Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rav Schachter on Chazal and Science

I've been inundated with emails in the past few days, linking to this recent shiur from Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, on the topic of "When Science Contradicts The Talmud." Since I'm already backed up with e-mail, I decided to write a post about it, which will hopefully save me time with e-mails!

If you're looking for a close talmid of the Rav who has a more rational approach to these topics than that of Rabbi Meiselman, then this is the shiur for you! Rav Schachter does not shy away from acknowledging that some things are impossible from the perspective of modern science. Nor does he pretend that rabbinic thought on this topic is monolithic; he freely discusses the diversity of opinions that exists. (Those who were at the shiur tell me that there was also a lot of "body language" that is lost in the audio recording.)

Having said that, I should probably note that I did not entirely agree with the presentation:
  • I personally side with the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog (that Chazal's authority is binding even if based upon mistaken beliefs), which Rav Schachter rejects. 
  • It wasn't clear to me if Rav Schachter was saying that it is permissible to kill lice on Shabbos because even though Chazal's reason of spontaneous generation was incorrect, the fact that such eggs are microscopic means that they are halachically irrelevant, or if he was saying that Chazal themselves actually meant that the eggs are microscopic and thus halachically irrelevant. I don't agree with the latter, for reasons explained in Sacred Monsters.
  • Rav Schachter seemed (though this was not entirely clear) to take the position that Chazal discussed cases of spontaneously-generating creatures and chimeras not because they believed in their existence, but rather because they were laying the ground for future scientific experiments. While in Sacred Monsters I discussed how new scenarios can be resolved via such discussions in the Gemara, I do not believe that Chazal had this in mind; rather, they believed that such creatures existed, as did everybody back then. But again, Rav Schachter's position is not clear to me from the recording.

Notwithstanding these reservations, the shiur is very valuable, for the reasons stated earlier. Perhaps someone should inform Eytan Kobre and Mishpachah magazine that other leading talmidim of the Rav have very different views on these topics from that of Rabbi Meiselman.

On a different note, my forthcoming lecture tour to the US in February is almost entirely booked up, except for Shabbos February 4th. If you would like to arrange a program for your community, please write to me.

47 comments:

  1. Please remind me: how do Rs Glasner and Herzog deal with the exclusion from Par He'elem Davar shel Tzibbur?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Re "if he was saying that Chazal themselves actually meant that the eggs are microscopic and thus halachically irrelevant"

    That is what he told me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. >>Rav Schachter seemed (though this was not entirely clear) to take the position that Chazal discussed cases of spontaneously-generating creatures and chimeras not because they believed in their existence, but rather because they were laying the ground for future scientific experiments.

    I am a big admirer or RHS but fully acknowledge that his treatment of these issues, while very modern and open to science, is not by any means systematic. What he meant in the paraphrase above is that Chazal were interested in the theoretical framework of halacha. IOW, Chazal used ancient science but they were not ancient scientists. They did not care whether something existed in reality. What mattered to them was how halacha dealt with the world.

    ReplyDelete
  4. But then there's this to consider. There is a story in the gemara about a sage creating a golem and sending it to visit a friend of his. From this story Rav J. David Bleich gets into a whole essay on cloning and whether a clone would be considered a human being (eg. counting it to a minyan) based on how the sages interact with the golem.
    Now a rationalist will comfortably say that this is a story and, further, since this story could not rationally have happened and we don't accuse Chazal of making up stories and passing them off as true, chas v'shalom, this incident must have been deliberately written into the gemara to teach a point, not to simply accept it at face value.
    There's another story about a giant frog larger than a village which ends with a sage announcing "And I saw it!" And clearly he didn't since such a frog never existed outside of the Godzilla movies. Clearly again Chazal were trying to get a message across using the medium of the story.
    Therefore when Chazal say certain things we know to be impossible it is not unrealistic to say "Yes, they knew it was too and the point of the story isn't the literal interpretation but the message behind it!"

    ReplyDelete
  5. Where do you see that Rav Schacter has differing views than Rav Meiselman?
    The only difference you can point to is that Rav Schacter presents the opinions he rejects before rejecting them!
    Rav Meiselman also implied that he believes the mud mouse doesn't exist.
    Rav Schacter constantly repeats the stand that each generation is allowed and is required to follow the doctors and the medical knowledge of their time.
    But he studiously avoids saying that Chazal were wrong in their time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I didn't hear the shiur but you say that Rav Schachter rejects Rabbis Glasner and Herzog's approach.

    Will Rav Schachter agree that Hachana of Rabba (Betza 2b) does not apply today because it's based on a mistaken belief that כל ביצה דמתילדא האידנא מאתמול גמרי ליה?

    ReplyDelete
  7. to clarify shimon s's comment (i think): the gemara (horayos 2b) says that a talmid who makes a mistake about מצוה לשמוע דברי חכמים is not included in the פר העלם דבר, and has to bring his own חטאת. The mistake of this talmid was to think that you have to listen to the sanhedrin even when they are mistaken. this seems to be the position you are espousing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've heard RHS speak about spontaneous generation before (on Shabbos, so no recording, and this was a couple years ago). As I recall, he explained explicitly that Chazal did believe in spontaneous generation because everyone did. Today we reinterpret that concept wherever it appears to mean microscopic eggs, so the halakhah remains the same, even though the original understanding was wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  9. David Berg
    He is not being honest to Jewish mesora.
    Rishonim do not say that lice is too small rather that lice comes from human flesh (Rashi), from sweat and from dust (Tosfot), from old clothes (Rosh), or from mold (Ran). Maimonides ruled explicitly, "One is permitted to kill lice on Sabbath, for they are [born] from sweat" (Laws of Sabbath, chapter 11, halacha 3).

    ReplyDelete
  10. Looks like we have a machlokes regarding pshat in Rav Schachter. Can someone ask him? And if he indeed says that Chazal themselves meant that the eggs were microscopic - can they ask him his basis for saying that, and why all the Rishonim learned differently?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Where do you see that Rav Schacter has differing views than Rav Meiselman?

    The difference is that whether or not Rav Schachter personally feels that Chazal had mistaken beliefs about the natural world, he fully acknowledges that such a view exists and is not kefirah in any way!

    ReplyDelete
  12. WFB "The mistake of this talmid was to think that you have to listen to the sanhedrin even when they are mistaken."

    Well, it is so only in a case where the Sanhedrin mattirs something that would be assur, were it not for the factual error. In such a case one who is sure about the error has to be machmir.

    So the question is not whether he has to follow them but whether he CAN follow their hetter.

    IIRC no one is saying it works the other way - if they forbid something due to an error, it is still forbidden until a later Sanhedrin changes the ruling (it seems that in such a case they don't need to be Gadol bechachma uveminyan).

    ReplyDelete
  13. RNS,

    I dont think it is a good idea to ask RHS to clarify his views. It is obvious that he is open to modern ideas and probably leans toward the rationalist POV.

    How does it help to get him "on the record"? It wont convince anyone. It will only cause him trouble.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Getting a straight answer from RHS is often an exercise in frustration. For better or worse that's often his MO.

    ReplyDelete
  15. R' Natan,
    I know this sounds crazy, but have you ever thought about how powerful it would be if you and R' Meiselman would do as you do, but show respect to one another?
    My impression is that both of you let yourselves get blinded in some issues because you're more concerned with out-doing the other than actually trying to uncover the truth.
    I understand there's a history here, but it's something to think about.
    It would even give each of you more credence if you can sometimes admit the other is correct.
    thank you

    ReplyDelete
  16. Especially considering the way that he slandered me, I think that I am extremely respectful. And compare the way I write in the 5TJT to the way that he writes.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I don't get the sense that either of you respect one another, and I find that a big shame because you are both very learned, intelligent people that have a lot to offer. If you two could work together (just in the sense of mutual respect), I think the world would be a better place.

    ReplyDelete
  18. To Metta Peace:

    I am guessing that you do not know Rabbi Meiselman.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Metta Peace - I've never seen R. Slifkin write an insulting or insinuating word, misinterpret someone possibly intentionally, or selectively quote others to make his point.

    Yet I seem to find (in my interpretation at least) all the above in those who are attacking him.

    I applaud R. Slifkin's restraint and use of facts and sources rather than emotional arguments and insinuations.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I don't understand. Lice eggs are NOT microscopic, they are visible to the naked eye...we call them nits. In the US your child can't stay in school if they don't pass a nit check, performed by an average adult female human with no magnification.

    Small yes. But not invisible to the naked eye.

    Heck, if you've ever walked up to someone with a significant infestation, you can see the hair around their ears encrusted with nits.

    So the commonly used argument that "the eggs are microscopic" is a fallacy.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I don't think this addresses the crux of the broader concept of whether we continue to follow, even if we can prove (not hypothetically, but prove beyond a reasonable doubt) through modern science that a concept is incorrect.

    Simply, the very fact that a yearly calendar, with Shabbat and Y"T times printed, is one unexplained idea which brings up much consternation within frum circles.

    After listening, and reading some of the comments here, I still think the broader idea is not being answered. And any time someone brings this up, the reflexive apikores word comes out, which starts the back-and-forth of insults.

    So let's keep it simple, why should an educated (Torah u/ Mada) person accept "just because" as an answer if 'technically' Chazal, respectfully, is incorrect or rather, didn't have all of the information available? Or is this just a way to reverse engineer a way to make Chazal seem as though they would have made the same findings knowing then what they would know now?

    Again, just trying to get to the root of the matter.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Zev: "So let's keep it simple, why should an educated (Torah u/ Mada) person accept "just because" as an answer if 'technically' Chazal, respectfully, is incorrect or rather, didn't have all of the information available?"

    I believe this question is closely related to the question why are the rulings of Chazal binding at all.

    There are no short answers and at least 3 separate halachic topics:

    1. Authority of the Beis Din HaGadol (Sanhedrin).

    2. Authority of Chazal not connected with the Sanhedrin.

    3. Authority of the majority of Am Yisrael to accept upon themselves and all future generations any additional obligations they choose.

    Obviously, such a discussion is well beyond one short comment. If the Baal HaBlog chooses, he can start a separate discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Shimon S,
    Thanks & I agree, this is part of a much broader set of very uncomfortable questions, which usually lead to the boring and lazy answer, 'tradition'.

    ReplyDelete
  24. James,
    "How does it help to get him "on the record"? It wont convince anyone. It will only cause him trouble."

    There is something beyond broken if people are afraid of stating what they believe is the truth.

    "Shimon S,
    Thanks & I agree, this is part of a much broader set of very uncomfortable questions, which usually lead to the boring and lazy answer, 'tradition'."

    Zev, if you feel this way, I suggest looking up Machon Shilo.

    http://www.machonshilo.org/en/eng/holidays/67-featured/563-on-rambamism-a-word-to-the-wise

    ReplyDelete
  25. The premise that anyone has to listen to the Chazal if they are wrong or in any matter at all is flawed. Period.

    Once again when matters are unknown or not clear we are commanded to "Listen to the Judge in your time" not the ones from 2k years ago.

    Second, times change, therefore halacha changes. Maybe the Chazal were right then, but now they are not right, in some things.

    This whole thing is so simple, why make it so hard and argue about it over and over again.

    Give it a rest.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

    ReplyDelete
  26. As regards to eggs being microscopic, I think the best one can do is come halfway between "they had mistaken science and paskened based on it" and "they were talking about microscopic eggs and just used the terms of the times".

    I would suggest that one could say that the halacha is based on the OBSERVATION that lice seem to come out of nowhere and no eggs can be seen, and therefore they are different than other reatures and thus, one can kill them on sbs.

    At the time of Chazal, this observation was explained by spontanius generation (which chazal could very well have accepted).

    In our day, this observation is explained by the fact that the eggs are microscopic.

    In either case, the halachah stands, because we can say that Chazal based thier psak, not on the explanation of where lice came from, but the observation that they do not appear to reproduce like other creatures.

    The same idea can be used for the dome in the sky, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Alternativly, since we only pasken based on our five senses (except for medical issues) since the Torah was expected to be followed by all generations with all levels of knowledge of the physical world, in the case of lice, halachically they do not lay eggs.

    Since halachah only concerns itself with that which can be detected by 5 senses, if we cannot see the eggs, then for purposes of Jewich law, they don't exist.

    The hidden physical reality does not come into play (otherwise we couldn't eat anything!) just like the hidden spiritual reality (kabbalah, if accepted) also does not come into play for halacha (i.e. we don't pasken from the Zohar, or shouldn't at least :) ).

    ReplyDelete
  28. Reuven Meir,

    a person with an average vision can easily spot lice eggs. They can be hardly called "microscopic."

    ReplyDelete
  29. "a person with an average vision can easily spot lice eggs. They can be hardly called "microscopic." "

    Agreed, but you also have to know what they are. It is not obvious, to me at least, that without knowing what they are one would take much note of them at all. Do they appear that much different from dandruff?

    ReplyDelete
  30. James,
    "How does it help to get him "on the record"? It wont convince anyone. It will only cause him trouble."

    Ameteur replied:
    "There is something beyond broken if people are afraid of stating what they believe is the truth."

    Fear of frum zealots is not new. The Rambam was pretty clear that he feared them and sometimes censored his writing, even to the point of writing things he did not consider true. (See for example intro to the Guide.) Given the regretable reality, it pays to be cautious, especially for a professional Rav.

    At the same time, I appreciate those like Rav Slifkin who make great personal sacrifices to stand up for truth despite personal attacks from zealots.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Although I have no definitive opinion yet on the viability of maintaining the halacha that permits killing lice based on the idea of them being too small to see, I was very curious to know just how visible/invisible they and their eggs are. For anyone else so interested, here are some relevant wikipedia statements/links:

    According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_lice#Nits ), quoting Ian F. Burgess: The easily visible nit is actually the hatched, and now empty, egg. The embryonated egg, also often called a nit, is much harder to see.

    An unhatched egg looks fantastically small (but still macroscopically, I guess): (see picture at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_head_lice_policy#What_is_a_.22nit.22.3F ). I haven't spent the time to find a hatched nit picture, but they are visible, else how could nurses/parents find children's nits without magnification.

    Lice themselves are definitely visible (see the image at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_head_lice_policy#Screening_prevalence_and_frequency). However, when alive they move very quickly, so even though they are macroscopic, they still can be extremely hard to actually see. Wikipedia cites an Israeli study that "... found that 76% of live lice infestations were missed by visual inspection (as verified by subsequent combing methods)."

    I'm not sure of the relevance of that above. I wonder also if it is relevant if something might be just too small to be seen, but a bunch of them are visible when together.

    I remember when the strawberry scare came out. I saw a youtube video with an insect (or something) on a strawberry. The video showed that you could see the insect with the naked eye... after they pointed to it with an arrow and said "hey, look over here! An insect! It's exactly right here!" (not an actual quote). I wasn't sure what to make of it: yes, the insect was visible to the naked eye; but it was only actually observable if you magnified it first to find it. Without knowing where it was ahead of time, it would have been incredibly difficult to actually find it. In ancient times, without magnifying glasses, I'm quite sure they would almost never have seen it. (Oh right... of course back then everyone had super eyes. I keep forgetting to factor in yeridos hadoros ;) ).

    As an am ha'aretz, I know nothing of the halachic implications of any of this.

    ReplyDelete
  32. And compare the way I write in the 5TJT to the way that he writes.

    Why not compare the way you write on your blog to the way he writes?

    And maybe he writes his books differently than the way he responds directly to you?

    ReplyDelete
  33. The difference is that whether or not Rav Schachter personally feels that Chazal had mistaken beliefs about the natural world, he fully acknowledges that such a view exists and is not kefirah in any way!

    But where did Rabbi Meiselman declare the opposing positions kefirah? Do you have any source for this?
    He declares the exact opposite here:
    http://5tjt.com/local-news/12521-letters-to-the-editor
    when he says:
    "I never accuse those who disagree with me that they are heretical."

    ReplyDelete
  34. I wonder how meiselman learns this gemorah we just did in בכורות דף כא
    וצריך להראותו לחכם חכם מנא ידע אמר רב פפא רועה חכם

    ReplyDelete
  35. Rav Schachter is a very interesting person with interesting views, but I would hardly classify him as a rationalist through and through. It really depends on the issue.

    Also, MJ, from my experiences with Rav Schachter, I have found that it is very easy to get his views on a topic. He often may skirt the issue so as not to make you feel uncomfortable or so as not to start a controversy, but if you ask him follow-up questions and if you watch his expressions as he answers you, it is fairly easy to see where his heart lies on an issue.

    ReplyDelete
  36. A number of commentors have mentioned the visibility of lice eggs. They refer to head lice whose eggs (nits) are, indeed, visible. The gemara, however, in T.B. Shabbat is focused on body lice whose eggs are, apparently, not readily apparent since they are tiny and enveloped in the wearer's undergarments.

    My own predilection is to assume that the ancient halacha permitting killing (body) lice on shabbat stemming from Bet Hillel is based on a different rationale (not the 'spontaneous generation' of Rav Yosef). These lice evolved to be specifically human parasites, i.e., they can't survive on other species. As such, they don't fall into the category of other organisms used in the Mishkan whom one can't kill on shabbat (except for a required korban). Their killing would then be a rabbinic generalization, and they chose not to include lice due to their ability to really bother their victim (itching).

    ReplyDelete
  37. "Once again when matters are unknown or not clear we are commanded to "Listen to the Judge in your time" not the ones from 2k years ago."


    I'm not sure how this is a logical arguments. The "Judges" of Today, say to listen to Chazal. The "Judges" of Today, also say lots of other things that based on your other comments you obviously don't follow.

    A Judge is not a daat yachid, a judge is someone any two people will agree is capable of being a correct Judge.

    ReplyDelete
  38. My roomate is in Rav Schachter's shiur and my roomate asked Rav Schachter to clarify.

    Rav Schachter stated he was quoting Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach that pshat in the Gemara is that Chazal meant when you can kill a louse it's because the eggs are not visible to the human eye enough to be halachically relevant.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Regarding body lice vs head lice, they apparently look identical. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_louse#Life_stages) claims that the nits are visible in the clothing (in seams).

    ReplyDelete
  40. "The difference is that whether or not Rav Schachter personally feels that Chazal had mistaken beliefs about the natural world, he fully acknowledges that such a view exists and is not kefirah in any way!"

    But where did Rabbi Meiselman declare the opposing positions kefirah? Do you have any source for this?


    A person does not need to use the term "kefirah" to make it clear that they believe a position to be outside the boundaries of acceptable Jewish thought.

    ReplyDelete
  41. "A person does not need to use the term "kefirah" to make it clear that they believe a position to be outside the boundaries of acceptable Jewish thought."

    I'm not sure what that means.

    Ramban clearly felt that believing that the angels visiting Avraham were just visions wasn't acceptable, but he would never have called it Kefira.

    Throwing around the word kefira when others don't isn't helping anyone.

    ReplyDelete
  42. R' Natan,

    So what is your take on Par He'elem Davar shel Tzibbur? How can a ruling of a single Amora in Bavel have more power than the ruling of the whole Sanhedrin with a proper smicha, sitting in Lishkas Hagazis?

    ReplyDelete
  43. You mean, "What is Rav Glasner's take?" I don't know. Meanwhile, take a look at his introduction.

    ReplyDelete
  44. RNS: "You mean, "What is Rav Glasner's take?"

    No, I mean what is your take - whether it happens to be identical with RMSG (or anyone else) is not so relevant right now.

    BTW if I'm not mistaken Rav Herzog just mentions this problem in passing (in Heichal Yitzchak) and offers no explanations.

    Rav Glasner also leaves more questions than answers. Here is the short (?) hakdamah to Dor Revii on Chullin:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37184&st=&pgnum=3

    ReplyDelete
  45. I'm not sure how often people kill lice on shabbos nowadays, but I cannot think of one other example of a hetter most probably based on a factual error that would make a real-life halachic difference. Anyone?

    ReplyDelete
  46. "I wonder how meiselman learns this gemorah we just did in בכורות דף כא
    וצריך להראותו לחכם חכם מנא ידע אמר "
    "רב פפא רועה חכם

    Thanks for bringing this up Alex. I thought this as well while learning the Daf. The gemara asks incredulously how a stam Talmud Chacham would have any knowledge of the contents of the uterine discharge of an animal. It responds that the "chacham" referred to in the gemara is a "shepherd sage"--i.e. a person who is an expert in animal husbandry--such a person would be expected to have such knowledge, but not a Talmud Chacham.

    This is further proof that the sages often relied on the expert opinion of their times, when consulting natural matters. If they had to rely on the expertise of others in certain natural bodies of knowledge, than it follows that the correctness of their conclusions was dependent on the expertise of others as well.

    ReplyDelete
  47. can you post your lecture schedule for your New York trip?

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.