Chazal vs. Science – Part 1

It must be a slow news day. Or perhaps these past few weeks have been quiet and controversy-free (heh). Otherwise what would cause R’ Harry Maryles to resurrect Le Affair D’Slifkin? To the best of my knowledge, nothing new has happened on that front: mainstream Torah Jewry continues to ignore Rabbi Slifkin while he grows more and more strident in his criticisms of Haredim. Like a jilted ex, Slifkin is determined to make Haredim pay for his rejection, even if it means losing whatever defenders he still has in the community.

Harry’s piece contains quite a few inaccuracies and misrepresentations, easily spotted by anyone in the know. I was tempted to let this one lie since it is little more than a great big perversion of Hashkafa. I will nonetheless indulge myself for two reasons: Harry “puts the ball in our court” and who can resist a hanging curveball? Second, this is a great opportunity to highlight the detour Modern Orthodoxy has taken from the true path of Torah and Yiddishkiet. They may not realize it, but they’ve fallen hook, line and sinker into the morass of prevailing Western thought, causing them to abandon much of the essence of Torah Judaism.

These truths have been known by all, from the greatest rabbis to cheder children, for millennia.

The following is a quote from the great sage and kabbalist, the Leshem Shevo V’achlama: (Credit: The Eye of the Storm, Rabbi Aharon Feldman)

The main thing is: everyone who is called a Jew is obligated to believe with complete faith that everything found in the words of our Sages, whether in Halachos or Aggados of the Talmud or in the Midrashim, are all the words of the Living G-d, for everything which they said is with the spirit of G-d which spoke within them, Sod Hashem L’Yireav “the secret of G-d id given to those who fear him”.

In other words, every word of Chazal that is quoted in their established works is 100% true. Plain and simple.

Given the above, how do we then explain statements in Chazal that appear to be inaccurate, based on the latest science or even through our own eyes? Simple, the same way we explain discrepancies in the Written Torah. We attribute the problem to ourselves, not to them. It may be that we misunderstand their intent or that our circumstances have changed (nishtanu hativim), regardless, it does not diminish the veracity of their words by an iota. No doubt, to accept this, one must believe, but we are believers, are we not? There is no need to “believe” that it is raining outside when one is getting wet nor that there is a God, both are obvious and undeniable. Belief kicks in when logic/science checks out.

Over the course of the generations there have been some great men who have taken an alternate view. Counting among them all time greats such as Rav Saadiah Gaon and Rav Avraham the son of the Rambam, they were willing to accept that Chazal could be mistaken in matters of science. It is primarily on these sources that Slifkin relys upon to build his controversial theses. Whether or not he stays faithful to these sources is a topic for another day, primarily because it is academic. For the Torah Jew, to accept these alternate views is wrong. It is not Torah. Am I calling the aforementioned Rishonim apikorsim? Ch’V of course not! They were permitted to believe it, we are not. Sounds ridiculous? Consider this.

There are endless disagreements in Chazal, both Halachic and Hashkafic. These are not merely on peripheral matters. Life and death halachos are subject to rigorous controversy. The basics beliefs of Judaism are matters of profound dispute in the Talmud. However, disputes cannot remain undecided in perpetuity since the world cannot exist in limbo forever. Hence the need for resolution.

In earlier times, the Sanhedrin was the final arbiter of Jewish law, practice and belief. Until the Sanhedrin intervened, one could act according to his understanding of the Halacha, provided he was sufficiently knowledgeable. However, after the Sanhedrin weighed in and issued a ruling, it was to be followed by all. Here we have the first example of what was a perfectly legitimate understanding of Torah today become a sin punishable by death tomorrow.

After the the Sanhedrin ceased to exist, matters became murkier. Nonetheless, the underlying principles remained the same. When a decision is reached by the consensus of Klal Yisroel, that is Torah. A Jew today who relies on a minority opinion to do work on Shabbos, work that has been accepted as forbidden by Klal Yisroel, is a Mechalel Shabbos with all the consequences thereof.

Hashkafa is no different. One can find minority opinions who dissent from the basics of Jewish tradition, including denying the coming of Moshiach and the attribution of corporeality to G-d (Rav Hillel in Chazal believed so). The existence of these divergent views is not a Heter to follow them. There are gray areas where “freedom of choice” as it were, still exists, but not on matters that are settled.

The absence of a formal and transparent mechanism to transform disputes into dogma has led some well meaning individuals to err and stray from the straight and narrow path. It has also encouraged the rise of charlatans who attempt to hijack the process toward furthering their own ends. Chazal recognized this and warned us that the Talmid Chochom who has no wisdom is worse than carrion and of the poisonous effect of those who twist Torah to fit their needs. “Whoever want to be misled, let him be misled”, Chazal proclaim, knowing that those who covet the truth can easily find it while those who don’t never will.

On to Harry’s post:

(Regarding Slifkin’s claim that Chazal were sometimes mistaken with regard to nature)

These views were not considered heresy in the past.

Revisionism as Harry practices so well. The overwhelming majority of Jewish scholars, books and laymen throughout the years have rejected Slifkin’s approach and maintained that Chazal were not mistaken on matters of nature. The sources are too numerous to count, chief among them are Tosafos (Moed Katan 11a, discussing nishtanu hativim), the Rivash (No. 447) The Rashba (Toras Habayis, Mishmeres Habayis, Bayis 4 Shaar 1) and the Maharal (Beer Hagolah 6).

We continue. Slifkin’s approach does raise potential problems for Harry:

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.

Not to worry, he’s got a way out:

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.

There is so much objectionable here, it’s hard to know where to begin.

“many of these great men had the best scientific knowledge of the day.” Really, and how does Harry know that? Perhaps even by standards of the day their knowledge was deficient?

“This does not mean that their Torah knowledge was any less deficient.” This is the nut of it all. If this cannot be stated with equivocation, then Harry is in trouble. As he said before, goodbye Torah Judaism.

So how does he make the distinction between science and Torah?

That was transmitted directly from Sinai through Moshe Rabbenu  to Yehoshua; then to the Z’kenim… all the way down to Chazal themselves.

Sounds good, except that it is NOT TRUE. Much of what we have in Chazal, in the Gemara, was arrived by using their own understanding, their own cognitive faculties, not through tradition. They had rules to follow (called the 13 exegetical methods by which the Torah is expounded) but other than the Gezeira Shavah, they were not received directly from Sinai (although Moshe knew it at the time). The Gemara makes this clear.

If that is the case, considering that Chazal may error in matters of nature why can’t we assume they can error in matters of Torah as well? Are we to go the Catholic route, infallibility in religious doctrine while complete idiots in all other matters?? It would appear that Harry has struck out.

But that knowledge does not always match the reality we know today.

Until tomorrow, when we’ll know a new reality. That one will be the new absolute-never-to-be-disproven-truth. Similar to the “ether” and the “flat earth” before it.

Until the Slifkin controversy – both alternatives were acceptable.

Incorrect and I challenge Harry to provide comprehensive evidence of that.

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.

Here Harry is simply mistaken:

In Rabbi Feldman’s book, The Eye of the Storm (Pg. 161) He makes it clear that Rav Elyashiv was not the one who invalidated these opinions but rather the one who made clear the distinction cited above i.e. that the minority opinions were permitted to hold their opinions, but we are not, given that we must “follow the majority opinion and our tradition as to how we should approach Torah”. So It is not Rav Eliyashiv “deciding” new haskafa any more then when he paskens that milk and meat is forbidden that he is “deciding” new halacha

Harry, however, has a hard time accepting the rationale we’ve put forth.

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.

Never mind that it was NOT acceptable a moment ago. This incredibly shallow and emotional response masquerading as logic is completely irrelevant. Beliefs are what they are. You’re not “ready” for them? Okay, hold the phone while we recalibrate our beliefs to what you ARE ready for. What utter nonsense. At most, the person in question is a nebach, but a nebach apikorus is also an apikorus.

The he shoots himself in the foot: (along with a snarky dig at “today’s Poskim”).

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!

Let’s see. So Chazal tell us sometimes that they are not familiar with the natural science and therefore won’t rule on a shaila because of that. Shouldn’t we therefore assume that when they DID rule on a shaila based on their view of nature that they were well aware of the actual conditions upon which they ruled? Not just what the “science” of the day believed, but the actual, objective truth. Wouldn’t they have had the foresight and the knowledge to refrain from issuing a psak for the generations based on science of the day? Were they not aware that today’s science is tomorrow’s punch line or is it only today’s chachomim of the mah nishtana who figured it out??

To me this Gemara is the biggest proof that Chazal based their scientific statements on the actual truth, not merely the science available at the time. When they didn’t know they told us, when they told us, they knew.

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.

Here Harry loses the “logic thread”. He starts off demanding proof that Slifkin’s views are heresy and ends up mocking “their claims about Chazal’s infallibility in matters of science” as “pretty tenuous at best”. One has zero to do with the other. Even if we were to grant that Slifkin’s views are not heresy, there is still the overwhelming consensus that “claims” Chazal’s infallibility on all matters. See the sources cited above. In essence, Harry is now mocking the majority of Rishonim and Achronim who accept this view.

In the comments he goes even further.

I know that Nishtaneh HaTeva is used a lot. But for me – that answer is just a little too convenient.

As mentioned above, Nishtanu Hativim is mentioned by Tosafos as well as numerous mefarshim throughout Shas (See Hishtanus Hatevai’im by Rabbi N.M. Gutel for a comprehensive list). But to Harry, it’s “too convenient”. Tosafos must’ve made a mistake. Hey, it’s par for the course, if Chazal can make mistakes about science, then Tosafos can make mistakes about Chazal about science!

At stake here is more than a theoretical argument. This speaks to the extent of the inroads modern thought has made into some segments of Orthodoxy, to the point that they have no clue who Chazal were and what true Torah ideology is. Modern Orthodoxy has so bought into the notions of “egalitarianism” and “rationalism” that they have become like donkeys.

Have I descended into name-calling? Not quite, this is the moniker that they have chosen for themselves, as I will explain in Part 2.

Da’as Torah: What It Is and What It’s Not

Rabbi Maryles has a recent post where he calls into question the legitimacy of the Haredi view of “Daas Torah”. His understanding is that Haredim view their rabbis as infallible and he wonders how that can be so, given that they have clearly erred in the past. He cites personal experiences in which rabbis based their advice on the erroneous circumstances presented to them and therefore cannot accept that their rulings must be correct, considering that they may be based on subjective and biased information.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is reported to have once told an atheist that “the G-d you don’t believe in I don’t believe in either”. In that vein, the “Daas Torah” that Harry rejects, Haredim reject as well. That rabbis can err? Of course, Moshe Rabbeinu erred! That they rule based on the information they receive, which is often incomplete and inaccurate? That’s not news either. Daas Torah, to the Haredi Jew means something else entirely.

Let us step back for a moment to lay the groundwork for this topic. There are two aspects to Daas Torah: 1) How Haredim relate to those we believe possess it. 2) How Haredim relate to the guidance and direction of Daas Torah. [An important caveat: the following does not apply to every person who carries the title of Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva or Rav in Haredi circles. It applies to exceptional individuals, few and far between, who are recognized as Gedolei Yisroel possessing Daas Torah. How that determination is achieved is a subject for another day.]

The Haredi Relationship To Gedolei Yisroel.

Haredim relate to Gedolim with the utmost respect, reverence, love and awe. This approach is nothing new. It’s source hearkens back to the Talmud and continues forward through the codes and responsa. It was Chazal who taught us that “The fear of your teacher should be as the fear of G-d”, That “one cannot cleave to the consuming fire of G-d’s presence and should therefore cling to Sages and their students”. It is Chazal who require us to help our Rabbis before our parents, being that our debt of gratitude is greater to them. The sources are numerous and varied, practiced and perfected by all streams of Torah Jewry throughout the millennia.

How Haredim relate to the guidance and direction of Daas Torah

Now we get to the burr in many an Haredi critics’ saddle. Contrary to persistent myth, Haredim do not believe their rabbis to be infallible, not even the greatest. We are not part of the Catholic Church and our rabbis are not popes. We also do not believe that we may not harbor opinions of our own, both before and after Daas Torah has spoken.

What we do believe is that it is our obligation to subordinate our personal opinions, beliefs and desires to the guidance and dictates of Gedolei Yisroel, even when we KNOW they are wrong. This is our tradition and there are many sources for it. An early source is the Midrash (beginning of Ruth) which chastises the Jews of the time for “Judging their Judges” even while admitting that their Judges were worthy of their criticism!

This approach is explained in great detail in the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 496). He explicitly enjoins us that we ought listen to our leaders in every generation , even when they are mistaken. Why? “To prevent the destruction of our faith and nation entirely” (paraphrased, see his enlightening words in their entirety. He makes it clear that he is elaborating on the spirit of the law, although some understand his words as relating to the letter of the law as well (Lo Sosur).)

To the Haredi Jew, a Gadol is akin to the captain of a Navy ship. As commander, he is the ultimate arbiter of behavior aboard his vessel, his word law, his order sacrosanct. Prior to issuing a decision, he may consult subordinates, choose to hear opposing views or accept lobbying on the behalf of one position or another. But once the die has been cast and the order given, it must be completely and totally obeyed, even if it is unquestionably wrong. Anything less is mutiny, often punishable in the most severe manner. And it must be so. Were a captain’s order subject to dissent, he would no longer be captain, his crew would die a death of a thousand opinions and chaos would reign. There is always recourse to appeal to the captain to reconsider, but so long that he doesn’t, his decision stands as is.

However, the captain analogy only goes so far. Although the captain may have risen to his high rank due to many years of hard work and commitment and while he may exhibit great leadership qualities and sterling character traits, his decisions are the product of a frail human mind. Gedolei Yisroel on the other hand, are believed to posses an additional dimension, an aspect of Divine guidance absent from normal human consciousness.

Once again, we turn to the Sages of the Ages, Chazal. R” Meir is one of the first to highlight this phenomenon stating that one “who learns Torah for it’s own sake, is privileged to receive”, among many other things, the ability to help others with “advice and salvation” (nehenen mimenu eitzah vetoshiyah). Granted the ability to peek behind the curtain of Heaven, Chazal tell us that “A Tzaddik can decree and G-d will fulfill, while G-d can decree and a Tzaddik can nullify”. They urge us to avail ourselves of the prayers of a Chochom  when there is a sick person in our households r”l, because those prayers have special potency.

As with all matters spiritual, indeed matters temporal as well, the abilities and limitations,  freedom and constraints, indeed the very nature of this Divine gift is hazy and unclear. But it exists and is possessed by the bnei aliyah (men of stature) G-d has bestowed upon each and every generation. (Yoma 38b.)

It is with all of the above in mind that Haredim approach our Gedolim. As with leaders of any substantive entity,  the questions that make it to the top are the ones not easily decided, often the ones with opposing views of equal legitimacy. We bring these dilemmas and complexities to them knowing that they are human, and therefore endeavor to equip them with whatever we can to aid their decision making process. Nothing less than the Urim Vetumim itself filtered its response through the prism of the question it was asked (see pilegesh bigivah), we would be foolish not to take that into account.

Gedolim, for their part, do not seek to “rule the peasantry” from on high. Most of their decisions are a result of extensive research and consultation with all manners of experts, advisers and laymen. At some point, however, deliberations must conclude and a decision reached. Constant “inner struggle” may work for academics and writers but the real world demands that one side be chosen, often reduced to the lesser of two evils.

It is at that point that “Daas Torah” comes into being. Whatever we thought, think and will think now plays second fiddle to our duty to adhere to the Divinely-inspired guidance we have been given. Even when said guidance leads to less than desirable results, we are comforted by the dictum of Chazal, “Stiras Zekeinim Binyan” (The destruction of the Elders is in itself an act of building). It is only through the acceptance of the supremacy of our Sages and leaders that the ship of Judaism has survived the rough waters of exile and Haredim are honored to continue this hallowed tradition.