Please note: When I wrote this, I was not familiar with the controversy that has surrounded this topic in the last year or so, but even though I now am, I think the questions I ask are just as valid as I did then.
I was discussing science and halacha with a friend of mine a few days ago, and then afterward I was mulling over various points that we brought up, as well as various points that we didn't. I'm sure I can find a million articles on the internet about these topics from YU, Gush and maybe Ohr Sameyach (how do you spell it?) or Aish, but I'm more interested right now in hearing what you know or think about it. To wit:
To what extent ought we to believe that the Talmudic rabbis' medical knowledge was wrong? My impression is that we need not assume that everything written by tannaim and amoraim is factual at face value. For example, I understand that the Rambam says that the medical remedies described/recommended in the Talmud were advocated by the rabbis of the age based on the prevailing medical wisdom of the day, and that if the prevailing medical wisdom of our day differs from theirs, we may disregard the Talmud's advice. Thus, effectively, when the Talmud states that such-and-such a remedy is an effective cure of such-and-such a disease, we disbelieve it.
Now, it could be that in such cases, the Talmudic sages were simply in possession of false information. I hope that our audience is mature enough to realize that tannaim and amoraim, however great they may have been in any number of ways, were imperfect humans just like us, men who made mistakes, including intellectual ones (some of their mistakes are recorded in the Talmud itself or in other documents we value; they presumably made other ones too, including, perhaps, ones that no one ever realized they made). So they may just have been wrong (along with all of the medical experts of their era, who were presumably the source of much of their information).
There are, of course, ways of viewing their statements as correct without accepting their advice at face value. One approach I assume you all know is the נשתנה הטבע idea -- that the laws of nature may have changed over the course of time, so that Talmudic statements related to natural realities may no longer hold true, though they were correct in their own era. Alternatively, seemingly incorrect Talmudic statements may hold true even today, but not literally; rather, only after some sort of interpretation (allegorical, for example) is applied. (These statements may or may not have been literally true when originally made; either way, the factual discrepancy is solved.) I know that (again) the Rambam says that many of the Talmud's aggadic statements ought to be understood in this fashion: as correct only when a suitable aliteral interpretation is applied. Conceivably, the same could be true of various other statements that modern science indicates are not literally correct.
And, to complete (I think) the set of logical possibilities, it could be that they were and are literally correct, and we're just too dumb to realize it.
So again, after all of that, to what extent should we consider medical statements of the Talmud that contradict modern biomedical knowledge to be wrong? And I don't mean just according to the Rambam. I'm interested in what we're actually supposed to believe and/or do, which may or may not reflect the Rambam's opinion. What do modern competent poskim say? Don't answer yet. That was by way of introduction.
Now what about other spheres of knowledge in which Talmudic statements contradict modern science, such as astronomy (geocentricity vs. heliocentricity of the solar system, for example), and the non-medical branches of biology? What if the theory of evolution seems right to you (as it does to many intelligent people), and you don't think the Talmud is compatible with it? I'd wager there are contradictions in chemistry and non-astronomical physics, too. What are we allowed to believe, and to disbelieve?
(N.B.: I am not asking (at this point, anyway) how to deal with apparent contradictions between modern science and the Chumash, or even Nach. I am limiting the scope of my question to rabbinic works composed, let's say, no more than a couple of centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple.
I am also not especially looking for information on how to deal with practical issues on which science and halacha differ, although maybe I should; I'm more interested, as I said, in what we may and what we may not believe and disbelieve. There are definitely things that Jews must believe (like the truth of the Torah) and things that they must not believe (such as the existence of more than one God); I am asking how far such imperatives extend in certain contexts.)
Let's go a bit further. How about contradictions between the Talmud and modern archaeology (such as the 166-year discrepancy on how long the Second Temple stood; which, by the way, is why, two paragraphs up, I reckoned my cutoff date relative to the second destruction, not the first destruction or the rebuilding)? There are many other examples, though perhaps not of the same historical significance.
You may be able to come up with other areas of investigation in which post-biblical rabbinic sources contradict the seemingly well-founded beliefs of the modern academic world. I apply the question to them, too.
IF the answer is that we sometimes believe the rabbis were wrong, or at least that the literal meaning of their words is not true today, how does that affect modern practical halacha, where the halacha is related to facts about which we and the Talmud disagree? Take, for example, the halacha that one may kill lice on Shabbat because they are the product of spontaneous generation, and are therefore different from the animals whose killing serves as the paradigm for the melacha of shochet. Given that modern science contradicts the notion that lice are spontaneously generated (it says, rather, that they reproduce sexually), does the halacha change? I'm expecting the answer will be that we follow the traditional halacha, even though we may not believe in the validity of the premise on which it is based. However, I think that that is not always true. Tread cautiously.
Those are my two basic questions. There are several related points I'd just like to record:
I don't see any major theological problem arising from the belief that the Talmudic rabbis were sometimes wrong in their science or history. Any limitations they may have had in certain spheres of knowledge do not detract from their status as pre-eminent Torah experts (i.e., the greatest authorities of the age on the true religion). To say otherwise would be equivalent to saying that Newton's mathematics and physics are unreliable because he was silly enough to spend years studying alchemy. (Actually, it would be even more inane, because the Torah says that Jewish religious leaders ought to be treated as the authorities on their religion, and so by definition, their religious dicta were valid. And moreover, I'm not aware that anyone has ever posed a credible overall challenge to their theology.)
My questions are, I think, totally unrelated to issues such as the existence of demons and other supernatural phenomena. To the best of my knowledge, science can't really disprove that such things exist; it just doesn't assume that they do (intelligent science, that is).
I also don't really see a number of the famous נשתנה הטבע applications as necessarily within the scope of this discussion. The classic "olives have shrunk" argument (explaining why a kzayit is (at least according to some) so much bigger than any olive anyone's ever seen) may be contradicted by scientists or historians, but how does that matter? We've still got to figure out what quantities the rabbis were talking about, and so we've still got to reconcile all of their various measures, and the relationships they reported between them (which is how נשתנה הטבע comes in, unless I'm much mistaken). To reiterate what I wrote in an earlier paragraph: the Talmudic rabbis are still our religious/halachic advisors, so even if their perceptions of reality don't seem to correspond to our own, we've still got to follow their directions, as best we can make them out.
The history of the Old Testament itself could conceivably be up for grabs, depending on how this question is answered. I recall from Intro to Bible at YU that, for example, the Book of Daniel is believed by historians to have been written long after the Talmud assumes it was. If you're willing to say that the Talmud is occasionally wrong about history, you're going to have to wrestle with issues like that. The history of the Chumash itself might be partially brought into question. It's a famous YU fact that Ibn Ezra says there are a few verses in Chumash that were added in after Moses died (and no, I'm not talking about the last 8; those you may take for granted). See, for example, Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 34:1:
ויעל משה. לפי דעתי, כי מזה הפסוק כתב יהושע, כי אחר שעלה משה לא כתב. ובדרך נבואה כתבו; והעד, ויראהו ה', גם ויאמר ה' אליו, גם ויקבור׃
"'And Moses ascended.' My view is that Joshua wrote [the final verses of Deuteronomy] beginning with this verse, for Moses did not write after he ascended. He [Joshua] wrote it prophetically, as indicated by [statements of facts he could not otherwise have known, such as] 'God showed him...', 'God said to him...', '[God] buried...'."
Another famous YU fact is that he (Ibn Ezra) says the Book of Isaiah was written by two different people. I don't think he says that it definitely was; just that it might have been. The source is his commentary on Isaiah 40:1. (Relatedly, see also his commentary on Isaiah 49:7, s.v. מלכים יראו וקמו. I warn you that it's cryptic.)
(My thanks to Dr. Moshe Bernstein of YU for much of my Ibn Ezra information.)
The authenticity of the Zohar might also come under scrutiny. I am quite ignorant about that subject; I just know that I've heard many orthodox people talk about it.
Another question: is it necessary to make Birkat Hatorah before studying parts of the Talmud related to (best example) obsolete medicine? Or, more dramatically, can you read such a passage aloud after the brachot in order to fulfill the requirement of performing the mitzvah immediately after making the bracha on it? (I'm pretty sure Noam Hinberg asked this question when we were in OTI. I don't remember anybody giving a really confident answer.)
What about a situation like the following: suppose prevailing wisdom among psychologists is that in certain cases, one can improve his mental health by speaking lashon hara. Does that make doing so (as recommended) halachically permissible? Does halacha view mental health in the same way that it views physical health, and mental health professionals as it views physicians? What if the individual's life is judged by a mental health professional to be at risk if he does not speak lashon hara? What if the judgement is that his life will not be at risk either way (but that he will incur psychological harm by not saying the lashon hara)? How about someone telling lashon hara to a mental health professional in the first place (assuming there's no other way for the patient to express whatever it is that he wants to get across)? What if violation of kibud av va'em is also involved? How about nibul peh? Hirhurim asurim?
I realize that much of this is oft-trodden ground (especially for some of you), questions and examples that are getting pretty tired and clichéd. I've written this partially for my own satisfaction, to get down in print the various factors that, in my mind, relate to this issue. However, I don't feel that I know the answers to the questions I have posed, and I am posting this on the blog in the hope that responses and potential ensuing discussion will be enlightening for me, and perhaps for others as well. I look forward to reading what you have to say.