here is the full text of my reply to Rabbi Meiselman:
In his rejoinder to my critique of his book Torah, Chazal & Science, author Rabbi Moshe Meiselman assumes that I did not read the book before commenting on it. (Letters, Dec. 27). To the contrary, I did peruse most of the relevant sections. It is his approach and his conclusions with which I differ. By presupposing that Chazal are inerrant in science and insisting that belief to the contrary is heretical, he boxes himself into a dangerous corner. To wit: once any such mistake is exposed, Rabbi Meiselman evidently would hold that Judaism as a belief system collapses.
His torturous approach includes labeling a Rishon’s opposing view a forgery. That is how he treats the declaration by Rav Avraham, the Rambam’s son, that the Sages made errors in science. Elsewhere he contrives a progression of thought to insinuate that the Pachad Yitzchak, who rejected the Talmudic belief in spontaneous generation, later retracted. And he ignores gedolim such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who wrote that Chazal were not experts in the natural world.
(This said, I do believe the book contains some valuable insights and source materials, and I have recommended the book to friends.)
Regarding specific items in Rabbi Meiselman’s letter: I criticized his claim that both calculations used by the Sages to determine the solar year were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. He responded that these calculations are approximations. One can make a weak case that the Amora Shmuel’s 365.25-day year is rounded off (despite the fact that the halachah treats it as exact, because we determine the time for the Blessing of the Sun based on Shmuel’s calculation, a time that is supposed to be precise to the moment). However, Rav Adda’s reckoning cannot logically be deemed an approximation. While the length of Rav Adda’s year is in dispute, all the calculations for it are very specific. One example is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Is this the “approximation” of which Rabbi Meiselman speaks? Then why didn’t G-d give Moses the much more correct figure for the year, which is about six minutes shorter?
Rabbi Meiselman rebuts my declaration that Chazal thought the world to be flat by citing Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 41a). Tosafos states: “The world is agol. As it says in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Alexander the Macedonian climbed above until he could see the world as a ball and the sea as a platter, that is, the Ocean Sea that encompasses the entire world.” Tosafos is not saying that the world’s surface is spherical. (Indeed, anyone viewing the world from above it would only see a half-circle, since it is impossible to see an entire ball at one time.) Tosafos is merely saying that the world’s covering is round, and that it encases the world and the sea, the latter having the look of a platter. This image of the world is exactly what the Talmud envisioned: a round sky over a flat surface. As I quoted from the Peirush Maharzov, the Sages believed the earth to be flat. Indeed, the Shevus Yaakov (3:20) writes that we cannot believe scientists in general, for the very reason that they hold the world is round, while the Talmud holds that it is flat!
Regarding my assertion that Rav Aaron Soloveichik did not hold belief in evolution to constitute heresy, I heard Rav Aaron say this in a public shiur. The context was a discussion of Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz’s position, in the Hertz Chumash appendix to Genesis, that evolution is compatible with the Torah’s description of Creation.
I had noted that the Pachad Yitzchak held that Chazal wrongly believed in spontaneous generation. Rabbi Meiselman retorted that he discusses the Pachad Yitzchak in detail, and that elsewhere the Pachad Yitzchak holds Chazal to be infallible in matters of science. Faced with this possible internal contradiction in Pachad Yitzchak, Rabbi Meiselman engages in admitted conjecture regarding how Pachad Yitzchak could have held seemingly contradictory positions. The end result, however, is that Pachad Yitzchak does contain a strong statement regarding Chazal’s fallibility in matters of proved science.
It is fair to say that were our Rishonim alive today, they would recognize, in light of modern science, that there are significant scientific errors in the Talmud. This may be uncomfortable, but it is even less comfortable to ignore the truth.
The danger of Rabbi Meiselman’s approach is that those who realize that there are scientific errors in the Talmud may, upon being lectured that their approach is heresy, choose to abandon Judaism. What a tragedy it would be if we lose adherents because of a false theology.