Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Dangers of Infallibility Doctrine

The Rambam warns us in Moreh Nevuchim, from the introduction, that certain people who have all of their learning from Torah, and none from practical observation, can misconstrue facts. If one reaches an absurd conclusion, he advises to reconsider the path to that conclusion, for instance, if one concludes that the Earth is flat. He warns in 3:14 that the facts of astronomy that he is quoting are not infallible in any way.

Infallibility of certain human beings, the Sages, Rebbes, etc. leads us down two possible paths.

1) We may stand strongly against a scoffing world and proudly proclaim that our facts are correct and the rest of the world is off its rocker.

2) We may reconsider our interpretation, as the Rambam advises. We may consider the possibility that it is not the text or the principle that is wrong, but our understanding of that text.

Method A has had its unlikely successes in the past, e.g. the claimed discovery of a unicorn (""), mutant buck, not mythical variety, in Ohio *See note at end of post. Yet, far more often, it locks us into a kooky, untenable outlook, which some wear as a banner and others simply try to de-emphasize. Those who wear it as a banner tend to emphasize, embellish, or simply invent wondrous feats. On this basis, the sage becomes a saintly magic miracle worker and anything issuing from him is “infallible” or “beyond our understanding”, even if it is nonsensical and easily refuted. Wisely did the Rambam warn us that miracles and wonders do not make a prophet or a Messiah.

The brilliant Rav Tendler wrote a book in the 70’s called “Pardes Rimonim.” It contains an excellent example on page 18.

The errorless transmission of Torah from generation to generation often includes ancillary information essential to their comprehension. Our Sages were heir to scientific facts and concepts only recently ascertained. The Talmudic scholars knew that the female liberated an ovum that participated with the sperm in the creation of a new individual. They knew the presence of the Fallopian tubes hundreds of years before Fallopius lived …

When I say Rav Dr. Tendler is brilliant, this extends to his compassion for people and a common sense approach to practical issues, like dying patients and severe disabilities. The Dr. in his title is an MD, not the mere academic variety, and the “Rav” is connected with a “Posek HaDor”.

However, this Method A comment of his is easily overturned. The Ramban at the beginning of Tazria and MANY others explain their belief, based on Mishnaic worldview, that female seed is coagulated blood in the womb, not the ovum, discovered in 1827. Therefore, the Mishna in Nida states that the red parts of the body come from the woman and the white parts come from the man. Those red parts include the black of the eye. In their days, there was argument as to whether the black of the eye was solid or, as we have discovered since, a simple hole covered by something colorless. Further, explains the Ramban, the role of the male sperm is arguable. It may become part of the new individual, or it may simply contribute to shaping its form which is spiritually ordained, a concept known among Greek scholars as “Hiyuli”. We now know that the first understanding is more accurate, and that physical DNA is responsible for the second. Further, even modern halacha has battled over whether DNA evidence in paternity is valid, since blood is obviously red and therefore comes only from the mother, according to Mishnaic worldview. How does Rav Dr. Tendler find evidence of advance knowledge of the human ovum in this?

The Rambam states (Hilchos Issurei Bia 5:3-5) that the female seed is formed in the 2 female testicles (which he calls “eggs), and ripened in the “paths in them”. This is all contained in the “Alia”. Rav Tendler states that the Alia is the bladder (quoting Rabbenu Chananel), and this is the only likelihood, given the positions that the Rambam and most halachists, mention. (Note: When trying to understand positions of organs in these halachas, the woman is lying on her back, as Rav Tendler points out.)

So, Tendler’s infallibility statement locks him into a strange situation. On the one hand, he feels that the Sages knew of the ovum and the Fallopian tubes, and implicitly, all of human anatomy. On the other hand, the infallible sage, Ramban shows that he knows nothing of the ovum and the infallible sage, Rambam does not know of the Fallopian tubes. He does know of “paths” that are inside the female “testicles” or near them at any rate, inside the bladder (at least by Tendler’s equation). While this might be equated with Fallopian tubes with a little stretch, it is clearly not the same as the discovery of Fallopius. These were the medical facts, as they had them at the time.

The same doctrine leads us through some nauseating acrobatics in apologetics. After all, there was no problem with the Mishna sages, the Rambam, the Ramban and other greats discussing the scientific concepts that ruled in their day. It was infallibility doctrine that solidified these evolving concepts into a concrete form. Then, along come modern apologists to try and build a link between the “four elements” and atomic theory, or the mythical astronomical galgalim and “String theory”. How did Ptolemy know these amazing scientific facts, you ask? Why he got it from the Jewish sages of the time, of course. And we are forever stuck with trying to reconcile the medieval science with current knowledge, based on better observation.

Of course, many tools are available to save us. Nature changed, don’t you know. The theory of relativity (which the apologist has, no doubt, read through, at least once) corroborates. Science cannot really DISPROVE the relic of infallibility. Since it was stated infallibly, and science cannot DISPROVE it, it remains in its default state of truth. And, when the death blow comes ultimately, it retreats to Rabbi X never really said that.

And the TRUTH, OY! If we cannot reconcile our view of infallibility with real truth, we can always fall back to spiritual truth (presumably in the face of physical falsity), different levels of truth, or some other excuse why the infallible is false. And here is the danger. It undermines the nature of truth, such that it is meaningless. A clear example is the $100 promise. A promises B a gift of $100 tomorrow. As the next day finishes, B goes to A to claim the money, and A refuses to taunts of “liar”. A retorts in one of the following ways:

1) By “tomorrow,” I meant some unspecified time in the future.

2) I meant to give you the spiritual equivalent of $100

3) If I was to threaten you with a gun, and I would accept $100 not to kill you, you would certainly give it to me. Since I am not threatening you, consider it as if I have given you $100, since you still have the money that you agree that you would have given away.

4) The promise is beyond our simple, humble understanding. We do not have the ability to judge the truth of the promise, based on our deep inferiority to A.

In any case, A’s promise is tenably TRUE. But the promise is still meaningless. The entire TRUTH is meaningless, because it has been redefined. TRUTH is no longer something to rely on, but something to be molded when it fails to produce. B has a TRUE promise, which controverts the entire value of the promise, reliance on its truth.

We do no service by defending Torah, its Sages, or its history in this way.

* Note: In the picture of the unicorn buck, the animal has antlers in the normal place and a single horn at the center. The animal normally sheds its antlers and grows new ones.


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