Torah, Chazal and Science. However, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the charedi polemicist of Cross-Currents fame, recently published an adulatory review of Rabbi Meiselman’s book in the journal Dialogue
Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly! But let me carefully work through some of the problems with Rabbi Menken’s review.
The Ideal Perverter of Rav Soloveitchik
At the beginning of his review, Rabbi Menken explains why he thinks that Rabbi Meiselman is “in many ways, the ideal person to address this controversial issue. Because he was a dedicated and close talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik… he is best able to rebut those insisting that their ideas are compatible with Rav Soloveitchik’s school of thought.” Who is "those"? You mean all Rav Soloveitchik’s other close talmidim and family members? They all regard Rabbi Meiselman as a completely dishonest charedi revisionist of Rav Soloveitchik. I know, I’ve spoken to them.
Besides, you don’t even need to be a talmid of Rav Soloveitchik to know that Rabbi Meiselman grossly distorts his teachings – you just need to be able to read. The most egregious example of Rabbi Meiselman distorting Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings in this area is when he quotes the Rav as saying that evolution and the Bible have long been recognized as being at odds – without revealing that one paragraph later, the Rav explains that this is a thoroughly mistaken approach! Such brazen dishonesty is, unfortunately, rampant throughout Rabbi Meiselman’s book.
Chazal and Science
Rabbi Menken describes Rabbi Meiselman as showing that the only sources indicating the fallibility of Chazal are Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and those who lived after the scientific revolution and were unsettled by it. Of course, this is nonsense. There are many dozens of sources amongst the Rishonim and early Acharonim who present this view.
Most notably, this occurs with the Gemara in Pesachim, where the Sages of Israel state that the sun passes behind the sky at night, and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observes them to be incorrect. Rabbi Meiselman has an extremely muddled discussion of this topic, in which he eventually is forced to concede that most Rishonim do understand this Gemara to mean that the Sages of Israel were wrong, but he claims that these sages did not derive this position from the Torah. Yet the same view is presented by Chazal in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah where it is connected to pesukim! Elsewhere, Rabbi Meiselman claims that these sages of Israel were not Torah scholars, which is likewise refuted by the Gemara in Bava Basra and Bereishis Rabbah. Furthermore, if Chazal could mistakenly believe that the sun goes behind the sky at night, why could they not also mistakenly believe things that were universal belief for much longer, such as spontaneous generation?! Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is following the consensus of Rishonim with his work, but in fact he is going directly against the consensus of Rishonim.
Rabbi Menken happily accepts Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments that the relevant section of the maamar of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is a forgery. David Ohsie has presented a lengthy series of posts refuting these arguments. I would simply like to point out that the only people who find Rabbi Meiselman’s arguments to be remotely convincing are those who, for religious reasons, are convinced that this approach is heretical and thus Rabbeinu Avraham could not possibly have said it. Rabbi Meiselman makes reference to several scholars of Maimonidean manuscripts that he consulted with regarding aspects of this discussion, and when I contacted them, none of them knew anything about his argument, and it seems that he was not interested in asking their opinion.
The “Unsophisticated” Rav Hirsch
Rabbi Meiselman dismisses the views of more recent rabbinic scholars who noted that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. He claims that they “were generally not trained in science” and therefore said Chazal were wrong, and “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters they might have felt less intimidated.” But what on earth does training in science have to do with anything?! When scholars such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog observed that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation, they just honestly accepted that Chazal's words meant what all the Rishonim and Acharonim and common sense says that they mean, without contriving a forced reinterpretation of Chazal’s words that goes against all sense and tradition. It is simply a red herring to say that “had the scholars been more sophisticated in scientific matters” they would have said otherwise. (On the other hand, it is entirely accurate to say that had the Gedolim and Rabbi Meiselman been more sophisticated in scientific matters, they would not have rejected the evidence for the antiquity of the universe!)
Rabbi Menken also helpfully drew my attention to another distortion that Rabbi Meiselman commits. In discussing and dismissing the writings of 19th century rabbinic scholars on these issues, Rabbi Meiselman states that “In the face of these challenges some may have felt compelled to concede the imperfectness of Chazal’s factual knowledge. When they did so, however, it was always in response to some specific issue. Moreover, they made no attempt to square this concession with the overwhelming consensus to the contrary.” To prove the falseness of these claims, let us simply quote these authorities. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes 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… 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.”Rav Hirsch, then, does not present this approach as a particular response to a specific issue. Furthermore, he clearly states that he believes this to be a normative view (albeit obviously with those who differ). The same goes for Rav Herzog, who presents Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s position as being the normative viewpoint. But you wouldn’t know from Rabbi Meiselman’s book that Rav Hirsch says this, because Rabbi Meiselman never once quotes Rav Hirsch’s writings on these topics, even though they are the most thorough pre-20th century treatment of these topics.
Rabbi Meiselman is perfectly entitled to adopt the view that Chazal were infallible in their definitive statements about the natural world. However, it is a falsification of the history of Torah scholarship to deny that there was a major school of thought that felt otherwise, or to dismiss the statements of figures such as Rav Hirsch, Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog.
At the end of the day, regardless of the sources for and against the notion that Chazal could be mistaken in scientific matters, what is the logic to it? Rabbi Menken claims that "Rav Meiselman's statement is reasonable and straightforward: that Chazal were careful with their words, and would only make a definitive statement that they knew to be true." In fact, Rabbi Meiselman’s statement is not reasonable in the slightest. Yes, Chazal were careful with their words. Still, like every human being that has ever lived, they would make definitive statements that they believed to be true. One can never ultimately know if one’s statements are true. Rabbi Meiselman has no problem dismissing hundreds of scientific statements made by the Rishonim and Acharonim; he does not see it as impugning their integrity. There is no reason why Chazal should be any different.
The Age of the Universe
Rabbi Menken claims that Rabbi Meiselman is a Rosh Yeshiva with a "clear understanding of modern science." I’m not sure on what basis Rabbi Menken, a computer scientist, is able to endorse Rabbi Meiselman in this way. Rabbi Menken makes an astonishing claim regarding Rabbi Meiselman’s approach to Creation and the Flood: “In each case, he shows how the Biblical passage may be understood while neither discarding its plain meaning nor rejecting facts known to scientists.” Likewise, Rabbi Menken later writes that Rabbi Meiselman succeeds in explaining Genesis “without compromising science.” Well, just about every scientist in the world (of those in the relevant fields, and lacking a religious agenda) would find that laughable.
Rabbi Meiselman claims that every single field of science dealing with matters pre-dating the Deluge is fundamentally invalid. He claims that they are all based on an incorrect assumption that the laws of nature have never been different. In fact, Rabbi Meiselman is ignorant of the very basis of the fields of science which deal with that period. The constancy of nature was not an assumption for them – it was a conclusion, first drawn by William Smith, who observed that the geological layers show an orderly, uniform pattern, not the chaotic mess that the religious Christians of the time expected, as the result of their belief (along with Rabbi Meiselman) in the miraculous and non-naturalistic creation of the world. It’s as a result of the discoveries of Smith and others that there are multi-billion dollar industries based upon the work of geologists. Geology works, precisely because the world did develop according to an orderly, naturalistic process, and not the supernatural, entirely different process from today that Rabbi Meiselman insists upon.
And let us not forget that it is not only with regarding to creation and the flood that Rabbi Meiselman discards science. There are many statements in the Gemara that are at odds with modern science, which Rabbi Meiselman simply ignores, probably because he has no way of satisfactorily dealing with them. Chazal make definitive statements about the gestation period of different animals, the spontaneous generation of salamanders from fire, and all kinds of things which, following Rabbi Meiselman’s principles, one would have to accept as being factually true, even though they are completely at odds with science.
If somebody wants to simply say that all modern science is bunk, well, so be it. But to reject (without explanation) the fundamentals of physics, geology, paleontology, biology, and archeology, which are accepted by all scientists in those fields, while simultaneously claiming that one “understands modern science” and is not “rejecting facts known to scientists” or “compromising science” is laughably dishonest.
Rabbi Menken Betrays The Gedolim
There is one absolutely fascinating aspect of Rabbi Menken’s review. He presents Rabbi Meiselman’s book as being the long-awaited explanation for the Gedolims’ ban on my own books. To quote Rabbi Menken: “Many were confused when those views were ultimately declared to be wrong and even kefirah by Gedoley Torah. No previous writer has laid out in such detail where those writers went off course and what needs to be corrected.” Later, Rabbi Menken states that Rabbi Meiselman “…has defended the honor… of our Chachomim, shlita, in our times.”
Now, this blew me away. After all, Rabbi Meiselman presents positions and statements that the vast majority of the Gedolim would find to be every bit as heretical as my own. For example, there are numerous passages in the Gemara and Midrash which discuss various cases of spontaneous generation, according to the unequivocal consensus of all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Yet Rabbi Meiselman comes along and insists that all these Rishonim and Acharonim did not know how to learn these passages, and innovates a new explanation of them. This brazen disregard for their Torah scholarship – which, for the record, I myself strongly dispute – would be regarded by most, if not all, the Gedolim as completely unacceptable.
Indeed, there was one book that was presented as the Authorized Response to Slifkin, Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer’s Chaim B’Emunasam, which featured approbations from many of the Gedolim who banned my books (unlike Rabbi Meiselman’s book, which features no approbations). In their approbations, several of the Gedolim specifically stated that one is obligated to accept the traditional explanations of the Gemara that are given by the Rishonim and Acharonim, and not to contrive new and non-traditional explanations in order to make the Gemara compatible with science. They are condemning precisely Rabbi Meiselman’s approach!
Nor is this the only case of Rabbi Meiselman presenting positions that the Gedolim oppose. He makes several statements that the Gedolim would find unforgivable. For example, he states that Chazal “would only make definitive statements that they knew to be true – and, along with those, made tentative statements that might well not be true.” Can you imagine Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel or Rav Moshe Shapiro accepting that some of Chazal’s statements, such as those describing the earth-mouse and which involve derashos from pesukim, are only tentative statements about the world that might well not be true?!
Rabbi Meiselman is certainly not explaining the view of the Gedolim who banned my books; he is simply taking a different anti-rationalist view that these Gedolim would likewise deem heretical. Why, then, does Rabbi Menken see them as presenting the same approach? Furthermore, even more fascinatingly, Rabbi Menken’s own book, Everything Torah, presents exactly the approach regarding the age of the universe that Rabbi Meiselman (and the Gedolim) condemn!
What on earth is going on here? I think that the answer is as follows. It’s all about tribalism. It doesn’t matter that Rav Elyashiv and Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and Rabbi Yaakov Menken all have mutually exclusive views. It doesn’t matter that Rabbi Meiselman is a heretic by Rav Wachtfogel’s definition and Rabbi Menken is a heretic by Rabbi Meiselman’s definition. The important thing is that they are all against Slifkin, Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy, and all those other things. You can say that the Acharonim were wrong, you can say that the Rishonim were wrong, you can say that Chazal were wrong, as long as you say that Slifkin is wrong!
(The full series of critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book is at this link)