Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Well Did Chazal Know Natural Science?

When the controversy over Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books exploded onto the scene, the reaction of the right was swift. Speaking on behalf of venerable sage Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv various rabbis close to him declared Rabbi Slifkin’s books works of heresy.

His books dealt with the subject of reconciling Torah with science. The two main issues in his books considered heresy were: 1) Saying the universe is older than 6000 years and 2) Saying the sages (Chazal) were sometimes mistaken in matters of science.

These views were not considered heresy in the past. Rabbi Slifkin’s books actually had the approbation of Charedi rabbinic leaders. Nonetheless most of them retratced their approbations immediately after Rav Elyashiv’s Psak.

If there was one event that has divided the Orthodox community it is this controversy.  Rabbis on the right went on a virtual rampage of criticism towards Rabbi Slifkin for trying to defend his views. The very same views that until that point had their approbation.

One such individual was Rav Aharon Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva of Ner Yisroel. After he had verified what Rav Elyashiv said he tore into Rabbi Slifkin. Others like Rabbi Dovid Orlovsky had excoriated him for daring to try and defend himself – calling it Chutzpah of the highest order to question Rav Elyashiv’s Psak!

Although the controversy has died down the rift has remained in place.

I am told by various members of the right that the bigger of the two complaints was his statement questioning the scientific knowledge of Chazal. The feeling now is that if one questions Chazal on a matter of science by pointing to contradictions with current scientific knowledge, then one may as well question their Halachic knowledge, too. That would of course destroy Torah Judaism as we know it.

Rabbi Slifkin’s defense, which he was prevented from presenting to Rav Elyashiv by his (Rav Elyashiv's) rabbinic ‘advisors’ - considering it chutzpah for him to do so, was nevertheless pretty convincing. I have always personally believed the same thing about Chazal. Which is as follows.

In matters of science many of these great men had the best scientific knowledge of the day. They knew Mada. But that knowledge does not always match the reality we know today. Chazal did not have the technological advantages we have to better see and understand the reality of nature.

This does not mean that their Torah knowledge was any less deficient. That was transmitted directly from Sinai through Moshe Rabbenu  to Yehoshua; then to the Z’kenim… all the way down to Chazal themselves. But nature needed to be studied independently to be understood. The very nature of science is based on the scientific method that tests hypothsies derived of observations. Sometimes long held truths are discarded when new information comes along shedding additional light on nature thus creating better and more accurate perceptions of it.

This kind of thinking was perfectly acceptable until the Slifkin controversy.

There is another way to look at discrepancies between what we know as facts of nature today and what was known by Chazal then. We are directed to believe that we simply do not understand what they were saying… that sometimes they wrote in cryptic or mystical fashion for reasons unknown to us. This view holds that if it was put into the Mishna and Talmud by Chazal, even in matters of science, that too was a direct transmission from Sinai and therefore the absolute truth of nature despite the seeming contradictions with what we see and understand today.

Until the Slifkin controversy - both alternatives were acceptable. Typically those who believed the former tended to be college educated. Those who believed the latter tended to be more Charedi. Elu V’Elu. The fact that there were Rishonim who explicitly stated that Chazal erred in matters of science bolstered the view that this is a legitimate Torah perspective. But once Rav Elayshiv declared this view to be heresy, it no longer is.

Rabbi Feldman explained this apparent contradiction in the following way. Rishonim could believe that and not considered heretical. We no longer could. For them it was fine. For us it is heresy. How did he justify such a statement? By pointing to Chazal themselves. There was a legitimate opinion expressed in the Gemarah that did not believe that there would be an actual Moshiach but only be a messianic era. Today that view is considered heresy as defined in the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith. His point was that what was a legitimate belief in one era may not be a legitimate belief in another. So before Rav Elyashiv said such beliefs were heretical it was fine. Now it is heresy.

I have a problem with this kind of thinking. One cannot change a person’s belief by proclamation. Belief does not develop that way. You are asking people to reject their own logic based beliefs developed over time after much thought and analysis that were perfectly acceptable a moment ago.

I am not going to go into the evidence presented in the Gemarah that shows the kinds of scientific errors that are in conflict with nature. Been there and done that – as have many others. Not the least of whom is Rabbi Slifkin himself. But just to cite one recent example from Daf Yomi, the Gemarah in Niddah (17b) describes the physical nature of a uterus in way that does not exist in nature.

The question remains – did Chazal know the science of their day? Did the fully understand nature? A later section of the Gemerah in Niddah (20a) tells us that the great Amora Rava and others actually admitted that they were not familiar with natural science. And he refused to Paskin a Shalia because of that… a lesson for today’s Poskim. How does one reconcile this clear admission with the belief that Chazal knew natural science better than we do today? Some didn’t even know the science of their own day!

What about the Psak that we may not believe that Chazal’s knowledge of natural science was deficient? What if one could show that a great rabbinic figure in relatively recent history that is widely accepted actually believed the same thing?  Read on.

Feldheim is an Orthodox publishing house that had at one time published Rabbi Slifkin’s books. But they withdrew them from the market when the controversy exploded - succumbing to the pressure from the right to do so. They now seem to have done a 180. They have published the newly discovered letters of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch that had never been published before. From the 5 Towns Jewish Times:
Although not available until June 22nd, Feldheim has just published the latest volume of Rav Hirsch's writings - and they are not without controversy.  In it are some controversial letters about the limited knowledge of the Rabbis in the natural sciences.
Sounds like this Gemarah.  In what to me seems like an outrageous attempt to defend the prohibition to believe such things, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro - a prominent Rav in Israel, an adherent of Rav Elyashiv, and a vehement opponent of Rabbi Slifkin  - has declared these letters to be forgeries! Members of Rav Hirsch’s family had a good laugh at that. They say that those letters are authentic.

I think the ball has just been thrown into the other court. It behooves those who say that such views are heresy to explain why that is still the case. To simply declare all evidence that disputes their claims to be forgeries is a very poor argument. Unless they have proof to back that up it makes their claims about Chazal’s infallibility in matters of science look pretty tenuous at best. 

This does not mean to say that alternative views are not acceptable. But it does seem to say – at least to me – that believing that Chazal (through no fault of their own) did not have all of their scientific facts straight by today’s standards is a perfectly acceptable view - which does not make anyone a heretic.