Letters:  Religious Loyalty vs. Intellectual Honesty

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: I have enjoyed many of your articles and your outlook.  But, recently I start to see a trend. Time is short,  so just to name a small sample: your post about fingernails in the previous Jewishtimes issue.  It seems like you sometimes engage in such mental gymnastics to avoid anything that might be construed as 'superstitious' that you become totally irrational yourself.  For example, when you write things like “…to come in contact with one’s disposed nail trimmings can be disturbing to delicate personality types and cause miscarriages.”  Are you listening to what you are writing?  It seems intellectually dishonest...No?

Rabbi: Please elaborate on "trend", also on what is difficult to grasp about the explanation given, and how a superstitious approach is more agreeable to you. Thank you.

Reader: The trend I was referring to was on my end, the articles that I have been reading, as opposed to the articles that you've been writing lately. 

Rabbi: This indicates you are searching in particular for content that is more closely related to superstitious themes than not. Then you can’t call this Mesora’s trend, but your own.

Reader: I'm not saying that the 'superstitious' approach is a more agreeable explanation. Rather, I am questioning why you don't just say that the sages were 'superstitious' in some of their beliefs.  Instead, you come up with a innovative (did you see this anywhere?), yet far fetched, non realistic, even silly, explanation of why seeing a fingernail would cause a miscarriage. 

Rabbi: A scientist does not explain the universe based on inexplicable superstitions. He experiments, theorizes, and used evidence alone to determine how reality functions. The Rabbis too follow the Torah laws to avoid superstitions, such as Rambam’s list (chap. 11 of Hilchos Avodah Zara) regarding superstitions, omens, luck, etc. The Rabbis too follow evidence, and do not accept superstitions, as they accept God gave man senses for the primary purpose of determining what we sense, and what we do not. We accept the former, and reject the latter.

Reader: Now you got me curious about some of your hashkafos (philosophy). So a couple of questions...1) Are you saying that the scientific method was used  by the sages 1500 years before it was invented? In other words, do you really think that they systematically observed and tested pregnant ladies stepping on fingernails (as opposed to other substances; maybe even in a  double-blind fashion)? 2) Also, if they had one, why didn't they give us a reason?

Rabbi: I’m saying the Sages (Chazal) were masters of Torah, which, by definition, includes mastery of psychology, since numerous Torah laws and ideals address the human psyche.  Chazal wrote sparingly, and many time using clues alone, in order to drive man to use his mind. Similarly, Shlomo Hamelech wrote Mishley and did not write the idea openly. Analyzing meshalim, Shlomo Hamelech understood would benefit us by sharpening our minds. See what he writes in the first chapter.

Reader: Why wouldnt you just say that the chachamim based themselves on the science of the time and they were wrong? Similar to what Nathan Slifkin might say. Why come up with an answer that defies common experience and intellect.

Rabbi: It doesn’t defy the intellect, but is right on target.

Reader: Isn't the concept of a Mesora versus what you are proposing about the sages being scientists...opposites? 

Rabbi: Mesora means transmission. Chazal were geniuses, not superstitious fools. We must analyze their clues to arrive at their hidden meanings, just as we analyze a medrash that too is not written literally. Like Mishley, it is a riddle.

Reader: A Mesora could obviate a scientific evaluation and vice versa. Fingernails are not good for pregnant ladies, period.   If they didn't give a reason, it's because it is a mesora.  If we understand it logically or not.  Just because we don't, doesn't mean we dismiss it...after all, it is halachah.  And, it doesn't mean we assume that there is a logical explanation when the sages themselves didn't give one.  

Rabbi: Suggesting the sages veered from logic is like saying a scientist follows superstitions.

Reader: Another example that I thought of is on shabbos 67 where the halachah is established that medicine and medical methods can be illogical and even come directly out of pagan practices if used for the sake of healing.  The Rambam (hilchos shabbos 19:13), himself says that you can wear a fox tooth as a sleeping remedy, even though it makes no sense at all and is darkei emorim.

Rabbi: Some remedies can work psychologically. Meaning, if one believes in something enough, it can have psychosomatic results. This is reasonable, and unlike your view that “it makes no sense at all.”

Reader: Is your answer found anywhere in our Mesora?  Or, did you come up with it on your own (which means its not part of the Mesora; which is fine, too.)?  I did see various answers - none of which match yours; many of these were having to do with witchcraft and Kabbalistic answers.  

Rabbi: This is my explanation following Rambam (Letter to Marseilles) that man is to accept as truth one of 3 matters: 1) what he detects with his senses, 2) what his mind dictates by reason, and 3) Torah. Whatever does not fall in two these 3 categories must be rejected, such as mysticism and today’s Kabbalistic thought. It is a quite sad state of affairs that Jews today reject many Torah prohibitions and accept witchcraft, and reject minds like Rambam. They prefer committing violations and following infantile minds that favor mystical (unproven) notions, and accept whatever is stated under the name of “Kabbalah”, as if this is on par with God’s words, i.e. Torah.

 Like scientists, Chazal understood how the world operates. Like Rambam and Moshe Rabbeinu, they rejected mysticism and what is accepted today under the heading of Kabbalah. The rational mind will find that by following evidence, reason and Torah, the natural word will not be in conflict with his beliefs. But the person who believes that spells, witchcraft and Kabbala are the preferred remedy to misfortunes or illness, will suffer and die.

Reader: Two questions then: 1) under which one of the three does believing that fingernails can cause miscarriages fall? Because, (a) I'm sure you've never seen a miscarriage from nails with your senses or anyone else’s; (b) with reason alone, this cause and effect can't be supported, no matter how you stretch it; (c) if you say that this is Torah, just because chazal said it in the Gemara, then you force yourself to believe as true everything they say. Which it sounds like this might make you uncomfortable. Especially, some of their ideas about the science of natural world as well as the power of irrational causes.  Or else, you are forced to pick and choose which concepts of chazal fit, conveniently, into your pre-held thesis. (I am seeing this in some of your articles and answers to questions, ignoring blatant chazal that don't fit.)

Second question:  do you feel comfortable saying that gedolim  like the vilna gaon were fools and, essentially, apikorsim because they held by "Kabbalah"?  Who else in the frum world holds like this.  (There are mishnayos that discuss maaseh merkava/bereishis. Are some of the tannaim fools and destined to suffer and die, too?)

Rabbi:  1) Science and facts have long ago proven the connection between psychological health and bodily health.

2) Not all Kabbalistic ideas are false. Each idea must be judged individually.

Reader: It sounds like you are putting science ahead of Torah, as if, God forbid, we depend on science to validate which parts of Torah we are allowed to believe as real.  Science changes constantly, in every field, at least our understanding of it.  Torah doesn't change. The precedence of the intellect is similar to what some of ancient Greek philosophers held, later by Descartes.  Apart from the Rambam, I would challenge you to find any "prove-it-to-me scientifically" mentality from any gadol in our Mesora.  There is nothing Jewish about this. And, even the Rambam's opinion was most likely borrowed from Greek philosophers (not my words, I believe the Gaon's).  Doesn't the Rambam call Aristotle "the Chacham"?   It’s the reverse, Torah proves science. As many (Hirsch, Gaon and others) have metaphorically used the menorah saying that the six branches of worldly wisdom shine subservient it toward light, which is Torah.  

You’re obfuscating a bit. The vilna Gaon accepted Kabbalah, wholly, and wrote more commentaries on the Zohar than all of the early Hasidic rebbes combined.  Are you calling him a fool and destined to suffer?  (It's fine if you are...I am just trying to figure out where you hold. Since obviously you spent a lot of time and thought on your website and articles.  This I appreciate.)

Rabbi:   Along with Rambam, Radak and Ibn Ezra follow this approach. Regarding the Gaon on Kabbala, I'm sure he'd reject today's Kabbalistic notions. Whatever the Gaon followed as Kabbala, had to be chochma (wisdom), so please share if you see he subscribed to any hocus-pocus nonsense. I'm sure he did not. 

Reader: Hmmm...in my very humble opinion, please don't take offense, but it seems like you have ignored most of Judaism and focused only in on those few commentators who support your science-first view (seems very close to science worship, if there is such a thing).  For example, all of our sages, held by the reality of astrology (perhaps, not today's, but some form of mazal). And there is just too many pages of Gemara dedicated to it to ignore.  Ibn Ezra, you mention, wrote books on medical astrology...it sounds like you are also confusing the prohibition of seeking soothsayers and astrologers with not believing that they had some sort of irrational power; think about so many of the discussions of the Gemara.  You can't write them all off as some allegory for us to crack.

Rabbi:  What reasoning could defend such an opinion that “the minority are wrong”?  Are we not to follow what is reasonable, regardless of numbers? This is not speaking where we rule after a majority; that is halacha, while this is philosophy, hashkafa, where there is no “ruling.” As a wise rabbi stated, the Torah cannot legislate what we “believe,” for it is impossible that a man will believe X to be true, based on coercion. Torah legislation is relegated exclusively to actions. 

By the way, Rambam rejected astrology in his Letter to Marseilles.

Astrology either is or isn’t true. Until proven, one should not accept it, or any view, without a reasonable argument.

Reader: So "if one should not accept it", why did every sage (accept a few) hold by it?  

Rabbi:  Can you explain astrology that you defend it so much? 

Reader: Nope. However, are you ready to not accept everything in Judaism that you can't explain? They might have believed things that we don't hold by anymore (bloodletting, for instance).  But, to declare war on anything outside of our limited, graspable, rational thoughts, I truly believe that this is not Judaism, but rather a post-cartesian hybrid.  

Rabbi:  This is also not an area of psak (ruling), so there is no obligation to accept any opinion, regardless of the number of Rabbis who accepted it back then.

Reader: Regarding Vilna Gaon's Kabbalah being chachma…have you read any Kabbalah at all?!?  The concepts there are not scientifically discernible whatsoever.  And he engages fully in them (and astrology). So again, are you really comfortable saying that they were all fools, suffering and dying? If you were to find out that Judaism did have elements in the Mesora that ran counter to science would you abandon your Judaism? I don't believe you would- because we are “maaminim bnei maaminim; believers the descendants of believers.” There is something within the Jew.

Rabbi:  Read the Ibn Ezra below which disagrees with your view:

“…The second category (of commandments) are commands which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were commanded. And God forbid, God forbid that there should be any one of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we are obligated to perform all that God commands, be it revealed to us the underlying Sode (principle), be it hidden from us. And if we find any of them which contradict human intelligence, it isn't proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by them) we (must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it (determine the command). If we can’t, then we abandon that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it (Exod. 20.1).” 

Thus, Ibn Ezra says opposite your view…we do in fact reject what conflicts with reason. His example was “and you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart (Deut. 10:16).” He says we are not to be barbaric and literally cut out our hearts. Rather, this verse is metaphoric for controlling our desires. had we not come to the latter understanding, we would not follow the command literally. Unlike your view, reason will trump an unintelligible Torah command.  

Be mindful that the Torah in many areas prohibits witchcraft, magic, soothsaying, warlocks, omens, etc. So The Vilna Gaon could not possibly agree with these ideas as is found in Kabbalah today. 

Reader: It seems like the main problem with a reliance on one's intellect is that many wise men had conclusions that were not in line with Torah.  What would you say about them.  

Rabbi:  God gave man the greatest gift, the intellect. It matters none that a wise Rabbi from the middle ages ends up wrong based on today’s science. What matters is that he used his intelligence to his best abilities. God could ask from him nothing more. And such a man would have lived on the highest level possible. We can only make decisions with the knowledge at hand. If we ignore what is known, that is foolish. Today we know the views of astrology are false. We do not accept them as true because many Rabbis accepted it back then. What if Rabbis back then accepted the view of a flat world, would you reject your senses that have seen photos of Earth from space? Or would you say the Rabbis were correct?