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Letters To The Editor

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Most recently, we had planned a protest for December 9, to be held outside the U.S. mission to the United Nations. We were prepared to denounce the dangerous and immoral Geneva accord with Iran, supposedly resulting in the cessation of Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, we could not get the support of the 52 major Jewish organizations that make up the Conference of Presidents. And there was no other scheduled demonstration we could have joined. Finally, the weather was stormy, so the entire effort was canceled.

As Ms. Lehman pointed out, we are admonished in our prayers not to put our trust in “princes.” Apparently we have no leaders in whom we can place our trust to speak for the American Jewish population. Perhaps that is one reason the masses are so silent. History will record this as one of the great tragedies of our time.

Helen Freedman
Executive Director
Americans for a Safe Israel/AFSI

Chazal And Science: Rabbi Meiselman Responds

In his Dec. 13 letter concerning the Nov. 29 Jewish Press article about my new book, Torah, Chazal & Science, reader Avi Goldstein states that the Talmud clearly believed the earth is flat with a hard-shell, semispherical top.

While this may be the respondent’s view of the Talmud, such significant Talmudic scholars as Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 41a s.v. Kekadur), Rabbeinu Yonah, Meiri, and countless other rishonim say clearly that the Mishnah is based on the fact that the earth is spherical. What is clear to Mr. Goldstein was not clear to these significant rishonim.

I discuss the Gemara in Pesachim in my book (pp. 143-149). It would have been more productive had the respondent taken the time to read the book, especially this section, rather than just referring to the review.

The length of the solar year is discussed on pp. 63-69 and if Mr. Goldstein will read these pages he will learn that I never say what he claims but rather that all rishonim are of the opinion that these are two approximations that are used for different purposes. For practical reasons, we are given approximations to function with in this world. This is stated clearly in rishonim and this is clearly documented in the book.

The respondent neglects to mention that I discuss at length (pp. 273- 295) the Pachad Yitzchak’s view on lice. But I do this within the context of his comments in his section on Chokrim where he clearly states that when there is a conflict between Chazal and science, then Chazal trump science. He then cross-references the section on lice. This was the basis of my statement that he backtracked. In the section on Nikkur he further says that whoever doubts that the words of Chazal on scientific issues are God-given has heretical tendencies and should be put in cherem and prevented from holding a communal position.

In the interests of honesty Mr. Goldstein should have quoted these as well.

I do not know where I have ever quoted my revered uncle HaRav HaGaon Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l, as my mentor. I mention him only once in my book, quoting his statement that Chazal never err in realia. He was a major talmid chacham from whom I learned many things. I have had only one rebbe in my life. That is why I refer throughout my book to HaRav HaGaon Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, as mori ve’rebbi. This does not minimize my respect and reverence for my other uncle.

Furthermore, I never heard from him anything about evolution and I would want to know the exact context in which he said those words. Whereas he made the above statement about Chazal not erring in realia, I highly doubt he believed in evolution.

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One Response to “Letters To The Editor”

  1. 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.

    Avi Goldstein

    Far Rockaway, NY

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