Meiselman – Torah Chazal Science Book Review
“Torah from Sinai is not only truth, but tells us the whole of truth. Modern science is, at best, an approximation and a curiosity. At worst, it’s a changing set of incorrect theories taught as religion.”
The above is my own summary of Rav Moshe Meiselman‘s 600+ page book which discusses how Judaism and science interrelate. With some skipping here and there, I’ve actually gone through the entire book to arrive at the summary. Rav Meiselman has some impressive credentials. He holds a doctorate from MIT, was a close student of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, and is Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. I personally hold his only other published English work, Jewish Women in Jewish Law, in very high esteem.
Rav Meiselman has no problem taking others head on with whom he disagrees – this includes very direct references to the works of Rav Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Jonathan Saks (former chief Rabbi of the British Empire), Shlomo Sternberg (Bar Ilan professor), fundamentalist Christianity, and others. This work also includes some obvious but never-named references to Nosson Slifkin who has gone on a very public warpath, especially through his blog, against anyone who he perceives is against his own books. More on that later.
I’m pretty sure that it’s people such as myself who are the intended audience of this book – I come from a scientific-minded background, and very much ‘needed’ theories such as that of Gerald Schroeder (an MIT Physicist) to become Torah observant. Once, I even picked him up at an airport, had him over for dinner with a few friends, and then drove him to his public talk so that I could directly ask him all my questions. Now Rav Meiselman, as best I can tell doesn’t mention Schroeder or Andrew Goldfinger (Thinking about Creation – my review over here), or those of this sort who “make it fit”, but he does have a general criticism for anyone who wants to “make it fit”. The message goes something like this: “That’s curious.” At other times (it’s a long book), the message is more like this: “Knock it off.”
The book is best described a hybrid of encyclopedic and Solevechian. it covers all sorts of topics to prove the point, and goes into all the details to do so with lengthy discussions of mostly the Rambam and Rashba. It appears to me that the author’s intention is that a person might like this section or that, depending on their interest, so there is a lot of overlap or downright repetition of concepts in different sections. Or, just if you start at point A, it will lead you to bring in point B. So too, if you start at point C, it might bring you to point B as well, so you see point B covered twice. This is not unlike learning Torah in general, as one thing will lead you to another, especially when learning in depth in the Solevechain method of learning. (The Satmar Rebbe’s biography contains an indirect criticism of this approach as one doesn’t get to the point this way.)
Rav Meiselman’s logic is fairly straight forward. He takes as truth our tradition that Torah was handed to us from Sinai. This is a basic belief of Judaism. There are a few zeniths of knowledge – when Adam was given a human soul, at Mt. Sinai, at the time of King Shlomo (First Temple Period), and again when the moschiach [messiah] arrives. At Mt. Sinai it was greater than at the time of King Shlomo because there was direct access to the source. King Shlomo, on the other hand, was able to logically learn out just about everything from the principles of how to restore lost information. This included cures for diseases and the exact parameters of mitzvahs in the Torah. The point is: the information was there, complete, and correct.
As we move further away in time from the informational zenith (but closer to another one), then not only is information lost, but even the knowledge to understand the writings of previous generations may be lost. There *might* be errors, but we believe that the Creator is actively involved in the world, and as such, is preventing any major deviations. More likely, we are misunderstanding.
So what happens if science and Torah don’t fit? He divides this into two categories – 1. “extrapolative” or “historical” science and 2. confirmed tests of present reality. The first category he does not consider science at all. We might, say, have a working model to help us categorize such as is called “evolution” but, quoting his rebbe before him, science is overstepping it’s bounds when it posits any such thing as truth. At best, science reveals approximations and where these approximations don’t comport with Torah from Sinai, it is the science that is wrong. The Torah need not be “made to fit” and should not be made to fit. For this, in Rav Meiselman’s eyes is degrading to the truth by putting it in the “one down” position and is downright dangerous.
Again, the book is large, but I’ll take a tough one because it appears scattered through the book, in order to make various points. First, Rav Meiselman uses it to show that there is vast scientific knowledge – the very dimensions of the Tevah [Ark] have amazing buoyant properties, copied in smaller form by shipbuilders in the 1800s. It fell out of practice because, well, steering doesn’t work so well (not a concern of Noach), but it seems to be a very maximal way of loading down a boat while it remains quite above water.
(In this section, I was also quite fascinated by mathematics discussions – such as the size of a window compared to it’s circular opening, as listed in the Talmud with what looks to be clearly erroneous numbers. The book shows how if you stop reading it with the assumptions of modern math notation, and read it with a second set of circles around each corner, it works out quite well … and that people who could calculate the position of the moon surely weren’t so ignorant in other areas. So too with using “3” as the calculation for Pi, as whatever number we use for Pi is always an approximation. Using a greater approximation does not sure lack of knowledge … unless you have a pre-determined agenda.)
Then the book later comes at the ark from a different angle – that of attacks on it since a) it’s impossible to feed that many animals and b) they won’t all fit, even with the massive size of the ark. The retort is something like this: “It’s a miracle, silly.” It doesn’t go by natural mechanisms and the laws of physics may, or probably were, very different before, during, and after the flood. These are different epochs of history with a world torn apart and put back together. More than once the book references the concluding sections of Iyov [Job] and a quote from the Talmud that Iyov would be on the same level as Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov if only he didn’t think he had that right to argue with the Creator.
So then what about the sediment layers in Greenland and Antarctica that show constant deposits due to the flow of water with no evidence of a flood? Well, the answer is above – we have no idea how the world was torn apart and put back together and what aspects were and weren’t changed. The retort from critiques is that “G_d would then be trying to trick us.” This book’s retort: “No, you’re tricking yourself with your own logic.” Rav Meiselman further argues against the Greenland sediment thing by saying that there are similar deposits on Mars with no evidence of water. So perhaps what we think we’re looking at in Greenland is quite different than scientists are theorizing.
Further, Rav Meiselman has this to say on Jewish (and to a lesser extent, Christian) apologists who want to “make it fit” by saying things like “the flood was only localized.” The retort – then how do you explain flood stories all around the world? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_flood_myths for a very extensive list. [Addendum – see comments below where more detail is provided in response to a question.]
On this topic, the book’s bottom line is that there’s lots of knowledge even in the amount of Torah we have today, We have no reason to change based on what is nothing more than a new religion that is deciding otherwise based on their theories which are stacked one on top of the other.
Rav Meiselman’s sourcing on the history of science, and what knowledge came from here is impressive even if you disagree with every one of his conclusions. Through this, the book shows quite well how theory after theory has been overturned from geo-centricity (which relativity has sort of revived) to the eternal universe to Lamarckism (the theory that the environment effects traits inherited in future generations). When I took medical level biochemistry, I had realized on my own that every prior biology class I took lied to me about current scientific knowledge on that last point.
In very many places, Rav Meiselman makes the point that what was taught as “truth” in the scientific world (which sometimes was put into dogma of other religions formed during such times), has been overturned again and again. If science agrees today with something in Torah, great. If not, well – neither did plenty of other scientific theories and today’s are no different and no more believable. A geo-centered universe needed irrational “epicycles” to explain the motion of planets. Today’s theories require one to have faith in dark matter which is just as strange, according to the book. Many scientists who find this troubling are referenced and it’s quite possible that these theories will also be overturned.
Another problem with modern science is that it states that all life is generated from previous life. This worked out alright when science also taught the universe has been around for an eternal period of time, but today, a beginning is taught with spontaneous generation of life. Yet, despite the blaring contradiction (do we have spontaneous generation or don’t we?) the theories are still taught as absolute truth.
True, Rav Meiselman states, we have some questions on things like the flood, but we have no reason to re-evaluate or re-adjust in view of another religion (which some call ‘science’) which has far greater contradictions and leaps of faith.
Even a summary of a 600+ book is long. I think the above will give a reader the gist of the Rav Meiselman’s approach, but it is not without controversy. This extends to the approach of Jewish outreach organizations, the curriculum of Jewish schools, and a debate which has been going on in the Orthodox Jewish world for quite some time. That shall be the subject of the next article on the topic.