Sunday, January 23, 2011

Methodologies for Interpreting Chazal

When Chazal make a statement, how do we know whether to interpret it literally or allegorically? I would like to describe different methodologies, with reference to the Gemara's statement that the kidneys give counsel, presenting four different approached. I will begin with my own methodology (which I shall call "Approach #1"), which involves asking three questions:

1) What light does the textual context shed upon it?

In the case of the kidneys, the surrounding statements about the function of the tongue, mouth, esophagus, windpipe and so on, are all literally true. This means that, absent overwhelming evidence otherwise, the description of the liver causing anger and the kidneys giving counsel is also intended literally.

2) What light does the historical context shed upon it?

Some people assume that if Chazal's statement is obviously incorrect at a literal level, then it must have been intended allegorically. Yet the question to ask is not whether it appears incorrect to us, but rather if it would have appeared correct back then. Now, we know that in Aristotle's view and other prevalent views in the ancient world, all thoughts and emotions were thought to take place in one's heart, kidneys and liver. Thus, when Chazal make such statements, they were presumably speaking literally - especially since people at that time would naturally interpret Chazal literally, and Chazal would surely not have been deliberately misleading them.

3) How do the Rishonim interpret it?

In general, the Rishonim were closer to Chazal's cultural worldview than were the Acharonim. Furthermore, they were not biased by an attempt to make Chazal conform with modern science - since modern science did not exist yet. So I place far greater weight on the interpretation given by the Rishonim than on that given by the Acharonim. (Incidentally, the Rishonim themselves, in deciding when to interpret Chazal literally and when to interpret them allegorically, were probably using the first factor that I discussed, as well as being influenced by the second.) In the case of the kidneys, the Rishonim all interpret Chazal literally - although Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who had already accepted Galen's discovery that the brain is used for thought, had to make a curious hybrid of Chazal and Galen, in which thought begins in the brain but is "actualized" in the heart and kidneys, which send instructions to the rest of the body.

Now, let us turn to the approach of those who interpret Chazal allegorically. The case of the kidneys is particularly interesting, since there are two ways of interpreting it non-literally: that it literally refers to the kidneys, but does not literally mean that they give counsel; or that it literally means that something give counsel, but does not literally refer to the kidneys.

The former approach (Approach #2) argues that, of course, Chazal were literally talking about the kidneys, just as they were literally talking about the tongue, mouth, esophagus and windpipe. But, of course, Chazal did not literally mean that the kidneys advise the heart on what to do; what they meant is that the kidneys filter the urine, or that the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys can affect serotonin in the brain which causes depression, or some other such minor function. (Those who adopt this approach do not explain why the Gemara is so misleading, why it omits any mention of the brain, why it says that the right kidney gives good counsel and the left kidney gives negative counsel, and what Scripture means when it says that God judges a person by examining his heart and kidneys rather than his brain.)

The latter approach (Approach #3) argues that of course Chazal are talking about actually giving good and evil counsel from which a person much choose, but of course Chazal were not actually talking about the kidneys, which do no such thing; rather, they were obviously talking about a spiritual component of man's soul which is merely allegorically described as being the "kidneys." (Those who adopt this approach do not explain why the Gemara is so misleading and misled all the Rishonim, nor do they give any reason as to how we actually know that the Gemara is referring to "spiritual kidneys.")

Then, of course, there are those who insist that Chazal were speaking entirely literally, and that they are actually correct. (This is really just a variation on Approach #1, but I shall number it approach #4 for convenience). This was the approach of many Rishonim, and also of certain Acharonim and recent figures (such as Chida, notwithstanding Rabbi Bechoffer's absurd reinterpretation of Chida).

What methodology lies behind these latter three approaches? What techniques do they use to determine when Chazal are speaking literally, and when they are speaking allegorically - and which components of their statements are literal, and which are allegorical? Simple. They use whichever interpretation gives the desired result: That Chazal are correct. If they feel that science supports Chazal, then they say that Chazal were speaking literally. If they feel that science partially supports Chazal, then they interpret Chazal's statement about "giving counsel" figuratively. And if they feel that science does not at all support Chazal, then they say that Chazal were "of course" not literally referring to the kidneys at all.

How do I know that this is their technique? Well, first of all, it's just obvious. This is exactly why, when I agreed to debate Isaac Betech about the scientific accuracy of Chazal's statements, I insisted that he first discuss the methodology for determining when Chazal are speaking literally, and when they are speaking allegorically. Needless to say, the debate did not materialize.

Second of all, it can be demonstrated by the fluid ease with which they slip from one approach to another, the way in which they are enthusiastic about all the other approaches apart from Approach #1, and the way in which they reinterpret earlier approaches. Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer (RYGB) gives some superb illustrations of this. He claims that Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya are actually saying that the kidneys and innards merely transfer information from the brain. This despite their clear words that, although thought is conceived in the brain, the kidneys and innards are actually responsible for the machshavah of a person's actions, for the actualization of these thoughts. And as for the Gemara's statement that the kidneys give counsel - RYGB makes an incomprehensible statement about Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya not referring to this Gemara. And as for the scientific inaccuracy of saying that the kidneys transfer thought from the brain, and its incompatibility with the Scriptural accounts of God judging a person by examining his heart and kidneys - RYGB suggests that it is supported by the idea of the adrenal glands affecting serotonin levels! RYGB likewise claims that the Chida is talking about the adrenal glands affecting serotonin, even though the Chida plainly understands that the heart and kidneys are actually determining a person's actions in general. And he finds the approach of R. Yekusiel Kamelhar credible - a recent apologist whose approach is to say that the Gemara is allegorically referring to the "spiritual kidneys," which are so named because just as the actual kidneys serve "good eitzah" by filtering urine, so too the spiritual kidneys give good counsel (and bad counsel too, but this is not reflected in the nimshal, for unexplained reasons). RYGB seems to like all of these approaches, and only strongly protests my own approach, based on the careful three-stage analysis above, which he deems "flippant." In other words, he has no methodology at all - he just likes whatever approach will give the desired result of Chazal being correct.

There's a description of that: it's called "intellectual dishonesty." Now, I really don't get offended by people engaging in intellectual dishonesty. And I don't get my kicks by putting people down. But what irks me no end is when they use that as a podium from which to condemn others.

37 comments:

  1. I don't know if you just ignore what I write or are just creating strawmen for the sake of it, but I don't follow any of those approaches. Or more accurately, I follow parts of approach 1, but not all of it, and come to different conclusions.

    The case of the kidneys is particularly interesting, since there are two ways of interpreting it non-literally:

    Here also, there is a third way of interpreting it non-literally. It is neither referring to counsel or to kidneys literally, but instead are using the entire phrase as a mashal for a completely separate idea.

    If I had to describe my approach using the system you set up, I would describe it as

    1) What light does the local and not-so-local textual context shed upon it?

    Where it is placed in the sugya or which tractate it is brought in has as much meaning as the immediate words surrounding the concept.

    2) What light do other contexts shed upon it?

    Historical contexts, philosophical contexts, which other bodies of work it is (Tanach, other tractates, other literature)

    3) How have various groups of people interpreted it over the ages?

    Why restrict it to just one group? And why the Rishonim and not the Geonim?

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  2. Rabbi Bechhofer's bringing that serotonin article was troubling for another reason: its superficiality, which he doesn't seem to be aware of, or maybe to care about. Popular science writing is all very well, but if his argument was serious, he didn't support it well; if his argument wasn't serious what's he doing in this discussion?

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  3. It might be necessary to bring in the Maharal"s approach which basically states that nothing Chazal said was wrong. Anything that seems wrong must be reinterpreted allegorically. Also, maybe we should discuss Avraham ben harambam's stance of when to determine if a gemorah is allegorical or literal found in the introduction to ein yaakov.

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  4. Regarding E-Man's comment: "Anything that seems wrong must be reinterpreted allegorically"

    The question is when one looks for "allegorical" meaning in divrei Chazal, is it

    A) simply derech eretz in learning, finding ways to make meaning in the mesorah, or

    B) do we also have to assert that this was their "original intent"?

    I can certainly see A, but if B is clearly implausible, I don't understand why people (including the Maharal) feel we have to make such claims.

    Can someone please explain??

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  5. R. Natan, I have a question for you:

    Admittedly, I know nearly nothing about the evolution of the ancient science of medicine and who’s science the various Chachamim followed – Aristotle, Hippocrates, or Galen’s. So, my question is strictly based on information I read in your recent blog posts.

    You state:

    “Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who had already accepted Galen's discovery that the brain is used for thought, had to make a curious hybrid of Chazal and Galen, in which thought begins in the brain but is "actualized" in the heart and kidneys, which send instructions to the rest of the body.”

    It therefore stands to reason that Rambam (using your logic) believed the brain to be the seat of the soul, since thought cannot originate without the brain. Given that Rambam’s rulings regarding “moment of death” are verbatim from Chazal, and contemporary Poskim use these same rulings in determining the “moment of death,” how does your thesis hold up? According to your reasoning, Rambam should have altered his rulings.

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  6. "B) do we also have to assert that this was their "original intent"?"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorial_intent

    It is a new concept, and it is a historical to even really apply it. Basically, the attack on the non-literalists is an attack on modernity.

    In other words, it takes a huge amount of self awareness, which most people don't have, to begin to answer question B. I therefore would not trust anybody's answer to that question, nor do I think it would be possible to assume an answer to that question unless the it was given in writing without a prompting of such a question. (I hope that made sense)

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  7. David Meir,

    I believe the Maharal's approach is that chazal's words that prove to be literally incorrect MUST have had a deeper meaning. We don;t just say they were wrong and write it off, but that they were telling us something deeper than just the kidneys give counsel (which is factually incorrect).

    Avi,

    In what way did the Rambam know that the brain is connected to life and death? Galen might have connected some aspects of thinking to the brain, but no one knew that if the brain ceased to work then you would die. Only with todays technology are we able to see that without a working brainstem a person ceases to breath and do almost any other function in the body.

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  8. It therefore stands to reason that Rambam (using your logic) believed the brain to be the seat of the soul, since thought cannot originate without the brain. Given that Rambam’s rulings regarding “moment of death” are verbatim from Chazal, and contemporary Poskim use these same rulings in determining the “moment of death,” how does your thesis hold up?

    First of all, even if he believed the brain to house the intellect, it does not mean that he assigned no role to the heart. Remember that Rambam followed Aristotle closely.

    Second, I pointed out numerous times that the various rulings from Chazal and the Rishonim regarding death are not remotely problematic. For the situations that they deal with, they are entirely correct. Please don't fall into the trap of believing other peoples' (misre)presentation of my views!

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  9. E-Man - I can go with "we" MUST find a deeper meaning, but that "they" must have meant something else in some cases starts to feel a bit disingenuous.

    Ameteur - Doesn't the attempt to understand "pshat" in a given text reflect a desire to grasp the "authorial intent" (as elusive as it may be, and as much as we can never get 100% confirmation)?

    the attack on the non-literalists is an attack on modernity

    The way I see it, the issue is less about literal vs. non-literal than it is pshat (plain meaning) vs. non-pshat.

    If I read about someone who gets "taken to the cleaners" and picture someone in a laundromat, that's a literal read but clearly not the pshat. On the other hand, if the text speaks about a laundromat (which turns out not to exist), and not being comfortable with that I say it's an allegory for being taken to the cleaners, that's both non-literal and non-pshat.

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  10. I think the approach in the beit medrash is none of the above but rather what did the "chachmei hamesorah" think chazal meant - i.e. even if you could prove that chazal didn't mean it, it doesn't matter.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  11. Emeth.

    Clearly laid out, explained logically, and clarifies the prior discussions contextually. In addition, your point is quite valid that people's use of intellectual dishonesty as a 'bully pulpit' is irksome - I'm sure even more so when you are specifically the "target."

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin, you wrote: "Remember that Rambam followed Aristotle closely."

    A statement like this is not very relevant in this context. Obviously Rambam did not agree with Aristotle on every single issue, so asserting that he generally was Aristotelian says nothing about whether on this specific point he upheld Aristotle's view or deferred to more advanced medical knowledge (if indeed this particular point was known in his day).

    In the first part of that comment, you wrote:
    "First of all, even if he believed the brain to house the intellect, it does not mean that he assigned no role to the heart."

    Wouldn't it be worth examining whether or not that's the case? I think it definitely would be worth it, instead of assuming one way or the other. Whether that would make Avi Katz correct or not, I don't know, I'm not invested in that either way, but it's certainly pertinent information to the discussion and the point he brought up.

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  13. I am curious as to how R Slifkin understands "Ukeshartom L'Ose al yadecha vhayu ltotafos bain ainecha."

    I have always thought this to mean that the shel rosh is on the head because it is the intellect while the shel yad is near the heart because it represents the emotions. Through tefilin we remember to channel out emotions and intellect to hashem.

    Given that the chazal undoubetedly understood this to be peshat in the pasuk, how do you square this away with your assertion that they believed the kidneys to be the seat of the intellect. if this were the case, why do we wear tefilin on our heads? IT seems to me that this basic pasuk demonstrates that it was known as a dovor pashut that the head is where the intellect is housed.

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  14. Given that the chazal undoubetedly understood this to be peshat in the pasuk,

    How on earth do you know that?

    your assertion that they believed the kidneys to be the seat of the intellect.

    I never said that they believed the kidneys to be the seat of the intellect.

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  15. Obviously Rambam did not agree with Aristotle on every single issue, so asserting that he generally was Aristotelian says nothing about whether on this specific point he upheld Aristotle's view or deferred to more advanced medical knowledge

    Okay, I found this on Rationalist Medical Halachah:

    The Rambam did not believe that the brain was the source of motion! The Rambam (see Dr. Reichman's article, note 67). The Rambam believed that the source of motion was the heart! This can be found in numerous places in his medical writings, and in the Moreh 1:38,72... According to Aristotle, the function of the brain was to cool the innate heat of the heart. Thoughts, feelings, and decisions were all made in the heart. (see Aristotle, On Sleep and Sleeplessness, Part Three, trans. J. I. Beare.... The Rambam (see Max Meyerhoff "Maimonides Criticizes Galen Medical Leaves 3:1 1940) actually sided with Aristotle and believed that although the brain had a function in controlling movement, the actual origin of movement was the heart.

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  16. Avi,
    I think You are confusing Rambam(Maimonidies)
    with Ramban(Nachmanidies}.

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  17. "Given that Rambam’s rulings regarding “moment of death” are verbatim from Chazal, and contemporary Poskim use these same rulings in determining the “moment of death,” how does your thesis hold up? According to your reasoning, Rambam should have altered his rulings."

    How could he have altered his rulings? At the time, the only available indicators of death were breathing and heart beat. Rambam could not measure brain activity. For the same reason, though it is surely interesting to know where Chazal thought was the seat of the mind, it is irrelevant for the death determination issue. Chazal had no choice.

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  18. The way I see it, the issue is less about literal vs. non-literal than it is pshat (plain meaning) vs. non-pshat.

    If I read about someone who gets "taken to the cleaners" and picture someone in a laundromat, that's a literal read but clearly not the pshat. On the other hand, if the text speaks about a laundromat (which turns out not to exist), and not being comfortable with that I say it's an allegory for being taken to the cleaners, that's both non-literal and non-pshat.


    Last thing first:
    It really depends on the context, and the reasons why you don't feel comfortable in the literal reading.
    If for example you found a note from a crime boss suggesting that they meet at the laundromat on 5th and 122nd, and no laundromat existed there, then you might deduce and it might be "pshat" that the laundromat is code for something else.

    However, as far as Torah learning goes, the concept of "pshat" is really very complicated. Both Chazal and later rishonim and achronim often wrote that they were teaching "pshat", when any clear thinking person can see that really its a drash, or an asmactah to some other idea, or a new idea completely. Or if it is pshat, it is "pshat" in reference to "kol Torah Kula", and not the pshat of the verse that they are commenting on.

    I also agree with Joel Rich's statement. The original author could have been writing a poem for fun, however since it got included in the Talmud, it now takes on a new meaning.

    In this particular case, I don't think the author of the agadata had any intention whatsoever of teaching anybody what the function of different organs were, but instead was teaching a greater lesson about life in general and cycles in particular.

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  19. "what Scripture means when it says that God judges a person by examining his heart and kidneys rather than his brain".

    R Slifkin, how do you understand Scripture?

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  20. R Slifkin, how do you understand Scripture?

    Literally. As explained in my monograph, "The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel."

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  21. Moshe said:

    I think You are confusing Rambam(Maimonidies)
    with Ramban(Nachmanidies}.


    You are right; I did misread “Ramban” as “Rambam”

    Nonetheless, my question still stands. RambaM was a physician as well as philosopher. I’m curious as to whether he followed Aristotle or Galen in matters of medicine. If he followed Galen then my question still stands.

    Note that I’m not questioning the Shita that follows Brain Death. I’m simply questioning R. Natan’s thesis that we cannot use the traditional “Shas and Poskim” to decide this matter because the “Shas and Poskim” are based on an incorrect science.

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  22. It's not so much that they are based on outdated science - it's that technology has changed.

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  23. Can someone answer my question please? I asked who is Chazal that you refer to? You mention Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim. If Chazal are not Rishonim and Acharonim, who are they?

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  24. "They use whichever interpretation gives the desired result: That Chazal are correct. If they feel that science supports Chazal, then they say that Chazal were speaking literally."

    Perhaps a middle ground is that Chazal were never wrong, but, on the other hand, no proofs either; since the sources can be (re)interpreted as allegorical, by definition, there can't be a proof!

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  25. Given that the chazal undoubetedly understood this to be peshat in the pasuk,

    How on earth do you know that?


    How do you interpret "Bain Ainecha"

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  26. When Chazal make a statement, how do we know whether to interpret it literally or allegorically?

    What about pesukim? How do we know that God's "outstretched arm" isn't literally an arm? Not from context ... is it because we have a priori principle that states that God is not physical? And that forces us to interpret allegorically? If so, why not the same with Chazal? Why can't we say that in the event Chazal are wrong about the scientific reality, we can begin with an assumption that they said things with some kind of ruach hakodesh or siata deshemaya or something -- that allows us to arrive at truth via allegorical re-interpretation -- even though this was not the original intent of the statement when Chazal made it?

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  27. I will bl"n post on kidneys on my blog today. I am modeh al ha'emes that my understanding of RB was incorrect because of a different passage in his peirush. There is more to say, and I will say it on my blog, ayain sham.

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  28. You mention Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim. If Chazal are not Rishonim and Acharonim, who are they?

    Chazal lived before the Rishonim - they are the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud.

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  29. Why can't we say that in the event Chazal are wrong about the scientific reality, we can begin with an assumption that they said things with some kind of ruach hakodesh or siata deshemaya or something

    You can say whatever you want. But if you want to convince people here that what you say is actually true, then you are going to need some evidence for it. Since Chazal did not believe that everything they said was with ruach hakodesh, you are going to have your work cut out for you!

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  30. Enjoy!

    http://rygb.blogspot.com/2011/01/kidneys.html

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  31. RYGB, I am entirely at a loss to understand what your post is attempting to accomplish. Of course there were Rishonim who reinterpreted the counsel of the Gemara to refer to sexual desire - as I pointed out in my monograph, this was a scientific belief of the time, and some of the Rishonim tried to accommodate that. But the facts remain that:

    (a) The kidneys do not actually do this!

    (b) Your claim that the counsel spoken of by Rabbeinu Bachya "must be" the sexual desire spoken of by Recanti is entirely without evidence, and directly contradicts his account of how all thought is only conceived in the head and needs to be activated by the heart in order to direct the body, which is why (he says) people bow their heads down when concentrating - to direct thoughts to the heart.

    (c) Your citation of Raavad ignores the fact that he describes the heart as the seat of understanding. (Incidentally, Radak describes the heart as the seat of the intellect.)

    (d) Your implicit claim that Ramban did not believe that there is any cognitive role outside of the brain is contradicted by his explicit statement that the innards are the rooms of thought.

    (e) Ramban's point is that the kidneys and innards are burned because they are the agents of thought - the brain is not burned! (presumably because it only conceives ideas, but the innards actualize them, as Rabbeinu Bachya says explicitly)

    (f) You mention R. Yaakov b. Chananel Skili as a "minority view" to "round things out", neglecting to mention R. Yehudah HaLevi, Ibn Shuib, Tashbatz, Rashbash and others. Not very honest.

    (continued in next comment)

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  32. So what's the bottom line? It remains true that there is no reason to think that Chazal were not speaking literally and attributing man's making of moral choices to the heart and kidneys. Some Rishonim tried to incorporate a medieval belief that the kidneys are sexual organs into this Gemara (rather unconvincingly), but still did not produce a conclusion which is consistent with modern science - which does not see the kidneys as counseling the heart on anything, not even sexual desire. And virtually all the Rishonim still saw the innards as having a significant mind-function, which remains by far the most reasonable interpretation of Chazal, not to mention the pesukim.

    And what do you say about all this? What happened to your favorite sefer, of R. Kamelhar, that in fact it refers to the "spiritual kidneys"? Or your idea about adrenal glands and serotonin?

    And, once again, you managed to totally distort the view of Rabbeinu Bachya.

    In summary: You really demonstrated the point that I made in this post.

    (By the way, you claim that the view of the kidneys providing general counsel is one that I "attack." Actually it is one that I defend as the correct interpretation of the Gemara. It happens to be scientifically inaccurate, that's all.)

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  33. You can say whatever you want. But if you want to convince people here that what you say is actually true, then you are going to need some evidence for it. Since Chazal did not believe that everything they said was with ruach hakodesh, you are going to have your work cut out for you!

    I'm not sure I'm interested in convincing anyone of anything; and I guess I didn't realize that Chazal themselves would not have said that they had ruach hakodesh.

    But what I would like is basically to justify to myself why I should bother with the scientifically incorrect statements of Chazal, whether I should say bircas haTorah on them. I have a vested interest in making this religion more relevant to me, not less. It seems to me that if I assume that there is somehow truth in the words of Chazal, even when factually incorrect, then it gives me a more interesting role to play, something to figure out, something to think about.

    For example: We often think about giving advice as telling others what we think they should do. From the discussions on this blog about kidneys, I thought that perhaps the one can say the following: that when a person wants to give eitza correctly to someone else, he must act like the "kidneys": the main thing in giving eitza is to clarify the problem for the person, help them to categorize issues and to refine the options before them. That is analogous the role of the kidneys. A higher level of giving advice, once the matter is clarified, is to urge the person to make a decision, to act on it. That would be analogous to the role of the adrenal glands / cortisol.

    I doubt that Chazal intended this interpretation; I doubt that they would even condone the use of their statements in this way. I don't know if the end justifies the means, but I don't know of any other way to both live with the words of Chazal and to be able to express myself. I am not a scholar. I have a layman's interest in rational thought, science, philosophy, and Judaism, but I am limited in time and ability, and cannot methodically analyze the issues and the words of Chazal; all I can really do is try to take some meaning from them. I might one day have thought about "the right way to give advice" on my own, but the topic may have never come up; I need to feel more connected to Torah, and I feel more connected to Torah when I (creatively) interpret it in this way. I would feel comfortable telling someone that this is my interpretation of the Torah approach to giving eitza. I haven't worked out a mekor, but I feel that there is an obligation to make the Torah relevant, and dismissing a Chazal as being scientifically wrong just opens the door, but you have to go through!

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  34. It seems RYGB is unfamiliar with Aristotle, or the distinction between the imaginative and deliberative faculties. I guess he doesn't realize that the deliberative faculties are precisely the cognitive ones, according to Aristotle.

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  35. I actually find it discomforting Rabbi Sliflkin how much time you have to spend proving to people that Chazal and rishonim had what we moderns think to be very silly conceptions of the human body.

    Many of us know it to be obviously true (just like Rav Elyashiv presumably does not know more about physics than Stephen Hawkins) and move on with our lives. Unfortunately, because of the dreamers out there, you have to spend so much time proving that Chazal had these silly (to modern ears) ideas about anatomy. Chaval.

    (P.S. I have never liked your emes/kefirah votes. It's too flippant for me. It cheapens both words.)

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  36. This is not an assertion regarding Chazal's possession of what we today understand as accurate scientific knowledge – or lack thereof. It is meant as a summary of the modern understanding of the embryological origin of the gonads from a primordial kidney. Gaining that knowledge required the use of high powered light microscopes. Learning the fact that the developing gonads secrete testosterone and estrogen needed even more sophisticated technology to discover.

    It is, however, interesting (at least to me) to note that the assertion that the kidneys are essential for desire and will is central to classical Chinese medicine both theoretically and practically, and considerably predates the science of embryology. Since the physical apparatus needed to develop that understanding is the human body itself, it was of course available to Chazal and to the physicians of their era.

    http://www.gfmer.ch/Books/Reproductive_health/Human_sexual_differentiation.html; emphasis mine.

    Gonadal differentiation

    The undifferentiated gonadal primordium, which is located at the ventral surface of the primitive kidney or mesonephros, is already visible in the 5 mm human embryo and consists of a thickening of the coelomic epithelium. In a first step, which is independent from the genetic sex, the gonadal primordium is colonized by the primordial germ cells originating from the allantoid sac. When these cells have reached the gonadal primordium, they form with the epithelium the "gonadal ridge". The epithelium consists of two to three cylindric cells in which the gonocytes are present. This epithelium is separated from the mesonephros by a layer of mesenchymal cells. According to the classical Witschi’s theory, seminiferous tubules originate from the mesonephros, the "medulla", while ovarian tissue originates from the secondary sex cords formed from the germinal epithelium or "cortex". This theory is not universally accepted as recent observations have shown that the differentiation of the gonad occurs at same time of fetal age (7th week), for both the testis and the ovary.

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  37. "I actually find it discomforting Rabbi Sliflkin how much time you have to spend proving to people that Chazal and rishonim had what we moderns think to be very silly conceptions of the human body."

    But their conceptions were not silly, just less informed. That was supposedly the point of resistance against the Chazal-were-wrong-in-science POV: that it denigrates Chazal. It does not! Unless, of course, one has the preconception that Chazal could not have made such an error.

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