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Omitting Inconvenient Sources
Should a book mention sources that are opposed to its thesis? That depends on what kind of book it is. If it just seeks to present a certain view, and makes no claim regarding the existence of other views, then it doesn't need to mention those opposing views. But certainly if a book is attempting to be any kind of definitive guide to the range of legitimate views, and there are views that are ostensibly legitimate and yet are outside of the range permitted by the book, then it should mention them, and account for them.
In the preface to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book, Torah, Chazal and Science, he writes as follows:
“I have not attempted to make this work encyclopedic. Many sources confirming the positions I have taken on major issues have been omitted in order not to overburden the reader. On the other hand, there may be other sources contradicting some of the theses of this book that have also been left out. What I have attempted to do is to quote those sources that reflect what I believe is the mainstream of traditional scholarly opinion on the topics discussed.” (p. xxiv)
I consider this paragraph to be deceptive in the extreme. It purports to justify the omission of sources that “may” contradict “some of” his theses. But there is no justification for his omission of sources that do contradict his fundamental thesis, as I shall now explain.
Rabbi Meiselman’s book is a whopping eight hundred pages long. The description on the inside flap notes that “Thousands of references, including a vast amount of primary source material, make this an invaluable resource for anyone interested in investigating the issues on his own.” The constant theme of the book is that Chazal’s definitive teachings about the natural world are never in question, and the chachmei haMesorah have never said otherwise (see e.g. p. 261). The goal of the work, as discussed on p. xxii (and explicitly described there as the goal of the work), is to show that “there is no support in the classical sources” for the approach to Chazal and science that is presented in books such as mine. In other words, he does not just want to show what is the “mainstream” approach, as he claims in the paragraph above; instead, he wants to entirely negate the legitimacy of the approach that is presented my books.
(Note too that he does not describe his goal as presenting the correct approach, but rather as showing that the approach given in my books is wrong and has no support. His focus and emphasis is on negating the approach of others, rather than on presenting his own approach.)
But given that he writes a vast amount of material, and presents thousands of references, and especially given the fact that his goal is specifically to address and rebut the approach of my books, and to claim that it has no support amongst the chachmei hamesorah, it is all the more remarkable that Rabbi Meiselman does not acknowledge the existence of several of my most important sources!
• Most of the Rishonim, and many Acharonim, are of the view that Chazal were mistaken with regard to the sun’s path at night. As demonstrated in an earlier post, Rabbi Meiselman tries to downplay the views of the Rishonim, refusing to quote or explain their position on this topic. And he does not acknowledge the existence of various Rishonim and Acharonim, such as disciples of Chasam Sofer, who, in commenting on this topic, make general statements about how Chazal were simply not expert in scientific matters and thus sometimes erred.
• Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is one of the most important Jewish figures of the nineteenth century. His letters on Chazal and science are the most extensive pre-20th century discussion of the topic. He occupies a prominent position in the manifesto of the approach that Rabbi Meiselman is attempting to refute. He discusses at length the case of the mouse that Chazal describe as growing from dirt, which Rabbi Meiselman has a chapter on. But Rabbi Meiselman makes no mention of Rav Hirsch’s writings on this topic! And he quotes Rav Hirsch’s skepticism of evolution from a scientific standpoint, without quoting his statement that evolution presents no theological problem!
• The topic of spontaneous generation is one of the most significant in the Chazal-science discussion, and Rabbi Meiselman has a full chapter on it. Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Chief Rabbi of Klausenberg and the author of the seminal work Dor Revi’i, is one of only three pre-Holocaust gedolim to address this conflict; it also addressed by Rav Herzog, who is quoted elsewhere in Rabbi Meiselman’s book and is thus an authority that he takes seriously. But Rabbi Meiselman makes no mention of the view of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog regarding the spontaneous generation of lice!
(And it’s not as though these sources are massively outnumbered by countless sources that Rabbi Meiselman has in support of his approach. In fact, with regard to the cases of the mice and lice discussed above, Rabbi Meiselman claims that all the Rishonim and Acharonim are wrong, and he does not have even a single authority who presents his view!)
There are further examples of how Rabbi Meiselman omits inconvenient sources. I shall discuss them in the course of future posts.
My book Sacred Monsters is only half the length of Rabbi Meiselman’s book, and much of it is not dealing with conflicts between Chazal and science. Yet I manage to quote the full range of views on this topic; it’s really not too difficult. All it takes is the honesty and humility to acknowledge that there have been great people in history who take a different view from one’s own. It is a pity that Rabbi Meiselman cannot do this.
N.B.: Here's a photo that someone sent me, of a poster advertising a series of lectures taking place in Yeshivas Toras Moshe: