In recent times it has become fashionable to demonstrate the ostensible erroneousness of Chazal’s conclusions in science. Although this is not the first time our nation has had to deal with such attitudes (Greek Hellenism was the first permutation of this type of attitude in our nation), the secularist mind-set seems to be experiencing a resurgence of sorts, gaining a strong foothold amongst certain Jewish elements. Historically, the current trend towards secularism can be traced back to the Reform Movement’s Society Feur Die Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Society for the Science of Judaism). While this society disintegrated in a relatively short period of time (all of its original founders converted to Christianity), its mandate of secularising Judaism continued to be perpetuated by members of the Eastern European Enlightenment.
Under the guise of a movement called Chochmas Yisrael (The wisdom of the Jews) great efforts were made to recast Judaism in a new, secular mould. Voluminous research was conducted and a significant amount of literature was produced by scholars such as Isaac Jost, Leopold Zunz, Edward Gans and Heinrich Graetz. These people were later fortified in their efforts by the likes of Moritz Steinschneider, Marcus Jastrow and David Friedlander. Although their works did not make a lasting impression on European Jewry, their general attitudes regarding the secularisation of Judaism continued to be perpetuated into the twentieth century and found a secure resting place in Jewish American culture.
Regrettably, these attitudes have managed to infiltrate certain elements of Orthodox Jewry, at least to a certain extent. "Science" has been given top billing in certain Modern Orthodox circles partly due to the staggering advances in scientific knowledge which began with the advent of the industrial revolution. One of the most notable Orthodox Jewish exponents of this attitude is our very own Rabbi Slifkin. Much of his time and research seems to be dedicated to conclusions which seemingly demonstrate the shortcomings of Chazal’s views on science, especially as regards the life-sciences. Examples that come to mind are the spontaneous generation of lice from sweat, the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt, and the generation of salamanders from fire.
The purpose of this paper is not to respond to Rabbi Slifkin’s examples. I will leave that for others. Rather, the purpose of this paper is to dispel the egregious notion that our ba’alei mesorah were in any way aligned with his general attitude. In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin writes a letter to Rabbi Aharon Feldman Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, enjoining him to concede to the fact that a long who’s who list of gedolim understood that Chazal erred in science. In order to demonstrate this, Rabbi Slifkin chooses one of his showcase sugyos in Shas, the gemara in Pesachim 94b, which deals with the orbit of the sun in respect to the firmament. From the long list of Rishonim and Acharonim who comment on this gemara, the Rambam no doubt stands out the most. In Moreh Nevuchim (2:8), the Rambam quotes this gemara as saying that the gentile sages have "defeated" the Jewish sages. And although our current girsa’os do not contain this statement, the Rambam’s general thrust seems pretty clear.
As such, it might be edifying to explore this paticular Rambam in the Moreh in order to determine precisely what his general opinion was regarding the scientific statements of our sages. Based on our conclusions, we can then draw analogies to all the rest of the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this matter.
Before we address the Rambam in the Moreh, a few comments are in order. The Rambam compiled a huge compendium of halacha, the Yad haChazaka. Other than the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodei haTorah (which are based partially on Greek naturalism) the entire work is based on the words of Chazal. Many of the halachos of Chazal are based on scientific considerations (such as ein bishul achar bishul) and yet the Rambam never digresses from Chazal and never questions their statements on nature. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding the science of Chazal but one can claim that in the field of halacha the Rambam documented Chazal’s views, even the ones pertaining to science, although personally he didn’t necessarily accept them. But the truth is, the Rambam’s opinion of Chazal was so elevated that he totally annulled himself to their view.
If one wishes to be aware of the Rambam’s true opinion in these matters, to understand the spirit which pervades all of his writings regarding our sages, let him look in the Rambam’s preface to his Pirush haMishnayos wherein he states as follows: (My translation)
"And this fourth matter, that is, the exegetical sayings found in the Talmud, should not be considered trivial or of little benefit, for they are of enormous benefit in that they encompass within them the most profound allusions and wondrous ideas. When an appropriately deep examination of these sayings is conducted, the absolute good which cannot be surpassed can be gleaned from them. All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…" (Kapach ed. pg. 19)
"And therefore, we must establish the truth of their (Chazal’s) words in our hearts. We must delve deeply into them and not hurry to dismiss a single saying of theirs. Rather, if something is found in their words which seems strange in our eyes, we must orient ourselves in the appropriate [corresponding] disciplines until we understand their meaning in this particular topic, assuming that we are even able to comprehend [their words] in the first place. For even our [latter] sages of blessed memory, despite the fact that they delved exceedingly into their studies, were clear of mind, were appropriately fit for the comprehension of wisdom, attached themselves to great people and entirely detached themselves from material pursuits, [and yet despite all this they] attributed a ‘lacking’ to themselves when comparing themselves to previous generations…so much more so ourselves…how can we not attribute a lacking to ourselves in comparison to them. And since they [the latter sages] knew that all of the words of the sages are well established from every angle, they were very protective of them and enjoined against slandering them and stated ‘whomsoever blandishes the words of the sages is judged in boiling feces’ and there is no worse ‘boiling feces’ than the foolishness that leads one to denigrate [the words of our sages]. And therefore, you will never find one rejecting their words but one who chases after lust, who favours materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever." (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)
This is what the Rambam really felt about our sages. Those who portray the Rambam as an avant-garde thinker who forged a new path in the explication of Judaism even when it contradicted our sages are far from a proper awareness of the Rambam’s true Weltanschauung.
Although, as I mentioned, when it came to almost all disciplines, the Rambam was machniya himself to the view of our sages, when it came to astronomy, it seems that he leaned towards the wisdom of the Greek astronomers and their writings. This is most apparent in the Rambam’s writings on Kiddush haChodesh and seems puzzling in view of the Rambam’s normal modus operandi. In fact, this aberration is so uncharacteristic of the Rambam that he himself senses it and states as follows: (my translation)
"and it should not be strange in your eyes that the view of Aristotle (which the Rambam accepts) is opposed to the view of our sages of blessed memory in this matter, for this view, that is, if they [the heavenly bodies] make noise is associated with the view of a fixed sphere and moving stars and you already know that the wisdom of the gentiles was decisive, in the matter of astronomy, over the wisdom of our sages as the sages themselves openly state ‘and the sages of the gentiles have triumphed’…" (Moreh 2:8 Kapach ed. pg. 180)
Before we go on, I would like to point out that in order to dismiss the view of the sages, the Rambam felt the need to resort to a direct quotation from Chazal. Thus, he supported his approach to astronomy by illustrating that Chazal themselves admitted defeat in this matter.
However, notwithstanding the Rambam’s hisnatzlus in this matter, Chazal’s seeming lack of knowledge in the field of astronomy seems incongruous with the Rambam’s general characterization of our sage’s wisdom. How could the wisdom of astronomy have escaped them?
But the mystery is cleared up once one reads the Rambam in the Yad Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh. The truth is, states the Rambam, our nation did have a tradition regarding astronomical calculations which originated with the biney Yisaschar and was passed down during the times of the neveim. Unfortunately, this discipline was lost during the Babylonian exile and thus our sages had no choice but to rely on the calculations of the Greek astronomers. (Rambam Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh 17:24)
Incidentally, do not think it was strange that Chazal relied on the Greeks for astronomy. The Greeks were incredibly accurate with their calculations. For example, W.M. Feldman in his 1931 text (page 131) reports that Hipparchus, an ancient Greek astronomer, recorded the time between an eclipse measured by the Babylonians and one measured by himself less than 400 years later. He found that there were 4,267 lunations and that the exact duration was 12,607 days and 1 hour. Thus, the average lunation would be 3,024,169 hours divided by 4,267 lunations thus equalling 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 1/3 seconds or 29.53059 days. This is astounding as it is only one half second off from present day calculations for the average Sinodic month!
In conclusion, even the greatest "rationalist" amongst the Rishonim, the Rambam himself, held all of Chazal’s opinions in the highest esteem. How much more so would this apply to the non-rationalist (i.e. French) category of Rishonim. Rabbi Slifkin’s unfortunate habit of constantly highlighting the purported shortcomings of Chazal’s knowledge is foreign to our ba’alei mesorah. They would never even dream of writing whole books dedicated solely to contra-Chazal conclusions.