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R. Meiselman: All The Rishonim Were Wrong, Again And Again And Again
Part II of a review of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science (continued from part I)
In the prologue to his book, Rabbi Meiselman sets out the fundamentals of his approach. He takes a very firm and devout theological position:
“We do not impose our ideas upon the Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim or major Acharonim, nor do we attempt to understand the Gemara without their assistance. Our goal is to try to comprehend how those previous generations understood it; to view it through the prism of their writings. We submit to the authority of our great predecessors.” (p. XXX)
Rabbi Meiselman stresses this point again and again. He cites a story about how Rav Soloveitchik said that we cannot say that Ramban was wrong about something, and he gives the principles of how we must relate to the Rishonim:
“Among those whom the Mesorah has labeled Rishonim we never pick and choose… Certainly we do not invoke criteria external to the Torah in evaluating the correctness of their views…” (p. XXXI)
And he succinctly explains why only a person who has this proper approach (i.e. himself) is able to arrive at correct conclusions in these matters:
“Only one who approaches his studies with the recognition that scholars of previous generations were incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources than we are, can ever really understand the Torah.” (p. xxxi)
This all sounds very traditionalist, expressing the most conservative and Charedi approach. It’s presented as key characteristic of the book, even mentioned on the back cover: “Remaining true to the classic sources is the best way to let the Torah’s light shine forth.” Rabbi Meiselman engages in constant, constant, lengthy condemnations of those who do not have the right approach in such matters – as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve never seen a work spend so much time issuing condemnations of everyone who has the “wrong” approach. He stresses that :
“Whoever wishes to be considered within the bounds of the Mesorah must take it as his point of departure.” (p. xxxvi)
The problem is that when we get to the main body of the book, and actually deal with Chazal’s statements about the natural world, Rabbi Meiselman tosses this approach out of the window!
I will be dealing with each of these topics in more detail in separate posts, but for now let us briefly note Rabbi Meiselman’s approach in several cases (with some direct quotations in parentheses at the end of each paragraph):
Chapter 10 deals with Chazal’s statements about the sun’s path at night, which all the Rishonim understand as saying that the sun goes behind the sky at night. Rabbi Meiselman says that all the Rishonim were wrong. (“…their interpretations are evidently incorrect,” in the section boldly titled “When the Commentaries are Mistaken.”)
Chapter 22 deals with Chazal’s statements about the development of insects, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim explain as referring to spontaneous generation. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal were not talking about any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“The Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted the Gemara in terms familiar to them… This does not mean that that is what Chazal had in mind, nor does it compel us to interpret the Gemara in the same way.”)
Chapter 23 deals with the mud mouse, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim understand to mean that Chazal believed in the existence of a mouse that spontaneously generates from mud. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal did not mean any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“The Rishonim make no claim, however, that their understanding of Chazal is complete and perfect.”)
Chapter 24 deals with Chazal’s description of a creature that nurses its young and yet lays eggs and is called atalef, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim understand to refer to the atalef of the Torah, i.e. a bat. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal did not mean any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“Because our mesorah passes through them, and because we are aware of their intellectual greatness, we never take what the Rishonim say lightly. But when observable facts contradict their understanding…”)
So, again and again and again and again, Rabbi Meiselman declares that the Rishonim were all wrong in the way that they explained the Gemara. He has violated the very approach that he has insisted upon at the beginning of his book!
The reason why he ends up doing this is that he has put himself in an impossible position. On the one hand, he insists that any definitive statement about the natural world made by Chazal must be true. In addition, he insists that the Mesorah, and the explanations of the Rishonim, are unimpeachable. But on the other hand, he can’t avoid the fact that the sun does not go behind the sky at night, spontaneous generation is false, mice do not develop from mud, and bats do not lay eggs. Something has to give, and rather than say that Chazal were not aware of contemporary knowledge about the natural world, Rabbi Meiselman chooses to say that the Rishonim did not know how to learn the Gemara (as well as their being unaware of contemporary knowledge about the natural world).
The result is that we have the extraordinary hypocrisy of Rabbi Meiselman repeatedly violating the very approach that he insisted upon as being required of Torah-true Jews. For all his pontificating about how we do not impose our ideas upon the Tannaim, about how we do not attempt to understand the Gemara without the Rishonim, about how they were incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources than we are, about how we may never say that the Rishonim were wrong, he goes ahead and violates every one of those principles, time and time again!
But aside from the hypocrisy, where is the humility and respect for the Rishonim? Rabbi Meiselman has repeatedly condemned the “arrogance” of those who say that Chazal were mistaken about a scientific fact. Now, I don’t see how there is any arrogance involved; we are not positing that we are more intelligent than Chazal, just that we have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge. But I don’t see any basis for claiming in these cases that the Rishonim misunderstood what Chazal were saying. On the contrary; since the Rishonim were much closer to Chazal, I think that there is every reason to believe that they understood the meaning of their discussions. It seems astonishing that Rabbi Meiselman, under the banner of humility, posits that all the Rishonim misunderstood Chazal, and only he has discovered Chazal’s true meaning!
The question is, what about Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, who insists that one must accept the way that the Rishonim explain Chazal, and that any other approach is heresy? Will he put Rabbi Meiselman’s book in cherem? Perhaps someone could show Rabbi Meiselman’s book to him and ask him for his response.