‘Ultimately, Scientists Always Realize The Torah Is Correct’: An Interview with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman
Latest update: July 2nd, 2012
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem (which is marking its 29th anniversary with a tribute dinner on Sunday, December 11, at Ateres Avrohom Hall in Brooklyn). A nephew of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, Rabbi Meiselman learned Torah on a daily basis with his uncle for more than a decade. Rabbi Meiselman has just finished writing a book (as yet untitled) on Torah and science due to be published in the next few months.
The Jewish Press: What is your new book about and why do you feel it is relevant?
Rabbi Meiselman: A few years ago there was an explosion in the Orthodox world regarding Torah and science, with many people writing a lot of material and creating a lot of confusion. In many cases the authors lacked the necessary training in Torah, science, and machshavah required to properly address this topic. As a result the Torah was misrepresented and distorted.
I had spent many years thinking about this subject, and debated whether I should involve myself in the matter. When my name was mentioned in some recent literature against my will, I decided to sit down and organize my thoughts, and over time a book emerged.
There are new books and articles continuously being written on this topic. I therefore felt I would present what I consider to be the point of view of the Torah. Based on a tremendous amount of sources from Chazal, Rishonim, and Achronim, I show what the classic and constant approach of the Torah has been toward this topic.
According to our mesorah the Torah we have was given by Hashem on Har Sinai and does not contain mistakes. Everything the Torah describes is absolutely true. To suggest that Chazal are full of mistakes has the potential to undermine the authenticity of our mesorah. I felt motivated to show that Chazal are not full of mistakes and that the Torah, our mesorah, is completely true.
How does this book differ from other books on the topic?
I believe this book differs from others on this topic because I possess a unique background that enables me to bring to bear a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge coupled with very broad scientific knowledge and machshavah. I did not feel other books on this topic combined all three of these necessary components in a complete manner.
You were a talmid of your uncle Rav Soloveitchik. What was your relationship with him like? And did you ever discuss the topic of this book with him?
I learned very intensely with my uncle one on one for twelve years. I discussed all aspects of life with him including many of these topics. I quote him in this book, and where I do it is with an exact quote. Many other areas of the book are based on things he said. His heavy influence is felt throughout the book, even when he is not quoted.
Were you close with any other prominent rabbanim?
I lived in Los Angeles from 1977-1982 where I had a major responsibility for much of the psak halacha of the city. In that role I became very close with Reb Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and I was continually in touch with him. When I moved to Eretz Yisrael I asked Reb Moshe who my new “address” should be and he said I should go to Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Subsequently, I became a ben bayis there, and discussed psak halacha along with many other issues with him. When I founded Yeshivas Toras Moshe it was done in accordance with his psakim. I believe that my personal closeness to him and to his family played an important role in my daughter marrying his grandson.
Why did you decide to open Yeshivas Toras Moshe?
Yeshivas Toras Moshe was founded to enable young men who were coming to Eretz Yisrael for a certain period of their lives to experience guidance in a close manner by gedolei talmidei chachamim in a structured environment. All of the rebbeim are world-class talmidei chachamim who give themselves completely to their talmidim. The yeshiva follows a very thought-through plan of structure in which the talmidim can climb step by step in Gemara, halacha, mussar, and machshavah.
Baruch Hashem, our talmidim have gone on to become very accomplished talmidei chachamim and bnei Torah, and we feel we have accomplished our original goal.
Returning to your book, what are some of the specific aspects of Torah and science that you discuss?
The book discusses many aspects of this subject. One topic that is discussed is what parts of the Torah are to be taken literally and what parts are to be taken as allegory. Throughout the generations there have been people who have been very loose with the literal translation of the Torah, and the Rishonim have been sharp in rejecting this approach completely. Nowadays there are individuals who, in the name of science, would like to have a license in terms of taking many aspects of Torah not literally. Our job is to understand the Torah under the guidelines and rules set forth by the Rishonim. In the book I go through various opinions of Rishonim on this topic, and each of the Rishonim gives strict limitations as to when the Torah is to be taken absolutely literally and when it is to be taken as allegory.
In another part of the book I discuss the fact that the Torah contains all of the chachma, wisdom, of Hashem on this world. Torah can be understood on many different levels. The deepest level of understanding includes in it all of the chachma of the world. It is for this reason that one can find many aspects of the briah (physical world) within the Torah. This concept was universally accepted by all of the Rishonim.
This point is conveyed through the following story brought in both a Gemara in Bechoros and a Midrash in Bereishis: Rabban Gamliel was in Rome and met a Roman scientist. The scientist asked Rabban Gamliel if he knew how long the pregnancy of a nachash is. Rabban Gamliel replied that he did not, and they departed. Rabban Gamliel subsequently met Rabbi Yehoshua who immediately noticed that something was bothering Rabban Gamliel and inquired as to what it was. Rabban Gamliel told him he had met a Roman scientist and that he was unable to answer his question concerning the pregnancy of a nachash. Rabbi Yehoshua responded that it is seven years and derived it from a pasuk. Rabban Gamliel returned to the scientist and told him the answer was seven years, as derived from a pasuk. Upon hearing this, the scientist began banging his head against the wall and said he had spent many years studying this subject and in a matter of minutes “you figured it out by expounding on the Torah.”
There are many lessons one can learn from this story. One thing to note is that Rabban Gamliel was disturbed by the fact that he did not know the answer to this scientific question. He could have brushed off the question by responding that he is not a scientist and not thinking twice about it. The reason Rabban Gamliel was disturbed when he did not know the answer is that this was an indication that he was lacking in his Torah knowledge. He felt if he had a more complete understanding of the Torah he would know this as well. Indeed, Rabbi Yehoshua deduced the correct answer from the Torah itself.
I personally find it truly amazing when science confirms after years of experimentation that what the Torah has taught us is correct. Chazal made statements about the physical world that did not always correspond to the scientific views of a particular era – be it 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago or even in more recent years. But as time goes on the Torah’s view has been confirmed many times over.
In the book I go through several examples of when the Torah taught something that was contradicted by science, and eventually science proved that which the Torah taught to be correct. From experiencing this outcome in many instances we can take the following important lesson: although often throughout time people thought the Torah did not understand the physical world, in fact the Torah’s view was based on a deeper understanding of the physical world far beyond what was available at the time via experimentation. Therefore, even if things that at a given time seem to contradict what science believes to be true we should understand that the Torah’s view is of a deeper understanding of the world than what is available to science.
One example of the Torah view being challenged by earlier science, only to later be proven valid by modern science, concerns the question of whether there was a beginning to the world. The Torah says the world had a beginning. Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers said the world had no beginning. As time went on it became more accepted that the world had always existed. But by the 1960s just about everyone agreed the world had a beginning. Their understanding of that beginning still does not coincide with ours; they are, however, on the right track and eventually they will catch up. The Rashba put it beautifully when he said, “Science always changes and we always remain the same.” This is evidence that although scientists for a long period of time may believe something contradicts the Torah, ultimately scientists will realize the Torah is correct.
Does the book discuss some of the statements of the Gemara that science has challenged?
The book discusses aspects of supposed conflicts between Torah and science, many of which were addressed by Rishonim and Achronim. The book not only discusses their answers but also focuses on the approach the Rishonim and Achronim took when addressing this topic. One common thread that runs through all of them is that when confronted with a contradiction, none of them said the Torah was mistaken. They either tried to understand the Torah better or tried to understand the physical world better.
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