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Giant Mouse Problems
Mice may be small, but they can cause huge problems. Today, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of the mud-mouse - the mouse that is (allegedly) generated from dirt. It also discusses the salamander that is legendarily generated from fire. I have chapters dedicated to these mythical creatures in my book Sacred Monsters (and my views on them are the primary reason why my books were put in cherem). The people that encounter this topic fall into several categories.
One group is aware that there ain't no such critters, and acknowledges that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) shared the mistaken beliefs of everyone else in these things. They follow the approach of the many Rishonim and Acharonim who state that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not infallible. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses the topic of the mud-mouse in particular, and writes as follows:
"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, would we not expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of Tum'ah and Taharah 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 Chazal 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 Beis ha'Mikdash was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day."
There's another group of people who are entirely unaware that no such creatures exist, and are completely confident in the absolute factual truth of everything in the Gemara. The weekly booklet Me'oros HaDaf Yomi took it for granted that the mud-mouse exists, and happily cited R. Yom Tov Lippman Heller's view that it presents evidence for creation ex nihilo. This group of people has an incorrect approach, but it doesn't bother me or interest me that much. In some ways, I am jealous of their simple faith; I have little desire to change their minds.
A different approach, however, is found with charedi anti-rationalist rabbonim who seek to present themselves as sophisticated thinkers that are well-versed in science, such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. They are dogmatically opposed to saying that Chazal predicated halachos on a misunderstanding of the natural world, so no matter how much evidence there is for that, and no matter how many Rishonim and Acharonim say it, they have to find a way around it. However, they can't bring themselves to insist that spontaneous generation really does take place (though R. Bleich does insist that it can't be disproved!) So they claim instead that Chazal never actually believed in spontaneous generation.
Now, one obvious problem with this approach is that the entirety of traditional rabbinic thought - every single Rishon and Acharon - interpreted Chazal as believing in spontaneous generation. Is it not preposterous, even arrogant, to claim that you understand Chazal's words better than every single Rishon and Acharon who ever lived? And it also goes strongly against the charedi ethos of claiming great respect for the mesorah and for traditional rabbinic authorities.
But there is also a different problem with this approach: the way in which its advocates conveniently ignore sources in Chazal which expose the impossibility of their interpretations. In another post, I detailed several sources from Chazal, conveniently ignored by R. Bleich and R. Meiselman, which show that Chazal most certainly believed that these creatures spontaneously generate.
Then there is a fourth group of people. These are the people who are pretty sure that no such creature exists, but cannot bring themselves to say so - either because they are uncomfortable with the notion that Chazal could be mistaken, or because they are afraid to publicly say so. And so they have a mighty struggle with this mouse.
When Rav Aharon Feldman from Baltimore switched sides regarding the controversial ban on my books, and decided to insist that Chazal were infallible in science, I asked him if he really believes that there is a mouse that is generated from dirt. I knew that he is a worldly person, and so I wanted to see his response. Rav Feldman replied that scientists are constantly discovering new and amazing phenomena - why shouldn't it be true? I received the impression, though, that he was trying to convince himself rather than me.
I posed the same question to one of the rabbis that had endorsed one of my books but was retracting his haskamah out of deference to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who insisted that Chazal were infallible. "Do you really believe that there is a mud-mouse?" I asked him. He paused for a while, and then said, "I don't know." I argued that he wasn't being honest with himself, but what I should have pointed out was that Rav Moshe Shapiro demanded that people believe that there definitely was such a thing, not that they do not absolutely deny it!
If anyone here attends a Daf Yomi class, can you post a comment informing us what the maggid shiur said about this topic?