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A Recipe for Intellectual Dishonesty
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The label "intellectual dishonesty" is often bandied about, but is not so easy to define, or to differentiate from general dishonesty. It seems that the term should be used for cases when a person presents an intellectual argument that falls far short of the standards that the person himself should know to use. He may sincerely believe the argument that he is offering, and thus he is being honest; but he is intellectually dishonest in not applying the evaluation that he should know to apply.
For example, someone who insists that "expert opinion" maintains that the world is less than six thousand years old, and that there was no age of dinosaurs, is not necessarily intellectually dishonest. He may genuinely believe that to be the case, if his definition of "expert opinion" is consistent.
There are numerous examples of intellectual dishonesty in Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science. But one stands out in that it is an actual recipe for intellectual dishonesty.
It's very unfashionable in Orthodox Judaism to talk about anyone being infallible - after all, that reeks of idolatry. Staunch advocates of Daas Torah, for example, will insist that they do not believe that the Gedolim are infallible. However, they undermine this claim when they refuse to name any instance of the Gedolim ever being mistaken.
Rabbi Meiselman likewise insists that Chazal were not omniscient or infallible (p. 33). However, he undermines this claim in two ways. First is that he distinguishes between cases where Chazal make definitive statements and when they make tentative statements. In cases where they make firm statements, Rabbi Meiselman claims that is inconceivable that they would have done so unless they were certain that they were correct and that there was no possibility of their being in error. As he states: "A major thesis of this book is that if Chazal make a definitive statement, whether regarding halachah or realia, it means that they know it to be unassailable" (p. 107). His given reason for this is that "Whenever Chazal make unqualified statements it indicates that regarding those particular issues the information encoded in the Torah or the methodology for extracting it had not yet been lost. Therefore, their knowledge represents absolute truth, which overrides any manmade theory" (p. 32-33).
Now, there are a number of problems with this claim. Rabbi Meiselman claims that if Chazal make a definitive statement, it means that they know it to be unassailable. But how does he know this? If he is insisting that Chazal's unqualified statements are based on information extracted from Torah, then we can ask again, what on earth is the basis for this claim? Rav Hirsch and many others certainly didn't think so! Why couldn't Chazal have ever said something that was not from the Torah, and yet which they believed to be true? Is it really impossible for them to have gained knowledge from their intellect or from other sources, and to have considered it reliable?
And there are further problems here. Let's say that Chazal really did base a given statement on knowledge that they had extracted from the Torah. Why does this necessarily mean that it is correct? That could only be the case if one considers Chazal to be absolutely infallible in such matters. Such a topic is beyond the purview of this post, but suffice it to note that it is far from undisputed.
Furthermore, as noted, it is significant that we see that Rabbi Meiselman in fact considers Chazal infallible. For the most a person can do is to believe that something he says to be unassailable. You can never know that something you say is unassailable - unless you are infallible.
However, I want to concentrate on the theme of this post, which is intellectual dishonesty. We have here a twofold recipe for intellectual dishonesty. First is that engendered by Rabbi Meiselman considering definitive statements to be infallible, and only non-definitive statements to be potentially errant. The result of this is that when faced with a statement about the natural world in the Gemara that is obviously incorrect, he, and those who follow his approach, are forced to classify it as a non-definitive statement - no matter how unreasonable it is to do so. In other words, he has to argue that a certain claim (i.e. that a given statement of Chazal was only tentative) is definitely true, even if under other circumstance the evidence would not warrant such a claim. That is a recipe for intellectual dishonesty.
The second recipe for intellectual dishonesty comes when we have taken Rabbi Meiselman's step and relegated a statement to being tentative instead of definitive. Here, Rabbi Meiselman agrees that it can potentially be in error; however, he maintains that it is forbidden for us lowly denizens of the 21st century to actually point out such things:
"...Even when a tentative statement of Chazal is in error... the prerogative of declaring any of their teachings mistaken is granted to them, not to us. For anyone other than Chazal themselves, questioning their conclusions is called being melagleg al divrei Chachamim - "mocking of the words of the Sages" - a crime with very serious consequences." (p. 108)
(By the way, I'm not sure how he reconciles this with his claim that Chazal's tentative statement about the existence of mud-mice is in error. Is he not being melagleg al divrei Chachamim by his own definition?)
Here we have another recipe for intellectual dishonesty. Rabbi Meiselman admits that some of Chazal's tentative statements may be in error, but he says that it is forbidden for us to explain the Gemara in that way. A similar claim was issued on the blog of Rabbi Meiselman's protege, and assistant in writing his book, Rabbi Dovid Kornreich (who seems to diverge from his rebbe by claiming that Chazal are theoretically fallible even with regard to definitive statements):
"The problem for the traditional camp is that while Chazal were not infallible and made mistakes, we do not have the authority to declare Chazal mistaken based on our own knowledge or judgment. Only other members of Chazal have the authority to point out their mistakes. So there would be a problem if Chazal truly believed in the existence of a spontaneously generated creature that we know today does not exist. This problem is neatly avoided by simply examining the relevant gemara and realizing that there is nothing which forces the conclusion that Chazal actually believed its existence."
Whereas Kornreich claims that his problem has been "neatly avoided," in fact what he has done is to apply the intellectual dishonesty mandated by Rabbi Meiselman. Since it would be unacceptable to interpret Chazal as having made a mistake, he is forced to reinterpret Chazal such that they are not actually asserting the existence of such a creature, no matter how unreasonable it is to explain the Gemara in such a way. Reader Akiva Cohen neatly encapsulated the problem with Kornreich's claim, which equally applies to Rabbi Meiselman:
"In other words: Chazal are not infallible, but we need to treat them like they are. So even though that may lead to non-emes interpretations of the Gemara (since we may be interpreting the Gemara wrongly in order to avoid claiming “Chazal erred” in a situation in which Chazal actually erred), that’s better than saying “Chazal erred.”
This, by the way, strikes me as the worst of both worlds: take all the supposed “faith-destroying” impact of acknowledging that Chazal were fallible when relying on their own intellect, and add to it the new (and more legitimately) faith-destroying acknowledgement that your interpretations of Gemara are not driven by emes, but by an express denial of a possibility that you acknowledge is a possibility."
So, to sum up, Rabbi Meiselman has given two recipes for intellectual dishonesty. One is that all scientifically-problematic statements of Chazal must be explained as being tentative, even if there is no reasonable basis for doing so. Second is that even tentative statements may not ever be explained as actually being errant, even though this might indeed be the case.
Anyone following Rabbi Meiselman's approach is going to be taking a course in intellectual dishonesty. For some, it will be help them feel happy and superior; for others, the cognitive dissonance will cause great inner turmoil.