Thursday, April 27, 2006

Rabbi Hershel Schachter

(current; USA):

i. Personal interview, August 27, 2006.

ii. Haskomah (approbation) by email to 2 Giants Speak (Yehoshua Leiman, trans.) (belongs to III-A-2):

Sunday, May 16, 2004
25 Iyar 5764

To: Rabbi Isaiah Koenigsberg
From: Rav Hershel Schachter

I’ve studied the essays in “Two Giants Speak” from cover to cover. The ideas contained there are beautiful, and the English translation is fine. “Yasher koach” to you for your initiative in reprinting this beautiful pamphlet.

Hershel Schachter

The pamphlet 2 Giants Speak to which Rabbi Schachter refers contains two essays adapted into English, the first of which, by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and entitled “Trusting the Torah’s Sages,” clearly states that not all scientific assertions in the Talmud are necessarily correct, even if uncontested in the Talmud. The original Hebrew and an uncondensed translation of relevant portions of Rabbi Hirsch’s essay can be found in this compilation under the entry for Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. The following are excerpts of the translation that appears in 2 Giants Speak, which Rabbi Schachter praises, referring to its ideas as “beautiful.”

What do we tell our pupils when they discover in the words of Chazal statements that do not agree with contemporary secular knowledge, particularly with the natural sciences, which have made tremendous forward strides since ancient times?

Before us lies a paved road that protects our pupils from stumbling blocks, and I think it is the true road.

Sages of Torah, not Masters of Science

In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.

Nowadays too it is enough for the non-specialist to know about any of these areas of knowledge whatever contemporary experts teach that is generally accepted as true. This applies to the lawyer vis-à-vis all other areas, to the mathematician and the astronomer regarding the natural sciences, and to the expert on flora regarding all other areas. We expect none of them to seek out the truth and satisfy his inclinations in any field other than his own specialty.

Moreover, even in the area where one is an expert, it is neither possible for him nor expected of him to know everything through personal investigation and experience. Most of his knowledge rests upon the investigations of others. If they have erred it is not his fault. It is sufficient and praiseworthy if his knowledge encompasses all that is accepted as true at his time and place and generation. The greatness of his wisdom is in no way diminished if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. The greatest of them knew all the wisdom and science of all the great non-Jewish scholars whose wisdom and teachings became famous in their generations.

They Were Up-to-date

Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh, and his report had been accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? ... Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day.


We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the non-Jewish scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the non-Jewish sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the non-Jewish scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own. In the Talmud we learn:

The Jewish sages said, “By day the sun passes beneath the firmament and at night above it.” The sages of the nations maintained, “By day beneath the firmament and at night beneath the ground.” And Rabbi [Yehudah the Prince] said, “Their opinion seems more correct than ours.”

To my thinking, this clearly proves what I have been saying.

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