Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chazal, science, and daas torah

The sages of Israel say: By day the sun travels below the heaven, and by night above the heaven. The sages of the nations of the world say: By day the sun travels below the heaven, and by night below the earth. Rebbi said: Their words seem more logical than ours, since by day springs are cool, and by night [they are] warm. (Pesachim 94b)

In recent years there has been a debate, most publicly regarding R' Natan Slifkin's books, regarding what degree of scientific knowledge was possessed by the ancient Jewish sages. We see from the above quote that Chazal themselves did not think they possessed the perfect scientific knowledge that some people nowadays credit them with. Rebbi, the author of the mishna, rejected the scientific opinion of the Jewish sages (חכמי ישראל) because the scientific evidence seemed to be against it.

Why do the charedim insist on holding a position about Chazal that is against the above gemara, as well as against common sense?

Perhaps the answer is as follows. The "Chazal knew science" school is often associated with belief in "daas torah", or the infallibility of the greatest modern rabbis. It seems to me that saying Chazal erred about science is a threat to the belief in daas torah. If Chazal could err, then so can modern rabbis, who are clearly not as great as Chazal. And if modern rabbis can err, then statements of theirs may be rejected if not accompanied by a sufficiently persuasive justification. For the charedim, at least, that is unacceptable. Due to the perceived social need for daas torah, they are forced into a corner when it comes to discussing Chazal's knowledge as well.


Anonymous said...

this is a very important subject that is creating all kinds of questions and difficulties. I hope you continue to explore it in your blog.

For many of us exploring frum concepts, this whole area is difficult, disheartening.


Beisrunner said...

I do not find it disheartening in a person sense - I am well aware of the many authorities in our generation, like in the past, who do not insist on these beliefs. I align myself with them, and it doesn't affect me if other people happen to have other, mistaken beliefs.

I find it disheartening only in the communal sense - that these beliefs weaken and divide the frum community and expose it to ridicule. This does not affect how I live my live, but it does weaken the Jewish people as a whole, which of course I want the best for.