Anyone familiar with Rabbi Slifkin’s writings is aware of his attitude regarding Chazal’s knowledge of nature. In a recent post entitled Rav Hirsch Lives!, he reiterates his opinion in this matter. Rabbi Slifkin believes that Chazal’s statements regarding nature are merely a product of the prevailing scientific attitudes held by contemporary naturalists (e.g. Aristotle). Furthermore, he claims that this notion was “normative” amongst the “rationalist Rishonim of Sefarad” but unfortunately produces no clear sources for such an assertion. The closest Rabbi Slifkin ever comes to providing explicit source material in the works of the Sephardic Rishonim can be found here (Rabbi Slifkin refers to this website here) and is limited to three Rishonim (Rambam, R’ Avraham and the Ralbag). Readers of this blog already know that Rabbi Slifkin’s claim has been refuted countless of times in these pages (e.g. here and here).
One of Rabbi Slifkin’s most important sources in support of his idea is Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch ztz’l. In general I have chosen not to comment on this source, for more than one reason. However Rabbi Slifkin’s above-noted post has persuaded me that perhaps a few well-placed comments might be in order.
Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:
One of the most significant sources in Torah-Science issues - specifically with regard to Chazal's knowledge of the natural world - is Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's letters on the topic.
He then goes on to quote Rav Hirsch as follows:
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.
Ostensibly this quote does seem to support Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude to Chazal’s science. However, all is not as it seems.
Before we make any further comments, it is crucial to note the following. The above letter was not written in Rav Hirsch’s handwriting, was not signed by him, and was not published in his lifetime. Rabbi Slifkin attempts to address this issue by reassuring his readers that the above quote was part of a series of letters to one R. Hile Wechsler and that R. Wechsler’s original handwritten letters to Rav Hirsch are extant. This, claims Rabbi Slifkin, proves that Rav Hirsch must have written this particular letter to R’ Wechsler. Here’s Rabbi Slifkin’s reasoning.
To maintain a belief that the Hirsch letters were forged, one would have to claim that somebody was consistently intercepting the letters that R. Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled R. Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! Clearly, this scenario is absurd; the Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine.
Here’s the problem. No one is claiming that the “Hirsch letters were forged”. The claim is that this one particular letter – which was not penned by Rav Hirsch, not signed by Rav Hirsch, and not published by Rav Hirsch – was possibly not composed by Rav Hirsch. In order to prove differently, Rabbi Slifkin would have to produce a copy of R’ Wechsler’s original letter to Rav Hirsch and subsequent letters from R’ Wechsler to Rav Hirsch which clearly refer to the material found in the letter in question. Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin does no such thing. He makes reference to supposedly extant letters and expects his readership to accept the mere existence of these letters as proof of his contention. Well, this reader is far too seasoned to fall for such tricks. Experience has taught me that until evidence is produced, a protagonists’ claims are essentially meaningless.
Notwithstanding the above, our following post will treat Rabbi Slifkin’s quote of Rav Hirsch as authentic. Even if Rav Hirsch did write the letter in question, Rabbi Slifkin extends its parameters far more than Rav Hirsch ever envisioned.