Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Big Fat Greek Pesach

There's a bizarre but typical situation currently unfolding on the lovely Greek island of Crete, where I am spending Pesach. The food is amazing, the resort is stunning, the views are extraordinary, and the Jews are arguing.

Of the approximately 250 guests at the program, about three-quarters are residents of Eretz Yisrael. My in-laws, Mordechai Ben-David, and a handful of others represent the American contingent. So what happens with Yom Tov Sheni?

Now, the Israelis all came with every intention of entirely ignoring Yom Tov Sheni. The less learned of them find the entire notion of Yom Tov Sheni extremely foreign (ba-da-bum! Thank you, I'll be here until Wednesday.) The more learned of them - including numerous rabbanim and talmidei chachamim - all planned to follow the teshuvah by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited in the sefer Yom Tov Sheni K'Hilchaso, explicitly discussing this scenario. Ordinarily, an Israeli spending Yom Tov abroad may not perform melachah on Yom Tov Sheni - at least in public. But places such as Daios Cove, where I am, are different. While there is a long history of Jews in Crete, the only Jewish community still extant (and they don't even get a minyan) is over a hundred miles away, at the other end of the island. In such a situation, rules Rav Shlomo Zalman, there is no reason for residents of Eretz Yisrael to refrain from melachah - even in the presence of people from Chutz l'Aretz. He states that this does not cause discord, since everyone understands that there is a mix of Israelis and chutznikim present.

But you can always count on Jews to cause discord!

The Rav supervising the kashrus at the resort follows Rav Wosner's psak for such a situation. He rules that if there is even a single Jew from Chutz l'Aretz present, the Israelis may not perform any melachah in public. Furthermore, the entire atmosphere must be one of Yom Tov Sheni. As a result, on the first day of Chol HaMoed, the Israeli minyan (with the majority of guests!) had to take place at the same time as the Diaspora minyan, and there was no food served until kiddush at 11am followed by lunch at 1.30pm - much to the annoyance of people such as myself, with small children who can't wait until that time to eat. Meanwhile, there were Israelis walking around the lobby dressed in a non-Chag manner, and renting cars!

But it was on Isru Chag that things really got weird.

The mashgiach kashrus insisted that the Israelis not wear tefillin in their own Shacharis minyan! He said that instead they have to put tefillin on surreptitiously in their rooms later during the day. The other rabbanim on the program, who were, shall we say, not exactly happy with this, instead organized a "secret" Shacharis minyan, for the majority of the guests, at a concealed location in the far end of the resort. Meanwhile, there are several guests checking out today, plenty of non-Yom-Tov activity in the lobby, and lots of Israelis riding the funicular (for those that are particular about the vernacular, a funicular is an elevator/cable car that rides up a slope).

It's a bizarre situation, and it's not clear what should be done. On the one hand, the mashgiach is presumably to be considered as the mara d'asra, and thus his psak should determine the situation. On the other hand, when the other rabbanim on the program (who are the ones with a public role, giving shiurim) follow Rav Shlomo Zalman, and the majority of guests have absolutely no intention of publicly refraining from melachah on Yom Tov Sheni, it's a little unrealistic to expect this to happen - and thus there effectively is no atmosphere of Yom Tov Sheni.

Well, as one of the guests has famously declared, someday we will all be together...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Orthodoxy Versus Maror

It's interesting that "boring, technical" halachic topics can often shed light on sociological phenomena.

As discussed in my monograph The Evolution Of The Olive, there is absolutely no reason to think that olives in the time of Chazal or the Rishonim were any bigger than those of today. Many people are not aware of that; but even of those that become aware of it, many still use a larger shiur. Some explain that although they accept the history of the kezayis, they attribute significance to custom; Judaism is as Judaism does. I can certainly respect that policy, even if I wouldn't apply it to kezayis. However, other people claim a different reason for insisting on a larger shiur: there's no downside to it, and the benefit is that one is being choshesh lechol hadeyos, being concerned to fulfill the mitzvah according to all opinions. And especially since the Shulchan Aruch notes that some say that a kezayis is half an egg, they want to cover that view.

The idea of "being concerned to follow all opinions" is itself a fascinating topic; it very much hinges on a non-rationalist understanding of what mitzvos do. But that is a discussion for another time. The topic for today is how this plays out with maror - or rather, how it does not play out with maror.

A full discussion of the history of maror can be found in this excellent article by Ari (Arthur) Schaffer. In brief: Traditionally, wild lettuce and similar plants were used for maror. But when Jews moved to Europe, such plants were not available in the spring. As a result, they began to use horseradish instead.

However, there are a number of problems with horseradish. First, it is not in the Mishnah's list of plants/ vegetables that are approved for maror. Second, it is sharp rather than bitter. Now, the former objection is not realized by most people, due to the difficulty of translating the Mishnah's terms, while the latter does not seem to have ever been raised by Poskim. However, much more serious is that Rabbeinu Tam, based on the Mishnah, rules that only leaves and stems may be used for maror - not roots. For this reason, many authorities strongly objected to the innovation of using horseradish root. Even the Shulchan Aruch explicitly states that the root may not be used.

Nevertheless, due to the difficulty of obtaining wild lettuce and similarly leafy maror, the custom to use horseradish root became widespread. Seeking to justify this common practice, some authorities claimed that the prohibition of using roots did not apply to horseradish, whose main root is so thick that it is equivalent to a stem. But such arguments were clearly strained, and many authorities (such as Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and Chacham Tzvi) made it clear that even horseradish root was either prohibited or very much bedi'eved. (I know about the Chasam Sofer's objection to bugs in lettuce and other leafy maror. So wash it!)

Now, someone who takes the approach of striving to be yotzi lechol hadeyos should clearly be using wild lettuce or a similarly bitter leaf (I would note that today's commercially available lettuce suffers from not being bitter; but wild lettuce and endives are easy to get hold of). And there were some who did that; Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, for example, had lettuce as well as horseradish. But how many people do that today? The very same people who are declare themselves to be chareidim l'dvar Hashem, striving to fulfill mitzvos according all opinions, use something for maror that is not traditional and according to many authorities is unacceptable or bedi'eved, when at no cost they could supplement it with the original maror that is acceptable lechatchilah according to all!

So why don't they eat wild lettuce, or at the very least, Romaine lettuce? It seems to me that the reason is that this idea is something that is perceived as coming from "outside." Professor Feliks, Professor Schaffer, Dr. Ari Zivotofsky - they are the "names" associated with the resurrection of this view. It doesn't make a difference that they are merely bringing to light the views of many prestigious Acharonim, which in turn are shedding light upon Chazal and the Shulchan Aruch.

Now I am not as cynical about all this as it may sound. Orthodoxy - defined by historians as a movement that began with Chasam Sofer - is fundamentally reactionary. Due to the (entirely justified) concern about wholesale abandonment of tradition in modern society, the more extreme sector of Orthodoxy has an approach of rejecting anything that is perceived as coming from "outside" - even if it is fine frum Jews quoting Rishonim and Acharonim. So it is perfectly consistent and legitimate for this consideration to take precedence over the usual policy of being yotzi lechol hadeyos.

My point therefore is not to criticize this approach. But I do think that it is important for the situation to be correctly understood.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ominous, Treacherous Infiltrators?

"Infiltrators" who are "a danger to society." "Duplicitous" "fifth-columnists." Members of an "ominous rebellion" who have "lost all traces of G-dliness." "Treacherous frauds."

Who is the latest issue of Ami magazine, in its article "The Imposters Among Us," describing? Jews for Jesus? Da'at Emet? Rabbi Leib Tropper?

No. It's describing sincere Jews who are shomer Torah u'mitzvos but who, tragically, no longer believe in any form of Torah min haShamayim. Not the kind who campaign to bring down Judaism. Not the kind who try to turn people into skeptics. Not the kind who are looking to give up halachic observance - people who dress frum but eat treif or break Shabbos when nobody is looking. Just regular Torah Jews who wrestle with their no longer possessing Orthodox beliefs.

Now, of course the lack of Jewish belief is a problem - for the people themselves, and sometimes for those around them, despite their best efforts not to cause problems for others. But is this hostile description of them as an evil menace really warranted?

I know that this article had to be edited out of concern for getting in trouble with the kannaim (the bane of all Charedi publishing, preventing people from saying what needs to be said). I can understand that Ami magazine, as a Charedi publication, has to reassure its readers that there aren't any genuine intellectual challenges to Charedi Judaism. I can even sympathize, notwithstanding my distaste, for Ami seeing it as necessary to describe these people as possessing a "superficial grasp" of Torah and secular thought, as being "almost mentally ill," as having "closed their minds to reason." But is it really necessary to be speak about them as though they are evil? To warn about their being a "danger to society"?

The intellectual challenges to Judaism are very real. Fortunate are those of us whose sense of Divine providence in Jewish history, and whose appreciation of the nature and role of the Torah, as well as other factors, enables us to maintain belief in revelation; but if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are nevertheless intellectual challenges to which Judaism presently does not have a good response. Can we really be hostile towards those who consider the challenges overpowering?

Again, I am not talking about those who decide to give up their heritage and work insidiously to make others do the same. Such people do exist, but they are not what the Ami article was referring to. It was referring to the many people who still want to be good Torah Jews. They want to keep mitzvos and are serious about their halachic observance. They enjoy learning Torah. They want to contribute to Orthodox Jewish society. They have no desire to turn others into skeptics or to undermine Torah society in any way. Reading the Ami article, one receives the impression that it would be best if we could strap everyone into a lie-detector and grill them about their beliefs, with those failing the test being thrown out of society. Is this really what Ami wants?

Historically and traditionally, this is not how Judaism operated. To sure, there are certain dogmas which were always a vital part of Judaism. But as long as people observed mitzvos, were upstanding members of the community, and did not overtly rock the theological boat, they were never grilled about their private beliefs or lack thereof. (The Kohen Gadol had to swear allegiance not to change the avodah - not about his beliefs, which in any case would not be helped by an oath!) Rambam was very much an aberration from normative Judaism in his great emphasis on beliefs. When the Gemara talks about accepting converts, it requires only their commitment to the Jewish people and their learning of mitzvos and says nothing about their beliefs.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin does declare that those who express certain heretical beliefs have no share in the World-to-Come. Interestingly, atheism and polytheism are not amongst them. Also interesting is that it describes people who "say" various heretical beliefs - not those who believe them. This isn't to argue that Chazal considered it acceptable to be an atheist - rather, to point out that Chazal were not overly concerned with addressing the requirements of a person's private beliefs; instead, they were concerned with peoples' expressed beliefs insofar as they affect larger Jewish society. Menachem Kellner has convincingly argued that this Mishnah is a polemic against those undermining Jewish society - in that particular historical circumstance, by their expressing solidarity with Sadducee beliefs. But even if one disagrees with that interpretation of this Mishnah, it is clear that overall, Chazal were much, much more concerned with a person's observance of halachah and place in Jewish society than with his private beliefs or lack thereof.

Ami magazine claims that these "Orthoprax" people (I dislike the term, for reasons that I will explain on another occasion), even if they are kollel yungerleit, are worse than Orthodox Jews who behave inappropriately: "At the end of the day, the man who behaved incorrectly but is still a believer can touch non-mevushal wine and it will remain kosher; if the yungerman touches it, it is rendered non-kosher." But that is not the case. As long as the yungerman conceals his lack of belief as a private problem, nobody - including Poskim - is going to say anything, just like almost nobody cares what Chabad shochtim actually believe (even though some would like them to formally declare that the Rebbe is not God). On the other hand, Orthodox Jews who cheat and steal and engage in perverse behavior and so on, while not making wine non-kosher, have indeed "lost all traces of G-dliness" and are a terrible threat to Torah society. And, if I recall correctly, the notorious butcher in Monsey that sold treife chicken was Orthodox by Ami magazine's standards; whereas the "Orthoprax" people described by the article would never do such a thing.

Ami magazine compares non-believers to Baal-worshippers(!). Such a comparison is utterly misplaced; these people are not abandoning any form of Torah observance. Much more accurate would be to cite Chazal's expression of Hashem's sentiment: "Would that they abandon Me and still observe My Torah!"

Most ironic is that the article claims that the solution is to expose more people to emunah-education such as the Discovery-type material provided by Project Chazon. While I have no doubt that such seminars boost the emunah of average people, they have the opposite effect for the more intelligent, educated, critically-thinking types that are the subject of the article. The shoddy arguments and intellectual dishonesty that is rampant in these presentations have the effect of turning such people off from Judaism. These seminars are part of the problem, not part of the solution. (I plan to describe my own suggested solution in a future post.)

Someone who seeks to undermine wider Jewish society, either through the expression of ideologies or through their behavior, can be described by the adjectives used by Ami magazine, and should deservedly be declared persona non grata. Not someone who privately suffers from a lack of belief, and tries their best to be a good Torah Jew despite that. They are still ami.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense

A study of the views of all the Rishonim on the kezayis, as described in my monograph on the topic, shows very clearly that the Rishonim of Sefard held the kezayis to be the size of a regular olive, and the Rishonim of Ashkenaz only said differently because, as some of them explicitly admitted, they had never actually seen an olive. Not to mention the fact that all botanical and archeological evidence shows that olives were always the same size. Given all that, why are most Poskim still claiming that a kezayis is substantially larger?

I can understand Poskim who want to follow internal protocol rather than relying on science - but the views of the Rishonim themselves, such as Rashba, Ritva, Ravyah and the view in Piskei Rabboseinu SheBeAshkenaz, show that a kezayis is (shock!) the size of a regular olive. And it's not as though the large shiurim for kezayis have been canonized in either Chazal or Shulchan Aruch. Nor does it appear to be a matter of formal minhag; Poskim weigh up the views of the Rishonim and Acharonim, and draw their own conclusions.

So what is going on? Some of these Poskim are undoubtedly simply unaware of the all the Rishonim's views, and other relevant information. But I would think that at least some have been made aware of them, either via my monograph or similar information published elsewhere. So why is there no word of Poskim ruling in that way? Is it something akin to Maharam Schick's refusal to give up on metzitzah be'peh, against Chasam Sofer's policy, due to his seeing it as coming from people with a dangerous agenda? Is it caution, or fear, about issuing a ruling that appears radical and/or not frum enough?

If anyone can show my monograph to a Posek and ask for a comprehensive explanation as to why he would rule that a kezayis is larger than an olive, I would very much like to hear what it is!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rambam's View of Tzara'as

One of the many difficulties that faced Rambam in harmonizing the Aristotelian worldview with Judaism was the interpretation of Biblical miracles. In the philosophical worldview, the constancy and even inviolability of natural law was fundamentally linked to God’s perfection. Any change or intervention in these laws would amount to a deficiency in them and a change in God’s mind. How, then, are miracles — interventions into, and violations of, natural law — to be understood?

Rambam dealt with the question of miracles directly in six different places amongst four different works, along with scattered insights elsewhere in the context of addressing specific miracles. However, as with many other topics, there are apparent contradictions between the various statements presented by Rambam. In addition, given Rambam’s explicit warning that he will be employing contradictions to hint at esoteric levels of meaning, this complicates matters even further.

It is exceedingly difficult to synthesize Rambam’s various statements concerning miracles, and radically different conclusions have been drawn by different investigators. On the one hand, Rambam, at least exoterically, considered belief in supernatural miracles to be a necessary corollary to belief in creation. At the same time, Rambam made extensive attempts to minimize the supernatural component of Biblical miracles.

Over the last few decades, several studies on this topic have appeared.[1] I will not be discussing the general topic here. Suffice it to say that there are a range of views as to what Rambam's approach actually was. All agree that he generally desired to minimize the supernatural. Some say that he entirely negated the supernatural element of miracles, others say that he just minimized it as much as possible, while others say that he changed his mind on the matter. In this post, I want to focus specifically on Rambam's approach to leprosy.

(I am using this translation of tzara’as for convenience. However it is clear that the tzara’as of the Torah is not leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen’s disease, which probably only reached the Middle East in the last two thousand years. See Joseph Zias, “Lust and Leprosy: Confusion or Correlation?” It has been proposed that the “leprosy” of the Torah is more accurately translated as “mold” – specifically, Stachybotrys sp. See Richard M. Heller, Toni W. Heller, and Jack M. Sasson, “Mold: “Tsara’at,” Leviticus, and the History of a Confusion.”)

In the Guide, Rambam freely refers to leprosy as miraculous:

All agree that leprosy is a punishment for slander. The disease begins in the walls of the houses. If the sinner repents, the objective is attained: if he remains in his disobedience, the disease affects his bed and house furniture: if he still continues to sin, the leprosy attacks his own garments, and then his body. This is a miracle received in our nation by tradition, in the same manner as the effect of the trial of a faithless wife. (Guide III:47)

Can this be reconciled with the view that Rambam was always opposed to the notion of God having to supernaturally intervene? Indeed, some have viewed these cases as proof positive that Rambam did indeed accept supernatural miraculous events.[2]

I would like to propose a different possibility. Maybe, in Rambam’s view, the miracle was not in the event per se, but in it always happening at the appropriate time. In the Kapach translation, it is not called a nes, but an os ve’pele, “a sign and wonder.” This is consistent with Maimonides’ description of it in the Mishneh Torah:
This change which is spoken of in clothing and houses, which the Torah calls tzara’at by way of borrowed terminology, is not from the way of the world, but is a sign and wonder amongst Israel, to warn them against slander. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Leprosy 16:10)

This certainly sounds somewhat less than supernatural. It is not “davar hanimna be’ha’teva,” something scientifically impossible (the appellation used in the Treatise to describe supernatural as opposed to naturalistic miracles), only “aino miminhago shel olam,” not the way of the world. While Twersky is convinced that this term refers to a supernatural event, this may not necessarily be the case. The term “way of the world” appears in several places in the Mishneh Torah simply in reference to ordinary norms. Rambam condemns mourners who divert from the “way of the world” in displaying excessive grief,[3] but they are not engaged in a supernatural activity! Rambam describes it as being the “way of the world” that the Egyptians were sent to oppress the Israelites, noting that any individual Egyptian had the choice not to do so,[4] but he is not suggesting that such an Egyptian would have been acting supernaturally. And when speaking about the Messianic Era, Rambam states that there will be no change in the “way of the world” or a change in creation.[5] While this may sound as though such a change would be supernatural (since Rambam does accept drastic changes in the social order), the fact it is followed by the alternative of “a change in creation” indicates that a change in the “way of the world” is something less than that.

In the new Hebrew translation of the Guide by Schwartz, it states that leprosy is a miracle that was perpetuated in the nation. This itself might be the basis for classifying it as a miracle, in line with Rambam’s view in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead that a natural event is rated as a miracle if it perpetuates and especially if it occurs at a significant time. Mold and fungus do occur; here they are occurring in conjunction with a skin disease, and after the person has engaged in evil talk. Perhaps in Rambam's view, these are not innately supernatural events, but when they consistently happen to people who have sinned, they are revealed to be miraculous – that is to say, providentially ordained.

There is another much more radical possibility to be considered. This is perhaps hinted at by Rambam’s stress about how the fear of the result was extraordinarily intense and would prevent people from ever putting themselves in such a situation:

The advantage in this belief is clear. Furthermore, leprosy is contagious, and all people flee from it; this is virtually in their nature. (Guide 3:47)

The benefit is in the effect of the belief about the punishment, more than in the effect of the punishment itself. Rambam stresses how people are in such fear of this contagious disease that it is “virtually natural” for them to avoid it. Perhaps, then, Rambam is relegating these wondrous events to the same category as Biblical accounts of God becoming angry: necessary beliefs to promote social order, but not factually true beliefs.[6] This is not at all straightforward, and a little too Straussian for my personal tastes, but it cannot conclusively be ruled out.


[1] Joseph Heller, “Maimonides’ Theory of Miracles”; Hannah Kasher, “Biblical Miracles and the Universality of Natural Laws: Maimonides’ Three Methods of Harmonization”; Haim Kreisel, “Miracles in Medieval Jewish Philosophy”; Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Maimonides and Miracles: The Growth of a (Dis)Belief”; Alvin J. Reines, “Maimonides’ Concept of Miracles”; Michael Tzvi Nahorai, “The Problem of Miracles for Maimonides.”

[2] Yitzchak Twersky, “Halachah and Science,” p. 149.

[3] Laws of Mourning 13:11.

[4] Laws of Repentance 6:5.

[5] Laws of Kings 12:1.

[6] See Guide III:27-28. Yair Lorberbaum argues as such in Bikoret Ha-Aggadah BeMoreh HaNevuchim, p. 216; see note 66 there. See too James Diamond, “Maimonides on Leprosy: Illness as Contemplative Metaphor,” Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 96, Number 1, Winter 2006, pp. 95-122 and “Maimonides on Leprosy: From Idle Gossip to Heresy,” (Hebrew) in Maimonides: Conservatism, Originality, Revolution, ed., Aviezer Ravitzky, (Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History: Jerusalem, 2008), vol.2, pp.375-394

Monday, April 4, 2011

Something to Ruminate Upon

Here are two true accounts that I heard first-hand, regarding Discovery's "animal proof" of the Torah's divine origins.

The first is with a neighbor of mine. She was very distressed to hear that the animal proof doesn't actually work. Nevertheless, she told me that she was glad that Discovery used it with her. She told me that although she had many reasons for wanting to become Orthodox, at the time she needed to justify it to herself as being scientifically legitimate, and the animal proof served that purpose. Now that she is happily Orthodox, it doesn't shake her that the proof doesn't work, and she's glad that she had it when she needed it.

Another story is with someone that I met a few years back in the US. He had become Orthodox via a different organization than Discovery, but one that also used the animal proof. When he discovered (independently of my book) that there were serious problems with this argument, and was given the usual run-around by the outreach workers who had "converted him," he was fundamentally shaken to his core and felt that the Rabbis had tricked him into becoming Orthodox. He lost his trust in the Orthodox enterprise, and began drifting away from observance; but he had already gotten married to an Orthodox girl, which caused some problems, as can be imagined.

I happen to know more stories like the latter, and I know of no others like the former, but I don't think that that is so relevant. Nevertheless, I personally don't think that the former justifies what happened with the latter. Still, it's something to ruminate upon.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who Is Following The Rishonim?

"In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high. Men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri." - Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

There is a certain serious misunderstanding going on with the Chazal/science issue, for which I must share some of the blame, since I have not been at all clear enough about it.

When I quote dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who say that Chazal erred in their cosmological statements, as shown on Pesachim 94b, or in their mathematical statements, as shown on Eruvin 76b, I do not mean to claim that they would all fully endorse my approach on these issues. Similarly, some people have objected that just because Rishon X agreed that Chazal were wrong about the sun's path at night, it doesn't mean that he would freely say that Chazal were wrong in other places, where other members of Chazal don't acknowledge any error - and this is true.

Allow me to explain. Times change. In the medieval period, in both Christian and Moslem lands, there was a widespread belief in the general decline of civilization and mankind. A while ago, I posted about the topic of yeridas hadoros, and many people took it as self-evident that it doesn't mean that earlier generations were actually more intelligent. Well, the fact is that most Rishonim (with the probable exception of Rambam) took it for granted that earlier generations were indeed more intelligent - gentiles as well as Jews. And superior in every way. When the Noda B'Yehudah insisted that people in his time couldn't possibly be taller than people in antiquity, because of yeridas hadoros, this was not an unusual idea. Until relatively recently, it was a given that as one goes further back into antiquity, people (and animals!) were smarter, wiser, stronger, and longer-lived. Even when in the twelfth century, there gradually grew an awareness that contemporary figures could attain certain valuable insights, this was only delicately granted in a limited way by way of the metaphor of "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." (See Melamed's "Al Kitfei Anakim" and the writings of Israel Ta-Shma for further discussion of this.)

So most of the Rishonim who acknowledged that Chazal were incorrect about the stars and spheres, and the sun's path at night, would have viewed that case as a peculiar aberration. They didn't believe that there were several other areas in which the knowledge of the latter generations exceeds that of the earlier generations.

On the other hand, these Rishonim are certainly not precedent for my opponents' approach, either. In fact, they oppose it. Allow me to explain further.

Times changed again. First of all, whereas in the medieval period, they actually didn't know much more about the world than Chazal knew, now we certainly do. The Rishonim would not have found other statements in Chazal that were conclusively scientifically disproved, but we do know of many such cases. Second, the whole idea that mankind in antiquity was more intelligent and wiser and stronger, etc., is no longer a popular belief. Nobody now accords Aristotle greater obedience than modern medicine.

There are several ramifications of all this. One is that of course you won't find these Rishonim discussing conflicts between Chazal and science in other areas, because they didn't know of any. Another is that those who seek to uphold the truth of all Chazal's statements have to use different tools than those available to the Rishonim. There were indeed Rishonim who argued for a general or even absolute truth to all Chazal's statements. But they did so because of a straightforward belief that in antiquity, people in general, and kal v'chomer Chazal, were more intelligent and wiser and knew much more about the world. Just as it would be ludicrous for a schoolchild to challenge Einstein about physics, it was ludicrous for anyone to challenge Aristotle about science - or Chazal. In recent times, however, nobody believes this. Thus, those who argued for Chazal's infallibility or near-infallibility had to devise new tools, such as arguing that Chazal were never speaking literally (as per Maharal), or claiming that Chazal benefited from ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav (as per Leshem). Furthermore, due to this new mechanism, and also for various other reasons, they ended up with the position that Chazal could never have been wrong about any scientific fact, especially something as basic as the sun's path at night - and they thereby went against the view of virtually all the Rishonim.

To put it another way: Azariah De Rossi claimed that he wasn't doing anything novel in his work Me'or Einayim, which was a critical evaluation of Chazal's statements about history. But of course he was. However, Maharal, who fiercely opposed to De Rossi and insisted that Chazal were speaking about metaphysical matters rather than history, was just as novel.

So what would these Rishonim (who acknowledge that Chazal erred about cosmology) say if they were alive today, with the knowledge that we have about the natural world? It's a pointless question. We just can't know. It's like the question of what Rambam would be if he were around today; everyone claims him as their own, from Briskers to Modern Orthodox to atheists.

Thus, the idea that we ourselves can point to Chazal being incorrect about a variety of things in the natural world can only be sourced to Rambam and a few other Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim. But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim.

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The  nesher , king of...