Guest Post: Placing the Discourse into a Modern Context
Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
The attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni [Rabbeinu Avraham], the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. "It does not at all follow," Abraham Maimuni [Rabbeinu Avraham] declares in his classical introduction to the Aggadah, "that because we bow to the authority of the sages of the Talmud in all that appertains to the interpretation of the Torah in its principles” and details, we must accept unquestionably all their dicta on scientific matters, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. We ought to be quite prepared to find that some of their statements coming within the purview of science, are not borne out by the science of our times... -- Judaism: Law & Ethics, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, p. 152
Placing the Discourse into a Modern Context
In prior posts, we showed that the conclusions the Discourse was consonant with the thought of the Rambam with Rabbeinu Avraham’s other writing. What about modern reactions to the Discourse since its rediscovery?
Rav Herzog, quoted above, maintains that the words of Rabbeinu Avraham are in fact a summary of “attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning”. In other words, according to Rav Herzog, the Discourse is hardly an outlier.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach seems to agree. The Sefer Lev Avraham mentions that one should not follow the medical advice of the Talmud. Rabbeinu Avraham is quoted as one of the authorities who explain why: the medicine of the Talmud was based on contemporary understanding and does not derive from the Torah. Obviously then, we are not obligated to follow it. Rav Shlomo Zalman notes in his approbation that the Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation should be quotes with the preface "some say" (Yesh Omrim) indicating that this is not that majority position.
Based on this, one might imagine that Rav Shlomo Zalman, while not discounting Rabbeinu Avrahams position entirely, doubted the position of Rabbeinu Avraham. However, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner followed up with Rav Shlomo Zalman to ask who he was referring to when implied that the majority disagreed with Rabbeinu Avraham. Rav Shlomo Zalman answered as follows (emphasis mine):
כעת אינני זוכר אם יש מישהו שממש חולק או אפילו אם יש מישהו שיכול לחלוק עליהם, אך יתכן שכוונתי דהואיל ורבים כתבו הטעם של שינוי הטבע ולא הזכירו כלל מפני שיפור הידע בדרכי הרפואה בזמנינו, לכן העירותי שראוי לכתוב בשם "יש אומרים", ובפרט שבעניני שבת יש שמתירים מלאכת שבת אף שלדעת הרופאים אין שום סכנה
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.
Thus, Rav Shlomo Zalman makes clear what is clear to most people in modern times: there have been obvious advancements in medical knowledge that supersedes the understanding of the Talmud and no one can really doubt this. Those who give other reasons cannot argue with the fact that medical science is much improved over that of ancient times. However, in halachic contexts, the other reasons (e.g. changes in nature) are often cited without mentioning the position of Rabbeinu Avraham.
In addition, in the religious context, we sometimes do permit Sabbath violations based on the dangers mentioned in the Talmud even though we don't actually treat the situation as dangerous medically. For example, we perform Metzitzah even though it seem to have no medical benefit and would otherwise be prohibited on Shabbos. As another example, a healthy postpartum mother is permitted by many to violate Shabbos even though we don't treat her as in danger medically. In those halachic contexts, the reason brought down most often should given priority while the reason given by Rabbeinu Avraham is secondary.
Secondarily, we see from Rav Shlomo Zalman that the explanation "changes in nature" is not contradictory to a belief that modern medicine has made progress since Sages of the Talmud. Those that proffer "changes in nature" for following modern medicine over that of the Talmud need not argue or disagree with Rabbeinu Avraham's position.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch also explicitly supports Rabbeinu Avraham's approach:
However, it seems to me that the guiding principle every student of our sages' words should bear in mind is that our sages were the scholars of the Godly religion and were the recipients, transmitters and teachers of God's guidance, ordinances, commandments and statutes; they were not especially natural scientists, geometers, astronomers or physicians except as it was necessary for their comprehension, observance and performance of the Torah – and we do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.
To these voices, we can add the words of Rav Yonah Merzbach in his polemic against the modern geocentrists. His position is that it is Mitzvah to continuously grow our understanding of the physical universe over time (translation mine):
Man was commanded to "replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) -- the command includes subduing the forces of nature, forces that were hidden in the creation, which was created by the maker of all things. In order to subdue them, one must investigate and understand them. It is well known, and a tradition in our hands, that before the end-times there will slowly be revealed to the eyes of all, many of the secrets of the creation, and God's honor will be thereby elevated.
And in truth, within the past few hundred years, and especially in the past few decades,  many of the of the secrets of nature have be deciphered by Man. The vast distances of space in the universe and the paths of the stars have been clarified; hidden waves invisible to the eye have been revealed. The structure of the tiny atom has been deciphered, and within it is contained a mighty power capable of destroying worlds, except that its creator restrained it with a mysterious power that holds it together. If not for that, all things would disintegrate in an instant...Blessed is the one who in his goodness renews, every day, the act of creation.
Rav Merzbach implies that that we are commanded to increase our knowledge of natural law and that we have in fact rapidly done so, and that this is a sign of progress. To those who try to learn science from the Torah, he says:
To the masters of [those infused with] the holy spirit, and to them alone, are revealed the ways of nature and its laws from the verses of scripture and the words of our sages of blessed memory. Others are liable to make errors in this. The Torah was not written to be a book of natural science, and it was not for this purpose that our sages of blessed memory said what they said. Whoever wants -- and there were some like these -- to prove that there is a boundary to the sky in the east and the west, or that the earth is flat and not spherical, relied on the statements of our sages of blessed memory and erred, because they didn't understand that "the Torah speaks in the language of man" (see Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:9 and 1:12) and in like manner spoke our sages of blessed memory and similar things can be found in the figurative language of our prayers and our praises. These words are only an outer vestment for the extremely deep matters, and riddles by which to express secrets (see the Rambam's introduction to the Commentary on Mishnah).
Finally, we can add Rav Avraham Yishaya Karelitz, (the Chazon Ish) who asserts that medical knowledge today is greater than that at Chazal’s time, at least in some ways. According the Chazon Ish, if Chazal had achieved the level of medical knowledge of our modern times, they would have decided the Halachos of Treifos differently than they actually did (חזון איש - אבן העזר (27:3:
In truth it appears that God created cures even for Treifos (animals considered mortally wounded) [...] but they were not revealed in every generation or every place. That there are those that were revealed and then forgotten and all of them were ordered and organized from God at the time of the creation and it was given over to the sages [of the Talmud] to establish the laws of Treifos according to their holy spirit which rested upon them [...] we have no new Torah [laws] after them so the laws of Treifos were established according to God’s providence at that time [of the close of the Talmud] and those diseases which were fatal at that time, because God had not yet given to his creations a cure for them, would considered the fatal conditions [Treifos] that the Torah forbid both at that time and for the later generations. And it is possible that it was not only in the discovery of medicinal drugs and the like alone that our time is different, but also in the changes in living things[...] (emphasis mine)
We also see that the Chazon Ish affirms that "changes in nature" and "progress in medicine" are not two mutually exclusive explanations, but can exist side by side. An authority citing "changes in nature" is not thereby expressing disagreement with Rabbeinu Avraham.
Despite these references, Rabbi Meiselman in TCS claims that the Discourse is unsupported in modern times. We’ll address that assertion in the next post.
Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.
 Written in 1975