Rav Elya Ber Contradicts Himself
A few weeks ago, I published a post entitled Rav Elya Ber Dismisses Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim, Gedolim. This was in reference to an approbation that Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel gave to a work about Chazal and science (you can now download the approbation at this link) entitled Sod Liyreyav. But aside from the fact that Rav Elya Ber is dismissing the views of countless Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim as being heresy, he's also contradicting himself, in a fascinating way.
The goal of Sod Liyreyav, which focuses primarily on the topic of the spontaneous generation of insects, is not really to assert that Chazal were infallible - it takes that as a given. Instead, its purpose is to refute those who claim that Chazal didn't really believe in spontaneous generation (in an effort to avoid Chazal being in error), but instead were referring to insects hatching from microscopic eggs or some other such apologetic explanation. The author of Sod Liyreyav proves that this is a completely untenable explanation of Chazal's intent.
He is, of course, absolutely correct. As I explained at length in Sacred Monsters - now available in iBooks format for iPad! - Chazal were most definitely referring to spontaneous generation. This is clear from their terminology, the arguments used in their discussion, their social context, and other cases of spontaneous generation that they describe (such as mice and salamanders). It is also the unequivocal view of Rishonim and Acharonim right up until the apologetics of just a few years ago. While I, along with many great Torah scholars, disagree with the assertion that Chazal were correct in this belief, I certainly agree that this was their belief!
Defending this interpretation of Chazal's meaning is important to Rav Elya Ber's worldview for several reasons, aside from the fact that it is the correct interpretation. One is that it reflects a proud and firm rejection of science. Chazal knew everything, scientists are fools, and we should not be changing our understanding of Chazal in order to make them fit into science. In fact, Rav Elya Ber writes in his approbation that the very idea of needing to justify Chazal in light of science is wrong. Besides, once you start changing the meaning of Chazal to fit with science, then you'll start doing that with Bereishis, and who knows where that will end? Another reason why this understanding of Chazal is important to Rav Elya Ber is that, as mentioned, it is the universal understanding of the Rishonim and Acharonim - and one does not dispute the Rishonim. As Rav Elya Ber writes, chas v'shalom to adopt the conclusions of scientists, and to kvetch the plain meaning of Chazal and the Rishonim in order to make them match.
Which makes it extremely strange, then, that Rav Elya Ber also wrote an approbation to a book that does precisely that.
I'm referring to Dr. Isaac Betech's book, The Enigma Of The Biblical Shafan: Torah and Scientific Research Suggesting a Solution, Including Appendices on Fish and Lice. Betech claims that Chazal did not believe that lice spontaneously generate, as we all thought. Instead, Chazal were referring to the fact that lice are the most host-dependent of all ectoparasites - that they are born, live and die on their host animal!
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman takes a similar approach in his forthcoming book Torah, Chazal and Science, suggesting that rather than referring to lice spontaneously generating, Chazal were referring to their hatching from microscopic eggs. However, Rabbi Meiselman (in the draft version of the manuscript that I saw) at least concedes that he is arguing with the explanation of the Rishonim (amusingly concluding that the explanation of the Gemara is "obscure"). Betech, on the other hand, claims that his novel explanation is also the view of the Rishonim! See this post by Betech and the comments there, in which Betech makes the following extraordinary claim:
We may say that when the Ramba”m wrote “which do not come into existence from males and females” his intention is "which do not come into existence from males and females exclusively”, i.e. they are completely dependent on an external media.
As Rafi Miller (who is getting married today) pointed out, if that's what the Rambam meant, he forgot the key word "exclusively" - and instead used the exact term that is used for spontaneous generation! In order to appreciate just how ludicrous it is to claim that this is Rambam's view, let's take a look at the full quote from Rambam, where he also notes that such insects, which do not result from a male-female relationship, are incapable of reproducing:
והמצוה הקע"ז היא שהזהירנו מאכול השרצים המתהוים מן העפושים אע"פ שאינו מין ידוע ולא יתהוה מזכר ונקבה. והוא אמרו ולא תטמאו את נפשותיכם בכל השרץ הרומש על הארץ. ולשון ספרא השרץ הרומש על הארץ אע"פ שאינו פרה ורבה. וזה הוא ההפרש בין אמרו השרץ השורץ על הארץ ובין השרץ הרומש על הארץ. כי השרץ השורץ הוא השרץ שיש בו הכח המוליד לדומה כי הוא ישריץ על הארץ והשרץ הרומש הוא השרץ המתהוה מן העפושים שלא יוליד הדומה לו.
The 177th prohibition is that we are forbidden from eating an insect which is created from decayed matter, even though it is not a particular species and is not created from a male-female relationship. The source of this commandment is G‑d's statement, "Do not defile your souls [by eating] any small creature that lives on land." In the words of the Sifri, "The verse, 'any small creature that lives on land' [comes to include an insect] even if it does not multiply." This is the difference between the phrase, "a small creature that is shoretz on land," and "a small creature that is romeis [on land]." "A small creature that is shoretz" refers to something that has the ability to produce offspring like itself and reproduces on land. "A small creature that is romeis" refers to something which is created from decayed matter and does not produce a creature like itself.
Betech's approach is the paradigm of kvetching the plain meaning of Chazal and the Rishonim in order to make them fit science. How can Rav Elya Ber have written an approbation for a book which takes the very approach that he condemns?
The answer is probably that Rav Elya Ber didn't read that part of Betech's book. Perhaps someone can bring it to his attention, so that he can clarify his position.