Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Challenge of Creation Parts 1 and 2

So I'm through the first 2 of 3 parts of Rabbi Natan Slifkin's "The Challange of Creation", so I'd like to collect my thoughts on the book so far. The first two parts are, respectively,  an introduction to the topic of reconciling science and parshanut and a look at how this plays out with regard to Cosmology. The third section, which I haven't read yet, looks at Evolution.

Sources, Wonderful Sources!

Over the years, I've read two other books on the topic of reconciling Torah and Science: Professor Gerald Schroeder's "Genesis and the Big Bang" and Professor Nathan Aviezer's "In the Beginning". Both of those works were essentially monographs, each presenting its author's approach to reconciling the Torah and Scientific narratives, without much reference to other secondary sources.

Not so, "The Challenge of Creation", which is almost textbook on the topic. As Slifkin build's his own approach, he brings the opinions of numerous Rabbinic figures throughout the ages on this and similar problems. As such, even if the reader finds himself disagreeing with Slifkin's own approach, he has still learned a great deal about the different approaches Judaism has taken traditionally.
 In fact, with regard to his own approach, Slifkin is somewhat vague and noncommittal. He doesn't go too far into the nitty-gritty details, choosing to focusing on the sources and suggesting how they apply to this very Modern issue.

Departing from Literalism

That said, Slifkin's own approach does emerge through the second half of Part Two of the book. If I may paraphrase, he says that, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence and a good deal of Rabbinic precedent, we should interpret the seven days of creation non-literally. Certainly it is true that God created the Universe, but the Torah takes a good deal of artistic license in describing the details. Rabbi Slifkin brings sources that suggest that the Hashem was compelled to author the torah thus so that people in every age could relate to it's message. He also brings a number of approaches that imply that the seven days of creation are meant to teach us Theological, rather than Historical, lessons.

Ultimately, I think he makes a strong argument, and I think his approach is much stronger than that of "Genesis and the Big Bang" or "In the Beginning". Actually, Slifkin mentions these books in chapter 13, grouping them together as Concordism i.e. approaches that try and show concordance between the biblical and scientific narrative(Presumably, he borrowed the term from one of the sources he brings in the footnotes: "Is there science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism" by David Shatz).

The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax

Ultimately, I think The Challenge of Creation may be Slifkin's Magnum Opus. His other books, like "Mysterious Creatures" and "The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax" are interesting, fun reads. That said, "Challenge" takes on one of the tough issues of our time and deals with it masterfully. (Interestingly enough, Rav Slifkin cites "Camel" when discussing non-literal interpretations of scripture, so apparently that book helped form the basis for this one.)

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

More on Tuma by Hagdara

The third chapter of Rav Wolf’s מנחה טהורה discusses tuma and tahara of נבלת עוף טהור as well as the possibly related cases of פרה אדומה, שעיר המשתלח, ופרים ושעירים הנשרפים. The main chakira in this chapter is whether these are cases of tuma by העברה or הגדרה.

Rav Wolf first shows that the Rambam holds that Nivlat Of Tahor is metamei by Haavara, while Seirim and Parim are all Hagdara. For example, he brings the Rambam on Tumat Ochlin. The Rambam distinguishes between Nivlat Of Tahor which needs no hechsher(סופו לטמא טומאה חמורה—אינו צריך הכשר), while Seirim and Parim need הכשר שרץ. This is apparently because Nivlat Of Tahor is an av hatuma which creates its own inherent tumah, while Seirim and Parim don’t actually possess their own tumat haguf.

רמבם שאר אבות הטומאה פרק ג

ה חישב עליה לאכילה, הרי זו מיטמאה טומאת אוכלין; והרי היא כאוכל ראשון לטומאה--אף על פי שלא נגעה בה טומאה אחרת, אינה צריכה הכשר.

ו [ג] פרה אדומה ושעירים הנשרפים אינן כן, אף על פי שהן מטמאין המתעסק בהן: אם חישב עליהן לאכילה--צריכין שתיגע בהן הטומאה, ואחר כך ייטמאו טומאת אוכלין.

Rav Wolf then brings the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim which seems to contradict this approach:

ומפני זה היה העוסק בפרה ובשעירים הנשרפים מטמא בגדים, כשעיר המשתלח אשר יאמן בו כי מרוב מה שנשא מן העונות הוא מטמא מי שנגע בו.(מורה נבוכים חלק ג, פרק מ"ז)

Rav Wolf explains that the Rambam sees Seir Hamishtalayach as

מטמא במידה מסויימת, ולא רק היכי תימצי להגדיר את המשלח בזהות של משלח את השעיר.

But he never elaborates how it can be that Seir Hamishtalayach is metamei by Hagdara, but at the same time somewhat Haavara. I’d like to suggest an explanation…

Hagdara and Haavara Revisited

I would suggest that this apparent contradiction in the different writings of the Rambam helps us sharpen our understanding of the difference between Haavara and Hagdara. When the Rambam in the Moreh says that one who deals with the Seir Hamishtalayach becomes Tamei because of the weight of the sins that have been cast upon it, he isn’t saying that the person becomes Tamei via Haavara rather than Hagdara. The scapegoat isn’t tamei with ritual tumah. That said, it does carry a less corporeal form of Tumah, as do all sins, along the lines of טומאת הנפש. I would argue that many, if not all, cases of tumah by Hagdara are like this in that their Tumat Haguf has some, somewhat more ethereal, source.

For example, חרב כחלל, according to the opinion that it only applies to a weapon. Its tumah wasn’t passed on by contact with the dead body, and yet the sword didn’t become tamei by Hagdara from nowhere. It’s the weapon’s association with the lethal act that gave it the high level of Tumah it now carries. The point is that Tumah by hagdara still comes from “somewhere”.

Monday, 1 December 2014

A Speculative Reading of Bereshit

Rav Natan Slifkin's book "The Challenge of Creation" finally arrived, so I've started reading that. I'm quite fond of his writing(although I would prefer a few more footnotes, not to mention Hebrew source texts, rather than translations) and I'm definitely enjoying myself. I'm still in the introductory chapters, but hopefully I'll put up a post or two about the book some time soon.

In any case, I wanted to put into writing a possible reading of Bereshit that I've been pondering for a while. It's pretty non-traditional, so please regard this as more of a thought exercise in parshanut rather than as a serious attempt at a definitive interpretation of the text.

First, let's look at some of the significant questions on the first few chapters of the Torah(some of which we've mentioned before):
  1. A simple reading of the account of creation in the Torah is not consistent with the Scientific narrative, mainly in terms of the age of the universe and the evolution of species. How do we reconcile this?
  2. The Torah begins with two different accounts of creation which contradict each other on a number of points. How do we explain this?
  3. Who did Adam and Eve's offspring marry?
  4. People live a long time but their ages slowly decrease. Why?
  5. Who were the Bnei Eliohim and the Nefilim? What was their sin and what do they have to do with the limiting of Man's age to 120 years?

Rav Breuer argued, in his classes, that the first story of Creation is the story of a Natural Creation while the second is a miraculous one. The implication was that the truth of what actually happened is somewhere in the middle.

I'd like to suggest the possibility that the two creation stories imply that Hashem made two different, parallel creations. He made a Natural Creation that took place through natural processes over a long time and where Human life evolved. He also made an "artificial" creation, designing and forming Man and Woman miraculously in a well-planned garden with everything they could possibly need.

The story in the Garden is the story of how Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the perfect creation into the imperfect one.

Adam and Eve were engineered to perfection and they lived a long time. That said, their offspring married the short-lived, imperfect, Nature-evolved Humans. As such, their descendents lived for shorter and shorter periods.

Ultimately, those most closely descended of Adam and Eve took advantage of their less-able fellows and took a disproportionate number of women for themselves. These were the Bnei-Elohim and the Nefilim(see Malbim for a similar explanation) and their punishment was that Hashem took away their long lifespan.

So there you go. It's a little bit far out there, I'll admit, and maybe I've been reading too much Tolkien. That said, what I do like about this reading is that it doesn't have to resort to saying that the creation story is really Allegorical...