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The ToMo Derech at its Finest
We got a response! It took a few days, but finally Rabbi Dovid Kornreich, protege and expositor of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Yeshivas Torah Moshe (popularly known as ToMo), responded to the challenges that I posed to his radio interview. There's a lot to unpack, which I will do over several posts. Let's begin with his response regarding the sun's path at night.
To refresh your memory, Rabbi Meiselman's position is that if Chazal say any statement about the natural world definitively, or if they base it on their understanding of Torah, then it is infallible. One problem with this position is that in Pesachim, the Chachmei Yisrael say that the sun goes behind the sky at night, a view that is subsequently noted by Rebbi to be incorrect.
Rabbi Meiselman's response to this is that the Chachmei Yisrael were perhaps not Talmidei Chachamim, but rather merely Jewish astronomers. I pointed out that the term Chachmei Yisrael appears in other contexts (such as the beracha that is pronounced upon seeing them), where it very clearly refers to Talmidei Chachamim. Rabbi Kornreich responds by referring us to page 144 of Rabbi Meiselman's book, where he writes that "The fact that in halachic contexts the 'wise men of Israel' are members of Chazal does not mean that the same must be true in other contexts."
I'm sure that readers can recognize the weakness of this response on their own, but I'd like to highlight just how strained it is. Claiming that a phrase with recognized clear meaning in other contexts suddenly has a very different meaning here, just because the implications are problematic from your particular theological worldview?! Even though everyone else in the history of Talmudic scholarship never interpreted it this way?! Does this strike anyone as an intellectually honest approach?
My next challenge was pointing out that the position of the Chachmei Yisrael is elsewhere discussed by Tannaim who base it on their understanding of a passuk. According to Rabbi Meiselman, this should mean that it cannot be wrong. Rabbi Kornreich responded with the following gem, which I am reproducing in full:
Question 2) was actually thought provoking for a change. Then I realized that these sources undermine Rabbi Slifkin's position rather than support it.
Rav Meiselman always insisted (in the interview and in his book) that this gemara in Pesachim has many interpretations. Only on the most simplistic level is 1) the discussion about physical astronomy and 2) the chachmei Yisroel's arguments are rejected by Rebbi. It was on this most simplistic level of interpretation where Rav Meiselman suggested it would make sense that these chachmei Yisroel were merely "Jewish wise men" and not members of Chazal.
Once you change over to interpret that either 1) it wasn't a debate about physical astronomy in the first place, or 2) the rejection by Rebbi was only an apparent rejection but not an actual one, then Chachmei Yisroel won the debate. Then it makes more sense to say they were Chazal, and then it becomes unsurprising that we find other members of Chazal supporting them with drashos from pesukim.
So the fact that later Sages support the position of Chachmei Yisroel with drashos actually reinforces those interpretations that concluded they didn't lose the debate with the non-Jewish astronomers.
This is nothing short of incredible. What Rabbi Kornreich/ Meiselman refers to as a "simplistic interpretation" is actually the straightforward explanation of the Gemara given by ALL the Rishonim, and continued by many of the Acharonim. However, beginning in the 16th century (in which non-Jews were making rapid advances in astronomy), some rabbinic scholars admitted to being very uncomfortable with Chazal saying that the sun goes behind the sky at night, and therefore devised novel (and conflicting) non-literal explanations of the Gemara.
But it gets even better/worse. Since it's fatally problematic for Rabbi Kornreich/ Meiselman to have Chazal relating a mistaken scientific belief to their understanding of a passuk, Rabbi Kornreich/ Meiselman claim that this is actually evidence that the Gemara is not to be interpreted according to its straightforward meaning!
Incredible. Any evidence against their position is twisted to ipso facto be cited as evidence that the Gemara is not to be understood according to the straightforward, classical interpretation! (Which also means that all those who maintained that the Gemara is to be interpreted according to its straightforward meaning are heretics according to Rabbi Meiselman.)
Goodbye, intellectual honesty! And all for the sake of upholding a bizarre, novel, exclusionary approach to Chazal which rates virtually everyone in Jewish history as deeply mistaken, and quite a few as heretical.
What a derech.
(I will deal with his responses to the other points in separate posts. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)