Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun
Part III of a review of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science (continued from part II)
(This post is a long one, but it's important, since it addresses the first and only attempt to refute the most powerful demonstration of the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to Chazal and science. You might want to print it out and read it on Shabbos. And, of course, you might want to share it with any readers of Rabbi Meiselman's book.)
I. The Most Crucial Topic
As I have noted on many occasions, in any discussion about Chazal (the Sages) and science, the single most crucial section of the Talmud is that regarding the sun’s path at night, which I discussed at length in a monograph. The Talmud records a dispute between the Sages of Israel and the gentile scholars regarding where the sun goes when it sets in the evening. (This follows an earlier and more complex argument about the relative motions of the celestial sphere and the constellations, which is not relevant to our discussion.) The Sages of Israel believed that the sun changes direction at night to go back behind the sky (which was believed to be an opaque “firmament”), whereas the gentile scholars believed that the sun continues its path to pass on the far side of the world (which we now know to be correct). The Talmud continues to record that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observed that the gentile scholars appear to be correct. All the Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Gemara is recording a dispute about the sun’s path at night. The majority of Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Sages of Israel were incorrect.
Here, then, is the definitive demonstration that there is a mainstream approach of saying that Chazal’s knowledge about the natural world was not divine in origin, and is potentially errant. But Rabbi Meiselman, on the other hand, says that whenever Chazal make a definite statement about the natural world, or one that is based upon Scriptural exegesis, they are correct. He insists that it is forbidden to say otherwise, and his book is dedicated to rebutting, insulting, disparaging and condemning those who take a different view. How, then, does Rabbi Meiselman deal with this topic?
II. What Did Chazal Say, And What Did They Mean? Rabbi Meiselman Won’t Tell You
Rabbi Meiselman discusses this topic over six pages in the second part of chapter ten. He quotes the Gemara, but does not translate the word “rakia.” In a footnote, he accounts for this by saying that although the standard translation is “firmament,” the precise meaning is a subject of debate among the commentators. In fact, 95% of the commentators, and 100% of the Rishonim, agree that it means “firmament.” One can almost always find someone who disagrees with a conventional translation, but that’s not a reason not to use it, unless one is deliberately trying to either distort the picture regarding the situation with the commentaries, or obfuscate the entire discussion by not explaining what the Gemara is about.
Rabbi Meiselman appears to be trying to do both. He begins his explanation of the Gemara, in a section entitled “What Did Chazal Mean?” by stating that “The cryptic nature of these discussions has caused them to be given a variety of explanations.” In fact, the discussion regarding the sun's path at night is not cryptic in the least; the Talmud’s words are clear and straightforward. It only has a variety of explanations post-15th century, and the only reason for this is that many people were uncomfortable with Chazal having been mistaken on something that appears so basic to modern audiences. Rabbi Meiselman writes that “According to many commentaries they are not to be taken at face value at all.” Yes, but not according to any of the Rishonim.
Almost incredibly, Rabbi Meiselman does not make any mention of the straightforward meaning of this Gemara, adopted by all the Rishonim: that the sun changes direction to travel behind an opaque solid firmament at night. Nowhere does he present a simple, straightforward explanation of what the Gemara is talking about (or even any explanation). In a book spanning eight hundred pages, he couldn’t even spend a single paragraph explaining the meaning of the most crucial passage in the entire Torah-science discussion?! Nor does he quote any of the Rishonim and Acharonim who explain the Gemara according to its straightforward meaning. Such a long book, so many hundreds and hundreds of sources quoted, including many that are barely relevant, but he does not quote any of the Rishonim on the most fundamental topic in the entire discussion!
After making the misleading claim that according to many commentaries the Talmud is not intended to be literal, Rabbi Meiselman states that “But even among those who take them literally, explanations vary.” He proceeds to cite “The Rama, for instance,” who has a highly creative reinterpretation of the Gemara. This reinforces the impression that there is only a small minority view that explains the Gemara according to its plain meaning – whereas the fact is that all the Rishonim, without exception, as well as many Acharonim, explain it in this way.
Rabbi Meiselman then spends a paragraph discussing geocentrism and heliocentrism. But this only relates to the earlier, more complex and irrelevant discussion in the Gemara about the celestial sphere and the constellations. Rabbi Meiselman avoids any further discussion of the passage in the Gemara regarding the sun’s path at night, never having once explained either its straightforward meaning or indeed any meaning. And thus he concludes the section entitled “What Did Chazal Mean?” - without having even attempted to answer that question.
III. Rabbi Meiselman Mistakenly Attributes Mistaken Beliefs To The Rishonim
The next section is entitled “When The Commentaries Are Mistaken.” Here is where things get very strange. Throughout the rest of the book, while there is ample basis for questioning Rabbi Meiselman’s intellectual honesty and epistemology, there is no doubt that he is a highly intelligent Torah scholar. But in this section, Rabbi Meiselman appears to simply not understand what is going on in the commentaries.
Rabbi Meiselman states that the Rama and his colleagues (who attempted to explain that Chazal were not mistaken) were explaining the Gemara to the best of their abilities, but they never intended to chain Chazal’s words to their own understanding. If their grasp of science was wrong, they would prefer Chazal to be explained differently. He proceeds to state:
“What is true of the Rama is true of the many Rishonim and Acharonim who interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day, but were subsequently rejected by science. It was never their intention that their explanations were definitely what Chazal meant. They were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them. When contemporary writers invoke these commentaries to show that Chazal’s knowledge was faulty they are making a simple error in logic. If the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not at all follow that Chazal did as well.”
It should be noted that Rabbi Meiselman provides no support whatsoever for his emphatic assertion that the Rishonim, when commented upon such sugyos, only intended their explanations to be tentative, in contrast to their explanations of other sugyos. (Nor does he explain why this would only apply to the Rishonim’s explanation of Chazal’s statements about the natural world, and not to Chazal’s explanations of the Torah’s statements about the natural world.) And since he provides no support for it, and there is no indication for it in the words of the Rishonim themselves, there is no reason to accept it as being true.
But there is a more basic problem with Rabbi Meiselman’s approach here. Put quite simply, he doesn’t understand what the whole discussion is about with regard to this passage in the Talmud. True, if you’re talking about the topic of spontaneous generation, you can say that the Rishonim explained Chazal in terms of their own erroneous beliefs. And if you’re talking about the Rama’s defense of Chazal’s statements about cosmology, you can say that he explained them in terms of his own erroneous beliefs. But you can’t say this if you’re talking about the Rishonim’s discussion of Chazal’s statements about the sun’s path at night. Here, the Rishonim do not “interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day.” They explain it as referring to a mistaken and obsolete view!
In other words, whereas Rabbi Meiselman says that “if the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not at all follow that Chazal did as well,” he is fundamentally misunderstanding what is going on. This is not like the discussions of spontaneous generation. In this case, the interpreters of Chazal did not hold erroneous beliefs – they correctly believed that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night, not behind the firmament. They were stating that Chazal held erroneous beliefs.
IV. A Failed Attempt To Render This Topic Irrelevant
In the next section, entitled “Acknowledging the Truth,” Rabbi Meiselman backpedals from his earlier misrepresentation. He starts off by admitting that “some” commentaries take the Gemara at face value, according to which Chazal acknowledged that they had erred and the truth lay with the gentiles; at the end of the section, he finally himself acknowledges the truth, that this position is held by “most Rishonim other than Rabbeinu Tam.”
However, acknowledging that most Rishonim held Chazal to have been mistaken puts Rabbi Meiselman in a very awkward position, since it would refute his entire approach. And so he attempts to render this case irrelevant. He stresses – and this is the goal of this section - that “assuming that the Jewish sages actually retracted,” they did so despite their utter certitude that in general, their wisdom was vastly superior to that of the Gentiles, due to their having derived it from the Torah. He proceeds to claim that the fact that Chazal discussed cosmology with the Gentile scholars “means that they had no precise mesorah on this particular topic,” and that “nor were they able to extract the desired information from the Torah.” But, he adamantly insists, in every other case, where Chazal do not inform us that they are uncertain, or when they derive their knowledge from the Torah, we can rest assured that they are correct, and “they carry the full authority of Torah shebaal Peh.”
However, there are three problems with all this. First is that the fact that the Gemara records a discussion with the gentile scholars does not mean that Chazal are informing us that they are uncertain. It just means that this was an important topic in which the gentile scholars had a very different opinion and turned out to be correct. The Gemara does not record discussions with the gentile scholars about spontaneous generation, because the gentile scholars had the same view as Chazal regarding spontaneous generation.
Second is that the error made in Pesachim is with regard to something extremely basic. Whether the sun doubles back at night to go behind a solid firmament, or continues to pass around the far side of the earth, is a very fundamental part of cosmology. (It is also taken to have substantial halachic ramifications.) If Chazal did not even know something so fundamental, and could not figure it out from the Torah even though the Torah has a lot to say about cosmology, and even though the non-Jews were able to figure it out (as Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi acknowledges), then why on earth would Chazal be authoritative in much more arcane areas of knowledge (such as zoology), in which the Torah has nothing to say and in which the gentiles were likewise unaware of the reality?
But much more problematic than both of these is that Rabbi Meiselman’s premise is fundamentally flawed. Chazal did relate their views on cosmology to the Torah! This is not mentioned on this page in Pesachim, but it is mentioned on an earlier page in Pesachim, as well as in Bava Basra and in the Midrash. In Bava Basra, one of the Sages posits that the sun makes a 180 degree reversal in the evening, and another of the Sages states that it turns 90 degrees to the side, basing this on a passuk. In the earlier page in Pesachim and in the Midrash, Chazal talk about the thickness and substance of the firmament, basing their discussion on pesukim. (This also renders futile an earlier attempt by Rabbi Meiselman to get out of this whole problem, by suggesting that the "scholars of Israel" in Pesachim might not have been Sages.)
How did Rabbi Meiselman not know any of this? Did he fail to do basic research on this topic? Did he not read my monograph that he is attempting to rebut? In any case, it neatly destroys his excuse as to why this would be the only case in which Chazal were mistaken. Consequently, the case of the sun’s path at night remains as a fundamental disproof of Rabbi Meiselman’s approach regarding Chazal and science.
The bottom line is that Rabbi Meiselman’s discussion of this topic – the most basic topic in any Torah-science discussion – is deliberately vague, extremely confused, poorly researched, and self-contradictory. Although at the end he concedes that most Rishonim held Chazal to have erred in this matter (albeit with a flawed explanation as to why this case is unique), earlier he claims with regard to this topic that “The possibility that Chazal were in error was never an option for the Baalei HaMesorah” (p. 145). In fact, the vast majority of Rishonim, as well as countless Acharonim, held that Chazal were indeed in error – even though they based their view on the Torah. The inescapable conclusion is that Rabbi Meiselman is misrepresenting the nature of the Baalei HaMesorah.