Here’s a question. Why is Rabbi Slifkin so anxious to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal in the field of science? Anyone who has read The Science, Challenge, The Camel, Creatures or Monsters can easily answer this question. For those who haven’t, here’s the answer.
Rabbi Slifkin is a believer. He believes in Hashem and he believes in the Divinity of the Torah. He believes in both Torah she’bichtav (TSB) and Torah she’ba’al peh (TSBP). He understands that the leading sages of each generation are the recipients of TSBP and are charged with transmitting our oral traditions to future generations. Hence, he accepts the halachic pronouncements of our sages (as recorded in the Talmud) without reservation. But this is not the limit of Rabbi Slifkin’s belief system.
Rabbi Slifkin believes in Science. He believes in the pronouncements of the scientific world if they reflect the opinion of the global consensus of scientists in that field. These pronouncements need not be backed by hard evidence. He simply believes. Of course Rabbi Slifkin would deny such an assertion but anyone familiar with the posts on this blog knows that this claim has been proven time and again. For confirmation of Rabbi Slifkin’s unquestioning faith in science, see our analysis of his views in the online article entitled Defending the Mesorah.
So, Rabbi Slifkin believes in the authority of our sages and he also believes in the authority of scientists. When the opinions or statements of one group conflict with the other, a distressing mental state is generated in his mind. In psychology this state is referred to as Cognitive Dissonance. There is only one way to alleviate the mental stress associated with this condition. One of the “cognitions” (i.e. beliefs or premises) must be altered.
Rabbi Slifkin resolves his contradictory beliefs by modifying the nature of Chazal’s authority. When it comes to halacha, they are the final arbiters; but when it comes to nature, scientists are the final arbiters. If the majority of scientists adopt a certain theory, paradigm or description of physical reality, their opinion supersedes that of Chazal. This facile “resolution” is used extensively by Rabbi Slifkin in his books. Every time he encounters a stira between Chazal and Science, Chazal lose out. So for instance, if the consensus of science is that the universe is billions of years old, Chazal’s traditions are rejected in favor of the prevailing academic view.
So, why is Rabbi Slifkin so anxious to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal in the field of science? Simple. Because it reinforces his personal approach to the resolution of the Torah/Science loggerhead. That’s why he continuously attempts to attribute such approaches to the Rambam and other “rationalist” Rishonim, and why the quote from Rav Hirsch means so much to him. Here it is again.
In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.
In Rabbi Slifkin’s mind, this quote supports everything he’s been saying for the past ten years! No wonder he likes it so much. But as we mentioned in the previous post, Rav Hirsch’s opinion of Chazal and Science is grossly misrepresented by Rabbi Slifkin. The quote Rabbi Slifkin chooses to delineate from Rav Hirsch’s letter (actually two disparate quotes stuck together to make it appear like one uniform paragraph) is preceded by the following section in the very same letter (my emphases).
What do we tell our pupils when they discover in the words of Chazal statements that do not agree with contemporary secular knowledge, particularly with the natural sciences which have made tremendous forward strides since ancient times?... we are not to keep the pupils from studying these subjects. On the contrary, we are to teach them the methodology of these subjects in a satisfactory and enlightening manner. For only the masses who neither know nor understand the methodology of these disciplines believe all the boasts of our contemporaries that this generation is the wisest of all and that all of nature - in the heavens and on earth - has been revealed to the contemporary sages who from the peaks of their wisdom look down upon all preceding generations.
But one who knows and understands how these disciplines function, knows and understands that while it is true that contemporary scholars deserve honor and glory in many matters that they have demonstrated - measured, weighed, or counted - that were unknown in earlier generations; nevertheless the theories built upon these observations are for the most part no more than very shaky guesses. New hypotheses are proposed daily. What is praised today as unalterable truth, is questioned tomorrow and then ignored. Each is different from the others, but they all have no solid foundation.
Similarly, there are statements in the works of the ancient nations that only 50 to 100 years ago were laughed at or denounced as lies by the wise men of the generation, whereas today’s scholars recognize that there is some truth in them. There are matters of wisdom that were known to the ancients which have been lost and are unknown to the contemporaries. Consequently if we find statements in the works of the ancients that contradict the estimates of our contemporaries, we cannot decide instantly that the former are lies and that the latter are definitely right.