Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rav Ovadia Seforno and the balance of opposites

Note: I am trying a gentler approach to my critiques. I am trying to first praise for what is good and then suggest areas for improvement.

I read through the Chazaq parsha package this Shabbos and came across an interesting devar Torah from Rabbi Bentzion Shafier. You can read it here in the Shmuz.

Rabbi Shafier encounters a Seforno which is difficult to reconcile with modern science. And -- kudos! -- he asks the question! Others would have just accepted it without question. He could have done better in his approach. His assumption appears to be that Seforno must be correct. (After all, Seforno is a late Rishon.) And if so, we must look to modern science to justify the Seforno's position. And then, when finding something which can be kvetched to support Seforno's idea, we accept this as Seforno's meaning. Finally, we marvel at how Seforno was 500 years ahead of his time -- a sure sign of ruach hakodesh -- and draw important life lessons of how to conduct ourselves.

Drawing inspirational life lessons from the words of great Biblical commentators is nice. And it is also nice that people walk away with great respect for Torah and its interpreters. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that people walk away with a flawed understanding of what Rav Ovadia Seforno actually meant. I think that Seforno would have preferred that we understand his actual meaning, even if we ultimately disagreed with him.

Rav Ovadia Seforno was a physician. He was born in 1475 and died in 1550. If he is bringing science to bear on a question, it makes sense that he would be using the science of his day. Let us see the pasuk and comment in question.

 ספר במדבר פרק כה
יא) פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן השיב את חמתי מעל בני ישראל בקנאו 
 :את קנאתי בתוכם ולא כליתי את בני ישראל בקנאתי
 :יב) לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את בריתי שלום
 ספורנו עה"ת ספר במדבר פרק כה פסוק יב
יב) את בריתי שלום. ממלאך המות, כענין עושה שלום במרומיו כי אמנם 
ההפסד לא יקרה אלא בסבת התנגדות ההפכים. וזה אמנם נתקיים בפינחס 
שהאריך ימים הרבה מאד מכל שאר אנשי דורו, עד שהיה הוא משמש במשכן 
שילה בזמן פלגש בגבעה, שהיה בלי ספק אחרי מות יהושע ושאר הזקנים 
אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע וכל שכן אם היה בזמן יפתח שכתב למלך בני 
עמון בשבת בני ישראל בחשבון ובבנותיה כו' שלש מאות שנה וכבר סיפרו ז"ל 
שפינחס לא רצה ללכת אז אל יפתח להתיר נדרו. וכל שכן לדברי האומר 
 אליהו זה פנחס, והוא עדין חי וקיים

Rabbi Shafier explains:
Pinchas was zealous in defending the honor of HASHEM; therefore, he
was granted a Bris of Shalom. The Siforno explains that because of
this covenant of peace, Pinchas lived to an extraordinary age -- far
longer than was expected in his times. However, the Siforno points out,
the reason for his longevity wasn’t supernatural, but rather because he
was granted this Bris. Since he was given Shalom, he was at peace with
himself, and as a result, he didn’t suffer the normal internal conflict
that causes damage to our bodies. He therefore lived to an extremely
old age.

The Siforno explains: all degeneration happens to the body because of
conflict of the opposites
. In other words, all disease, infirmity, and
weakening with age, only occurs because of internal conflicts. Since
Pinchas was granted peace, he had no internal battles; therefore, his
body didn’t age, and so he lived hundreds of years. 
The way he explains the degeneration because of conflict of opposites, it seems like this is a psychological conflict, "internal conflicts", "internal battles", which Pinchas lacked because he now was granted peace.

However, to understand Seforno, we must understand the science of his day. This was the theory of humours. Here is a good summary of the theory:

Based on the theory that natural matter comprised four basic elements, the Greek philosophers came up with the idea that the human body consisted of the four humours, which had to be kept in balance. This theory survived until after AD 1700.
Then, derived from his study of mathematics, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras came up with the idea of the balance of opposites. This gave Greek doctors their idea of the underlying cause of disease. We can read about this in the 70 books ascribed to the Greek doctor Hippocrates, who thought that disease occurred when the humours of the body fell out of balance.
So, when Seforno says כי אמנם ההפסד לא יקרה אלא בסבת התנגדות ההפכים, all degeneration happens to the body because of conflict of the opposites, he is speaking as a medieval physician, and the opposites are the opposing humours in the body. Part of this gift of shalom was that these opposites were in balance, and so Pinchas was immune to disease.

That is a true explanation of Seforno. It is emes, which is a great virtue. By knowing a bit about the science of the day, we can get to the bottom of what Seforno meant. However, if we don't study the history of science, and cannot entertain the possibility that Seforno could be basing himself on faulty science, then we end up with a flawed understanding of Seforno's intent. Such as, e.g., that he was speaking from psychological perspective, and that he intuitively, or via ruach hakodesh, knew all of modern science.

Let us see how this plays out. Rabbi Shafier continues:
The body was made to last only so long… 
The difficulty with this understanding of the Siforno is that it negates
our basic understanding of health. The reality is that humans age. The
heart, the liver, the pancreas were designed to function only for a given
length of time, and then they break down. Infirmities and weakness
come naturally with old age; arthritis, high blood pressure, and the
thickening of the arteries are a part of life. While the heart may be a
remarkable living pump, the valves start to weaken with time, the
muscle tissue begins to break down, and the health of the heart
deteriorates with age. The body was made to last only so long; then it
just wears out. 
The Chazaq sheet (but not the Shmuz) then ends with this question:
So how can the Sifrno [sic] argue with our accepted understanding by stating "All deterioration happens to the body because of conflict of the opposites.[sic]"
The answer to this question, from our perspective is straightforward. Of course the Seforno can argue with our accepted understanding. Seforno is based on Aristotelian science. Our accepted understanding is based on modern science. There are a great many differences between the two. And Rishonim have often based themselves on Galenic or Aristotelian science.

Rabbi Shafier offers the following answer, based on modern science:
Mind / body relationship 
The answer to this question is based on 20th century medical findings.
Herbert Benson, MD, PHD, was professor of medicine in Harvard
University in the 1960’s when he stumbled upon an unusual
phenomenon. He found that when a patient’s blood pressure was taken
in his office, invariably it was higher than then when taken at home.
His patients would regularly report blood pressure levels significantly
lower than what was found in his office.

After careful study, he concluded that anxiety contributes to high blood
pressure. Being examined by a doctor was causing his patients to be
nervous, and that was contributing to the rise in their blood pressure.

While it may seem obvious to us today, at the time it wasn’t clear at all
that there was a correlation between stress and high blood pressure. For
decades, it was assumed that a person’s mental condition
had no affect on his physical condition. Any reported affects of stress
and anxiety on health were taken as psychosomatic or imagined.

His discovery led him to firmly establish the correlation between stress
and high blood pressure, and he became a pioneer in a new field of
medicine: the relationship between mind and body. Since those times,
it has now become accepted in the medical community that stress causes
a marked deterioration to a person’s health. Stress can bring about heart
disease, gastrointestinal disorders, pain, insomnia, asthma, allergies…
It is now accepted medical opinion that along with diet and exercise, the
lowering of stress levels is a major contributor to a person’s overall
This answer unfortunately takes us further in the wrong direction. It continues in the incorrect assumption that Seforno's conflict of opposites" is mental and psychological. And it finds some relatively recent discovery. I don't know that Herbert Benson was the first to come up with the idea that emotional state can have an effect on physical health, and that the idea did not exist at all prior to the 1960's. However, let us grant that, for the sake of argument. It is still the case that according to modern science, absence of mental stress will not ensure a lifespan of hundreds of years, which is what Seforno is speaking about. See Seforno's words! Does all degeneration happen as a result of mental stress? Scientists in the 20th century will tell you that there is still the effect of aging, of physical stresses to the body from daily living, the effect of diet, and attacks by microbes. A really mellow person will still not live forever, or for hundreds of years!

Rabbi Shafier continues:
This is something that the Siforno taught us over 500 years ago. What
he was saying was the Pinchas naturally lived for hundreds of years
because the normal cause of deteriorating health didn’t apply to him. He
wasn’t in conflict; he was at peace with himself, and as such, his body
was healthier and able to live to a remarkably advanced age
Here we are supposed to be awed at Seforno's knowledge of present science. 500 years ago, he already knew this. And scientists are just catching up!

It is more likely that, rather than the kvetch that doesn't actually resolve the problem, Seforno was basing himself on what was known 500 years ago.

The rest of the Shmuz is how to apply this deep lesson to our own lives. Thus:
The ultimate cause of distress – the voice inside 
This concept has major ramifications in our lives. When HASHEM
created man, He implanted into each of us an inner sense of right and
wrong, a Voice Inside that allows us to know the correct course of
behavior for each situation. More than simply a moral compass, this
Voice Inside acts as our guide to self-perfection.

When a person listens to that voice, he lives a fulfilling, meaningful life
-- as his Creator intended -- and he is at peace with himself. If he
chooses to ignore that voice, not only doesn't he grow to the heights for
which he was destined, he lives in
And so on.

OK, so I disagree with the Shmuz as far as methodology and conclusions go. But should we be so harsh? Here I explain why it is not such a big deal.

What is the purpose of a Shmuz? Is it Talmud Torah? Is it deep study of Biblical commentators in order to understand their intent and perhaps the meaning of the Biblical text?

Or, is the purpose to inspire? If so, getting to the true meaning of Seforno's words may not be as important.  Consider that this might be what happens in a lot of midrash: rather than considering the pasuk as text, the midrashist treats it as pretext, a means of getting a specific homiletic message across while tying it to the Torah text.  And so the highlighted textual difficulty need not be truly as difficult as presented.  It is a specific genre of midrash.  So too here, a Shmuz is a specific genre of dvar Torah, and so perhaps we need not be so insistent that Seforno be understood correctly.

Still, this was a missed opportunity to teach how to understand Chazal,  Rishonim,  and Acharonim -- on their own terms,  based on the science of their day.  And a missed opportunity to promote Torah Umaddah -- since Seforno thought to explain pesukim based on science,  something which is only entirely evident when the science is wrong.  (Otherwise people attribute it to ruach hakodesh, as seems to be the case here in this Shmuz;  or else drawn from the text itself,  with science learned from pesukim,  as perhaps is being suggested here. ) And of course, it is better to draw inspiration from interpretations of pesukim and meforshim when the interpretation is actually true...

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin