Secular know-how helps determine Jewish law

At the 20th annual conference on Torah U’mada, experts delve into halachic issues made clearer by secular know-how.

Ancient Hebrew carvings (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ancient Hebrew carvings
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Scientific knowledge is critical in determining many issues of Jewish law, and the splendor of nature and order of the human body can suggest Divine creation. In addition, medicine, architecture, chemistry, biology, physics and other fields can enhance the understanding of many subjects of Jewish interest and related to Halacha, or Jewish law. Thus it’s quite incredible that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical and educational establishment leaves the sciences and all-but-elementary mathematics out of haredi school curricula.
There’s a stark contrast with centrist or modern Orthodoxy, exemplified by New York’s Yeshiva University and its small campus in Israel, whose motto and philosophy is Torah U’mada – Jewish religious knowledge and secular knowledge. For the 20th year, YU in Israel, the Jerusalem College of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan recently sponsored an all-day Torah U’mada conference.
Attended by over 100 men and a smattering of women (in mixed seating), the conference ranged from the discovery of color in the panel of the spoils of the Second Temple in Jerusalem depicted in Rome’s Arch of Titus to whether a featherless chicken is kosher and if killing head lice on Shabbat is permitted.
Prof. Daniel Sperber, a Talmud scholar at Bar-Ilan, said there are various fields that a rabbinical arbiter needs access to for him to rule on Halacha. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon, a 9thcentury, Egyptian-born Talmudic scholar and philosopher who moved to the land of Israel, “was already aware of the fact that a rabbinical arbiter has to consult with experts.”
Of course, halachic issues that deal with medicine require rabbis to consult with experts in the field. “An arbiter doesn’t have to know everything,” said Sperber, “but he has to know whom to ask. He must know how to word the questions and then find the right address. This is not simple if the arbiter does not have secular knowledge. Yet is it difficult to understand everything by yourself. Today, there are huge numbers of sources of information, but through the generations, rabbis knew experts in various fields. We have to have enough guts to search for the truth.”
YU Prof. Steven Fine, an art historian and expert on Jewish life in Greco-Roman times, began with his report on an international team of scholars led by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies to Rome some nine months ago. The focus of attention was the Menorah panel and basrelief and the deification of Emperor Titus.
The objects all appear to be whitish/beige.
The YU delegation, assisted by experts from Rome’s office of antiquities, spent nights performing high-resolution, threedimensional scans of the panel to determine whether any traces of paint or dye were preserved.
Without even touching the stone (due to the use of UV-VIS spectrometry), they found traces of yellow ochre on the arms of the people depicted in the relief and on the base of the Menorah, Fine reported for the first time in Israel.
“We detected dyes under the surface by using the spectrometer and producing white light for milliseconds without touching the object. We don’t know all the colors that existed, but we know it was not black and white. This also suggests the possibility that the Second Temple itself was built with colored stones and not just white and gold,” Fine added.
This discovery thus suggests that many other ancient stone reliefs also originally were created with polychromy and could lead to a full-color restoration of the panel on the Arch of Titus.
The YU professor also insisted that the curved arms of the Menorah show that this was the shape in the Temple and not the sharp, bent edges used today by the Chabad/Lubavitch movement.
RABBI OHAD Fixler, who is also an electronics engineer working on radar systems at Elta Systems, discussed the possibility of blind people being able to “see” using the gift of the bat, echolocation.
“Perhaps, people will be able to see sounds and hear text,” he said, adding that such technology could have an effect on performance of mitzvot by vision-impaired Jews.
Bats, he explained, can’t see at all and function in the dark. The airborne, big-eared mammals constantly emit clicks, which reflect off of objects around them. The resulting pressure waves return to the bat’s ears and brain, which instantly processes information, producing a 3-D image and giving it an estimate of distances and angles and an accurate picture of its surroundings. The same technology is used by dolphins and submarines.
“Bats,” he said, “can intercept spiders and moths, catch fish and identify bodies of water using this ‘Doppler-like effect.’ Bats knew what man learned much later – how to identify helicopters,” Fixler said. Bats can also use camouflage to look like their surroundings.
“There’s an electronic war at night, with bats creating pulses that moths try to interfere with so they can’t be found.”
Human senses can be exchanged, he said.
“A blind person is bound to perform certain commandments, but no others,” Fixler continued.
“So can a bar mitzva boy read the Torah by reading Braille? It’s no problem to recite a blessing from memory, but Braille is also like memory. With his sense of touch, there is no problem. He can be called up the Torah.”
Another exchange of senses is sign language.
Rabbis argue over this question. One, named Shaul Inbari, who is paraplegic and sensitive to questions regarding disability, insists that “sign language is like any other language. I don’t know Chinese, but it is a language, and others understand,” said Fixler.
“A Chinaman can express his feelings and thoughts as in any language.”
But others maintain that sign language is not the holy Hebrew tongue, and that to meet halachic obligations, another person should accompany him in the synagogue, Fixler said, “while other other rabbis say one can not do this mitzva with sign language.”
There are other rabbinical disagreements on whether sign language can be used to give testimony in a rabbinical court or in a conversion ceremony.
DR. ARI Shaffer, who develops new varieties of vegetables at the Agricultural Research Organization- Volcani Institute, raised the question of what vegetables must be consumed at the Passover Seder to fulfill the commandment of eating maror.
“It has to be a bitter vegetable that as a plant releases resin,” he said. “Some people, especially in America, use iceberg lettuce, but it was developed in the US during the past two centuries and it is sweet.”
Wild lettuce, known as serriola, grows quickly and today is less bitter.
“I always wanted to develop a lettuce variety to be used especially for Passover that is more bitter,” he said with a smile.
Some types of lettuce are sweet when the leaves are young but become more bitter as the plant grows. Some Jews use chicory while others use horseradish. Different types of vegetables are grown and eaten on Passover in various parts of the world due to different climates and different ages.
“There are countries too cold at the time of Passover to eat vegetables traditionally used as maror,” said Shaffer. Eating the required amount of very bitter vegetables could be unpleasant and even dangerous to health, he said.
RABBI YISRAEL Meir Levinger of Basel, Switzerland, spoke at a separate session on the exact sciences.
“I have studied birds and tradition. There are chickens born without feathers and in a variety of colors that appeared as a recessive mutation in California about six decades ago. Because of the mutation, they didn’t produce the enzyme that makes feathers.
If birds with the same characteristics are crossed, out of four will hatch without feathers.”
These “naked chickens” would have several benefits if they were ruled kosher, Levinger continued; it would be easier to slaughter then by quickly severing the neck.
In addition, the chicken hutches would not have constantly to be cooled with water sprinklers in summer, as they don’t get very hot without their feathers. They also eat more and get fatter is they are not overheated, he said.
The Swiss rabbi declared that featherless chickens are chickens and thus are kosher.
RABBI ILAI Ofran of Kvutzat Yavne discussed the problems involved in breakdowns of milking equipment on Shabbat. Failing to milk cows on Shabbat causes the animals terrible suffering, he explained. If one machine broke down, it would not be a big problem, but if a whole section stopped functioning, it would pose a major halachic problem.
“A technician could punch a keyboard and fix it, but is that permitted?” he asked.
“Medicine, agriculture and security can always cause problems on Shabbat.”
A non-Jew could always repair the system on the day of rest, but “we can’t base all these fields for Shabbat on non-Jews.
Solutions have to be found.”
He noted that proscriptions by the Torah are more serious if there is a need to violate them – except to save a human life – than if the proscriptions were set by early senior rabbis. Among the possible solutions are delay mechanisms, but “we can’t exaggerate such use, and they can’t be utilized except in very unusual circumstances.”
Rabbi Mordechai Kislev got into a long and complicated discussion of types of live worms that can be considered kosher and thus permissible for consumption. Worms that grow on the ground or on plants cannot be eaten, he said, but there are tiny ones that grow in meat, fish, cheese (Piophila casei) or under the peel of peas, for example, that are permitted. But rabbinical experts must know enough about botany and related subjects to be able to identify them. An untrained rabbinical kashrut supervisor could lack the knowledge to rule on these issues, Kislev said.
Finally, an itchy subject was whether one could squash and finish off annoying head lice on Shabbat. Usually, it is forbidden to kill any living thing on the Sabbath. Head lice were a major issue through the ages, apparently being a very annoying pest.
Rabbi Hillel Mertzbach of Yad Binyamin said that some famed rabbis allowed killing the parasites on Shabbat while others forbade it. The Rambam (Maimonides), for example, thought 800 years ago that lice were created spontaneously by the body in sweat. Even Aristotle thought so. Rabbi Yosef Caro of Safed also believed this was true.
Today, it is known that lice reproduce and lay eggs and are not created spontaneously.
Rabbis of later centuries who urged accepting the Rambam’s ruling either said that forbidding what the great sage allowed dishonored him, while others argued that the head lice in the Middle Ages must have been different.
In the 17th century, an Italian doctor discovered that leaving meat in the open resulted in the laying of eggs in it by bugs in the air, while no such creatures developed in meat sealed in containers. So bugs are not produced spontaneously, he found, and no organism is created in sweat.
“There was a conflict between Halacha and science,” Mertzbach concluded. So people with a louse problem should decide which side they are on.