Next week, Daf Yomi reaches a challenging passage in the Gemara:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the bat (atalef), which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)
In contrast to the Talmud’s statement, modern zoology asserts that none of the 950 species of bats lay eggs. It cannot be a platypus or echidna (which lay eggs and nurse their young), since these animals do not fly and the atalef is listed in the Torah as a flying creature. Even if one is to posit that the atalef is a bird, which does lay eggs, there would still be a problem in that the Talmud describes it as nursing its young, which no bird does.
It is likewise not reasonable to address this conflict by arguing that the Talmud is speaking metaphorically. The statement about bats is not aggadata (homiletic discourses), but rather part of a discussion about the natural world. No commentator has ever suggested that it is not meant as a factual statement.
Nor can one solve this conflict by positing that nature has changed. Modern science asserts not only that bats do not lay eggs today, but that they have never laid eggs. The only egg-laying mammals, the duck-billed platypus and echidna, live in Australia and are very physiologically unusual creatures. They are on an extremely remote branch of the mammalian family tree, both geographically and physiologically. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom - and amongst all the millions of known species, no such exceptions have ever been found.
How, then, is one to solve this problem? Here is a guide to a range of different approaches that have been proposed. In some cases I am quoting directly, and in those cases there are quotation marks; in others, I am extrapolating from what they have written elsewhere:
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: "In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal's statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God's law - the receivers, transmitters and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai. …We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own... Can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times?"
Rav Aharon Feldman: There are cogent answers to these questions but these will of necessity, G-d willing, have to be the subject of another article (N.S. - which was never written, nor did he ever volunteer to explain what these "cogent answers" to the questions that had perplexed so many people, and had been the source of all this trouble, actually are). In the meantime we can be sure of one thing: the answers which Slifkin proposed (N.S. - by which means Rav Hirsch et al., but he prefers to pin it on me) are not the right ones."
Rav Uren Reich: "If the Gemara says it, it's emes veyatziv. There's nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara. That’s the emunah that a yid has to have."
Rav Moshe Shapiro: Anyone with the slightest grasp of Chazal will realize that they were not speaking about the physical biology of bats. In the world of pnimiyus, the bat actually does lay eggs.
Rav Yisroel Belsky: "The sages of the Talmud were far advanced in all facets of wisdom and correct in every field of knowledge. They spoke only the truth and were the repository of all wisdom. So-called contradictions between Torah and science never present any problem, because there are none that cannot be resolved with ease; every seeming contradiction can be shown to be of no consequence to a seasoned mind." (He did not respond to my question as to how this actually works out in practice.)
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman: (No answer given yet - my prediction is that his forthcoming book The Torah Of Science will not address it).
Rabbi Avi Shafran: "I think there’s a level on which it’s true."
Dr. Isaac Betech: B"H Please tell me what exactly why you believe the Talmud to be problematic. Then let us discuss the protocol for an intellectual, multimedia, respectful, protocolized, neutral, public debate on the matter.
Note - In the comments below, Dr. Betech requested that I repeat that this is not a verbatim quote from him on this matter, but rather it is my own extrapolation based on what he has written in similar cases. I then invited him to present his own view on this topic. As you can see in the comments, he responded as follows:"I am still willing to discuss in an intellectual, multimedia (sources on screen), respectful, protocolized, neutral, public forum with NS or the representative (Jewish or not) he will choose, on any scientific issue relevant to his 5 controversial books, i.e.
1. Creation of the universe (Big Bang Cosmology).
2. Chemical evolution (increasingly complex elements, molecules and compounds developed from the simpler chemical elements that were created in the Big Bang).
3. The age of the universe.
4. Biological evolution (of the species).
5. “Dr. Betech's own model of recent special creation” (as NS named it).
6. The accuracy of science-related statements made by Chaza”l.
7. After the debate on the scientific issues will be concluded, I am also ready to debate the validity of the theological sources presented by NS on these issues."So I think that my assessment of what he would answer was pretty good!
Personally, I favor Rav Hirsch's approach, which is very well-founded in Chazal, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Acharonim, and which I consider to be the only reasonable explanation. Rav Hirsch also actually gives an approach that can be applied, instead of merely offering platitudes, posturing, and hand-waving. Maybe the others secretly agree with Rav Hirsch, but cannot publicly say so, due to the harm that they believe it could cause to them or to their communities; who knows?