Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Wouldn't it have been cool if the Plague of Frogs had EXPLODING Frogs?

A bit off topic, I know...

From today's news:

BERLIN - More than 1,000 toads have puffed up and exploded in a Hamburg pond in recent weeks, and scientists still have no explanation for what's causing the combustion, an official said Wednesday.

The Wolf

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

On Doing B'Dikas Chometz On Time

It seems that my wife and I can never get our act together. No matter how carefully we plan beforehand, we can never seem to get to B'dikas Chometz on time. And when I say "not on time," I'm not talking an hour or two past sundown. The last few years, we've averaged getting to B'dikas Chometz at about five or six AM. This year was good - we were ready for the B'dikah by 3:30. And of course, I felt kind of funny about making a B'racha on the B'dika (haven't I, in essence, been doing a B'dika/Biur for the last ten hours?)

Are there other people that have this problem as well, or it is peculiar to my family?

The Wolf

Thursday, April 21, 2005

On Fighting Ignorance

There's a person named Cecil Adams who writes a column for the Chicago Reader called "The Straight Dope." The motto of his column is "Fighting Ignorance Since 1973."

I think fighting ignorance is a wonderful thing. It's one thing to disagree on facts, but to remain willfully ignorant when proofs stare you right in the face is downright wrong.

I'm currently engaged in a discussion with some folks on The discussion really got underway in this thread (note: the discussion was started in a different thread and then continued in this thread with post 50.

What's interesting is that my disputants are maintining their position in spite of the evidence that I've brought. One main point of contention seems to be the Rambam's description of the solar system in Hilchos Yisodei HaTorah, Chap. 3. He writes (sorry, I don't know how to encode the original Hebrew into HTML -- if anyone would be willing to drop me an email and let me know how, I'd be grateful!) in the first section:

There are nine gilgulim [which I'll translate as spheres for now, even though that may not be accurate]: The closest sphere [to the earth] is the sphere of the moon. The second, which is higher than that is that of the star called Cochav. The third, which is higher than that contains Nogah. The fourth sphere contains the Sun, the fifth sphere contains Ma'adim, the sixth sphere contains Cochav Tzedek, the seventh sphere contains Shabtai, the eighth sphere contains all the other stars that appear in the heavens, and the ninth sphere rotates every day from east to west.

It's fairly obvious that what the Rambam is describing here is an Ptolmaic system of the solar system. Indeed, you can easily pick out some of the planets names: Ma'adim = Mars (which is red), Nogah = Venus (as it shines brighter than any other star), Shabtai = Saturn. The Rambam didn't use the Roman mythological names for the planets, but it's pretty clear that he's describing the solar system as had been held for over a thousand years before his time.

One of the proofs that I brought to show that this model was incorrect was a photo taken from Mars showing Mercury passing in front of the Sun. Now, if Mercury is in an inner orbit from the Sun and Mars is in an outer orbit, then how could Mercury pass in front of the Sun (as seen from Mars). To use a heliocentric comparison, that's like Jupiter passing between the Earth and the Sun (can you imagine what that kind of an eclipse would look like!).

I also brought our experiences with astronomy and sending out other spacecraft as proof of the correctness of the heliocentric system.

I'm still waiting to hear back from my disputants, but I'm sure that they will respond. I don't think that they'll back out of an argument.

Using this information, I argued that the Rambam was (as most of us recognize) flat out wrong with regard to the solar system. If you are going to posit that there is a mesora which cannot be wrong, then you also must posit that the Rambam was writing from his scientific knowledge of the day, and not from the mesora.

I find it interesting that my disputants are stubbornly holding on to this idea (geocentrism) which is really not an ikkur of our emunah. It's not like I'm arguing against creation ex nihilo, or against Torah MiSinai or against Yetzias Mitzrayim. It's a simple scientific matter that is perfectly compatible with the Torah.

I'll continue my dispute over there as long as I can. Fighting ignorance is tough work.

(Note: If any of the folks find their way here, feel free to comment on the post, but let's leave the actual scientific debate over there).

The Wolf

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

On Dealing with Frumteens (humor)


(Hat tip to Cynic of

The Wolf

On Email

... emailing me, that is. I finally got around to setting up my domain (although I'm going to leave the blog here on Blogger for now).

You can email me at Wolf (at) WolfishMusings (dot) com.

The Wolf

On The Blindingly Obvious...

The Frumteens Moderator thinks that Rabbi Slifkin's gonna get his in the afterlife...

”There are certainly strong grounds in classical Jewish though for saying that G-d would have formed new creatures from existing creatures, using some ordered mechanism, rather that going “Shazaam!” – SOT p.154)
Going “Shazaam”, huh. Seems creation ex nihilo is funny to Slifkin. (Yeah, well, when he gets to Olam Habah, he will find out the joke’s on him.)

The Wolf

UPDATE: Of course, after I published this, I found out that Rabbi Student has done a much better take on the FTM post. Well done!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

On Da'as Hedyot's pain (and mine)...

Da'as Hedyot posted something today which really hit home for me.

It's an issue that I touched on in a previous post, but he really said it far better than I did. Specifically, he talks about how his Yeshiva nearly drove him away from frumkeit. I hit home for me, because mine nearly did the same to me, and many of the issues that he touches upon in his post reflect what happened to me as well.

I find it interesting that it was the Yeshiva itself - the one thing that is supposed to help ensure that we grow up being Shomrei Torah U'Mitzovs - that nearly did us in. It wasn't (at least it wasn't for me) girls, drugs, television, violence, gangs or any of the other "outside influences" that one might expect to drag young men away from a frum lifestyle. It was the Yeshiva itself - simply because I wasn't their ideal student.

That leads us to the question - what is the role and purpose of the Yeshiva in the frum community? It is to produce talmidei chachamim and G'dolei Yisroel? Or is it to teach our children how to learn and how to perform the Mitzvos? And need the two goals be exclusive? In my yeshiva, that seemed to be the case. If one wasn't on the "star track," then one was given the impression that they weren't a good Jew. If you weren't going to learn full-time, then you were just a waste of effort on the Yeshiva's part.

But we have to face reality - not everyone is willing to, or is suited to, full-time learning. There are those of us who are going to grow up to try to be Shomrei Torah U'Mitzvos, but not talmeidi chachamim. We'll go through life doing as well as we can, trying to do better, but just as average people. But the Yeshiva world (at least the one I went to - and by judging the comments on my earlier post on the matter, others as well), we seem to be destined to be "written off." It seems that the Yeshivos are focusing on the "stars" at the expense of everyone else - and it's just plain wrong. The parents of the "stars" don't pay any more tuition than the rest of us. I certainly agree that if a child shows an aptitude in learning and a willingness to continue in it, he should be encouraged to do so and further challanged to do so. But the yeshivas have to be willing to put an effort into the others and not stigmatize them for not being true to themselves.

Good post, Da'as Hedyot. I thank you.

The Wolf

On Silly Geography Questions...

Here's one to put to those who interpret everything Chazal say literally...

When Rashi says (in Parshas Viyigash) that Eretz Yisroel is higher than all other lands, does this mean that the elevation of Eretz Yisroel is higher than the Himilayas?

If they answer in the negative, then they're admitting that (at least the Rishonim) didn't have perfect knowledge of the world. If they answer in the affirmative, you know they might be right... because the lack of oxygen up there has surely done something to their brains.

The Wolf (feeling a little impish today)

Monday, April 11, 2005

On Yeshivos and Minor League Baseball

This is a thought that I've had for a long time - since high school in fact. Since I only went to one high school, perhaps my experience was warped (hopefully) and this is not the norm. I invite everyone to comment and tell me if this is the case in the larger, Yeshivish world.

I went to a Yeshiva high school in Brooklyn. My perception of my high school was that they were interested in turning out only one type of student - learners. By learners, I mean those who will go on to Kollel and continue to learn for years and years to come. I was not such a kid. As I described earlier in this blog, I was the "square peg" that wouldn't be shoved into the "round hole" that was the typical student. I didn't share the same fundamentalist outlook that my schoolmates did, I had access to outside media and outside sources of information (books, such as history, science, etc. that would rarely, if ever, be found in the homes of my schoolmates), and had dealings with people in the non-frum world (as the vast majority of my family was not [and still isn't] frum). In addition, every single one of my schoolmates could speak and understand Yiddish - but not me. If I ever thought to say that there was some Midrash that shouldn't be taken absolutely literally, I was usually shouted down. The administration made one feel that if you weren't interested in learning 24/7 (well, you could sleep, of course) then you weren't really worthy to be a student there.

I don't know if you're familiar with Major League Baseball and the way the minor leagues work, but I'll give you a brief overview. There are two "major" leagues - the American League and the National League. These leagues represent the top level of play in North America (and probably the world). Underneath those leagues are several "minor leagues" where players of lesser quality play. In the olden days (before the 1940s) the minor leagues were independent of the major leagues, but since then, the minors have come under increasing control of the major leagues. Today, they exist for one main puropse: to provide a forum for developing players to learn how to play. There are players coming out of high school and colleges around the country who have the potential to be baseball stars, but need additional work on their skills. These players are sent to the minor leagues where they work on their skills until they are ready to be promoted to the major leagues.

The overwhelming majority of minor league players never make it to the major leagues. Fewer than 10% of players currently in the minor leagues have any realistic chance of playing in "the Show." What that means is that major league baseball spends money and resources on all the expenses of the minor leagues - including the salaries of all those players - just for the sake of the 10% who make it to the big leagues. The other 90% are really there only to give their prospects someone to play with. The main focus, however, is on the potential star.

That's the impression that I got from my yeshiva. Since I (obviously) wasn't going to be a learner or a talmid chachom (or if I was, not in their narrow, fundamentalist tradition) and so the program wasn't geared toward me. If my learning fell by the wayside, there was really no one who took an interest in helping me out. There was no one around to help nurture the ideas that I was trying to formulate about Yiddishkeit. I didn't fit the mold - the program wasn't geared toward me - I wasn't a "prospect."

Was this experience unique to my high school? Or do other Yeshivish high schools have the same attititue (focus on the "stars" and the rest are there for background)?

The Wolf

Friday, April 08, 2005

On Cognative Dissonance

I've been reading The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax on my subway commute for a few days now. I've actually finished it once through and am in the middle of a second reading.

While on the subway, I make a point of not hiding what I am reading. While I don't deliberately flaunt the book, I dont read with the cover faced downwards either.

I've been noticing some of the reactions that I get when I read this book. Some people either don't notice, don't care, or may not be aware of the controversy. Others have given me "dirty looks."

Last night, someone broke the ice.

As I was standing on the platform in Manhattan, waiting for my train ride home, a young man approched me and said (in a friendly tone) "I don't know if you're aware or not, but that book's been put into cherem."

"Yes," I replied, "I'm aware of the controversy surrounding it."

We actually got into a friendly discussion on the matter of Torah, science, evolution, biology and astronomy (and Rabbi Slifkin). He wasn't the hard-liner I took him for at first, but rather seemed willing to entertain the idea that science might be correct. I actually enjoyed our conversation so much, I missed my stop and had to take a train back in the other direction.

One thing that he said kind of struck me, in that (without having those words) it was the attitude that I had taken for years. The attitude was that of cognative dissonance; the idea that one could two sets of contradicting beliefs, and give them both validity. When I was younger I could blithly read a sefer which posited a literal 6-day/24-hour view of Creation exactly 5765 years ago and then turn around and read a book on astronomy on stellar formation, a process which takes much longer than 5700+ years; and simply ignore the contradictions between the two worlds. It's much like the famous story about the rabbi who hears two litigants arguing in front of him; after the first one makes his case, the rabbi says "You're right." Then after the second one makes his case, the rabbi says to him "You're right too." The rabbi's wife hears this, goes over to him and says "they presented two contradictory cases! How could they both be right?" The rabbi turns to his wife and says "You're also right!"

That was the attitude that I had for quite a few years (even if I didn't have the words "cognative dissonance" to describe it). Once he mentioned it, though, I remembered other occassions where this sort of thing was "officially" accpeted. While the Catholic church denied the Copernican model of the solar system, one could "unofficially" use it if one wanted to know where to find Mars in the sky on any particular night.

I can't pinpoint when it was that I began to slip out of this cognative dissonance, but it was at least a few years ago. It was at that point that I began to better understand the idea that Berashis does not have to be taken completely literally - especially in light of the fact that the most Chareidi person takes other parts of tanach non-literally as well. But once I began to slip out of my cognative dissonance, then I began to better appreciate the miracle that is Creation.

While discussing science vs. Torah (which is a particularly bad way to frame it) with my fellow traveller, I presented my view on the matter. If you're going to accept Torah min ha-Shamayim, and once you get past the silly idea that science is nothing more than a conspiracy to deny God's existence, then what do you have left? The only possibility that you are left with is that science and the Torah *must* reconcile with each other. If a (the Torah) = b (the truth) and c (science) = b (the Truth), then a must equal c - there is no other option. I know that there are those reading this blog who don't accept the first premise (of Torah min-haShamayim). If so, that's fine - I'm perfectly aware that there is no evidence for it and accept the matter on faith and I don't really ask anyone to accept anything on faith. But if you do believe in Torah min-haShamayim, and you're not chasing conspiracy theories about scientists - then the only option to accept is that there is a way to make a reading of Berashis (even if not a 100% literal reading) mesh with scientific findings.

The Wolf

Sunday, April 03, 2005

On Trying To Understand Yeridas HaDoros

It seems to be an axiom in Judaism that no generation can be greater than previous generations have been (or, perhaps more correctly, no generation's leaders can be greater than any previous generation's leaders). No body today, it seems, could ever hope to be the equal of R. Moshe zt"l. Don't even bother trying to reach the greatness of the Chofetz Chaim zt"l or R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski zt"l. The Vilna Gaon? Forget about it.

And, of course, if you go further back, this concept has been formalized into "law" in that no Acharon can argue on a Rishon (or a Gaon, or an Amora...)

But this is a concept that I have some difficulty understanding. The reason for this difficulty is technology.

I don't think anyone would argue that one of the greatest inventions of mankind (if not the greatest) was the printing press by Guttenberg. Before the printing press was invented, books were expensive (because they were all handwritten). The price of books was such that only the wealthy (or the clergy) could read because they were the only ones who owned books. 99% of the population was illiterate. The printing press, on the other hand, not only made book publishing less expensive, it also made printed material much more accessable to the general public - as now multiple copies of books could be run off at once, rather than having each copy handwritten. Furthermore, because the books were printed off of a press, there was much less of a danger of transcription errors, variant texts, etc.

Because of the printing press, knowledge in the world increased exponentially. Science as we know it would not have been possible without the invention of the printing press. It was one of the factors directly responsible for the Rennissance in Europe.

Now, with the printing press in place, it wasn't only secular works or Christian works that were published using this new technology - Jewish texts were published as well. It wasn't too long after the invention of the printing press that the first Shas was printed. Whereas, before, each Gemara had to be handwritten (making the times that the Gemara was burned in public all the more painful), now it could be reproduced much easier. More people could own their own copies. More people could own their own Chumashim, Mishnayos, Yad Chazakas, and so on.

Of course, as time went on and printing technology got better (we don't still use the same presses that Guttenberg used!), written works became more affordable, more commonplace and more accurate. Scholarship increased in just about all areas of human endeavor. You would think that this would include Torah as well, but that seems not to be the case. R. Moshe can't compare to the Vilna Gaon.

You can take the matter even further to today. Today, you have the Internet revolutionizing the way that people communicate with each other. It seems that it's come to the point where if a world leader sneezes, it's known about half a world away before the drops hit the floor (OK, I'm using a *bit* of hyperbole... but you get the idea). We can communicate with people instantly around the world. We can store materials in virtual libraries that anyone with an internet connection can access. I personally believe that when this time period is looked back upon in history, the birth of Internet will be more influential to world scholarship than Guttenberg's printing press was to world scholarship in his day and the century or two following it's invention.

Today, thanks to the internet, we literally have the opportunity to make the Torah globally available to anyone who wants it. Shas, Rishonim, etc. can all be put on line and made freely available. Much of it already is available on line. Translations of classical works abound in multiple languages. Shiurim can be recording on audio or video and placed on line for anyone to access. People can download and/or print out sheets to help them learn Daf Yomi. The possibilites to find ways to make the Torah available to people and to increase Torah scholarship have never been greater.

And yet, despite the potential for this explosion in Torah scholarship, it seems that no one can (as a rule) ever hope to equal someone from a previous generation. But why does it have to be this way? Why does each generation have to be part of some downward spiral to the end of time? Why can't a generation be greater than the one before it. I think that if there ever was the potential for this to happen, it has now arrived.

That being said, does Yeridas HaDoros *have* to happen? I know that there are some who look at the matter dogmatically and say "Yes, it has to happen..." But I don't want to accept that. I think that we can become better - we can strive to be better than our predecessors, especially with all the means that we have to disseminate Torah today.