Over the next several days, I intend on analyzing Rabbi Slifkin’s posts on the above noted topic. In the previous two posts, we saw that Rabbi Slifkin’s foundational assumption re Chazal’s knowledge was false. In the following posts, we will analyze his various statements regarding this topic.
This post treats Rabbi Slifkin’s Blog entry of January 9, 2011 entitled Scientific, Halachic, and Scientific-Halachic Issues. For maximum benefit, I encourage readers to peruse Rabbi Slifkin’s post first before reading my own.
Rabbi Slifkin divides the issues which confront Orthodox Jews into three categories; Scientific, Halachic, and Scientific-Halachic. And while I do not necessarily take issue with these divisions per-se, the examples he gives are problematic.
Scientific – Rabbi Slifkin writes: "An example would be the topic of the age of the universe. The question of how to treat someone who believes that the universe is billions of years old may be a halachic issue. But the question of the age of the universe itself is clearly, and solely, a scientific issue. An anti-rationalist might insist that the universe is 5771 years old, but he is not denying that it is a scientific issue; rather, he believes that a literal reading of the Torah is a more reliable and authoritative source of information than modern science."
This is not really the topic I would like to discuss but I couldn’t let this example slide. Rabbi Slifkin groups all people who adopt a young-earth approach under the heading of anti-rationalist and explains that they believe that the authority of the Torah trumps that of science. This is false for two reasons. First of all, I, for one, do not believe in an old earth, but not merely because the Torah tells me to, just like I don’t believe in the existence of a Creator merely because the Torah tells me to. I believe in a young-earth because I’ve studied the science and I believe that it points to a young earth. My position, even on Rabbi Slifkin’s count, must be termed rationalist. Rabbi Slifkin may disagree with my estimation of the science and we can (and have) argued the science for years. But the fact remains that I believe that science provides absolutely no evidence that species evolved over millions of years. Ditto to the universe itself.
Second of all, even if one appeals solely to the Torah for authority, he cannot be deemed an anti-rationalist. Otherwise, Rambam too was an anti-rationalist. Rambam wrote that although the world might indeed look old, the Torah tells us that it is not. Thus Rambam ignored the "rational" conclusion in favor of the Torah’s conclusion yet Rambam is considered the consummate rationalist.
I think the problem here is Rabbi Slifkin’s definition of rationalist. Apparently, rationalist to him means anyone who adheres to scientific dogma regardless of circumstance. Well, if that is indeed rationalism, then I am not a rationalist but then again, neither was the Rambam.
Halachic Issues – Rabbi Slifkin’s definition and example are fine.
Scientific-Halachic Issues – Rabbi Slifkin defines this category as follows: "These are halachic issues in which the halachic discussion is built upon certain determinations about the physical world."
His definition is no good. This is what he should have written: These are halachic issues in which the halachic discussion is associated with certain determinations about the physical world. The reason I changed the definition will become clear shortly.
Rabbi Slifkin then goes on to supply the famous example of spontaneously generating lice and then writes as follows: "To the extent that a statement utilized in resolving a scientific-halachic issue is based upon a relevant misunderstanding of the physical reality, this undermines the innate validity of the halachic conclusions. This does not necessarily mean that the halachah should be changed; in my book Sacred Monsters, I explained Rav Herzog's view of why there are other reasons to uphold Chazal's ruling about lice, despite it being based upon mistaken science. But, absent such reasons, the halachic conclusions are invalid."
This paragraph is highly objectionable! Rabbi Slifkin has practically no source to support such a contention! The fact is, every Rishon and Acharon I am familiar with rejects this idea. Even the Pachad Yitzchak, who prohibits killing lice on Shabbos, does so l’chumra. Rabbi Slifkin’s reference to Rav Herzog is not the way he presents it here on his Blog. Rabbi Herzog does not make his reliance on halacha contingent on "other reasons" which, if "absent" would invalidate the halachic conclusions. He says plainly and simply that regardless of the fact that Chazal’s science might be wrong, the halacha stands! As Rabbi Herzog puts it "for halachic purposes, we have nothing other than the words of our sages"! You can look it up in Sacred Monsters page 367.
The fact is, Rabbi Slifkin delineates a veritable who’s who list of gedolei Torah in the above-noted book – such as Rav Dessler (and Rabbi Carmel – Rabbi Slifkin’s mentor), Rav Moshe and the Chazon Ish – who all accept Chazal’s piskei halacha unreservedly. (I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to presenting the facts, Rabbi Slifkin is gloriously, deliciously, brutally honest!) Ergo, all of the gedolim he notes reject his current thesis.
One final note before we conclude. Rabbi Slifkin writes: "For example, the issue of using electricity on Shabbos or Yom Tov is a scientific-halachic issue. If someone were to make a ruling on this topic based upon a misunderstanding of what electricity is, this would undermine the ruling"
This is a terrible example. Of course he is correct but that’s because electricity is a recent invention. The halachic literature on electricity is no older than 150 years and is taluy exclusively on the understanding of current day poskim regarding the reality of electricity. But the very same poskim would tell you that piskei halacha by Chazal are immutable because Chazal have a different standing than current day poskim. Their conclusions are not "built" on the science, as Rabbi Slifkin implies; they are merely associated with the science. For an exhaustive treatment of this issue, see Rabbi Slifkin’s book Sacred Monsters pages 356-367.
This concludes our analysis of Rabbi Slifkin’s January 9th post. Tomorrow we will proceed to his next post on this topic bl’n.