Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Rabbi Meiselman, Science, Torah, and Chazal

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman
How saddened I am to see an individual who I once so admired fall so far from the Hashkafa in which he was raised. I’m sure that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman would vehemently disagree with my observation. I have in fact heard him quoted as saying that his Hashkafos have not departed from those of his uncle Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik – the Rav.

He claims that the Rav has always been misunderstood or misinterpreted. But to anyone who knew the Rav’s Hashkfos it is clear that he has indeed deprated from them. His views are more like those of the Rav’s uncle Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik. And there is not a scintilla of doubt to me that their views were radically different on variety of important issues.

One must see Rabbi Meisleman’s new book, Torah Chazal andScience in this light. One of the points he tries to make is that Chazal’s statements in the Gemarah on matters of science are as accurate as are their statements on Halacha or ethics. Now I have no problem with those who hold this view. But I do have a problem with Rabbi Meiselman’s rejecting as Apikursus (heresy – for lack of a better word) the belief that Chazal’s statements about science are not always accurate. I am one of those who believes that.  And I am not alone in this belief. It is also rather well known that many Rishonim and Achronim had this view.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
My reason for this is as follows. Some of the statements made by Chazal were so clearly mistaken by what is known to us today, that one would have to give up all rationality and have simple blind faith that somehow they knew science in spite of some of the fantastic claims they made about the physical universe. My view (and the view of those like me) is that Chazal’s knowledge of science was limited to the knowledge available to mankind at the time.

They were all brilliant men - experts in Torah and the Mada of their time (Unlike many of our current rabbinic leaders.)  Their knowledge in Torah was handed down to them and they accurately transmitted it to the generations via the Mishna and the Talmud. But their expertise in science was limited in large part due to the lack of technology available to them at the time. Statements of scientific fact were based on what they could perceive and understand without the benefits of modern technology. I find it very difficult to believe (as does Rabbi Meiselman) that the science that Chazal redacted into the Gemarah was received from Sinai.

There are numerous scientific misstatement of facts in the Gemarah. Here is one rather stark example  from a Gemarah in Pesachim (94b). It tells us that Chazal believed that sun follows an unusual path during a 24 hour period. It starts in the morning on the Eastern horizon and continues towards the West. After sunset when it goes below the horizon it slips over a dome that covers the sky and travels in the opposite direction eastward until just before it is seen on the Eastern horizon. It then slips out below that dome and begins anew its daily trek westward.

There is no possible way to interpret that as accurate science. We of course all know that the sun does not revolve around the earth at all. But that the earth revolves around the sun. We also know there is no dome. We again also know that the sun does not change direction. The earth rotates so that the sun appears from our perspective to be rising in the East and setting in the West. It then continues to rotate in the same direction until it reaches the point where the sun is again perceived as rising  in the East. We know this because science has progressed over the millennia via technology available to us that was not available to Chazal.

Rabbi Meiselman’s explanation of this Gemarah is basically that it cannot be taken literally. I always find that to be a cop out when given as an answer in every single instance where there is a contradiction between science and the Gemarah. This is not the only Gemarah that contradicts scientific fact. It can’t be the case that clear and unambiguous statements by Chazal about science that contradict reality are always metaphoric.

None of this is new. This discussion took place many years ago when Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books were banned for saying much the same thing. And at the time his books were labeled Apikursus by Rav Elyashiv whom many believed to have been the Gadol HaDor at the time. That created a firestorm of controversy.

I am not going to rehash all that now. But I do want to address a claim made by those who say that Rabbi Meiselman is uniquely qualified to write about this subject and therefore has the definitive final word on the subject. They say that because they feel he is both a Talmud Chacham and a PhD in mathematics from MIT.

I do not agree with that at all. Knowledge in mathematics does not make you more qualified to discuss matters not pertaining to math any more than it makes a physician qualified to talk about matters not pertaining to medicine.  And yet this is how many people will receive his book.

It is so upsetting to me that a man I once admired as an exemplar of Torah U’mada - now considers people like me to be an Apikores. How can he in the same breath say that having the identical belief to Avraham Ben HaRambam makes me an Apikores and yet does not make Avraham Ben HaRambam an Apikores?! There is no rationally acceptable explanation to that.

Aside from labeling those of us who believed Chazal erred in matters of science as Apikursim - there was another controversy in Rabbi Slfkin’s books that did that:  saying that the universe is more than 5774 years old. I’m not sure what Rabbi Meiselman believes on that score. But my guess is that he agrees with it since that is what his newly adopted Charedi Hashkafa tells him he must believe. I would be happy to be corrected if this is not the case.

This is where is expertise in science pales in comparison to another Talmud Chacham who knew science. His name was Aryeh Kaplan. Aryeh Kaplan was a physicist of renown. He believed that the universe is 15 billion years old. And he demonstrated that through Chazal, Rishonim and Achronim.

So when it comes to people that are uniquely qualified to deal with matters of Torah and science. I will cast my lot with Aryeh Kaplan ahead of Rabbi Meiselman every single time.