Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Intelligent Design Isn't Science

My wife brought home the most recent edition of Jewish Action (not available online yet) yesterday. In it there is a debate over the Orthodox position on evolution and intelligent design. Despite not being an area I'm especially knowledgeable about, I decided to take a look. The articles are pretty interesting, but I feel Nathan Aviezer's article explaining why ID is not a required Orthodox belief to have been the most compelling.

On the Shabbos before I got married I asked my cousin (who is a physics professor at NYU) whether he felt ID was science. His answer was simple: science is about explaining the world through natural means. ID presupposes (and actually bases itself on the idea) that certain organisms could not have evolved and therefore had to have been created by a designer, who designed (at the very least) those organisms though supernatural means. Moreover by assuming that those organisms originated via supernatural mechanisms, ID forecloses further scientific study into their origins.

Science cannot accept these conclusions. Supernatural explanations have no place in science; and proposing that certain areas no longer be open to study is anathema to the scientific enterprise. ID is a perfectly valid theological proposition, but it is no more science than the idea that demons cause disease.

Aviezer makes similar points, but adds to the argument. To assume that G-d can only be found in the "gaps," which are areas we cannot currently explain, pushes G-d to constantly retreat as science catches up. Every day we learn more and more about the world, and there's no reason to assume we won't figure out how every organism evolved. What happens then? Should we be limiting G-d to a tiny corner of science?

He supports the idea of guided evolution, based on the idea that the probability of the universe coming about as it did is almost nil. He posits that the anthropic principle supports the theory that something must have intervened to create the universe and that it's reasonable to believe that there was a designer who ensured everything fell into place in order that life could be sustained in our universe.

I don't find it surprising that a publication of the OU (whose head wrote a forward to Slifkin's new book) was willing to publish ideas that run contrary to contemporary charedi hashkafa. I commend them for doing so and allowing Aviezer to explain simply why evolution and Judaism are not in conflict.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

What? How Did This Happen?

Apparently Pluto was demoted today to a "dwarf planet." Maybe I haven't been paying attention but this just came out of nowhere. Poor Pluto, it was good to know you.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Consent, The Shavuos, And Land For Peace

My last post dealt with an obstacle to those who argue that the Ramban/Minchat Chinuch deny Israel the discretion of whether to trade land for peace. Basically I argued that the Ramban clearly (Mitzvot Lo Taase 17) requires consultation and acquiescence with the Urim Vetumim and since it is no longer operative, no milchemet mitzvah for the purpose of capturing or retaining land can be undertaken.

In this post I'd like to deal with another response to the milchemet mitzvah argument. My thesis is based on Rabbi Bleich's position and is not entirely my own, but some is, to my knowledge, original. Any flaws in those arguments should not be attributed to Rabbi Bleich.

It is well known that the plain reading of the Ramban affirms that the mitzvah of settling Israel is required even today. Rabbi Bleich however argues that the Three Oaths negate the other half of the obligation, which is to capture the land. As he puts it, if the Oaths mean anything they must mean at the very least that Israel cannot capture land by force. A similar argument is made by the Megillat Esther, that the requirement to capture the land is only in force when we are not subjugated by the nations.

I spoke to Rabbi Bleich about this argument and mentioned that if the Oaths have the force to prevent Israel from having to embark on a milchemet mitzvah, why wouldn't they prohibit the original capture of land in 1948 (or even earlier)? Taken to their logical conclusion, the Oaths should prohibit the State of Israel completely. His answer, from what I could ascertain, is that the consent of the world mitigated the force of the Oaths and allowed the Jews to settle there. He noted that the Ohr Sameiach made the consent argument. (Others also proffered this argument). While the consent allowed the Jews to create a state in 1948, it did not require them to fight to defend any land captured subsequently. In other words, the Oaths did not apply then, but they apply today, and therefore the obligation to capture the land is suspended.

Thinking about it later I realized that the argument seems flawed. If consent allowed Israel to capture land in 1948, why shouldn't that same consent mitigate the Oaths today, therefore reinstating the obligation to wage war to capture Eretz Yisroel? What was so unique about that consent that it could suffice before the State was created but is nonapplicable today?

To summarize, the argument seems to go like this: The Oaths are binding as a halachic matter (I realize this argument is controversial and for some responses see Gil's translation of Rabbi Aviner's Shelo Yaalu Choma). They negate the communal requirement to capture the land according to the Ramban. Therefore as long as the Oaths are in effect, there is no obligation to retain land if transferring it will save lives. The Oaths were not in effect from the initial settlement after the Balfour Declaration (because of the sovereign's consent) but are in effect today. My question is: why?

I think the answer lies within a complex web of facts and law. First, it's important to understand what exactly has to occur for consent to negate the Oaths. According to the Maharsha, "building the wall" is allowed if done with the permission of the king. It's unlikely that the Maharsha truly meant to limit this concept to a king, and he probably meant the permission of the sovereign (The Ramban makes this point in regard to the obligation for a king to wage a milchemet mitzvah where he expands the concept to whomever is ruling the country at the time; see mitzvah 4 in the mitzvot our master forgot).

Who was the sovereign in 1919? The world as constituted in the League of Nations. It's important to remember that in San Remo in 1922, when the League of Nations created the Mandate for Palestine, sovereignty remained in the League and not in the British Crown. The British were merely administrators and did not have full sovereign rights over the territory (although they of course had some of the powers usually associated with the sovereign). At that conference, in a document that became public international law, the Mandate was designed to facilitate

the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine....

Contrary to the assertions of Frumteens a National Home is a State. But one thing Frumteens is right about: the Mandate did not support a Jewish State in all of Palestine, but only in part of it. It did not deny the possibility, but did not agree to help establish a sovereign state for the Jews throughout the entire Mandate. In other words, the consent of the sovereign in this case allowed the Jews to settle all of Palestine, and in theory to make it a Jewish State in its entirety. But if the Arabs decided to establish sovereignty in parts of the Palestine, the Mandate would have no objection.

The Jews settled the land and obtained sovereignty on May 14, 1948. Prior to then the British returned the Mandate to the League's successor, the United Nations. The UN, as we all know,
voted to partition the Mandate into two separate states. Although 181 is nonbinding, it could be viewed as consent for the Jews to be sovereign over the parts laid out in the Partition Plan. The next year, on May 11, Israel was admitted to the UN. While it's is unclear if the UN recognized Israel's right to the land is captured outside of the partition plan's boundaries, it certainly consented to Israel's right to some of the land. At the very least there was implicit consent over Israel's right to control a part of the land.

Ah, but Frumteens argues, who cares about consent? The whole issue is that the Jews cannot "ascend like a wall", meaning they can only become sovereign if they take Palestine peacefully and unopposed. Since that clearly did not happen (witness all the riots, intifadas, and of course wars), the Jews still violated the Oaths. Consent of the world means nothing because

[t]here was a war - the war of '48, where 6,0000 Jews were killed. The Arabs, who were living in and around the land, did not give the Jews any permission to take it. Other countries did, and there is no such halachic status that the UN is like some kind of Sanhedrin Hagadol that can bind other nations to its decisions (any Zionist can tell you that). In any case, there is no comparison to a Coresh or any other "peaceful ascent", since - hello!! - in order to create the State of Israel they had to fight a bloody war with the Arabs!!!. So why in the world is that called a "peaceful ascent"?

Frumteens' argument has no basis in Halacha, law, or politics. Put simply (and correct me if I'm wrong) Halacha considers the sovereign the person in charge, not the people who lived in the area. For the most part international law in 1922 (and probably in 1947) did not recognize it either. The concept of self-determination was nascent and not a norm of international law.

It seems unlikely that the Oaths denied the Jews the right to defend territory already granted to them by the sovereign. If one wanted to take over Israel when the Romans controlled it, he'd have to face the Roman army, not the people. The people simply had no legal existence as sovereigns and are not relevant to the discussion.

As a matter of law and Halacha, the sovereign was the League or the UN until 1948. Those bodies consented to Jewish sovereignty. The response by the inhabitants is conceptually no different than if 50 years later Brazilian citizens came to Israel and attacked. Once consent was granted, Israel could be created. The response of the natives was aggression and Halacha and international law recognizes the Jews right to respond in self-defense. In other words, we are dealing with two distinct time frames: 1) the sovereign (king in the parlance of the Maharsha) grants the Jews the right to build the state and 2) the inhabitants attack. The Oath was already suspended by the time the Arabs attacked and that attack is halachically irrelevant to mitigate the suspension.

Getting back to my earlier point, consent sufficed to allow Israel to capture a degree of land (up to the 1949 borders). Did that consent extend to the West Bank and Gaza? I doubt it. Although one can argue that the Mandate still applies today because no country has been (legally) sovereign in those areas since 1949, that argument ignores the ascent of the norm of self-determination as a bedrock principle in international law. The people who live there are relevant and certainly have NOT consented to Israel taking over the West Bank and Gaza.

It would seem therefore that the Oaths currently do apply in those areas since Israel lacks the consent of the sovereign (who are the people), and concurrently the obligation to conquer the land is suspended. However at the very least some of the land they controlled in 1949 was captured in accordance with the Ramban's position and Israel would be obligated to fight to retain it. How much of that land depends on what type of consent was obtained and over how much territory. The rest of the land Israel controls it can retain because the land is necessary to defend the country from its enemies even if an active fight for the land is prohibited. Israel can keep the land for instrumentalist reasons: as a corollary of the requirement to defend Jews from their enemies, which the Rambam brings down as a basis for a milchemet mitzvah.

I'd appreciate comments from both a halachic and legal perspective.

Friday, August 18, 2006

World Trade Center: A Movie Worth Seeing

A few night ago I went to see WTC. A harrowing movie on par with (although not as good as) United 93, the movie was the story of the last two rescue workers removed from the rubble. It featured the head of a Transit Authority unit and one of his patrolman who were about to enter Tower 2 before it collapsed, but never made it and instead were buried for almost a day.

The movie intersperses their plight with how their families react while they wait, and wait, and wait. I can't imagine what it must have been like to know they went into the towers and then not hear from them. Hope and faith were their only options.

My biggest quibble is that the stories of the these two men are limited in nature. We never saw any planes crash or even the buildings collapse (although we definitely heard them). We did hear constant crashes and explosions while they were about to go into the building, which was most likely people landing on Tower 5. But we never got to experience the complete package (the people jumping, the planes crashing, the people fleeing, the buildings collapsing, etc.). While we've all seen these scenes before, I'd love to have seen how the people at the time reacted to them.

There is also the story of a former marine who decides to just leave his accounting job, put on his uniform and head down to Ground Zero to save people. We meet another marine (who in a mistake that cannot be attributed to Stone was white in the movie but is black) who just happened to be there searching. We also meet a former medic who spent years in rehab, but that day just decided to do whatever he could to help. We have firemen begging to be allowed into the site to search, willing to bare the risks, simply because their friends were dying there.

These stories are the moral of the movie. The movie makes it clear: 9/11 showed us the evil man can perpetrate, but it also showed us the good. The selflessness, the altruism, and willingness to take risks for people they've never met, and in many cases when it wasn't even their duty to do so. That's the lesson we should take from movies like WTC.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Seems Like It's Over (For Now)

As of this morning, the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah ended. My thoughts:

1) The war was executed poorly, which is probably directly related to the fact neither Olmert or Peretz have any real military experience. Putting Peretz in charge of defense was probably the worst thing Olmert did when he took power. Coupled with Halutz's insistence to try air power (not surprising given his previous position as head of the air force) and the ground war was executed way too late. Israel had to know they'd only have a limited amount of time to execute their objectives and they waited way too long to go about them.

2) Only in the Arab world could a victory be the lack of total defeat. Going back to 73 when the Egyptians proclaimed victory because they weren't beaten in six days, it continued through the ntifada and until today Hizbollah when claimed a big victory. Come on, they spent the last month complaining how Israel was bombing them back to the stone age, and now they are claiming victory? How is the almost complete dessimation of the infrastructure of the southern part of your country consistent with victory?

Obviously Israel did win this war either. There is no way, given the current realities, that Israel could "defeat" Lebanon, but the objective was to destroy or seriously weaken Hizbollah. That didn't happen and hundreds of lives were lost and billions of shekels of damage was caused by the daily bombardment of Haifa and the north. Israel obviously came out on the better end in any objective metric, but the IDF needed to do more to ensure Hizbollah is no longer a great threat and that didn't happen.

3) I don't like Resolution 1701, but I basically agree with Barry Rubin that in theory it's not bad but won't be enforced because no one will dismantle or disarm Hizbollah. The whole hinges on which countries will constitute the new (and we hope improved) UNIFIL and whether those countries will do anything to stop the inevitable Hizbollah violations. If they can keep Hizbollah out of the south, that will minimize conflict and probably keep a very fragile ceasefire in place for a while. It's amazing that we can't get a resolution calling for someone relevant to disarm Hizbollah, but in practice who would carry that out? This whole situation sucks.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Question On Land For Peace

Maybe Chardal, Bluke and the other experts on Zionism issues can help me here.

I don't understand why the majority of the religious Zionist world opposes land for peace (ideologically). Let's assume for a moment that it's a virtual certainty that withdrawing from parts of the Judea and Shomron would lead to saving more lives than remaining in the territories. In other words the aggregate number of lives would be increased if Israel withdraws from land. Why can't Israel withdraw?

From what I understand the prohibition stems from "lo techanaim," which prohibits, among other things, giving non-Jews a stronghold in the land. Now I see no reason why pekuach nefesh would not trump this negative commandment, as it trumps every other positive or negative commandment save idolatry, murder and sexual promiscuity.

When I was in YU Rav Herschel Schacter used to propose a different ground. The Minchat Chinuch poses a question: why doesn't pekuach nefesh supersede the obligation to go to war? He answers that the nature of war is that lives are put at risk and therefore the obligation to go to war is greater than "v'cahi bahem." Therefore Rav Schacter argued that Israel must fight a war and assume causalities and can only cede land if they feel they won't win the war (in other words if the casualty rate is too high). That question is decided by the experts although regarding the disengagement question he argued that the decision should be made by believing Jews as a substitute for the Sanhedrin.

If I remember correctly, Chardal in the past argued that he'd only allow surrender of territory if the existence of the klal was at stake (like R' Yochanan). But what is the reasoning behind this position?

I think one could fairly argue that most of Israel's wars were in the category of milchemet mitzva. The Rambam lists the wars which fall under the category in Hilchot Melachim (5:1)
ואיזו היא מלחמת מצוה--זו מלחמת שבעה עממים, ומלחמת עמלק, ועזרת ישראל מצר שבא עליהם
Nowhere is there a mention of fighting a war to keep the land of Israel. In fact the Rambam does not even list the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisroel in his Sefer Hamitzvot (I know there are arguments to explain the seeming contradiction between his statements in Hilchot Melachim and his omission in the Sefer Hamizvot). The communal mitzvah to capture the land is well-supported by Ramban, but even if we construe that commandment into a support for a milchemet mitzvah, the Ramban himself requires consulting the Urim Vetumim prior to embarking on a milchemet mitzvah (he claims Yehushua was required to ask before capturing Eretz Yisroel). Since today we lack the Urim Vetumim, any war to capture the land would be prohibited.

However, it is clear that defending Israel from its enemies is a milchemet mitzvah that even the Ramban would not require permission from the Urim Vetumim. Rabbi J. David Bleich in the third volume of Contemporary Halachic Problems mentions that the Gemara in Eruvin 45a allows defending border towns in Israel even on Shabbos. He argues that since at the time of the Gemara, Israel had no access to the Urim Vetumim, clearly such a war could be undertaken without consulting it even according to the Ramban.

But even if the present wars fall in that category of milchemet mitzvah, those wars are not fought to defend land, but to save lives. If ceasing the war and ceding land would minimize causalities, wouldn't it be counterproductive to fight the war? The only reason we can fight the war is to save lives, but not fighting the war would save more lives. So how could we fight the war to protect the land?

Basically my question is if the only basis for a milchemet mitzvah is saving lives, and not fighting the war (and ceding land) would save lives, why would it be prohibited to give up land under the war rationale?

As Funny As It Gets

Check out this video. It features pretty much everything that could go wrong on a sportscast, right down to the substitute sportscaster.

This one is pretty funny too, even if you can't understand anything.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Take A Second And Think About It

I've seen people acting absentmindedly and then, well, I saw this. I was in the car with Shifra this past Sunday and we pulled up next to this girl driving her car. We were stopped at a red light, and she was drinking a Sprite.

I look over and noticed that she's shaking the Sprite. Not just mildly, but shaking it like an orange juice. I turn to Shifra sand say, "hey, she's shaking her Sprite." Shifra says, "well I guess she doesn't like the carbonation."

Next thing we see she opens the Sprite and it gushes out all over her. Unbelievable. I mean come on, what could she possibly be thinking?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Is That All There Is To It?

Yesterday I watched a kiruv video at Adereth El (one of the oldest shuls in the country). It was a good way to kill a few hours, although the lack of air conditioning made the fast a little less tolerable.

Now, normally I would have spent the entire video making fun of it, but I chose not to do so for two reasons: 1) Shifra hates that and 2) it was Tisha B'Av and I felt bad bashing a kiruv video on the day when ahavat chinum is supposed to be a theme. But there were some points where I just couldn't control myself.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for kiruv and think it's a good and important idea. It's just that the video made the people who became frum look stupid, ignorant, or childish.

One guy from Aish HaTorah spoke about how he used to have parties that were so crazy that the police used to send helicopters to break them up. Well obviously that sounds a little unlikely, but I'll let it go.

Long story short, the guy ends up in Israel and decides to show the Yeshiva guys that they're wrong. Being philosophically educated on the "street" he starts to debate them when one guy makes a striking point: if there's no G-d and everyone can make their own morality, then was Hitler wrong? Well the guy was sure Hitler was wrong and that got him started on a path to Orthodoxy.

It's great this guy is Orthodox, but come on, does that really work on normal people? Why can't Hitler be wrong and morality be entirely subjective? Or why can't morality be absolute and G-d not be its origin? There are so many other possibilities besides everyone is right or only G-d decides morality.

Another person was drawn in by the experience of seeing people pray fervently. They were genuine and that struck him. Are Orthodox Jews the only people who are genuine? Tom Cruise seems genuine. I'm pretty sure the Dali Lama is genuine. Most cult members are genuine. So why choose Orthodoxy?

Are people really drawn in by Discovery? Really? I mean people who aren't teenagers. Do these arguments work for most people?