Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Acknowledging Dissenting Views
NOTE: I wish to retract my statement in the previous post in which I described Rabbi Dr. David Shabtai's book as siding with those who do not accept brain death. I have not read the book myself and was merely relying upon hearsay. I apologize if I have given the wrong impression.
Everyone has a bias towards interpreting the views of respected figures as matching their own. But with anti-rationalists (and hyper-rationalists), this bias is so powerful that it often prevents their acknowledging the very existence of any dissenting opinions. Rabbi Bleich's article on spontaneous generation is a perfect example.
Rabbi Bleich begins the section on this topic by making a passing mention of R. Sherira Gaon and R. Avraham ben HaRambam's acknowledgement of the scientific errancy of Chazal, followed by a lengthy citation of Chazon Ish's position that one who posits such errancy is a heretic. On this, I have three comments. First, it is disturbing that in a footnote, Rabbi Bleich references Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's unfortunate theory regarding the "provenance and authority" of R. Avraham ben HaRambam's statement i.e. his belief that it is a forgery. Second, I am not sure why Chazon Ish merits a greater focus than Geonim and Rishonim. Third, there may well be here an instance of Rabbi Bleich revising the Chazon Ish's view to bring it more in line with his own, but from the opposite direction. Rabbi Bleich writes that although Chazon Ish held halachic statements of Chazal to be infallible, he assuredly "would not deny that certain aggadic statements are hyperbolic in nature and that others must be understood allegorically." In fact, this is far from clear. Rabbi Mordechai Shulman, Rosh Yeshivah of Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, relates a story concerning the Chazon Ish (Pe’er HaDor p. 330). A student reported that he had seen a work that claimed that the account of Og involved exaggerations. The Chazon Ish told this student that such beliefs were forbidden, and did not allow that student to touch wine out of concern that it would become yayin nesech. While it is possible that this story should not be taken at face value, there is certainly no basis for being sure of it; Chazon Ish would not be the first or last to insist that Aggadata is all literally true.
Rabbi Bleich then writes as follows:
The claim that “scores of Rishonim and Aharonim are of the view that the Sages were not infallible in such matters,” i.e., in matters of Halakhah, is simply not true. Those authorities who ascribed error to Hazal did so only in the context of non-halakhic pronouncements. With the exception of Pahad Yizhak, I am hard pressed to identify any rishon or aharon who believes that, properly understood, Hazal were fallible in their specific halakhic pronouncements.
His "i.e." is somewhat disingenuous, since I was in fact referring to statements made in non-halachic contexts. However, I will let it go, since the bottom line is that I see no reason why they would not say the same in halachic contexts. The scores of authorities who said that Chazal were not infallible in matters such as basic astronomy clearly did not subscribe to the recent mystical view, itself strongly conflicting with the Gemara, that Chazal had ruach hakodesh in all matters. What basis is there for saying that they would all believe that ruach hakodesh would suddenly "kick in" when they were basing a halachah on this scientific knowledge? Besides, as Rabbi Aharon Marcus in Keses HaSofer to Bereishis 1:21 points out, we see cases (such as Niddah 22b, Chullin 63b and 77a) where Chazal relied on the opinion of scholars in the natural sciences for the purposes of halachah. Were those gentile scholars suddenly divinely inspired in such cases?
Furthermore, in at least one case there are indeed halachic ramifications of the cases where the Rishonim said that Chazal erred. The Tosafist R. Eliezer of Metz suggests that the reason why one must knead matzah dough only with water that had sat the night after being drawn is to prevent it from being heated during the night by the sun, which is passing beneath the earth at that time. He notes that this follows the view of the gentile scholars regarding the sun's path at night, as opposed to the view of the Jewish Sages which was mistaken. R. Eliezer’s view is quoted, endorsed and further explained by Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, and Ritva.
Rabbi Bleich then claims that R. Yosef Kappach, whom I cited as stating that Chazal's ruling on lice was based upon a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, held no such thing; instead, he claims, R. Kappach believed that nishtaneh hateva (i.e. that although lice today do not spontaneously generate, the lice in Chazal's era really did spontaneously generate). But the evidence indicates that this is simply R. Bleich projecting his own views upon R. Kappach. As R. Kappach's disciples will attest, he had no problem saying that Chazal erred in scientific matters. R. Kappach (unlike Rabbi Bleich) elsewhere readily acknowledged that Chazal were mistaken in their belief in the spontaneous generation of mud-mice; presumably he would have acknowledged the same regarding their belief in the spontaneous generation of sweat-lice.
Rabbi Bleich likewise claims that Rav Herzog, whom I cited as stating that Chazal's ruling on lice was based upon a mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, was instead proposing that nishtaneh hateva. Yet, again, everything that we know about Rav Herzog indicates otherwise. Rabbi Herzog fully accepted that the Sages of the Talmud were fallible in scientific matters:
The attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. “It does not at all follow,” Abraham Maimuni declares in his classical introduction to the Haggadah, “that because we bow to the authority of the sages of the Talmud in all that appertains to the interpretation of the Torah in its principles and details, we must accept unquestionably all their dicta on scientific matters, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. We ought to be quite prepared to find that some of their statements coming within the purview of science are not borne out by the science of our times...” It is of importance to bear this in mind when we enter upon the study of science in the Talmud. (Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Judaism: Law & Ethics, p. 152)
In another context, he notes that a statement in the Talmud about physiology has been clearly demonstrated as false, and therefore could not have been a tradition from Sinai (see the letter cited by Dov Frimer, “Jewish Law and Science in the Writings of Rabbi Isaac HaLevy Herzog"). In light of his ready acknowledgement of Chazal's fallibility in scientific matters, and his PhD in marine biology, it is surely absurd to claim that Rav Herzog believed that Chazal were correct in their beliefs regarding spontaneous generation.
Rabbi Bleich also completely ignores my citation of Rav Moshe Glasner, the Dor Revi'i, in this section.
In summary: Rabbi Bleich refuses to acknowledge that anyone (other than Pachad Yitzchak) ever admitted to Chazal sometimes basing halachic rulings on erroneous scientific beliefs. This is opposed by all reason and evidence, and simply reinforces that which we have seen in the first and second part of this rejoinder: that Rabbi Bleich has a non-rationalist approach to this topic.