Monday, May 30, 2005
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
ויקרא פרק כו פסוק ג
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ
If you walk in my statutes...
Rashi interprets this phrase to mean: If you toil in Torah. The Maharal in his commentary, Gur Aryeh, to this phrase explains further that the Torah here uses the verb “to walk” because it connotes travel – indeed, hard travel, by foot – from place to place. Our toil in Torah should be directed at traveling ever deeper, from level to level, in our understanding of the Torah. It is to stress the all-encompassing importance of this process, explains the Maharal, that the Torah here refers to chukkim – the statutes of the Torah, such as parah adumah and shatnez, that have no readily apparent explanation. It is even in the study of these statutes that we are encouraged to travel ever deeper – even though the comprehension of these statutes is harder than the comprehension of other parts of the Torah – to reach more profound levels of understanding.
The Maharal, of course, anticipates the question: “Are not these statutes beyond human understanding?” He explains that when our Sages state that chukkim posses no readily apparent rationale does not mean that they are totally incomprehensible. Rather, they are, perhaps not completely within the grasp of our reason, but by dint of steady, repeated “walking” the path of understanding, we too can attain a significant understanding of the chukkim.
A critical component of our Torah education is the pursuit of understanding, imparting the profound reasons – both in the legal and the philosophical realms – that underly the laws, traditions and texts of our holy Torah. It is incumbent upon us not just to teach and learn the “what,” but also – and, more importantly – the “why.” Only when Torah is learnt and taught in this manner, when its full name: תורת אמת – The Torah of Truth - is perceived, noted and realized, will it penetrate the depths of a person's mind and heart.
Monday, May 23, 2005
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Subject: IJN Online Feature Stories (fwd)
> Interaction: Reform and Orthodox Jews confront and transcend stereotypes
> By FAYE RAPOPORT
> IJN Staff Writer e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
> KALISPELL, MONTANA -- Bet Harim, a Reform congregation in Kalispell, =
> helped make a western vacation possible for an Orthodox family from =
> Detroit, Chicago, New York and Seattle. The community provided a Torah =
> scroll, arranged accomodations at a conference center with space for an =
> Orthodox service and rounded up volunteers to complete a minyan.
> Rita Schreiber knew that planning a family trip to Glacier National Park =
> would be a challenge.
> What she didn't know was that her efforts would bring together not only =
> relatives from Detroit, Chicago, New York and Seattle, but also a =
> community of Reform Jews in Montana who would make her family's trip =
> Schreiber, who lives near Detroit, is Orthodox. Any travel to the rural =
> West would require renting several vans and packing kosher food for the =
> entire trip.
> But food wasn't the only problem. Schreiber's son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef =
> Bechhofer of Congregation Bais Tefila in Chicago, would not be able to =
> take part unless the family could observe Shabbat during their travels. =
> This meant finding a community that could provide a minyan of 10 men, =
> complete with a Torah scroll and a mechitzah to separate men and women.
> Where would they be able to celebrate an Orthodox Shabbat in the middle =
> of Montana?
> "We contacted a lot of people," Schreiber told the Intermountain Jewish =
> News. "We looked through Jewish travel guides, contacted the Lubavitch =
> movement, talked to some communities in Canada. We talked to =
> Conservative and Reform congregations to see if maybe there was =
> something we could latch onto."
> They didn't have any luck -- until a break-through came in the form of a =
> suggestion from Rabbi Jack Isakson of Seattle. The rabbi thought that =
> Kalispell, a community just outside the west entrance of Glacier =
> National Park, might have a Torah.
> Rabbi Bechhofer phoned Mary Lerner, a member of Bet Harim, the Reform =
> congregation in Kalispell. Lerner was interested in helping the family =
> and said she would see what she could do.
> >From that moment, a massive community effort to host an Orthodox family =
> for a Shabbat in Kalispell took off.
> First, the question of forming a minyan was brought up at a Bet Harim =
> board meeting, but a quorum was not present to vote. A flurry of e-mails =
> began circulating among Bet Harim members and the Schreiber and =
> Bechhofer families.
> What exactly would be needed? How many men would be required? Was a =
> mechitzah necessary?
> One by one, Rabbi Bechhofer answered their questions. After counting =
> their own family members, it was determined that six additional men =
> would be needed to complete the minyan. Yes, to satisfy Orthodox =
> requirements, a mechitzah was necessary. The family would also need a =
> place to stay within walking distance of the service.
> David Yaakov, who handles rabbi relations for the congregation, did what =
> he could to help.
> "At first it was hard to get a commitment for a minyan, as the =
> congregation here is Reform at best," he told the IJN.
> According to Yaakov, some members of Bet Harim were offended by the =
> family's request. "A person from the community got all shook up and =
> started e-mailing everyone to boycott the Shabbat services in protest to =
> an all male minyan," Yaakov explained. He did not reveal the person's =
> The strategy backfired, as many members of the community felt the =
> reaction was uncalled for. "That was what made many people come, Baruch =
> Hashem!" Yaakov said.
> Bet Harim members also researched appropriate accommodations for the =
> event. They put the family in touch with the Deep Bay Center, a =
> conference center in Lakeside that included a space for the religious =
> It was uncertain to the last moment whether or not six men would show up =
> to complete the minyan, but Yaakov was convinced it would happen, so the =
> Schreibers and Bechhofers and their extended family decided to make the =
> Rita Schreiber was thrilled that her vacation could go forward. =
> Realizing that the community was doing a great deal to accommodate her =
> family, she and Rabbi Bechhofer agreed that they would do what they =
> could in return.
> "My son-in-law ordered and had shipped to Kalispell 10 sidurrim that had =
> transliteration in them so people could follow along," Schreiber said. =
> "I made copies of the Torah section for the week. We thought we would be =
> lucky if we had 10-12 people attending, maybe eight or nine men and two =
> "Kosher food was an issue. We brought coolers and took food with us. All =
> the time we were in Glacier we had our own food, almost everything =
> except fresh fruit. We brought pots and tried to make it pretty simple."
> For the Shabbat celebration, Schreiber's sister drove a camper from =
> Seattle to Kalispell, bringing more kosher food. She picked up a cousin =
> in Spokane along the way.
> "We heard from people in Kalispell that they had planned a kiddush, and =
> I think out of deference to us they agreed that nothing should be meat =
> so maybe we could partake of the food," Schreiber said. "It turned out =
> we couldn't eat much of it, but it touched us so much that they went to =
> this trouble."
> The family arrived in Kalispell just before Shabbat. They had no idea =
> through that Friday afternoon, David Yaakov continued to make calls in =
> the hope of securing six men for a minyan.
> When it came time to set up the room where the Shabbat service would be =
> held, the family tried to be sensitive to the concerns of the =
> non-Orthodox community, especially regarding the issue of dividing the =
> men from the women. They set up a long table with a cloth on it between =
> two sets of chairs.
> "We tried to do it in a way that would be the least unpleasant for those =
> not accustomed," Schreiber said, "so the women mainly wouldn't feel like =
> second class citizens."
> By all accounts, both sides were nervous before the event. The Kalispell =
> community was not sure what to expect, or how the tensions in their =
> congregation would play out on the day of the service.
> In the meantime, according to Schreiber, Rabbi Bechhofer was worried =
> about making this Shabbat a learning experience and something the =
> community would enjoy.
> "He was nervous it would be a bad experience for people, a negative =
> experience rather than a positive one if they were bored or didn't like =
> it," she said. "We were worried that people wouldn't come or would be =
> upset with us."
> Rabbi Bechhofer explained, "From my perspective as a rabbi, you are =
> conscious of playing a role, of wanting to come across in a way that =
> makes people understand that Judaism is a positive thing."
> Although the need for a minyan was born of his desire to take part in a =
> family vacation, he also saw the upcoming Shabbat as an opportunity.
> "We would not go anywhere if there was no minyan for Shabbos, but a =
> primary motive which I had all the time was, 'let's go and find =
> something we can do which is holy and uplifting and Jewish.'"
> David Yaakov's wife Sarah waited for the day with anticipation. Although =
> her husband couldn't attend, she was looking forward to participating in =
> an Orthodox Shabbat in Kalispell. The Yaakovs are observant and had =
> recently spent a year in Israel, but had returned because of the desire =
> to be near family.
> "I was a little nervous, not knowing who they were," she said.
> Her uncertainty stemmed partly from the fact that the Yaakovs are gerim, =
> or converted Jews. They participated in a non-Orthodox conversion in =
> America, and an Orthodox conversion in Israel had been interrupted by =
> their need to return to the States. "Always coming from a convert's =
> point of view, you never know how an Orthodox group might accept you," =
> she said.
> When Yaakov arrived just before Shabbat, her worries quickly evaporated. =
> "I had barely gotten out of my vehicle when one of the couples, from =
> Seattle, came to greet me. Right away they were asking where I would be =
> staying. They were incredibly warm and welcoming and down to earth.
> "I didn't know what to expect," she admitted. "Our whole community was =
> pretty nervous about meeting them and going out there, they really were. =
> Some of the women were pretty upset, and some were pretty nervous. Many =
> don't even know Orthodox people, but you get these ideas in your head."
> Finally, the designated time for the service had arrived. Hoping that =
> six men would appear to complete the minyan with perhaps a few guests, =
> the Schreibers and Bechhofers opened the door.
> They were surprised and touched by the crowd of about 40 people that =
> waited to enter. "All the chairs were filled," she said.
> Many of the women wore dresses or covered their heads in deference to =
> the visitors. Some attendees were from a Christian group, which has =
> adopted many Jewish customs. Descriptions of this unnamed group =
> differed, but Rabbi Bechhofer and his mother-in-law were not concerned =
> about their participation.
> "Everyone there was sincere," the rabbi said.
> Schrieber spoke to everyone present, expressing her family's =
> appreciation for the community's efforts on their behalf.
> "I welcomed people and told them how touched we were that they were so =
> kind, and they helped us out with this. I said I knew it was not the way =
> they would have chosen to have a minyan and it was such a mitzvah to =
> take in strangers like this and help us."
> The rabbi then helped bridge the gaps among the strangers assembled. =
> First, he explained that the mechitzah was required by Jewish law, =
> acknowledging the concerns of some of the women present.
> "His manner just put everyone at ease. He explained the whole service, =
> the prayers that were coming up, the Torah portion, and he put in some =
> rabbinical insight. It was just incredible," Yaakov said.
> "It was one of the most touching and moving services I can remember =
> being in. They explained what pages we were on, what book you were =
> using, they handled this community with kid gloves. Everyone I talked to =
> was so touched, so blessed and so glad they came. I think it broke down =
> a big wall between the Reform and the Orthodox."
> After the service, the group ate and talked, with the rabbi answering =
> questions and leading discussion.
> He said, "I think it was a very uplifting experience, the sense that you =
> are able to come together, people from disparate backgrounds and from =
> different elements and form a minyan, and daven together. It's a big =
> kiddush Hashem."
> Yaakov spent the day with the family, and some attended a Torah class, =
> or shiur, taught by the rabbi in the afternoon.
> "You see what you can accomplish even on a vacation when you put your =
> mind to it," he said.
> Schreiber agreed. "I thought it was a win-win situation for everybody. =
> We just felt like a million dollars that they made such an effort to do =
> this with us. I was glad to see my children and grandchildren =
> interacting in a respectful and normal way with people who aren't =
> To the delight of the Kalispell community, the Schreiber and Bechhofer =
> families left all of the siddurs behind as a gift. They continued their =
> travels with a trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern =
> Idaho, a visit to Salt Lake City and a final stop in Denver before =
> returning home.
> All sides expressed interest in remaining in touch, and in fostering =
> their new relationship over e-mail and through visits in the future.
> "We would like to maintain contact," said the rabbi. "First of all, I =
> loved Montana, it's an amazing place. You don't realize how big sky =
> country is, the splendor and the majesty. I think we all felt we'd very =
> much like to keep up this connection."
> "It was one of the best Shabbosim of my life," Schreiber said. "I mean =
> that really, really from my heart."
> Yaakov said simply, "I was just blessed to my toes."
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> | OPINION | PERSONALS
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Post "fixed" by Rael Levinsohn. Yasher Koach!
By Rabbi Y. Bechhofer
The Talmud in Yebamot 89b adduces two sources for Hefker Bes Din Hefker ( HBDH) – Rav Yitzchak derives the halachah from Ezra 16:8, where mention is made of Ezra's decree, Any person not coming within three days (to assemble in Jerusalem) at the order of the nobles and the elders shall have all his property confiscated. Rav Elazar derives the halachah from Joshua 19:51, where the leaders of the nation are likened to fathers. From this analogy, Rav Elazar reasons that just as a father may dispose of his son's property as he sees fit, the leaders may dispose of the properties of the nation, in whatever way they deem proper.
Maharshal1 notes a major difference between these two sources: from the source in Ezra one can only derive that Bes Din can seize property, whereas the source in Joshua seems to indicate that Bes Din also possesses the legal right to place this property in another's possession.
Another difference is also apparent. The source in Ezra is dealing with the extraordinary powers of Bes Din – beyond normal legal parameters - as a governing body ("serarah"), whereas the source in Joshua - pertaining to the proper and just division of Eretz Yisrael - is dealing with normal judicial legislative powers ("hora'ah").2
These two categories of the rights of Bes Din to supersede private ownership may be recognized in the Rambam, Sanhedrin chapter 24, in which special procedures of Bes Din are enumerated. In the first halachah of the chapter, Rambam writes that a judge ruling on financial matters where no absolute proof is available (e.g. witnesses, documents, chazakos, etc.) may consider circumstantial evidence and his own personal reasoning and understanding of the case in reaching a decision. In the sixth halachah, Rambam relates that a judge may seize (make hefker) a person's money and dispose of it as he sees fit in order to "mend or strengthen the fences of the law.
As basis for the latter halachah, the Rambam notes the above mentioned verse in Ezra. It thus seems that the latter halachah is. based on the extra-legal power of Bes Din to seize property whenever necessary in. order to govern effectively, as derived from the case in Ezra. The former halachah is based on the source in Joshua, and expresses the right of Bes Din to set and follow self generated guidelines and requirements in judicial and legislative settings. We may classify these two types of power respectively as extralegal and intra-legal HBDH.3
The Talmud in Gittin 36b quotes Shmuel's opinion that a "Pruzbul" -. the document written in court stating that the law preventing collection of debts which takes effect on the last day of the Shemitta year4 does not apply to the loans specified - may only be written by distinguished Batei- Din (those of Sura and Neharda'a), which are entitled to utilize HBDH.5
The Tur (Hoshen Mishpat 240) In the name of Rabbeinu Chananel's tradition, cites the same requirement in the halachah of Shuda Dedayna – intra-legal HBDH - only a distinguished Dayan may rule in this manner.6
The Talmud (ibid 37a; Shevi'is 10:6) further notes the halachah that a Pruzbul may only be written against a debtor who owns land.7 In explanation of this halachah, Rashi and Tosafos in Gittin and the Rosh in Shevi'is write that it is a rare case that the debtor should possess no land upon which the creditor may hold a lien, and Takkanos Chachamim such as Pruzbul do not textend to exceptional cases.
However, Rabbeinu Shimshon in his commentary on Shevi'is understands this halachah differently. In order for a Pruzbul to be effective, funds equal to the sum of the loan must be placed under Bes Din's control. This is practically possible only with real estate. After the Pruzbul is written, even were the land to be sold, Bes Din's prior lien would prevail. Chattel and currency could be disposed of secretly, and placed beyond hope of collection. A similar explanation is advanced by Rashbam (Baba Batsra 66a).8
The limitation of a Pruzbul to cases where land can be involved - according to Rabbeinu Shimshon and Rashbam, who view this limitation as inherent in the Takana, as opposed to the Rishonim, who view it as incidental – is reminiscent of Rabbeinu Chananel's tradition, which allows application of Shuda Dedoyna - intra-legal HBDH - only in matters concerning real estate (as is the halachah requiring a distinguished Bes Din). Indeed, if we can prove that the HBDH of Pruzbul is one of the intralegal type, we may be able to link the halachos and understand the former on the basis of the latter.
The SM'A (Hoshen Mishpat 67:22) outlines the development of the Takanas Chachamim of Pruzbul. Prior to the invention of the Pruzbul, a creditor desiring to circumvent the D'Oraysa ban on collection of debts caused by Shemitta would place all of his promissory notes in the possession of Bes Din. Bes Din would thus be empowered to collect the debts. Since the halachah only prevents individuals from collecting monies owed them, Bes Din would be free to collect from the debtor and pay the creditor.
Hillel devised the Pruzbul as a method of transferring the right of collection to Bes Din without the Bes Din actually receiving notes against the debtors – by giving Bes Din a lien on the debtor's real estate – thereby authorizing Bes Din to act against verbal loans as well.
A different explanation of the relationship between the earlier manner of circumventing the ban and the Takana of Pruzbul is advanced by Tosafos (Gittin 36a-d.h. Mi'ika).
The instrument of Pruzbul, according to this view, is a legitimate transfer of debts to Bes Din, and would therefore properly circumvent the D'Oraysa ban within the framework of the earlier manner - even in the case of verbal debts. However, the very existence of such a ban demonstrates the intention ofthe Torah that such loopholes not be institutionalized.
Hillel's rationale was that it would nevertheless be better to formally adopt this Heter than to allow the continuation of a situation in which people refused to lend money on the eve of Shemitta.9
Viewing the Pruzbul in one of these two perspectives may assist us in understanding both Rambam’s interpretation of the aforementioned sugya in Gittin, and his conclusion that a Pruzbul is effective only against a Rabbinic ban on the collection of debts - i.e. when Shemitta is D'Rabbanan, as it is today.
As the Kesef Mishna (ibid) explains, only since the money is D'Oraysa still owed, to the creditor (in absence of a D'Oraysa ban) does Bes Din utilize HBDH to overcome the Rabbinic ban.
However, would the money be absolutely the debtor's - i.e. if the D'Oraysa ban would apply to this loan - Bes Din would not utilize HBDH to extract the money from him. It seems clear that this is intra-legal HBDH, which must function within the parameters of the law – D’Oraysa law. Therefore, a Pruzbul – the circumvention of which is limited to Rabbinic bans.10
Linking Rabbeinu Shimshon's understanding of the requirement of land with the view of the Rishonim that Pruzbul is a function of intra-legal HBDH, then, the halachah that emerges is that Bes Din may only employ this unique judicial-legislative power where they have some control over the property in question.
As we explained previously, this is only possible where Bes Din is dealing with a question of real estate. Rabbeinu Chananel's tradition is based on the understanding that when the litigants come to Bes Din, they are effectively placing the disputed property under Bes Din's control – thus allowing the Dayan to employ intra-legal HBDH - Shuda Dedayna.
Yam Shel Shlomo, Yebamos 19.
See Margaliyos Hayam, Sanhedrin 43b, para. 10, concerning the process of psak halachah inherent in the division of Eretz Yisrael.
See D'var Avraham de Teshuvos paras. 5-6.
See Shemitta Kehilchasa pp. 85-91. Some Rishonim hold the ban occurs at the onset of Shemitta.
Rambam and Shabbas Ha'aretz Hilkhos Shevi'is 9:17, Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 67; 18. The Rema is lenient in this halachah in Shemitta D'Rabbanan.
That intra-legal HBDH requires a distinguished Bes Din is demonstrated in several cases. See Baba Metzia 32a; Tosafos ad. loc. d.h. Bes Din; ,Rambam, Hilkhos Shll.1kkimV'shutfim 5: 9 ; Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 176:17.
Rambam ibid 9:19.
See Mishna Rishona; Toras Zeraim on the Mishna, Shevi' is 10:2.
There are difficulties with Tosafos’ opinion. See Yerushalmi Shevi'is 10:1; Mishna Rishona ibid.
Ra'avad argues. He holds that since Pruzbul is based on HBDH, it can even override the D'Oraysa ban, and therefore maybe utilized even in case of Shemitta D'Oraysa. It seems that Ra'avad understands Pruzbul as emanating from extra-legal HBDH, its extraordinary powers therefore superseding any halachos concerning monetary matters. This position may be traced to Ran's understanding of Pruzbul (Teshuvos Haran 77. See Gilyonei Hashas 36a, Ran views the Bes Din's role in writing a Pruzbul as purely officiary, as a sort of grand notary public).The difficulty in distinguishing between the procedures of placing promissory notes in Bes Din's possession as opposed to the procedure of Pruzbul led Ran to understand that the Pruzbul document in and of itself permits the creditor to collect directly from the debtor, despite the halachah of Shemitta, without resorting to Bes Din's intervention. If this is the case, we cannot understand Pruzbul as a novel manner of transferring a right to collect debts, nor as an institutionalization of a previously shunned Heter, but rather as a radical new Takana based solely on Bes Din's power of extra-legally abrogating personal ownership. Therefore, it is irrelevant whether the ban is D'Oraysa or Rabbinic. Bes Din's absolute control over monetary matters overrides all restrictions and halakhic parameters.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
No conversation ensued.
Perhaps here it might?
In honor of Lag Ba'Omer I thought I would post a question that I hope
will lead to a new thread of conversation on MJ: What is Kedusha?
This is certainly a critical question for us, especially at this time
of year, as at Mt. Sinai we were charged to be "Mamleches Kohanim
v'Goy Kadosh", a "Nation of Priests, a Holy Nation", so this is our
destiny - we better know what it is! Kedusha is a recurring theme in
the Torah and Chazal, and I wager to say that it is the pinnacle of
Jewish aspiration and achievement.
Preliminary comments: In my line of work I speak a lot, and I like to
speak on this topic. I find often that even Orthodox Jews take a very
reductionist viewpoint on Kedusha, i.e., it is a status of separation
and mission. Many audiences become uncomfortable when I explain that
in my understanding our status as the Chosen People imparts us a
uniquely elevated and special status, with more sacred neshamos and a
vastly different - and superior - role versus the Gentiles in
determining the destiny of the Universe. Indeed, many people are not
enthused when I invoke the Ramban and Reb Chaim Volozhiner to explain
how a mitzvah impacts mystically on both the character and sanctity of
an individual, and, indeed that of the entire world.
I refrain for now from proposing my own expanded definition of
Kedusha. If this thread does develop I will be pleased, and certainly
eager to discuss same. And, if it doesn't, why bore everybody :-) ?
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Dear Rabbi Bechhofer:
I have read some of your writing on the web and am impressed. I wonder if you can help me.
I am a middle-aged ba'al-habayit and professional. I was raised modern Orthodox, but was yeshiva-educated only through high school. I have learned only a few blatt of Gemara in my life. My Hebrew is poor, and my Aramaic worse.
I have, nevertheless, embarked on some research into the sections of Vayikra and Devarim dealing with kosher animals, as well as relevant sections of Chulin (via Artscroll). I am in the process of writing a paper for publication, and am close to completion. (I believe that, despite my ignorance, I have some valuable insights, as my mind works fairly well.) I have, however, encountered a few questions that I cannot find answers to, which I would like to resolve. I am sure that rishonim or achronim have noticed the same issues I have, and may have addressed them, but I am unable to access the seforim or understand them. Just reading two lines of Tosafos takes me 5-10 minutes, and this with the help of Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries.
I am looking for a very bright young rabbi or kollel student with whom I can correspond on these questions by phone or e-mail, and who can research sources to look for answers to my questions, and otherwise guide me. He would have to be fluent in English, be able to use e-mail, have some basic knowledge of Chulin, and know how to search for and understand commentators on Chumash and Gemara who have commented on the specific questions I have. It also would be helpful if he had a good idea about how the Gemara interprets Chumash, and the relationship between p'shat and d'rash; and, ideally, access to a talmud chacham who might be able to provide leads and guidance if needed.
I could pay this person up to $15 an hour, and he would have the freedom to do the research at his own convenience. Having spent a good deal of time in this area, my insights might also prove useful to him.
My own children have all attended yeshivos and mesivtos, but they are busy with their own lives and don't have the time to work with me.
Do you have any idea how I can find someone to assist me? The person need not be in the US. I would appreciate any help you could give me.
Friday, May 13, 2005
The following chapter is from Rabbi (Prof.) Yehuda (Leo) Levi's forthcoming expansion of his book: Torah and Science. It is posted here with his kind permission.
The evidence of God's wisdom and strength as displayed in the marvels of nature and their harmonious complexity is potentially among the most powerful sources of inspiration guiding us to love and revere Him. To demonstrate this wisdom, I present at the end of this chapter an illustration from my own professional field, describing one part of a small organ in man, which is minuscule in size, yet awe-inspiring in its performance.
The evolutionist argument of natural selection attempts to account for all biological marvels by means of well-known laws of nature. Although this argument collapses under closer scrutiny (see sec. 7.3), it tends to dampen the emotional impact of such demonstrations of God's wisdom. Natural selection may be argued to be relevant to the origin of species, but is, of course, irrelevant to the origin of basic laws of nature. Therefore, illustrations of God's wisdom from the laws of physics may have a special appeal. One such illustration is given later on (sec. 7.4), another, the so-called anthropic principle, we discuss here. See also our earlier discussion of the origin of laws of nature (sec. 1.2) as a possible source of inspiration in this sense.
Sir Fred Hoyle, the well-known astronomer, also well-known for his agnosticism, calculated the probability that the creation of life on earth was due to chance. His conclusion: it equals one in 1040,000. See sec. 7.3 for further discussion of this point.
5.2 The Forces of Nature and the Anthropic Principle1
According to our present world picture, there are four basic forces that control all physical processes and are responsible for the structure of our universe. They are:
(1) Gravity, a relatively weak force, responsible for the macroscopic structure of the universe, holding e.g. our solar system together .
(2) Electrical force, which, among other things, accounts for the structure of the atom.
(3-4) The weak and strong (nuclear) forces, which control the structure and stability of the atomic nucleus.
The magnitudes of these forces span a range of about 40 decades (a factor written as a one followed by 40 zeros), a number so large that it truly defies our imagination. And yet, their relative magnitudes are closely prescribed by the anthropic principle, which states that universe must have been designed to make intelligent life possible. The constants governing them seem to be limited to a very small range, if life is to be possible in this world.
Detailed analysis shows that, were the gravitational constant only slightly greater, all stars would be "blue giants", radiating only ultra-violet light, incompatible with life as we know it. On the other hand, if this constant were only slightly smaller, all stars would be "red dwarfs", again incompatible with plant life.
Similarly, if the strong force, which holds the nucleus together, were only a few percent weaker, only hydrogen could exist; if it were just 5% stronger, a nucleus consisting of two protons would be stable and no hydrogen would survive, so there could be no water.
The weak force controls the proton-neutron interaction in the nucleus. If it were only slightly weaker, all hydrogen would turn into helium and, again, water would be impossible.
It also appears that if the universe were somewhat more massive2 than it is in fact, its expansion would be short-lived - it would rapidly recollapse. Were it significantly less massive, galaxies would not condense, stars would not form and, again, life as we know it would be impossible.
If they are to be observable, laws of nature require the existence of an observer - they must be such as to make intelligent life possible. This conclusion is called the anthropic principle. It is used to "explain" many "coincidences" in nature like the ones listed above and many more. These coincidences are too unlikely and too many to be accepted without an explanation.
The anthropic principle by itself is of course not an explanation - it simply helps us to group the coincidences. Possible explanations include the assumption that under different circumstances intelligent life would also be possible - we simply can not imagine what form it would take. Life takes the form it does only because that form is compatible with the forces of nature the way they happen to be constituted. But this explanation remains unconvincing as long as the postulated alternative life forms are unimaginable.
Others have suggested that there exist, in fact, an infinity of universes, each with its own set of natural laws and most of them "stillborn", i.e. without the potential of intelligent life. Since no one has yet found the slightest evidence for the existence of such worlds, this very much looks like a desperate attempt to graft "natural selection"-type thinking onto a physical situation with which it is simply incompatible.
It would appear, then, that we have here evidence, albeit far from conclusive, pointing to a careful design, where the most fundamental components of our world picture are concerned.
Incidentally, today many scientists believe that the spontaneous evolution of life is extremely unlikely - even with the given optimum constellation of forces of nature (see chap.7, note 6).
5.3. Some Marvels of Water and Air3
Marvelous design can also be seen in the substances most central to life: water and air.
Water makes up the major bulk of the living cell. In our bodies it also serves as the transportation medium, carrying nourishment to the cells and waste products from them. In plants it carries dissolved inorganic nutrients to the roots. It is eminently suited for this because of its ready adhesion capabilities and its being an intermediately active solvent. Its extensive presence on earth is not inherent in the nature of a planet - none of the other known planets have significant amounts of water.
On earth, most of the water is stored in reservoirs "miraculously" available for it. Why "miraculous"? The earth's surface is essentially divided into two distinct regions: the continental level, above sea level, and the deep oceanic level, at a depth of about 4 km. Only 4% of the earth's surface is in the transition region between sea level and 4 km below it. This fortuitous structure is based on an underlying distortion of the shape of the earth's mantle and cannot be explained on the basis of random development.
The marvel of the water cycle, in which the oceans supply the clouds, and these bring the water to the land, whence, via rivers, it returns to the ocean, is well known. Less well known is another function of the oceans. Our life on earth depends crucially on about 0.04% of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Together with water and nitrogen, this is the main constituent of the carbohydrates manufactured by plants and hence sustaining animals and man. CO2 is generated during combustion and oxidation of dead organic material; it is consumed by plants during photo-synthesis; too much CO2 or too little, both are detrimental to life. How is the delicate balance maintained? This is a major function of the oceans. About 96% of all available CO2 is dissolved there. The oceans absorb any excess of CO2 present in the atmosphere and release it as needed to maintain the balance.
The liquidity of the oceans is the result of another fortuitous anomaly. Most substances contract when they cool and this is true of water as well - except when it comes to within 4°C of its freezing point. As it is cooled below this temperature, it begins to expand; in a natural body of water it therefore rises as it cools further. This accounts for the fact that bodies of water freeze from the top down and hence readily thaw when the atmosphere warms up again later. Were it not for this anomaly, oceans and rivers would freeze from the bottom up and thaw only partly when warm weather comes. Year by year the ice level would rise and soon most of the water on the earth's surface would be frozen - a deadly "ice age" would quickly set in.
The earth's rotation, too, is fortuitous. By means of the resulting lateral force (Coriolis effect) it diverts winds from their "natural" north-south direction, brings them down to a manageable speed (most of the time), turning them into an important factor maintaining life on earth as, for instance, in plant pollination. Incidentally, it has been calculated that if the earth's axis of rotation were not inclined to the plane of its orbit around the sun, the resulting lack of seasonal temperature fluctuations would give rise to the formation of glaciers that would soon cover all of the earth.
Similar marvels have been pointed out concerning the atmosphere, which, in addition to the CO2 balance discussed above, also maintains a balance of ozone (a mere 3 mm out of 8 km of sea-level-equivalent atmosphere). This balance provides a carefully monitored level of ultra-violet radiation at the earth's surface.
The intricate atmospheric processes have been studied extensively.4
5.4 The Smart Television Camera in Our Head5
Job exclaimed "from my flesh I perceive God" (Job 19:26). As an illustration of how we can use modern science to perceive God from our own flesh, let us consider the eye - our window to the world. Our eye is built somewhat like a tiny camera with lens, shutter, automatic iris control and automatic focusing, the last a feature only recently introduced into the amateur camera field. In particular let us look at a tiny part of the eye, the element analogous to the film in the camera: the retina, which covers the inside of the back of the eyeball.
The retina receives the image formed by the cornea and lens of the eye and converts it into nerve impulses. It operates usefully over a range of brightness of about a trillion to one, greater than that of any man-made device. Due to the automatic iris control, the resulting illumination range on the retina is less than that by a factor of about fifteen; but that still leaves a factor of about a hundred billion for the retina itself to handle.
To understand how the retina does this, we must take a closer look at the individual light detecting organs it contains. There are about seven million cone-shaped detectors, capable of the highest resolution of detail and of color discrimination. In addition, there are 120 million ultra-sensitive rod-shaped detectors. These are effective primarily at low illumination levels. Each of these "rods" contains hundreds of thousands of molecules of visual purple, each of which changes its structure when struck by light.
A single quantum of light (it takes about 2.5 trillion of these to make a watt-second!) is capable of activating such a molecule, causing it to release a sizeable flow of electric charge. Thus each such molecule acts, in a way, like a Geiger counter, amplifying the effect of a single quantum. A few "rods", with just one molecule of each activated, give rise to a sensation of light.
This much for the lower end of the brightness range. As the illumination rises, more and more molecules are activated and our visual nerves would soon be flooded with signals beyond their capacity to handle - if it were not for an amplification control mechanism, which reduces the sensitivity as less is needed. When the illumination has risen to about 3000 times its barely detectable level, the "cones" become active and start taking over the detection function. They work in a manner similar to the rods, except that their sensitivity is lower and they remain effective to much higher illumination levels.
This is but the beginning of our story. Each of the retinal detectors exits in a small nerve thread - close to 130 million nerves; in all. So many signal channels entering the brain would overload its data handling capacity. We are, therefore, fortunate that the optic nerve, the cable that carries information from the retina to the brain, consists of only a few hundred thousand nerve fibers. How does the transition take place? The optic nerve fibers end in a layer facing the layer of detectors, with a veritable thicket of nerves connecting the two sets of nerve endings. Some nerves connect to many detectors; others connect to many optic nerve fibers. The significance of these interconnections has only recently been discovered. This network of nerve interconnections performs the function of image enhancement. Perforce, the image formed on the retina is blurred; but, by means of carefully arranged interconnections, much of the blur is eliminated by the nerve interactions, in a manner similar to the way images received from space ships are processed.
This image enhancement uses up some of the signal energy so that, at very low levels of illumination, the retina might fail to detect the image altogether due to this processing. To overcome this limitation, the eye automatically adapts the amount of processing to the illumination level.
But the eye does ordinary image processing one better! It processes signals in time as well. The reader may have wondered at his ability to detect a moving object "out of the corner of his eye." He may be viewing a very complex static scene, with a great amount of detail structure with, say, a million picture elements each the size of a fly; and yet, if there is one small moving object, he notes it instantly. If he had to check out each one of the million elements, it would take him close to 3 hours, even if he could check them at the rate of a hundred per second! But the eye has certain detectors which are especially sensitive to change, "sounding an alarm" every time there is a significantly rapid change. Simultaneously, the retina "tunes out" the strictly static elements, which are, after a while, no longer very interesting. (The eye actually performs small rapid scanning motions, of which we are not conscious. Without these, the visual image would fade after a few seconds and actually does so, when the motion is artificially eliminated.)
Here, too, there are some refinements. At low illumination levels, the photons come in slowly and there would be too few of them if the total were added up too soon. But at these levels the eye responds to change more slowly, again sacrificing discrimination for detection.
And the retina does all this - in full color, except at the lowest levels of illumination.
And so the little retina in our eye performs the function of a super-television camera together with a sophisticated image processor – with one big difference: the pictures from space are processed by a computer that takes up the equivalent of a large box, whereas the retina does it in the volume of the head of a pin!
Anyone sensitive to divine wisdom cannot but stand in awe before this feat, which reproduces itself and is so commonplace that we take it simply for granted.
1 This section is based on the following: a. B.J. Carr and M.J. Reeves, "The Anthropic Principle and the Structure the Physical World," Nature 278:605-612 (1979). b. G. Gale, "The Anthropic Principle," Scientific American 245:114-122 (Dec.1981). For a very thorough treatment, see John B. Barrow & Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986.
2 The proper term here is the "scalar curvature of the universe." To make the presentation more readable, I use the term "mass" instead.
3 This section is largely based on H. Mandelbaum, "Ma'aseh Bereshith and Geology" Proc. Assoc. Orthodox Jew. Sci. 5:75-94 (1979)
4 Relevant material has been briefly reviewed in E.G. Freudenstein, "The Fourth Day of Creation," Intercom 122:5-8 & 23, A.O.J.S., New York (1979)
5 This section is based on L. Levi, Applied Optics, Vol. 2, Wiley, New York (1980); Chapt.15. Cf. also RaMBaM, Guide of the Perplexed 3:19.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
It is axiomatic that "HaShomayim mesaprim kevod E-l..." and "Kevodo malei olam..." R' Akiva put it succinctly - just as the garment testifies to the weaver, the beriah testifies to the Creator. We thus see that one (in fact, the primary) manner in which to achieve emunah is by in-depth examination of the Creation. Since such examination begins with the eyes, it follows that the Beriah must be true to the eyes that behold it. Thus, it is not possible that we are to disregard the wonders of Creation - they are the pathway to emunah! And, hence, since "Chosamo shel HKB"H emes," the expression of history manifest in the Beriah must, perforce, reflect the forces HKB"H brought to bear in creating it, not be in conflict with it.
Monday, May 09, 2005
The issue presents interesting halachic issues. The question of chezkas tashmishim, discussed at the end of the third perek of Bava Basra clashes here with the question of ownership. That is, from the third perek of BB we know that no matter how much time has elapsed, if the other party can produce a shtar (in this case, a deed), the land is his - as the chazakah of three years is only effective in cases in which there is no document extant. Thus, it is clear that you cannot assert ownership. OTOH, it would seem that you have a chezkas tashmishin to use your neighbor's chatzer. I think, however, that such chezkas tashmishin only works where there was no physical encroachment on the neighbor's property, but only usage. Indeed, on the contrary, there is a she'eilah here of hasogas gevul mamash. Hence, I regret to say, it seems to me that your neighbor is within his rights.
But this was written only as a quick opinion, not as an halachic decision!
Friday, May 06, 2005
A comment to one of my Purim posts:
At 3:44 AM, Litvak said…
"R' Tzadok brings that the first time a concept is mentioned in the Torah is theshoresh of that inyan."
I think I saw that in the name of the GR"A. Actually, it may be much older than that.
How about citing and utilizing some more non-Hassidic machshovah sources - e.g. from Yekkes, as per that part of your background, or Litvaks, for example ? Hassidim don't have a monopoly on deep machshovah or even kabboloh.
I am surprised when I see non-Hassidic people so into Hassidic machshovah, always mentioning Reb Zodok, etc., and one hears no (or almost no) mention from them of all the many writings of the GR"A in such areas for example, or other non-Hassidic gedolim. Do they think there was no machshovoh before Hassidism ??
I suspect that this comes about because so many Litvaks/Non-Hassidim today are weak in machshovoh (that may be overstating it). That is deplorable. So non-Hassidim interested in such often get hooked up with Hassidic types to learn more in that area. But, for a mature talmid chochomim, who can learn from seforim, and can therefore peruse great non-Hassidic machshovoh works, what is the excuse for ignoring them ? Also, there are some Litvishe/non-Hassidic baalei machshovoh as well - you just have to look harder for them.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
In our generation, which has been zocheh to the illumination of the Maharal, Reb Tzadok, Rav Desseler and other giants, including ylct"a R' Shlomo Fisher, there can no longer be any excuse for a person not to believe in the veracity of Agadata.