Last month Rabbi Slifkin wrote a post criticizing Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel’s position re Science and Torah as expressed in a haskama he wrote for a talmid. Following the link Rabbi Slifkin so graciously provided, I read Rav Wachtfogel’s haskama and for me it was a great chizuk in emunas chachamim. Unsurprisingly, it served as yet another target for Rabbi Slifkin’s ongoing smear-campaign against our gedolei Torah.
For the record, I do not claim to be aligned with every statement Rav Wachtfogel makes in his haskama but I certainly understand the thrust of his message and agree with it wholeheartedly. As such, I’d like to spend a few minutes responding to some of Rabbi Slifkin’s issues with the haskama.
Rabbi Slifkin writes:
Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav
Actually, what he claims is that Chazal’s utterances were stated either by Sinaitic tradition or by ruach hakodesh. Ruach Hakodesh is a well known, universally accepted phenomenon in our traditions. Of course, Ruach Hakodesh does not equal infallibility. Even Moshe Rabbeinu was not infallible! (see Rashi, Vayikra 10:20). But the unanimous consensus of our Rishonim and Acharonim is that any statement by Chazal that made it to Talmud Bavli is sacrosanct. This notion has characterized all of the writings of the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim and has served as our derech haTorah since the chasimas haShas 1500 years ago! As Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi explains in Doros Harishonim, it is clear that Hashem granted Rav Ashi an especial measure of siyata di'shmaya (i.e. ruach hakodesh) when composing the Talmud.
Rabbi Slifkin continues:
Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise.
Really? I think not. Here’s a snippet from the Pirush Hamishnayos L’Harambam that I am fond of quoting on this blog (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 favors materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever.” (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)
So Rabbi Slifkin, this should clear up your “astonishment” with Rav Wachtfogel’s reference.
Rabbi Slifkin writes:
And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).
He doesn't need to. It’s obvious. But here are some examples. The Torah informs us that the universe was created. The Torah informs us that the universe is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Torah informs us that the universe is purposeful. The Torah informs us that there is life after death. The list is endless! Any universal insights garnered by scientists pale in comparison to the monumental significance of the Torah’s teachings about the nature of the universe. Rav Vachtfogel’s message seems clear. As he writes (my loose translation):
Scientists have been searching for information about the nature of the universe for thousands of years and they have still not managed to comprehend the smallest aspect of its phenomena. Whatever they have revealed is insignificant in comparison to the revelations of the Torah.
The revelations of the Torah are absolute. They are categorically true and are inherent to the nature of the universe whereas the revelations of science are transitory at best. Today margarine is healthy, tomorrow it’s not. Today time is constant, tomorrow its not. Today space is linear; tomorrow gravity seems to make it bend. Today the possible velocity of mass through space seems to max out at
per second; tomorrow there seem to be quantum events that result in spooky
actions at a distance. The point is, science is an enterprise practiced by
limited minds. It is mankind’s attempt to discover the truth of the universe. How
can that compare to the revelations of the Torah which ARE the truth of the
In any case, I don’t see Rabbi Slifkin’s issue. It’s not like Rav Vachtfogel is the first person to make this argument. Aish HaTorah has been holding countless seminars demonstrating the incredibly accurate descriptions of the universe depicted in the Bible. Why is Rabbi Slifkin picking on the Rosh Yeshiva?
Rabbi Slifkin makes several more comments in his post. Perhaps for another time…