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November 15, 2010


Mike Shatz

I wonder how much the difference is shaped by or reflected in the terminology. In English we speak of "planting", with the emphasis seemingly on the resulting plant. In Aramaic and Rabbinic Hebrew we speak of "zriah" whose root is "seed".

Natan Slifkin

"This example argues for the proposition that the only mind capable of immediately and effortlessly interpreting the Torah is a mind unaffected by secular knowledge."

No. It argues for the proposition that the only mind capable of properly interpreting the Talmud is one that is not limited to modern scientific education (as is usually the case in the Orthodox world), but rather one that has also studied the history of science, and how ancient cultures perceived things differently than we do.

Thus, your picture is not only offensive, but also inaccurate.


I validate the service that R. Slifkin performed with his books and his contribution in the debate on science and religion in the Jewish context. I agree that the greatest Talmudic minds will find valuable nuggets in secular knowledge of all kinds; however, a garden variety learner will be impeded by it in becoming a Shas Yid.

I removed the picture and apologize for the offense. It was originally posted by a Slifkin defender. I can certainly understand how it can be viewed differently though no offense was intended and apologize for using it.


I wrote http://www.aishdas.org/asp/category/phenomenology , a series of posts in which I argue that

1- The goal of halakhah can be defined in terms of sheleimus (spiritual wholenes) and/or deveiqus (attachment to the Almighty)

2- Both of those are defined by impact to the self. In other words, in rationalist terms of the psycho-spiritual impact on the act on the one performing it rather than in mystical terms of the spiritual forces moved by the motion of the object. (Even assuming the latter isn't just another description of the same thing.

3- That explanation depends more on the world-as-experienced than any objective analysis of the world.

4- Therefore, halakhah depends more on commonsense notions of physics than on the real laws of nature. What can be observed, rather than what is actually out there.

5- Also, the difference between what was once observed, and what was never seen. Thus giving a philosophical basis extending R' Aqiva Eiger's take on rov vs. qavu'ah to explain chazaqah demei'iqarah, terei kemei'ah, and a few other rules of birur (doubt resolution) that I lack the time to explain the buzzwords for in this comment.

Once you divorce halakhah from the need to be scientific, questions about maggot eggs, heliocentrism vs geocentrism, or the difference between how a person experiences planting vs how a plant actually grows, etc.... simply don't even begin. It's all about how the act impacts the person, not what is actually happening.

Counterintuitively, it's the mystic, who is associating the value of a mitzvah with spiritual forces moved by physical objects, for whom the science of the act would be more relevent.



I also want to point out that employing hisotry of science and how ancient cultures perceived differently than we, can lead to dismissing Talmudic logic instead of absorbing oneself in it. There is a real danger there for those who are not attached to Judaism by sentimental ties. It is, again, something that I would not advocate routinely for all students.


While I was having problems posting the above (had to switch from Firefox to IE), I see an exchange of comments were added before mine.

I would argue that we and the ancients experience the world identically. Our intellectual knowledge of more things going on doesn't change the first-hand experience. Intellectually knowing that the day is an effect of the earth's spin doesn't change our experience of a sunrise.



>I would argue that we and the ancients experience the world identically.

That go for comets? Less than 200 years ago the masses of Eastern European Jews were terrified about the impending Halley's Comet (non-Jews too, I'm sure). Chaim Selig Slonimski wrote his first book to allay such fears.

Why was Columbus able to use an impending lunar eclipse to terrify American natives who were fed up with him? Could it be that we do not experience the world identically? I don't think even contemporaries experience the world identically.

I suppose you can make a distinction between so-called normal phenomenon like a sunset and Halley's Comet, but why wouldn't our perception of cause effect our experience of even normal phenomena? If, for example, we were socialized to believe that with every sunrise comes death, wouldn't that change the experience of seeing one?


S, you're not giving examples of experiences, but of how people responded to experiences. Yes, our beliefs changed when we knew more of the science behind comets and eclipses.

BTW, that didn't have to happen, and in fact comes from a "God of the Gaps" approach to religion -- invoking theology and mysticism only when science fails, rather than seeing G-d more in the wisdom of nature than the as-yet inexplicable. There are gemaros about Hashem's appointed times of Anger, or Bilaam knowing Hashem's moment of Mercy. (Moments when Hashem's Action has consequences in this world that if from a person we would call the product of anger or mercy.) Similarly, contemporary Jews /could/ have understood comets or eclipses as regularly occuring signs of times of regularly occuring Wrath. But (speaking of my assumptions about all of us here) we didn't.

Still, in terms of the experience itself, maggots still seem to "come out of nowhere" to infest the meat, even though we intellectually know otherwise. The sun still rises, the moon still disappears during an eclipse, a comet still looks like a "bearded moving star"...


Chana Luntz

I think it is not just a history of science education that enable you to understand Talmudic perspectives, but a modern legal training can too. Legal training will teach a person to understand words as being defined, either explicitly or implicitly, in the context of the document in which they are used and then being used with the definition assigned. Indeed I spend much of my working day defining words in precisely the way I want to use them, or reviewing the drafting of others who have defined words to have a particular meaning and which therefore go on to have that meaning within the context of the transaction.
With that kind of training, there is no great difficulty in understanding that a term like "zria" might means effortless placing in the ground even if the English "planting" does not - they are two seperate concepts.

What I do think needs a further comment in this post is the following:

"I often wondered why Talmud so often offers as a way of seeing something, what it calls "salka daatach amrinan (you may first think that we say..)", and than tells that, no, "kamashma lan" that that is the correct way. But... it never proves it."

Firstly, are you sure "it never proves it"? I would have said the opposite, it almost always "proves" it, not by means of scientific proof, but by reference to a Torah or halachic statement, ie by reference to a "proof text". Of course in the scientific world, we don't generally prove things by reference to texts, but of course in the legal world we do.

" What then is the purpose of the exercize - just tell us what the correct way is right away.
However, there is a purpose for the exercize! It is to model the Talmudic reasoning for us by example. This is how expertise is gained - through solving various problems and the subconscious acquisition of pattern recognition."

While not discounting this, I would have said that the purpose is even more direct. Hava minas are very important in understanding how and when to apply conclusions. So often it is the hava mina that in fact determines the halacha in the "not quite like the conclusion" case. Again this is pretty intuitive to most lawyers who often have to interprete the "purpose" of a clause or piece of legislation and apply it in circumstances that seem not to be directly on point. That is what poskim have to do, and it is the hava minas that are often the most important tool in doing so, their job would be far more difficult if the Talmud had just "told us the correct way right away".

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