Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Were Chazal Able To Extract Science From Torah?

Let's get back to my multi-part critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science. On p. 4, after quoting various Midrashim about Torah being the blueprint of the world, which Rabbi Meiselman (like many others) understands to mean that it encodes all scientific knowledge, he claims as follows:
...It should come as no surprise, then, that we find so many incidents recorded in the Gemara and midrashim in which our Chachamim were able to derive facts about the physical world directly from the Torah.
Unfortunately, this claim is entirely false. Not only do we not find "so many" such incidents; we do not find a single one. That is, we know of no case where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it turned out to be correct. On the other hand, we know of several cases where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it does not appear to be correct (and can only be made irrelevant via strained apologetics which require claiming that the Rishonim did not explain the Gemara correctly).

In this post, we shall discuss the first example brought by Rabbi Meiselman, concerning the gestation of the snake. Here is the passage brought in the Gemara (R. Meiselman brings a lengthier version from the Midrash):
(The gestation period for) a snake is seven years… How do we know this? Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav…: As it says, “You are cursed from all the domestic animals and from all the beasts of the field” (Bereishis 3:14). If the snake is cursed more than all the domestic animals (which have a gestation period of at least five months), then surely all the more so it is cursed more than the wild animals (whose minimum gestation period is only 50 days)! Rather, it tells you that just as a domestic animal is cursed seven times more than a wild animal – namely, the donkey (which has a gestation period of one year) and the cat (whose gestation period, according the Gemara earlier, is 52 days) – so too is the snake cursed seven times more than the domesticated animal, which results in seven years. (Talmud, Bechoros 8a) 
The problem, as acknowledged by Rabbi Meiselman in a footnote, is that the gestation period of snakes is not seven years. (Sometimes, snakes can store their sperm for several years, but this does not help us; firstly, the majority of snakes do not store the sperm at all, and when it does happen, it can be for less and more than seven years.) Rabbi Meiselman addresses this problem as follows: "But again it must be recalled that Chazal were speaking of a specific species, the identity of which is unknown to us and under conditions unknown to us." Yet this is just as unreasonable as positing that the atalef of the Gemara is a platypus. If the Gemara had meant to refer to a particular and very unusual type of snake, it would have said so. Instead, it used the generic term nachash.

Furthermore, as a reader here once pointed out, there are other inaccurate statements in the Gemara about snakes. Chazal warn against drinking from an unattended wine glass unattended, in case a snake dripped venom into it, and they likewise warn against eating fruit with punctures in it, lest snakes injected venom there. But snakes do not drink with their mouths open, do not bite fruit, and their venom is perfectly safe to ingest; it is only dangerous if it enters the bloodstream. So Rabbi Meiselman's hypothetical unknown particular species of snake that is strangely unspecified and which gives birth after exactly seven years now also has a number of other characteristics that are completely at odds with all the thousands of species of snakes known to science. There is probably no point at which Rabbi Meiselman feels he is straining credulity; but for the rest of us, he passed that point long ago.

Rabbi Meiselman says that his point is not to prove Chazal's knowledge of nature from this Midrash, but only to show that they claimed their knowledge to be derived from Torah. But that doesn't help very much, when every indication is that they were not able to derive this knowledge correctly! (With regard to what is going on in the Gemara, and especially the longer version in the Midrash brought by Rabbi Meiselman, see Rabbi Josh Waxman's analysis.)

Note too that this very same page of Gemara discusses the gestation period of other animals (as discussed in an earlier post):
The [gestation period of a] fox and all kinds of creeping creatures is six months... The [gestation period of] small clean animals is five months... The [gestation period of] large unclean domestic animals is twelve months... The [gestation period of] clean large cattle is nine months... The [gestation period of the] wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey is three years...
Rabbi Meiselman only references this Gemara in a footnote, on p. 6, where he presents two possibilities. One is that the Gemara is not talking about the length of gestation, but rather "some other aspect of the reproductive process." This vague speculation does not seriously address the issues. What other aspect could be reconciled with these statements? What aspect of the reproductive process can be said to be fifty days with a dog, six months with a fox, and three years with a wolf? Furthermore, this does not address the other problematic statements on this page of Gemara, such as that any species in which the male has internal genitalia lays eggs, or that camels mate backwards, or that any two types of animal that mate in the same position and have the same gestation period can interbreed.

Rabbi Meiselman's other suggestion is that "the facts of nature have simply changed over the years." This claim (which is ironically often advanced by those who simultaneously argue that evolution is scientifically impossible) cannot be taken at all seriously by anyone even remotely familiar with zoology. Elephants used to lay eggs, but no longer do so? Countless species used to be interfertile, but are no longer interfertile? Camels used to mate back-to-back, but now awkwardly twist themselves around to mate front-to-back? Wolves, which are genetically virtually identical to dogs, used to have a gestation period of three years?!

Were Chazal able to extract scientific knowledge from Torah? The only honest answer to that appears to be no. But let us phrase the question a little differently. Did Chazal consider themselves able to extract science from Torah, and if so, to what extent and to what degree of reliability? And to what extent was their self-assessment accepted or disputed by later authorities? There are indeed certain indications that Chazal did consider themselves able to reliably extract science from Torah:
The Emperor once asked R. Joshua b. Hanania: ‘How long is the period of gestation and birth of a serpent’? — He replied to him: ‘Seven years’. ‘But did not the Sages of the Athenian school couple’ [a male serpent with a female] and they gave birth in three years’? — ‘Those had already been pregnant for four years’. ‘But did they not have sexual contact’? — ‘Serpents have sexual intercourse in the same manner as human beings’.‘But are not [the sages of Athens] wise men [and surely they must have ascertained the true facts about the serpent]’? ‘We are wiser than they.' (Bechoros 8b)

On the other hand, the fact that they argued with each other about facts such as the path of the sun and the source of rain means that they acknowledged that they weren't necessarily correct in their exegeses. And indeed, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi conceded that the non-Jewish astronomers were correct about where the sun goes at night, even though the Jewish sages had connected their view to a Scriptural exegesis. It would seem that although where Jewish pride was at stake, Chazal insisted on their superiority, otherwise they acknowledged that their methodology would not necessarily yield correct results. As indeed it didn't.

132 comments:

  1. Round and around and around and around we go
    Oh now, tell me now, tell me now, tell me now how you know

    ReplyDelete
  2. Along this strain of thought, there must be more to this discussion than mere physiological facts. Indeed, the Maharsha comments on Belhorot 8b, explaining it as a metaphysical discussion exploring various avenues from the root of source of morality, whether from natural observations or Supernal Will.

    Indeed, Likutey Moharan volume 4 lessons 23-32 explore in depth the deeper communication going on between the 60 wise men of Athens and Rabbi Yehoshua. I agree that it is an underestimation to look at these discussions for scientific facts. It is much more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Rabbi Meiselman's other suggestion is that "the facts of nature have simply changed over the years." This claim (which is ironically often advanced by those who simultaneously argue that evolution is scientifically impossible)..."

    But then, is it not also ironic to claim that evolution exists and yet nature has not changed?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Scientists do not claim that nature has not changed. Just that it hasn't changed to anywhere near the degree that R. Meiselman proposes.

      Delete
    2. To be very clear. Scientist will argue that the laws (physics) of nature are unchanged since some finite time after the big bang. Change is an inevitable part of physics, however. Evolution describes a process which describes how living organism can change, and emerge overtime within the laws of physics.

      By any reasonable understanding, nature has not changed over time, only the depth of our understanding of nature!

      Delete
    3. Well, it depends on how far back you go :) At one time the universe was so hot that sub-atomic particles like electrons could not exist. But I gather what you mean is that evolution is a slow process and R Meiselman's changes would be too large for the timeframe given (beside being unsupported by the evidence).

      The real answer is that high-level philosophical reasoning is not how figure out what happened in the past. Certain kinds of changes happened and others did not. If you want to find out what happened, you have to study the situation in detail and determine it, not just say "well, things change". Evolution is confirmed by many lines of evidence, the easiest to understand being that fossils from a given time in the past are of different kinds of plants and animals than at other times and you can find tree-like relationships between them.

      It is good if we can explain ancient beliefs, even when false, based on what we know today. For example, it is not hard to understand that they attributed food poisoning to snake poisoning, since they understood that this was some kind of "poison" because the damage from eating the bad food did not result from any kind of trauma, and snakes were the best analogy.

      Delete
    4. There is evidence for evolution. There is no evidence for a change in olive size over the past 3000 years.

      Delete
  4. "But snakes'...venom is perfectly safe to ingest" -- provided you don’t have any microabrasions or cuts in your mouth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Based on his various animal adventures, we can deduce that R Slifkin is a bit of a daredevil with regard to such dangers. So that would probably not deter him. :)

      Delete
    2. Maybe snake venom is, but crocodile bile is not. There was a case in Africa where several people died after ingesting punch from a bowl that a crocodile had gotten into. So Chazal were being quite reasonable about covering up food and water!

      Delete
    3. You are right, but Chazal probably covered food for the same reason that we do: microorganisms from the air fall into the food (and obviously larger stuff can too).

      Delete
    4. Or, more pedantically put, Chazal probably covered food because unsystematic observation yielded the conclusion that if you kept food or drink uncovered it made you sick.
      There was another observation: snakes were sometimes seen in and around containers of food.
      There is a known fact: snakes are poisonous and their bites can kill you or make you sick.
      Therefore, when food makes you sick, it's because of snakes, so cover food to keep snakes from poisoning it.

      I don't have enough information to have an opinion on whether Chazal's sample size was such that we should call their method of reaching the conclusion "deduction" or "inference."

      Delete
    5. We've done some weird things with animal breeding. A guy who did some work on my house had a purebred English Bulldog. Apparently their heads are so big that the vet frequently has to deliver the pups by Caesarian.

      It's not just dogs, either. One of my gross anatomy professors had done a Peace Corps stint in Africa, I forget where. Anyway, modern times had brought slender Nilotic types into contact with stockier, burlier types. When a pregnant woman was Nilotic and the father of her baby was from the group that was stockier, broader and more roundheaded, there tended to be problems.
      This was in such a remote area that Caesarians weren't feasible, so if there was no alternative, the medical team would make a small incision and disarticulate the symphisis pubis which allowed the birth to proceed.
      Convalescence was long, but mother and baby were both alive.

      Delete
  5. There is something missing from all of this. It's one thing to say that Chazal derived scientific facts from the Torah that don't correspond to reality. On the other hand, Chazal lived with camels. Is it plausible to suggest that they lived with camels but never saw them mating just to make sure they understood their Torah-derived insight correctly? Worse, is it plausible to think that they believed a camel mated a certain way and when they saw camels doing it the other way they simply decided that the camels were wrong?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can equally ask how it was thought for so many centuries that men and women have different numbers of ribs, or that Jews and non-Jews have different numbers of teeth. People did not care so much for empirical observation back then. If they saw something that deviated from accepted wisdom, then it was aberrant.

      Delete
    2. Camels' penises point backwards to urinate, so it's understandable that people would think they mate backwards.

      Delete
    3. Excellent! What is funny is that our lack of everyday experience with animals is what leads us to puzzle over that Gemara. If you we what a Camel actually looked like and how it acted, then the statement would make perfect sense to us, even if it has been superseded by a more accurate description in later times.

      Delete
    4. It takes effort to count teeth, and more effort to cut open cadavers to count ribs. Anyone who was around camels would have seen them mate, with no effort at all.

      I would guess that those who claimed camels mate backwards saw camels only infrequently. Camel breeders and drivers were part of the am haarez who had no interest in the abstract discussions of the rabbonim, (and whom the amoraim wouldn't have listened to, anyway) so the mistaken idea about camels' mating habits was never corrected.

      Delete
    5. Garnel, we are all heirs of the scientific revolution. Before the mid-16th century, philosophical reasoning and received knowledge were the primary ways of knowing things. Observation and experimentation were simply not done. For example, Plutarch says that garlic neutralizes magnets and Aristotle says that men and women have different numbers of teeth. Until about 450 years ago it would not occur to anybody to see if garlic actually neutralizes magnets or to count how many teeth are in a woman's mouth because that was not done. If Plutarch or Aristotle said so then it must be the case. Derek Lowe wrote a blog post about this here http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/04/08/realizing-that-there-was-such-a-thing-as-science.

      Delete
    6. Those who criticize Aristotle for not caring about observation, pleas read this article:

      https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/rescuing-aristotle/

      Delete
  6. How could they view animals mating? It's forbidden.
    I like your line and I think it's true: if camels deviated from the Torah then yes, they were wrong in doing so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you deal with animals at all- and back then they did, a lot- you can't avoid seeing them mate. It happens. It *better* happen. And Chazal talk about it a lot.

      Also, some animals need assistance. Horse mating, for example, is a complicated business that (in domestic settings at least) needs a lot of human assistance.

      Delete
    2. zfriend said:

      "How could they view animals mating? It's forbidden."

      Actually, it is permitted for one who is in the business of raising/breeding the animals since his mind is on his business and not other things. This is explicit in the Gemara.

      Delete
    3. How did horses mate before humans came around to helping them?

      Delete
    4. I don't know too much about horse breeding, but I think that he's talking about domesticated horses + the need to breed enough for humans to fulfill their profit motive (aka put food on the table).

      Delete
    5. @huh?
      Weren't animals created the same day as Adam? He helped them ASAP.

      See also Klayim perek 8 about animals whose nature changed from domestic to wild. So while --according to you -- horses were wild, their nature was different. There was a famous domesticated chimp, who when they got tired of him, they let out into the wild. He had a hard time managing, having been pampered by humans till then. Same with theses "spoiled" domestic horses -- while wild they managed, now they can't.

      (From the top of my sleeve I suspect that cows can't survive without humans milking them, but I'm not sure about that one, so how did they survive before humans?.)

      Delete
    6. cows only have milk, just like humans, after they give birth. so the babies were the original milkers. and, just like humans, if the baby stops nursing the milk dries up.

      Delete
    7. Shai,
      Then isn't the simplest and possibly best explanation that the redactors of the gemara were not animal breeders professionally, neither was R Yehoshua, and either there were contrasting statements (replies or "replies") that the redactors chose not to include, or those among chazal who were around animals never made drashas like this or never discussed this issue so there were no such contrary statements to select from?

      Delete
    8. Rav yehoshua was a smith (tfillat hashachar), who presumably put "horseshoes" on animals of his day. Must have had a lot of experience moving them around, etc.

      (Unless its another R Yehoshua)

      Delete
    9. Student v,

      No, I don't think that is a tenable approach. The information was too readily available. Regarding the alleged practice of ancients to be uninterested in empirical evidence, please see the following eye-opening article referred to by Alex, above:

      https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/rescuing-aristotle/

      Delete
    10. No, I don't think that is a tenable approach. The information was too readily available.

      This is an assertion without evidence. How do you know what information was available to every single author? The fact that a false statement was made indicates that the information was not readily available.

      The Gemara brings as evidence for the divinity of the Torah the fact that Moshe seemed to bring down from Sinai information about wild animals which he would not be familiar with because he was not a hunter.

      Regarding the alleged practice of ancients to be uninterested in empirical evidence, please see the following eye-opening article referred to by Alex, above

      This actually proves the opposite of what you claim. Despite Aristotle being a careful observer, he still made blunders that can be invalidated by simple observation.

      Delete
    11. Also keep in mind that (unless I'm mistaken, and please correct me if I am) each of the major layers of redaction were done by 1-3 people at most.

      Delete
  7. I'm told that r' kook believed that the gra was able to do this but perhaps someone more familiar with his works might comment
    kt
    joel rich

    ReplyDelete
  8. What you're saying makes sense, but many rishonim (Ramban comes to mind) hold that all science is embedded in the Torah somehow. Do you think that they were misread or are just mistaken?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, personally I follow Rambam, who did not believe this. But even according to those Rishonim who did believe that it was all embedded, this does not mean that people are necessarily able to extract it.

      Delete
    2. Yet Ramban did offer that Chazal could be incorrect. For example <a href="http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006/04/ramban.html>here</a>

      Now with regard to the implication of the verse the Rabbis have said: "Ishah ki thazria – if the woman emits seed first, she will bear a son." ... The Rabbis used the term "she emits seed" with reference to the blood of the womb, which gathers in the mother at the time of the consummation of coition, and attaches itself to the seed of the male. For in the opinion of the Rabbis the child is formed from the blood of the female and the white [semen] of the man, and both of them are called "seed." Thus the Rabbis have said: "There are three partners in [the formation of] man: The male emits the white [semen], from which are formed the sinews, the bones, and white substance in the eye. The female emits a red secretion from which are formed the skin, the flesh, the blood, the hair, and the black substance in the eye." The opinion of the doctors as to the formation [the embryo of the child] is also the same. In the opinion of the Greek philosophers, however, the whole body of the child is formed from [the substance of] the blood of the mother, the father only contributing that generative force which is known in their language as hyly, which gives form to matter. For there is no difference at all between the egg of a chicken which is laid because it was fructified by a male, and that laid as a result of the mother rolling herself in the dust, except that the egg [that had been fructified by a male] germinates into a young bird, while the other is not sown, nor beareth (Deuteronomy 29:22), because it is deprived of the elemental heat which is its hyly. And if so, the word thazria [in ishah ki thazria] will be like u'cheganah zeiru'eha thatzmiach (as the garden causeth the seeds that are sown in it to spring forth (Isaiah 61:11)). And so did Onkelos render it: "If a woman conceives." [translation of Rabbi C. Chavel, Ramban, Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Vol. 3, Brooklyn: Shilo, 1974]

      Delete
    3. Weaver said, "many rishonim (Ramban comes to mind) hold that all science is embedded in the Torah somehow."

      Natan Slifkin said, "even according to those Rishonim who did believe that it was all embedded, this does not mean that people are necessarily able to extract it."

      So it indeed seems. Ramban himself only says of two or maybe three biblical individuals that they knew the wisdoms embedded in the Torah: Moshe, Shlomo, and Chizkiyahu. He cites a statement of Shlomo about how much he (Shlomo) knew. If such knowledge was commonplace, there would be no reason for Shlomo of all people to make mention of it. So even in biblical times virtually no one knew this wisdom. And Ramban doesn't bring any member of Chazal as having this knowledge. Apparently none of them did -- none of them could extract it all out of the Torah.

      Delete
  9. Here's how I see your difference with R' Meiselman, which can be generalized to the differing perspective of Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Judaism. R' Meiselman / Haredi Judaism believes chazal had similar approaches to halacha and science and that they were correct in both. A straightforward reading of chazal's scientific statements is contradicted by science, and R' Meiselman therefore provides a strained interpretation of the circumstances of the scientific statements.

    You / Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, require no strained interpretation of chazal's scientific statements, they were simply wrong, but are left with another problem. How can you justify commitment to the halachic understanding of chazal when they were so wrong about science? Here is your turn to strain, and that is in the creation of a distinction between the halachic statements of chazal and the scientific ones. A theory is born that chazal were authorities in drash and receivers of an authentic tradition when making halachic statements but not when making scientific ones. Yet all evidence is to the contrary, and chazal made no distinction between their approach to halacha and science. Not only did they darshen pesukim as you've noted, but they respected received scientific knowledge ("Im kabbalah hi") as authoritative in the same was as they did halacha. You deal with this briefly in the end of your post, but really, is the fact they argued about something proof that they didn't consider their approach "necessarily correct?" The gemarah is nothing if not a compendium of halachic disagreements, does that prove that chazal understood that they were not necessarily correct in that area?

    From a religious perspective, Rabbi Meiselman's approach seems more consistent and satisfying. From a rationalist perspective, I see little difference between the approaches. He requires a strained interpretation of some rabbinic statements about science. You require the strained creation of a fundamental difference of approach regarding halacha and science which does not appear in the gemarah. Sometimes instead of straining the gemarah R' Meiselman strains the science, and that is easy to point a finger at and label not "rational," but is creating artificial distinctions in defense of an a priori religious commitment really more rational?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very insightful. Rabbi Slifkin, how would you respond to this?

      Aspiring Rationalist

      Delete
    2. "How can you justify commitment to the halachic understanding of chazal when they were so wrong about science?"

      How can you justify you listening to your doctor's medical advice when he is so wrong about what's making that funny noise in your car?
      How can you justify paying your mechanic when he can't tell a colon from a spleen?
      How can you justify your local weather forecaster when he can't tell whether that shirt stain will come out with baking soda?

      "Yet all evidence is to the contrary, and chazal made no distinction between their approach to halacha and science."

      Wrong, see the Rambam's Guide where he explains that חז"ל came to their conclusions in the משנה in שבת סז by means of experiment. Halacha is (generally) not determined by experiment. So they indeed made a distinction. See also Menachot 37a where Rebbi is proven wrong in a scientific matter.

      Delete
    3. Halachah is what Chazal decided it to be. That's all there is to it. There's nothing strained here.

      Delete
    4. Good Point. Maybe that's what Torah Lav B'Shomayim means. There might not be an ideal correct theology in all its details that we can be privy to. We have a certain amount of revealed knowledge and methods of dealing with it that have developed over the centuries and that is what we use going forward. Perhaps in some imaginary alternate universe Chazal came to somewhat different conclusions over the years and Judaism looks somehow different there, and that's also valid under the Torah Lav B'Shomayim rubric. Maybe Chazal's approach to Science and Halacha is in fact similar, and Torah Lav B'Shomayim means exactly like it sounds. Yes, we haven't been as successful in predicting science in the religious realm, and that makes a person wonder about the religious ideas that were put forward as well, but not only is there no way to test religious ideas in the physical world in any conclusive way, there might not be one ideal external correct collection of religious conclusions. It would seem that G-d did not provide us with an external spiritual world to test our theological ideas against. The best we can do is decide what's within the acceptable realm and what's too far outside it, roughly speaking. It's inherently amorphous compared to science, but not everything in the living experience can be boiled down to science.

      Delete
    5. R. J. David Bleich wrote in Tradition(“Spontaneous Generation And Halakhic Inerrancy”):

      “On a superficial reading, the notion that Hazal were wrong on the facts but that Halakhah predicated upon those facts nevertheless remains in force because those rulings were canonized by the Sages of the Talmud and that such canonization is nothing more than a “nationwide acceptance of their authority” sounds very much like a Reconstructionist reading of the Oral Law, absent the saving grace of an ethical purpose. Such a definition of canonization of factually baseless Halakhah is nothing more than a description of tenacious adherence to quaint folk practices preserved, at best, in order to promote some ethnic or social purpose.”
      Regarding the Sefer Hachinuch, R. Bleich says “Conceivably, an appeal to that proof text would serve to substantiate a doctrine of halakhic inerrancy despite scientific fallibility. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, such a doctrine has never been formulated by any credible authority.”

      R. Aharon Feldman acknowledged that, “this is not because they considered the Sages greater scientists than their modern counterparts. Rather, they believed that, unlike R. Avraham’s view, the source of all the knowledge of the Sages is either from Sinaitic tradition (received at the Giving of the Torah) or from Divine inspiration…It is therefore inconceivable, to these opinions, that G-d would have permitted falsities to have been transmitted as Torah She-be-al-peh and not have revealed His secrets to those who fear Him.”

      On the other hand, RSRH wrote that, “they were not especially natural scientists, geometers, astronomers or physicians except as it was necessary for their comprehension, observance and performance of the Torah – and we do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.”

      (To me, this and other issues boil down to how open and honest one is. One can advocate nishtanah hateva, or Satmar hashkafos for that matter, if one thinks that is what the sources require, but when arguing, one should be open on a deep-level about the strengths and weakness of his positions, how much is rational, and how much is faith-based; I think the same should apply to kiruv, even when talking about ikkarei emunah.)

      Delete
    6. A Jew follows the Torah and its halachic system because we are nation and the Torah is our nation's constitution. It obligates us whether or not we intellectually are comfortable with problems like the ones Rav Slifkin gives us. Maybe we think that scientific observations that HAZAL give us are incorrect but we still see much wisdom in the writings and we accept their guidance in halacha, because this is our law system. Personally, I was attracted to it because when I first encountered the story of Korach and he used the demagogic argument that "the whole nation is holy" against Moshe Rabbenu, I could see that the Torah already was telling us how so many demagogues down to our time use their feigned concern "for the poor and the masses" as the excuse to abuse political power and this was written thousands of years before people like Lenin came along. Read Mishle or Kohelet and see deep insights into human psychology and political thinking that also came to us generations ago. See the Midrash that says the argument between Cain and Hevel was over three things...(1) money, (2) sex and (3) religious extremism (i.e. you are not "frum" enough!) which means arguments over religious issues often have hidden behind much baser movtives. I call this a very deep insight.
      Because of my respect for the wisdom of the Torah, I am not troubled by perceived conflicts between Torah and science. There is enough wisdom in the Torah and enough inspiration in the Jewish people's dogged determination to maintain it and the land that goes with it, Eretz Israel, that it came from to motivate me to stick with it, and to not get bogged down with differences between what the scientists say which also shows a lot of wisdom in its own way and how the Torah is taught.

      Delete
    7. .,
      How can you read any page of Talmud and think that any Tanna or Amoral thought they had the ultimate truth about science or Torah? The Talmud is a record of arguments of interpretation. They knew that. It amazes me that today's rabbis or just regular Jews are so thick as to not get that.

      There is nothing strained in the rationalist tradition as we aren't bothered by the fact that chazzal got things wrong. We respect their greatness but we don't turn them into mini-deities.

      Rabbi Meiselman is forced to say stupid things about science and Torah because he believes stupid things about the chachamim. It's much more sensible to be honest about who and what chazzal were and then you can just talk straight about both halacha and the natural world.

      Delete
    8. I think Chazal were not concerned with the ultimate scientific reality, but in building a system of halacha for the common man. In this situation, insects do appear as if from nowhere and that is how halacho takes it.
      On first reflection it may seem a bit strange, but I think that this has to do with the way halocho works from the inside outwards, i.e. taking a person based approach and building outwards, rather than taking an objective world based approach that then applies itself to the person. For example measurements in halacha are built where relevant on the size of a person, rather than an objective measure like the earth's circumference which is the basis of the metre and (more accurately) the Roman yard.

      Delete
    9. For the record, you indicate but maybe don't mean it this way, that there are only 2 types of Orthodoxy -- Modern Orthodoxy and R' Meiselman / Haredi Judaism. This isn't true. There are Orthodox people who enjoy neither label.

      Delete
    10. ‘Skeptic’ might have a point, but as far a infallibility goes, we can even see from Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude towards his point of view that anyone who works hard on studying an issue will at some point feel very certain about their conclusions. They feel that they have reviewed the subject in detail numerous times and are correct about their take away. Part of our faith in Chazal is that they put huge effort into their studies, and in all probability they were not pareve about their conclusions. As the Kotzker line goes, “The middle of the road is for horses.” Like any expert, they did not feel like maybe they were wrong about their halacha (though sometimes they did retract their positions, so there is that.)

      (We also see that that did not always apply to real life situations. The Gemara seems to note that at the end of his life Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakei was not sure about the correctness of all his Churban-related political decisions.)

      The fact that there are still arguments show us that it might be impossible to reach one true ending to all issues, but we still believe that they worked them as far as they could go. That seems to be the type of infallibility that tradition stresses. How often do you find sefarim of any era claiming that Chazal weren’t sharp enough on the halacha or religious haskafa itself and we’ll just have to correct them. The best you find is reframing their words to match the author’s thoughts. Yes, that infallible attitude does start to creep into areas outside the direct preview of religion, as conflicts with modernity appear and the need to protect halacha and haskafa are deemed to be the primary concern. For any religious leader in the frum world that would be the overriding concern, even in the face of valid arguments to change. Often their job is to be a drag on change, not because it is totally wrong, but just to keep it from running away with itself. That strategy has its own downsides, but still…

      Delete
    11. All ancient measures were based on idealized physical objects or activities including body parts (think of the foot and the hand as measures). This is not specific to halacha. While the ancients did a have a decent estimate of the size of earth, they used their usual measure (stadia) and did not try create a measure related to the circumference which would have been impossible for many reasons, among which was the level of accuracy. The meter was standardized in various ways because of the need to create an extremely precise and objective measure that could be used for scientific purposes.

      Delete
    12. To Ephraim - true, you can use a mechanic who doesn't know what a spleen is, but the mechanic explicitly limits his claims of expertise to cars. He advertises nothing about spleens. By contrast, chazal made no such limitations. They spoke with equal certainty/authority - however one wants to measure that - regarding the proper interpretation of a possuk, and the mating habits of a sheep.

      No, the truth is this artificial distinction - "chazal were experts in halacha, but not in anything else" - indeed has no logic whatsoever. It seems to be a theory devised for and by people who recognized the problems, but didn't want to give up orthodoxy. To enable them to sleep at night, and convince themselves that they are being intellectually honest, they came up with this bogus distinction. But of course, there is no such distinction. If the rabbis of the time erred with the path of the moon, maybe they also misinterpreted לא תבשל גדי בחלב אנו. And don't tell me, well, the halacha is like the sages, right or wrong. Who says? And why should it be that way - because it was "accepted?" Aristotle and Copernicus were also once "accepted." And who accepted it, anyway?

      To plant one's flag in this approach is no more intellectually honest than those who plant their head in the sand to avoid seeing problems. The only honest approach is to realize that NOTHING & NOBODY is intellectually honest. No political party ever existed that didn't simultaneously live with numerous inconstancies and hypocrisy. It is a design feature of this עולם השקר of ours.

      So, if asked, why do you observe halacha as defined by the ancient sages? Because its proven to be a working system. Because its very Jewish. Because it connects you with God. Because your fathers did it this way. For many reasons. But to claim because chazal had special authority? But suddenly that magic authority disappeared the second they stepped out of halacha? זה אינו. Especially because its impossible to make divisisons between halacha and everything else. They go hand in hand.

      It is true this may, at times, lead to crisis, when one's yetzer hora tells him to violate halacha. "Why follow it?" one may ask himself, if there's no special authority? Why not eat that cheeseburger? But this crisis is also presented to people who peddle the bogus "chazal were experts in halacha but nothing else" theory, which nobody really believes. And even those with old fashioned Emunah Pshuta are also presented with crisis. We all experience crisis. Most people today overcome the crisis not because of fear of burning in hell with the devil, but because of many other factors, some (but by no means not all) I mentioned briefly above. And those same factors will stand by the one who honestly acknowledges what I said above, too.

      Delete
    13. DF - I disagree. The world if full of specialists, maybe too many, of every different type of art, skill or profession. They are experts in their field, and as far as we know are far more qualified to answer questions about it. In practicing their skill they run into other fields necessary for their work and either ask experts in those fields or make the best decision they can based on their limited knowledge. Why would I argue that they have no expertise at all, and all their knowledge is equally amateurish? Maybe they have flaws and biases, I'm not arguing that they are angels, but that doesn't cancel out their expertise.

      Delete
    14. DF said: No, the truth is this artificial distinction - "chazal were experts in halacha, but not in anything else" - indeed has no logic whatsoever.


      As Anonymous July 13, 2017 at 9:52 PM points out, there are experts, I should say this is true of all experts, who aren't experts in other fields, even where those other fields are relevant to their own area of expertise.

      But if you tweak your formula from "chazal were experts in halacha" to "chazal were AUTHORITIES in halacha" everything changes. In Chasam Sofer's discussion (Choshen Mishpat 191) of this subject he says that הקב"ה מסכים לטעותם. In other words Hashem gave them authority even when they are wrong i.e. having less expertise than necessary. So they are by definition right. It's just a tautology. You might say that the system is rigged in their favor. Ok, so it is. Chasam Sofer offers a rationalization why this is so.

      Obviously this isn't set up so as to be abused. Only those with the relatively greatest expertise, as opposed to absolute expertise, qualify to decide halacha. For this Chazal qualify.

      Delete
    15. Re measurements I had in mind 'The Measure of Albion' which examines megalithic structures like stonehenge and shows how their measurements were very precise, and it is clear that someone in ancient times had precise knowledge of the earth's dimensions. The meter, on the other hand, had to be adjusted several times.
      Similarly in the pyramids, where the precision stone cutting is beyond what can be done today. Here in Israel, the ~500ton stone supporting the wall of har habayis is also beyond what is reasonable achievable today - whoever put that stone there could do it easily.



      Delete
    16. Halacha is not empirical. It's a decision making system, and gemara shows the decision making process. And before that we had Sanhedrin voting process to decide. Scientific statements can be (sometimes easily) verified through empirical observation. They can thus be "wrong."

      How can halacha be correct or incorrect as you imply? Chazal had the authority, tradition and legal precedent and knowledge of the case law behind them to decide the laws and codify practice. No right or wrong involved.

      Delete
    17. "To Ephraim - true, you can use a mechanic who doesn't know what a spleen is, but the mechanic explicitly limits his claims of expertise to cars. He advertises nothing about spleens."

      And if the mechanic claims to know medicine?

      "By contrast, chazal made no such limitations."
      Did you read the source in מנחות that I cited?

      The rest of your lengthy comment is opinion and speculation.

      Delete
    18. To Ephraim - if the mechanic claims to know medicine, then we think its great that he has an interesting hobby, but we still go the professional doctor for surgery. So it doesn't answer the question you were addressing, which is, how can you justify commitment to the halachic understanding of chazal when they were so wrong on scientific matters. The only honest way to answer it as I wrote.

      You ask if I read your cite. I'm familiar with the STA"M/Tzitiz sugyos. I'm not sure what you're getting at.

      "The rest of your lengthy comment is opinion and speculation." - Of course. What isn't?

      Delete
    19. DF: You are spectacularly wrong on almost all counts.

      true, you can use a mechanic who doesn't know what a spleen is, but the mechanic explicitly limits his claims of expertise to cars. He advertises nothing about spleens. By contrast, chazal made no such limitations. They spoke with equal certainty/authority - however one wants to measure that - regarding the proper interpretation of a possuk, and the mating habits of a sheep.

      1) As Ephraim pointed out, you don't stop using your mechanic because he is a fervent believer in homeopathy or that Jesus was the messiah.

      2) Chazal did not *generally* claim the same authority over science. You will find them consulting Gentiles on non-halachic matters, but not halachah. Instead, you find some of them them making the same errors that many made before the invention of science: trying to make statements about the world unsupported by experience. You will not find a Gemara stating that the Gentile experts were correct over the Jewish experts in a matter of halachah.

      "No, the truth is this artificial distinction - "chazal were experts in halacha, but not in anything else" - indeed has no logic whatsoever. It seems to be a theory devised for and by people who recognized the problems, but didn't want to give up orthodoxy."

      Rather than spewing out insults, why don't you address the distinction, which has been described clearly, between the sources of knowledge in legal, scientific, and mathematical systems. Do you understand that all legal systems are built up on authority while authority has zero place in proving any scientific or mathematical statement?

      If the rabbis of the time erred with the path of the moon, maybe they also misinterpreted לא תבשל גדי בחלב אנו.
      And don't tell me, well, the halacha is like the sages, right or wrong. Who says?


      Yes, they could have. And if you knew that with certainty, the Mishnah tells us that you could listen to them.

      And why should it be that way - because it was "accepted?" Aristotle and Copernicus were also once "accepted." And who accepted it, anyway?

      Again, you fail to distinguish between types of knowledge. "Acceptance" plays no role in scientific truth. But acceptance is what makes the Constitution binding on us (in the US) and not the Articles of Confederation or Turkish law. All legal system operate this way because they are no objective source of legal truths like there are in science and mathematics.

      BTW, Copernicus (the part he is famous for) is still accepted :).



      Delete
    20. So, if asked, why do you observe halacha as defined by the ancient sages? Because its proven to be a working system. Because its very Jewish. Because it connects you with God. Because your fathers did it this way. For many reasons. But to claim because chazal had special authority? But suddenly that magic authority disappeared the second they stepped out of halacha? זה אינו.

      You are correct the people accept Judaism upon themselves for a variety of reasons. Often, Orthodox Judaism is accepted because of the belief in the divine origins of the Torah (as described in the Talmud) + the belief that divine authority is binding. Then the sages are accepted because God invested them with interpretive and legislative authority, in the same way that SCOTUS rulings are considered binding by those who accept the US Constitution.

      I would add the following: people are impressed by the wisdom of the Talmud and part of the reason that they accept Chazal as binding is that are convinced by reading their words that they had a deep understanding of Torah. That will lead them to be convinced that Chazal are deserving of their authority. If SCOTUS makes enough obviously horrible decisions, then their authority could also be undermined.

      The main point though is that their is no "magic" in not giving them authority wrt science or math. These disciplines, unlike legal ones, don't rest on authority. No one has authority in math or science, so Chazal and SCOTUS can't either.

      To Ephraim - if the mechanic claims to know medicine, then we think its great that he has an interesting hobby, but we still go the professional doctor for surgery. So it doesn't answer the question you were addressing, which is, how can you justify commitment to the halachic understanding of chazal when they were so wrong on scientific matters.

      Reread what you just wrote. You concede Ephraim's argument, but then continue to maintain your position. The first sentence answers the second one.

      Delete
    21. You're missing the point. Medicine and Mechanics (Ephraim's examples) are two different disciplines. You don't have to know one to know the other. Halacha, by contrast, is a legal system, which encompasses all others. There is no separation of the two. So, to take RNS's favorite example, how can you accept chazal's view that you can kill lice, if its based on their scientific assertion that the lice were spontaneously created.

      (And that's just an easy, well known example that RNS likes to use. You can also discuss much more practical things like the sources of blood in connection with Niddah, and numerous issues with Kashrus dicussed in Chulin.)

      Delete
    22. You're missing the point. Medicine and Mechanics (Ephraim's examples) are two different disciplines. You don't have to know one to know the other. Halacha, by contrast, is a legal system, which encompasses all others. There is no separation of the two.

      This can't be right for the simple reason that it would invalidate all legal systems, and certainly all ancient ones. It is absolutely true that legal systems work in conjunction with a model of the world. When that model is wrong, you can get incorrect results. That typically doesn't invalidate the entire system. Either the system is unaffected or else the system moves to incorporate the new knowledge. If this was not true, then the rapid advances in scientific knowledge would have rendered all current legal system invalid over time. On the other hand, especially in modern times, knowledge is specialized, that it would be impossible to base the legitimacy of any legal system on the judges' and lawyers' knowledge of math or science.

      As an example, many arson convictions have been discovered to be based on large part on pseudo-science from pseudo-experts. It is likely that Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for an arson that never happened. Does that mean that the laws against Arson are invalid or that they were misapplied?

      I think it probable the fact that legal models generally only on gross models of the universe is what allows this to work. For example, when you say "DF owns this glass of water", the fact that the cups of water doesn't actually stay the same but is actually an ever changing set of H20 molecules with some flying off into the air while new ones land in the glass all the time is not relevant because our intuitive notion of an object is good enough.

      So, to take RNS's favorite example, how can you accept chazal's view that you can kill lice, if its based on their scientific assertion that the lice were spontaneously created.

      (And that's just an easy, well known example that RNS likes to use. You can also discuss much more practical things like the sources of blood in connection with Niddah, and numerous issues with Kashrus dicussed in Chulin.)


      This is an entirely different argument. If the reason behind a halacha is based on mistaken science, then there is room to argue that this halacha should be changed. That is not an argument to undermine all of halacha.

      One reasons that one might not want to change the halacha is as follows:

      The reason might be an explanation and not a reason. For example, it might have been known that it was permitted to kill lice Shabbos and then spontaneous generation was attached to it to explain that halacha or to delineate its contours. This is a familiar process in legal reasoning, where new rules are formulated as cases accumulate and some rational way of distinguishing cases must be devised.

      But whichever side you come down on that, it doesn't undermine halacha as a whole.

      Delete
    23. Just to give an example where ignoring the Chazal's reasoning and holding on to their conclusion is correct, Chazal admonish us to be careful about covering our food. They explained this as a concern for snakes injecting poison, but it is pretty clear that they were really talking about food poisoning due to microbes.

      Tosafos latch on to the reasoning of Chazal and say that one need not be concerned with covering the food where there are no poisonous snakes. But this is wrong conclusion, since it wasn't really snakes causing the problem, but as yet undiscovered microbes. We therefore continue to cover our food.

      Delete
  10. Great pseudonym :).

    You have a number at lease one large mistaken premises in your argument:

    Chazal are considered infallible in Halachah. This is incorrect. Halacha doesn't depend on infallibility. There is a halachic decision making process and it is can come to a decision even if that is not what Moshe Rabbeinu would have said. Tanur Shel Achnai tells us this. Also the fact that if you know the Sandhedrin is wrong, then you are prohibited from following their incorrect decision. So you ask "The gemarah is nothing if not a compendium of halachic disagreements, does that prove that chazal understood that they were not necessarily correct in that area?". I would answer "of course yes".

    BTW, R Meiselman doesn't disagree with this. In fact, he says that Chazal can make mistakes in science but that this mistake would be traceable to a mistake in their understanding of the Torah. His position is only that Chazal didn't make mistakes when they spoke "definitively". He then tells us that deciding what is definitive is a matter of judgement, but one guideline is that if the matter has no practical significance, then they wouldn't have bothered to tell us unless they were super-sure of themselves, so that must be a definitive statement and therefore infallible. The result is that the least significant parts of the Gemara are to regarded as the most infallible.

    Another implication of R Meiselman's approach is that Chazal could be in error, but they could not be in error about their own level of error. If they say X, then X could be wrong, but if they say Y where Y = "I have definitive knowledge of X", then Y can't be wrong. It's quite a stretched thesis.

    BTW, the distinction between halachic and non-halachic statements is made quite clearly by the Rambam and I think is generally accepted. The Rishonim will offer non-halachic interpretations of pesukim at odds with Chazal.

    I also think the the Gemara itself makes this distinction. They will go to others for medical advice, but they never go to others for halachic decisions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your reply, David.

      A number of points here.

      Regarding the infallibility of chazal, I don't want to get bogged down in semantics and certainly wasn't suggesting Natan believes chazal to be infallible in matters of halacha. Rather, I believe Orthodox Jews in general, and (until corrected) Natan in particular, believe chazal to be the recipients of a valid method of interpretation of an infallible book called the Torah. Using these received explanations and methods of exegesis, Chazal explain what The Truth is about what God says and wants from us. Yes, they argue and can be wrong, but the system has objective validity to it. R' Meiselman argues that this system includes Chazal's scientific and medical statements and Natan argues it does not.

      As an aside, Natan throws a wrench in the system saying, "Halachah is what Chazal decided it to be. That's all there is to it. There's nothing strained here," but I doubt he really believes this. Do you really believe, Natan, that at the end of the day, there is no difference between a dioraysa and dirabbanan? That's it's simply a legal system we've adopted with no objective reality to it? Or perhaps you'll search for the middle ground, arguing that the infallible Torah gives the rabbis the power to legislate. If so, whose interpretation is that? The rabbis? Then aren't you right back where you started, assuming a valid rabbinic understanding of the Torah?

      Regarding R Meiselman, my understanding is based on Natan's quotes and not the book and I will simply conjecture a response to your criticism. I would again suggest that you equate Chazal's halachic and scientific statements in his mind. Just as in the halachic sphere Chazal sometimes regarded halachos as open to dispute and sometimes indisputable, the same is true of their science. Since you quote the Rambam, let us take his opinion of halacha limoshe misinai as indisputable as an analogy. Some science was darshened and some was halacha limoshe misinai. It doesn't strike me as ridiculous (from within the system).

      Regarding the rambam's generally accepted distinction between halacha and science, that is what I am questioning. To assume that what the Rambam says about Chazal's thinking is true is similar to assuming that what I say about the Rambam's thinking is true. That is to say, it's not a good idea. I again urge reading chazal on their own terms and deciding if that is what they thought. Regarding going to others for advice, I agree that chazal (to generalize) had the opinion of chochma bagoyim ta'amin, but that doesn't mean they didn't regard some Jewish beliefs about nature to be authoritative.

      Best,

      .

      Delete
    2. That is correct. There is no objective reality to halacha.
      How could there be?

      Delete
    3. Rather, I believe Orthodox Jews in general, and (until corrected) Natan in particular, believe chazal to be the recipients of a valid method of interpretation of an infallible book called the Torah. Using these received explanations and methods of exegesis, Chazal explain what The Truth is about what God says and wants from us. Yes, they argue and can be wrong, but the system has objective validity to it. R' Meiselman argues that this system includes Chazal's scientific and medical statements and Natan argues it does not.

      Let's take this out of the realm of Judaism for a moment and consider two different questions:

      1) Can I take a tax deduction for my kid's baseball registration fees?

      2) What is the best course of treatment for my disease.

      #1 is a legal question. So one consults the tax code, what judges have ruled about this issue in the courts, and the advice of your tax lawyer. What you are looking for is the normative interpretation of the of rules that you are trying to abide by.

      #2 is a scientific question. The authority to consult is not a book, but nature, and the correct answer is not determined by human authorities, but by experiment to see what actually works. While the experiments are carried out by humans using human judgement, the test of correctness is not the eloquence or persuasiveness of the humans involved, but the results in the real world. Precedent plays no role, and new knowledge can overturn prior advice in a moment.

      What we see is that legal reasoning and scientific reasoning are different beasts. But this is a modern view. In ancient times, the role played by experiment was not as well understood. It was thought that you could solve questions of science through reasoning alone from a few facts and on the basis of prior authorities.

      Coming back to our question, halacha is a legal system, so naturally, it has some authoritative source text + a set of authoritative interpreters. It would have been natural for Chazal to try to deal with scientific and medical statements in the same way, because the paramount importance of experiment has not yet been established (and would really not be established until around the time of Galileo). It is also natural for us to realize that the criteria that Chazal might have used are not the right ones for science or medicine and that therefore their statements are not authoritative for two reasons: 1) They didn't have the science down yet. 2) There is no such thing as an authority in science (in the sense of a human arbiter of the truth).

      Let's go back to this sentence : "R' Meiselman argues that this system includes Chazal's scientific and medical statements and Natan argues it does not." While the wording of the sentence makes it sound like R Meiselman's position is one of two natural choices, this is far from the case. In everyday life, we would never and don't ever treat questions of science and medicine in the way that R Meiselman suggests. The only reason to think of it here is that some people somehow think that it is insulting to Chazal that they lived in a pre-scientific age and therefore did not always exhibit scientific thinking or correct conclusions. If not for that, no one in modern times would imagine that you could decide these questions based on authority.

      Delete
    4. "Regarding the rambam's generally accepted distinction between halacha and science, that is what I am questioning."

      It's not only between halachah and science; it is between halachah and everything else including Aggadah.

      To assume that what the Rambam says about Chazal's thinking is true is similar to assuming that what I say about the Rambam's thinking is true. That is to say, it's not a good idea.

      The book emphatically doesn't take this approach, because the book takes the approach that the other side is not only wrong, but Kefirah and never held by any Jewish authority. Thus the Rambam himself must be twisted into the other position.

      again urge reading chazal on their own terms and deciding if that is what they thought. Regarding going to others for advice, I agree that chazal (to generalize) had the opinion of chochma bagoyim ta'amin, but that doesn't mean they didn't regard some Jewish beliefs about nature to be authoritative.

      No doubt you are right here. Chazal may have considered that kind of reasoning valid and authoritative with regard to scientific matters, just as others did. But now we know that they are incorrect about that, and it is experiment that is important. It is neither surprising nor insulting that Chazal were ignorant of a branch of knowledge that had not been invented yet. Almost all of modern medicine is not more than 150 years old.

      Delete
    5. Your exclusive use of "Natan" to refer to Rabbi Slifkin and "R." before Meiselman speaks volumes.

      Delete
    6. David,

      I think you're missing my intention here. I am not here to defend R Meiselman despite my evaluation of his approach as religiously more satisfying. I'm also not here to argue the impossibility of Chazal having a valid halachic approach while having an invalid scientific approach. Rather, I am pointing out that in my opinion having great confidence in the former given the great inaccuracy of the latter is its own form of strained belief. The halachic system is not like the other legal systems you reference and doesn't stand on its own. It claims an objective truth and relies on the validity of its received knowledge and methods of interpretation. In a way, you can view it as a science; philology may come closest. When God said, "an eye for an eye," what did he mean? If I were to read the book and decide, I would say he meant to poke the other guy's eye out, but the rabbis disagree. They say it means paying money. Orthodox Judaism rests on the assumption that God had a monetary payment in mind when he dictated that sentence. God also says that he placed a rakiya between the waters to separate them, and some Talmudic rabbis understood that to be a rigid dome into which various heavenly spheres were embedded. Now we know that there is no rigid dome separating waters above and waters below. Somehow a rabbi, using what we now know to be faulty logic, decided that there was such a dome and interpreted the Torah as describing such a structure. In the opinion of many Modern Orthodox Jews, it is very rational to believe the rabbis were incorrect about the latter scientific belief while believing them to be correct in the former halachic belief. Yet if a rabbi could baselessly decide the meaning of the rakiya and have that accepted, why could a rabbi not baselessly decide the meaning of tachas and have that accepted? If one has the religious belief that the rabbis were supernaturally talented and were correct in both opinions, well, that’s a religious belief, and at least internally consistent. If one is a “rationalist” and believes chazal to have been normal human beings who interpreted biblical passages in light of contemporary ideas in the realm of science, wouldn’t it be rational to assume that over the course of thousands of years the rabbis developed biblical interpretations in light of contemporary ideas?

      Delete
    7. "Do you really believe, Natan, that at the end of the day, there is no difference between a dioraysa and dirabbanan?"

      Ramban asks this question on the Rambam who says that all Derabanans come from Lo Tasur. The Mefarshim who answer this question answer your question too.

      Delete
    8. @.
      Sorry if this will take the wind out of your sails, but "how complete is the illusion that that which is true is that which is inspiring." Chazal and everyone since, are obligated to do their utmost to arrive as close as possible to the objective truth, with the tools that they have. [We believe that they did so and are meritorious in that way beyond words.] They aren't obligated to do better than that. Hashem who had his reasons for not granting Rabbanim of a few centuries ago the scientific knowledge that we have today, could have done the same to the Rabbanim of millennia ago, deprive them of tools which are available to us .

      (And why do we keep the Halacha where it's based on an error? Because of "Chasimas Ha-Shas". But that's a separate discussion.)

      Delete
    9. If one is a “rationalist” and believes chazal to have been normal human beings who interpreted biblical passages in light of contemporary ideas in the realm of science, wouldn’t it be rational to assume that over the course of thousands of years the rabbis developed biblical interpretations in light of contemporary ideas?

      I don't see the problem. They are supposed to develop their own interpretations based on their own minds. The Rambam makes this quite explicit. He says that even though contemporary Rabbis are not the level of understanding of prior ones (maybe he mentions Yehoshua?), their rulings are still binding. Tanur Shel Achnai tells us that we should expect this to be the case.

      You are conflating this with a different question. Obviously we could not tolerate a literal interpretation of an eye for an eye, so it is pretty clear that it must be interpreted as monetary. There is a whole discussion in the Gemara on why it should be interpreted that way, but all the different methods come to the same conclusion. However, historically, one could argue that this would not have been so obvious. If so, perhaps there was a really a change at some time in the remote past. Or maybe, the Torah used the familiar language, but specifically did that in order to apply the same law differently. I don't see how this bears on the issue.

      You can as ask the same question based on a variety of Tanach stories that don't align with halachah. It is possible that Yiftach was a judge and yet thought you could kill an innocent person in order to fulfill a vow? This has nothing to do with question at hand, it seems to me.

      Delete
    10. Fozziebear,
      "That is correct. There is no objective reality to halacha. How could there be?"

      You are saying the whole edifice is a product of Chazal's imagination? I don't think so.
      You are missing a piece of the world. Everything is made of chomer and tzurah, so says the Rambam. You don't think that way because the church declared tzurah non existent over a thousand years ago.
      Halocho is a set of rules for dealing with the tzurah even though you can't see or feel it. For example, the Maharal says that the melacha of maka bepatish is the completion of the tzurah of the new object. Or in kashrus, taste is often the most important consideration in a psak, because the tzurah contains the taste.

      Delete
    11. Again, I'm not committed to the Rambam's opinion on anything. That commitment does seem to go along with "rationalists" so I'll go along. The reference to "not the level of understanding of prior ones" is likely a reference to the gemarah, "Yiftach bidoro kishmuel bidoro," and while the halacha may therefore follow Yiftach's psak in his day, I doubt the rambam advocates the development of individual interpretations. In fact, when he explains why there are differences of opinion as to halacha, he attributes this to students who didn't properly attend to their teachers and therefore didn't receive the tradition.

      It seems to me, you're not prepared to question the system. You tell me the rambam says it's supposed to be this way. Tanur shel achnai says it's supposed to be this way. Neither answers the question: what kind of mesorah do you think you have if the science mesorah is so wrong? I understand you believe science and halacha are different but - and this is important - chazal didn't think so. Remember, since you obviously like the rambam, he goes to great pains to try and create a mesorah, naming each person. I recall this great rationalist even stretching out the life of one person on the list to be both a talmid of moshe and rebbe of eliyahu!

      Delete
    12. The halachic system is not like the other legal systems you reference and doesn't stand on its own. It claims an objective truth and relies on the validity of its received knowledge and methods of interpretation.

      I think that this is not a good interpretation. All legal systems rely on a source of authority for both their of law and their methods of interpretation. The Torah system claims divine authority for a (small?) subset of it's law, the acceptance by the people of the Talmud and the the right of the Rabbis to interpret. The US Supreme Court instead relies on the authority of the Constitution based on the acceptance of the people. So they differ in part on their sources of authority (the people playing a role in both), with the Torah claiming divine sanction for a subset of the law, but the rest is quite similar, as a system.

      Putting it another way, do you first pose a series of science questions to a Rabbi today before you will accept his authority?

      Delete
    13. Skeptic: it's a product of their opinions, not of their imagination. Halachah is the codification or their discussions (at best: at worst it's a question of who got to write the minutes of the meetings).

      In the sense that you quoted : Halachah is the way that certain rabbis have delineated how we should interact with particular tzurot, and then at later times, how later rabbis interpreted the earlier rabbis delineations by writing their own delineations, and so on. But at each stage it's 'just' an interpretation. But we hold those interpretations to be binding.

      Delete
    14. "Or perhaps you'll search for the middle ground, arguing that the infallible Torah gives the rabbis the power to legislate. If so, whose interpretation is that? The rabbis? Then aren't you right back where you started, assuming a valid rabbinic understanding of the Torah"

      The basic answer is that it's reasonable to assume that Hashem set up a system with enough foundation for it to work. The rest can be built from the second story and up. Such an important, central thing as the nature of authority is part of the foundation and would be taught by Him directly. Once this is place application of the law follows reasonably smoothly.

      Delete
    15. Really, David, you might be on firmer ground if you had the Kohanim legislating because that's who the Torah generally gives authority to.

      I don't believe Orthodox Jews generally view the halachic system in the way you describe and, though it's not my field, I would submit that most constitutional scholars wouldn't even be so cavalier with the US legal system. Scholars often attempt to determine the original intent or original meaning of the constitution when determining matters of constitutional law. For many scholars, these are the primary factors; they don't just say, "Well, it changed."

      Now imagine a hypothetical situation where scholars had been using a particular method of determining original meaning. Perhaps they found a contemporary's journal describing his reactions to the constitution and for decades had been using this journal to determine the original meaning of the constitution. Recently, several new journals were found by this author, and they comment not on the constitution but on contemporary scientific theories. As it turns out, the author completely misunderstood the theories put forth at that time. It's not relevant whether the theories were correct or incorrect; the point is that, despite his confidence in his understanding, he really had no idea what contemporary scientists were talking about. In light of the fact that recent findings have called into question the linguistic abilities of this author, constitutional scholars have been scrambling to gauge the impact this new discovery will have on constitutional law. Decades of decisions may be overturned in coming years. A new school has arisen though, calling themselves, "The Rationalists." They argue that although this author has been conclusively shown to have been linguistically challenged in scientific matters, understanding not a whit about what his contemporaries believed, it is obvious that his legal understandings ought not to be questioned. It's entirely coincidence, they say, that they are funded by large corporations who have benefitted from legal interpretations based upon this journal. Instead, they insist that his legal understandings are correct and of a completely different nature than his scientific writings. It's true, they admit, that there are also other recently found contemporary sources who disagreed with his interpretations, sources we know to have been closer to the framers of the constitution and more likely to have shared their intent, but there are other reasons to trust the journal author. "The Rationalists" have been working on an argument that the constitution itself gave the rights of interpretation specifically to the journal author, and, anyway, his interpretations have been accepted. "That's that," they say, "and no, it has nothing to do with our sponsors."

      Delete
    16. I understand you believe science and halacha are different but - and this is important - chazal didn't think so.

      I don't think that is true at all. They explicitly referred and/or relied on Gentile wisdom for non-Torah. They would never do that for Torah. There are some of Chazal who perhaps thought they that could also use the same method to get some science out. But that doesn't meant that they made no distinction.

      Delete
    17. Really, David, you might be on firmer ground if you had the Kohanim legislating because that's who the Torah generally gives authority to.

      While there is a Kohanic lineage, there are no more Kohanim practicing as such. The system via one means or another adapted to mostly discard the concept of a Kohein having a priveleged position in religious decision making, at least until he Avodah is restored.

      I don't believe Orthodox Jews generally view the halachic system in the way you describe

      Orthodox Jews generally don't think to much about these issues to begin with. But I think halachic literature from Tanur Shel Achnai down to Rav Moshe's intro to Igrot Moshe take the approach that P'sak is a human effort that doesn't rely on "original intent" to provide validity. What provides validity is learned people assenting the reasoning presented as the best representation of the halachah. It is true that there is another more "Ruach HaKodesh/Infallibility" strain of thought, but I think that it is historically less testified to.

      and, though it's not my field, I would submit that most constitutional scholars wouldn't even be so cavalier with the US legal system. Scholars often attempt to determine the original intent or original meaning of the constitution when determining matters of constitutional law. For many scholars, these are the primary factors;

      I'm not sure what you are getting at here. There are a variety of "schools" of Constitutional interpretation, but they all agree that the Constitution is the source of authority and that SCOTUS has the final say on what the constitution means and that all other institutions are bound by the decisions of SCOTUS, whether or not the decisions were good ones. There is some question as to whether that was originally intended but the principle, somewhat circularly, was established by SCOTUS itself (see Marbury vs. Madison).

      Justice Robert H. Jackson described this well "Whenever decisions of one court are reviewed by another, a percentage of them are reversed. That reflects a difference in outlook normally found between personnel comprising different courts. However, reversal by a higher court is not proof that justice is thereby better done. There is no doubt that if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed. We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."

      they don't just say, "Well, it changed."

      I'm not sure what you are saying here. All legal systems evolve. For example, the right to free speech has become much more absolute over time.

      I apologize, but I'm not really able to follow your hypothetical very well. From what I can understand, it seems quite far-fetched.

      Delete
    18. I think you're imagining a distinction they never made and simply hoping, against all evidence, that they believed it too. Yes, when science is debated using logic or experiment it is decidedly different than torah. Yes, chazal might re-evaluate a scientific opinion on the course of the sun in light of the temperature of the water and this has nothing to do with Torah. On the other hand, when chazal deferred to received scientific wisdom or darshened science from the Torah, I see no reason to believe that they made any distinction. Explanation of Torah is explanation of Torah, whatever the application.

      I also believe you aren't correct, or at least not conventionally Orthodox, in your understanding of halacha. At the risk of too many repetitions, there's a reason chazal and your rationalist rambam stress the mesorah. It's because Orthodoxy views rabbinic interpretation as not just accepted but as correct methodologies and interpretations passed down through the generations. The argument that chazal made a mistake but that it was accepted and doesn't matter might, perhaps, work in a particular instance, but to argue that rabbinic interpretation and methodology generally does not go back through the ages to Moshe and God? Not Orthodox.

      Delete
    19. I think you're imagining a distinction they never made and simply hoping, against all evidence, that they believed it too. Yes, when science is debated using logic or experiment it is decidedly different than torah. Yes, chazal might re-evaluate a scientific opinion on the course of the sun in light of the temperature of the water and this has nothing to do with Torah.

      You say I imagine a distinction, but then you confirm its validity. I'm not sure where you are going with this.

      On the other hand, when chazal deferred to received scientific wisdom or darshened science from the Torah, I see no reason to believe that they made any distinction. Explanation of Torah is explanation of Torah, whatever the application.

      In the instances where a member of Chazal darshaned from the Torah a mistaken scientific statement (when it is really to be interpreted literally and when it is really a Drasha and not an Asmakhta), then they probably believed that they were making a correct Drashah. As I mentioned, in the ancient world, the primacy of evidence over argument and authority was not complete recognized, because modern science was not invented until Brahe, Galileo, Newton, Harvey, Lavoisier and others set science on its modern foundations, so this would be a common error.

      I also believe you aren't correct, or at least not conventionally Orthodox, in your understanding of halacha. At the risk of too many repetitions, there's a reason chazal and your rationalist rambam stress the mesorah. It's because Orthodoxy views rabbinic interpretation as not just accepted but as correct methodologies and interpretations passed down through the generations. The argument that chazal made a mistake but that it was accepted and doesn't matter might, perhaps, work in a particular instance, but to argue that rabbinic interpretation and methodology generally does not go back through the ages to Moshe and God? Not Orthodox.

      1) This is name calling and not an argument.

      2) Where did I argue that rabbinic interpretation does not go back to the Torah? The Torah says pretty explicitly that you go to the authorities of the time for interpretation.

      You're being too general. Please make specific objections.

      Delete
    20. I just Googled the term 'Orthodox Jew' and it came up with the following "observer of religious traditions who is genetically unable to grasp even remotely sophisticated concepts regarding the development of those traditions over time'. So true!!!

      Delete
    21. "You say I imagine a distinction, but then you confirm its validity. "

      The nonexistent distinction was obviously the second half of the paragraph, but you must have figured that out on your own.

      "In the instances where a member of Chazal darshaned from the Torah a mistaken scientific statement (when it is really to be interpreted literally and when it is really a Drasha and not an Asmakhta), then they probably believed that they were making a correct Drashah."

      Good; I think you have it. Chazal thought they were making valid drashos but apparently were not. In fact, judging by the accuracy of their scientific drashos, their drasha skills were sorely lacking. Yet you continue to have confidence in those drashos which are not subject to empiric verification despite this poor track record. That doesn't seem very rational.

      "1) This is name calling and not an argument."

      No; it's an argument. The working assumption here is that you are speaking from an Orthodox perspective. If that's not the case for you, I withdraw my criticism, though I suppose my criticism was actually of R' Slifkin and you'd have to get him on board . (On the other hand, it's very Orthodox to assume that calling someone not Orthodox is an insult, so maybe you are, or at least want to be.)

      "2) Where did I argue that rabbinic interpretation does not go back to the Torah? The Torah says pretty explicitly that you go to the authorities of the time for interpretation."

      You're an intelligent person, so I have to wonder if you're being intentionally slippery. Are you sticking your second sentence in there to imply that any old interpretation is fine because the Torah says that's okay? Because that's wrong, and it's getting tiring repeating the same thing over and over. MESORAH IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE RABBINIC TRADITION BECAUSE THE INTERPRETATION HAS TO BE CORRECT, NOT JUST ACCEPTED. As agreed above, when put to empirical tests, rabbinic interpretation appears not to work very well. When this was pointed out many posts ago, you and R' Slifkin took the position that it doesn't matter, but it does.

      Delete
    22. "In the instances where a member of Chazal darshaned from the Torah a mistaken scientific statement (when it is really to be interpreted literally and when it is really a Drasha and not an Asmakhta), then they probably believed that they were making a correct Drashah."

      Good; I think you have it. Chazal thought they were making valid drashos but apparently were not.

      You are leveraging the imprecision of the word "Chazal". As DF and others point out, Chazal comprised a large group of people over a large period of time. Finding one or two statements of a certain type doesn't mean that "Chazal" in general believed that or that this becomes a principle of Judaism."

      But again, every "Orthodox Jew" agrees that Chazal made an uncounted number of Derashot that they thought were right, but were actually wrong. We know that because there are many contradictary Derashot and arguments over Derashot. So why does the fact that you can find a handful of Derashot that imply an incorrect scientific statement mean anything? We know that lots of Derashot were mistaken as is all human endeavor. And again, we know even when God disagrees with a Derashah, if the Rabbis agree to it, then the halachah follows it. I don't mind continuing the discussion, but it would be nice if you could address these fundamental issues directly rather than worry about whether I'm sufficiently Orthodox do to avoid your heresy hunting.

      In fact, judging by the accuracy of their scientific drashos, their drasha skills were sorely lacking.

      See above: if their darshaning ability is sorely lacking because of a few mistakes, then you are in big trouble, because they themselves admit to making many, many more.

      Moreover, as I mentioned above, these are the least problematic "mistakes" since the actual correct method to resolve these questions was not yet invented. You are basically saying that we should not rely no Chazal because they didn't know how to build a computer.

      Yet you continue to have confidence in those drashos which are not subject to empiric verification despite this poor track record. That doesn't seem very rational.

      I have confidence that the halachah gave interpretive power to the Rabbis including the method of Derush. You are correct, almost nothing in halachah is subject to verification (and as Tanur Shel Achnai shows, we actually ignore failed verification). It is subject to the acceptance of the other sages.


      Delete
    23. "1) This is name calling and not an argument."

      No; it's an argument.

      No, it's name calling. It makes no difference whether or not you consider me Orthodox or not. If you have an argument, make it. It will have the same authority whether I'm Orthodox or a bot.

      "2) Where did I argue that rabbinic interpretation does not go back to the Torah? The Torah says pretty explicitly that you go to the authorities of the time for interpretation."

      You're an intelligent person, so I have to wonder if you're being intentionally slippery. Are you sticking your second sentence in there to imply that any old interpretation is fine because the Torah says that's okay? Because that's wrong, and it's getting tiring repeating the same thing over and over. MESORAH IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE RABBINIC TRADITION BECAUSE THE INTERPRETATION HAS TO BE CORRECT, NOT JUST ACCEPTED.


      But what is the criterion for correctness in deciding a halachic dispute? It is the side that is more accepted by other sages/authorities. Again, please address Tanur Shel Achnai. God informed the sages that R Yehoshua was wrong, but his view was accepted, so the halacha follows him. Please also address the intro to Igros Moshe.

      As agreed above, when put to empirical tests, rabbinic interpretation appears not to work very well. When this was pointed out many posts ago, you and R' Slifkin took the position that it doesn't matter, but it does.

      This is a bald assertion. Please address the contrary arguments.

      Delete
    24. .,
      Consider the US Supreme Court: Many Americans have real problems with some of the judges on the bench. Some dislike the liberals, some dislike the conservatives. They are very aware of the human flaws and biases of all the judges. They know how things have changed over time in terms of judicial approaches, for example regarding jurisprudence, judicial activism , or even social mores such as suffrage or views on equality. They know that there are real disagreements between the judges on how to interpret the laws and the Constitution, but - and here's the crucial bit - they still choose to abide by the decisions the Supreme Court makes.
      It's perfectly rational. Because society has to have rules and a rule making body. Otherwise there is chaos.
      Ditto halacha.

      Delete
    25. @Fozziebear: Also, there is effectively a police force to enforce it's decisions :).

      Delete
    26. "I don't mind continuing the discussion, but it would be nice if you could address these fundamental issues directly rather than worry about whether I'm sufficiently Orthodox do to avoid your heresy hunting."

      Unlike you, I address the issues and have done so several times already. You prefer to ask other people to address your issues instead of answering theirs. How many times have I asked you to address the requirement for a mesorah, and you still have not? To repeat, the Orthodox assumption is that chazal received correct methods of torah interpretation. That doesn't mean that they will always be applied perfectly. Despite this, if the results of the method are always found to be incorrect when testable, a real rationalist would start to question the validity of the methods.

      "Moreover, as I mentioned above, these are the least problematic "mistakes" since the actual correct method to resolve these questions was not yet invented. You are basically saying that we should not rely no Chazal because they didn't know how to build a computer."

      And as I mentioned, this is incorrect because they were arguing about torah interpretation. I'm not saying anything about building computers. I'm not commenting on any scientific theories they may have had. I'm saying you shouldn't rely on chazal to darshen because, when testable, they seem not to have known how to darshen.

      "But what is the criterion for correctness in deciding a halachic dispute? It is the side that is more accepted by other sages/authorities. Again, please address Tanur Shel Achnai. God informed the sages that R Yehoshua was wrong, but his view was accepted, so the halacha follows him. "

      Before I explain why this doesn't support your contention, is this really your rationalist defense? You believe that a carob tree picked itself up and walked somewhere and waters flowed backwards? That a voice came from heaven to declare who was right?



      Delete
    27. UHow many times have I asked you to address the requirement for a mesorah, and you still have not?

      As far as I can tell, zero, but I don't quite understand the question. What is "a mesorah" and how does one address its requirement. For the sake of argument, suppose that I answered "I don't know how to address the requirement of a mesorah". How does this play into your argument.

      To repeat, the Orthodox assumption is that chazal received correct methods of torah interpretation. That doesn't mean that they will always be applied perfectly. Despite this, if the results of the method are always found to be incorrect when testable, a real rationalist would start to question the validity of the methods.

      1) You've provided a false choice. Methods of legal interpretation can applied correctly and come up with different mutually exclusive answers because there is subjective judgement involved. There is no "right answer" to whether or not Yeiush Shelo MiDa'as is Yeiush or not. It is a dispute with valid reasoning on both sides.

      2) Halachic results are not "testable" in the scientific sense. They are testable in other subjective senses like whether they are based on accepted forms of reasoning, are consistent with precedent, are consistent with practice, possible for people to actually accomplish, etc.

      3) If you are going back to whether or not anything other than evidence is a valid source of knowledge for scientific questions, we now know that the answer is "no". At the time of Chazal, this fact had not yet been discovered. But you don't need to go there because many great Torah authorities were ignorant of science.

      To turn this around a bit, do you not accept any rulings of the Chasam Sofer since he maintained that Geocentrism might be true well after Heliocentrism had been proven correct?


      "Moreover, as I mentioned above, these are the least problematic "mistakes" since the actual correct method to resolve these questions was not yet invented. You are basically saying that we should not rely no Chazal because they didn't know how to build a computer."

      And as I mentioned, this is incorrect because they were arguing about torah interpretation. I'm not saying anything about building computers. I'm not commenting on any scientific theories they may have had. I'm saying you shouldn't rely on chazal to darshen because, when testable, they seem not to have known how to darshen.


      I think that when they went with the best available science to answer science questions they were correct in their method and the few times they appeared to use Derash (it might really have been asmachtah), they were incorrect.

      But you still are not comprehending the main point. The reason that any kind of halachic reasoning doesn't work for science is that the universe doesn't adhere to halachic reasoning. Halacha does. You can apply it perfectly to a science question and you are still not going to get the right answer. This was not understood by anyone in ancient times. They thought that you could using authority common sense and reasoning alone to decide empirical questions.

      Delete

    28. Here is the proof that your reasoning is wrong: it was long thought that you could prove things about the nature of the universe by using Euclidean Geometry, which depends on pure logic and not observation. This was a conundrum because how could it be that you could prove stuff about the universe without looking? It turns out that this is completely false, since the universe is not Euclidean, so any conclusions about the nature of the Universe from Euclidean geometry are false.

      According to your schema, since *all* testable hypotheses of Euclidean Geometry were wrong, any rational person would doubt the validity of Euclidean Geometry.

      Nevertheless, Euclidean Geometry from thousands of years ago is completely mathematically correct (save a very few proofs that relied on superposition). You can tell by examining the proofs. The mistake was not that the reasoning was wrong, but that the correct reasoning was incorrectly assumed to a method for proving empirical facts.

      "But what is the criterion for correctness in deciding a halachic dispute? It is the side that is more accepted by other sages/authorities. Again, please address Tanur Shel Achnai. God informed the sages that R Yehoshua was wrong, but his view was accepted, so the halacha follows him. "

      Before I explain why this doesn't support your contention, is this really your rationalist defense? You believe that a carob tree picked itself up and walked somewhere and waters flowed backwards? That a voice came from heaven to declare who was right?


      Personally, I don't think that the story was literal, but the lesson is the same either way. You seem to think that Chazal were buffoons who could not simultaneously reason abstractly while using wonderful and powerful concrete parables to make their points extremely clear to everyone. If a modern day Rabbi told this story with contemporary Rabbis names as though it happened yesterday, you would understand what he meant. I'm not sure why you don't give Chazal the same credit.

      Now it's your turn.

      Delete
    29. David,

      I liked your analogy of Euclidian Geometry to the halachic system.

      "The reason that any kind of halachic reasoning doesn't work for science is that the universe doesn't adhere to halachic reasoning. Halacha does. You can apply it perfectly to a science question and you are still not going to get the right answer. This was not understood by anyone in ancient times. They thought that you could using authority common sense and reasoning alone to decide empirical questions."

      I was about to suggest that we simply agree to disagree but this paragraph stood out to me as the crux of where we disagree so I try one last time. I don't want to make assumptions about your beliefs, so let me know where you jump off the following train of contradictory logic and beliefs:

      1) Torah is give by God and True.

      2) The rabbis knew how to correctly interpret the Torah.

      3) Scientific opinions of the rabbis turn out to be incorrect

      4) Some of these scientific opinions were expressed as Torah interpretations.

      Can you see the inconsistency? I suspect you'll tell me that #2 is not correct, I'll have to spend too much time trying to show that this is a basic tenet of the Rabbinic System, and we'll have to agree to disagree.

      Delete
  11. How should we understand these observations by the chachamim? Are they meant to be literally true (they truly thought these things about snakes, dogs, wolves, etc.)? Weren't they familiar with these animals and could clearly see that it was not so (such as a camel does not mate in this way)?

    I find myself wondering this often when reading these types of remarks in Gemara or from other ancient, secular sources.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think, admittedly just based on some assumption of a type of common sense, that we cannot believe that they were literal about their statements that people in their own time and locale knew to be not true, while they could have been literal about subjects whose truth was only revealed by Heaven in later generations. I would have to understand the former as metaphors. I won't accept attributing such sloppiness to them, they deserve at least that much Dan Lekaf Zechus.

      Delete
    2. "Dan Lekaf Zechus"

      You might be imposing your criteria for "Zechus". Rambam says there's nothing negative if Chazal accepted erroneous information from those who they considered to be experts. This isn't sloppiness, only that today many educators raised the bar of Chazal's (claimed) expertise, so whoever lowers that bar is accused of attributing sloppiness / naivity / etc. to chazal.

      Delete
    3. From that way of thinking it does seem that my opinion would be incorrect.

      Delete
  12. Doesn't the argument that we are unfamiliar with the snake species that Chazal spoke of, render R' Meiselman's proof obsolete? It's not a proof that Chazal derived correct science from the Torah if we have no idea what kind of snake to compare the seven-year gestation claim to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, kind of. So does the claim that they were talking about something other than the gestation period. It ends up coming down to: Chazal though that they were right, so we must believe that they were. Thus it is sufficient to show that they were emphatic; it is not necessary to show that they were right.

      Delete
  13. Can we just stop saying that Chazal were "wrong" about science, please?
    A few years ago the Merck Manual, the bible of modern medicine, celebrated it's 100th anniversary by republishing its very first edition. The stuff in that book makes one alternatively shake one's head or laugh out loud. What were they thinking? Didn't they know science?
    The answer is: they did, according to the knowledge base and techniques of their day. A bit of humility would allow modern scientists to accept that they are no different. In 100 years folks will be looking back at Hadron colliders and CRISPR's and asking: didn't they know better?
    (A great example of this is the upbraiding Dr McCoy gives a 20th neurosurgeon in ST4:TVH)
    In their time Chazal knew scientific truth as it applied then. They weren't wrong, any more than scientists today are eventually going to be proven "wrong" about their positions. Science and our understanding of God's universe evolves over time. There is no truth, only a current understanding.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree for the most part, but it is a bit more than that.

      1) As others have pointed out, science had not been invented yet. So their whole epistemology was off. The science established by Newton and Galileo is still valid and taught in Freshman physics courses today. Medicine became scientific (to the degree that it is) much more recently. (This is overstating it a bit. Aristotle was actually an empiricist when it comes to a lot of biology. See Aristotle's biology).

      2) It isn't clear that Chazal universally were up to the latest science (probably some were). Pesachim 94a has a flat earth which had been conclusively refuted by Aristotle many centuries earlier using techniques

      Delete
    2. To say a man was right for his time but wrong by what we know today, is just a long-winded way of saying he was wrong.

      To elaborate just a touch, in the first place, "chazal" consist of thousands of men, over 500 years, across two empires. So presumably some were more versed in science than others. Beyond that, science advanced back then, proportionately, at the same dizzying speed it does today. The Greeks and Romans had incredible storehouses of knowledge. Are you so sure Chazal - however defined - were as up to date as they were? Perhaps in some fields they were. (Lunar astronomy, which chazal clearly prided themselves in, כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם) but in all fields? I don't have the knowledge base to answer that. Few people do.

      Delete
  14. The difference, of course, is that science takes into account observable evidence and thus is willing to modify its tenets when the evidence presents itself. Evidence IMPROVES understanding. But observations of the "external world" is irrelevant to religious fundamentalism. Since it is focused on notions of absolute knowledge (something science does not do) it remains static and often requires apologetic notions as "nature has changed" regardless of the evidence that it has not.

    I'm not saying that one way of looking at the world is "preferable" which is obviously fodder for a long discussion. But your notions about scientific relativism results in a confusing conflation about the term "wrong". To say that Chazal was "wrong" about some scientific notions is not the same as saying Newton was "wrong" about celestial mechanics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Science changes its view based on facts that are observed

      Dogma denies observation so that belief can be preserved

      Delete
  15. אסתכיל באורייתא וברא עלמא is a creation of the zohar itself a forgery

    ReplyDelete
  16. Enough with the anonymous comments! Pick a pseudonym and stick with it. Further anonymous comments will not posted.

    ReplyDelete
  17. How can you possibly say that chazal made a mistake about how camels mate? Do you honestly believe that they never observed camels mating even though they probably owned them? So either you say that chazal were just joking or lying even though they could be easily proved wrong, or that nature changed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Because there are many instances of very wise ancients who made similar errors. I'd also add that it is unclear exactly how this statement was interpreted. Perhaps if someone who saw camels mate read the statement, he would interpret it to mean that they *also* mate that way.

      Delete
  18. I always feel there is a certain dishonesty and disingenuousness motivating both sides of the Chazal science debate.What really drives Rabbi Meiselman and his side is the not unreasonable fear that acknowledging any shortcomings regarding Chazal has the potential to lead one to taking them less seriously in what really matters ie.halacha.I also am fairly certain that Rabbi Slifkins,if presented with this would dismiss this possible outcome .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think so. While some of those who object did mention that, I think that it goes back challenging the authority of the Gedolim. Various great Rabbis who don't know that much about science assume that all this stuff must be Kefirah and then the followers feel compelled to support. I'm pretty sure that R Aharon Feldman switched his position from that of support to opposition for this reason.

      Delete
    2. Scratching my headJuly 17, 2017 at 2:33 PM

      I know it's a lot of fun to bash people we disagree with, but I don't think there is much in common between R' Aharon Feldman's approach to this issue and R' Meiselman's.

      Delete
    3. I wasn't really comparing their approaches. r berger mentioned "R Meiselman and his side" and I was commenting on the "on his side" part.

      That said, I think that both R Meiselman and R Feldman both both provided strained explanations in their attempt to defend a Daas Torah position that they might otherwise reject.

      Delete
    4. And I wasn't bashing. Their position is that submission to a higher authority (the Charedi Daas Torah) is required in these areas. R Meiselman says this explicitly and R Feldman's position switch seems to indicate his agreement. I don't share their view, but I don't think that attempting to accurately state their view is bashing.

      Delete
    5. Scratching my headJuly 19, 2017 at 2:39 PM

      Where does Rav Meiselman refer to any "Chareidi Daas Torah"? I only see that he submits to the Mesorah of the Rishonim and Gedolei Achronim. Rav Feldman submits to Rav Eliashiv.
      That's quite a difference if you ask me.

      And you weren't merely "attempting to accurately state their view" when you write that "Various great Rabbis who don't know that much about science assume that all this stuff must be kefirah..."

      You were bashing.

      Delete
    6. r berger said, I also am fairly certain that Rabbi Slifkins, if presented with this would dismiss this possible outcome.
      ===

      Are you saying that Rabbi Slifkin doesn't realize now that his approach is very bad for masses of Chareidim? No and no. He repeatedly agreed that it's very bad *for them*. (He also says that his approach is very good for and urgently needed by others, besides that it is legitimate. But that doesn't take away from it being very bad for the former.)

      Delete
    7. "I don't think there is much in common between R' Aharon Feldman's approach to this issue and R' Meiselman's.... I only see that he submits to the Mesorah of the Rishonim and Gedolei Achronim. Rav Feldman submits to Rav Eliashiv.
      That's quite a difference if you ask me."

      So Rabbi M is more of a loner than I had thought. Great revelation Dovid!

      Delete
    8. Where does Rav Meiselman refer to any "Chareidi Daas Torah"? I only see that he submits to the Mesorah of the Rishonim and Gedolei Achronim. Rav Feldman submits to Rav Eliashiv.
      That's quite a difference if you ask me.


      On the unimportant ad hominem stuff: I didn't say that they were identical, and if I was wrong, that makes me wrong. I'm not sure why you need to characterize that as "bashing".

      To the substance, his general approach to is justify the current Charedi position by lots of "reinterpretation" of Gemaras and Rishonim, that no one who is not in agreement with today's Charedi position would think makes any sense. E.g. even though the Rambam said explicitly many times over again that there is no p'sak outside of halacha, he insists that everyone throughout the ages didn't understand the Rambam. This only makes sense if you need to align the Rambam with the current Charedi Daas Torah which allows for p'sak on everything.

      Rabbi Meiselman doesn't submit to the Rishonim. He posits that they were mistaken in their interpretations of the Gemara in line with the science of their times and we need to go reinterpret the Gemara in line with our understanding of science, which had to have (in his mind) been the original interpretation, since they couldn't be wrong (except when they were and he says it was because they weren't definitive).

      And you weren't merely "attempting to accurately state their view" when you write that "Various great Rabbis who don't know that much about science assume that all this stuff must be kefirah..." You were bashing.

      No, I think that it is an accurate characterization. See, for example, Igros Moshe (first full paragraph in the second column; my translation):

      "And books [used for] secular studies that contain heretical views on the creation of the world, they are definitely books of denial [of religious faith] and are prohibited for study. We have to take care that the secular studies teacher do not teach from them to the students. If it is not possible to acquire other textbooks, then they must rip out those pages from the text."

      There is no discussion of the evidence; it is simply obvious that these views must be false because they contradict our traditional beliefs. Rabbi Meiselman claims that this is the correct attitude and that is how the Rabbis of the past dealt with the notion of a steady-state universe; they just said it can't be true and that was that (although he is incorrect in his history, IMO).

      I think that Rav Moshe was a great posek who knew much Torah than I even know exists, and was a great Tzaddik as well, but I don't think that his views on science or even Jewish Medieval Philosophy were very well developed. This was not his area of expertise. I would go to other people to be instructed in those areas. I don't think that is bashing, but YMMV.

      Delete
  19. Yonah ben ShlomoJuly 14, 2017 at 6:28 AM

    Reb Natan,
    The Midrash that mirrors the gemara in Bechoros about the 7 year gestation period of the snake offers an additional perspective that is I think useful in defense of a rationalist view. First of all, it is explicitly reported as a dialogue with a philosopher in Rome. (Beresheit Rab. 20:4)

    פילוסופוס אחד בקש לידע לכמה הנחש מוליד. כיון שראה אותם מתעסקים זה עם זה, נטלן ונתנן בחבית, והיה מספיק להם מזונות עד שילדו. כיון שעלו הזקנים לרומי שאלו את רבן גמליאל. אמר ליה: לכמה הנחש מוליד? ולא יכול להשיבו, ונתכרכמו פניו. פגע בו ר' יהושע ופניו חולניות. אמר לו: למה פניך חולניות? אמר לו: שאלה אחת נשאלתי ולא יכולתי להשיבו. אמר לו: מה היא? אמר: לכמה נחש מוליד. אמר לו: לשבע שנים. אמר לו: מנא לך? אמר לו: הכלב חיה טמאה ומוליד לחמישים יום, ובהמה טמאה יולדת לי"ב חודש, וכתיב: "ארור אתה מכל הבהמה ומכל חית השדה", וכשם שהבהמה ארורה מן החיה שבעה, כך נחש ארור מהבהמה שבעה. כמפני רמשא סלק ואמר ליה. התחיל מטיח ראשו לכותל. אמר: כל מה שעמלתי שבע שנים, בא זה והושיט לי בקנה אחד

    My reading of this is as follows: The Romans, who were the masters of the physical world (and heirs to Greek science) did indeed "best" the natural knowledge base of the tiny nation of Israel. And R' Yehoshua represented the aspect of the people who would acknowledge this fact, and who was apparently embarrassed of this fact, or who anyway changed complexion ("ve'nitkarkamu panav") -- saffroned up a bit I guess. Karkom is of course an ingredient in the holy ketoret, and it also happens to be a tiny thread plucked from a Greek flower.

    It is R' Gamliel who interprets R' Yehoshua's face as "sickly" and labors to provide an answer from the Torah. And the answer is indeed brilliant, and layered with meanings. But the story cannot be removed from its container, and from its "pregnant" final disclosure, that the philosopher himself labored for seven years for what the rabbi "procured" from the Torah "b'kaneh echad" -- in one shoot, with one reed, with one stroke of the pen.

    I will not be ma'arich here; I have written about the subject in connection with Shmita. But I think you could trace some of the lineaments of your machlokes with R' Meiselman to this split in personality and subculture (which is so well described in many episodes in Shas) between R' Yehoshua and R' Gamliel. As we know from other stories, R' Yehoshua was the "correct" one, but R' Gamliel was the one who held the walls of the beis midrash, and the canon, and enabled klal yisroel to survive.

    Eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chayim

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't see the two rabbinic approaches. I see R' Gamliel who couldn't answer the question, and R' Yehoshua, who could. What is fascinating to me is the clear recognition of conflicting philosophical and rabbinic approaches. The philosopher in the story experiments to find the truth but is bested by the much more efficient method of the rabbis, darshening. In light of the apparent fact that snakes don't have a seven year gestation, I can only assume that a story which was invented or which evolved to demonstrate rabbinic superiority was readily accepted. Unfortunately, playing loose with the facts and a feeling of intellectual superiority (e.g. regarding atheist reshoyim scientists who are always changing their minds) can be seen in our day as well, even in cases when we are demonstrably incorrect.

      Delete
    2. R' Gamliel was the one who could answer the question, but it very well could have been a re-rooting of contemporary knowledge back into the Torah, a finding of riyahs for scientific knowledge. R' Yehoshua did not engage in this task, which could "color him" a bit yellow in relation to the Romans, but that is only one interpretation. R' Yehoshua very well could not have felt sickened at being bested; he stayed silent, did not need to turn to the Torah to defend his world-view. The question asked was not one that disputed the authority of Torah, but rather the advancement of natural science / natural philosophy. His face turned yellowish, maybe because he was absorbing the fact that he had important things to learn from goyish philsophers; maybe he was even considering gettinga PhD. It was R' Gamliel who was "pega bo" who "encountered" him, but as we know, "pega" could also mean hit, slam, plague -- more like the way R' Natan was "hit" by certain rabbis for his "yellow" books.

      Delete
  20. Rav Slifkin (RS) writes "That is, we know of no case where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it turned out to be correct."

    Yet, per my recollection in RS’s book the Challenge of Creation the Rabbi implies there is science in the Torah or it’s commentators. Then there is Gerald Schroeder and others who think they are reading scientific Cosmology and Biology in the Torah.

    Quote mine this, ignore that, ‘properly translate’ the Torah/Gemorah, invent excuses, add a large dose of intellectual honesty and you will conclude there is science in the Torah.

    The Truth is G-d’s Seal. It is better to admit the Torah/Talmud etc: has falsehoods and got science wrong rather than engage in intellectual dishonesty and obfuscation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Scratching my headJuly 17, 2017 at 2:27 PM

      Isn't your last statement contradictory?
      Saying "The truth is G-d's seal", and then saying things in the Torah aren't really true?

      Delete
    2. Only if you assume the Torah is from G-d and that the Torah has not been corrupted over the years. And even if the Torah was from G-d or from wherever follow the evidence and truth regardless of the implications.

      Delete
    3. Scratching my headJuly 19, 2017 at 2:31 PM

      Well, if you believe G-d exists but He didn't give us the Torah, how do you know that "the truth is G-d's seal"?

      Delete
    4. I think there are two sources, one is the Gemorah, I do not think the other is the Chumash - but I can not recall. Just because the Torah/Tenach/Oral tradition-law got some things wrong does not mean they got everything wrong.

      Delete
  21. "Yet, per my recollection in RS’s book the Challenge of Creation the Rabbi implies there is science in the Torah or it’s commentators."

    Your recollection is incorrect!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rav Slifkin - I apologize, but I will reduce your main thesis to: Genesis is not modern science. Yet, you implied otherwise in some portions of your book.

      Page 86 - The Big Bang confirms the Universe had a beginning, just like Judaism claims.

      Page 270 Evolution (meaning science) in Genesis. Specifically Gradualism and Transformation.

      Page 329 Ramban (Genesis 2:7 commentary) mentions a notion that man derived from a lower being.

      Delete
    2. And I have carefully read Ramban Genesis commentary. It is a huge kvetch and very unlikely Ramban was implying man came from or derived from or evolved from a prior primate.

      Delete
    3. I never made any such claim. Of course Ramban didn't believe that. My point was that his view, that man was first created (from the dirt) without a soul, and then given a soul, is theologically no different than evolution.

      Delete
    4. TRav Slifkin - thanks for you Ramban clarification. I tend to agree with you on the Ramban, but Gerald Schroeder disagrees with both of us. And was that your intent for page 270 ? And page 86 seems like you are finding science in Genesis. :

      Delete
  22. The chazal were human and therefore capable of making mistakes no matter how great they were in both intention and extent of torah knowledge. Wouldn't it be a form of kefirah to view them (as many in the frum world do) as having a godlike level of infallibilty?
    I understand that whatever they said regarding torah becomes the new standard because torah lav bashamayim and therefore even if their rulings were predicated on false scientific information it wouldn't really matter. However when it comes to certain objective scientific fact why would some consider them incapable of mistake (especially when the facts show otherwise)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If chazal were speaking about nature like Rav Meizelman and Natan Slifkin are thinking, you should be right in saying they were macking mistakes, but as the Maharal said (Beer hagolah) science is for physicians and scientists, but chazal are only interested in the inner essence of the world, and the Chamchal added (introduction of Ayn Yacob) that they are merely using the theories of their time as metaphors to cloth secrets of the Torah and in this regard it doesn't matter if the theory was wrong, and they have done the same with our contemporary theories, and the Gaon agreed with this stance, this is not an mystical position this is the only rational one, if you don't want to throw the baby with the bath, I mean if you don't want to renounce the treasures of wisdom contained in the teaching of Chazal,the problem of infallibility is some thing else, they never claimed any.

      Delete
    2. Michael Luc
      1) while it is true that some opinions understand these statments to be metaphorical and mystical, many opinions (such as the ones quoted by Rabbi Slifkin and Rabbi Meiselman) say otherwise
      2)If infallibility was never claimed by chazal then why is it attributed to them?

      Delete

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.

Devastating

The news of the murders in Neve Tzuf is devastating. I knew the father; he was my sister's next-door neighbor. I don't want to say...