Friday, January 20, 2006

New News

Did you hear about the optometrist who fell into his eyeglass-making machine and made a monocle of himself?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Orthodoxy Test

I just took "The Orthodoxy Test." "This test asks for your positions on crucial issues that help distinguish where you stand in the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism," according to the test's designer, lamedzayin. It's fast and fun. Below, in italics, are my results, followed by a little e-certificate of my status. Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that I'm delighted. In fact, I'm tickled pink (or maybe gray).

Left Wing Modern Orthodox: 21%
Right Wing Modern Orthodox: 64%
Left Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 70%
Right Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 25%

This means you're: Huh?

What does it [Huh?] mean?
[It means] I give up. What are you? User Test: The Orthodoxy  Test.

Of course, in addition to all that, I'm also a naval, a leitz and a mumar l'teyavon. But I'm an unclassifiable one!

The Orthodoxy Test #1: Daas Torah

Daas Torah is

a) an essential component of Orthodox Judaism
b) important, but not necessarily binding
c) based on a real concept of listening to rabbinc leadership but extended too far
d) something rabbis made up to maintain communal control
e) What's Daas Torah?
f) Leave this question out of my results

I answered (b). I'm all for (e), because I don't know how "daas torah" ought to be defined (or if it even can be), but I don't think that's what he intended (e) to mean. I suspect (a) is also true, but I choose (b) over (a) because after comparing (a) and (b), I conclude that (a) advocates the unconditional acceptance, all the time, of whatever "daas torah" is, any other attitude being illegitimate and very possibly heretical; a view I'm not willing to commit to.

All of this is very vague, though, because the test doesn't define "daas torah," and there's no accepted definition. This is the test question I struggled most with (aside from the couple I didn't answer). I remember that during my KBY years I discussed certain orthodox fringe viewpoints with friends, and came to the happy (and naïvely simple) conclusion that they were illegitimate, assur or heresy because they didn't coincide with "daas torah," a concept that had just been introduced to me. As I thought about more and more issues, I began to discover that I badly needed a more precise definition of just what "daas torah" is, and gradually I came to the messy realization that such a definition is quite elusive, and may furthermore vary from era to era, from place to place and from person to person. So I'm afraid that I really don't feel up to the task of even trying to write anything coherent in response to this question, although I'd certainly appreciate any help any of you can offer in clarifying the issue for me.

The Orthodoxy Test #2: The State of Israel

The State of Israel is

a) the work of the sitra achra
b) not religiously significant in and of itself and overall negative
c) not religiously significant in and of itself but overall positive
d) possibly a step towards Moshiach
e) Reishit Tzmichat Geulateinu
f) Leave this question out of my results

I chose (d). Well, heck, anything is possibly a step towards Mashiach. The World Wars were viewed as steps toward Mashiach. Why not Israel?

The other options were less convincing. Based on what I have been taught, neither (a) nor (e) is definitely true (though perhaps not definitely false either). ((D) basically translates into "Possibly (e).") I don't think the state is overall negative; I'm not sure how things would be better if Israel were a part of Jordan. I admit I seriously considered (c), but I ultimately decided that the state does have religious significance, if for no other reason than that it helps Rabbi Gottlieb's "Living Up to the Truth" essay.

By the way, at YU, the gabbai (depending on who he is) will sometimes omit the words "reishis tzmichas geulaseinu" from the Prayer for the State of Israel. It's the only place I've ever seen that done. I like it.

Another point: though there may be a statistical correlation between religious Zionism and modern orthodoxy, I don't see why that correlation need be theologically obligatory.

The Orthodoxy Test #3: Higher Secular Education

Higher secular education is

a) assur
b) bad, but necessary for parnassa
c) good, but mostly because its necessary for parnassa
d) occasionally worthwhile but often full of apikorsus
e) something positive and worthwhile
f) Leave this question out of my results

I answered (c). Before you jump all over me, let me explain. I had a hard time with this one. I think the amount of higher secular education a person should obtain varies widely. Some people probably shouldn't go to university at all, and doing so may be spiritually perilous for them; for such people, (a) is correct. For people of a similar ilk who need a post-secondary degree to earn a living, (b) is correct. Overall, I think that the right kind of post-secondary secular education can be valuable for many people (that's my own personal experience). I also think that for many people, the same positive intellectual and religious ends attained via university attendance and adherence to a college's curriculum can be achieved in other, less expensive and more purely beneficial ways; but you need a degree to get a large number of jobs. That's more or less what (c) says, only I think I value the non-career benefits of a university education a bit more than (c) implies. I don't agree with (d) any more completely, though: university education is sometimes full of apikorsus, but I think a lot of that can be avoided by intelligent course selection, so I don't see that as being such a big issue. And I think a post-secondary education is more than just occasionally worthwhile. I'd be tempted to choose (e), except that as I mentioned earlier there are many people for whom such education is on the whole not positive and beneficial, so I don't want to endorse it too completely.

The Orthodoxy Test #4: Evolution

Evolution is

a) kefira
b) not exactly kefira, but not true
c) possibly true. Who knows?
d) definitely true, and compatible with Orthodoxy
e) definitely true, even if it isn't compatible with Orthodoxy
f) Leave this question out of my results

I'm very comfortable with (c) here. I'm satisfied that many versions of the evolutionary theory contain no kefirah. Given that, why would I be sure it's not true, as per (b)? I like neither (d) nor (e) because I don't think that macroevolution - which is what I assume this question is about, otherwise I choose (e) - has been so conclusively proven to have taken place that all other possibilities regarding the origins of species can be discarded as definitely false.

The Orthodoxy Test #5: The Gedolim

The Gedolim are

a) nearly perfect examples of pious devotion to God
b) holy men, but they have some faults
c) smart rabbis who know Torah but shouldn't be looked at for guidance in other things
d) well meaning scholars often out of their depth
e) crazy old rabbis
f) Leave this question out of my results

Obviously, it depends on whom one is defining as "the Gedolim." I assume that the test intends the connotation the word has in the idiom of the Slifkin debates, namely, the group that signed the ban on the three Slifkin books (see the posters accessible from for their identities), plus some others judged to be in league with them. As I wrote recently to a rabbi with whom I'm corresponding, I know these people not personally, but by reputation only. Their reputation, as it has reached me, corresponds pretty well to (b) and (c): they are holy men, they have faults (that's hardly surprising: I think Tanach tells us to expect that.... Oh, I forgot, we don't learn Tanach; but I'm sure it's in the Gemara anyway), they're smart rabbis who know Torah, and they're not necessarily experts on everything else (like Captain Salamander's example of home renovations). I chose (b), because I got the impression that (c) is intended to imply that these Gedolim are smart, but not necessarily wise or in other ways holy men - basically, just Torah academics. I think there's more to them than just brains and scholarship (many of them, anyway).

The Orthodoxy Test #6: Yeshiva University

Yeshiva University is

a) a makom tumah
b) frum, but just barely. "Not for us."
c) acceptable, although a little leftish
d) a good example of a centrist "normal" Orthodoxy
e) way too right wing
f) Leave this question out of my results

Oh, boy, I think I'm going to get it for this one (if anybody's reading). I chose (d). That's right - (d). It was either (c) or (d). I don't know how the orthodox community breaks down statistically into subgroups, so I don't know if YU is statistically "centrist" or "normal." I believe, however, that it should be. There are people there both to the right and to the left of me (i.e., ideological perfection) on every single issue. Of the places I've seen (granted, I'm not the world's most widely travelled person, but I haven't spent the last 5 years in total isolation), YU is the one in which I feel the Truth is most present and accessible (albeit with a lot of other stuff you have to put up with). In particular, I think of RIETS (YU's seminary) as the religiously healthiest post-secondary school I know of. I would really like to study at YU. Too bad for me.

The Orthodoxy Test #7: Women Learning Gemara

Women learning Gemarah is

a) assur
b) not allowed, although not exactly assur
c) allowed I guess, but not something a normal frum girl would do
d) something that should be supported for anyone who wishes to do so
e) very important to the future of Orthodoxy
f) Leave this question out of my results

I answered (c), because my impression is that it's the truth, both in that it's allowed, and in that the typical frum girl would not want to do it.

Question: does "assur" mean "not allowed?" If it does, what does (b) mean? If "assur" doesn't mean "not allowed," then what does it mean? "Prohibited?" What's the difference between "prohibited" and "not allowed?" Or does "assur" mean something like "You'll go to Hell for doing this," as opposed to "not allowed," which just means "You're prohibited from doing this, but you won't go to Hell if you do?" How can it mean that? Why shouldn't you do something if you won't go to Hell for it, and, conversely, if you shouldn't do it, then why won't you go to Hell if you do? In short, I don't understand (b).

Orthodoxy seems to have survived, and despite all the doom and gloom, to continue to survive, quite nicely without widespread Talmudic study by females, so I don't think (e) can be correct. As for (d): I don't know; I can't say this for sure, but it seems quite possible to me that a lot of females who want to study Gemara want to do it not because, or certainly not principally because, they are genuinely interested in serving God by doing so, but because they have been inspired/bought into feminist ideas to some extent, ideas that, if not antithetical to Judaism, are certainly not Torah-derived. I'm not sure such women should be encouraged to study Talmud; or at least, I don't think that's an attitude that should be promoted.

On the other hand, as I understand it, it is perfectly legitimate according to all major opinions for a woman to study those parts of Torah Shebe'al Peh that are of relevance to her life (i.e., halacha, hashkafa, etc). Gemara is Torah Shebe'al Peh. I highly doubt that most orthodox men ever succeed in properly studying all of the portions of Gemara that are relevant to women, with rishonim, acharonim, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, commentaries, etc. That's a huge body of material; it's a large portion of what you find in any bais midrash. I suspect that any woman pining to learn Gemara be'iyun (or otherwise) can be fully occupied in the endeavour for many years without taking on material that women shouldn't be encouraged to study. So in a way, I agree with (d), even (e); I just don't think that's what those answers are intended to mean.

(Parenthetically, maybe if girls studied more Gemara - whichever parts of it - they'd (on average) be less annoyingly unanalytical, dogmatic, intellectually inflexible, closed-minded, touchy-feely, and prone to outrage or offense when exposed to a bais-midrash-style debate. Or maybe they should all go to law school.)

One more point: why on earth should there be an "h" appended to the end of "Gemara?"

The Orthodoxy Test #8: Tnzius for Women

Tznius is

a) a woman's most important mitzvah

b) very important, but not the most important mitzvah
c) required, but not something to focus on
d) mostly minhag and there's a lot more legitimate leeway than people believe
e) not very important
f) Leave this question out of my results

As I understand it, tznius is an important mitzvah for both men and women, although in our society men feel less pressure than women to deviate from its dictates, and thus men's tznius is less discussed. I don't know why it wouldn't be something to focus on; as far as I know, every mitzvah ought to be the subject of our focus, although of course some people will be better suited to focusing on certain mitzvot, and others on others. On the other hand, I don't see how I could justify the assertion that tznius is the most important mitzvah for anybody. Why would it be more important that pikuach nefesh, or shmirat shabbat, or kashrut, or lashon hara? So (a) doesn't make sense to me. I chose (b).

The Orthodoxy Test #9: Being Machmir

Being machmir is

a) an important way to grow closer to God
b) always safe
c) sometime appropriate, but often done out of ignorance
d) rarely appropriate and just turns people off to Judaism
e) something I never do
f) Leave this question out of my results

This question, again, leaves an important term undefined: "being machmir". Does saying "Baruch shem k'vod malchuto le'olam va'ed" after making the bracha "al mitzvat tefillin" count as "being machmir"? After all, we only do it (those of us who do) because we're afraid the bracha may be levatalah. How about putting on tefillin on Chol Hamo'ed? Or not putting them on? How about keeping your mouth shut rather than saying something that might - you're not sure - be lashon hara? Or getting someone to make Al Hamichyah for you if you're not sure you had a kezayis of mezonos? Or doing the yichud room jazz after the chuppah (after all, you don't need it according to some poskim)?

I assume that in this context, "being machmir" refers to adhering to chumras in situations where many current authorities would aver that doing so is not necessary. I can rule out (e). (A) may be true if it is qualified, but I do not think it is correct all the time for everyone: if competent halachic authorities (of course, who are they? But that would make this piece way too long) say that a certain action is permissible, then it's probably not true that it should nonetheless never be done by anyone. I don't think (b) is correct either, and for the same reason: there may be situations in which being machmir on a certain issue leads to an overall poor decision (like, for example, annoying one's hosts by refusing to eat their non-chalav-yisrael milk products). I wouldn't say it's rarely appropriate, though: most of the time, it seems to me, no harm results, and in such a situation, if you're interested, why not take kiyum hamitzvos seriously and play it safe? So (c) seems most correct to me: it's often not a bad idea, but I think that on many occasions, it is indeed done out of ignorance (isn't that what Rashi implies somewhere in his commentary on the Gemara when he says that the mark of a knowledgeable person is someone who will say "mutar"?).

The Orthodoxy Test #10: Men's Torah Study

Men should learn Torah

a) all day, even if this requires a lot of sacrifice by their families
b) all day, if reasonably possible, but not if it requires great sacrifice by their families
c) for a few hours at a fixed time every day
d) when they feel like it
e) rarely - I can just ask my rabbi when I have a question
f) Leave this question out of my results

I left this question out of my results [(f)] because I think the answer varies so widely, depending on one's personality and personal circumstances. For some people, (a) is correct; for others, (b); for yet others, (c). I don't know if I'd endorse (d) for anybody, but there should be another option between (c) and (d) allowing for less that "a few hours" of study per day, while still involving a regular routine. What's the difference between (d) and (e)? Does (e) mean "at set times, even if I don't feel like it, but the set times are infrequent?" If so, I may agree with (e) for some people too, depending on how infrequent "infrequent" is. I dislike (d) because it seems to place a bit too much importance on whim and not enough on duty; my problems with (e) are more (1) the notion that the only reason to study Torah is to know halacha, and (2) that it's not necessary to actually study halacha because you can always just ask halachic questions when you need to know the law.

The Orthodoxy Test #11: Coed Activities

Coed activities are

a) completely, unequivocally assur
b) very much frowned upon
c) ok, but only for people "in the parsha" and only under supervision
d) usually fine
e) necessary for a normal and healthy society
f) Leave this question out of my results

I apologize for not being more opinionated and controversial, but I took a pass [(f)] on this one too. There are way too many rabbis I know and respect who approve of coed activities of one sort or another for me to believe (a), or even an unqualified (b). These rabbis do not support exclusively activities of the type described by (c), either (indeed, some of them probably would not support activities of the (c) type). Rejecting (a), (b) and (c) does not, however, mean that coed activities are "usually fine" - (d). And while (e) may technically be correct in a limited sort of way, my feeling is that (e) is intended to express even more broad and enthusiastic approval of coed activities than does (d); obviously, that's not my position either. So I'm forced to choose (f).

The Orthodoxy Test #12: Kabbala

Kabbala is

a) the essential core of Torah
b) crucial, although often misunderstood
c) a mixed bag - some of it's probably true
d) mostly silly
e) totally a crock
f) Leave this question out of my results

I choose (c). Most, if not all, of the great Jewish authorities of the last several centuries have said that Kabbala is important, so I'm not going to question that. The Rambam apparently didn't know Kabbala, and I can't imagine that we'd pay any attention to him if he knew nothing about "the essential core of Torah". So I rule out (a). Is Kabbala crucial? What exactly does that mean? That you need to know it? Most people who are considered good Jews don't know very much of it, so far as I can tell, so I eliminate (b). Some of it must be true, otherwise the generally accepted opinion would presumably not be that it has value. Is everything that is taught as Kabbala true? How am I supposed to know? I've studied virtually none of it myself! I know that many people raise questions about the authenticity of some of what passes as Kabbala, so I'm willing to accept that it's not all true. So I choose (c), although I'd like it modified to read, "some of it's definitely true."

The Orthodoxy Test #13: Segulas


a) work, and are very important

b) might work, so why not try them
c) probably dont work, but whats the harm
d) definitely dont work
e) are mostly avoda zara
f) Leave this question out of my results

I chose (c). I think that most of the rabbis I know kind of roll their eyes at the mention of most segulas, but the attitudes vary somewhat, and certain segulas seem to be more accepted as authentic than others. Doesn't the Gemara assume that some segulas have some value, e.g., in Tractate Shabbat, Perek Bameh Ishah? I personally don't use them, and I don't doubt that some people who worry about them are just falling victim to the same irrational human tendency toward superstition - as a countermeasure to the feeling of lack of control over a situation - that makes people always, or never, step on cracks in the sidewalk, and prompted Vida Blue to wear the same baseball cap for several years without washing it. But God certainly has the power to make segulas work, if he so chooses, and I don't feel the need to categorically deny the validity of something just because Western culture snickers at people who believe in it. Some of them probably are avodah zarah, and it behooves one, I would think, to verify the permissibility of a segulah before using it.

The Orthodoxy Test #14: Female Orthodox Rabbis

Female Orthodox Rabbis

a) are totally impossible and an oxymoron
b) couldn't happen because any woman who wants this must have an agenda
c) might in theory be possible but will never happen for practical reasons
d) may happen some day in the future, but not in my lifetime
e) are something we should press hard to create
f) Leave this question out of my results

Some of you may be surprised (outraged?) by my having chosen (c).

The first thing we need to do is to define "rabbi". (Perhaps "orthodox" needs to be defined, too, but I'll risk assuming we're all operating with more or less the same definition of it. And I hope it's not necessary to define "female".) One could argue that there are female orthodox rabbis even now: there are certainly learned orthodox women who write books about Judaism, teach it, travel extensively to lecture about it, are consulted by other Jews for their advice in matters that relate to religion, engage in kiruv, etc. Many male rabbis do almost exactly the same thing (or less), and their own education may not differ very much either. But I don't think that that's what the question means. The question is probably intended to have the answerer consider two specific functions of rabbis that orthodox women really do not perform: serving as a congregational/pulpit rabbi, and acting as a posek. (Note: Some orthodox women certainly do act as poskot of a certain type; I know for a fact that many learned orthodox women will often field questions from their less learned peers about kashrus questions, or niddah questions, or Shabbat questions, etc., the answers to which they know because they are well-read and are familiar with the halachos that they need to know in order to practise Judaism properly. That's not the type of posek I'm talking about, though. I'm talking about the type of posek to whom people turn for rulings on complex issues that have never been ruled on before: a Rav Moshe Feinstein- or Rav Elyashiv- or Rav Hershel Schachter-type posek (covered my bases, didn't I?).)

(Real) Judaism has survived for thousands of years without (any significant number of) female rabbis, and seems to be continuing to do all right despite the modern phenomenon of feminism, so I don't see why (e) should be correct.

The difference between (c) and (d) is purely an issue of fortune-telling. My instinct is that there will never be female orthodox rabbis of the type described, even after I die (***). We're now in the year 5766. If Mashiach is supposed to come by the year 6000, that only leaves about 234 (Can't have a better number than that!) years for orthodoxy to be persuaded to accept and implement the notion that female rabbis are an okay idea. (Once Mashiach comes, all bets are off, as far as I'm concerned.) Is it conceivable that such a thing may happen? I think it is. Is it likely? I think it's not. Can I prove it? No. Can anyone prove otherwise? I doubt it. Orthodoxy is, after all, orthodox; we're a pretty traditional and inflexible lot, and rightly so: we're responsible for preserving something that it is very important to preserve properly and faithfully. I don't think female rabbis are in the cards (although if they were, my vote would be for the Queen of Spades).

As for (a): I have read, in very traditional, "frum" books, that at least according to some great Jewish authorities, (some) women may learn Gemara; and some of them, I fully believe, are smart enough to become talmidot chachamim of the finest calibre. Would such a woman, having achieved such a level of scholarship, not have a duty to paskan? And consider Devorah the prophetess. If there had been shuls of the modern type in her day, might she not have played the role (with a few alterations) of congregational rabbi? I'm not the first one to point out that many or most pulpit rabbis don't do very much, if anything, that a woman isn't allowed to do; indeed, most pulpit-rabbi tasks are ones that some orthodox - even yeshivish - women already do. So is it "totally impossible"? I don't think so. An oxymoron? I don't think our terms are even tightly enough defined for the word to be applicable.

And I think (b) is a silly answer, because it assumes that since certain ambitions tend currently to be associated with a particular (let us assume, unacceptably feminist) agenda, this association will always exist, and will exist in every single case. There have been examples in Jewish history of very scholarly, very devout, and very unsubversive women who have been Talmudic scholars or leaders of Jewry. It would be, I think, a combination of short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness, axe-grinding, blind acceptance of stereotyping and/or pure lack of imagination that would lead someone to assume it impossible for this ever to happen again, just because in our particular era, most (let us assume) orthodox women who want to be/wish they could be rabbis possess that desire because they feel that orthodox Judaism, in its present state, gives them a raw deal, and they want to change things/stir the pot/make a statement.

The Orthodoxy Test #15: Science and Torah Conflicts

Science and Torah conflicts

a) don't exist because scientists are just atheists out to disprove Torah

b) don't exist because nishtanu hateva
c) don't exist because science simply hasn't caught up with Chazal yet
d) are something we shouldn't think about. Taiku
e) must be resolved because we can't ignore science
f) Leave this question out of my results

Ahhh.... Home, sweet home. (A) is false. I'm willing to accept (b) in some cases, but I'd sooner throw out the whole Torah (for rational, not emotional, reasons) than believe it in others. In the absence of evidence in favour of (c), I see no reason to believe it. (D) may satisfy some people, but it's not acceptable to me: why should I accept evidence that the Torah is true, but ignore evidence that indicates otherwise? That seems dumb. (Note: I am not saying that I believe that science indicates that the Torah is false; it is this option - (d) - that seems to imply that.) I chose (e). However, I don't really like the way it's worded. I don't think that every apparent Torah-science "contradiction" has to be resolved; it may be acceptable in some cases to say "Taiku," as per (d). I'm comfortable with a thoughtful investigation leading to what one considers a rational "Taiku." I'm not comfortable - for the reason I supplied - with (d)'s suggestion that we must not engage in the thoughtful investigation in the first place.

The Orthodoxy Test #16: Fallibility of Chazal


a) never erred even in non-Torah matters
b) never erred in Torah matters, but might rarely have erred in science
c) never erred in Torah matters, but relied on the faulty science of their time
d) definitely had faulty science and possibly erred in some history as well
e) did pretty well but made a lot of mistakes
f) Leave this question out of my results

For me, at least, this question overlaps with the last, though it is not the same.

I will first discuss whether Chazal "erred in Torah matters." If this question is asking whether there are halachic or hashkafic statements in the Talmud that are based on incorrect recollection, misunderstanding, or faulty reasoning, I think the answer is clearly that there are. Why else would Rav Dimi and Ravin, for example, argue all the time about what Rabbi Yochanan said? How could anybody ever question anybody else's kal vachomer? How could Rabbi Yehudah ben Tabbai have wrongly ordered someone executed without having adhered to the proper judicial procedures (Makkot 5b)? How could Rabbi Yehoshua et al. have been contradicted by a heavenly voice in their famous dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? In the absence of evidence that the Talmudic sages had perfect memories or flawless analytical minds, I do not believe they had either.

The fact that Chazal were imperfect human beings, just like the rest of us, does not, however, diminish the halachic and hashkafic authority of the Talmud. Even though any given halachic pronouncement of the Talmud may be based on flawed information or skill, it is still binding. Torah lo bashamayim hi; our obligations in the service of God are determined by the earthly, human, halachic process, part of which, in our day and age, is the supremity of the Talmud. Our job as Jews is, ultimately, to do what God expects of us, and God expects us to follow the Talmud, even if he "personally" thinks the Talmud said something stupid.

Mistakes in science? I opined on this topic in the last post on the Orthodoxy Test (#15). Just to summarize in one sentence: I haven't come across sufficient evidence to dissuade me from my initial, intuitive assumptions that (1) Chazal, like all other people, weren't omniscient, in science or in anything else; and (2) some of their scientific beliefs - like the shape of the Earth, or their model of the solar system, or the manner in which lice are formed - are wrong. (I suppose (2) is not really an intuitive belief, but it is one in which I have a great deal of confidence.)

Mistakes in history? The issue that comes immediately to mind is the dating of the construction of the Second Temple: modern archaeology claims it to have been built 166 years (if memory serves) before the Talmud says it was. Could Chazal have been wrong about this, or about other historical assertions that they made? Why not? Again, where's the proof they had perfect memories, never garbled their information, and kept flawless records of every single fact and event?

I chose (d). (E) sounds to me to be suggesting that Chazal's words are not binding, because their judgment was flawed, and if we can judge better, we can override what they said. This assertion is false, because it does not take into account the halachic process and the authority it has lent to the Talmud, as discussed above.

The Orthodoxy Test #17: If the Rambam Was Alive

If the Rambam was alive he'd be

a) Right Wing Yeshivish

b) Left Wing Yeshivish
c) Right Wing Modern Orthodox
d) Left Wing Modern Orthodox
e) considered an apikores
f) Leave this question out of my results

First of all, if the Rambam were alive today he'd be rolling in his grave.

The only one of these options that cannot be disputed is (e). Somebody would consider him an apikores. However, I doubt that everybody would, and so it still remains to fit him into one of categories (a)-(d). I chose (b), because I think he was very "shtark", but had a brain. (C) is almost equally tempting, but I just can't picture him wearing a plaid shirt and a small leather kippah with clips. I flatter myself to think he'd actually be a "Huh?".

I assume that in composing this question, lamedzayin had in mind the fact that the Rambam believed that Chazal had imperfect knowledge of science (as has been mentioned on this and other blogs in the past) - a position that many "yeshivish" rabbis and laymen now understand to be apikorsus. Maybe if the Rambam were alive today he'd feel differently, or maybe he'd just be one of the many rabbis - both "yeshivish" and "modern orthodox" (by the way, which type is Rabbi Hershel Schachter?) - who continue to think that the position is neither heretical nor wrong. Lamedzayin probably also was thinking more generally of the Rambam's knowledge of the gentile philosophy of his day. I imagine the Rambam would probably be reasonably well-versed in a lot of today's secular thought, though he might not recommend that everybody else pursue his level of proficiency. I don't think that such an attitude would preclude his being "left-wing yeshivish".

Basically, it comes down to this: I think the Rambam would wear a white shirt, a dark suit and a black hat, doing which, as far as I can tell, almost always guarantees that you will be "yeshivish" (unless you're Amish).

The Orthodoxy Test #18: Television and Movies

Television and movies are

a) assur and totally worthless
b) not allowed, but not exactly assur
c) ok in small doses but not really kosher
d) ok, but you have to control what you watch
e) perfectly fine
f) Leave this question out of my results

I chose (d). Television and movies are just media, like books, newspapers, magazines and radio. It may be that the television and film industries, relative to other media, produce proportionally more material that one ought to avoid for halachic reasons; one should approach these media with correspondingly greater caution. I don't think, however, that it's necessary or logical to condemn either medium as a whole.

The Orthodoxy Test #19: The Internet

The Internet is

a) a terrible destructive force and assur
b) really bad, but ok for parnassa
c) not great, but ok in moderation
d) perfectly fine
e) a great invention that increased worldwide Torah availability
f) Leave this question out of my results

Once again, the problem with many of these options is that they assume that the internet is a monolithic entity, when in fact it is merely a medium. Proposing, for example, that the internet is "assur" ((a)) is like proposing that books are "assur." Some (the good ones) are, and some aren't. The fact that some books are halachically undesirable does not negate the potential value - and permissibility - of the medium. Basically, my reaction is the same as it was to #18 - the one about television and movies (which see). I choose (d). The internet is as "perfectly fine" as many, many other things most of us deal with on a regular basis; as always, the important question is how one uses it.

The Orthodoxy Test #20: Cell Phones

Cell phones are

a) a source of batala and terrible images
b) a disruptive influence that should be avoided by serious yeshiva bochurim
c) problematic, but the good outweighs the bad
d) really fine, but I understand the concerns
e) just cell phones. I don't even understand why this is a question
f) Leave this question out of my results

I chose (d). I understand concerns with cell phones; I've seen people waste copious amounts of time with them, and I'm sure that people can do even more dastardly things with them, if they are so inclined and lack sufficient self-control. See what I wrote about #18 (television and movies) and #19 (the internet). The same applies here, except that I would classify a cell phone as a tool, rather than a medium. This distinction, however, is irrelevant. Just as one can use a hammer to build a sukkah or to smash annoying people over the head, so too cell phones can be put both to permissible, even desirable, and to forbidden uses. The tool itself is not intrinsically good or evil; one must ensure that one employs it, like any other tool, properly.

The Orthodoxy Test #21: Bible Critics

Bible critics

a) are all atheist kofrim reshaim
b) aren't even worth listening to
c) don't understand the text well enough and ask dumb questions
d) ask some good questions, but we have good answers
e) ask really hard questions which we need to find answers to
f) Leave this question out of my results

I chose (d). I'm not especially knowledgeable about Biblical critics and criticism, but my limited exposure leads me to believe that (a) is false, and that (b) and (c) are certainly not true of all critics. The difference between the two remaining options seems to me to be whether the foundations of Judaism and Jewish belief are threatened by Biblical criticism. I haven't come across any such threats, so to the best of my knowledge (d) is correct. I do not discount as impossible, however, that there may exist among the products of Biblical criticism challenges to Judaism more potent and fundamental than those I am aware of.

The Orthodoxy Test #22: Chareidi Isolationism

Isolationist chassidic and chareidi enclaves like New Square

a) epitomize the proper approach to avodas Hashem
b) are not for me, but I wish I was on that level
c) are not for me, but I understand the attraction
d) have some good points, but the bad outweighs the good
e) showcase all that is negative about Orthodoxy
f) Leave this question out of my results

First, please note that I have no knowledge of New Square, aside from the fact that they make milk and juice.

I chose (c). (A) and (b) imply that intrinsically, such communities are morally superior to others, which I do not believe. I have been taught that within orthodox Judaism, different lifestyles are appropriate for different people; this view coincides nicely with my experience. I would therefore consider the burden of proof to be on any party arguing in favour of such superiority.

(D) and (e) imply that intrinsically, such communities are morally inferior to others, which I also do not believe, for the same reasons that lead me to reject (a) and (b) (see last paragraph).

(C), happily, makes no value judgment about isolationism. The first half of it - "are not for me" - is definitely true. The second half - "but I understand the attraction" - is also true. I have known people who feel intensely uncomfortable when confronted with lifestyles, points of view or practices different from their own. I myself have experienced a certain thrill and passion when submerged within a like-minded community. I therefore can understand why some people would find an isolationist enclave attractive.

Note that by choosing (c), I in no way condone any hostility, prejudice, feeling of superiority or offensive behaviour that is reputed to exist among certain such communities.

The Orthodoxy Test #23: Reading Nonliterally

Reading difficult Torah stories nonliterally is

a) a perversion of Torah
b) sometimes but rarely a valid approach
c) occasionally ok, but makes me uncomfortable
d) ok if you can sort of back yourself up with an obscure Rishon
e) often necessary to make Torah understandable in light of science
f) Leave this question out of my results

I don't remember how I answered this one. I may have chosen (f). I don't even know what it means. I think there's a big difference between saying that a story in Chumash is nonliteral (which may indeed occasionally be okay, but I don't know) and saying that a story in the Talmud or Midrash, for example, is not literally true. In the latter case, given that Rambam and others explicitly state that much of the aggadic material in rabbinic literature is not meant to be taken literally, I'm quite comfortable with it.

The Orthodoxy Test #24: Left-Wing Orthodox Groups

Left wing Orthodox groups like Edah are

a) not really frum
b) frum, but have a totally warped idea of Judaism
c) interesting, but not my cup of tea
d) often thought provoking but occasionally go too far
e) the future of Orthodoxy
f) Leave this question out of my results

I know next to nothing about Edah.

While I would not want the left-wing orthodox groups I am somewhat more familiar with to be running the show in all of orthodoxy, I think it is useful to have them on the fringe, just as I think that groups on the far right are worth having around, as long as they're not too powerful. I think that moderation is usually the way to go, but sometimes we need extremists to show us we're making a big mistake or not seeing things clearly, or to take risks and/or drastic action when the mainstream is unwilling to do so. Therefore, (d), but with the caveats that my answer does not apply specifically Edah, and that the word "occasionally" may understate the case, depending on the organization.

The Orthodoxy Test #25: Midrashim as Pshat

Midrashim should be taken to be pshat

a) always
b) almost always
c) when it's reasonable to do so
d) occasionally, but not usually
e) almost never
f) Leave this question out of my results

(C) all the way. I don't think any justification is required.

תם ונשלם שבח לא-ל בורא עולם

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Gosse Theory

I was looking through Rabbi Gil Student's blog,, and I came across an article from last November about the much-maligned Gosse theory discussed fleetingly on this blog about a month and a half ago. I read through not only Student's post but also all of the comments (quite a tedious task), then posted a comment of my own, because I felt that none of the comments had adequately addressed the questions being raised. As I acknowledged in my comment, it's very possible that no one will ever look at those comments and read mine, since it was posted many weeks after all the others. I'm posting it below in a different font, and maybe, this way, someone will read it. Maybe.

I assume nobody is even checking these comments any more, but I'll write something because I find this topic a good intellectual workout. Yitzchak is right that just about any objection one can possibly raise about the Gosse hypothesis can be addressed with a little bit of imagination. Albus Dumbledore could probably do almost all the tinkering Gosse theory requires God to have done; I imagine God could do it too.

As for the theological/philosophical issues: God doesn't make his existence or the truth of the Torah too obvious, because if the Torah were as clearly true as the link between jumping off a skyscraper and dying, people would not have enough free will when making a decision of whether to do right or wrong. It's important, theologically, for there to be some grounds for doubting (though not refuting) God's existence and the Torah's credibility. I personally believe that Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach has put forward a persuasive rational argument in favour of the Torah's veracity ("Living Up to the Truth;" google it and you'll find it). For people who wish to take a rational approach to determining the truth, there need to be objections that they can raise, if they want to, to counter arguments like Rabbi Gottlieb's, and persuade themselves that the Torah is not true. God may thus have decided to create the world looking deceptively old (= Gosse) to provide an excuse, as there must be, to people wishing to shirk their responsibilities to God and religion (and to the truth).