Monday, January 10, 2011

Why can't we reinterpret verses to fit science? Rashi and Ramban did it.

Thanks to Josh Waxman for calling my attention to yet another spot where great Rabbis are willing to re-interpret tradition to make it accord with scientific facts.

See it after the jump:

The verse:
But [some] men did not obey Moses and left over [some of the mon ]  until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid, and Moses became angry with them.

The issue:
Spontanious generation was accepted as fact until at least the 16th century; and generally the theory taught that worms and other insects emerged from food that had already gone bad. Yet, in this verse the opposite is said to occur. First the worms bred; then the food spoiled.

The solution

Rashi (Based on the Mechilta)

and became putrid: This verse is transposed, because first it became putrid and later it bred worms, as it says: “and it did not become putrid, and not a worm was in it” (verse 24), and such is the nature of all things that become wormy. — [from Mechilta]
ויבאש: הרי זה מקרא הפוך, שתחלה הבאיש ולבסוף התליע, כענין שנאמר (פסוק כד) ולא הבאיש ורמה לא היתה בו, וכן דרך כל המתליעים:

Because you're a 21st century person, it may not be immediately obvious to you that Rashi is taking spontaneous generation into consideration here. The Ramban, however, who also believed in spontaneous generation seems to have little doubt that Rashi is bothered because the verse disagrees with what he (and Ramban) accepted as true about the nature of things. The only difference is that Rashi says the verse is flawed; Ramban, on the other hand, takes the verse literally but adds a layer of interpretation writing that the mon was miraculous and therefore could not be expected to rot according to the laws of nature. Normal food rots before it produces worms, he says. Miracle food, like the mon , can produce worms without rotting. See Josh's whole discussion here

The take-away lesson
I've written elsewhere that Orthodox Jews must be willing to reinterpret tradition, and even the traditional understanding of verses when they conflict with science. As I've said, our Rabbi's have done this before, and they must do it again to address new discoveries. The example of Rashi and Ramban here only makes my case stronger. If he can rewrite a verse to accommodate the theory of spontaneous generation, why can't we do the same for the sake of the theory of evolution?

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