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Torah, Chazal and Science (Updated)
I was unsure whether to begin this post with a description of my personal history with Rabbi Meiselman. Some would doubtless use it to brand me as petty or vengeful. But if I left it out, others (or perhaps even the same people) would say that I am trying to conceal a personal agenda. And so I have decided to present it.
During the Great Torah-Science Controversy of 2004-5, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Jerusalem attained notoriety for being by far the most vicious of my rabbinic opponents. The series of lectures that he delivered at Toras Moshe about my books was noteworthy for three reasons. One was that he repeatedly engaged in ad hominem insults. Two was that he engaged in the most bizarre and nasty slander, claiming that I had been thrown out of yeshivah in England for bad behavior (!). Three was that while he doubtless has many points of genuine disagreement with me, almost every single one of his references to my works, that he mentioned in order to refute, was something that is not in my works and which I never actually said.
I wrote a polite but forceful letter to Rabbi Meiselman in which I pointed all this out, but he neither retracted his slander nor responded to me. Since it was difficult for some people to believe that the reports that he was spreading about me and my work stemmed from nastiness rather than being an honest portrayal, and my account of his behavior was rather surprising and likewise hard for people to believe, I uploaded his three lectures to my website so that people could judge for themselves. Many people, including some supporters of Toras Moshe, were shocked at Rabbi Meiselman’s behavior, and protested to him.
At this point Rabbi Meiselman initiated his only communication to me, requesting me to remove the recordings from my website. I saw no reason to do so. In a subsequent interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times, Rabbi Meiselman claimed that “I never gave shiurim on this in my beis midrash. Someone taped a conversation that I had with some talmidim.” This was, however, contradicted by the very first words of Rabbi Meiselman’s first lecture, in which he stated that “he decided to discuss this with the entire student body.”
Possibly in an attempt to draw attention away from his lectures and regain credibility, Rabbi Meiselman decided to publish a lengthy book on the topic of Torah, Chazal and science, which was released this week and is descriptively titled Torah, Chazal and Science. In this book, Rabbi Meiselman does not issue any explicit ad hominem attacks on me at all; in fact, although he references countless sources, from both believers and atheists, he does not reference my books at all. However, although he claims that his book “is not directed against any single author,” there is no great mystery as to who he has in mind when he constantly refers dismissively to books on Torah and science written by “amateurs” (as though if I were a professional scientist, I would not believe that the world is billions of years old!) In addition, on several occasions Rabbi Meiselman issues rebuttals to the claims of “some writers,” where he is invariably referring to me; but on each occasion he is misrepresenting what I wrote. For example, on p. 262 he argues against the claim of “some modern authors,” who mistakenly believe that Chazal’s rule about animals lacking upper teeth being kosher is meant to be absolute, and who point out counterexamples. But in fact the conclusion and purpose of my discussion in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax is that Chazal’s rule about upper teeth is not meant to be absolute. Just as he did in his lectures, Rabbi Meiselman is still misrepresenting my views.
I will be reviewing Rabbi Meiselman's book in a series of posts, but let’s start with something basic. One of the first aspects of the book that stands out is the conspicuous absence of comments from other people. Books in this genre usually include approbations or praise from various authorities and experts. But in Rabbi Meiselman’s book, there are no approbations, nor sentences of praise of any sort. There is nothing from Gedolei Torah, nothing from academic scholars of Jewish studies, nothing from scientists.
This may seem surprising, until one reads the book and realizes why nobody will put their name on it. Presumably, no Gadol will endorse a book that repeatedly asserts that all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong (as I will detail in a forthcoming post). Presumably, no charedi Gadol will endorse a book that repeatedly and reverentially refers to Rav Soloveitchik (even though R. Meiselman portrays Rav Soloveitchik in a charedi revisionist way that is not shared by any other family member or disciple of the Rav), while no non-charedi Gadol will endorse a book that engages in charedi revisionism of Rav Soloveitchik. No academic scholar of Jewish studies will endorse a book that is so ahistorical in its approach to Chazal and that is so intellectually dishonest in its discussion of sources. No scientist (outside of Christian fundamentalists) will endorse a book that insists that all science dealing with periods longer than 5773 years ago – astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology, archeology – is nonsense.
With no endorsement from authorities in Torah or science, Rabbi Meiselman resorts to presenting himself as an authority. Time and again, he speaks dismissively of “amateurs” who address these topics (in fact, I’ve almost never seen a book that spends so much time denigrating others). In the first pages of the preface, and again on pp. 673-4, he stresses that this topic can only be addressed by people with "training in the sciences." He repeatedly condemns literature on Torah and science that “has not been written by people trained simultaneously in Torah and science.” The back flap states that Rabbi Meiselman was “trained by some of the greatest names in mathematics, philosophy and the sciences at two of America’s premier universities.”
Yet Rabbi Meiselman himself is not extensively trained in the natural sciences! What the back flap does not reveal is that his degree is in mathematics. As we will see in reviewing the book, Rabbi Meiselman has no knowledge of even the basics of astronomy, geology, paleontology, archeology, and biology - all fields in which he claims to have fundamentally refuted the most basic facts. Even more to the point, the “greatest names in mathematics, philosophy and the sciences” that taught Rabbi Meiselman "at two of America’s premier universities" would consider his theories in these areas to be amateur nonsense. Claiming that his work has scientific authority on the grounds that he was trained by the greatest names in science is like claiming that Louis Jacobs had Orthodox rabbinic authority because he was taught by Rav Dessler.
To be continued...
UPDATE: I will be updating this post with links to the various posts critiquing this book, as I publish them:
R. Meiselman: All The Rishonim Were Wrong, Again And Again And Again
Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun
A Mistake In Science, Or A Mistake In Torah?
Omitting Inconvenient Sources
When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?
The Limits of Science
Metzitzah and the Rav
Metzizah and the Rav Part II
A Recipe for Intellectual Dishonesty
Rambam on Demons and Segulos
Chinese Dinosaurs and Challenging Camels
The Bat, The Platypus, And The Echidna
Rav Soloveitchik's Spectacular Failure
Egg-Laying Elephants and Overly-Pregnant Wolves
The Rav, Cosmology, and Evolution
Were Chazal able to extract science from Torah?
And here are David Ohsie's posts regarding R. Meiselman's claim that, based on Rambam, one can pasken the age of the universe: