Wednesday, April 17, 2013

chachamim, hiza'haru b'divreichem

Someone pointed out to me a post on a  shul website in which the rabbi  addressed the same Ramban I mentioned in Sunday’s post about the issue of tumas leida.  His approach was somewhat different, as his main takeaway from the Ramban was that his science was off, and this is the yotzei min haklal that is melamed al ha’klal just how mistaken Chazal and Rishonim can be.    

There are so many challenges facing Klal Yisrael these days.  So many people need chizuk in their shmiras hamitzvos, in their emunah, in their emunas chachamim, and I am speaking of our camp of ma’aminim – kal v’chomer so much more chizuk is needed by the vast majority of Klal Yisrael who are not ma'aminim and who will probably, if nothing is done, vanish as Jews within two or three generations due to assimilation and intermarriage.  So of all the lessons one can communicate about parshas hashavua that can inspire the audience to appreicate the greatness of our Torah heritage,  the message chosen is that Chazal make mistakes?!  Rachma litzlan m’hai da’ata!

Whether Chazal and/or Rishonim used outdated scientific models is beside the point.  It’s the obsession – not discussion, but obsession -- with pointing out the perceived shortcomings of our Sages which is the issue.  I don’t know about this particular Rabbi, but there are people who take this as their regular theme on their blogs and websites.  

We know from Pirkei Avos, for example, there is an idea “Hu haya omeir…. ,”there are teachings that individual Sages would constantly reiterate because they were so crucial.  For some people, the “hu haya omeir” of their writing and teaching is the fact that Chazal and Rishonim were in error.  They want to go down in history as the ones to correct the gravest threat facing yahadut today – that people give too much credence to Chazal (ha’levay).  It would be as if, to paraphrase the famous gemara in Shabbos of the ger who came to Hillel and asked to be taught the whole Torah on one foot, their whole Torah on one foot is, “Chazal and Rishonim made mistakes – everything else is commentary.” 

The Steipler in his Chayei Olam has a whole list of mareh mekomos, which is not exhaustive, about “nifla’os Chazal,” the wonder of our Sages.  He cites sources that show the extreme degree of piety of Chazal, the gadlus of their tefilah, the fact that had prophetic insight to some degree, etc.  This was the Chazal that the Steipler lived with.  It’s no wonder, given this appreciation of the wisdom of our sages, that he become the Steipler Gaon, admired for his own piety and learning.  If all you have to write and speak about is what a mistake this Rishon made or how silly that gemara sounds to our “sophisticated” modern mind, then is it any wonder that you are marginalized and are not a Steipler gaon?  Why would anyone listening to your message want to spend yomam v’layla, day and night, immersed in sha”s and poskim let alone committed to Torah and mitzvos if they felt that so much of the social, philosophical, scientific worldview of Chazal is anachronistic and chauvinistic?  Were that c”v what Chazal’s worldview amounted to, maybe it would make for an interesting academic study like history, but who would want to pledge “ki heim chayeinu” to that? 

Now, some will claim that these type articles are only a reaction to the move in the opposite direction by the right-wing world, where mesorah is viewed as infallible.  You would think from the attention that it is given on the internet that Rabbonim are literally forcing the hashkafa that Chazal are infallible down people’s throats day in and day out.  My personal experience has not borne this out.   The topic is simply a non-issue for most of the world of sitting and learning Torah.  The fact that certain people dwell on it only illustrates the disconnect between reality and the virtual reality they have created.

Of course the world has moved to the right.  But the (modern) orthodox world has moved to the left as well.  I don't recall seeing shiurim that the Rav critiqued views of Rishonim or Chazal.  I don't think R' Hershel Shachter harps on this topic, or do any of the other YU Roshei Yeshiva.  Yet, now in some quarters it is accepted as a given that modern orthodoxy accepts (not just tolerates, but celebrates) critical and historical approaches to talmud study, that ordination of women, aliyos, etc. are all in-play as topics to be debated, and the word "mesorah" is just a construct designed as a tool to preserve the hegemony of fundamentalist Rabbis over their followers but lacking in any real meaning.  

Does all this mean we should "hide" the truth?  Of course not.  But the truth is not discovered by reading one Ramban.  Read the Ramban al haTorah every week, study his chiddushim, sweat your way through a Milchamos, learn the Toras haAdam.  I can guarantee you the Ramban you talk about after that will be a different Ramban than a medieval Rabbi who didn't know science.  


  1. I think it is more constructive to view this topic from the opposite side as the people you are speaking of. (Who I think are disproportionately represented in the blogosphere; real-world stats would show this is a much smaller problem than it looks like on-line.)

    Back when the Persians were considered the world's masters of astronomy, Chazal followed their model of the universe. And so we find tannaim discussing sunset in terms of the sun going behind the raqia. This is ironic, since the Greeks were closer to correct than the Persians, and the tannaim had more interaction with Greeks. Still, we only know that in retrospect. At the time, the Persians were thought of as the experts. (Which is why another religion has a myth about three Magi following a star...)

    Once we were exposed to Athens, and realized their theories were superior, Rebbe vocally advocated switching. This is where we find late tannaim and early amoraim discussing the sun going under the earth -- but the earth was flat, and therefore the sun was closer to the water underneath than during the day. Then the majority of amoraim embraced the Ptolmaic model. Chazal actually embraced the ideas in Ptolmey's The Amalgest well before most of the Roman Empire. (Although we also lived in more contact with his native Egypt than most other parts of the Empire to.)

    From Chazal, through the geonim and rishonim, what we find is that the vast majority studied and utilized the latest "orthodox" theories of Natural Philosophy and science. Much as we expect of our rabbis today.

  2. Chicken and egg. I could argue that this whole brouhaha started when some in the Chareidi leadership declared that it was now a principle of faith to read the first chapter of the Torah literally and that Chazal knew all of science flawlessly. This demand led to the strong response from the other side that understood that there is room for an interpretive understanding of Creation and that Chazal, despite being brilliant, pious and on a spiritual level beyond our understanding, were still just working with the science knowledge of their day.
    I don't think that saying that Chazal were not knowledgeable of modern science is a slight against them any more than I think any less of the physicists who preceded Einstein and knew nothing about relativity. This is not an obsession but a reaction against folks who demand what we feel are unreasonable beliefs and who elevate those beliefs to ikkarim.