Thursday, July 07, 2005

Is the opinion of the Rambam etc. a minority opinion?

R' Feldman writes

In countless places where the commentaries, whether Rishonim or Acharonim (Early or Later Authorties), are faced with a contradiction between the science of their times and a statement of the Sages, they commonly apply the principle, nishtanu hateva’im (“nature has changed”).1 Had they held R. Avraham’s view, they would have simply explained that the Sages erred in following whatever was the medical or scientific opinion of their times.

The premise of this proof is that saying that Chazal made a mistake in science is a simpler and more compelling answer then nishtanu hateva’im. Otherwise there is no proof, the Rishonim answered nishtanu hateva’im because it was a better answer. Therefore it must be that saying that Chazal made a mistake in science is a simpler and more compelling answer then nishtanu hateva’im.

This gives us an insight into R' Feldman's thinking. Even according to him it is more logical to say that Chazal made a mistake then nishtanu hateva’im.

Now we need to ask is his premise correct? For us living in 2005 it certainly is for the following reason. On one hand, we know that the science of Chazal's time was bogus and completely wrong, on the other hand we know that nishtanu hateva’im is difficult from a scientific perspective. therefore to us it makes much more sense to say chazal made a mistake.

However, if we look at it from the Rishonim's perspective the picture changes completely. I believe that for the Rishonim nishtanu hateva’im was a more compelling answer then saying Chazal made a mistake in science for the following reasons:

1. The science of the Rishonim was the science of Chazal. Science progressed little if at all from 300 to 1300 and in Christian countries may have regressed. Therefore, the Rishonim would have no reason to doubt the science of Chazal, they relied on the same science and they believed it was true.
2. Nishtanu hateva’im made sense from their perspective. The rishonim did not understand the world from a scientific perspective and they did not see the difficulties inherent in saying nishtanu hateva’im, in fact, it probably fit in with their world view.

Given the above, Tosafos Moed Katan 11a when faced with the statement of Chazal that rotting fish is healthy vs. the reality that it is not had 2 possible answers:
1. The science that Chazal used was wrong
2. nishtanu hateva’im

I believe that from Tosafos's perspective the second answer is more compelling. They had no reason to doubt the science of Chazal, it was their science.

R' Feldman writes they would have simply explained that the Sages erred in following whatever was the medical or scientific opinion of their times. Than answer to this is very simple, the scientific opinion of Chazal's time was by and large the same scientific opinion of the Rishonim's time.

R' Feldman projects the attitudes of someone living in 2005 who knows that the science in Chazal's time was wrong, to the Rishonim. However, the Rishonim had a completely different perspective on science. They had no reason to assume that the science that Chazal based themselves on was wrong.

I will take this 1 step further. As I pointed out, to say that Chazal's science is Torah M'Sinai on one hand and nishtanu hateva’im on the other hand is very very difficult (see Is נשתנה הטבע a viable answer for conflicts between Torah and science?). Therefore I would suggest the opposite conclusion then R' Feldman, namely, those Rishonim who hold nishtanu hateva’im hold that Chazal did not get their scientific knowledge M'Sinai and therefore they could say nishtanu hateva’im.


bluke said...

The Baalei Hatosafos were not Aristotalians and from their worldview saying nishtanu hateva was not an issue. In fact, i am saying that it made more sense then saying Chazal made a mistake in science as I explained.

bluke said...


The bottom line is that they said nishtane hateva. I am saying that from their perspective that made more sense then saying Chazal made a mistake in science because as far as they knew science hadn't changed and they had no reason to doubt their science.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to determine the majority opinion of a sitting beis din. And it's easy to determine the majority of a pre-selected universe of opinions, such as Rif, Rambam, and Rosh, chosen by R. Yosef Karo as his main sources.

However, when your universe is all the Rishonim and Acharonim, it's hard to decide what the majority opinion is. Who is counted? Is equal weight given to each opinion? Are members of the same school counted separately or together?

This is all by way of saying that I believe that R. Feldman's article badly undercounts the number of Rishonim/Acharonim who agree with what he calls R. Avraham's opinion. With a little research, that list could be greatly expanded. And even the choice of the name "R. Avraham's opinion" is polemical, as it could just as easily have been called Rambam's opinion (but that would be harder to dismiss).

bluke said...

In truth, I was a bit surprised that he relied so much on the Leshem. The Leshem to the best of my knowledge (with all due respect) is not considered to be one of the gedolei acharonim, the Leshem Shevo V'achlama is a kabbala sefer. He lived in the late 1800's early 1900's. I would have expected that he would have had earlier and better sources in the Acharonim to back up his claims.

Anonymous said...

A further point: Let's say that R. Feldman is correct that "R. Avraham's opinion" is a minority opinon. Here's a text (Eduyot 1:5) that I haven't seen cited in this regard, but that seems highly relevant to me:

ולמה מזכירין דברי היחיד בין המרובים, הואיל ואין הלכה אלא כדברי המרובין: שאם יראה בית דין את דברי היחיד, ויסמוך עליו

Translation: And why do we mention an individual opinion along with the majority, though the halakhah follows the majority? That a Court may approve an individual view and rely on him.

This mishnah clearly allows for the possibility that what was once a minority opinion may be relied upon in later generations. In, say, the 12th century, it was reasonable to hold either that (1) Chazal made scientific errors because they were relying on the science of their times or (2) nature had changed since then. However, the scientific progress made since then has shown clearly that the former opinion is correct and the latter one is untenable. There really isn't any doubt about this to an honest, thinking person.

Therefore, I would think that R. Feldman would be grateful to have R. Avraham's opinion at his disposal to help him make a graceful exit from an awkward situation, by applying the principle of Eduyot 1:5. But instead he goes to the opposite extreme. That's hard for me to fathom.

Rebeljew said...

the Rishonim had a completely different perspective on science. They had no reason to assume that the science that Chazal based themselves on was wrong."

Not as much as we do, but the issue had already come to loggerheads with the fact that the dozens of cures did not work. That is why they stuck with nishtana hateva, as it could explain why the cures did not work. It was sufficient for then, and sages even forbid people to use the cures as potentially harmful. Obviously, it is no longer sufficient, as we have discovered far more about our world. Nishtaneh the average level of education.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out something that is probably obvious, but still.

They are not merely saying that R Avrohom ben harambam, R Dessler, and R Hirsch are wrong. They are saying that followers of this school believe kefira.

I suspect R Hirsch's position on age of the universe etc was fairly well-known (at any rate, I have anecdotal evidence that leads me to conclude that the position of the tiferes yisroel was widely accepted in preWWII Europe, even in areas like Hungary). However, the evidence Slifkin brings for R Hirsch's position on age of the universe and evolution is from an unpublished letter . By contrast, R Hirsch's view on science is something the entire yekkish community was raised on and accepts.
Now I know that the charedi world doesn't fully accept the legitimacy of TIDE, but still the Washington Heights community was widely known for its strong kehilla institutions, for many years they were considered the most reliable hechsher and shichita in NYC (nowadays, the frum shichita is basically merged). This ban is now saying that all the yekkes believe KEFIRA. The entire community that accepts R Hirsch's derech are now kofrim! Their wine, their shchita, all invalid. Amazing.
I know they are saying the same about the MO community, but the yekkes were always quite respected in charedi circles. This is just insanity - to label an entire community that has been moser nefesh for torah, that has set up institutions that the charedim agree are l'shem u'l'tiferes, and to write them out of normative Orthodox Judaism. It is hard to believe that any of the people who signed gave very much thought to the implications of this ban.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughtful comments on the nishtaneh hatevah issue. I just want to throw something out there for you to think about. You claim there is absolutely no evidence for nishtaneh hatevah. 100% wrong! Coming from who? The scientists themselves! Look at the dinosaurs, and the other outsize species back then. There is currently no scientific explanation for how they could have gotten that big. (Just read that in this weeks NY Times). The caloric intake required to sustain them at that size was simply mind boggling. "Nature" must have changed. The whole basis for evolution is based on things changing all the time. So why aren't there species changing now? I guess "something" changed.

Anonymous said...

Dave, you need to refine your thinking a little bit. Of course nature changes over time. What's unikely is that humans or animals would gain or lose whole anatomical structures over a period of a few centuries, between the time of the amoraim and the time of the gaonim or rishonim, with nobody in the world noticing it but us.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your point, but the concept shouldn't seem so foreign. No one would believe the size of dinosaurs would be possible if not for the fossils.

Charlie Hall said...

I'm not sure this matters much; we pasken sometimes even according to a daat yachid if we believe that he is correct. And in this case Rambam and his son are correct.

bluke said...

I made that very same point here in the last section.

I would suggest the opposite approach to R' Feldman. We know that there is a big dispute when צאת הכוכבים is. The Geonim understood that it is approximately 18 minutes after sunset and R' Tam understood that it is much later at least 72 minutes after sunset. After R' Tam stated his opinion, the majority of Rishonim paskened like R' Tam. The Shulchan Aruch, the Rama and most of the early Acharonim paskened like R' Tam. And yet, alomg came the Gra and said החוש מכחיש, reality contradicts R' Tam and he therefore went back to the pask of the Geonim. In fact, today in Israel the Gra is the accepted opinion בין לקולא בין ךחומרא. Why did the Gra do this? Because החוש מכחיש, reality contradicted R' Tam.

IMHO, החוש מכחיש those opinions who hold that Chazal did not make mistakes in science. Science has progressed tremendously since the times of the Rishonim and the questions that we have today they did not have. Therefore even if the accepted psak was like those Rishonim who held that Chazal did not make mistakes in science (in truth, I am not convinced of that), now we need to pasken like the Rambam et al. who hold that Chazal made mistakes in science because החוש מכחיש that the other Rishonim were wrong and the Rambam et al. are right. I understand that no one today is on the level of the Gra, however, Yiftach B'Doro K'Shmuel B'Doro. This was clearly the approach of R' Hirsch and probably the approachof R' Dessler, if they were allowed to hold that way why can't we?