Torah, Chazal and Science
By Moshe Meiselman
Israel Bookshop Publications
New Jersey, 2013
Reviewed by Gil Student
You might have thought,1 based on the plethora of Orthodox scientists and doctors, that the conflict between Judaism and science had been resolved decades ago and is no longer a source of controversy. I thought so, but I learned how wrong I was. Over the past decade, the controversy arose again from opposite corners. On one side, the 2004 ban placed on books addressing these issues, books that would otherwise have been interesting but hardly newsworthy, showed that the Chareidi community was engaged in an intense struggle over these issues.2 On the other, the brief takeover in subsequent years of general culture by militant atheists, now thankfully muted, placed all orthodox religions in the crosshairs of societal disparagement. It almost seems as if the centuries-old negotiation between reason and revelation will continue indefinitely.
Jeremy Brown’s New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought documents one aspect of this ongoing discussion. In a groundbreaking 1543 book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the planets revolve around the sun (heliocentrism), rather than the dominant theory of Ptolemy, that the sun and other planets revolve around the Earth (geocentrism). Copernicus’ radical theory neatly explained various anomalies observed in the sky, but it lacked definitive proof and was subject to a number of questions that could not yet be answered. Copernicus’ theory was hotly debated in Christian Europe, both for scientific reasons and, particularly significant for our purposes, religious reasons: it seemed to contradict explicit verses such as “[A]nd the Earth stands forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) and “Sun, stand still over Gibeon” (Joshua 10:12) and for Jews, numerous Talmudic passages. Later advocates, such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, spread the theory widely, but no one conclusively proved it for centuries. In 1838, Friedrich Bessel resolved the big outstanding questions on Copernicus’ theory, and in 1853, Leon Foucault demonstrated the Earth’s motion with a simple pendulum experiment, now commonplace in museums. Yet for some rabbis, the matter was not settled by demonstration.
In a sweeping review of Jewish literature, Brown presents the surprising argument that Jewish responses to the Copernican Revolution were not linear. Brown’s survey is careful and sober, comprehensive while allowing historical figures to speak independently, without being pigeonholed. Contrary to common wisdom, Jewish sages and scholars did not immediately accept Copernicus’ view, nor, as one might expect, slowly adopt it as evidence for it increased. History is not that simple. Rather, due to varying personalities and cultures, both adoption and rejection came quickly, continuing in tandem for centuries.
Tradition and the Solar System
Maharal, writing only a few decades after Copernicus’ publication, was the first Torah sage to even allude to this new approach to astronomy. He argued that Jewish tradition—something that science cannot overturn—affirms the old Ptolemaic approach; revelation trumps reason.3 However, you would be wrong to think that the Maharal argued without sophistication. He formulated an early version of what Brown calls fallibilism, the argument that scientific theories are unstable, subject to overturn by later scholars. To the Maharal, it would be irresponsible to reject a reliable tradition due to a scientific theory that is fundamentally unfixed.
The Maharal lived in Prague where one of the leading astronomers, Tycho Brahe, practiced. Tycho, as he was called, rejected Copernicus’ Revolution and formulated his own theory to account for the data. The Maharal’s student, Rabbi David Gans, even spent extensive time in Tycho’s observatory. When Rabbi Gans also rejected Copernicus, he was following one of the leading scientists of the day, whom he knew personally.4 On the other hand, a few decades later, Rabbi Yosef Delmedigo (known as the Yashar from Candia) embraced Copernicus’ radical views. He also studied under a famous astronomer, but of a different bent. In university, Rabbi Delmedigo’s professor was none other than Galileo.5 And yet, Rabbi Tuviah Cohen, another disciple of Galileo, was virulently anti-Copernican.6
Throughout the years, we encounter rabbis on both sides of the Copernican question. Even after the convincing demonstrations in the mid-1800s, rabbis such as Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin still adopted the Maharal’s idea of fallibilism, skeptically rejecting Copernicus’ heliocentric model.7 Yet, as Brown demonstrates, the consensus has clearly sided with Copernicus. Despite some holdouts, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, most prominent among them, even Chareidi scholars adopted the heliocentric model.8 Whether it is the force of evidence or long-standing persistence, the Copernican model has prevailed and revelation has been reinterpreted. Today, few would contend that the Bible and Talmud prevent Jews from believing that the Earth revolves around the sun. Rather, we interpret those seemingly problematic passages differently or, aside from those in the Bible, reject their scientific assumptions.
Science and Scholars
The debate over science and tradition continues to this day. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s recent book, Torah, Chazal and Science, presents a comprehensive approach from the school of fallibilism. Like the Maharal, he argues that science changes; theories that were once considered proven are later displaced. If so, how can we base religious views on questionable science?
Additionally, Rabbi Meiselman argues that any time the Talmudic Sages made an unqualified statement about nature, they were relaying a prophetic tradition. Certainly a Divinely revealed fact cannot be disputed by a human theory, subject to challenge and inevitable replacement. With this established, Rabbi Meiselman addresses a plethora of contemporary hot topics.
Torah, Chazal and Science is a veritable encyclopedia of Torah-science debate, addressing a wide variety of primary sources, many of which the author quotes verbatim in footnotes. Rabbi Meiselman addresses issues such as evolution, the age of the universe and the Sages’ knowledge of science. He eloquently presents a conservative approach, denouncing as unacceptable a revisionist reading or a rejection of traditional texts. It includes comprehensive and informed arguments for rejecting science when it conflicts with religion.
Rabbi Meiselman bases his approach on the responsa of the thirteenth-century Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba) and the fourteenth-century Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Prefet (Rivash). As already mentioned, there are also distinct parallels between the Maharal’s negative response to Copernicus and Rabbi Meiselman’s reaction to evolution, an ancient universe and more. Both adopt the approach of fallibilism and argue that the Sages silently based their views on a revealed tradition. Effectively, Rabbi Meiselman takes the Maharal’s approach and applies it broadly and methodically.
If Rabbi Meiselman had only done that, he would already have accomplished a great deal and contributed significantly to the literature. However, he goes further, boldly arguing that no authority has ever disagreed with this approach. This leads him to make an assortment of difficult interpretations and questionable statements. For example, he argues at great length about the illegitimacy of a letter attributed to Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, known as “The Essay on the Sages’ Derashot,” in which he famously asserted that the Sages occasionally relied on their contemporary science which was sometimes incorrect.9 This approach is very different from Rabbi Meiselman’s, that unqualified statements of fact by the Sages are based on revelation. Rabbi Meiselman responds by carefully cataloguing the manuscript evidence for this letter which was first published in 1836, ultimately yielding little evidence of inauthenticity, and deducing positions from the letter which he claims contradict statements by Rambam. I found the entire exercise unconvincing.10
As a further challenge, Rabbi Meiselman points out that only one halachist, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, has quoted this letter as part of a halachic ruling.11 This may be true, but the standard is surprising. Because this is largely a theoretical issue, shouldn’t the question be whether halachic authorities have quoted it in a nonhalachic context? The answer to that question is yes.12
Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (the Malbim) was one of the great Torah scholars of the nineteenth century.13 On a few occasions in his groundbreaking and widely accepted Torah commentary, he reinterprets verses contrary to accepted tradition due to advances in scientific knowledge. For example, on Bereishit 1:6, Malbim rejects earlier explanations of the term “rakia” based on the scientific understanding of his time. Instead, he suggests the word means “atmosphere,” connecting it to the theory of ether that was current in his time.14 Earlier, on Bereishit 1:2, he rejects the ancient notion that fire is above all other elements and explains that fire is omitted from that verse because the sun had not yet been created. Rabbi Menachem Kasher castigates the Malbim for rejecting the Sages’ view based on scientific opinions.15
The Malbim serves an important precedent for those who would revise established understandings of the Torah based on contemporary science. Rabbi Meiselman dismisses such attempts, albeit without mentioning the Malbim, with the statement: “The explosion of scientific knowledge in the nineteenth century presented continual problems for the Torah scholars of the day . . . . In the face of these challenges, some may have felt compelled to concede the imperfectness of Chazal’s factual knowledge.”16 I find the Malbim’s stature and precedent more compelling than the dismissal. If this view is so theologically problematic, no amount of pressure could have forced such a sage to adopt it.
Rambam is often quoted as a “religious rationalist,” someone who accepted the best science of his time rather than defer to Jewish tradition. As proof, many note Rambam’s omission of many Talmudic rulings that some would attribute to superstition or faulty science.17 These include laws referencing demons and amulets, which no rationalist can accept at face value. Rabbi Meiselman responds, in part, by discussing Rambam’s contradictory statements about amulets, in which sometimes Rambam implies they are effective and other times not. Rabbi Meiselman follows the Rashba’s approach but struggles with the Radbaz’s interpretation. Radbaz, the great sixteenth-century Egyptian halachic authority and commentator, contends that Rambam did not believe that amulets work, and explains the various passages in Rambam’s texts accordingly. Rabbi Meiselman dismisses Radbaz’s approach because “the rejection of his interpretation by virtually all other commentators casts serious doubts upon it.”18 Yet, a review of the literature reveals that Radbaz’s view is indeed cited throughout the ages.19
Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (the Ran) analyzes Talmudic passages in which questioning the Sages is denounced.20 Rabbi Meiselman sees in the Ran’s position support for his approach, declaring: “In his view questioning the Chachamim even in non-halachic areas is a form of kefirah [heresy]. It is the obligation of every Jew to accept everything Chazal have told us, regardless of the subject.”21 However, the Ran qualifies his discussion, specifying that only someone who questions a tradition, something revealed and transmitted throughout the ages, or doubts a Scriptural derivation has demonstrated a limited faith. This position is much narrower than that which Rabbi Meiselman advocates. Everyone involved in this discussion agrees that a revealed tradition is necessarily true. The question remains whether all unqualified Talmudic statements of fact are based on tradition, as Rabbi Meiselman claims, or whether sometimes the Sages accepted their contemporary science as fact.
There is much more to discuss in this rich volume but space restrictions force me to raise only a few examples. The next and last is quite important communally.
Rabbi Meiselman is so strident in his view that he implies that his esteemed uncle, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), would label anyone who disagrees a heretic. In a landmark lecture,22 the Rav asserted that anyone who questions the morality or personality of the Sages has denied the Oral Torah by rejecting its transmitters. Rabbi Meiselman suggests that this also applies to anyone who questions the Sages’ factual claims, including their scientific understandings. Rabbi Meiselman states about the Rav, “In his view, whoever denies the absolute accuracy of a statement of Chazal, whether of halachic, historical or other import, is a makchish maggideha [one who denies the authority of the Sages] and is considered a heretic.”23 With some effort, this could be interpreted to include Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam’s view. However, if I understand the book properly, the context for Rabbi Meiselman raising the issue implies his belief that the Rav would consider a heretic anyone who accepts the view that the Sages sometimes relied on their flawed contemporary science for unqualified factual pronouncements.
This is a bold claim, particularly since Rabbi Meiselman did not hear the Rav actually say it. Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef engaged this very question and concluded that such a person is not a heretic.24 Similarly, regarding Copernicus, two students of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) published books on the subject, one ardently against Copernicus and the other in favor. Yet the Chatam Sofer’s son and successor, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (the Ketav Sofer), gave approbations for both books. Apparently, he did not consider such an approach religiously problematic.25
I found this assertion about the Rav so surprising that I consulted close students of the Rav to see if they agreed with this judgment. Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, rosh yeshivah and professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, found Rabbi Meiselman’s suggestion implausible. He said: “I never spoke with the Rav about Torah and science, but based on all I know of his worldview I find it highly unlikely that he would consider someone makchish maggideha for believing that some factual statements by Chazal relied on their contemporary science.”26
While Rabbi Meiselman follows the Maharal, others side with those who were more accepting of Copernicus’ view. Rabbi Yehudah Levi, rector of the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev) and longtime writer on issues of Torah and science, serves as a prime example of this approach.27 In his book Torah and Science: Their Interplay in the World Scheme, Rabbi Levi quotes Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam as well as other scholars whom he believes adopted the view that the Sages sometimes relied on contemporary science. He writes, “When making scientific statements, the Sages are usually speaking as scientists rather than transmitters of the Oral Torah.”28
In theory, the distance is fairly small between Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Meiselman. Both agree that revelation is more powerful testimony of truth than scientific proof. Both agree that the Sages were absolutely correct when they utilized revealed traditions. Additionally, both agree that the Sages sometimes relied on the limited science of their time. The disagreement lies in classifying the Sages’ unqualified statements. Rabbi Meiselman argues that they are traditions while Rabbi Levi believes they need not be. In application, though, the most hotly contested issues lie precisely in this disputed area. The age of the universe, the evolution of man and animals and the scientific statements in the Talmud all fall into this category. To Rabbi Meiselman, any conciliatory movement is religiously disastrous, while to Rabbi Levi, there is room for discussion.29
Both Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Meiselman present eloquently argued positions, supported by precedent. In Brown’s book, we see that this passionate debate has continued for centuries. Yet he leaves room for hope, a potential for reconciliation. Just as a consensus eventually emerged over Copernicus’ view, perhaps we may one day see agreement on other issues of Torah and science.
1. I thank Efraim Vaynman for his research assistance with this article.
2. I describe the ban and my role in opposing it in “The Slifkin Torah-Science Controversy: An Admittedly Biased Insider’s Perspective,” the Jewish Press, August 16, 2006.
3. Maharal, Netivot Olam (Warsaw, 1873), Netiv HaTorah, ch. 14; Jeremy Brown, New Heaven and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought (Oxford, 2013), 47-49.
4. Rabbi David Gans, Nechmad VeNa’im (Jessnitz, Germany, 1743), ch. 305, 82b; Brown, 60.
5. Rabbi Yosef Delmedigo, Sefer Elim (Amsterdam, 1639); Brown, 69-73.
6. Rabbi Tuviah Cohen, Ma’aseh Tuviah (Venice, 1708); Brown, 89-96.
7. Zeh Sefer Zichronot (Warsaw, 1929), Meshiv HaTa’anach, 130; Brown, 211-212.
8. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson has a unique, sophisticated view. Among the Chareidi supporters of Copernicus are Rabbi Yonah Merzbach, “‘VeHa’aretz LeOlam Omedet KiPeshuto Shel Mikra O Rak LiPnim” in Ohr Yisrael (New York, 2010) 15:3 (59), 10-16; Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Emunah VeTorah (Bnei Brak, 1979) on Yesodei HaTorah 3:4, 8. See also Brown, 256-259; 266-269.
9. Published in the introductory section of Ein Ya’akov (Vilna, 1877 and subsequent editions) and in Rabbi Reuven Margaliot ed., Milchamot Hashem (Jerusalem, 1959).
10. In his doctoral dissertation “A Comprehensive Analysis of Rabenu Abraham Maimuni’s Biblical Commentary” (Brandeis University, 2012), the late Rabbi Ezra Labaton shows how the letter fits well into the entire corpus of Rabbi Avraham’s writings. The dissertation is available online at RabbiLabaton.com. See pages 127-138, 247, 254, 267, 270, 286. Note, in particular, page 236, note 641, where he points out that Rabbi Avraham sometimes disagreed with his illustrious father. See page 1, note 1 for a lengthy bibliography of scholarship on Rabbi Avraham. It is significant that no scholar prior to Rabbi Meiselman has questioned the authenticity of this letter. On parallels within Rabbi Avraham’s writings, see also Rabbi Mordechai Menachem Hoenig in Ohr Yisrael (24), 248-249.
11. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science (New Jersey, 2013), 101.
12. Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Perakim BeMachshevet Yisrael, 5th edition (Jerusalem, 1996), 299ff; Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Yad Peshutah, Madda (Jerusalem, 1990); Hilchot Dei’ot, ch. 4, introduction; Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Halachah BeYameinu: Morashtah, Limudah Hora’atah VeYisumah (Jerusalem, 2010), 115; Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Piskei Shlomo (Beit El, 2013), vol. 2, 272-273; Id., Chayei Olam (Beit El, 2004), 166; Id., Chinuch BeAhavah (Beit El, 2004), 397; Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, Aseh Lecha Rav (Tel Aviv, 1975), vol. 5, no. 49; Rabbi Yitzchak Barda, Yitzchak Yeranen (Bnei Brak, 1981) 5:33; Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Weiss, VaYa’an David (Jerusalem, 1992), vol. 4; Yoreh De’ah 82:8; Rabbi Moshe Levi, Menuchat Ahavah, 3rd edition (Bnei Brak, 1992), vol. 3, addenda to part 3, 18:6; Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Porat, No’am Eliezer (Bnei Brak, 2002), 177 n. 9. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is quoted in Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner’s Shemirat HaGuf VeHaNefesh, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1992), 94 as saying that Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam’s view is a “yesh omrim,” a minority view, which he certainly would not say about a view he considered heretical. Similarly, Rav Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer (vol. 10, Yoreh De’ah, no. 24) disagreed with Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam but accepted the authenticity of the view. Note also that Rabbi Moshe Levi writes that Rav Ovadia Yosef brought Rabbi Avraham’s essay to his attention. Rabbi Yosef Zechariah Stern, in his Tahaluchot HaAggadot (Warsaw, 1902), ch. 3, summarizes portions of Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam’s controversial essay, although in chapter 6 he seems to implicitly disagree regarding science. While not known as a halachist, Rabbi Yehudah Levi quotes the letter of Rabbi Avraham approvingly in Torah and Science: Their Interplay in the World Scheme, 2nd edition (Jerusalem, 2006), 223-224 and The Science in Torah: The Scientific Knowledge of the Talmudic Sages (Jerusalem, 2004), 93-94. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Zuriel quotes the letter in his Otzrot Gedolei Yisrael (Jerusalem, 2000), vol. 1, 98 and Leket Perushei Aggadah (Bnei Brak, 2010), vol. 1, 11; see also his Otzrot Abarbanel (Bnei Brak, 2012), 295-296.
13. See Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, The Making of a Godol, improved edition (Jerusalem, 2005), 1115, in the name of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik.
14. However, he attempts to read this view into rabbinic texts, thereby rejecting only Medieval commentary for scientific reasons.
15. Malbim, HaTorah VeHaMitzvah, Gen. 1:2, 6; Rabbi Menachem Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1926), n. 331. For more on the Malbim’s attitude toward science, see Rabbi David Berger, “Malbim’s Secular Knowledge and His Relationship to the Spirit of the Haskalah,” in Cultures in Collision and Conversation (Brighton, MA, 2011); Noah H. Rosenbloom, HaMalbim: Parshanut, Philosophiah, Mada Umistorin BeKitvei HaRav Meir Leibush Malbim (Jerusalem, 1988), ch. 4.
16. Meiselman, 359-360. Although elsewhere (p. 270) he praises the Malbim.
17. See Marc Shapiro, Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (Scranton, 2008), 95ff.
18. Meiselman, 85.
19. See Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 301:6; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Braun, She’arim Metzuyanim BaHalachah 92:5 in Kuntres Acharon; and Rabbi Yosef Kafach, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat, ch. 19 n. 33. See also Bi’ur HaGra, Yoreh De’ah 179:13; and Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, Nimukei Orach Chaim 301:3.
20. Derashot HaRan (Jerusalem, 1977), ch. 5 alternate version, 89.
21. Meiselman, 635.
22. Based on ideas previously published in the journal HaPardes 17 (5704): 10.
23. Meiselman, 655. See also 657-658.
24. Yabia Omer, ibid.
25. Rabbi Meiselman (p. 172) states that the issue of heliocentrism is different from the issues he addresses but provides no conceptual explanation. He merely states that great rabbis were on both sides of the debate. Interestingly, he cites Rabbi Yaakov Emden as being pro-Copernicus based on one passage in his writings. However, Brown (158-161) argues based on a comprehensive review of Rabbi Emden’s writings that he was generally anti-Copernicus, although midlife he equivocated somewhat. Be that as it may, there were certainly other great rabbis who were pro-Copernicus.
26. Correspondence dated May 28-29, 2014.
27. Surprisingly, Rabbi Meiselman heaps praise on Rabbi Levi, apparently unaware that they disagree fundamentally on these issues. Rabbi Meiselman (165-166) writes about Rabbi Levi: “It was his profound belief in the Torah’s wisdom and Chazal’s insight that prompted him to conceive of directions for further experimentation. . . .”
28. Yehudah Levi, Torah and Science: Their Interplay in the World Scheme, 2nd edition (Jerusalem, 2006), 222. Rabbi Levi follows the approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who explicitly accepts that the Sages sometimes relied on mistaken science. See Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 9 (New York, 2012), 201-218.
29. I do not mean to imply that Rabbi Levi agrees with every theory that has been suggested to reconcile Judaism with science. In Facing Current Challenges (Jerusalem, 1998), chapter 45, he rejects evolution but explicitly states that this is for scientific and not religious reasons. See his various books for his own views on the different topics.