Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rabbi Pruzansky take 2

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Pruzansky published a post in which he credited chazal for achieving many things they did not, in fact, achieve. I pointed that out. Now he has replied. What follows is my fisking of his response. 
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.

I don't know who else attacked you, but I don't have any problem with religious authority. Religious authority is swell. My problem is with false claims, exaggerations and errors. Your post overflowed with them, which is why I replied.

Warning: I am about to attack you again. But please be advised that I am not attacking you because I have a problem with religious authority. My problem is not with religious authority, but with your new post. It is a tortured mess of flip-flops and retreats -- all of which I may have tolerated were they not topped with a series of unfounded assertions about the motives of your critics. You may be a religious authority, Rabbi, but you're not a mind reader. Respond to what people actually say, and to the arguments they've actually made. Don't answer imaginary motives that you've assigned to them, often for the sole purpose of making yourself seem like their moral superior. If you don't know anything about a person's background or motives, don't pretend that you do.

It is strange how nominally Orthodox Jews can be contemptuous of Chazal, whose words sustain us and whose ideas guide us until today.

I wasn't contemptuous of chazal. I was contemptuous of the mistakes you made. Let's try a thought experiment. If someone says "Rabbi Pruzansky invented Google" am I demonstrating contempt when I say that he is merely a user of Google, not its inventor? So why is it contemptuous of Chazal to point out, as I did, that R. Yehuda was merely a user of proto-telescope, and not its inventor?

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 ?

What kind of stupid argument is that? Do I have to invent the seder before I point out that the claims YOU made are false? My earlier post didn't disagree with Chazal. It disagreed with the claims you made on their behalf.

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.)

Right. Chazal were great. No argument. However, they were great WITHOUT doing any of the things you said they did. You, Rabbi Pruzansky, on the other hand are not great. You made mistakes. Pointing out those mistakes is an attack on you, not on the people about whom you said incorrect things.

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.

This has nothing to do with me, as I did not bring up any of Chazal's errors, aside from one, and that was an error they themselves confessed.

But the critics make a conceptual error, likely out of ignorance. We should be rightly proud and astonished at Chazal’s knowledge of science

On what basis? You've supplied no evidence that their knowledge of science surpassed the knowledge of their contemporaries. If you have such evidence, why haven't you supplied it?

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,

What is your evidence that these were their own conclusions, and not the conclusions of the other wise men of their time and place? I agree that the ancients reached some brilliant conclusions (while also possessing some astonishing blind-spots) but that's a statement about the whole of ancient wisdom, not about our Sages in particular. For what scientific accomplishments should our Sages be singled out? I am not aware of any examples, and I note again that you not supplied any.

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.

Really? So the ruling that lice may be killed on Shabbos had no effect on 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.)

No, we still refer to sunset and sunrise because language changes very slowly. Once upon a time, we thought the sun actually rose and actually set. That's the origin of those words, which are a reflection not only of what people SAW but also of what they THOUGHT. (We also thought that stars caused tragedies, which is the origin of the word "disaster" and there are countless similar examples)

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.

V'hamayvin ya'avin.

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.

I disagree. . What R. Yehuda did was honest and courageous but not unheard of. When confronted with evidence, the ancients accepted it. That changed with the advent of Christiniaty, and it changed because Christians, unlike the ancients, were deeply invested in theological claims that new discoveries upended.  [PS In the preceeding sentences, I am disagreeing with something you said. I am not displaying contempt for Rabbi Yehuda. I hope you see that, and won't repeat your earlier mistake of perceiving attacks on you as attacks on Chazal]

 Jews never entertained persecuting a Galileo Galilei figure, whose scientific conclusions aroused the enmity of the 17th century Catholic establishment. 

Because the Jews never had any political power. This prevented them from persecuting men like Galileo, but it didn't stop them from denouncing science and progress. This tradition continues in our own day. Remember Natan Slifkin?

(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.

Its unknown in Jewish life, because Jews never held political power.

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 ?

We do take pride in their mind-boggling scholarship. However your original post provided no examples of that scholarship. All it did was present a series of false claims on their behalf. If you want to see us take pride in the accomplishments of Chazal, why don't you write a post on things they actually did?

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. 

Why exactly am I marveling? Was it Rav Ada bar Ahava 's original discovery? No. The solar year was first calculated by Hipparchus who lived several hundred years before Rav Adda bar Ahava. The fact that an amora living in the third century knew of Hipparchus is no more astonishing then the fact that you and I know of Hipparchus.

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.)

I can also verify those things via experiments. Does that astonish you, too? And where is your proof that the Sages performed such verifications? If you have it, I'd like to see it.

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.

Or it could be that we value honesty and accuracy, and neither of your two posts contained much of either.

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 ( as the fount of all Jewish wisdom, should Jews willfully deprive themselves of their own heritage ?

You're not helping matters by telling lies about what Chazal actually accomplished. What you want us to honor is not the actual intellectual heritage of Chazal, but a series of myths.

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.

No argument. I do take pride in what Chazal actually achieved. I don't take any pride, however, in myth-making performed on their behalf. As Efrex says in a comment published on the post: Rabbi P "very specifically called for people to be astonished at chazal’s advanced scientific knowledge, which they did not possess, and discoveries, which they did not make."

That, not contempt for authority, was --and remains-- the issue.

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