In the previous post we began discussing a letter which was ostensibly written by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in 1876. This post continues our discussion and provides a detailed examination of the first section of the letter, which appears under the sub-heading ‘What Chazal Knew and What We Know’. The purpose of this analysis is to provide the reader with a clear understanding of Rav Hirsch’s hashkafa on the issue of Chazal and Science. For the maximum benefit the reader is encouraged to read Rav Hirsch’s letter first before reading our analysis.
What was Rav Hirsch’s view regarding the scientific statements of Chazal? How did he approach contradictions to Chazal from current scientific attitudes? In order to arrive at a proper conclusion, the following two questions must always be kept in mind.
1) Is the ma’amar Chazal in question based on contemporary science or masoretic tradition?
2) If it is a science-based statement, what is the nature of the contradictory material? Is it a product of current observation/experimentation, or is it merely scientific speculation?
It seems clear from Rav Hirsch’s letter that he relates to Chazal as the authoritative receivers of our Torah traditions. These traditions originate at Sinai and comprise the very essence of our religion. Accordingly, if the ma’amar Chazal in question seems masoretic in nature (e.g. Noach’s flood occurred 1656 years after the creation of the world), the “contradiction” is automatically “resolved”. Current scientific attitudes simply play no role whatsoever when it comes to our mesorah. The only time Rav Hirsch feels the need to address the issue is in a case where the ma’amar Chazal seems to be a reflection of contemporary scientific thought. Such ma’amarei Chazal, says Rav Hirsch, are not part of the received tradition and are therefore open to future modification. An example of this would be the mud mouse in Mas. Sanhedrin.
An honest assessment of Rav Hirsch’s letter would seem to yield the conclusion that on occasion Chazal may have adopted certain scientific attitudes which are not necessarily accurate by today’s standards. And although this writer does not employ such approaches, it is difficult to deny that Rav Hirsch did appeal to them, at least in a limited sense. But is any of this really relevant? Rabbi Slifkin claims that “Rav Hirsch's letters were a powerful weapon in the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-
but is this really true?
The answer is no. The controversy that exists between Torah and Science has very little to do with the question of whether Chazal accepted contemporary scientific attitudes such as, say, spontaneous generation. Rav Hirsch makes that clear. He explains that Chazal were simply responding to empirical science as it was presented to them, and only for the purpose of issuing halachic decisions. But Rav Hirsch also makes it clear that when it comes to the theories of the savants,
“only the masses who neither know nor understand the methodology of these disciplines believe all the boasts of our contemporaries”.
On the other hand,
"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… nevertheless the theories built upon these observations are for the most part no more than very shaky guesses… they all have no solid foundation”
The controversy between Torah and Science is an age-old controversy. In the olden days it was avodah zara. Later on it manifested itself in Greek philosophy, Roman decadence, and theological opposition from the Christians and Islamists. Today the Satan wears the guise of “rationalism” and manifests himself in organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences. It’s all the same thing. It’s opposition to the Torah, period. Like Rambam explains in Igeres Teiman, there are three kinds of opposition. Some come at us physically, some philosophically/theologically, and some combine both methods. And as Rambam concludes there, kulam yovdu, they will all go lost!
The current controversy between Torah and Science is - as it always was - rooted in their mutually exclusive worldviews. The Torah espouses a Godly and spiritual worldview where as scientism adheres to a godless, materialistic view. Doctrines such as evolution, big bang, and ancient universe theories are diametrically opposed to the Torah’s idea of a recent, sudden, purposeful, meta-natural Creation. Attempts to reconcile the two are futile and Rav Hirsch understood this!
Rabbi Slifkin is guilty of improper conflation. He misuses Rav Hirsch’s principle (i.e. not all of Chazal’s science was received from Sinai) by extending it to all physical descriptions of Chazal, even those which are clearly masoretic in nature. This conflation results in a generally dismissive attitude towards Chazal as evidenced in Rabbi Slifkin’s books and blog writings. This is what the Torah-Science controversy of 2004-05 (otherwise known as “The Slifkin Affair) is really about. Rav Hirsch would never condone such attitudes and in fact was virulently opposed to them.
This is not the first time this writer has accused Rabbi Slifkin of misrepresenting the issues. However, in Rabbi Slifkin's defense it should be pointed out that he has responded, at least somewhat, to our accusations. For instance, he was accused on this blog of being committed to “showing up Chazal”. To his credit he did not deny the accusation. Rather, he explained that due to the ban on his books he felt compelled to demonstrate that it is not kefira to maintain that Chazal erred in science. I am a bit skeptical of his explanation (his books evinced an attitude of dismissiveness before they were banned; that’s why they were banned!) but in the final analysis this blog is not about Rabbi Slifkin; it is about his publicly stated views. I am happy to accept his justifications but the bottom line is he continues to compare the well-substantiated facts of technological science with the unproven theories of the materialists. This distinction is made by Rav Hirsch in the clearest terms yet Rabbi Slifkin ignores it and instead chooses to misrepresent Rav Hirsch’s view in the service of apology.
As it turns out, Rav Hirsch is aligned with everything this blog has been saying about the unreliable nature of materialistic theories. There is absolutely no reason to imagine that Rav Hirsch is aligned with Rabbi Slifkin’s general views on Torah and Science. It goes without saying that Rav Hirsch would be enormously troubled by Rabbi Slifkin’s dismissive attitude towards Chazal. For an excellent presentation of Rav Hirsch’s real views on evolution and creation, see this post here by YSO.