Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Did Chazal invent everything? The Torah True wing-nuttery of R. Steve Pruzasnky

Here's a great example of Torah True wing-nuttery from R. Steve Pruzasnky:
"Moreover, because of our poor public relations (a problem that did not begin with the Israelis), no credit is given to the Talmudic sages for their scientific discoveries – probably because they are unknown to the world at large. Thus, the Tosefta (Shabbat, Chapter 7) notes that an iron bar may be placed on a roof to attract lightning – long before old Ben Franklin discovered electricity. Chazal in several places (e.g., Sanhedrin 106b) refer to the laws pertaining to “a tower that flies in the air”, recognizing that airplane flight was a physical possibility, if then a practical impossibility. Rabban Gamliel used a telescope that could distinguish objects a kilometer away (Eruvin 43b). Rav Yehoshua knew of Halley’s comet – “a star that shoots across the sky once every 70 years” (Horayot 10a) – fifteen centuries before Edmond Halley (1656-1742) was a gleam in his mother’s eye. And it is clear from even a superficial understanding of the Talmud that most of our Sages assumed the earth was a round sphere (not flat) and revolved around the sun – 1300 years before Nic Copernicus claimed the credit and won the fame associated with these “discoveries”.
Let's fact check this shall we?

  • Ben Franklin didn't discover electricity. What he did was establish that lightening is electric. Chazal, like the wise people of other ancient societies, knew that an iron bar attracted lightening, but there's no evidence that they knew what lightening was, or why it was attracted to iron.
  • The "tower flying in the air" passage has nothing to do with airplanes. See it here in English with Rashi's different explanations here in English
  • Both the ancient Greeks and Babylonians recorded astronomical observations that some suggest could only have been made with some sort of optical aid. Such aids can be seen in use on a 4th century BC Greek pottery shard.. The suggestion has been made that the shard depicts someone using a merkhet. Perhaps R. Gamliel had something similar. (Aside: Say humanity goes through a period of cultural deterioration similar to the Dark Ages. When we emerge from it will some Steve Prustzasnky of the future suggest that the Rabbis of our day invented blackberries? The fact that R. Gamliel used a particular tool is not evidence that he invented it.)
  • Halley's Comet "shoots across the sky" once every 75 years, not 70. Nonetheless, many commentators do think R. Yehoshua was speaking of this comet. However, even the Talmud does not credit R. Yehoshua with making this discovery, rather it is presented as something he happened to know.  Ancient astronomers observed and recorded the appearance of Halley's Comet as early as 240 BC. [Selig Brodetsky argues that R. Yehoshua could not have been speaking of Halley's on the following basis: He mentions the comet during his trip to Rome with R. Gamliel II, which is assumed to have occurred in 95; from the context, it seems clear that he saw the comet while they were on the trip; Halley's Comet is known to have appeared in 66; thus it could not have returned during in 95, the year of their journey.]
  • The Sages did assume the world was flat, only correcting their opinion after being convinced of their error by non-Jewish astronomers. See Pesachim 94B. I do not know R. Pruzansky's basis for saying Chazal accepted a heliocentric model of the universe, but in any event the idea predates them: In the third century BC a Greek philosopher named Philoaus developed the first non-geocentric idea of the universe
HT: The example of R. Pruzansky's wishful thinking was spotted on Modern Orthoprax

Worthwhile comment:

A Muppet said...

Ok, but in real theology there are only two possibilities here:
1. Chazal benefited from divine knowledge, could have built an airplane, but either lacked the materials, lacked the desire, or knew they shouldn't. (This is the Chareidi view)

2. Chazal did not have such knowledge. (DB: This is the view of most Rishonim)
What he's suggesting seems to be that Chazal figured this out on their own, and chose to mention it offhandedly, without referencing any of the underlying physics they also would have needed to know.

If it turns out Doc Brown was right, and time travel is possible, that doesn't make Robert Zemeckis the greatest scientist of our time.

No comments: