I'm not just controversial for arguing that Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect. Occasionally, I've also engendered controversy when explaining how Chazal were correct.
In several instances, Chazal pronounce rules about the animal kingdom, which seem to be contradicted by certain species. For example:
- The statement that every animal lacking upper teeth is kosher - contradicted by anteaters, armadillos, and white rhinos.
- The statement that every animal possessing upper teeth is non-kosher - contradicted by several types of deer.
- The statement that every animal that "brings up the cud" is kosher, aside from camels, hares and hyraxes - contradicted by capybaras, koalas, proboscis monkeys and others.
- The statement that every fish with scales has fins - possibly contradicted by sea-snakes and swamp-eels.
- The statement that a headless chicken will die - possibly contradicted by "Mike the Headless Chicken."
- The statement that every animal which lays eggs does not nurse its young - contradicted by platypus and echidnas.
- The statement that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish - contradicted by the bonobo and stitchbird.
In all these cases, I argued that the rules are not incorrect. It's true that Chazal didn't know about these animals, but even if they would have known about them, they would not have been bothered. The reason is that they were not concerned about animals that live in remote places, and they were not concerned about rare exceptions. Ein lemedin min haklalos - one does not take general principles as absolute rules.
Despite the fact that I brought numerous sources to bolster this approach (see The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax), it ruffled a lot of feathers. True, I said that Chazal were not mistaken - but claiming that their rules were not absolute was seen as undermining their authority.
Not that this bothers me anymore. With R. Yonasan Eybeschutz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg and Chassam Sofer and numerous others presenting such an approach, I'm happy to be in their company. Still, I appreciated a fascinating source that my friend R. Eliezer Zobin sent to me recently.
Koheles 7:20 states that "There is no righteous man in the world who does good and does not sin." Tosafos, to Shabbos 55b, challenges this, based on a Gemara which lists four people who died without sin. He answers - talking about a passuk in Tenach! - that it is not an absolute statement, just a generality, which can have exceptions. The Pnei Yehoshua doesn't like this approach, but that's what Tosafos says.
The Tosafist wasn't a rationalist. But he was level-headed, and didn't see a need to interpret a statement as being some kind of Discovery-style scientific claim.
(If you're looking for a post about Noah's Ark and the Flood, check out last year's post.)