Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Rabbi Slifkin Takes On His Critics
R. Natan Slifkin's letter in this week's issue of The Jewish Press, regarding his book Sacred Monsters (link to letter):
Mice are born of parent mice rather than growing from dirt. So says Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, noting that the Mishna that says otherwise is relying on a mistaken understanding of the natural world.

Lice are born from eggs rather than being generated from sweat. So says Rav Yitzchok Lampronti, mentor of Ramchal, pointing out that although Chazal said differently, they would surely admit to their error were they aware of modern science.

Salamanders are born of parent salamanders rather than growing from fire. So says Rav Binyomin Musafia, author of Mussaf Ha-Aruch, here attributing a scientific error to the Gemara.

Birds always hatch from eggs, never growing from stalks on trees. So says Rav Yissocher Illowy, disciple of the Chasam Sofer, notwithstanding the account in the Shulchan Aruch to the contrary.

In a recent Jewish Press front-page essay (“Harry Potter’s Fabulous Jewish Monsters,” Aug. 5) synopsizing my new book Sacred Monsters (available at Jewish bookstores and online at, I briefly referred to the aforementioned views. Several indignant letters to the editor resulted from people who apparently believe the aforementioned authorities were grievously flawed in their approach to Torah.

I would like to take this opportunity to defend them. It is perplexing that people are horrified when classical Torah authorities are said to have made an innocent error in science, but are quite ready to attribute a grievous error in hashkafa to them.

In his letter, Dr. Yaakov Stern says he can “predict with certainty that within twenty years most of what the scientific community presently believes will be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

Taken literally, this sentence is so ludicrous (most of what the scientific community has discovered in the last hundred years is still standing) that I must assume he is speaking with considerable hyperbole, and that his point is to question whether we can have absolute confidence in modern science. I certainly agree that there are many speculative theories in science that may well be overturned, and many beliefs that will turn out to be wrong. However, not all areas of science are equal.

We can be confident we will not discover the earth to be flat, notwithstanding the insistence of Rav Yaakov Reischer, one of the greatest halachic authorities of the seventeenth century, that the Gemara teaches otherwise. We can be confident we will not discover that matter is not composed of molecules but instead of earth, air, fire and water. Zoology is a particularly well-established science, which is why Rabbis Lampronti, Musafia, Hirsch, and Illowy were correct in rejecting the notion of spontaneous generation.

But even if Dr. Stern continues to believe that such creatures indeed exist, what does it matter if other people think differently? Dr. Stern writes that it is “the height of foolishness to abandon the truths given by Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu.” I couldn’t agree more. However, the aforementioned authorities (and many others) point out that the scientific statements of Chazal were not truths given by Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu, but rather were the assessments of people living in that time. Accordingly, these authorities saw no theological problem in pointing out that our knowledge of the natural world has since improved.

Everyone in this discussion believes that halacha is binding and that the 13 ikkarim are true. We wholeheartedly accept that Chazal were spiritual giants who bore a mesorah from Sinai that included the Torah Shebiksav and the Torah Shebe’al Peh. But that does not include all the scientific statements in the Talmud.

The Gemara itself, in Pesachim 94b, records that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi admitted that Chazal were mistaken in their belief that the sun passes behind the sky at night rather than traveling around the far side of the planet. While Maharal interprets this allegorically, and Rabbeinu Tam insists that Chazal were correct and that the sun does indeed travel behind the sky at night, the vast majority of Rishonim and Acharonim interpret this at face value as attesting to a scientific error. Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam sees reason to praise Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi for possessing the intellectual honesty to admit to this error and to accept the view of the non-Jewish scientists.

If I properly understand Rabbi Dovid Kornreich’s letter, he apparently believes that mud-mice, sweat-lice, fire-salamanders and tree-geese existed in some sort of supernatural way. Contrary to his accusation, neither I nor the aforementioned authorities – nor my mentors nor my readers – deny the existence of a supernatural plane of existence. We merely follow the rationalist approach of Rambam, who stated, “We shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle.”

Dr. Stern and Rabbi Kornreich are entitled to follow a different school of thought; as Dr. Stern notes, the notion that the Talmud contains scientific errors has been deemed heretical by many contemporary leading haredi rabbonim, notwithstanding the dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who adopted such a belief. And they are certainly correct in warning that the rationalist approach carries with it profound difficulties and dangers.

But for the many thousands of sincere and educated Jews who, with good reason, accept the fundamentals of modern science, there is no better option. Teaching them what Rabbis Lampronti, Musafia, Hirsch, and Illowy had to say is correct, hashkafically legitimate, and beneficial.

Finally, in reference to my approach to creation, Rabbi Yisroel Hirsch in his letter notes that I am not a trained scientist. I fully agree that only trained scientists are qualified to discuss the physical development of the universe, which is why I adopt their conclusions. Does Rabbi Hirsch believe that a trained scientist would say the world is indeed only 5,768 years old? I can assure him that the global consensus of scientists trained in the relevant fields would endorse my views.

Rabbi Hirsch then adds that I am not a Talmudic scholar either, and that I therefore have no standing in offering biblical verse interpretation, creation theology, and the like. Again I agree; and I must add that he did not go far enough. To offer biblical verse interpretation and creation theology, being a Talmudic scholar alone surely does not suffice. One must also be expert in Jewish theology, aware of the various radically different approaches of the Rishonim, and sensitive to the difficulties raised by modern science.

In my book The Challenge Of Creation, I presented the views of people who were thus qualified – people such as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Rav Gedalyah Nadel, and Rav Aryeh Carmell. The letter-writers find me an easy target, but the approaches they condemn are those of people far greater than myself.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin

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