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Who Is Following The Rishonim?
"In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high. Men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri." - Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
There is a certain serious misunderstanding going on with the Chazal/science issue, for which I must share some of the blame, since I have not been at all clear enough about it.
When I quote dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who say that Chazal erred in their cosmological statements, as shown on Pesachim 94b, or in their mathematical statements, as shown on Eruvin 76b, I do not mean to claim that they would all fully endorse my approach on these issues. Similarly, some people have objected that just because Rishon X agreed that Chazal were wrong about the sun's path at night, it doesn't mean that he would freely say that Chazal were wrong in other places, where other members of Chazal don't acknowledge any error - and this is true.
Allow me to explain. Times change. In the medieval period, in both Christian and Moslem lands, there was a widespread belief in the general decline of civilization and mankind. A while ago, I posted about the topic of yeridas hadoros, and many people took it as self-evident that it doesn't mean that earlier generations were actually more intelligent. Well, the fact is that most Rishonim (with the probable exception of Rambam) took it for granted that earlier generations were indeed more intelligent - gentiles as well as Jews. And superior in every way. When the Noda B'Yehudah insisted that people in his time couldn't possibly be taller than people in antiquity, because of yeridas hadoros, this was not an unusual idea. Until relatively recently, it was a given that as one goes further back into antiquity, people (and animals!) were smarter, wiser, stronger, and longer-lived. Even when in the twelfth century, there gradually grew an awareness that contemporary figures could attain certain valuable insights, this was only delicately granted in a limited way by way of the metaphor of "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." (See Melamed's "Al Kitfei Anakim" and the writings of Israel Ta-Shma for further discussion of this.)
So most of the Rishonim who acknowledged that Chazal were incorrect about the stars and spheres, and the sun's path at night, would have viewed that case as a peculiar aberration. They didn't believe that there were several other areas in which the knowledge of the latter generations exceeds that of the earlier generations.
On the other hand, these Rishonim are certainly not precedent for my opponents' approach, either. In fact, they oppose it. Allow me to explain further.
Times changed again. First of all, whereas in the medieval period, they actually didn't know much more about the world than Chazal knew, now we certainly do. The Rishonim would not have found other statements in Chazal that were conclusively scientifically disproved, but we do know of many such cases. Second, the whole idea that mankind in antiquity was more intelligent and wiser and stronger, etc., is no longer a popular belief. Nobody now accords Aristotle greater obedience than modern medicine.
There are several ramifications of all this. One is that of course you won't find these Rishonim discussing conflicts between Chazal and science in other areas, because they didn't know of any. Another is that those who seek to uphold the truth of all Chazal's statements have to use different tools than those available to the Rishonim. There were indeed Rishonim who argued for a general or even absolute truth to all Chazal's statements. But they did so because of a straightforward belief that in antiquity, people in general, and kal v'chomer Chazal, were more intelligent and wiser and knew much more about the world. Just as it would be ludicrous for a schoolchild to challenge Einstein about physics, it was ludicrous for anyone to challenge Aristotle about science - or Chazal. In recent times, however, nobody believes this. Thus, those who argued for Chazal's infallibility or near-infallibility had to devise new tools, such as arguing that Chazal were never speaking literally (as per Maharal), or claiming that Chazal benefited from ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav (as per Leshem). Furthermore, due to this new mechanism, and also for various other reasons, they ended up with the position that Chazal could never have been wrong about any scientific fact, especially something as basic as the sun's path at night - and they thereby went against the view of virtually all the Rishonim.
To put it another way: Azariah De Rossi claimed that he wasn't doing anything novel in his work Me'or Einayim, which was a critical evaluation of Chazal's statements about history. But of course he was. However, Maharal, who fiercely opposed to De Rossi and insisted that Chazal were speaking about metaphysical matters rather than history, was just as novel.
So what would these Rishonim (who acknowledge that Chazal erred about cosmology) say if they were alive today, with the knowledge that we have about the natural world? It's a pointless question. We just can't know. It's like the question of what Rambam would be if he were around today; everyone claims him as their own, from Briskers to Modern Orthodox to atheists.
Thus, the idea that we ourselves can point to Chazal being incorrect about a variety of things in the natural world can only be sourced to Rambam and a few other Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim. But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim.