Monday, February 27, 2012

On Rabbenu Ephraim and Werewolves

A little while back, someone in the know told me an interesting story about one of the rabbis (Rabbi X) who was quite vocal in opposing Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books. I won't name names, though.

Apparently, in the yeshiva was found the sefer of Rabbenu Ephraim, and one of the bachurim picked up the sefer and was flipping through it, and he discovered the passage about werewolves, that Binyamin was a werewolf:
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him. (Rabbeinu Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29)
The bachur showed it around, and eventually showed it to Rabbi X, who read it in disbelief, and then instructed the bachur to show it to Rabbi Y, and then to take it out of the beis medrash. The explanation by a talmid is that Rabbi X has no patience for things which he feels are not Torah. And clearly, it is ridiculous to say that Binyamin was a werewolf, and this is not Torah but nonsense. As such, it has no place in the beis medrash.

Thus, before he tossed Rabbi Slifkin's books out of the beis medrash, he tossed Rabbenu Ephraim out of the beis medrash. There is a consistency there.

My reaction to this was that this is a literal interpretation of the expression "he is not from our beis medrash." Said e.g. about the Abarbanel, of about any Rishon who holds a hashkafic position not currently in vogue. Rabbenu Ephraim was one of the Baalei haTosafos, but once he said something that a present-day rosh yeshiva thought was (foolishly) incorrect, he no longer had a physical place in the beis midrash.

Another example of such kicking out of the beis medrash is this, that I saw online, and so am not able to authenticate:
I recently learned that NIRC does not have any Abudrahams because the Abudraham says that Yesahaya/Yechezkel/Yirmiyahu (one of those) made a mistake.
Apparently that was too much for NIRC, 
If Rabbenu Ephraim and the Avudraham don't stand a chance, then certainly Rabbi Slifkin didn't stand a chance, even though he was presenting Rishonim and Acharonim.

Now, I think it is most probable that Rabbenu Ephraim meant this bit about werewolves literally, because they believed in the actual literal existence of werewolves in his days. Werewolves were not ridiculous fantasy, and so it made perfect sense to explain a pasuk based on this. And so it was not making Torah into a mockery. And if done carefully and properly, it is not mocking one of the baalei haTosafot to note that Rabbenu Ephraim said this, but that we disagree with him. It is also possible that he made the statement metaphorically, though we should conclude this from text-internal evidence rather than a conviction that there must be a deeper meaning because otherwise Rabbenu Ephraim would be ridiculous.

Apparently, Rabbenu Ephraim and werewolves are being discussed again. In the most recent Seforim blog post by Marc Shapiro, he writes:
I had been planning to offer one further example, but I was shown to be wrong. Let me explain: A little while ago R. Natan Slifkin had a post on werewolves, citing R. Efraim ben Shimshon’s strange comments in this regard. See here.

Slifkin earlier had written about this in his Sacred Monsters. None of this was a revelation to me since I had earlier seen the material from R. Efraim in R. Yosef Aryeh Lorincz’ Pelaot Edotekha, vol. 2, pp. 136-137. Not surprisingly, Lorincz takes this all very seriously. Readers might recall that I mentioned Lorincz’ book hereI called attention to his discussion of whether it is permitted to eat the flesh and drink the blood of demons. After this post I had a correspondence with someone who wanted to know what I thought about what Lorincz had written. I told him although I don’t know what the halakhah is in this matter, I nevertheless promise to eat the first demon that Lorincz is able to capture. I further told him that I would even volunteer to shecht it. My correspondent wasn’t seeing the comedy in this, as he thought that this was a very serious issue, that someone whom we are told to respect for his Torah knowledge could actually, in the twenty-first century, be discussing such a matter as a real halakhic problem. He was also adamant that if such a book was published by someone who taught at a Modern Orthodox school, the principal should immediately fire the author. Further correspondence revealed that he also didn’t think that anyone who believed in demons should be allowed to teach at Modern Orthodox schools.

My response to him was that I don’t think we need to get all out of shape about demons. To begin with, and readers can correct me if I am wrong, I don’t think that most people in the American haredi world really believe in demons. Yes, I know they study the talmudic passages that refer to demons, and will mention them as the reason for washing one’s hand three times in the morning, but based on conversations I have had with people in the haredi world (admittedly, most of them from the intellectual elite), I don’t think that they take it seriously. (When I say they don't "believe" in demons, I mean real belief in the role of demons and how they affect humanity, as expressed in the Talmud and elsewhere.) It is almost like the emperor has no clothes, in that they don’t believe it but continue acting as if they do, afraid of what will happen if they are “outed”. (I have found a similar phenomenon with regard to Daas Torah. I have discussed this issue with many people in the haredi world, and have yet to find even one who accepts the version of Daas Torah advocated by so-called Haredi spokesmen and Yated Neeman.) But even if I am wrong in this, there are lots more important things to keep out of Modern Orthodox schools than an occasional reference to demons. How about the negative comments about non-Jews and even racist statements (sometimes under the guise of Torah) that children are exposed to in Modern Orthodox schools? How about rebbes telling the students that there is such a thing as spontaneous generation, which is akin to telling the students to sign up with Flat Earth society?

Getting back to werewolves, there is someone much better known than R. Efraim who refers to them, namely, Rashi. In his commentary to Job 5:23, Rashi explains that חית השדה means werewolf. (He offers the Old French, for which see Moshe Catane, Otzar ha-Loazim, no. 4208, and Joseph Greenberg, Otzar Loazei Rashi be-Tanakh, p. 211) He further adds that this is also the meaning of אדני השדה (See Kilayim 8:5). I have to admit that I was all set in this post to mention that Artscroll, which always cites Rashi’s interpretation, in this example chose to omit it. Without even examining the commentary, I was sure that Artscroll would choose to avoid mentioning anything about werewolves. Yet when I actually opened up the commentary, prepared by R. Moshe Eisemann, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he indeed tells the truth, and the whole truth, i.e.,, that Rashi was referring to a werewolf. I found something else in this volume that I didn’t expect. In an appendix he discusses whether the commentary attributed to Rashi was actually written by him. Unfortunately, Eisemann did not feel that he should inform the reader which academic sources he used in preparing this appendix.
And in a post titled Werewolf Redux, Rabbi Slifkin writes:
I received an e-mail recently from an educator who was extremely bothered by the fact that Rishonim believed in werewolves, asking this can be reconciled with our respecting them as authorities in halachah and theology. The answer is that it depends on how one is viewing them. It is true that learning of their beliefs in werewolves is incompatible with the non-rationalist view of their being superhuman characters with divinely-based knowledge. However, it is not at all incompatible with the rationalist view of their being great Torah scholars who lived at a pivotal time in history from the point of view of Judaism but were limited by the scientific knowledge of their era. I don't think that anyone loses respect for Thomas Jefferson's greatness as one of America's founding fathers, upon discovering that he believed that no species ever becomes extinct and therefore sent Lewis and Clark to find mammoths. As with his discussion of mermaids, Rashi's statement about werewolves reflects perfectly normative belief in medieval France. 
So people from all over the spectrum think that 'silly' beliefs by Rishonim would / should / could lead us to lose respect for them as authorities of halacha and theology. I disagree, and rationalists in general disagree. We can keep Rabbenu Ephraim in our beis medrash, even as we disagree with him. And we don't have to fire a rebbe, just because he is so chareidi that he believes in demons and wonders whether it is permitted to eat the flesh of / drink the blood of demons.

At the same time, this sort of belief, when found in modern poskim, might indicate something about the way that they view the world. As I wrote in a post a while back:
But psak arises not just from a great depth and breadth of Torah knowledge, but from a knowledge of the metzius as well. If a Torah great can be this misguided about the facts on the ground (and also be misguided as to believe that the geocentric model of the universe is correct), then are they the best to pasken on issues relating to Torah and science?

There are some who are dedicated to Torah UMaddah, and their intersection. But what of those who consider Torah UMaddah to be an incorrect path, and as a result are woefully ignorant of maddah? As Chaim B. wrote in a comment about weighing the merit of different interpretations,

Agree with you 100% that the issue should be judged on its merits - but the judge should be gedolei yisrael who are experts in the field. Would you be the judge of the best method of performing brain surgery because you took a science class? Would you risk your life by saying that the conclusions of the majority of brain surgeons who lived in the past 200 years is wrong because they are all biased by modern science and you are in a better position to draw an "objective" conclusion?
But how can they really judge this, when they likely would not recognize all the places that Chazal's statements diverge from science, and quite possibly are not familiar with all the relevant sources, not really caring that much about the intersection until it becomes a hot-button issue? And should someone who does care about the issue, and has studied the various shittos deeply, and does have a better sense of just where Chazal seem to contradict science, be mevatel his daas to those who don't consider science important and therefore are not necessarily in a better position to draw an objective conclusion?


Ezzie Goldish said...

Haven't even read the post in full yet, but worth noting: When I was in Beis Yisroel, there was a very popular Thu. night shiur given by a highly regarded member of the beis medrash. One of these shiurim was all about Binyomin being a werewolf. I'm certain that this yeshiva wasn't a fan of Slifkin later on.

S. said...

" I recently learned that NIRC does not have any Abudrahams because the Abudraham says that Yesahaya/Yechezkel/Yirmiyahu (one of those) made a mistake.
Apparently that was too much for NIRC, "

This is like a game of telephone. Only because I assume that the version of the rumor that's 10 years old is closer to the truth than one from a few months ago - the older version I hears is that it is Abarbanel. I don't remember if it's because he criticized the grammatical knowledge ability of the nevi'im or because he affirmed that David did sin. I'm told it isn't true though and that you can definitely find Abarnamel in the Otzar.

Although there are two disturbing Soloveitchik stories.

1. This is illustrated in a Chaim Potok novel, but is allegedly based on an actual incident which occurred in R. Y.B. Soloveitchik's class. In the novelization the protagonist is sparring with Rabbi Scharfman (i.e., Soloveitchik). Finally he says something that the rabbi doesn't like, and then he clarifies that the Meiri said it. The rabbi tells him that if the Meiri said it in his shiur he would throw him out.

1b. R. Soloveitchik purportedly did not consider Abarbanel a "baal mesorah," even though R. Yosef Karo considered him the "nesher hagadol" of his time.

2. R. Aharon Soloveitchik purportedly told his shiur that he would have placed R. Yitzchak Lampronti in cherem for suggesting that we ought to forbid killing lice on shabbos.

The charitable interpretation of these sorts of things is that they suggest a certain amount of independence, which is good. Don't we consider the willingness to disagree with earlier authorities essential to true intellectual honesty? On the other hand, did R. Yosef Ber actually think that the mesorah skipped over Spain and Italy? And did R. Aharon Soloveitchik actually think that in the 18th century he would have been of stature to put R. Yitzchak Lampronti in cherem rather than the reverse? I mean, no offense, but just compare the works of the two.

And on the third hand, I don't think threatening to throw people you don't agree with outside of anything suggests anything intellectual at all.

Yeedle said...

S., regarding your third hamd - a Cherem is issued by intellectuals and is supposed to protect the non-intellectual masses from the intellectual danger of anything. Thus, threatening people with cherem isn't intellectual but it's an intellectual who issues it.

NIRC alumnus said...

The thing about NIRC not having Avudraham in the beis midrash is false. I know because I attended NIRC quite recently and remember looking stuff up in it in the otzar. S. is probably right that it's a bad game of telephone with the original being that Abarbanel is in fact not on the shelves at NIRC. This is indeed true. Legend (in the form of hearsay from my rebbi at NIRC) says that R' Ruderman was reading it once and found a derogatory statement made by Abarbanel about the gemara's interpretation of a verse. After this, he had them taken off the shelf, since "it is not for a bachur to read". In this link ( it is claimed that the reason is Abarbanel's insistence that David committed adultery with Bathsheva. Perhaps. Thay do, however, have Abarbanel's commentary on Pirkei Avos ("Nachalas Avos") on the shelf there.

Navi said...

When I hear stories of 'Talmidei Chochamim' throwing Rishonim out the Beis Medresh I am reminded of the following...

I once heard in the name of a rather unknown very big Talmud Chocham (who apparently had a good sense of humor as well) from Eretz Yisrael,

"You know what it means 'Torah U'Gadulo b'makom echad'? A Gadol that can learn!"

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Waxman since when do you not name names?

joshwaxman said...

I don't, at times.

In this instance, it would be betraying the trust of the person who told me the story. Also, this was not a public position taken by Rabbi X. Though he would likely stand firm in his position, telling it does not seem to serve a positive toeles.

Jr said...

I also heard this about abravanel.

Futhermore, if the avudraham, in fact, said such a thing, we would of heard about it by now. Someone would have dug it up and spread it.

zach said...

I just read the comments on that old post on, and found this one comment very telling (my bolding): "...if someone today gets up and espouses those positions as standard belief, that person is considered to be violating 'the halacha of hashkafa'".

This has become a core idea these days: can one pasken haskafah? Many in the chareidi world would quickly say yes, while those on the more modern side (e.g. Menachem Kellner, Marc Shapiro, and Rabbi Slifkin) would respond in the negative.

Herman Segal said...

Interesting comments; let me throw in my 2 cents; 1. I learned in NIRC in the early 70's, and was realitively close to Horav Ruderman (I was one of the few students from NY who was fluent in Yiddish). It makes perfect sense to me to take a Sefer off the shelves (while still making it available to serious students in the Otzar) which might confuse the younger bochurim (try to explain to an 18 year old coming from a day school in Dayton OH or similar, that Duvid Hamelech had Bechireh taken away from him as regards Bat Shevah) is not such a bad idea.

2. The concept of Meshuneh Habriya, that over time things change, is used liberally, to get out of conflicts between our knowledge of science today & what we find written in the Gemorreh or Rishoinim (even though the Rambam's son clearly says that the chachomim were not infallible regarding science). Of course it can't be used too liberally because that will confuse some into thinking that evolution might be real (although I never understood why accepting that there could be changes within a species means that man could have evolved from apes!). So perhaps bWerewolves may have existed & become extinct like the wooly mammoth, or perhaps they were around when sheidim were prevalent and are no longer.

3. Additionally, Yehudah could have been preying on Pharoh's (whom he believed he was addressing) superstitions and fabricated the whole werewolf thing to explain why Binyomin can't leave his father.


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