The Limits of Science
This is going to be a bizarre post. I find myself in the unusual position of arguing that science does not conclusively prove something, while my ideological opponents on the Right act as if it does indeed conclusively prove something!
"Spontaneous generation" is the ancient belief that various insects, as well as certain creatures such as mice, arise from inanimate matter rather than from parents. It is sometimes said that science has "disproved" spontaneous generation. But this is an error. Science cannot "disprove" spontaneous generation. It can say that we do not observe it to happen. But it cannot prove that it never happens.
It is therefore odd, and hypocritical, that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science, argues that spontaneous generation has been disproved, and therefore insists that Chazal never referred to such a phenomenon, and that all the Rishonim and Acharonim misinterpreted Chazal (see pp. 319-320). True, on pp. 598-9, when discussing spontaneous generation in the context of challenging evolution, Rabbi Meiselman admits in a footnote that "proving a negative is virtually impossible." But this only highlights even more strongly the inconsistency of his approach. When justifying his novel approach to Chazal regarding lice, on p. 305, Rabbi Meiselman claims that this is justified due to the presence of "observable facts," rather than mere "theories." But there are no "observable facts" that lice in the era of Chazal did not spontaneously generate!
Why are many of us absolutely confident that animals never spontaneously generated, even in Chazal's time? It is based on a combination of three factors:
1) We never observe spontaneous generation to take place;
2) There is no mechanism to explain such a phenomenon, i.e. it goes against everything that we know about biology;
3) The testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility.
While I have all these factors present to enable me to reject spontaneous generation (but not to deny that Chazal believed in it), these factors do not all exist for Rabbi Meiselman. Rabbi Meiselman can agree with the first factor, that we never observe spontaneous generation to take place. But to reject it on the grounds that it goes against biological theory would run counter to his entire approach. After all, he freely discounts science regarding everything that it says about the universe before 5773 years ago. He is of the view that scientists have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of stars being millions of light-years away. He is of the view that nishtaneh hateva can be freely applied, and thus the Gemara is completely accurate in saying that the wolf, lion, bear and monkey have a gestation period of three years, even though biologists would dismiss such a notion out of hand. Most significantly, he also appears to accept that salamanders are generated from fire, about which I shall write more on another occasion. When he so freely says that scientists have no idea what they are talking about, even with regard to the impossibility of salamanders coming from fire, on what grounds does he suddenly accept their approach in this area?
With regard to the third factor, that the testimony in favor of spontaneous generation lacks credibility, Rabbi Meiselman would also have to disagree. After all, in the prologue to his book, Rabbi Meiselman writes about how the Rishonim were on a much higher level of understanding than us, that they were "incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources," etc. If they said that Chazal were referring to spontaneous generation, and they further claimed that spontaneous generation occurs, then surely, following Rabbi Meiselman's declarations, that is of tremendous authority.
Indeed, Rav Yehudah Briel, when asked by Rav Yitzchok Lampronti about the position of scientists that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation, simply rejects science out of hand. It should be noted that Rabbi Meiselman himself cites Rav Briel earlier in his book, when he wants to speak in broad terms about the proper methodological approach to these issues. So why does he ignore Rav Briel when it comes to the chapter discussing the topic that Rav Briel was actually speaking about? Let us paraphrase Rabbi Meiselman's disciple Dovid Korneich in a statement originally made about the antiquity of the universe: "The scientific evidence that spontaneous generation does not occur in lice is only "strong" when you accept the assumptions of science regarding lice reproduction. From the perspective of our Jewish tradition, those assumptions are simply nullified by what is written in the Gemara and Rishonim and are left without basis."
On the basis of his own methodology, Rabbi Meiselman does not have license to discard the plain meaning of Chazal's words and the universal mesorah from the Rishonim and Acharonim. When making strong statements about his methodology, Rabbi Meiselman is emphatic: "With respect to all teachings that are part of our Mesorah we do not engage in reinterpretation to accommodate new theories, but only observable facts" (p. 263). And further: "It seems clear that even strong scientific argumentation - whether based upon theoretical considerations, or observation and experimentation - would not be sufficient" (p. 264).
But, contrary to Rabbi Meiselman's claim that there are "observable facts" in the case of spontaneous generation, there are no observable facts that lice did not spontaneously generate in Chazal's day. There are only theoretical considerations, to which Rabbi Meiselman assigns little credibility. Conversely, there are the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, to which Rabbi Meiselman attaches great authority. He should therefore be consistent and follow the approach of the charedi world, which is to say that Chazal were referring to a type of louse that did indeed spontaneously generate, but which is now extinct (or nishtaneh hateva). Rabbi Meiselman is not only going against the universal mesorah and taking an approach which Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel has declared to be heretical. He is also being hypocritical.