Where Yeshivah Learning and Academia Meet
As I've written in the past, I am fascinated by the differences between the yeshivish/ traditionalist approach to Torah and the academic/ rationalist approach. I do not feel that one or the other is better in absolute terms - rather, each has its advantages and disadvantages. The academic/ rationalist approach is superior in terms of ascertaining the historical reality of what is actually going on in the Chumash/ Nach/ Talmud/ Rishonim/ Acharonim. But the yeshivish/ traditionalist approach is generally superior in terms of imparting religious devotion. Of course, in some cases, and for some people, the yeshivish approach is a major turn-off from Judaism. But in general, it is a more inspirational and motivational approach.
This dichotomy is unavoidable. Reaching truth requires intellectual honesty and objectivity; this requires a detached, critical analysis, which harms the reverential experience required for religious inspiration. And the academic approach acknowledges that everyone is a product of their environment, and contextualizes all writings, whereas the traditionalist approach sees religious writings as transcending the time and place in which it was written and thus being equally relevant to us. In fact, one way of summarizing the difference between the two approaches is simply with one word: context. (See this post for examples of how it plays out.)
The two systems of study normally remain worlds apart. But there is one field in which they often meet, and that just happens to be my own specialty: Biblical and Talmudic zoology.
Consider this: ArtScroll, which serves as an excellent barometer of yeshivish/ traditionalist norms and sensitivities, never quotes from academic works. But there does appear to be one, single exception: Professor Yehuda Feliks’ Plants and Animals of the Mishna, which is quoted in a number of ArtScroll works. Why? Someone at ArtScroll once explained to me that this book "somehow found its way into the Beis HaMidrash." But this merely begs the question: Why, of all academic works, did only this one become "acceptable" in the yeshivah world?
I think that there are two reasons. One is that there was simply no alternative. Every student of Tenach and Talmud at some point wants to know the identity of the shafan or the bardelas. For a long time, Feliks' book was the only such work available.
The second reason is that Biblical and Talmudic zoology appears to be an entirely non-threatening topic. It's not like archeology, where an Orthodox Jew instantly has his guard up. What could be religiously problematic in using modern zoology to assist in identifying the obscure animals of the Torah and Talmud? It's perceived as pareve.
Yet the truth is that this latter point is far from accurate. Contextualization is extremely relevant to identifying the animals of the Torah. Many recent traditional identifications of animals in the Torah come from the great Torah scholars of medieval Europe. But the flora and fauna of Europe is very different from that of the Land of Israel.
Anyone trying to seriously make sense of the identities of animals in Torah and Talmud simply cannot help but notice that the medieval European Torah scholars give very different identifications from those given by Rav Saadiah Gaon and from academic works of Biblical zoology. Furthermore, following the medieval European tradition gives rise to all sorts of difficult problems, which do not exist if one follows the approach of Rav Saadiah and academic Biblical zoology. If the tzvi is the deer, why does the Gemara say that it doesn't have antlers? If the shafan is the rabbit, why is described as habitually hiding in rocks? If the nesher is the eagle, why is it described as being bald? If the shu'al is a fox, which is a solitary animal living far from other members of its kind, how did Samson collect three hundred of them? If the bardelas is a polecat, why is it described as dangerous to man? And so on. You can contrive explanations for each of these - or you can solve them all in one fell swoop by acknowledging that people were only familiar with animals in their own locale. In my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, I saw no way around pointing this out, albeit delicately.
Of course, as discussed in my post "Sugar for Elephants" and in a follow-up post, even many Rishonim and Acharonim acknowledged that European Rishonim were often hampered by a lack of knowledge regarding Eretz Yisrael. Still, this itself strengthens my point - Biblical and Talmudic zoology (and botany) is a field in which the academic approach of contextualization inevitably makes inroads into traditional approaches to Torah.
But is this a good thing or a bad thing? I honestly don't know.