"The Perfect Torah-Science Authority" - Fact or Fiction?
A reader asked me to respond to the puff piece by Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow in the Baltimore Jewish Life and Five Towns Jewish Times about Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and his forthcoming book on Torah and science. I didn't want to, because I've already posted plenty on this topic and I'll be giving a more comprehensive treatment when his book comes out. But when more emails came in with the same request, I decided to respond, point-by-point.
1. "Rabbi Moshe Meiselman is the perfect Torah scholar to tackle this subject."
This is a very strange statement. Rabbi Sebrow backs it up in two ways. First, he notes that Rabbi Meiselman attended college courses on science and has a PhD in Mathematics from MIT. However, as we have noted previously, mathematics is entirely irrelevant to expertise the natural sciences, and may even be detrimental to it. And as for the college courses on science, Rabbi Meiselman goes against the entire consensus of scientists in the natural sciences, who would consider his approach regarding the world being only 5772 years old to be ludicrous. Would we trust the credibility of a self-styled medical expert who did college courses on medicine but is deemed to be a crank by the entire medical establishment?
Rabbi Sebrow then states that Rabbi Meiselman was a nephew of the Rav and one of his foremost talmidim. However, other family members of the Rav and foremost talmidim believe that Rabbi Meiselman engages in extensive revisionism of the Rav to bring him in line with Charedi mores. Thus, not only is Rabbi Meiselman not the "perfect Torah scholar to tackle this subject," he is actually someone of whom there is great basis to be suspicious from the outset.
2. "Rabbi Meiselman posits that no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal."
Then Rabbi Meiselman is wrong. Rambam explicitly writes that:
The account of creation given in Scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts. (Guide For The Perplexed, 2:29)
Furthermore, according to the explanation of Shem Tov, Akeidas Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, Rambam was of the view that the "Six Days" are not time periods at all. Here is what Akeidas Yitzchak says:
"The Rav, the Guide, gave the reason for the mention of days in the Beginning by explaining the statement of the Sages, who said that “all the products of Creation were created in their full form” (Talmud, Chullin 60a); in other words, everything was created at the first instant of creation in their final perfect form. Thus the mention of an order of Creation is not describing the sequence of days; rather, [but the days are simply serving] to differentiate the status of [the elements of creation] and to make known the hierarchy of nature. This was [Rambam’s] major esoteric doctrine concerning Creation as those who are understanding can discern from that chapter (Guide For The Perplexed 2:30) which is devoted to this extraordinary account."
Ralbag was of the same view:
"You already know from the preceding that God’s generating the universe did not occur in time, since [its generation] was from nothing to something. Likewise, our Rabbis agreed that the heavens and the earth were created simultaneously. In the chapter “One Does Not Interpret,” they said, “Both were created as one, as it is said, ‘My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand up together’ (Isaiah 48:13).” It is therefore apparent that the description of creation as being completed in six days is not in the sense that, for example, the first day was [prior] to the second as one [whole] day. Rather, they said this in order to show the priority amongst various created things."
So much for the claim that "no Rishon ever understood the details of the Creation given in the Torah to be anything but literal."
3. "The Great Flood was understood by all Geonim and Rishonim to be a literal description and record of events that occurred thousands of years ago. The world was indeed flooded."
Of course the Rishonim understood it that way; they had no reason to think differently. The question is, how did recent Torah authorities - who were aware that there is overwhelming evidence for the continuity of civilization and animal life throughout that period in many parts of the world - explain it?
Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, who (if I recall correctly) was on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, said that the Mabul did not cover the entire planet, only the "world" of the Torah. This was also the view of Rav Gedalyah Nadel, who brought some excellent proofs from the Gemara that "olam" does not always refer to the entire planet.
4. "The accuracy of the Midrash about the dimensions of the Ark being optimally seaworthy has been confirmed many times, even in contemporary maritime engineering laboratories."
I can't for the life of me understand the relevance of this. If this is indeed a known fact amongst boat-builders (although others claim that the Ark would not be viable under ordinary natural means), then how is it significant that Torah says it, too?
5. Is The Mud-Mouse Claimed To Exist?
According to the article, participants at the meeting with Rabbi Meiselman challenged him on the mud-mouse (good for them!). Rabbi Meiselman responded by claiming that "Chazal never stated unequivocally that such a creature exists. There were reports of such a creature, and Chazal discussed the halachic ramifications of its theoretical existence." With this, Rabbi Meiselman has classified himself as a heretic according to Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Moshe Shapiro and many others. However, his Talmudic scholarship is flawed. Chazal DID state that such a creature exists, at the end of Sanhedrin:
A certain sectarian said to Rabbi Ami: You say that the dead will live again—but they become dust, and can dust come alive? He replied... Go out to the field and see the rodent that one day is half flesh and half earth, and on the next day it has transformed into a creeping creature and has become entirely flesh.
How is someone the "perfect person to tackle questions of Torah and science" if their approach ignores basic source texts on the topics that they discuss?
6. Rambam and the Science of Chazal
Rabbi Meiselman makes the following astonishing blanket assertion:
"when a statement is mentioned in the Gemara as a fact, it must be accepted. The Rambam, when confronted with a contradiction between what Chazal said was possible and what contemporary medical knowledge of his time said was impossible, opted for Chazal. For almost all interpreters of the Rambam, this is implicit in his statements about treifos. Not one of the classic interpretations of the Rambam says that he was of the opinion that Chazal made a mistake. This is not an available option."
In fact, Rambam believed that Chazal's statements about science (as well as their statements about certain metaphysical matters, such as astrology and demons) were not Sinaitic and were mistaken, as he says explicitly in the Guide. What, then, is his view about terefos? Let us see Rambam's words:
With anything which they enumerated as a terefah, even if with some it is seen not to be fatal based on modern medicine, such that an animal [with such an injury] might sometimes live, we have only what the Sages enumerated, as it says, ‘According to the law that they direct you’."
As explained by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Dor Revi’i, Chullin, Introduction, and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, BDD vol. 6 pp. 60-61, Rambam is saying that the laws as established by the Sages were canonized, and are thus unaffected by later discoveries. He was not denying that certain terefos can indeed live!
7. Rashba and the Science of Chazal
Rabbi Meiselman claims that "Similarly, the Rashba stated that all statements of Chazal regarding science are absolutely true. If anyone were to suggest that they were less than authoritative, that would classify him as a melagleg al divrei chachamim and subject him to serious penalty."
In fact, Rashba states that Rabbi Yochanan and the judges of Caesarea erred in a mathematical matter (Commentary to Eruvin 76b).
8. Medical Halachah
The article claims that "many halachic statements made by Chazal based on their understanding of the underlying medical situation are authoritative." For life-and-death cases, this is absolutely NOT true. As Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach says explicitly:
With regard to the fundamental words of Chasam Sofer, in my humble opinion it appears that just as with regard to the law that an eight-month fetus is like a stone and one does not transgress Shabbos on its behalf, certainly the rule has changed in our time, and forfend to rule in that way (of the Gemara)… and one is forced to say that only in the times of Chazal was the fetus given the status of a stone, because at that time they did not know how to enable it to survive, unlike in our time… So, too, in my humble opinion it appears clear that in our time, it is impossible to decide that someone as already died except via the latest techniques which establish the boundaries between life and death. And forfend to rely in our time just on the signs of breathing and suchlike, more than other checks, and to rule with someone under a collapsed building on Shabbos that if his breathing has stopped, and his heart has stopped beating, that he should be left under the rubble and Shabbos not be transgressed on his behalf… (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Shulchan Shlomo II, pp. 34-35)
The story that Rabbi Meiselman brings regarding the Rav is where he delayed doing a bris against the doctors saying it was safe to do it earlier - not when he advanced doing a bris against the doctors saying it was dangerous!
9. "We do find knowledge of medicine in the Gemara that was far ahead of its time."
No, we don't.
The example that Rabbi Meiselman gives is hemophilia, which he claims the Gemara knew was hereditary via the mother centuries before non-Jewish doctors discovered it. But as Rabbi Josh Waxman has explained in detail, there are two points to bear in mind here. First is that this fact can be discovered via simple observation. Second is that Chazal reached this conclusion fortuitously due to their mistaken belief that "the mother supplies the semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair, blood and the black of his eye."
10. The Regenerative Power of the Liver
Rabbi Meiselman claims that "The regenerative powers of the liver are part of hilchos treifos. This was unknown in the ancient world."
In fact, the ancient Greeks knew that the liver regenerates, long before Chazal.
Furthermore, as Rivash points out, the measurements that Chazal give for the quantity of liver that can regenerate are not scientifically correct and poses a great problem! Far from bring a proof for Chazal's superior knowledge of science, the liver presents the opposite!
11. The Necessity of Kidneys
Rabbi Meiselman (or Rabbi Sebrow? it's not absolutely clear) discusses the Gemara's statement that the absence of kidneys in animals is not a mortal defect. He quotes Rabbi Levinger's claim that "ruminants have an excretory system that excretes into the rumen. Hence, in fact, these animals can survive if their kidneys are removed.” However, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Sternberg, in Bar Ilan's BBD journal, vol. 4 presents arguments that they will nevertheless die within a month. Thus, the conflict between the Gemara and our knowledge of kidney requirements remains.
Furthermore, to cite the kidneys as an example of how Chazal knew physiology beyond what others knew in the ancient world, is very strange; after all, Chazal believed that the kidneys serve not to produce urine, but rather to provide counsel to the mind.
12. Jumping Elephants
According to the article, those present at the meeting with Rabbi Meiselman challenged him about Tosafos and jumping elephants. Rabbi Meiselman conceded that perhaps Tosfos had never seen an elephant and was under the impression that they could jump. Finally, the right answer! Of course, I had already put this explanation forth several years ago.
13. Concluding Thoughts
The great tragedy of all this is not that Rabbi Meiselman is insisting upon positions that scientists would laugh at. It is not even that he is distorting rabbinic thought. Rather, the great tragedy is that there are so many people who lack the tools and knowledge to recognize this, and are taken in by a long beard and a PhD from MiT. It is important for those who also possess long beards and/or expertise in science, but who actually know what they are talking about in the field of Torah and science, to make themselves heard.