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December 13th, 2007

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02:22 pm - Ancestor Worship
(Woo, I'm about to take the great chance of blogging in response to a more popular and respected blogger...)

A friend of mine mentioned and pointed me to a March 27, 2007 entry of Eliezer Yudkowsky's renowned blog Overcoming Bias.  It has some interesting points, and it got me thinking about some related stuff I've mentioned.

Eliezer mentions the Talmudic dictum that humanity is declining with succeeding generations, and each year our understanding is less, because we are that much further removed from the ancient revelation, when presumably we knew much more than we do now.  This leads to some oddities in Judaism, some of which particularly annoy me (some don't; just part of the quirkiness of religion).  So even when studying the Talmud, if a sage in the Gemara (later work of Talmud, commentary on the earlier Mishna) disagrees with an opinion in the Mishna, the discussion of the Gemara immediately turns to try to find a Mishna-age opinion that supports the Gemara-sage, since someone from the Gemara is simply not permitted to argue on his own strength with opinions from the earlier age.  (I recall hearing that once, in the case of someone who was one of the very earliest Gemara sages and may even have been quoted once in the Mishna, the Gemara finally ruled that he did have standing to argue, being of the Mishnaic age.  Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 50b).

Eliezer's example of later knowledge overruling an earlier decision, based on spontaneous generation, that a worm in an apple is kosher, is actually not a particularly good one.  This is simply because this is a matter of the later ruling applying a stringency, and you can (and rulings usually are) always be more stringent.  It's getting a leniency accepted that won't fly, and that is more and more true these days, as the observant community tends to become stricter and stricter in a sort of knee-jerk reflex.  Eliezer's observation about science always gaining knowledge while Torah always loses knowledge, in the third paragraph, is genius and definitely somthing to ponder.

This self-disenfranchisement of Jews with respect to their own tradition is a fascinating phenomenon.  On the one hand, it makes Judaism almost uniquely ill-suited to deal with the changing developing world.  It's bad enough if your world-view doesn't align with what is being discovered, but surely Muslims and Christians don't have to deal with things that they know are no longer relevant that they simply "don't have the authority to change."  That kind of limitation is peculiar to Judaism, and probably part of Judaism's whole identity as a religion of exile (you probably can't really talk of Jews as Jews until after they were exiled).  And yet for all that, even the most Ultra-Orthodox Jews seem to be able to deal with the world at large better than the more extreme fringes of Islam.  (That might also be part of the exile mentality: since we're in exile, we don't have the authority to go correcting all these evils ourselves.)  I think, though, that on the whole it has gone too far, and I find myself hoping for the Jewish establishment to reclaim its heritage. (this ignores, of course, the problem that no two representatives of that establishment will ever agree on anything).

Which brings us to my blog entry of last November.  I whined about how the established practice was to consider the Autumnal Equinox to be sixty days before December 4th (i.e. October 5th, right?) rather than when it actually is, on September 21st, because the reckoning was done on the Julian calendar and never corrected.  And indeed, people have pointed out that this case has been made, and the decision is based on the fact that the sage Shmuel worked out the math for all this, and computed the length of the seasons of the year, working out to a year-length of 365.25 days exactly, and we are not authorized to gainsay his ancient wisdom.  See http://www.lookstein.org/articles/veten_tal.htm, about halfway down.  I don't buy it.  Shmuel's stated goal was to calculate an astronomical phenomenon, the "tekufot."  The fact that his calculation was wrong doesn't have to do with his superior spiritual knowledge.  Nobody minds that candle-lighting times are all published with sunset calculated according to modern ephemeris data; people are always checking their watches and calendars for the ends of various segments of the day for morning or afternoon prayers... and nobody complains that we aren't doing this the old-fashioned way.  And if you wait long enough, the error accumulates, and what are you going to say?  When we start praying for rain in March (when the rainy season is ending) are we really going to say that this still makes sense, because that's what Shmuel wanted?  Shmuel wanted us to start saying the prayer for rain a little after the start of the rainy season, sixty days after the equinox to be precise.  So doing that would be following his ruling more accurately, I would think.  The same issue occurs with the Jewish calendar, which eventually will not have Passover in the spring anymore, but the error there is much smaller and has not accumulated to much yet.  And there is what appears to be a sensible proposal for rectifying it, though I have every confidence that nobody will agree on things enough to make any suggestion like this stick in the foreseeable future.  Still, I applaud the effort and the hint, even, that we Jews of today have the right to participate in our culture and not just watch it.  Ooh, and even a quote from Maimonides in support of using modern figures.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, the calendar and certainly the date of she'ela are not really major matters.  I'm not even going to touch the whole question of Second Day Diaspora Holidays, which I know are simply too entrenched.  But it's a larger issue.  The issue is, as I said above, participation in our culture, and a culture as a living thing.  Yes, these kinds of arguments are neatly countered by invoking "faithfulness to the culture of our ancestors," and there is something to be said for that as well, but I think something sensible comes out of having the interplay between both forces, of inertia and of change.  It doesn't seem right that our own laws are no longer ours.  Politics aside, I think the Rabbinate's creation of Israel Independence Day as a holiday with religious connotations (changes in prayers, etc) is a wonderful thing, and I like to think I would think well of their proactive stand in that instance, even if I were opposed to the State of Israel on religious grounds.

The tendency to ascribe infallibility to comparatively late and non-prophetic sages is a little disturbing, especially since they didn't believe it themselves.  The Talmud is a long and rambling work, and touches on all kinds of issues.  For example, it discusses the importance of a healthy diet.  But of course, their understanding of human nutrition wasn't the same as ours, so the recommendations are out of alignment with things we know seem to work.  The answers I have heard aren't even "well, their diet was much different than ours, and in combination with what they were eating, it really wasn't healthy to eat vegetables or whatever," but rather that human nature itself is different, so they're still right.  That's a pretty disturbing answer.  If human nature has changed, maybe it's different in other ways too.  Maybe killing people isn't really murder anymore, since what passes for humanity isn't the same kind of "life" as it was in the time of the Talmud.  If our nature is so different, maybe we should just pitch all the laws of Kashrut, since we aren't even talking about the same kinds of creatures eating the same kinds of creatures.  Surely the whole "waiting between milk and meat" analysis is no longer accurate.  It's a disturbing step to take.

And indeed, the rabbis themselves never claimed to have all the answers.  There's a great discussion in the Talmud, Pesachim 94b.  Their discussing the "thickness" of the sky, and at any rate they say that Jewish sages say that the sun travels below the sky in the daytime and at night it goes back to the east above the sky, which is taken to be opaque, like a big dome over the earth.  As opposed, they say, to the gentile sages, who maintain that the sun travels back to the east under the earth.  And lo and behold, Rabbi Judah HaNassi, the redactor of the Mishna, says "Their opinion makes more sense than ours, since well-water is cool in the daytime and warm in the night."  The accuracy of either statement isn't the point.  Note, though, that a sage in this very Talmud is admitting that there is knowledge that might be better than theirs.  If he could believe it, why can't we?

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(10 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:December 13th, 2007 10:18 pm (UTC)

Better halachic example?

Can you suggest a better halachic example, of an unretractable strictness based on medieval models that conflict with modern science?
Date:December 13th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Better halachic example?

PS: This is from Eliezer, so if you can suggest a better example I can substitute it into _Tsuyoku Naritai_.
[User Picture]
Date:December 13th, 2007 11:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Better halachic example?

Well, let's see. Not as easy to think of one as I thought. But how about these?

Meat and dairy dishes. Rabbinic analysis postulates that "meat flavor" and "dairy flavor" are somehow absorbed into cooking utensils (even metal ones), so you have to have separate dishes for meat and milk to avoid the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. And yet even if we show that metal doesn't absorb anything, you still have to keep them separate, or go through the specified procedures which were considered sufficient to clean things out (and not what observation would tell us has removed all traces). Pyrex and Corningware, when they came out, were ruled to be forms of earthenware, and thus "absorb" these flavors too, even though they're really quite inert and non-porous, and they would do better being classed as glass (which does have some leniency because of its non-porousness).

Milk. The rabbis forbade milk and other dairy products that were made by non-Jews, on the grounds that you couldn't really be sure it was all milk of kosher animals. But the USDA is at least as strict about such things as any supervision would be; we can be quite sure that commonly-sold milk is pure cow's milk. And actually most observant Jews do drink store-bought milk. But there is a significant minority that will only drink milk that is certified as having been processed and handled by Jews. A similar prohibition, also observed by a minority, applies to bread and baked goods (I understand that even in more "normal" kosher supervision often the rabbi has to light the fire or turn on the oven, so that he had a hand in making the product and it was slightly prepared by a Jew).

Bee honey. Kind of a reverse example. The rabbis of the Talmud ruled bee honey to be kosher, correctly determining that honey is manufactured by bees out of flower-nectar and not an actual bee-secretion. But I tell you, if we just discovered bee honey today, there is no possible chance it would ever be ruled kosher. There is plenty of bee-product in honey, certainly enough to trigger the knee-jerk stringency reflex. Luckily, in this case the leniency has stuck.
Date:December 14th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)

Re: Better halachic example?

I don't think this beats the worm-in-apple example as an illustration - these seem relatively minor by comparison.

Also, even if modern rabbis prohibit eating worms found in apples (have they?), it will still be d'rabanan rather than d'oreisa because no one can overrule the original mistake-of-fact, no?
Date:December 14th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)

Re: Better halachic example?

Er, this was Eliezer again (forgot to include attribution).
Date:October 17th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)
Com/t/trackback Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Righting a Wrong Question : Comments This is one of my all-time favourite posts of yours, Eliezer.
Date:December 14th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)

orthodoxy in the blood

Eliezer speaking:

Now that I think about it, my choice of this particular example may reflect my Jewish background - d'oreisa, eating a worm in an apple should be simply prohibited, because it's a fact that the apple doesn't generate the worm, it's simply where the worm happens to be. So the rabbis are actually permitting d'rabanan what should be prohibited d'oreisa. Even if modern rabbis turn around and make it prohibited d'rabanan again - and how can they, without contradicting the original finding of fact? - then we still have a situation where the rabbis, on their own authority and from their own mistakes, downgraded a d'oreisa to a d'rabanan.

Who could appreciate the peculiar horror of this, without being Jewish?
[User Picture]
Date:December 14th, 2007 03:46 am (UTC)

Re: orthodoxy in the blood

Maybe my examples don't beat your worm-in-the-apple one; certainly they aren't as clear and straightforward (I'll let you know if I think of any better ones). Just that in terms of practice, any rabbi today would tell you that you can't go raising worms as kosher delicacies by using rotten apples, mainly because it's always so easy to go for the stringency. (There's a Talmudic principle that a lenient opinion is "stronger" than a stringent one, precisely because anyone can be stringent, and leniency has to have something behind it)

As to your analysis of downgrading d'oraisa into d'rabbanan—it's great! :) You're right, that's a peculiarly Jewish bit of weirdness. I should send that to some rabbi friends of mine who might appreciate it.

Ah me. Judaism and its obsession with law gave rise to the Talmud and to excruciatingly detailed thinking... precisely what religion doesn't do very well against. Creating its own nemesis.
Date:March 11th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
can you please change your background color?

[User Picture]
Date:August 6th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
Действительно сочетание цветов оставляет желать лучшего, очень реже глаза...

Все любят смотреть фильмы онлайн в хорошем качестве!

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