Tag Archives: Science and Torah

Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.


He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.


He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.



Filed under Parshah, Rationalism

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of individuals.vi

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism

‘He is Charedi’: A Short Response to Rabbi Rosenblatt

I am charedi. I was born in Brooklyn, went to mainstream charedi elementary and high schools, spent two years in Mir Yerushalayim and attended Kollel at Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. I wear a black hat on Shabbos and dark pants and a white shirt much of the week. My yarmulke is large, black and velvet and being a frum and inspired Jew is my most basic self-definition, on par with being human and being male.

Read more: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2012/08/06/i-am-charedi/#ixzz23K8p5Bvh
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

This morning I glanced at Cross-Currents  (while avoiding my studying) and saw an interesting and enjoyable post from Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt, who is the CEO of a meat company, a rabbi at NCSY- Dallas, and a self-identifying Charedi. This last point is a large part of how he sees himself, and he seeks through some short examples to carve out a niche for himself in between those to his right and left on the Orthodox spectrum, which I think he does successfully.

However, there were two things his post left me wondering about.

1)Rabbi Rosenblatt writes that he believes in the “utter supremacy of Torah wisdom to secular knowledge”. What intrigues me about this statement is that it assumes something that is true could be inferior to something else that is true.

 Presumably, Rabbi Rosenblatt assumes our ability to learn and discover information outside of the Torah is God-given, so it is odd that this information should be any better or worse than other information that comes from God.

Perhaps the author could argue that not all of that information brings a person to the service of God, and therefore the Torah, which does, is superior. However, he himself admits that analysis of the physical world may bring one to a “richer appreciation” of God. That sounds like “Torah wisdom” to me. So what causes the “utter superiority of Torah wisdom” to “secular knowledge?

As Maimondies wrote in his “8 Chapters”, (from the Twersky “A Maimonides Reader”) “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds”. He similarly states in Laws of the New Moon, chapter 17 that “we need not be concerned with the identity of…authors, whether they were Hebrew prophets, or Gentile sages….we rely on the author who has discovered them only because of his demonstrated proofs and verified reasoning.”

It seems to me that Rambam holds all truth is the same, as long as it leads to ‘avodat HaShem’ (serving God).

2)Rabbi Rosenblatt says that part of being Charedi is the belief that “Torah study is a most worthy pursuit”, as is value to “lionize” great scholars. To me this implies that the Modern Orthodox do not believe these things.

I can only strongly disagree. At least from my own experience, the great majority of the Modern Orthodox would profess that Torah study is a most worthy pursuit, even while refusing to write a cheque for a local Kollel and hoping that their kids end up working as lawyers or doctors. These values and desires do not necessarily contradict each other, as Rabbi Rosenblatt seems to be aware of, since he says he is no longer certain that “Kollel-for-the-masses” is a good idea.

Similarly, many people simply want their children to prosper, and do not believe that Kollel is the proper way to live in a non-utopian society.

At any rate, I did like his post, and it’s always nice to see normal people trying to influence others in that direction. Best of luck Rabbi!

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Filed under Miscellaneous

Rambam Ruling Against the Bavli: the Innocuous Example

Sitting at my uncle’s table, we regularly encounter examples of the gap between his Judaism and my own. Amidst one such conversation, he said: “Rambam never paskins against Shas.” Putting aside the tautological interpretation of this assertion (ie if Rambam paskined it, it can be found one way or another in the Talmud [1]), my uncle believed he was proclaiming an undisputed and axiomatic foundation of Judaism. Of course, certain Medieval Ashkenaz communities followed their inherited traditions even when they contradicted the Babylonian Talmud,[2] but, many suppose, that is not true of the Rambam.

So, like rote, I responded by citing the classics: demons, ru’ah ra’ah, scary stuff, etc.[3]. For some reason – sociologists are yet to explain – my uncle, along with many of the learned world, remains unfazed by these many examples throughout the Mishneh Torah. True, Rambam writes in the MT that Jews ought to adhere to exta-Talmudic (even non-Jewish) sources as reliable and binding for ruling on matters of medicine and astronomy.[4] Yet, one can argue that this position does not specifically contradict the Mishneh Torah’s adherence to the Bavli, and these points may be pushed aside.[5] Similarly, the great divide between the importance ascribed to the MT in comparison to his other works makes it so people can ignore Rambam’s advice when he recommends discounting or changing the law in his Responsa[6] and other works.

Accordingly, for the learned masses, the best area to make this point – that Rambam in the Mishneh Torah may rule against the Bavli – is in an innocuous area: an area where the person will not feel intimidated by modern religious metaphysical theory to automatically discount whole areas of the Maimonidean Weltanschauung.[7] As Maimonides was already well-known in the field of medicine in his own day, it hit me: any area in which the Talmud’s ruling contradicted contemporary 13th century medical theory, Rambam would side with science. So I scoured the MT and here’s the example I found.

In BT Berakhot 35B, the Gemara records that even though R. Yochanon (in the name of Shmuel and R. Yitzhak who said in the name of R. Yehuda) said that one recites the blessing ‘borei peri ha-eitz‘ on olive oil, the Stam of the Gemara observed that when one imbibes olive oil, it negatively impacts a person’s constitution (azukei mazik). Therefore, one ought not to recite a blessing over olive oil when imbibing it. In fact, no blessing is necessary. This is also how the Rif, the Rosh, the Tur (siman 220), the Shulhan Arukh (220:4), Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilkhot Berachot 8:2), Hayei Adam (klal 51 siman 16), the Arukh ha-Shulhan and the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh rule. But, Rambam in Hilkhot Berakhot (8:2) paskins against the Talmud and these other Poskim and states:


“אבל אם שתה השמן לבדו או שלא היה חושש בגרונו מברך עליו שהכל. שהרי לא נהנה בטעם השמן.”

R. Yochanon’s position is rejected, as well as the Stam’s position. A third possibility appeared. Dr. Rambam knew that 1. olive oil can be good for you (ie it does not hurt your body) and 2. it has a taste, albeit a bad one. Like all other foods that fall into this category, the proper blessing is sheha-kol. Indeed, R. Rafal Toledo (siman 90 se’if 21, page 230) explains that we see today (ma’aseh be-khol yom) that oil does not hurt a person, and to the contrary, doctors prescribe it to heal people. Obviously, as Rambam rejects the idea of meshane ha-bri’ot and meshane ha-teva (the world changes to accommodate interpretations of the Talmud), the only option for Rambam was to re-paskin the law by rejecting the Talmud’s ruling and replace it with his modern understanding of what the law ought to be.

Rambam rejected the Talmud’s conclusion because he knew that 13th century science and medicine did not corroborate the Gemara’s claim, thus providing a socially innocuous proof to our point.

[1] Just ask a Brisker

[2] See, for example, Israel Ta Shma’s “Ashkenazi Jewry in the Eleventh Century,” in his Creativity and Tradition, p. 1-36, especially p. 14

[3] I cited examples from Marc Shapiro’s “Halakha and Superstition” in Arthur Hyman’s Maimonidean Studies Volume II, p. 61-108 as well as “Religion and Superstition: a Maimonedian Approach by Rabbi Marc Angel” while also noting the Yerushalmi’s and the Tosefta’s influence; see, for example, Yerachmiel Brody’s article, p. 1-12 in the Hebrew section of Maimonedian Studies II, regarding when the MT prefers the Yerushalmi over the Bavli.

[4] In Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Chodesh 17:24, Rambam writes:

וטעם כל אלו החשבונות ומפני מה מוסיפים מנין זה ומפני מה גורעין. והיאך נודע כל דבר ודבר מאלו הדברים. והראיה על כל דבר ודבר. היא חכמת התקופות והגימטריות שחברו בה חכמי יון ספרים הרבה והם הנמצאים עכשיו ביד החכמים. אבל הספרים שחברו חכמי ישראל שהיו בימי הנביאים מבני יששכר לא הגיעו אלינו. ומאחר שכל אלו הדברים בראיות ברורות הם שאין בהם דופי ואי אפשר לאדם להרהר אחריהם, אין חוששין למחבר בין שחברו אותם נביאים בין שחברו אותם האומות. שכל דבר שנתגלה טעמו ונודעה אמיתתו בראיות שאין בהם דופי אנו סומכין על זה האיש שאמרו או שלמדו על הראיה שנתגלתה והטעם שנודע:

In Hilkhot De’ot 4:21, Rambam writes:

וכל המנהגות הטובים האלו שאמרנו אין ראוי לנהוג בהן אלא הבריא. אבל החולה או מי שאחד מאיבריו חולה או מי שנהג מנהג רע שנים רבות. יש לכל אחד מהם דרכים אחרים והנהגות כפי חליו כמו שיתבאר בספר הרפואות ושינוי וסת תחילת חולי:

[5] Indeed, Rambam himself writes that the MT is only supplying medical advice for the healthy, and, second, all astronomical knowledge was originally in the hands of Yissachar anyways, so the non-Jews are not supplying extra-Jewish information; see Asher Buchman’s “Rambam and Zevulun: Boz Yavuzo Lo in Hakira,” p. 47-78, and especially p. 52 where the source is kind of laid out.

[6] In Responsa #256 (Blau, vol. 2, p. 469-76), Maimonides recommends the abrogation of the repetition of the Amida in certain instances; see, Blidstein’s “Maimonides’ Taqqanah Concening Public Prayer” in Maimonidean Studies III, p. 14-17. Another example can be found in Responsa #211. Even though the Mishnah (Yevamot 2:8) states that one suspected of engaging in relations with a slavegirl may not free her in order to marry her, nevertheless, Maimonides writes: “Let him emancipate her and we help him to do so…” (Responsa #211 Blau Vol. 2, 373-4)

[7] For example, Shapiro points out that in R. Kamenetsky’s Emet le-Yaakov, he opines that certain philosophical parts of the MT can be disregarded.


Filed under Rationalism