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The Changing Face of Ohr Somayach
Way back when I used to teach at Ohr Somayach, it was a relatively moderate, open-minded place. True, Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo was no longer teaching there. But there was still my good friend Rabbi Mordechai Becher (now at Gateways). Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky was teaching that the universe is billions of years old and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb was saying that Chazal could have been mistaken in science. Most significantly, Rav Nachman Bulman, ztz"l, an extremely special person (pictured here), was the mashgiach. I had some discussions with him about Torah/science issues. He told me that Daat Emet, who had just started disseminating their anti-religious literature, was doing a service for the frum community in that they would force it to confront these issues. And he read my early writings on these topics, and encouraged me to publish them. Rav Bulman passed away before the ban on my writings, which, as his family told me, would have caused him much grief.
Ohr Somayach is now a very different place. Rav Moshe Shapiro is the dominant influence there; he is greatly revered and nobody would dream of disputing anything he says. The person who sells seforim there is not allowed to sell my books. Rabbis Gottlieb and Orlofsky now insist that the world is 5770 years old and that we may not say that Chazal erred in science. And now I see that my former colleague Rabbi Chaim Salenger has taken the initiative of calling me mistaken for saying that Chazal occasionally erred in science. He criticizes the approach, which he attributes to me, that the source of some of the statements by Chazal concerning spontaneous generation and the like was Greek or Roman philosophers/scientists, and he specifically mentions the case of the mouse that is half-flesh and half-dirt (which, as is universally explained and is clear from Sanhedrin 91a, refers to a mouse that is being generated from dirt and is halfway through this process).
The funny thing is that Rabbi Salenger thinks he is presenting the view of Rav Aharon Feldman, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. R. Salenger states that spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd" but that Chazal did not believe in it; when they wrote about the mouse that is half flesh and half-dirt, it was a Midrashic statement that must be interpreted allegorically.
But this is not Rav Feldman's position, and with good reason. The discussion about the mouse is not a Midrash or an aggadata - it is a Mishnah, and a halachah. Halachos are not interpreted allegorically! Which is why the Rishonim and Acharonim all understood that the Mishnah was talking about an actual mouse that is generated from dirt. Thus, Rav Feldman, in deference to Rav Elyashiv's view that it is prohibited to say that Chazal relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, insisted (in a conversation with me) that this creature must exist, not that it is an allegory.
In the comment thread there, when confronted with the fact that it is a Mishnah, R. Salenger immediately does an about-turn and insists that this creature does indeed exist. But what about his earlier statement that it must be allegorical since spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd"? He does not explain. This reminds of a point that Dr. Marc Shapiro once made - that if a firm belief can be dropped in an instant when it runs afoul of the Gedolim, in what way can it be said that the person holds any beliefs at all?
Anyway, in support of his new-found insistence that the patently and obviously absurd does indeed exist, R. Salenger quotes the scientific fact that new species are constantly discovered. That is indeed true; however, the new species that are discovered invariably turn out to be variations on existing creatures, not creatures that fundamentally rewrite the laws of science. R. Salanger also cites the Tiferes Yisroel, who is adamant that this creature exists and claims scientific support. The Tiferes Yisroel writes as follows:
"...I have heard heretics mocking regarding the creature that is discussed here and in Sanhedrin 91a, and denying it, saying that there is no such thing at all. Therefore, I have seen fit to mention here that which I found written in a Western European work compiled by a scholar renowned amongst the scholars of the world. His name is Link, and the book is titled Urwelt. In volume I, page 327, he writes that such a creature was found in Egypt in the district of Thebes, and that rodent is called, in the Egyptian language, Dipus jaculus; and in the language of Germany it is called springmaus. Its forequarters – its head, chest and hands – are perfectly formed; but its hindquarters are still embedded in the earth, until after several days when it fully changes to flesh."
However, as I explained at length in both Mysterious Creatures and Sacred Monsters (which perhaps R. Salenger should read), Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman has already proved that the Tiferes Yisrael completely misunderstood what Link was saying. Even the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud notes this. (And, of course, even if Link were to have believed in spontaneous generation, this would not make it true! But what happened to R. Salenger's claim that spontaneous generation is "patently and obviously absurd"?)
Of course, for a Jew who follows in the tradition of most of the Rishonim and many Acharonim, that the source of some of Chazal's statements were the reigning beliefs of the era rather than being allegories or infallible, divine statements, this Mishnah does not present a difficulty at all.Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch specifically applies this approach to this case:
Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he had found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh and his report was accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect the Sages to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of defilement and decontamination apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can the Sages be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well known and accepted in his day.
It is sad that R. Salenger chose to condemn the approach presented by most Rishonim and specifically applied to this case by Rav Hirsch. But, as Rav Moshe Shapiro is reported to have said (after being proven wrong in his claim that Rav Hirsch's letter was forged), "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash."
I miss the old Ohr Somayach. In Rav Bulman's day, Rav Hirsch was from that Beis HaMidrash.