Sunday, May 27, 2007

Daat Torah, Palmistry and Physiognomy

I don't typically read Frum Kiruv Maniac, but was recently referred to his blog. In his latest post, he cites, approvingly, an exchange by Rabbi Twersky about Daas Torah and science:

Q: I can't understand why a frum person should consult a psychologist. Doesn't the Torah have answers to all kinds of problems? Isn't consulting a psychologist demeaning to the Torah?

A: The Torah indeed has answers to all problems, both physical and psychological. The Zohar says that Hashem used the Torah as the blueprint for creating the world, so that everything in the world is contained in the Torah. Inasmuch as the Torah is the wisdom of Hashem, it is perfect and complete in every way.

The problem is that we do not know how to derive the information from the Torah. For example, the Shelah Hakadosh says that anyone who would fully understand the first passuk in perek 2 of Bereishis would know the entire science of physiognomy (knowing everything about a person by studying his face) and palmistry (being able to interpret the hand) But who can say he achieved such knowledge?

By the same token, the Torah has the solution to all physical diseases yet every posek will say that a person who has , for example, diabetes or pneumonia and does not consult a physician because he wants to find the answer in the Torah, is sinful in neglecting his health…

Of course gedolim have more access to the Torah's secrets than ordinary people. We know that there were instances where the Chazon Ish gave surgeons directions on how to operate.

What we know from the Torah cannot be compared even to the tip of the iceberg. Torah is infinite and we have access to such a small fragment of it. Consulting a psychologist is by no means demeaning to the Torah because many of the secrets of the Torah are beyond our reach.

The citation from the Shelah is troublesome to me. Once again, he said:

The problem is that we do not know how to derive the information from the Torah. For example, the Shelah Hakadosh says that anyone who would fully understand the first passuk in perek 2 of Bereishis would know the entire science of physiognomy (knowing everything about a person by studying his face) and palmistry (being able to interpret the hand) But who can say he achieved such knowledge?

That is, the Shelah said that if you understand Bereishit 2:1 entirely, you would know the entire science of physiognomy and palmistry. But, Rabbi Twersky continues (I assume), who can say he has achieved such knowledge.

Of course, physiognomy and palmistry are pseudo-sciences. Around the time of the Shelah, they were taught in universities -- until shortly before the Shelah was born. He was born in 1565, and
Henry VIII banned its teaching in 1531. Still, many believed in it as a scientific discipline:
Browne possessed several of the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta including his Of Celestial Physiognomy which argued that it was not the stars but the temperament which influences both man's facial appearance and character. In his book De humana physiognomia (1586) Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics.
Thus, contemporary to the Shelah, these were believed to be actual sciences, and it is safe to assume the Shelah did as well. This is what he means when he says that if someone understood Bereishit 2:1 fully
א וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-צְבָאָם. 1 And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
he would understand these sciences as well. Of course, the Shelah was a kabbalist, and perhaps related this chachmas hapartzuf to his kabbalah. I don't know.

Yet this is a perfect example about how imperfect scientific knowledge can lead to incorrect statements even in the field of Torah. One who fully understood this pasuk would not know all about the science of palmistry and physiognomy because these are pseudosciences, and the true Torah would not be encoding false information. And if physiognomy was a false scientific theory first developed in 5th century Athens, then even skeptics would not expect the Torah, written much earlier, to reflect this much-later false scientific theory.

Does Rabbi Twersky believe in palmistry and physiognomy? I don't know. It would be a good question to ask him. It is quite possible that he does not and was using the statement from the Shelah to advance his thesis, that all true scientific knowledge is encoded in the Torah, yet we do not know how to look -- and did not think about the implications, or considered such implications irrelevant.

Yet he holds that the Shelah was correct in making this statement. But if the Shelah was wrong about the specific subjects, the rest of the Shelah's statement rests on quite a shaky premise.

On the other hand, since subsequent mystical literature may make reference to these sciences (plus at least one fake midrash I know of about Pharaoh getting Moshe's face analyzed, a "midrash" which switches Moshe for Aristotle), he might believe in these pseudosciences on a mystical level, as a chareidi.


Baruch Horowitz said...

I believe that the Ramban in the preface to Bereishis mentions the Shelah's basic concept, which is a kabbalistic one, that all knowledge is alluded to in Torah, since it is transcendent, as is clear from chazal(I don't recall if physiognomy and palmistry are mentioned which are the subject of your post, but the main point is maaseh bereishis).

Perhaps the Shelah would say that the true disciplines are not the same as the physiognomy and palmistry which were later discredited, just as I think that distinction is made regarding magic.

Furthemore, I imagine that most( but not all), adherents of daas Torah would not side with Abraham ben Harambam et al regarding chazal's knowledge of science.

See my post "Daas Torah and Secular Knowledge: Towards a Minimalistic View"

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Thanks for linking. Why don't you read more often? :-)

Anyway, the fact that certain areas of knowledge don't have a rigorous methodology to them to be able to rate as a formal science doesn't mean it does not contain true insight about the world.

Many people rank psychology as a pseudo-science due to lack of rigor even though skilled practitioners do seem to employ some kind of wisdom to cure people of their various mental illnesses.

These pesudosciences seem to surround a common area of knowledge about the human personality. The Torah certainly has many deep insights into the human personality and that is probably what the Shelah was trying to get at.

Ari Kinsberg said...

i assume apologists for the shelah would argue that out mastery of palmistry and physiognomy is lacking and we have thus miscategotized them as pseudo-sciences

also, i'll bet if you poll frum jews you will find that belief in palmistry and physiognomy (or that mekubalim have access to them) is alive

in any case, this is one of the reasons i don't like bible codes. they find a scientific theorum embedded in the text and alas this proves the veracity of scripture. but what happens when that theorum is later rejected, or even just tweeked? doesn't this then weaken scripture?

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

For the record, this apologist for the Shelah scorns the bible codes as much as the next blogger. And for many other reasons than thie one cited above.

Martijn said...

Hello, I have been involved for over 10 years in research on several psychological aspects of palmistry. You can read more about the perspective and the many research results at: 10 Years Palmistry Research.


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