Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On Science and Rabbis

For me, sad to say, my high school Yeshiva experience
was largely negative. I was the prototypical
"square-peg" that wouldn't be shoved into the "round
hole" that my Yeshiva tried to shove me into.

There could be several reasons for it. When I was
younger, I was a bit of a rebel. I would (admittedly)
sometimes look for ways to get on my Rosh Yeshiva's
nerves.

But, more to the point, I didn't share the
fundamentalist attitude of the Yeshiva. Maybe it's
because I wasn't frum for the first nine years of my
life, but I understood, even when I got to the Yeshiva
I'm talking about at age eleven, that I had a much
different outlook on life than my classmates. I
already understood, even at that I can't take what is
told me simply on blind faith and that as statement
slide further along the unbelieveablity and
implausibility scale, they must be taken with bigger
and bigger grains of salt.

So, when I first heard the Midrash that Moshe was ten
amos high (or is it twenty, I keep forgetting), my
credibility alarm went off. When I heard the saying
that Pharoh was only one amah tall, my alarm went off
even louder, especially when, taken together, the two
teachings sound like a simple attempt to make the bad
guys look silly.

When I first heard the Midrash that Og was forty amos
tall, it boggled my mind (keep in mind, 40 amos is,
what, sixty to eighty feet? My house isn't that
tall.) But, OK, the Torah says he was a giant, so
I'll buy it for the moment, though it strains my
credulity. But then I heard that I was mistaken, that
Og wasn't forty amos tall, he was forty amos at the
ankle! That sent the alarms up so high, they have yet
to come down. I suppose that the writers of the
Midrashim did not realize that while area doubles by
the square, volume doubles by the cube and that a
creature that size could not possibly hope to move (to
say nothing of the region probably being completely
incapable of supporting such a creature, of his head
being so high up he couldn't possibly hope to take in
enough oxygen to sustain himself, etc.) The idea that
a creature that large could hang off the end of the
Ark to survive (and yet not cause it to capsize or
sink) was just too much to accept.

But even that wasn't the final straw. The final
straw, in my mind, came from a Rebbe I had in the
ninth grade. I don't remember how the conversation
came to the subject, but he asserted that any of the
Tana'im or Amoraim could have built anything that we
have today - that they were technological geniuses who
understood the world better than the greatest
scientists of today. To me, that was so far off the
deep end that it was the point of no return. I think
I can date to that very day my skepticism in anything
that sounds utterly beyond the pale. The idea that a
Tanna or an Amora could have built an airplane, or
could have cured cancer or smallpox, or built a
telephone and *chose not to* is just so... I'm at a
loss for superlatives to use. You know what I mean
anyway.

And I find this same anti-intellectualism still goes
on today. A perusal of several "frum" boards found
people who honestly believe that the sun revolves
around the earth. I always wonder what these people
think; that NASA faked it all? For what purpose?
(Oh, yes, because they are evil and want to turn the
world away from God.) There are those who believe in
spontaneous generation. When asked why it's not
observed today, the glib answer I get is "Nishtana
Ha-Teva" - "Nature has changed." Why creatures would
spontaneously generate seventeen hundred years ago but
not today is beyond me.

I don't know why people simply cannot accept the fact
that while our Torah leaders of the past may have been
experts at the Torah, they simply weren't scientists.
It's not taking anything away from any of them to say
otherwise - I don't think Rabbi Akiva was any less
great because he couldn't build a nuclear power plant
- but let the man's accomplishments stand in the
context of the time period that he lived in. Don't
turn him into something that he wasn't and could not,
in his time, ever hope to be.

The Wolf

18 comments:

Enigma4U said...

Wolf,

Your post leads to a big question mark, which underscores just how far you are willing to entertain your skepticism. Pray tell, what exactly were Rabbi Akiva's contributions to humankind? Can you name ANY contribution made by Chazal?

BrooklynWolf said...

Dear Enigma,

Anyone's contributions to humankind must be measured in terms of the area of their specialization. I'm sure the world would have proceeded just fine if Shakespeare hadn't been born, but nonetheless, he has, in his field, contributed. So too with Chazal. They have contributed in terms of Torah scholarship. They have not, however, in terms of science, simply because they were not scientists. My point was that it is wrong to make them out to be what they were not. The thought that Rabbi Akiva could make an airplane is ludicrous. But the fact that he was unable doesn't detract from his accomplishments, no more than Shakespeare's inability to make an airplane detracts from his accomplishments.

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

I've linked to your blog.

You mentioned the Og hanging on the ark legend. Why does the giant hanging off the side set off your alarms, but the flood itself trip no wires? Or am I just seeing gaps where there's only silence?

P.S. What did you think of my Knowing Noach series?

BrooklynWolf said...

Mis-nagid,

Thank you for the reply and the link.

I suppose the whole Flood doesn't "trip my alarms" for the same reason that Krias Yam Suf or the sun standing still for Joshua doesn't -- because I'm willing (and I suppose I have to use the word "willing") to believe that God can (and will) cause miracles do happen. So, I'm willing to accept that God can cause a flood or stop the sun (or probably the earth from rotating -- I believe in the Copernican model of the solar system). But at least I can fathom why God would want a flood, or want to split the sea, etc - and at least there's some Scriptural basis for it (let's not forget - I DO believe in Torah Min HaShamayim). But for Og? I fail to see why Og would merit such a long life or even being saved from the flood in the first place. And, lastly, if Og was as tall as purported, he probably would not have needed to hang on the side of the boat anyway...

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

I don't see a consistent criteria being used.

You talk about mass laws as reasons to reject implausible claims. Why do some implausible claims get a free pas? Why do you not say "we have an imperfect understanding of one or both of them" about Og?

BrooklynWolf said...

Because, at least the flood, we have Scriptural support for.

As far as Og goes, well we have the verse "ki rak Og nishar..." and he is described as large - but whereas one can be described as being large, there is no basis to find such a monsterous creature. Taller than average, I can certainly accept. Freakishly large (a 'la Robert Wadlow) I can also accept. But when you start hitting 60-80 feet at the ankle, the meter just goes off the deep end. There are just too many questions that are unanswered if you postulate an Og of that hieght.

How did he move?
How could the region have supported him?
Surely such a monstrosity would have been written about by other cultures in the area - he would have been a legend in Egypt, Babylon, Ur, etc. Yet no one else mentions him.

The Wolf

Mis-nagid said...

Because, at least the flood, we have Scriptural support for.

Why are the authors of the Torah any more credible than the authors of later works? Why do they get a free pass from your rule of thumb regarding testing claims against the laws of physics? If anything, they did even worse than the people who embellished the story with midrash. The mabul is in even greater conflict with evidential reality than Og.

Ilana said...

Wolf: Perhaps you haven't heard but not everything in the Torah is supposed to be taken literally. Whether or not they are to be taken literally is not up to you and me. The fact that these "alarm bells" went off in your head is a healthy sign that your brain is working. It does not mean, however, that Judaism is wrong and has irreconciable inconsistancies. For some reason, it sounds to me like your apprehension stems from a more emotional than logical source. Am I correct?

BrooklynWolf said...

Misnagid,

The reason that the Biblical Author gets a pass, as I mentioned above, is because I (still) believe in Torah Min-HaShamayim. That's why I'm willing to accept the historical truth of the flood (although perhaps not as a complete worldwide destruction, but that's another story for another time). I don't necessarily believe, however, that Midrashim are min-HaShamayim, and so I look at them a bit more skeptically.

Ilana, I agree with you that not everything in the Torah should be interpreted absolutely literally. But, on the other hand, you can't always take things out of their plain meanings. To take the example to the extreme, I hardly think one can (validly) interpret the Chumash to mean that there was no Moshe and that it's all a metaphor. I agree that sometimes the plain meaning of a verse can be stretched, but, to some degree, it still has to conform to the plain meaning.

The Wolf

Ilana said...

Wolf, I think you misunderstood me. I said that CERTAIN things were not to be taken literally. The Rabbonim, in whom the Torah commands us to listen to, are able to decipher which ones are to be taken literally and which aren't. If we started to interperet everything simply the way we wished, the Torah would not be a universal Torah anymore but a text much like how the Reform and Conservative view it - as a historical documentation.

Frummer????? said...

For some odd reason, whether, how, and when Og existed just wasn't interesting for the Rabbis.

Re mention in other cultures, is that the only thing such sources missed.

The mabul, kriyas yam sif.

Oh and the greatest most earth shattering event of all time, Mattan Torah, nobody noticed but us!?

No, the batteries on their laptops ran out, and they lost their memory.

BrooklynWolf said...

Well, with regard to the Krias Yam Suf and Matan Torah, it's very easy to explain that no one else has a record of such legends that despite the many embellishments that may have been added to the legends, in the end, they were local events happening to one (or in the case of Krias Yam Suf, two) nations. Og, on the other hand, would have been a worldwide wonder and visible for miles around. And can you imagine any nation in that day and age having a "weapon" such as Og and *not* using it to subjugate it's neighbors? Bashan would have been the over-rulers of the entire region!

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Ilana,

I understand what you are saying, and to a certain extent agree with it. But there are some things that are just so far off the scale (with regard to Midrashim, for example) that I don't see how one can take them literally. I'm not saying we should completely toss out the midrash regarding Og's height - I'm sure that there is some valuable lesson contained therein - but to interpret it absolutely literally simply makes no sense, IMHO.

The Wolf

Frummer????? said...

Volf:

Vot are you talking about?

We are taught in cheder that all the waters in the "entire world" split at the same time, that all the nations were made a once in a nationtime offer of accepting the torah, and that during mattan torah, the whole world shook and knew what was going happening on litl' Ol' Har Sinai.

BrooklynWolf said...

Frummer,

To repeat what I said above (bolded for emphasis):

"it's very easy to explain that no one else has a record of such legends that despite the many embellishments that may have been added to the legends, in the end, they were local events happening to one (or in the case of Krias Yam Suf, two) nations."

The Wolf

Frummer????? said...

I get you. You are saying that they happened, but have grown long beards over the years!

BrooklynWolf said...

Just like any other legend. Legends often (although, admittedly, not always) have factual occurences at their roots. I believe that Mattan Torah happened. I believe that God spoke directly to the Jewish nation. Other legends that have sprouted from it have lesser validity, IMHO.

The Wolf.

Mis-nagid said...

It's not just midrash. The Torah itself says the knowledge of the miracle was widespread. Exod 15:15.

Not that it matters. The story in the Torah itself is filled with midrash -- embellishments on the original, ancient text: the Song of the Sea. The shira is composed in much more archaic Hebrew than the rest of the Torah (Yochlaymo?). The J, E, and P versions of the Red Sea story are quite different, and are based on the older, preserved text of the song. Read Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry by Frank Moore Cross for the scholarly details.