Friday, December 02, 2011

Shadal repents of his skepticism of ancient science

Summary: And asserts that the koach hadimyon actually did work to cause the birth of spotted and speckled sheep. Still, he offers a peshat for those who disbelieve in that scientific belief. I offer a multivalent compromise, and consider how one can kvetch almost any scientific theory into the Biblical text (Dr. Feliks' theory as one example).

Post: Consider the following interesting comment by Shadal on this week's parsha, Vayeitzei.

"By power of the imagination, just as it is well known that the imaginative faculties work for females and causes them to give birth to that which is imprinted forcefully upon their imagination. And see Bourdach in his work Physiologie (Leipzig, 1837), who brings many cases which were in this generation, which prove conclusively that the imaginative force works upon the fetus, not only at the time of conception, but also before the conception.

And know that in the year 1727 a certain physician arose, Blondel was his name, and he printed in London a work in the English language, in which he waged war against this well known belief in the matter of the ability of the imaginative faculties to work this way within pregnant women upon the children within them. And he, in his book, was aroused to explain the story of the sticks of Yaakov. And he said that Yaakov did not wish, with this strategem of his, that the sheep via the sight of the sticks would give birth in accordance with the appearance of the sticks. Rather, his intent was that when those sticks would be in sight of the sheep at the time that they went into heat, and their souls {/desire} would attach to things similar, and when they went to pair with a male, they would attach to those males whose appearance was similar to the appearance of the sticks. (See an parallel to this in Sanhedrin 63b:
What is meant by, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves?16  — R. Isaac, of the school of R. Ammi said: Whenever the idols' priests became envious of any wealthy men, they starved the calves [which were worshipped], made images of these men, and placed them at the side of the cribs. Then they loosed the calves, who recognising these men [from the images set before them] ran after them and pawed them. Thereupon the priests said, 'The idol desires thee; come and sacrifice thyself to them.17  Raba said, If so, the verse should not be, They sacrifice men and kiss the calves, but, 'The calves kiss them [i.e., paw, and fawn upon them] that they should sacrifice themselves'. But Raba explained it thus: If one sacrificed his son to the idol, the priest said to him: You have offered a most precious gift to it; come and kiss it.

And based on this, they gave birth to spotted and patched calves, for these which were born were similar to their fathers. And the aforementioned doctor brought a proof to his words from that which is written (31:10) "And it came to pass at the time that the flock conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the he-goats which leaped upon the flock were streaked, speckled, and grizzled." [And two pesukim later:] "And he said: Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are streaked, speckled, and grizzled..." Thus, it is explicit that it was not the power of the imagination which was the cause, but rather the appearance of the fathers which was the cause.

And there is a support to this also from the words of Raza"l in Bereishit Rabba (which Rashi brings), 'and the male slept with it and it gave birth to that which was like it', meaning, 'like it was in the male', and not like it was in the sticks.

{Josh: To interject, this seems like quite a stretch in Midrash Rabba. The midrash states:
ויקח לו יעקב מקל לבנה לח ולוז וערמון
חוטר חיור דלוז ודדליף, כך היה אבינו יעקב נותן את המקלות בשקתות המים, והיתה בהמה באה לשתות ורואה את המקלות ונרתעת לאחוריה, והזכר רובעה, והיתה יולדת כיוצא בו. 
which has the females recoiling at the sigt, at which point the males take action. That does not imply, to me, any selection on the part of the females.

And according to the position of the aforementioned doctor, one needs to say that that which was written "and he placed a distance of three days...", Lavan did not do immediately, but rather he divided off the spotted and speckled and took them from Yaakov and gave them into the hands of his sons. And after a time, when he saw that the flocks of Yaakov were mixing with them and giving birth to what was like them, then, he distanced them from him a three-day journey/

And I have related all this because I, too, believed this for many years, and perhaps there are many others in the words who do not believe in the power of the imagination, and this explanation will be for them as a  pleasure.

And I, after I have read a bit from the matters of magnetismus, and saw the testimony of wise men of many nations, Germans, French, and Italians, I turned to believe in many things which the early ones have related to out, and whose possibility I had deemed unlikely since their cause was not understood to us."

Shadal was likely referring to The power of the mother's imagination over the foetus examin'd, by James Augustus Blondel, as a reply Dr. Daniel Turner.

  1. It started in Dr. Turner's work, De morbis cutaneis: a treatise of diseases incident to the skin in two parts with a short appendix concerning the efficacy of local remedies, available on Google books here. In the 12th chapter of the first part of the book (starting in the chapter here), he first "proves" impact of the imagination on fetuses. 
  2. Blondel attacked the idea in The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin'D: And the Opinion that Marks and Deformities in Children Arise from Thence..., listed but not available for preview here
  3. Turner responded in another book (listed but not available here): A defence of the XIIth chapter of the first part of a treatise, De morbis cutaneis: by way of answer to a discourse lately printed and entitled, The strength of imagination in pregnant women
  4. And then Blondel responded with The power of the mother's imagination over the foetus examin'd, available in full here.
  5. And Turner's reply in turn, in favor of the impact of imaginative faculties over the fetus is also available on Google books, hereThe force of the mother's imagination upon her foetus in utero, still farther considered

It is item #4 that has a discussion of Yaakov and the various pesukim about the spotted sheep.

While Shadal is ultimately incorrect as to the impact of the imaginative faculties -- as well as about magnetism, I think we can make two points.

First, note that though he rejects Blondel's scientific belief, Shadal still presents the idea and how to work out the pesukim:
And I have related all this because I, too, believed this for many years, and perhaps there are many others in the words who do not believe in the power of the imagination, and this explanation will be for them as a  pleasure.
I am reminded of Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch, and and Rabbi Natan Slifkin, on resolving evolution with the Torah:
That is just one of the many reasons why I will not debate evolution with evolution-deniers. It doesn't make a difference if Natan Slifkin can prove or even believes in evolution. I don't care if evolution is a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. That's exactly what Rav Hirsch thought of it, and that's more or less what it was in his day. But he still realized that it was essential to point out that it does not conflict with Judaism. Over a century later, when evolution has gained complete acceptance by the scientific world, this is all the more essential.
Second, Shadal was influenced here by what he believed to be medically established fact. Just, the science of his day was still getting its bearing. We know that the incontrovertible testimony Shadal mentioned is in fact explainable.

What are we to make, now, of peshat in the pesukim? Should we wholeheartedly accept Blondel's reading of the pesukim? Or should we stick with Chazal and Shadal? Or, should we advance some other theory? For instance, something about recessive and dominant genes, from Mendelian genetics. (Gregor Mendel was a contemporary of Shadal, but the experiment's results would likely not have been available to Shadal, since they were conducted towards the end of Shadal's life.)

IMHO, a dedicated parshan can squeeze almost any peshat into the pesukim. We should perhaps seek out that peshat which makes more sense, and is most compelling as peshat, rather that first selecting the scientific theory we like and demonstrating that that is what the Torah meant.

I think that the most straightforward reading of the Torah text is that Yaakov believed that the particulars of the striping on sticks would cause the patterns on the sheep. This impact of the imaginative faculties was believes in ancient times and was believed by Chazal. It certainly could have been believed by Yaakov Avinu.

Does this then mean that the Torah advances an incorrect scientific belief, and that the Biblical narrative depends on this false scientific belief? That certainly is one possible conclusion. 

Another conclusion could be somewhat multivalent. Recall that Yaakov's dream indicates some Divine influence on the outcome of the sheep patterns. We could say that Yaakov did his hishtadlus, in accordance with the beliefs of his time; and then, Hashem helped things along, in determining which seed was selected.

I see the following article by Aliza Fireman at YUTorah. In the article, she presents an interesting theory of Dr. Yehuda Feliks, that Yaakov Avinu knew modern genetics, before Gregor Mendel did. Thus:

A rather clever way of fitting modern science into the Biblical narrative. And some may take from this an inspiring kiruv take-away. Look, "Yaakov Avinu understood and utilized the laws of heredity long before Gregor Mendel performed experiments with garden pea plants." So everything is in the Torah, and every scientific discovery was already known back then.

But I don't think that this is really peshat in the pesukim. Rather, this is yet another example of reinterpreting the text to fit the science.


Y. said...

I will be posting about your pshat tomorrow morning at You did a really nice job tracking down Shadal's references! Thanks!

(I also linked this post here )

Akiva said...

There's a part of the parsha that's ignored by the commentaries. We have the rods "in the water" (not by the water or in front of the water) and a specific mention of the females going into heat early - the ones that Yaakov wanted to breed.

Sheep-101 tells us "Most ewe lambs reach puberty between 5 and 12 months of age. Ewe lambs will tend to reach puberty their first fall. For this reason, spring-born ewe lambs tend to exhibit puberty earlier than fall-born ewe lambs. Lambs born early in the season reach puberty earlier than those born late in the season, due to their increased age and body weight." The average gestation length in sheep varies from 142 to 152 days

If you get your sheep pregnant in early spring, they give birth in early winter and you've got another set of newly matured ewes ready for the next spring. If they don't get pregnant till fall, they don't give birth till spring and may not be old enough to breed that year.

By getting them to "go into heat" early, you get a new lamb 1 year earlier. YOUR flocks come out 50% larger over time.


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