Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
In a previous post, "Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun," I referred to the topic of the sun's path at night - the single most powerful proof for the legitimacy of the rationalist approach regarding Chazal and science - in which all the Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Gemara is recording a dispute about the sun’s path at night; and the majority of Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Sages of Israel were incorrect. I demonstrated that when Rabbi Meiselman discusses this topic in his new book, he engages in concealment and obfuscation of the nature of the discussion and confusion of issues, and I showed that his attempt to render the topic irrelevant is flawed.
All this could not go unanswered, of course, and so in the comments to the post, some people argued back. One character, too afraid to use his real name and posting under the moniker "Observer," did not actually respond to any of my points, but repeatedly insisted that I am not remotely the Torah or science scholar that Rabbi Meiselman is, that no talmid chacham agrees with me, that I don't know how to learn the Rishonim, that I have no idea what the rakia is, that nobody cares what I say, etc., etc.
The strangest aspect of his comment is that even Rabbi Meiselman himself, at the end of all his attempts to obfuscate and mislead people in this section, is forced to admit that the Rishonim mean exactly what I say they mean! I quote: "...Chazal's self assuredness did not prevent them from admitting error when confronted with what they recognized as truth. According to most Rishonim... the passage in Pesachim is an illustration of just such an admission" (p. 148). Rabbi Meiselman attempts to argue that this is irrelevant to the larger Torah-science issue, for reasons that I have and shall further discuss, but he concedes that most Rishonim do indeed say that the Chachmei Yisrael mistakenly believed the sun to go behind the sky at night - exactly as I stated!
It's truly fascinating that in their zeal to discredit me, people will argue that I am wrong even when their heroes say exactly what I am saying!
Another response came from Rabbi Dovid Kornreich, a disciple of Rabbi Meiselman whose input is acknowledged in the book, and who is known in the blogosphere by his moniker "Freelance Kiruv Maniac." In response to my charge that Rabbi Meiselman had attempted to conceal the straightforward meaning of the Gemara, Kornreich claimed that there is no straightforward meaning!
Of course, this claim is nothing short of ludicrous. There indeed is a straightforward meaning. It's the literal translation of the Gemara. It's the explanation given by Rashi. It's the explanation given by countless Rishonim and Acharonim. It's the elucidation given by Artscroll and Soncino and Koren and Shas Lublin (Machon HaMaor), which gives the illustration shown here:
And, as noted above, even Rabbi Meiselman eventually has to acknowledge that this is the understanding of the Rishonim!
Kornreich's second claim was that the Rishonim give a host of different explanations regarding the nature of the rakia (firmament). However, this is entirely irrelevant. First of all, some of those were not explanations of Chazal's view of the rakia, but rather of these Rishonim's own understanding of the rakia of the Torah. Second, this is a red herring. It makes no difference what they thought the rakia was made out of. All that matters is that they accepted that Chazal mistakenly believed the sun to change direction at night and go behind the sky, as opposed to the correct view of the gentiles that it passes on the far side of the earth.
Kornreich attempts to argue that the Rishonim were not explaining the Gemara, just extracting the halachic relevance that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night, as per the view of the Gentiles. The problem is that if the Gentile scholars were correct about the sun going on the other side of the world at night, then the Sages of Israel were ipso facto saying that the sun does not go on the other side of the world at night and were incorrect. So Kornreich issues the incredible claim that the Rishonim held there to be no actual argument between the Sages of Israel and the gentiles: the Sages of Israel were talking about a metaphysical reality, wheres the gentiles were talking about the physical world. In other words, even though the Gemara phrases it as a dispute about cosmology, and R. Yehudah HaNasi chooses the opinion of the gentile scholars, there was actually no dispute about cosmology! This would be a fantastically far-fetched explanation to propose for the Gemara, but Kornreich goes even further and claims that the Rishonim held this view but made no mention of it! (And, once again, Kornreich is contradicting his own rebbe, Rabbi Meiselman, who eventually conceded that according to most Rishonim, this is an example of Chazal being in error.)
Moving to the Acharonim, Kornreich claims that that "by observing the extreme variety of their interpretations, one can tell this gemara appears to be far from straightforward." Actually, by observing the extreme variety of some of their interpretations, and contrasting it with the complete lack of variety of explanations among the Rishonim, one can reach a different conclusion: that the Gemara has a very straightforward meaning, which the Rishonim were fine with, but which many Acharonim were deeply uncomfortable with.
Kornreich argues that since R. Yehudah HaNasi agreed with the gentiles, it's not a case of saying "Chazal were wrong." But how is that at all relevant? The point is that several sages were incorrect about a basic fact of the natural world, due to their not having a divine source for this knowledge.
This brings us back to the way in which Rabbi Meiselman attempts to render this Gemara irrelevant to the rationalist approach. In the previous post, I noted why his attempt fails; there is no basis for concluding that Chazal's views on the sun's path at night were any different from their views on other aspects of the natural world. (In fact, unlike some of their statements about the natural world, Chazal related their view on the sun's path at night, and of the firmament, to pesukim. In cases where they did not relate their view to pesukim, they would be all the more ready to concede error.)
Rabbi Meiselman, followed by Kornreich, offers two sources to show that one cannot extrapolate from the sun's path at night to other cases. One is that Rabbi Yehoshua engages in a Scriptural exegesis in order to determine the gestation period of a snake. But what does this show? After all, the Sages also engaged in Scriptural exegesis in order to determine the sun's path at night. It might be different if we could show that Rabbi Yehoshua's exegesis was actually correct, but we can't even do that, forcing Rabbi Meiselman to claim that Rabbi Yehoshua was referring a particular and unknown species (which the Gemara, misleadingly, referred to with the generic term nachash).
Rabbi Meiselman/ Kornreich's second source is Rambam, who, when discussing Chazal's errors regarding astronomy, says that they lost the original correct Torah-based traditions in this area. For some inexplicable reason, Rabbi Meiselman (and Kornreich even more explicitly) takes this to mean that in areas where Chazal made statements about the natural world with no indication of uncertainty, these were based on the Torah and are infallible. Korneich claims that "The exception proves the rule." No, all it proves is that Rambam believed that the Jewish People originally had correct Torah-based traditions regarding astronomy (which is particularly religiously significant, and which is hinted to in a verse about the Bnei Yissacher). It proves nothing at all about Rambam believing that they had correct Torah-based traditions in areas of the natural sciences such as zoology. On the contrary; if they lacked Torah-based knowledge for something as basic and religiously significant as where the sun goes at night, all the more so did they lack Torah-based knowledge for obscure and largely irrelevant matters such as zoology.
But, to return to the points above, what are we to make of Observer and Kornreich insisting that I am wrong, even on points in which Rabbi Meiselman eventually concedes the exact same thing? Is it that the ultimate goal is not to say that Chazal were right or even that Rabbi Meiselman is right, but rather to say that Slifkin is wrong? But surely the only drive for that is precisely because I said that Chazal and Rabbi Meiselman are wrong? How does it make sense that if I am wrong, then ipso facto Rabbi Meiselman is right and Chazal are right, if he's agreeing with me that Chazal were wrong? I guess people get carried away with their anti-rationalist mania.