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Paging Toras Moshe
It's very peculiar. Rabbi Dovid Kornreich of Yeshivas Toras Moshe obsessively ran a blog against me for ten years. He follows this blog carefully, often commenting. And yet he didn't comment at all about a post last week in which I discussed his rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, and his favorite topic, Torah and science.
I'd like to call on Rabbi Kornreich, or anyone else from Toras Moshe, to find out Rabbi Meiselman's answers to the following five difficulties with his interview on R. Dovid Lichtenstein's show. Since Rabbi Meiselman presents himself as a uniquely great expert on the topic of Torah and science, and argues that anyone who takes the rationalist approach of Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch is a heretic, surely he owes it to the general public to explain how his position is consistent with all the sources from Chazal that he neglected to cite in his book.:
1. Who are the Chachmei Yisrael?
Rabbi Meiselman argues that the Chachmei Yisrael who asserted that the sun goes behind the sky at night were astronomers rather than Torah scholars. Yet the term Chachmei Yisrael is used by the Gemara to refer to a Torah scholar upon which one recites a blessing: הרואה חכם מחכמי ישראל אומר: “ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו מלך העולם שֶחָלַק מחכמתו ליראיו”.
Furthermore, as we see in Bava Basra, Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer and Midrash Rabbah, this position is attributed to named Tanna'im.
2. The Claim that it wasn't a Torah-Based Belief
Rabbi Meiselman insists that these Chachmei Yisrael were not espousing a Torah-based position. But in other places in the Gemara and Midrash, we see that this position was was based on pesukim:
"It was taught in a Beraita: Rabbi Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra, and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it bends back and rises above the firmament. And Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as it says, “traveling to the south, and circling to the north…” (Eccl. 1:6)—traveling to the south by day, and circling (outside of the firmament) to the north by night—“it continually passes around, and the ruach returns again to its circuits” (ibid.)—this refers to the eastern and western sides, which the sun sometimes passes around and sometimes traverses (and thus is always on the horizontal plane). (Bava Basra 25a-b)
Rabbi Eliezer is presenting the view attributed in Pesachim to the Sages of Israel, in which the sun rises up behind the sky at night, while Rabbi Yehoshua is presenting a variant in which at night the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome. He bases this on a passuk. And so, contrary to Rabbi Meiselman's claim that this position is a non-Torah based position of non-Talmidei chachamim, we see that it is the position of Tannaim and is based on pesukim.
3. Chazal's Belief in Spontaneous Generation
Rabbi Meiselman insists that Chazal never espoused a concrete or Torah-based belief in spontaneous generation. How, then, does he explain the following discussion in Chazal:
"I might think that a swarming creature causes impurity, but a mouse that is half flesh and half earth, which does not reproduce, does not cause impurity. But it is logical: The rat causes impurity and the mouse causes impurity; just as “rat” is as its meaning, so too “mouse” is as its meaning (and thus a mouse that is half flesh and half earth would transmit impurity). Yet alternatively, one could say, just as the rat procreates, so too the mouse referred to is one that procreates, which excludes a mouse that is half flesh and half earth and does not procreate! Therefore it teaches us, “[And this is impure for you] amongst the swarming creatures (basheretz) [which swarms on the land]”—to include the mouse that is half flesh and half earth, that one who touches the flesh becomes impure and if he touches the earth he remains pure." (Midrash Sifra, parashas Shemini 5:6; Talmud, Chullin 127a)
We see here that Chazal were very convinced that a spontaneously-generating mouse existed (as did everyone back then), and moreover interpreted a passuk in the Torah as specifically serving to include it.
4. The Gestation of Animals
Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal's statement about the Nachash having a gestation of seven years refers to a particular species of snake which does indeed do that. What, then, does he say about the statements on the same page of Gemara about the gestation of the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey being three years? And even if one were to insist that the term "gestation" actually refers to something else, what on earth could it possibly be? Besides, the same page describes the gestation of the dog and cat as being around fifty days, which is broadly accurate, and which makes claiming that the phrase means something different with regard to wolves etc. unsustainable.
The same page states that "Any species in which the male has external genitalia bears live young; any in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs." As a general rule, this is strikingly accurate, and the Gemara's rules are often only meant to be general. However, this section of Gemara is intending to give absolute rules, as evinced by the fact that the Gemara on the previous page names the bat as an exception to its rule that every lactating mammal gives birth to live young (ironically, the bat is actually not an exception to this rule). And as an absolute statement, it is incorrect that any species in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs. Whales, dolphins, elephants, giant anteaters, and hyraxes all have internal genitalia (which makes it very difficult for us to identify the sex of the hyraxes that we have at the museum), and none of them lay eggs.
(If you want to avoid this problem by arguing that the Gemara is talking about genitalia that are permanently internal, then you run into a problem with the first part of the Gemara's statement, which would have to correspondingly be referring to species in which the genitalia of males are not permanently internal and are extruded for copulation. But the males of many reptiles, and even some birds, extrude their genitalia, and yet they do not bear live young.)
The Gemara later says that "It was taught that the camel copulates back-to-back." Although a camel's penis normally points backwards, it twists it around to the front during mating, so that they copulate front-to back, unlike as described in the Gemara.
Since Rabbi Meiselman insists that it is heretical to doubt any definitive statement in the Gemara, can he explain how to reconcile these statements with the physical reality?
5. "Serious Talmidei Chachamim"
Rabbi Meiselman claimed that no genuine Torah authority ever said that Chazal could have been mistaken about a scientific matter (in which they spoke definitively): "Rav Soloveitchick never said Chazal chas v'shalom made a mistake.. no serious talmid chacham ever said that." Yet here are a few (of many) citations from people generally considered to be talmidei chachamim who said precisely that:
Rav Hirsch: "If, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can the Sages be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times?"
Rav Yitzchak Herzog: "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, 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 declares in his classical introduction to the Haggadah, “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...” It is of importance to bear this in mind when we enter upon the study of science in the Talmud."
Rav Hershel Schachter: "[Chazal] clearly also relied on the scientists of their time, as we all do. Sometimes this means that they relied on what was later discovered to be the scientific mistakes of their time."
Does Rabbi Meiselman rate all these people as being "not serious talmidei chachamim", or does he wish to revise his statement?
Again, since Rabbi Meiselman presents himself as a uniquely great expert on the topic of Torah and science, and issues the striking accusation that anyone who takes the rationalist approach is not a serious talmid chachim and is moreover a heretic, surely he owes it to the general public to explain his position in detail. We look forward to hearing his responses.
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