The answer is the latter. The underlying agenda behind the discussion for many people is (a) to ensure that the Torah is scientifically accurate, and (b) to ensure that the straightforward understanding of the Gemara, that the four listed animals with one kosher sign are the only four such types in the world, is scientifically accurate.
It’s fascinating to see how this plays out. When analyzing this topic, there are a number of questions that need to be resolved. Here is a list of some of them:
- Are the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco to be classified as being of the same min (type) as the camel?
- Is the rabbit classified as being of the same min as the hare?
- Does cecotrophy (the reingestion of special fecal pellets) by hares and rabbits rate as ma’aleh gerah?
- Do we believe those zoologists who say that the capybara practices cecotrophy?
- Is the capybara considered to be a sheretz or a chayah?
- Is the shafan the hyrax?
- Does the hyrax practice merycism?
- Is merycism considered to be maaleh gerah?
- Is the alleged merycism of koalas and proboscis monkeys the same as that of the hyrax?
- Is it likely that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals?
Now, when I analyzed this topic, I evaluated each of these questions in isolation, without considering the wider implications (at least, as best as I could). I was thus very disappointed to discover, at the end of my investigation, that there was no way in which it could be said that there are exactly four animals with one kosher sign. Eventually, I was able to find various ways of resolving this.
But other people, such as Isaac Betech and certain people in Aish HaTorah/ Discover, approach this list of questions entirely differently. Consciously or subconsciously, the final goal is that there should exactly four animals with one kosher sign. And the answers to all the questions in this list are arranged such that they will produce this result.
- If the rabbit is identified as the shafan and thus classified as being a distinct type from the hare (which is the arneves), then the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco must be classified as being the same type as the camel. (Even though vicunas are far more different from camels than rabbits are from hares!)
- If koalas and proboscis monkeys practice merycism to the same degree as the hyrax, then merycism is not to be considered as maaleh gerah, and the shafan is not to be identified as the hyrax. (But if there were no other animals to practice merycism, you can be sure that the hyrax would be gleefully endorsed as the shafan.)
- If it sounds convincing to say that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals, then cecotrophy and merycism are to be definitively rejected as viable interpretations of maaleh gerah, and the mesorah on the arneves is likewise to be rejected. (But if the arneves is accepted to be the hare, then these people will declare that it is unlikely that there are extinct, unknown animals that likewise practice rumination or cecotrophy!)
Some people might accuse me of having no basis to accuse my ideological opponents of having their evaluation of the individual questions driven by the overall conclusion that they are determined to reach. But it’s clear-cut. First of all, with some of them, such as Betech, he is clearly opposed to the idea that Chazal could be mistaken in any way. Second of all, I have an audio recording of Rav Yisroel Belsky in which he explicitly states that the reason why he prefers Betech’s approach is because the end result of it is that the simple, absolute interpretation of Chazal’s statement (that there are only four animals in the world) can be upheld!
When people such as Isaac Betech analyze the topic of the four animals, the final conclusion is established in advance; it’s just a matter of how to get there. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that the analysis of the individual questions is incorrect in all or any cases. But it does shed light on why the answers to the individual questions are so inconsistent with each other. The tiny vicuna is vastly different from the huge camel, and yet it is rated as being definitively (not even probably, but definitively) of the same min, whereas the rabbit is definitely rated as being of a separate min than the extremely similar hare. The tiny, five-pound rabbit is definitely rated as not being a sheretz and thus as being part of the list, but the 140 pound, two-and-a-half feet tall capybara is rated as being a sheretz and therefore disqualified from the list!
The irony in all this is that the credibility of Chazal is not even on the line with all this – only the simple and simplistic interpretation of Chazal’s statement about animals with one kosher sign, popular in the charedi world, is on the line. As everyone knows, I am certainly ready to say that Chazal were mistaken in their positions regarding the natural world. But, as I explain in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, the statements of Chazal about animals with one kosher sign does not need to fall into that category.