Teaching Torah and Science
Is it legitimate to distort Judaism in any way for the purpose of outreach to secular Jews? As reported in a front-page article in last week’s issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times (“Genesis: Allegory or Fact?” by Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow), Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Toras Moshe and author of a forthcoming book on the subject of Torah and Science, stressed that this should not be done, and he is absolutely correct. We should never distort Torah and rabbinic thought in order to win popularity. We have a responsibility to teach Torah honestly. If that does not gain us popularity with certain secular Jews, so be it.
Of course, this cuts both ways. We may also not distort Torah and rabbinic thought in order to win popularity with contemporary frum Jews. Sometimes, the Rishonim and Acharonim voiced opinions that are unpopular in some circles. Indeed, some legitimately feel that such views may well not be appropriate to teach in every context. However, we cannot distort these views or pretend that they were never uttered, even if some people are uncomfortable with them. In the famous article “Revisionism and the Rav,” (Judaism, Summer 1999) Lawrence Kaplan documented how even some close students and family members of Rav Soloveitchik distorted his views in order to bring them in line with their own beliefs.
Rabbi Meiselman is also correct that great expertise in Torah is required to address the sensitive topic of Torah–science issues. But we need to define the situation more precisely. As Rabbi Meiselman notes, even great Torah scholars do not necessarily possess expertise in all areas. Someone might be the world’s greatest Talmudist, but this does not mean that he is knowledgeable in hilchos gittin. As with any field in Torah, it is expertise in the particular topic that is required. Furthermore, there are different schools of thought within the boundaries of our mesorah.
Likewise, Rabbi Meiselman is absolutely correct in stressing that expertise in science is required when addressing Torah–science issues. But here, too, we need to define the situation more precisely. If someone is merely quoting and relying upon a widely accepted scientific view—for instance, that the earth orbits the sun—one does not need to be an astronomer. At the other extreme, if one is disputing the entire scientific establishment in a particular field, then even distinguished academic qualifications are entirely irrelevant if they are not in that particular field. We would not assign credibility to an astronomer who disputes the entire medical establishment about matters concerning the human body! Would a mathematician have credibility if he were to dispute astrophysicists regarding cosmology or paleontologists regarding dinosaurs?
Let us begin with the topic of Creation. To be sure, there have been many Torah scholars throughout history who insisted that the account of Creation is to be interpreted entirely literally. But it is simply not accurate to state that no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal. Rambam explicitly writes that “the account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts” (Guide for the Perplexed, 2:29). According to the explanation of Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, Rambam was of the view that the “Six Days” are not time periods at all. Here is how Akeidas Yitzchak explains Rambam’s view:
“...the mention of an order of Creation is not describing the sequence of days; rather, [the days are simply serving] to differentiate the status of [the elements of creation] and to make known the hierarchy of nature. This was Rambam’s major esoteric doctrine concerning Creation as those who are understanding can discern from that chapter which is devoted to this extraordinary account.”
Ralbag was of the identical view, and explicitly stated that the six “days” of creation are not six time periods at all, but instead represent the hierarchy of the natural world. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in a little-known series of lectures on Genesis, stated, “Evolution and creation can be reconciled merely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite.” It is no wonder that Rav Yitzchak Herzog (a rebbi of Rav Elyashiv, who was eulogized by Rav Aharon Kotler as being a “prince of Torah”), wrote, “It is well to bear in mind that already our ancient sages, to say nothing of our medieval theologians, would not seem to have insisted upon literalness in such transcendental matters as the account of Creation.”
Let us now turn to the topic of the Deluge. Rabbi Meiselman is entirely correct that the Great Flood was understood by all Geonim and Rishonim to be a literal description and record of events that occurred thousands of years ago. However, it is also true that the Scriptural description of the earth standing still was also understood by all Geonim and Rishonim as being a literal description (which is why most early Acharonim denounced Copernican heliocentrism as heresy). Of course the Rishonim understood it that way; they had no reason to think differently!
The more relevant question is, how did recent Torah authorities—who were aware that there is overwhelming evidence for the continuity of civilization and animal life throughout that period in many parts of the world—explain this topic? Nobody denies that there was a devastating flood several thousand years ago; indeed, there is much evidence of it. But to what extent is the Torah’s account literally correct in all its details? Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman wrote that the Mabul did not cover the entire planet, but only the “world” of the Torah. This was also the view of Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of the Chazon Ish), who brought some excellent proofs from the Gemara that “olam” does not always refer to the entire planet. My own mentor in these matters, Rav Aryeh Carmell, z’l, told me explicitly (based upon conversations that he had with his own mentors) that, just as Rambam stated regarding Creation, the account of the Deluge need not be literally true in all of its parts.
These are sensitive and complex topics that really require much lengthier discussion than is possible within this forum. But as a general guiding principle with regard to conflicts between modern science and traditional interpretation of Scripture, we can adopt the view of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who stated in his Genesis lectures that “the Torah is not interested in disclosing any scientific data to man. Revelation was only the revealing of the will of G‑d and not the wisdom of G‑d... Therefore, if the Bible employed the Ptolemaic description of the cosmos, it was only to present to the people of its time and not to present the true scientific view.” This is an approach that Rav Kook specifically legitimized for the early chapters of Genesis. Of course, others are free to dispute this approach—but not to deny that there were Torah giants who legitimized it.
Let us turn now to the topic of Chazal and science. To be sure, there have been many authorities, mostly in recent times, who insisted that Chazal’s statements about the natural world are all correct. On the other hand, we also find dozens upon dozens of Rishonim, Acharonim, and contemporary Torah scholars who held otherwise—for example, virtually all the Rishonim were of the view that Chazal incorrectly believed the sun to travel behind the sky at night. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch expresses his approach as follows:
“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 G‑d’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.”
Even some of those rumored to have held that Chazal were infallible in all such matters are often seen not to have been of such a view. For example, Rabbi Meiselman cites Rashba as stating that “all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true,” and that anyone who says otherwise is a “melagleg al divrei chachamim and subject to serious penalty.” Yet Rashba himself states that Rabbi Yochanan and the judges of Caesarea erred in a mathematical matter (Eruvin 76b) and doubtless did not consider himself to be melagleg al divrei chachamim! In fact, Rashba’s strong words about the correctness of Chazal’s science are specifically limited to hilchos tereifos, which are halachah l’Moshe miSinai. He was making no blanket statement about all statements of Chazal regarding science.
To his great credit, Rabbi Meiselman acknowledges that there is no such thing as a mouse that is generated from dirt, despite the Gemara’s discussion of it. In this, he is adopting the view of Rav Hirsch, notwithstanding the fact that many distinguished gedolim today, such as Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, consider such a view to be heretical. However, Rabbi Meiselman is not correct in claiming that “Chazal never stated unequivocally” that such spontaneously generating creatures exist. At the end of Maseches Sanhedrin, Rabbi Ami asserts that such a spontaneously generating mouse exists. Rabbi Akiva likewise asserts that salamanders are generated from fire, and in several cases Scriptural exegeses were understood as referring to spontaneously generating insects.
Building upon Rabbi Meiselman’s point that it is forbidden to distort Torah for the sake of popularity, a teacher must likewise be very careful when attempting to “prove” that Chazal knew things that were unknown before modern science. As Rambam writes, if someone discovers that an argument is flawed, they lose their faith in the entire position. If a person finds out that he has been misled, he will understandably lose respect for his teacher, and potentially for Judaism entirely. In such cases of “proving” Chazal to have supernatural knowledge of modern science, it is unfortunately often the case that (a) the Gemara means something quite different, (b) it is something that non-Jews also knew, or (c) the Gemara is not in fact consistent with modern science. Regrettably, the cases that Rabbi Meiselman cites, of hemophilia and liver regeneration, fail on not just one but multiple counts.
Let us consider hemophilia, which Rabbi Meiselman claims the Gemara knew to be hereditary via the mother centuries before non-Jewish doctors discovered it. But there are three points to bear in mind here. First is that this can result from simple prudence: you don’t circumcise babies if their two brothers died from it! Second is that Chazal apparently reached this conclusion fortuitously due to their inaccurate belief that “The man provides the white from which the bones and sinews grow... the women provides the red from which the skin, meat, and blood come.”
Third is that in fact, the Shulchan Aruch rules that the law applies equally to a man whose two sons died from circumcision—even if they are from a different wife. Furthermore, the halachah states that for the third child one must wait until the child gets older and stronger before performing the circumcision. If they understood hemophilia, they would know that it would not help to wait for this.
With regard to liver regeneration: First, Chazal do not explicitly state that the liver regenerates. Instead, they use an ambiguous phrase that was never interpreted that way until a 20th-century figure, seeking to prove the existence of modern scientific knowledge in the Gemara, claimed that it carries such a meaning. Second, although some believe otherwise, many claim that the ancient Greeks already knew about the regeneration of the liver, as seen in the account of Prometheus. Third, the Gemara claims that the animal can survive even if there are only two olive-sized pieces of liver present, but medicine tells us that such an animal cannot survive; in fact, at least a quarter of the liver must remain. We do the cause of Torah no honor when presenting “proofs” of Chazal’s scientific knowledge that do not withstand scrutiny.
This leads us to the topic of tereifos and the difficulty that the Gemara’s list of mortal difficulties in an animal does not correlate with the knowledge of modern science. As already noted, there is a problem with regard to the Gemara’s statement about the liver. Another problem is the Gemara’s statement that the absence of kidneys in animals is not a mortal defect. Rabbi Meiselman attempts to resolve this based on the claim that “ruminants have an excretory system that excretes into the rumen and can thus survive even if their kidneys are removed.” However, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Sternberg, in Bar Ilan’s journal BDD vol. 4, demonstrates that this is a short-term solution, and such animals will nevertheless die within a month. Thus, the Gemara is still inconsistent with our knowledge regarding the necessity of kidneys.
Rabbi Meiselman asserts that it is not an option to posit that Rambam believed Chazal to have been mistaken in their scientific assessments. Yet Rambam writes explicitly in the Guide for the Perplexed that the Sages’ knowledge of science was not Sinaitic in origin and was thus occasionally incorrect (and indeed he also disputed their statements about certain metaphysical matters, such as astrology and demons). What, then, is his view about tereifos? Let us see Rambam’s words: “With anything which they enumerated as a tereifah, even if with some it is seen not to be fatal based on modern medicine, such that an animal [with such an injury] might sometimes live, we have only what the Sages enumerated, as it says, ‘According to the law that they direct you.’”
As explained by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, in Dor Revi’i, as well as my own mentor, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, z’l, Rambam is saying that the laws as established by the Sages were canonized, and are thus unaffected by later discoveries of inaccuracies. Rambam was not denying that certain tereifos can indeed live! As for tereifos being halachah l’Moshe miSinai, Rabbi Asher Benzion Buchman, in “Rationality and Halacha: The Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai of Treifos” (Hakirah, vol. 4) points out that different sources list different numbers of tereifos. According to Rambam, only the root principles of tereifos were halachah l’Moshe miSinai, and it was up to Chazal to flesh out individual cases. Chazal’s final rulings on this are indeed authoritative—but this need not mean that they are correct from a scientific perspective.
Following Rambam, Rav Glasner, and Rav Herzog, we accept the authority of Chazal, regardless of the basis for their rulings. But this does not always apply to medical halachah. Rabbi Meiselman claims that “many halachic statements made by Chazal based on their understanding of the underlying medical situation are authoritative.” This is generally true, but not with cases where there is danger to human life.
For example, no halachic authority in the world follows Chazal’s principle that a fetus born after eight months is less viable than one born after seven months (on the basis of which Chazal prohibit desecrating Shabbos to help such a baby). Some claim that “nature has changed,” but physicians do not believe that eight-month fetuses were ever less viable that seven-month fetuses; it was simply one of the erroneous beliefs that existed in antiquity. Likewise, as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach points out, Chasam Sofer’s definition of death (based on the Gemara), that a person who is not breathing is declared dead, is clearly no longer acceptable, now that we know how to perform resuscitation. The story that Rabbi Meiselman brings regarding Rav Soloveitchik is where he delayed doing a b’ris against the doctor’s advice that it was safe to do it earlier. Rav Soloveitchik did not advance doing a b’ris against the doctor’s advice that it was dangerous!
If someone is teaching Torah–science issues to students who have been entirely insulated from the modern world, then it may well be legitimate to simplify matters and accept every statement about the natural world by Chazal, Rishonim, and Acharonim as being correct. But if someone is working in the broader arena of people who are more knowledgeable in either science or Torah, this approach can dangerously backfire. It is very, very important for all such writings on Torah and science to bring kavod to Torah—by being thoroughly researched, and by being honest, accurate, and professional with regard to Torah sources as well as the scientific enterprise.
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(Rabbi Meiselman's response can be found at this link. Here is my rejoinder to his response.)
Rabbi Meiselman addresses very few of my points in his response. He states that "if R’ Slifkin wishes to answer the content of my book, he should wait until the book appears and then give a complete rebuttal;" that "to do so in a newspaper article clearly does not enable me to give full demonstration of my positions." I have every intention of giving a complete rebuttal of his book when it appears. But meanwhile, he put forth his views on numerous topics in a newspaper article, and it is to these that I responded in a newspaper article.
With regard to the charge of revisionism on Rav Soloveitchik's views, Rabbi Meiselman says that "either Slifkin or Kaplan would have to be privy to a deep insight into my rebbi’s views based on closer contact than all of us. Whereas this is clearly not true, one can only wonder why they believe that there is any credibility to their opinion." In fact, we do not need closer contact; our opinions are credible based on direct evidence from Rav Soloveitchik's explicit writings and recorded lectures. In my post on this topic, I showed how Rabbi Meiselman selectively quoted from Rav Soloveitchik and thereby completely distorted his position, as can be seen from looking at the full quote and at Rav Soloveitchik's writings elsewhere.
In response to my points about the credibility of people who air views on these topics, Rabbi Meiselman stated that "My credentials lie within the book. If the book shows competence, then I am competent. If it doesn’t show competence then I am not competent." I couldn't agree more. But if so, why is Rabbi Meiselman having his PhD in mathematics from MIT trumpeted as giving him credibility? Why did he tell the Jewish Press that the value of his book lies in his "unique background" which gives him "very broad scientific knowledge"?
Rabbi Meiselman charges me with appealing to authority rather than demonstrating my positions. It's hard to know what to make of this, since much of this is indeed about what the authorities (Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim) held about matters. If he wants to demonstrate that he understands Rambam better than Abarbanel, Akeidas Yitzchak, Shem Tov, and Ralbag, as well as all modern academic scholars, he is free to do so. However, it would be appropriate for him to clearly state that he believes Abarbanel, Akeidas Yitzchak, Shem Tov, and Ralbag to be confused, rather than stating that he believes "Slifkin" to be confused.
Rabbi Meiselman says that he has "extensive quotes from internationally famed zookeepers who claim that only someone ignorant of zookeeping would think that a local flood is scientifically tenable." Indeed, I also think that positing a local flood is also scientifically untenable, unless other details of the Deluge are taken non-literally. But I am astounded that Rabbi Meiselman is quoting from "internationally famed zookeepers" as to what is scientifically tenable. Is he interested in what internationally famed zoologists, geologists, and archeologists have to say about whether a global flood is scientifically tenable?!
With regard to the Greeks possibly knowing about the regenerative ability of the liver, Rabbi Meiselman claims that I have never substantiated that claim. In fact, one need look no further than Wikipedia to discover that Prometheus seems to discuss it - see Chen T and Chen P (1994), "The Myth of Prometheus and the Liver". A counterargument is provided by Power C and Rasko J (2008), "Whither Prometheus' Liver? Greek Myth and the Science of Regeneration." However, as I noted, even if the Greeks did not know about liver regeneration, it is far from clear that Chazal knew it either (and furthermore, an animal cannot live with a liver reduced to the amount that they specified). Rabbi Meiselman did not respond to either of these points.
With regard to the Rashba, Rabbi Meiselman rather rudely asserts that I have "again showed an inability to understand Rishonim." However, he does not provide the slightest argument to back up this claim, merely a reference to his forthcoming book.
On the topic of the mud-mouse, Rabbi Meiselman claims that I "again misunderstand the Gemara" and that Chazal did not in fact believe it to exist. Since my misunderstanding is apparently shared by every Rishon, Acharon, and contemporary Torah scholar to have addressed the topic, I seem to be in good company, although once again Rabbi Meiselman prefers to refer to me rather than to them. To be sure, Chazal often answered heretics on their own terms; but, given the wider context, it is more reasonable to propose that they described the mud-mouse to heretics (as evidence for resurrection), and discussed its halachos in the Mishnah, because they actually believed it to exist (as Rav Hirsch says, due to it being standard belief in those days). It is unreasonable to propose that while Chazal shared everyone else's belief in the spontaneous generation of insects from fruit and sweat, and in the spontaneous generation of salamanders from fire, they did not share the belief of others in the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt. Why would they have rejected that belief while accepting the others - and meanwhile talking about the mouse in such a way as to give the distinct impression that they believed it to be an actual creature?
With regard to Prof. Sternberg pointing out the flaws in suggesting that animals can survive without kidneys, Rabbi Meiselman asserts that Professor Levi Rabbi Gershon Weiss "demonstrated that Sternberg’s comments were without merit." In fact, Prof. Levi (in Torah and Science, p. 213), in a book that strives mightily to reconcile the Gemara with science, suggests that it is "conceivable" that the animal "might" survive. This hardly counts as a firm reconciliation of the Gemara.
Rabbi Meiselman concludes by saying that he "awaits everyone’s critique once the book appears in a final and complete form." I am not sure whether this means that he has any intention of responding to such critiques. Several years ago, I sent him a letter, regarding his series of lectures regarding my books. In that letter, I pointed out that almost every single claim that he made about my personal history and the contents of my books is demonstrably false, as anyone can check merely by listening to his lectures and looking at my books. I still await a response. Surely the Torah demands nothing but the truth.