be wrong? Absolutely. The alternative possibility simply cannot occur to them, partly because they've built a culture around themselves over the last 200 years that demands rejection of anything from "the outside", even if it's more reasonable than what they're currently using. (Toilet paper, electricity and running water remain important exceptions to this rule) Simply put, if some Reform rabbi were to put out a psak on the importance of breathing clean air, some Gadol somewhere would react by condemning the statements and extolling the virtues of smoking! How much more so when the impressive body of knowledge known as science is beating at the door demanding we pay attention to it?

As for the Rebbe, he is more than reported to have believed in a young Earth. He published a book in which he dismissed all science that contradicts such a belief. As well, he raises the possibility that we live on a flat Earth in a geocentric universe!

One can find brilliance together with absurdity. The latter does not diminish the former but does tarnish it in the eyes of the outside somewhat.

What I find most fascinating though is how heated the arguments are over this subject, as if it was an important facet of Judaism. I believe in Torah MiSinai, the indivisibility of the Written and the Oral law, the unchanign nature of the Torah etc, but if I say that the first chapter of Bereshis can't be understood literally, well that makes me a kofer to some. Weird.

thanbo said...


Well, just as writers after Rambam raised the eternity of matter and creation de novo, vs. creation ex nihilo, from "wrong" to "heresy" (the Rambam himself seems to say, in the Fourth Principle, that matter could have coexisted with God, but not pre-exist Him; in the Guide he clarifies that such an opinion would be wrong, but does not necessarily rise to the level of heresy), so too have the post-Slifkin gedolim raised young-earth creationism to a question of heresy.

This age seems very prone to declare people heretics for holding ideas that earlier generations just considered "wrong", or didn't consider at all.

micha said...

Omphalism is safe from any scientific disproof.

One can simply say that in order for nature to work seamlessly today, Hashem created an illusion of a history before the actual creation. Or it's a "choq" level transrational-thing -- there is no way to know Hashem's "why" for anything. Or...

I still find it ironic that a group is patting itself on the back for openmindedness based on statements like "intellectual brilliance can go hand in hand with a closed mind." What you would call open-mindedness they would consider a lack of emunas chakhamim. As for the scientific conflict? You're bringing your own notions of the relevance of science to their position, and then arguing that they (and I don't mean the rank and file) share it and thus must reject the science itself.

Jon asks: Why is it that only the "modern" has to surrender to "men starbt nit fun a kashye", never the "traditionalist"?

But actually, this conversation was based on something I said bedavka to add symmetry. Originally I said I'm unhappy with R' Avigdor Miller's work because he so wants questions wrapped up in a neat bow that he dismisses other valid (and arguably more mesoretic) opinions as kefirah. Then, to give equal time, in a later email I pointed out that I'm equally unhappy with those who believe in an old-universe who summarily dismiss their opposition.

As for my own position -- I follow R' Dessler's take on the Ramban, that the question of age before the eitz hadaas is meaningless. Or to put it in Mada terms: Kant argues that time is a category we impose on reality by perception. The thing we map to as time may be very different (as R' Dessler writes) or even non-existent altogether.

It's kind of omphalistic, in that I'm saying that time didn't exist until oiur current mode of consciousness did, and therefore reality during maaseh bereishis is out there in "choq"-like metarationality.

However, R' Dessler gives explicit validity to the scientist who takes his gashmi perspective and maps back billions of years to how he perceives the universe. He just wishes people would rise above the gashmi, and see other ways of imposing the category of time on maaseh bereishis.

My point of this detour being -- there are other options than false dichotomy of answers usually assumed.


thanbo said...

I'm sorry, RMi, but I don't see most of your answers as being reasonable resolutions of the quandary. They still depend on God lying to us, either in the physical world or in the Torah, by taking Creation literally.

1) Illusion of pre-creation history: God is lying to us through the rocks to fool the silly secularists.

2) Trans-rational: we don't know why God is lying to us.

3) Your symmetry is not really a symmetry in the object, only in the subject, so it doesn't necessarily help anyone besides yourself. That you have difficulty with R' Miller and with those of us who are closed-minded from the other side doesn't really help us see that the other side is not "closed-minded"; also, emunas chachamim in the closed-minded means that closed-mindedness is a positive middah for us as well.

4) R' Dessler/Ramban - time before Etz Hadaas is meaningless - it unasks the question, as Douglas Hofstadter might say. Also, that while science may be revealing the physical truth that contradicts a literal reading of Genesis (as Rashi would as well), there's also a symbolic level that remains True.

It's essentially a premodern reading applied to current science, which is fine, and sounds like about the only reasonable answer. It also echoes R' Brill's catalogue, but leaves out "ein hamikra yotzei miyedei peshuto" - so it's not a perfect answer. And while we might accept it, would the literalists?

Your further "clarification" retreats into mushiness, that time "didn't exist" before the Eitz haDaas. What, did cesium atoms not oscillate? Did radioisotopes not decay? You can't say time didn't exist, if you're going to give credence to an old-earth and consistent-physical-laws world.

So you give four "options", three of which are trivially dismissed as theologically or hashkafically untenable, and the fourth descends into some kind of strange self-contradiction: did time exist or not?

There's also Gerald Schroeder's relativistic time-dilation view, which I know some people have problems with, but I don't know what those problems are.

micha said...

If nature requires no discontinuities, there is a reason for the appearance of an old universe other than assuming G-d is lying. If Hashem's Motivation is transrational, like a choq, then there is a reason other than it being a lie, however we can't comprehend it.

You simply want there to be a problem so badly you can't do as Beis Hillel did and try to understand the opposition. Much easier to assume they are unreasonable, rather than differnt.

About Schroeder's view... What I wrote about was metaphysics, not physics. Yes it's mushy, but that doesn't make it wrong. For example, we can agree that Einstein knew enough physics to have an informed opinion? He believed that the reason why science is reasonable is because science is really studying the world as that very same mind perceives it -- and the objective world is simply an unknowable. (An answer earlier proposed by his friend and colleague, Ernst Mach.)

This weirdness has been mainstream in philosophy circles since Kant. RYBS, a neo-Kantian, obviously had similar views about the nature of reality. It takes some work to follow the path to Wonderland, but once you do, it's hard to dispute.

BTW, I once suggested that the Tanya is Kantian, except that Chabad teaches that the ultimate unknowable reality is G-d Himself.

In short, your insistence on talking about "lying" is part of the problem. You are being just as closed-minded as the people you're calling closed-minded by not trying to objectively understand them. More -- by not trying to optimistically find sense in what they're saying.


thanbo said...

Fine, so be it. Clearly closed-mindedness is a positive Jewish middah, so I'll stick with it, thank you.

>You simply want there to be a problem so badly you can't do as Beis Hillel did and try to understand the opposition.

You want me to be wrong so badly that you can't do as Beis Hillel did and try to understand the opposition. If they posit that God is lying through creating a Universe that looks old but is not, that's theologically untenable. Dressing it up as "the conflict between our reading of God's word, and the physical universe, is a choq" paints it with a false respectability, even though, as Garnel writes, their primary relationship with the outside world is rejection (see Gurock and others), so their reactions to the ideas of the outside world must be seen through those filters.

Remember, it's not Chazal's reading that creates a conflict with the physical reality, it's the reading of post-Reformation 19th- and 20th-century sages. If it were Chazal, that would be something else to deal with. But Chazal weren't faced with physical evidence of a universe over 6000 years old. And lots of hashkafic writing is political in nature.

Just because "understanding the other side" paints the other side as ignorant of science, and consciously rejecting the outside world, is still an understanding that they themselves would probably not deny. Positing theologically untenable positions doesn't help them.

I'll stick with Creation being allegorical, thank you. Some of it also appears to be scientific truth posing as myth, e.g., the consequence of eating from Eitz HaDaas being the pain of childbirth - which maps quite nicely to the fact that our giant braincase, which is a necessary consequence of being intelligent mammals, makes delivery difficult, necessitating squeezing the giant head out through the pelvic arch.

So why can't the Creation be metaphysical truths posing as myth, as well? Certainly the snake seems to be.

thanbo said...


A) He ignored theology, consciously, preferring an emunah peshutah.

B) He had little patience with those he considered "obskurants", Agudists, Jewish observer types, who would deny the reality of social and intellectual change.

He also thought the Moderns were trying too hard to integrate into the world, so he was an equal-opportunity critic.

micha said...

Jon: You want me to be wrong so badly that you can't do as Beis Hillel did
and try to understand the opposition. If they posit that God is lying
through creating a Universe that looks old but is not, that's
theologically untenable.

In a reply to my comment, you continue to talk about G-d's "lying"? You just don't get it. If there is a good reason other than "I want to fool them into doubting creation", it's not a lie. And since the Lub Rebbe says there is one, but it's not comprehensible to people, then there is no claim of deception -- motivated appropriately or not.

Similarly "clothing it up" and "false respectability" are clearly loaded terms that do not reflect trying to understand the other perspective.


Garnel Ironheart said...

Micha, I would like to point out the big flaw in the whole theory that God created a ready-made world complete with fossilized bones of creatures who never existed.
Let's say that's true. I personally doubt it but I will not say it's impossible. However, this raises a further problem. To wit: we have records of continuous human civilization unmarred by any mention of a global flood going back almost 10 000 years, long before the literal reading of the Torah puts the date of the Mabul. Therefore I don't have to argue with the "fake dinosaur bones" group about that issue. I've already won the debate with the actual dating of the Mabul which clearly took place much earlier than a simple reading of the Torah suggests. (There are ways to reconcile this, derech agav). Thus it is quite clear that a simple reading of the Torah cannot be the end all and be all of how to understand its accounting of history. Arguing that point is like arguing about the colour of the sky. The evidence is there and the only rebuttal offered is "Well scientists are stupid because they contradict the Torah" which, for me, is not an answer.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I could also add in terms of emunas chachamim that the concept does not demand childlike trust of the superior authority without a right to question. If a "gadol" comes out with a teshuvah and shows how he reached the answer, well and good but if he simply announced "The answer is 'A' and I don't have to explain why because either (a) 'daas Torah' gives my a connection to Heaven so my answers are always right or (b) you people wouldn't understand because I'm so much higher up the scale than you" then I don't think he is entitled to loyalty based on emunas chachamim. I would add that traditionally most major authorities took great pains to ensure their shitos were well-documented and understood and it's only in the last couple of generations that great rabbonim have been deified to a level near omniscience and put above having to answer to their followers. Demanding input and understanding doesn't demonstrate a lack of faith. It is something we are expected to do.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Thanbo's reaction to Rav Avigdor Miller's book and the views of the late Lubavitch Rebbe on the age of the earth. Rav Miller, as I recall, did not merely claim that scientists were mistaken about evolutionary theory and the age of the earth, but that they were dishonest in presenting their claims. Their motivation, according to his thesis (Rav Moshe Sternbuch has more recently said the same), was to remove GOD from creation and have it all happen by accident. It is, therefore, not a question of checking whether or not R' Miller's view had internal consistency, but whether his type of argument is acceptable to thinking people. There are many frum scientists who understand and have accepted the evidence for an ancient world and the evolutionary process. Are we, then, to be considered as fools or liars? The choice is then between a dogmatic position that appears to require the reader to disparage the scientific view, or a position based on lines of evidence. It is unfortunate that Rav Miller took such an offputting polemical position since his writing about the wonders of nature was appealing.

thanbo said...

OK, I got a message from God that I have to find a way to deal with this. I was in the elevator, watching the Captive Audience Network, and they popped up an epigram, "Understand before you speak." Don't just pop off angrily, try to understand the other person's perspective.

And the problem is, that I just can't. Not noway, not nohow. Every potential solution you or I put up for someone "honestly" believing that the world is 6000 years old, in the years after Lyell and Darwin, runs into the brick wall of being just plain wrong, by definition. It's like being metaher the sheretz, one of my favorite metaphors for being unable to accept the truth - you can come up with whatever fantasy rationale you want, but you run into the brick wall of the truth: the sheretz is tamei.

So too here: any literalist reading of Gen. 1-2, not only goes against all the Rishonim and most of the Acharonim before the Reform reformation, is simply wrong, and has to include some form of lack of sufficient data from which to produce an informed conclusion.

Whether God is lying to the scientists, or the rabbis are lying to their followers for polemical reasons, or the rabbis are ignorant of science and don't want to admit it, or are ignorant of science and don't realize it, or think they know science and can somehow fool themselves into believing the two ideas are reconcilable without allegorizing the Torah, there is still lying (intentional imparting of falsehood for self-centered reasons), delusion (unintentional belief in something which isn't true), or polemic (intentional imparting of false information under the honest belief that it will make someone a better person) going on.

While they may be honestly confused, it still is a wrong idea, and one which does not have a long provenance in our Mesorah.

The best I can come up with is a Rema-wine-teshuvah-style fantasy rationale. And the Rema still thought the Bohemians were deluded.

I just can't wrap my head around Our Gedolim intentionally lying, or willy-nilly accusing the scientists of lying, or making it necessary to believe that God lied to us. If God lied to us about this, why not about tzitzis and tefillin?

There has to be another way, but I cannot imagine one that is not at least somewhat derogatory towards the Gedolim: that they don't know enough but are too impressed with their own gadlus to say so, or that they were taught wrong ideas by other people who didn't know enough and idolize their teachers, etc. And to resort to neoKantianism may work for you, in terms of reconciling the age-of-the-world question, but if these late Acharonim don't know science, they also don't know Kant. The only one who could have, RYBS, avoided these kinds of questions.

"You want there to be a problem so badly" You have it backwards. I don't want there to be a problem, rather, there IS a problem and I can't see a genuine way out of it.

As for the Lub. Rebbe's response, "There is an answer but you can't have it" is a cop-out. If you don't understand it well enough to explain to me, in some form, then you probably don't really understand it either. Lubavitch the system excels in explaining things by analogy; if he couldn't find useful ones, it remains a cop-out.

micha said...

Jon: I wouldn't say that everyone called "our gedolim" is actually gadol. And sometimes they make polemic statements -- and the polemics are against shadow-puppets created by a bunch of manipulative askanim. Tropper clearly proved himself to be a menuval, and yet he was behind how many of the past decades rabbinic debacles?

This isn't quite the same thing, as the LR has had his opinion before it became a battle-front issue. I guess someone could decide that even pre-stroke the LR was outside his eilu va'eilu and his opinions don't deserve the treatment I'm recommending for them. But if you're not taking that step...

And how does someone decide the limits of his own plurality? I can think of two ways:

1- Preconsciously. There are just some ideas you can not swallow.

I'm arguing that #1, the preconscious route, is a viscious cycle if you don't even try to find an understanding. You dismiss the idea from the realm of respectable and therefore fail to seek the respectability.

Which I guess is also quite human. But doing it while claiming the "open minded" high ground is just plain ironic. If y'all were admitting to yourselves that you were simply as weak at internalizing the concept of eilu va'eilu as the opposition, tolerance as a middah rather than a concept, it wouldn't have triggered my intemperate language.


micha said...

As for RYBS... I think his approach isn't an avoidance of the Kantian problems of making ontological claims, it's a consequence of it.

AISI, in RYBS's thought, there are two basic parallels between Brisk and neo-Kantianism:

1- R' Chaim's avoidance of seeking first principle behind halakhah, or a systematic machashavah (as opposed to short derashos that don't combine into a system) he places in the ontological realm. All of RYBS's philosophy is in the experiential realm, what the mitzvah means to the one doing it. Not what it means objectively. Much like Kant's instance that we can't know the objective.

2- Tzevei dinim is a legal expression of the unresolvable dialectics in the human condition. (Which in turn is a dialectic rather than a paradox because it's caused by perception-imposed categories, not what's out there.)

But to get back on point...

RYBS doesn't touch the question BECAUSE he's neo-Kantian, and that very fact explains the neo-Kantian and Existential perspectives.

The LR's response isn't that he understood why and we don't. It's that asking "why did G-d" must perforce yield an answer that doesn't fit in a finite human mind.

I actually suggested an answer (my own) above, which does -- nature requires a continuity. That's why we don't have physical evidence laying around from miracles.

What you call a "cop out" is your general frustration with a dissatisfying answer. But being emotionally satisfied doesn't reflect an idea's truth.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

It's interesting that the first mention of mindedness, whether closed or otherwise is Micha telling me "MFMD: My problem is with your assumption that it's nonsense. This is a closed-mindedness of exactly the sort you're accusing them of."

Actually, I hadn't accused anyone of closed-mindedness, and neither had anyone else. In fact, I explained that I agree that it can be highly interesting to know the internal reasons for such lines of thinking, however that doesn't make it true, more true, or another kind of truth, much less the preferred or only way of interpreting the Torah. Knowing these views is much like knowing the pre-Rambam views which deviate from ikkarei emunah. How interesting, but then what?

Garnel Ironheart said...

> If y'all were admitting to yourselves that you were simply as weak at internalizing the concept of eilu va'eilu as the opposition, tolerance as a middah rather than a concept

Reb Micha, with all respect I don't think this is an accurate comparison. If you pasken something l'chumra and I do it l'kula and both of us provide sources and a process of thinking so that each can say "Ah, that's how he got there" that's eilu v'eilu. If you pasken l'chumra and I pasken l'kula and you can show your process and when you look at mine you see it's based on misunderstandings of some sources and purposefull ignoring of others, which I justify by saying I didn't like the colour of their hair, well that's not eilu v'eilu. That's you trying to have a reasoned discussion and me worried that I'll lose the debate so I dismiss you instead of take that chance. And that's what is going on here.

thanbo said...

By the way, here's a letter of the LR denouncing the old earth. It looks like a polemic right out of a talk.origins debate, i.e., Chrstian denigration of science as way more uncertain than it is, and of scientists as dogmatic and anti-religious for the most part.


Theories are uncertain, small uncertainty becomes large uncertainty, extrapolation is uncertain, we only have a few decades of observational data, handwaving with logic to prove an irrelevancy, apparent lack of understanding of the scientific method, positing that physical laws are not constant, the possibility of fossilization in a few years rather than millions of years, God created the fossils anyway (ignoring that the previous two ideas are not compatible), misapplication of the word "evolution" to completely different processes, and by the way, scientists are egotistical and anti-religious.

Either he's trying to convince himself, or he's trying to bamboozle someone who doesn't know much, or he thinks he knows what he's talking about but really doesn't. But whatever it is, it doesn't read like a sincere confrontation with facts, it reads like a self-contradictory, dismissive polemic.

Now maybe the Rebbe really believed that the Earth had to be young, so he was trying to convince himself. But if he was truly as "conversant with science" as RZS claims (see the Facebook copy of this post and ensuing thread), why would he need to write such a dishonest-sounding piece?


Meanwhile, here is a point-by-point review of the problems in the Rebbe's letter (and some of the other articles included in the "Challenge" volume ed. Aryeh Carmell):


The Rebbe derides those who deny geocentrism, and misuses the uncertainty principle and relativity:




How am I to understand the foolishness wrapped in high-sounding language that these letters contain? How am I to be more charitable than to say he's repeating what he was taught, and doesn't understand what he's talking about?

thanbo said...

Because other explanations turn the LR into a charlatan, a fool or a narcissist.

thanbo said...

Where is this "secret secret I've got a secret" response? Everything else is on-line, with the Rebbe, given his publicity machine.

micha said...

Jon, I'm giving up. You're asking a valid question, but the scoffing tone in which you're asking about the notion of choq, of Hashem being metarational, the fact that it ignores the idea that he said "Hashem has a secret", means that I really have no chance of changing the tenor of this debate.

I can fully agree with the notion of an old universe. Mitzad physics, I believe it is old. I just think there are other tzedadim that are no less real.

But this isn't the way to have a machloqes lesheim Shamayim. You're just trying to stick your fingers in your ears, say "la la la", and make sure no one says something that might possibly shake your certainty with your current worldview.

My point never was about who was right, and what was whose specific position.


thanbo said...

I'm not ignoring it, I don't see that claim in any of the letters. Where is such a claim documented? All I see are letters that are right in line with the Christians' lies.

If you don't see the letters that way, I don't understand why, but that's your prerogative. I'm not sticking my fingers in my ears, it's you who is doing that, by going back to my earlier notes and assuming that I have no genuine desire to find a way to be melamed zchus on gedolim who write such apparent foolishness, and who dismiss those who disagree with them.

Now you're dismissing me because I disagree with you?

Your point, I thought, was not about who is right, but about how to not treat the deniers as fools or charlatans. You have not managed to do that. My scoffing tone is not changing because your explanations are not explaining.

thanbo said...

And "Hashem has a secret" may still be a cop-out, as is "there is a prophetic secret" as an explanation of why hitting the arovos on the ground is not just an example of sympathetic magic. But if you look hard enough, you'll find someone who has a reasonable explanation of the "prophetic secret."

I don't remember what it was, but I did find one eventually.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Micha, you're missing the main point.
It's not God who saying He's keeping things secret. It's not God claiming it's a geocentric universe and a flat earth. It's human beings who are doing all these things. If it said outright in the Torah that the sun revolves around the Earth in no certain terms then we'd have a real problem because reality and the Torah would then collide. However, it doesn't say that and it's only human beings who have interpreted the text that way and then said "If you disagree, it's kefirah!" It's that attitude that drives us bonkers.

thanbo said...

Sure. But Micha wants us to *understand why they say that*, without resorting to negative value-judgment adjectives like "fool" "charlatan" "ignorant of science" "narcissistic" "egotist" "out of their depth" etc.

And I just can't find a way to do so.

thanbo said...

Garnel: you're right though, it would probably be a lot more palatable, if it didn't come with delegitimization of the other side, whether by banning those who disagree, or by denigrating scientists as antireligious egotists or liars, etc.

Garnel Ironheart said...

BTW, kol hakavod on a good post. You got a lot of great discussion on this one.