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Keep Science Away From Torah!
The previous posts, about checking fruit for bugs, garnered a lot of attention (12,000 views!). They raised the topic of whether we should take advantage of advances in science and technology for implementing halacha.
For science, this would include awareness of the impossibility of spontaneous generation - earlier halachic sources permitted the consumption of certain insects based on the belief that they spontaneously generate. In my book Sacred Monsters, I explained why according to some opinions, even though based on the academic/ rationalist approach we see that Chazal were mistaken in believing that lice spontaneously generate, this should not affect the halachah that it is permissible to kill them on Shabbos. I discussed the case of Tanur Shel Achnai and showed that the Torah has its own protocols which can sometimes diverge from objective reality. No doubt some readers will be shocked by this; I recommend that you read (or re-read) the final chapter in Sacred Monsters to appreciate this point of view.
Technology might be seen as a different matter. After all, this is not saying that earlier generations had mistaken conceptions; it's just a matter of using the tools at our disposal to resolved questions and problems with more efficiency. This means everything from clean running water to modern chemicals to artificial lighting to glasses, which enable us to inspect fruits and vegetables for insects and clean them more effectively than in previous generations. So shouldn't we make use of it?
Many people assumed that the rationalist answer to this would be yes. After all, if it's a sin to eat bugs, and we have better ways to avoid that problem than did earlier generations, why should we not take advantage of that?
But in fact, the answer is no. And the explanation is implied by the maxim, Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet, "the Torah was not given to angels," in combination with another maxim, shelo lehotzi laaz al dorot harishonim, "do not cast aspersions on earlier generations." The Torah was given to an ancient nation in a desert, not to divine beings. And it wasn't applied to modern man either, with his technological innovations, which is why there is no prohibition against eating microscopic insects. Furthermore, if you're going to argue that modern man is the same as ancient man, just with more applied wisdom, and that we should use this to observe halachah better, then this casts earlier generations in a negative light. We do not wish to portray ourselves as keeping halacha better than Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabbi Akiva and Rambam.
And if those principles aren't enough, there's another. Do you want the halachic way of life to be utterly overturned? Because that's what you're facing if you apply science and technology and take it to its logical conclusion.
Somebody once asked the great and underappreciated Rav Nachum Rabinovich, shlita, about whether one can use ultrasound to resolve a niddah question. He said that the answer is yes, but chas v'shalom to say that people should do such a thing, because it would end up being considered essential. After all, how can you rely on the visual appearance of a stain - which can be affected by many things - if there is a much more precise scientific method of resolving the question? The halachos of niddah would be completely overturned and transformed into something unrecognizable if we decide to incorporate science and technology to resolve it.
Another example would be the prohibition of bishul, cooking, on Shabbos. It is very clear from a scientific perspective that whether or not a food becomes cooked depends on factors such as the temperature, the duration for which that temperature is maintained, the specific heat capacity of the food, and so on. Yet the halachos of bishul are based on concepts such as kli rishon, kli sheni etc. To my mind it is obvious that there is no need to change the halachic parameters of bishul, and I don't believe that anyone would ever suggest otherwise. Aside from the fact that the parameters of kli rishon/ sheni have been canonized, they make for a much more useful application of the melachah than temperature and specific heat capacity. The physical reality is used as a rough basis for the halachic concept, but the halachic concept then takes on its own reality which does not change by virtue of it not being precisely matched by the physical reality. Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet. And likewise, Lo nitna Torah to a generation with thermometers and a scientific understanding of cooking.
The same applies to checking and cleaning fruit and vegetables for bugs. Traditionally, people did not have clean running water, pesticides, artificial lighting, glasses, or awareness of microscopic insects. Traditionally, there were no halachic manuals like that of Rav Vaye. And therefore it should not become normative halacha today, either.
Now I know that this matter is not entirely cut-and-dried. And Rav Herzog did criticize rabbis who do not take into account advances in science and technology, comparing them to the (myth of the) ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. Still, I think that as a basic approach, it is not only correct and appropriate, but also vital, unless one wants to enable a wholesale reformation of halachah. Which I don't think is a very good idea.
See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule.
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