Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 13: Dealing with Inconvenient Sources
The introduction to Chapter 60, which is entitled “I shall consider that I did not understand their words,” addresses “a few statements of the Rishonim that initially appear to oppose the mesorah which obligates us to interpret everything literally” (emphasis added). Of course, it is not a mere few statements, but let us see how R. Schmeltzer deals with these inconvenient sources that undermine his entire message.
R. Schmeltzer provides three paths of guidance. He first refers the reader back to the previous chapter, which states that with the kabbalistic revelations of the Arizal and so on, all previous alternative approaches to Torah have been disqualified. He then cites Rav Simcha Zissel that one should consider oneself not to have understood their meaning. As a third course of guidance, he quotes the Chazon Ish that one should not think about such things.
Words do not suffice to fully describe how nonsensical this is. However, I will make some remarks. First of all, there is the extraordinarily offensive assertion that an entire school of thought in the Rishonim, the Golden Age of Sefarad, has been rendered not only obsolete by the kabbalah, but even heretical. Second, this ignores the fact that even subsequent to the spread of kabbalah, there were numerous authorities – and even kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin and the Ben Ish Chai – who stated that the Gemara contains scientific errors.
Then, with regard to R. Schmeltzer’s citation of Rav Simcha Zissel that one should consider oneself not to have understood their meaning, it should be pointed out that Rav Simcha Zissel explicitly states that he is speaking about statements that contradict the fundamentals of faith, which he surely did not define in the same way as R. Schmeltzer. With regard to the statements of the Rishonim and Acharonim concerning the scientific errors in the Talmud, they are explicit, unambiguous, and often verbose. They said what they meant and meant what they said. There is no basis for saying that we have misunderstood their meaning.
With regard to the final piece of guidance, that it is better not to think about such things – I fully agree that there are potential dangers involved in these views. But in a work which claims to be a work of Torah scholarship, reflecting the views of Torah scholars throughout the ages, and defining the limits of authentic and legitimate approaches, it is unacceptable to use this as a basis for ignoring or distorting these views.