My recent piece on “Jewish Accomplishment,” especially the parts detailing our Sages’ knowledge of science even in the ancient world, elicited some derisive comments from Jews who apparently have difficulty with religious authority. It is strange how nominally Orthodox Jews can be contemptuous of Chazal, whose words sustain us and whose ideas guide us until today. To take just one example, who can contemplate a Pesach without the contributions of Chazal ? The whole seder is a tribute to their divinely-inspired wisdom and prescience. Most of the hagada consists of verbatim selections from the Mishna, Gemara and Midrashim, and remain both relevant and inspirational after thousands of years. Can the critics claim similar accomplishments ? Of course not. Can they even aspire to those accomplishments, with their theme sedarim of environmentalist/feminist/unionist/etc. hagadot? To judge their success, talk to me in about a thousand years. (Actually, I would like that – talk to me in a thousand years.)
Part of their ridicule was based on certain scientific errors that the Talmudic Sages allegedly made, which to them, completely discounted and trivialized the knowledge of science they did have. But the critics make a conceptual error, likely out of ignorance. We should be rightly proud and astonished at Chazal’s knowledge of science, but that is not to say that scientific knowledge is a legacy of Sinai and part of the Mesorah of Torah. All it means is that intelligent people have an obligation to study the science of the times, and to keep current on the latest developments in all spheres of knowledge. From that perspective, their correct conclusions are astounding, and their “errors” were simply based on the flawed scientific information of the day none of which played a direct role in the realm of psak. (Bear in mind that formulations such as “spontaneous generation” were not only consistent with the science of the times, but with another basic halachic corollary – for purposes of halacha, physical phenomena are as we see them in their natural and unaided state. “The Torah speaks the language of man,” as do human beings generally in colloquial discourse. That is why the halacha, and normal people, refer to “sunrise” and “sunset” even though technically the “sun” is neither rising nor setting. So, too, “spontaneous generation” is perceived by the naked eye, even if it is not actually occurring.)
Are there individuals who can derive scientific knowledge from the Torah ? I imagine there might have been, and might be, but I do not know any. We have no scientific mesorah, only an obligation to seek wisdom from every source and acknowledge the truth regardless of its spokesmen. Hence, the great Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi had no qualms about conceding that on a certain scientific matter (involving the sun’s rotation) in which the “wise men of Israel” disputed the “wise men of the nations” that “their view is preferable to ours,” i.e., the view of the non-Jewish scholars should prevail (Pesachim 94b). For that comment, Rebbi was not dismissed as Prince of Israel, nor was his official Tanna Society card confiscated. He is merely praised by us as a person of integrity.
The critics should be gratified by such statements, and intellectual honesty, which was unheard of in the ancient world, through medieval times and even today, especially in “religious” circles. Jews never entertained persecuting a Galileo Galilei figure, whose scientific conclusions aroused the enmity of the 17th century Catholic establishment. (He recanted. Fortunately, he was pardoned by Pope John Paul II in 1992, and he received a posthumous apology from the Church.) The point is that persecution of scientists was and is unknown in Jewish life, except, I suppose, when scientists exceed their areas of expertise and begin pontificating on matters of morality and mesorah.
The Torah was not given to us as a book of science, history, archeology or any secular realm but rather as divine wisdom that governs how man should live and pursue spiritual and intellectual perfection.
How is it that some Jews cannot take pride in the mindboggling scholarship of our spiritual shepherds, then and now ? For example, one should marvel at the fact that the length of the solar year (according to Rav Ada bar Ahava) is 365 days, 5 hours, 55 minutes and 25-25/47th seconds, while the US Naval Observatory calculates it as exactly the same, except for 25.439 seconds. It doesn’t matter whether it was Rav Ada’s calculation or derived from the science of the day; it is clear from the dispute in the Gemara that he did not simply parrot an opinion but did his own independent research – as Chazal did regarding the conduction of electricity through metal, or (what became known as) Halley’s Comet, or that Chazal perceived the earth as “a ball” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:14) and verified it experientially. (Many such fascinating tidbits about the wisdom of the Sages in all areas of life are found in “A Book of Jewish Curiosities” published in 1955 by my wife’s grandfather, David M. Hausdorff a”h.)
It might be that the resentment of the critics stems from their discontent with some of the Sages’ moral mandates, especially when they conflict with the modern agendas over which so many obsess and through which they sit in judgment of the qualifications of the Talmudic masters and their descendants. Or, it could simply be a testament to the dearth of Torah knowledge among some Jews, who have never learned with a Torah master and so cannot distinguish between mesorah, halacha, homiletics and general knowledge.
And that is a crying shame. Ignorance of our heritage is the bane of Jewish existence, but does not stop Jews from weighing in on many subjects beyond their current capacities. In a world in which Koreans have fallen in love with Talmud study (www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/143192) as the fount of all Jewish wisdom, should Jews willfully deprive themselves of their own heritage ?
The secret of Jewish life is summed up by two words from the hagada of the Sages: Tzei u’lmad – “Go forth and learn!” Then we will all take pride in our origins and heritage, in our commitment to wisdom and intellectual honesty, and in the special blessings that G-d bestowed upon His people on Pesach, this holiday of our founding.