"Nothing But The Truth"?
Last week's Mishpachah had a feature story, by Eytan Kobre, on Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. He was pictured on the cover, with the title, "Nothing But The Truth." In the part of the article dealing with his forthcoming book on Torah and science, we find the following:
"Through a systematic discussion of the views of all the Rishonim, he demonstrates their consensus on a foundational tenet of Torah: that Chazal's halachic pronouncements, including those that implicate scientific matters, were based on a deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah, the blueprint of that reality. This is a truth that was acknowledged even by the non-Jewish scientists of Chazal's time. The Rosh Yeshivah points out that 'even in regard to areas of pure halachah, of course, Chazal sometimes said, "Teiku," and left the matter unresolved; but where they spoke unequivocally, their word is definitive and binding. What emerges very clearly from every Rishon, bar none, is that Chazal don't make mistakes'."
If it is a "foundational tenet of Torah" that Chazal's halachic pronouncements were never based on incorrect beliefs about the natural world, then how is it that so many outstanding Torah scholars, such as Rav Yitzchak Lampronti (author of Pachad Yitzchak and rebbe of Ramchal), Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner (author of Dor Revi'i), Rav Aharon Marcus, and Rav Yitzchak Herzog (described by Ridvaz as the world’s outstanding Talmudists) thought differently? Rabbi Meiselman is entitled to disagree with these Torah scholars - but would it not be appropriate to acknowledge that several great Torah scholars disagree with his "foundational tenet of Torah"?
If Chazal had a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world," then why are there dozens upon dozens of statements in the Talmud that seem to reflect ancient erroneous beliefs about the natural world, while claims about "advanced scientific knowledge" in the Talmud invariably turn out to be things that Chazal didn't say, things that aren't actually true, or things that non-Jews also knew?
If Chazal's "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world" is a truth that was "acknowledged even by the non-Jewish scientists of Chazal's time," then why do we find so many instances of Chazal consulting non-Jewish experts on various matters? And why do we find Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi conceding that the non-Jewish astronomers were correct (and the Jewish sages incorrect) about a very basic fact of cosmology?
What proportion of even frum physicians today would say that Chazal's statements about the human body and about medicine are based upon a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world"? Rav Sherira Gaon didn't think so! Most people to study the topic (without a charedi agenda) would say that Chazal's statements about physiology and medicine pretty much reflect standard beliefs in the ancient world.
At this point I want to retract a claim that I made previously. I had written that the Rashba's claim regarding Chazal's inerrancy was limited to terefos. Checking it again, I see that it was in fact more broad. But I still don't see him claiming that “all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true.” And to reiterate, Rashba does not represent the unequivocal (or even normative) view. Which brings us to the statement by Rabbi Meiselman that leaves one breathless: "What emerges very clearly from every Rishon, bar none, is that Chazal don't make mistakes." I know that Rabbi Meiselman claims the famous words of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam to be a forgery (as unreasonable as that may be). But what about Rambam himself?
"It is one of the ancient beliefs, widespread among both the philosophers and ordinary people, that the motions of the spheres produce mighty and fearful sounds... This belief is also well-known in our nation. Thus the Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its sphere... Aristotle, however, rejects this, and explains that they produce no sound... You must not find it far-fetched that Aristotle differs from the opinion of our Sages in this. For this theory — that is, of the sounds of the spheres — stems from the belief that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it]; and you already know that in such matters of astronomy, the matter has been decided in favor of the gentile scholars over the Sages. Thus, it is explicitly stated, “The wise men of the nations have defeated them.” And this is appropriate; for with speculative matters everyone speaks according to the results of his own investigation, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof." (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8, translated from Schwartz edition)
In fact, most of the Rishonim followed the straightforward meaning of the Gemara, that the Chachmei Yisrael were mistaken in their beliefs about the basic structure of the universe. I documented this in my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night," (which, in my view, is the most fundamental topic for understanding the Chazal/ science issue and how approaches to it change over time). Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman would claim that in this case Chazal were only speculating and not speaking definitively. But they seemed pretty definitive about it; note that this Babylonian cosmology was also derived by Chazal from pesukim (see Bava Basra 25a-b, discussed in the monograph). And how does the belief in a flat earth that is covered by an opaque dome behind which the sun travels at night, supported from pesukim, reflect "a deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah"?
So in the topic of cosmology alone, we have R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon , Rambam, R. Shmuel ibn Tibbon, R. Yitzchak b. Yedaiah, R. Yeshayah di Trani, R. Eliezer b. Shmuel of Metz, Rosh, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Semag, Ritva, R. Manoach b. Yaakov, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Menachem ben Aharon ibn Zerach, R. Todros ben Joseph Abulafia, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar and Radvaz, all of whom say that the Chachmei Yisrael were incorrect. In the view of all these Geonim and Rishonim (as well as plenty of Acharonim), Chazal's view on this basic matter clearly did not stem from a "deep and comprehensive perception of physical reality of this world that emerged from their knowledge of Torah."
"Nothing But The Truth"? It's the dictionary definition of a puff-piece.