Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Ridiculing Chazal? UPDATED
When writing my monograph "The Sun's Path At Night," I realized that the discussion in the Gemara would be quite foreign to most people. In order to facilitate comprehension, I illustrated the view of Chazal with the following diagram:
To my surprise, Rabbi Zvi Lampel, author of the excellent work The Dynamics of Dispute, publicly accused me of "choosing a cartoonish graphic to depict the ancient theory of the sun's path" with the intention "to increase incredulity and ridicule."
This claim was astonishing. After all, a similar diagram appears in Shas Lublin Mehaduras Vehagisa, published by Machon HaMaor, a card-carrying charedi publishing house:
Obviously, they are not "choosing a cartoonish graphic" with the intention "to increase incredulity and ridicule." So on what basis does Rabbi Lampel claim that I engaged in such a nefarious act? This is nothing less than motzi shem ra, as well as a contravention of the mitzvah to judge a fellow Jew favorably (although there wasn't even a situation here that was questionable!).
Still, the point of this post is not to highlight the moral shortcomings of my opponents in how they express their disagreements with me. (If I wanted to do that, I'd be busy for a long, long time.) It's to suggest an important insight.
I've often heard the claim that demonstrating Chazal, or Rishonim, to have been mistaken in a scientific matter is "ridiculing them." Allegedly, if Rashi believed in mermaids and I say that there's no such thing, this is "ridiculing" Rashi; if Tosafos believed that elephants jump, and I say that they don't, this is "ridiculing Tosafos."
To me it appears that people who make such claims have no sense of historical and cultural context. As I wrote in the introduction to Sacred Monsters:
If we conclude that a given creature described by the Talmud does not exist, what are the implications for those who believed that it does exist? Some fear that concluding that the Sages believed in the existence of fictional creatures implies that they were overly credulous, gullible or even foolish. But the belief of earlier generations in creatures that have now been determined to be fictional does not mean that our ancestors were at all gullible or foolish. Gullibility has to be measured against the knowledge that one already possesses. The test of gullibility is not, “What is the likelihood of such a creature existing?” but rather, “What was the perceived likelihood of such a creature existing according to the state of scientific knowledge in those days?”
For example, consider how people would respond if they were told about a lizard with three eyes on its head or with three tails. The average person might be skeptical. However, a zoologist, who possesses a thorough knowledge of the animal kingdom, would not be so skeptical; there actually are lizards, called tuataras, that have a third rudimentary eye, and if a lizard’s tail fragments in two places it can grow an additional two tails. But if someone were told about a lizard with three toes on each foot, there would be no particular reason for the average person not to believe it, and he would not be considered gullible for accepting the report as true. The zoologist, on the other hand, would have reason to be skeptical, for there have been no three-toed reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs.
Thus, gullibility has to be measured against the information that one already possesses. Since in ancient times there was very little information on hand about the natural world, it was not ridiculous to believe in bizarre creatures.
Why do so many people in the Charedi world make this error of judgment? One possibility is that it might stem from the black-and-white attitude towards historical figures in general that is taught in the Charedi community. The good people in Tenach are not merely righteous; they are superhuman figures whose stature we cannot remotely even begin to start to grasp in the slightest way at all - and that's an understatement. Conversely, the bad guys are not just people with some shortcomings - they are utterly evil rogues whose every act is intended to cause maximal harm. With such an education, it's hard for people to grasp that a scholar may be very, very incorrect about something, and yet still worthy of great respect.
On the other hand, the problem might stem from a lack of sensitivity to intellectual history in general; failing to understand how that which seems obviously factually correct in one era and culture, seems absurd in a different era and culture. Today, the idea of the world being flat is the ultimate nonsense, believed only by cranks. But in the ancient world - inhabited by people who were just as smart as people today - it was a belief held by many. And even those who believed it in the 19th century, while very different from those who believed it in antiquity, were not crazy, ignorant or stupid, as Christine Garwood's fascinating book Flat Earth demonstrates so well.
The only way to solve this perception of ridicule is to give as much historical context as possible. But there will always be those who are not sophisticated enough to grasp this; and there will always be those whose ideological opposition to the rationalist approach is so passionate, that it causes them to engage in character defamation.
Now this is what I call a cartoonish illustration (but I won't hazard a guess as to the motives):