Malbim on Torah and Science

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The interaction of religion and science has a long and complex history. I make no attempt here to adequately explain the different approaches to determining when to rethink cherished religious views in light of new understandings and when to cling faithfully to ancient truths. However, I find the attitude of one brilliant nineteenth century thinker fascinating.

R. Meir Leibush Weiser (Malbim) was a Talmudic savant. While still young, he wrote a short but influential commentary on the early chapters of Shulchan Arukh (titled Artzos Ha-Chaim). He held important rabbinic positions in Eastern Europe but, due to his fierce opposition to Reform, repeatedly lost those positions. His magnum opus is a commentary on nearly the entire BIble which is now considered a classic. He was widely respected in yeshiva circles, even revered, despite his unorthodox preoccupation with the Bible (rather than solely Talmud). I was taught that R. Chaim Soloveitchik held him in particularly high regard.1

In his commentary to the first chapter of Genesis, Malbim twice (at least) revises prior interpretations explicitly due to new scientific discoveries. It is interesting to note not only how he proceeds but how he was subsequently criticized for it. On verse 6, Malbim addresses the creation of the “raki’a,” typically translated into English as “firmament” (following KJV). Malbim states that the commentators struggled with this, Abarbanel quoting five different views. Malbim points out that all five explanations are based on the mistaken view that spheres physically exist. However, in modern times it has become clear that the stars and planets float in space (Malbim says ether, a now-discredited theory) rather than being implanted into a sphere that surrounds the earth. He even finds midrashic support for this scientific understanding. Rather, he explains, the “raki’a” is what scientists have called “atmosphere,” where precipitation originates.2 It is there that the condensation in the air is converted into rain and snow, thereby differentiating between the water in the air and precipitation.3

Earlier, on verse 2, Malbim discusses the presence of the four fundamental elements–earth, air, water and fire–in Creation. Three of the four are mentioned in this verse–earth (ve-ha-aretz), air (ru’ach), water (ha-mayim). Malbim points out that fire is above all the other elements and some used to believe that fire emerged from air (perhaps referring to the Phlogiston theory). If so, why isn’t fire also mentioned in this verse? However, the scientists of his had shown that this is not true and that fire comes from sparks of light from the sun, which contain both light and heat (even though, he says, we know from electricity that some fire is present in air and also in water). At that time in the Creation process, the sun did not yet exist and therefore the element of fire was not present.

R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, vol. 1 n. 331) took Malbim to task about this comment on verse 2:4 “And what he [Malbim] brought from the consensus of recent scientists, for us Jews who uphold God’s Torah, the Jewish heritage, the words of the scientists that are built only on speculation do not have the ability to push aside the tradition of our Sages.” Rather, fire is either included in air (electricity and radiation) or in the word “choshekh.” R. Kasher continues: “I find it puzzling that the author of Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-Mitzvah [Malbim] accepted the words of the scientists who wrote that the approach [that fire is contained within air] is wrong–since he [Malbim] mentioned some of those ideas [that electricity is in the air]. Why didn’t he uphold the words of the Sages?”

R. Kasher’s criticism raises important points. First, in his view, science should not be used to reinterpret the Torah. He explains that scientific understandings change over time and are therefore unreliable. Furthermore, in this case the reinterpretation was unnecessary because the traditional approach remained viable, even if not optimal. Yet, Malbim did so, demonstrating a different threshold for biblical reinterpretation. In his commentary to Psalms (145:4), Malbim writes that as each generation continues to explore the universe, it gains understanding into its workings beyond previous generations. Form his comments discussed above, Malbim seems to imply that as scientific understandings change, so can our biblical understandings.5

I am not suggesting that the Malbim can serve as a precedent for contemporary commentators. Because his exegetical approach (halakhic, midrashic and omnisignificant) is unique, few readers today of the Bible will follow his lead. However, his innovation offers an important example. I mean this not only in the sense of creative reinterpretation but also the key prerequisite that Malbim possessed. He was immersed in the sea of the Talmud, deeply imbued with the spirit of the Sages. He was not dismissive of tradition but a part of it. While we lack scholars of Malbim’s strength today, we can understand the spirit that flows through his commentary and embrace it as we face today’s intellectual challenges.6
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  1. See Making of a Godol, p. 115 in the name of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik that Reb Chaim held four of his (older) contemporaries in the highest esteem: R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Malbim, his father and R. Yisrael Salanter. I heard the same from R. Mayer Twersky. 

  2. R. Joseph Hertz, in his Pentateuch commentary, similarly explains raki’a as “sky, the arch of heaven.” R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, in his commentary to this verse (p. 29 in the Hebrew translation), also equates raki’a with the atmosphere surrounding the earth. R. Natan Slifkin discusses this comment of the Malbim in his The Challenge of Creation, pp. 124-125. 

  3. R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, vol. 1 n. 551) cites the Abarbanel’s five explanations and the Malbim’s but concludes that these verses are ultimately beyond our comprehension. 

  4. Note that this appears in the very first volume of the series, published in 1926. R. Kasher could have changed his view later in life but I am not aware of any evidence of this. 

  5. In his masterful article on the Malbim and science, Dr. David Berger also points to the comments on Gen. 1:25 and 3:1 (“Malbim’s Secular Knowledge and His Relationship to the Spirit of the Haskalah,” in The Yavneh Review, Spring 1966, p. 46 n. 86). These are, as Dr. Berger states, examples where Malbim uses his scientific knowledge for biblical exegesis. However, I did not bring them in the text because in those cases Malbim did not use science to overturn a previous interpretation. Dr. Berger also cites Eretz Hemdah on Gen., p. 15 about gravity, which I could not locate. For an extensive discussion of Malbim’s use of science, see Noah H. Rosenbloom, Ha-Malbim: Parshanus, Philosophiah, Mada U-Mistorin Be-Kisvei Ha-Rav Meir Leibush Malbim (Jerusalem, 1988), ch. 4. 

  6. Surprisingly, R. Moshe Meiselman (Chazal, Torah, Science, p. 270), in making the point that no Torah commentator explained the text in line with the Eternal Universe theory (prior to acceptance of the Big Bang theory), points to the Malbim as a scientifically knowledgeable Torah scholar. While Malbim did not incorporate the Eternal Universe theory into his commentary, he did adopt other scientific theories, as explained above. Additionally, R. Meiselman himself (p. 604 n. 53) accepts Malbim’s explanation that animals were created in evolutionary stages–Malbim to Gen. 1:20. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

5 comments

  1. Re. footnote 6: Why is it surprising that R. Meiselman points to Malbim as a scientifically knowledgeable Torah scholar? Am I misinterpreting the footnote?

  2. [email protected]

    1. Regarding the definition of the rakia, Malbim’s “attitude” is really quite standard. True, his wording leads one to think that all the Rishonim’s definitions of the rakia are based upon the concept of spheres as the bearers of the heavenly bodies, whereas his identifying the rakia as the lower part of the sky uninhabited by the stars is a novel revision of the prior interpretations. However, a closer examination reveals that this is untenable (as explained below).
    And yes, the Malbim says “all five” of the Abarbanel’s definitions are dependent upon the model of spheres. But actually, the Abarbanel lists six. The one the Malbim omits is, significantly, the one that, like he, refers to the atmosphere or one or another section of it. This view was widespread among medieval philosophers and Bible commentators including (as the Abarbanel notes) Ibn Tibbon, Ibn Caspi, Ibn Letov, Narboni, Al Balag and others, and advocated by the Rambam and Ibn Ezra. Needless to say, this understanding was not dependent upon the disbelief in celestial spheres, and it existed long before the Malbim. It is not subject the Malbim’s criticism, his focus, and apparently that is why he omitted mention of the Abarbanel’s inclusion of it.
    So, what did the Malbim mean when he said (a) “all” of the interpretations the Abarbanel listed were (a) dependent upon the concept of heavenly spheres (b) “woven by the rishonim”?* Only five of the Abarbanel’s six interpretations were dependent on that belief, and the sphere model of the universe was not created in the rishonim’s day. It was well established in the times of ancient Greece and before. I cannot think of any other explanation than that he meant “all the other five of the six interpretations” listed by the Abarbanel, all of which indeed depended upon the concept created by the ancients (“rishonim”) [and subscribed to by the Rishonim].
    Bottom line: The Malbim’s interpretation is far from a revision of prior interpretations due to new scientific discoveries. It is the reiteration of a view widely held in rishonic times.

    2. Regarding the motion of the heavenly bodies, R. Shimon bar Yochai clearly argues that the mechanics of the movements of the heavenly bodies (the sun and moon being under discussion) is beyond us to determine, and for all we know, they fly through the air independent of any spheres. This thought is echoed by the Rambam who, although personally subscribing to his days’ theory of ethereal spheres carrying the stars, points out that the true mechanics and substance of the heavenly entities are not matters transmitted by the mesorah, and are beyond human ability to fathom. It is not at all remarkable that the Malbim “even” finds midrashic support for the explanation he accepts. “Even”?This is par for the course methodology of traditional Torah commentary.
    ==============================
    *Malbim on Breishis 1:6
    וכל אלה הדעות נבנו על קורי עכביש שערגו הראשונים שיש גלגלים במציאות אבל בימינו התברר היטב שכל צבאות השמים שטים באויר ספירי ודק מאד הנקרא איתר ואין גלגך במציאות.

    And all these opinions are built upon cobwebs the ancients wove, that there are actual celestial spheres in existence. But in our days it has been well clarified that all the heavenly hosts glide in the transparent and extremely thin air called “ether,” and no celestial sphere exists.

    [I will note, as I have in the past, that the spheres, too, as the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 3:3) describes them, were transparent, weightless, tasteless, and odorless. in nature. If anything, they were considered even more ethereal than the “ether” subscribed to by the Malbim, not more physical, as one might infer from the Malbim.]

  3. Zvi: I apologize for taking so long to respond. I only just now looked up the sources and I strongly disagree with your reading. In the Mablim’s question, he explicitly notes that the Abarbanel quotes 5 views and then offers a 6th of his own. And in his answer, Malbim initially only lists 5 of the views (skipping the 3rd). However, at the end of that paragraph he quotes the 3rd view, attributes it to the Rambam and many others, and notes that the Abarbanel asks many great questions on this view and called it a lie. Malbim then says that, as he will explain, his view is different.
    You are correct that Malbim attributes his view to Chazal. However, he states that the Rishonim misunderstood this part of the Creation narrative.

  4. [email protected]

    I am no stranger to interpretations of pesukim that differ with those of Rishonim, based upon other pesukim, Chazal, and physical realities as currently understood. But that is not the case here. Malbim does invoke the “new scientific view” to argue against five of the explanations of rakia cited by the Abarbanel. But not for his argument against the Rambam, et al.
    The “new scientific view” does not account for the Malbim’s argument with those who identify the rakia as the atmosphere separating the seas from the cloud region. He favors his view (that the rakia is the cloud region that separates all that is above it from the atmosphere below it) based on the common factors available to all before the “new scientific discovery” of ether that enthralled academia.
    So, although the Malbim’s verbiage would lead one to the conclusion that citing “Abarbanel quoting five different views,” “Malbim points out that all five explanations are based on the mistaken view that spheres physically exist” and that the Malbim dismissed all previous explanations offered by the Rishonim based upon “the new scientific discovery,” a closer look reveals otherwise.
    The Rambam endorsed his wisdom of the day that the stars are carried by weightless, colorless, tasteless, odorless, “spheres” so ethereal as to be impervious to physical contact. Yet he did not identify the rakia with that phenomenon, but the atmosphere or cloud region. So it is simply untrue that “all the previous interpretations were dependent upon the concept of heavenly spheres.” The belief in heavenly spheres had absolutely nothing to do with why the Rambam et al explained the rakia as they did, and the non-existence of the spheres certainly does not contradict their explanation. True, as you note, the Malbim later acknowledges this view of Rishonim. But why did the Malbim initially skip it? My (tentative) contention is that although the Malbim was clearly fully aware that his accusation could not be directed against all the views, he was engaging in rhetoric, and therefore put aside the view to which it was inapplicable.
    And by the way, despite Abarbanel’s and Malbim’s understanding that the Rambam’s took the rakia to be the atmosphere verses the cloud region, and despite the Malbims inference that he is the first to suggest it means the cloud region, the Ephodi commentary on the Moreh takes the Rambam to be identifying the rakia with the cloud region.

  5. [email protected]

    By “that is not the case here,” in my first paragraph, I was referring only to the last of the factors I mentioned: invoking a “new scientific view” to revise/overturn previous explanations.

    Zvi Lampel

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