The Dangers of False Inspiration
This past week, the popular magazine Mishpachah included Kolmus, their journal of Torah thought. This particular issue of Kolmus was dedicated to the topic of science in general, but with a particular focus on astronomy and cosmology. The editor writes in the introduction that whereas science evolves, Torah is immutable, and the articles in the journal present examples of how "some of the 'revelations' of modern science have actually been around for centuries, known only to those who study our Torah."
Predictably, the journal includes nothing of the sort. There is some very useful information in the journal, and some discussion that comes as a breath of fresh air to find in such a publication, but the alleged examples of how modern science was known to Chazal are woefully wrong. As with the alleged examples of this phenomenon offered by Rav Aharon Feldman, all the examples given in Kulmus are either things that were known throughout the ancient world, things that Chazal did not actually say but are instead being "stuck in" the Gemara, or things that are not actually true. The examples are produced by selective citations of the Gemara, selective choices of which Rishonim and Acharonim to quote, selective citations from within the chosen Rishonim and Acharonim, as well as misunderstandings of Torah, science, and history.
But the question is, should I be publicly discussing and analyzing such things? Many people would object to it. Why does it matter if Kolmus makes these mistakes? Isn't it beneficial for people to be inspired? What good will come of showing the journal to be mistaken, and what could possibly be the motive for destructive criticism?
I have a lot of sympathy for such objections. It's always easier to knock things down than to build things up, and my mentors taught me that it is generally not the appropriate path in life. Too many blogs simply become places for people to vent. I know several unfortunate souls who were bothered by intellectual errors and distortions that they saw in various places, decided to set people straight, and simply became consumed by negativity. It destroyed them, and their relationships with other people. This is something that I always fear will happen to me; indeed, some people believe that it already has.
Furthermore, personally (and I know that many readers will disagree with me on this), I do not believe in telling the truth at any cost. As Chazal said, "Educate the child according to his way" - and that applies to adults, too. Not every truth is going to be helpful for everyone. Generally speaking, I don't object to people being falsely inspired, if that inspiration helps them lead better lives.
On the other hand, there are some opposing factors, especially in this case. First of all, I'm not kidding myself about my relative lack of influence. In contrast to the many thousands of readers of Mishpachah, there are only a few hundred readers of this website, and many of them are people who are in any case already skeptical of this sort of thing and turned off by it.
Second, educating everyone to believe that Chazal were scientific geniuses way ahead of their time is going to cause problems when people encounter statements in the Gemara that simply can't be reconciled with modern science. The subsequent emunah crisis becomes much greater.
Third, we live in an era of great hostility towards those who follow the rationalist approach of the Rishonim in these matters. Spreading the idea that Chazal, in their pronouncements about the natural world, were millennia ahead of their time, assists the campaign of those who condemn the rationalist approach.
Fourth, I think that in general, such shtick is simply the wrong approach to take for inspiring people. Classically, Judaism sought inspiration in the wonders of nature, in God's guidance of the Jewish People over history and in our daily lives, in the moral wisdom of the Torah, not in shtick such as claiming modern science to be found in the Gemara.
There is one final reason why I want to address this topic, and it is something that I will have to be somewhat vague about for now. There are a number of extremely difficult intellectual challenges for Orthodox Jews that have not yet been widely dealt with in a satisfactory manner. I have some thoughts on how to effectively deal with these topics, but there is much groundwork that needs to first be laid. A proper understanding of Chazal's discussions concerning astronomy and cosmology is crucial to this discussion, and the myths and falsehoods perpetrated by Kolmus need to be corrected.
I am inclined, therefore, to cautiously proceed with discussing the errors in Kolmus. But, as always, I am open to hearing what others have to say.