It never ceases to amaze me how certain concepts are taught as being fundamental, traditional and unequivocal in Judaism, and yet careful study reveals them to be very recent and/or based on a single perspective that is opposed by others. Examples discussed here previously include the notion that one can learn Torah to elevate the soul of the departed. Today, I'd like to discuss another example.
There is a well-known and much-cited statement in Pirkei Avos as follows: "Ben Bag Bag says, Delve into it [Torah] repeatedly, for everything is in it." Hafoch ba v'hafoch ba, dekula ba. This statement from Pirkei Avos is widely cited in popular Orthodox literature in order to show that Chazal themselves were of the view that all knowledge is in the Torah. Everything is in it - including all scientific knowledge. Thus, those who are expert in Torah can derive this knowledge and tap into Divinely sourced information about the natural world.
But is this necessarily what the Mishnah in Avos is saying?
If you look at Seforno's commentary on Avos, and particularly the ArtScroll edition, you'll see something very interesting. Seforno explains the "everything" of the Mishnah as referring to "intellectual arguments regarding true and authentic opinions of Godly matters and the immortality of the soul, and similar things, which represent the essential subjects of theological research." In other words, it refers to matters of theology and religious truth - not science. The ArtScroll edition points out that "Considering that the Sforno himself was extremely well versed in science and medicine, we must understand his interpretation as referring only to philosophical and theological works."
How many people would consider this the explanation of the Mishnah, and how many would be very surprised to learn of it
(Note: I have a big backlog of emails, so please forgive me if you have written to me and not received a response. I am currently on the road, in Los Angeles, which makes it even harder for me to keep up.)