‘Modern Science Is Discovering What The Torah Said Thousands Of Years Ago’: An Interview with Rabbi Yosef Bitton
You cite an interesting mashal by the Rambam about the limits of human knowledge in your book. Can you give a shortened version?
I adapted the Rambam’s mashal for the modern reader. I said: Imagine if robot-like scientists from a different planet would come to Earth, kidnap a three-year-old boy, and study him for two months to learn about the human species. They would see him grow one inch and, working their way backwards, would conclude that he was originally only one inch tall or less.
From studying this boy for two months, they would never be able to deduce the processes of pregnancy and birth. Why? Because they never saw a woman, and all the laws of pregnancy contradict what they know about biology. This boy, after all, has to eat and breathe, and so they would never be able to conceive – or even imagine – that this boy was in somebody else’s body with no air, food, or water.
Similarly, we have to understand that information about creation might not only be beyond our knowledge, but also beyond our imagination.
You quote a British philosopher who compares human knowledge of electrons to that of monkeys and concludes that not only will monkeys “never be able to understand an electron the way we do,” but they are “cognitively closed to it.”
Yes, there are limits to our epistemological capabilities.
You often quote the Sephardic sage Menashe ben Yisrael in your book, the man who was largely responsible for the return of Jews to England in the mid-1600s. Why?
Many reasons. First of all, because I happen to love his style. Second, because I’m trying to do a kind of techiyat hameisim with him and other unknown writers. His book was translated into English in the 19th century by E. H. Lindo, so I used it in the hope that this book and others like it will become better known to the general public.
On your website, you post mini biographies of various Sephardic rabbis. Why?
Because I think Sephardic rabbis are unfortunately unknown to mainstream Judaism, and they have a lot to say. In my opinion, they represent a model of integration between erudition in Torah and general knowledge. They never saw a contradiction between the two, so I think they are a model that is very necessary today to inspire other Jews to follow Torah 100 percent without feeling antagonized from the modern world.
One of these biographies is of Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan who, you write, was the first rabbi to institute a bas mitzvah ceremony in the Sephardic world (and possibly even in the Ashkenazic world).
Yes, this was in the beginning of the 20th century in Alexandria, Egypt. He saw that there was a need for it due to the strong European influence in Alexandria. So Rabbi Hazan designed a ceremony and preparatory course in which the girls would learn more about Judaism. [The ceremony] consisted of the recitation of some prayers, and a test – answering questions dealing with the basic principles of Judaism. I think for his time it was revolutionary. [But he did it] so that girls would be stimulated to have a deeper knowledge of Judaism.
In another post on your website, you write about Rabbi Refael Aharon ben Shimon (1847-1928), who issued an interesting ruling regarding suicide.
He was a rabbi in Cairo at a time when there was, what he described as, an epidemic of suicides [“because of small problems, illusory matters of honor or frustrated romantic expectations”]. So what he did was ban people who committed suicide from a normal burial [even though standard halachic practice is to be lenient on this matter]. And it worked.
But he didn’t only discuss suicide. He discussed and ruled on so many things, and it’s unfortunate that he’s not better known in the halachic world.
What’s your family’s background?
I’m half Syrian, half Moroccan. I was born in Argentina to Argentinian parents. My grandparents, though, came from Tetouan, Morocco, and Damascus, Syria.
How would you describe your present synagogue?
Ohel David & Shlomo mainly serves the Syrian community in Manhattan Beach. It is a very special, warm, highly organized, and very traditional and knowledgeable community. People love to study Torah, people come to shul every Shabbat, and practically every Syrian family sends its children to Jewish schools. The community is also extremely active in chesed.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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