Scientific Clarifications in Jewish Law

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R. Hershel Schachter, Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, pp. 431-433:

A well-known Orthodox rabbi suggested in a public address to a rabbinic gathering that, in his opinion, the psychological presumptions that “More than a man wants to marry, a woman wants to be married” and “It is better to be with another [than to be alone]” do not apply nowadays. Therefore, perhaps we should change all of those laws that are based on these presumptions. Our teacher [R. Soloveitchik] disagreed strongly with this and stated publicly in a lecture before ordainees that even though the Rema (Even Ha-Ezer 17:2) quotes an opinion from some medieval scholars that the psychological presumption that a woman will not tell a blatant lie in her husband’s presence, that is mentioned in the Gemara, changed throughout the generations, and therefore the rules based on this presumption also changed — and that is what our teacher taught us when we learned Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, that there is a possibility that the presumption that a person does not lie about something that will be revealed does not apply today… and therefore it is possible that the rule that one may trust a gentile about something that will be revealed does not apply — regarding the above presumptions about a woman’s psychology that our Sages derived from the verses of Genesis, what is mentioned in the Creation passage teach that God instilled these [presumptions] into Creation and it is part of a woman’s inherent nature that will not change.*

*Many were mistaken about our teacher’s intent and thought that he said that Jewish law does not take new psychological clarifications into consideration, nor scientific clarifications. R. Shalom Rubin, the New York State kosher inspector, once fined a butcher for selling what should have been salted kosher meat but, through chemical investigation, was determined to have never been salted. The other [i.e. the butcher] claimed that, based on R. Soloveitchik’s words, Jewish law does not take into account modern scientific clarifications and that he (the butcher) should be believed when he says that the meat was salted based on the rule that a single witness is believe in matters of “issurin.” This is certainly wrong!

Similarly, Dr. [Karen] Bacon published an essay about determining the Jewishness of those who came from Ethiopia and found that there is something specific about DNA (that follows the mother and not the father) that can be found in all Jews throughout the world — Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Hasidim, Misnagdim, etc. — in a specific proportion greater than in the other nations. Perhaps those from Ethiopia are found to have this in a low proprtion, similar to the other nations in Africa, which would support those who question their Jewishness or at least prove that they are from a different tribe (Dr. Bacon’s essay was published in Torah u-Madda, vol. 3). Someone wrote to argue that R. Soloveitchik’s view that Jewish law does not take into account modern scientific clarifications is well known (published in vol. 4 of the above journal). In my view, he made a big mistake in understanding our teacher’s intention…

I heard that the wife of a cohen who was a teacher in a public school (in Canada) was raped by one of her gentile students. The police caught him and it was publicized in the newspapers. The rabbi of her congregation asked our teacher whether she was obligated to divorce her cohen husband. Our teacher responded by asking whether the doctors checked her at the time to verify that she was, in fact, raped and the rabbi answered that she had not been. Our teacher ruled based on the Mishnah and Gemara at the end of Nedarim that even if the wife of a cohen says that she is raped, she is not believed, even if the matter was clarified and publicized in all the newspapers. Our teacher said that maybe [the student] only did things leading up to the act of sex but not [the specific act]… This rabbi interpreted our teacher to mean that Jewish law does not take into account the clarification of the episode and the actual truth. In my view, God forbid to attribute such a thing to our teacher or any great person…

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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