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Guest Post: Is Rabbeinu Avraham an Outlier in Modern Times?
Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
An Outlier in Modern Times?
In TCS, Rabbi Meiselman mentions that the discussion in the Discourse of the the scientific statements of Chazal were not often cited in until very recent times. Since the Discourse was included in many editions of the Ein Yaakov including two editions translated into English, this is strong evidence that he Discourse was, at the very least, not considered religiously objectionable.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Meiselman maintains that the position of the Discourse is unsupported by modern authorities. We'll examine that claim here.
Rav Yitzchak Herzog strongly endorses the Discourse, as we noted in the previous post. How does Rabbi Meiselman approach this?
Rav Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, was the only serious talmid chacham of whom I am aware who ever predicated a major halachic stance upon [the Discourse], affirming both its authenticity and its accuracy. Others have alluded to it casually, but no one else embraced it as an authoritative source upon which to base a halachic position. [...] Rav Herzog gave no justification for the confidence that he placed in the published text of the Maamar. It is unlikely that he was aware of the evidence calling into question its integrity [...] We cannot know what Rav Herzog’s opinion would have been had he examined these sources. (TCS pgs. 101-102)
First, Rabbi Meiselman implies that Rav Herzog stands alone in his affirmation of the position of Rabbeinu Avraham. In my humble opinion, we have already seen that this is not the case. Rabbeinu Avraham's position is well supported by other modern authorities. [1a]
Next, Rabbi Meiselman also argues that Rav Herzog based his view of Chazal's scientific understanding opinion on the Discourse. Since he has discredited the Discourse as a reliable source of information, Rav Herzog's support falls away.
There are two problems with this argument. First of all, as we have previously seen, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Discourse. More importantly, Rav Herzog doesn’t claim that he is basing his opinion on the Discourse. In fact he says that the Orthodox approach to science of the Talmud is “best summed up” by the Discourse. In other words, he is not "relying" on Rabbeinu Avraham, but just using quotations from the Discourse to support his own position.
In fact Rav Herzog, justifies his position in the same way that Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch do: based on the way that Chazal themselves acted (emphasis mine):
Another point of divergence between the Jewish and non-Jewish schools is likewise mentioned in the above Baraitha, and with regard to that Rabbi Judah HaNasi says that the opinion of the non-Jewish astronomers seems to him more probable than the Jewish view. This shows, on the one hand, that in such matters the sages of Israel in the majority of cases spoke as scientists and not as religious authorities whose dicta would have to be accepted on the ground of faith in tradition; and on the other hand, it affords us an illustration of their ardent love of the truth. National pride was not allowed to interfere with the progress of knowledge.
Thus, I think that we can firmly state the Rav Herzog’s opinion is an independent confirmation of the ideas of the Discourse, not simply an endorser of the text of the Discourse itself.
How does Rabbi Meiselman deal with the support of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach? He states in a footnote (TCS pg 101 note 293):
Some contemporary authors have asserted that Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach affirmed the validity of the attribution [of the Discourse to Rabbeinu Avraham].
Rabbi Meiselman then quotes the letter of Rav Shlomo Zalman (quoted in the previous post) in Hebrew without translation. Here it is again:
At this point, I don’t remember if there is anyone that actually argues with them or even if there is anyone that could argue with them. Rather it is probable that my intention was that since many bring down the reason of the change in nature (שינוי הטבע) and did not mention at all the improvement in medical knowledge in our times, therefore I noted that it is fitting to cite this position as “some say”. And in particular since with regard to Shabbos, there are those that permit violation of Shabbos even if according to the doctors there is no medical emergency.
Rabbi Meiselman continues:
There is no indication in this quote that Rav Auerbach ever took the time to examine the authenticity of these sources [Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Sherira Gaon] or the accuracy of the inference made from them. In point of fact he never did, since he did not view the position as mainstream. As the letter indicates, he did not even take the time to investigate who disagrees with him.
In my humble opinion, this a mischaracterization of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s letter and the inferences to be drawn from it.
To begin with, it is clear from both Rav Shlomo Zalman's approbation and his detailed notes, that he went through the sefer Lev Avraham very carefully. Without even examining his subsequent letter Rabbi Lerner, his approbation indicates that he felt that the approach of the Discourse was well within the bounds of normative Judaism.
Moreover, there is no claim that his letter to Rabbi Lerner shows that Rav Shlomo Zalman validated the manuscripts of the Discourse; what it shows is that he thought that Discourse was so mainstream that he doubted that anyone could argue with the position it espoused. He says explicitly that his assertion that it should be quoted as “some say” is not because anyone disagrees or even could disagree.
In addition, Rabbi Meiselman asserts that Rav Shlomo Zalman never examined the position of Rabbeinu Avraham very well, since he did not view the position as mainstream. Rabbi Meiselman doesn't bring any evidence for the fact that Rav Shlomo Zalman never examined the position of Rabbeinu Avraham. However, we can bring evidence that he did.
He explicitly analyzes the position of Rabbeinu Avraham in his approbation to Lev Avraham referenced above (emphasis mine)
העיקר הוא כשאר הטעמים, ומ״ש ״חז״ל כשדברו וכו׳״ נכון לכותבו רק בשם י״א וגם נכון להזכיר פרט למציצה דאף שלכאורה הוא רק משום סכנה אפי״ה חייבים לעשותה גם בשבת אף אם זה נגד דעת הרופאים
The halacha follows the other reasons, and that which your wrote [of Rabbeinu Avraham’s position], it is proper to write in the in name of “some say” and it is also proper to mention that it excludes metzitzah, that even though its sole purpose appears to be to avoid danger [to the infant]; even so, we are required to do it on Shabbos even if it is against the opinion of the doctors [who say that it does not prevent illness]. 
We see that Rav Shlomo Zalman did take the time to understand the contours of Rabbeinu Avraham’s position and to exclude its applicability to specific halachos, such as Metzitzah, already decided by Chazal even if unsupported by current scientific understanding. This matches the approach of the Rambam who accepts the permissibility of the use of some potentially "superstitious" cures even though we now know that they don’t work (Guide 3:37):
It is not inconsistent that a nail of the gallows and the tooth of a fox have been permitted to be used as cures: for these things have been considered in those days as facts established by experiment.
Rabbi Meiselman then goes on to mention that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook disagreed with Rav Herzog and opined that “Chazal’s view on proper treatment override those of contemporary medicine”. (TCS pg. 102)
In my humble opinion, this statement is literally false. It is difficult to believe that Rav Kook would not generally follow a doctor’s advice if it didn't correspond to that of Chazal and he that, for example, would use an incantation over the the encouragement to cough and/or the Heimlich maneuver to treat a choking victim. 
Rather, the Rav Kook is referring to the same case mentioned as an exception by Rav Shlomo Zalman: the use of Metzitzah for a Bris Milah. The fact that we preserve this tradition despite the fact it seems to serve no medical purpose is unsurprising and hardly indicates general Rav Kook’s position on the general interplay of Torah and Science.
However, Rav Kook did write on the general topic of possible contradiction between science and tradition and he was not dismissive of modern science. For example here, he discusses the apparent contradiction between the age and evolution of the earth with the traditional straightforward interpretation Torah’s account in Bereishis (L’Nevuchei Hador Chapter 5)
That the account of the creation in the Torah is not completely literal, but rather also contains profound parables is an idea that the Rambam has already written of [...] And behold it is well understood that the new methods of scientific investigation that claim that the world evolved [and was not created instantaneously] do not at all violate the foundational principles of the Torah and not even the description [of creation] of scripture regarding the creation [...]
My point here is not reconcile the positions of a thinker with the depth of Rav Kook, but simply to point out that one quotation about the subject of science and the Torah is not enough to clarify his multi-faceted position.
In our next post, we’ll examine Rabbi Meiselman’s evidence of inconsistencies between the positions of Discourse and that of the Rambam and other Rishonim.
Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.
[1a] It is unclear what the relevance why reference are considered unimportant if they are not the basis of a major halachic position. There is no claim that the approach of the Discourse has a major influence on halacha, since it is not a work of halacha. In addition, by Rabbi Meiselman's argument, any reference, no matter how "casual", which does not treat the Discourse as obviously wrong or heretical, provides strong support that the approach falls within the mainstream of Orthodox Judaism.
 What he means is the following: The only reason that Metzitzah (squeezing or drawing out blood) is permitted on Shabbos as part of a Bris Milah is because is it considered essential to the health of the baby. Even though modern medicine doesn't see a benefit in this procedure, and even though Rabbeinu Avraham's position implies that we go with follow modern medicine, in this case, where the procedure has become part of the traditional Milah procedure, we would still continue to follow the traditional practice. This can be contrasted with the traditional Lithuanian approach to Metzitzah b'Peh which is avoided when danger to the baby is suspected.
 A tanna recited the chapter of Amorite practices before R. Hiyya b. Abin. Said he to him: All these are forbidden as Amorite practices, save the following: If one has a bone in his throat, he may bring of that kind, place it on his head, and say thus: 'One by one go down, swallow, go down one by one': this is not considered the ways of the Amorite. For a fish bone he should say thus: 'Thou art stuck in like a pin, thou art locked up as [within] a cuirass; go down, go down.' (Shabbos 67a)