Terefot and Tish’a B’Av: How Fixed Is Nature?
Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel.
In the Introduction to Chelek, a chapter of Mishnah that deals with the World to Come, Rambam delineates three reactions to fantastic statements made by Chazal. One group assumes Chazal meant those statements literally, and we are therefore required to accept those claims; these, Rambam says, are simpletons. Another group agrees that Chazal believed those statements literally, because they were—pardon the language—more primitive than we are. People in this group, Rambam notes, lack the requisite respect of and belief in the Sages.
The third group, if there are enough such people to be called a group (Rambam expresses his uncertainty about that), understood and understand that Chazal meant something important with their statements, but not the direct, literal import of the words. Knowing how to find the real intent of these declarations is, to Rambam, the key to proper understanding of aggadah.
We face a similar challenge regarding statements of scientific fact in Jewish tradition—mostly biological, but not always. Too often for comfort, Chazal describe the natural world in a way that does not match our current understanding. Instead of three, there seem to be two main responses. One group says Chazal weren’t, after all, scientists, and reflected the best understanding a reasonably educated person of their time would have had.
The second group claims that the facts have changed, in at least some cases; this can be because conditions have changed, like climate, or because the laws of nature have themselves changed over time. This is a view assumed by Tosafot, adopted by Chazon Ish, and ratified by Tzitz Eliezer, as we will see.
I raise the issue for three reasons. First, in my experience, many Jews today assume that second position reflects an unsophisticated approach to the world, failing to notice that they are making that assumption about great Torah scholars. It may be true, but we should be aware of what’s riding on our assessment.
Second, I think some new evidence makes Chazon Ish’s position more scientifically reasonable than it had been. Third, the knee-jerk rejection to that second view carries over into areas of how we do or don’t see the natural world as responsive to our good deeds and our sins, an area where the science is less well-established but short-circuits many Jews’ acceptance of a basic Jewish idea, that nature itself is impacted by our religious activity.
Terefot, Chazon Ish, and Changing Nature Over Time
The first question is how we react to scientific statements that seem to be wrong; Chazon Ish raised the issue regarding terefot. Halachah confers the status of terefah on animals—which cannot thereafter become kosher meat–or people who have suffered mortal wounds. These wounds will kill within twelve months, as far as the Talmud understands it.
Already in the twelfth century, Rambam noted problems in the Talmudic list of mortal wounds.[1. Hilchot Shechitah 10:12-13.] Doctors in his time knew how to treat some of them, and Rambam knew of necessarily mortal wounds not included in the Talmud’s list. What to do?
One possible answer would have been to have the list of terefot be era-specific, a function of the medical knowledge of that generation. The traditional approach, as Rambam articulates it, is that even if contemporary medical standards declare something untreatable, the Talmud’s list tells us those wounds might yet heal. Conversely, wounds we know how to heal are nonetheless terefah, because the Torah commands us to follow the Sages’ rulings.
Rambam does not explain further, so we cannot know what he meant. It seems odd to think he saw the Sages as knowing animals better than we ever will, since veterinarians don’t simply claim to be able to heal certain wounds, they do so, over and over. And, in reverse, to assume that wounds we see as mortal have to be thought of as healable, simply because the Talmud didn’t mention them, would seem to obligate us to believe that the Talmud not only knew which wounds were mortal in their time, but which wounds the entire history of medicine would never find a way to heal.
Another possibility is that Rambam formalized the issue. While in the Talmud’s time the question was which wounds do or don’t kill, their definitions become fixed for all time. However we deal with the practical question, this is one example of Chazal’s representation of nature not matching our own. Chazon Ish notes others.
Immediate vs. Certain Death
Chazon Ish was led to the conversation by the differing indications in the Talmud as to whether a meguyad or tzaluv, a person who has been wounded multiple times or been crucified, can live. For example, Rava in Yevamot 120b assumes that an ordinary meguyad will definitely die in the near future (such that one can give testimony that his wife is a widow without seeing the man’s actual passing), but that if a hot knife was used, the witnesses would have to see him die before they could testify.
Some of the Talmud’s statements about human wounds clearly do not work. For example, the Talmud defines cuts to certain internal organs as being mortal, when surgeons today daily make such cuts (and then stitch them up). Chazon Ish suggests that the Talmud might have been defining the result of an untreated human wound, but the person might survive if treated in the right way (such as, for example, by the surgeons’ properly washing their hands, and then being careful to stop the wound from becoming infected).
Chazon Ish captures that idea by saying that climate can affect recovery. He may have meant climate only literally, but if we expand that to include all environmental factors, such as hand-washing and disinfecting, that becomes one avenue to explain differences in Chazal’s assessment of the world from ours. Today, we accept that a wide variety of factors affect health and medical outcomes. Diet, exercise, lifestyle, psychological state, and surrounding environment are all more recognized as contributors to health or illness than previously.
We can argue about whether that extends to the cases to which Chazon Ish applied it—such as bloodletting, which he assumed worked back then–but what once might have seemed outlandish turns out to be plausible and relevant to some cases.
This doesn’t go as far as we need, however. Some Talmudic claims go beyond climate or environment in portraying a different world than others, forcing us to consider whether there might have been more significant changes in the workings of the body (and Nature generally) than just environmental ones.
Talmudic Errors Hard to Pin on a Lack of Knowledge
As Chazon Ish notes, Tosafot[2. Avodah Zarah 24b s.v. Parah] puzzled over the Talmud’s assumption that cows and donkeys only give birth once they reach three years of age, whereas by the twelfth century, it was clear that two year olds gave birth. Here, the “scientifically backward” argument is more difficult—we would have to assume that the people of the time of the Talmud couldn’t keep track of their calves’ ages.
Perhaps environmental factors led to the earlier maturity of animals in the Tosafists’ time, like the factors that lead to early puberty among girls and women today, in which case this would be another example of climate change, as Chazon Ish phrased it. But that same Tosafot notes that Chullin 47b says that only certain animals have an additional small lobe in their lungs, whereas that lobe was common among many species of animals in Tosafot’s time. Are we to believe the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t know those other animals also had this in their lungs?
If you want to say yes, try this: the Talmud debates whether women give birth only after full months from conception, or can give birth in the middle of the month, whereas nowadays—Chazon Ish says—women obviously give birth in the middle of a month. So, too, Niddah 31a assumes that boys are born face down, girls face up. Do we really think the rabbis of the Talmud made such a blanket claim, without even checking with a midwife? Or that midwives got it so wrong that they propagated this myth?
Some will say yes, although the more glaring the error, the less convincing I find that. There is a gap between saying that Chazal could not have known that handwashing was the key to avoiding infection after surgery and saying they couldn’t realize there is no connection between gender and birth position or whether women give birth after eight and a half rather than nine months.
For those who find it difficult to accept that Chazal made such basic errors—which is different than saying they weren’t laboratory scientists—I think Chazon Ish’s alternate approach is interesting, because it reminds us of a perspective of the world that is not always given its due.
Changes of Nature
In addition to the change of climate argument, Chazon Ish accepts Tosafot’s implication, that times change and so do facts of Nature. Like Tosafot, he assumes that in the time of the Talmud, animals really didn’t give birth until they were three, whereas now they do. Babies back then did divide by gender in how they were born, now they don’t, etc.
Let me add that these don’t have to be categorical: it could be that Chazal would say that animals didn’t give birth until three even if eighty percent of animals didn’t give birth until three, and that as long as eighty percent of boys were born face-down, etc., they would have made that claim. Claiming that the nature of these issues has changed doesn’t have to mean that it has changed completely, or so radically that it should have received more notice than it has.
I am also less interested in each individual claim than in the overall recognition that nature might function differently than we assume, and that it might surprise us not only by what we have not yet discovered about it, but also by the fact that it can literally change.
Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:19, by the way, accepts Chazon Ish’s view in some cases. I mention Tzitz Eliezer because he was the halachic authority for Sha’arei Tzedek hospital for many years, meaning that he was not a person prone to rejecting science or its accomplishments, and yet he, too, assumed that nature itself changes. Not only does the air quality or diet, etc., affect human biology, but biology itself—and perhaps other areas of science– has changed.
Scientists Who’ve Assessed Nature Similarly
Piling up traditional sources for this idea becomes futile at some point, since those who are convinced that Nature has laws will rationalize or otherwise explain those sources away. What might be more productive is to point out that the idea of fixed laws of Nature is not as scientific as we think.
I base myself here mostly on Lee Smolin, a well-recognized theoretical physicist whose work has taken a decidedly unconventional turn. In an earlier book, The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin “proposed a mechanism for laws to evolve which I modeled on biological evolution… the laws of physics [in this theory] played the roles of genes in biology…Like the genes, the laws could mutate randomly from generation to generation.”[3. Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, (Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 2013), p. xxvi.]
Smolin might be dismissed as a radical, except that he quotes other well-regarded physicists who made similar claims. In a 1939 speech, Paul Dirac, “speculated: ‘At the beginning of time, the laws of Nature were probably very different from what they are now. Thus, we should consider the laws of Nature as continually changing with the epoch, instead of as holding uniformly throughout spacetime.”[4. Ibid., xxv.] John Archibald Wheeler and Richard Feynman were also comfortable with the idea of change in the laws of Nature themselves, in a shorter time period than we might expect.
When Dirac spoke of Nature changing with the epoch, he likely meant more than several hundred years, so he was not taking the same position as Chazon Ish, but the gap isn’t as large as we would think. Biologists give examples of evolution that can take only decades— such as guppies in Trinidad— not the centuries that Chazon Ish was discussing.
As a first step, then, I think it behooves traditional Jews, especially those open to the lessons of science, to realize that Tosafot and Chazon Ish’s seemingly outlandish idea is less unscientific than it might seem. It may be true that other texts didn’t notice the changes in nature which Tosafot and Chazon Ish are contemplating, or that some of the talmudic statements contradict the scientific texts of their own time.
My point isn’t whether the Talmud got everything right about science in its own time, it’s about whether we are open to the possibility that some of what they said has changed between then and now. I am arguing that what was the same and what was different about biology and nature in the time of the Talmud is an open question, not to be tossed off lightly as evidence of their lack of sophistication or level of knowledge of the world around them.
That still allows for fixed laws—again, barring miracles—within a particular era, and yet this, too, seems to me exaggerated, both because of traditional sources as well as scientific realizations whose import hasn’t, in my experience, been fully digested.
Rambam—Flexibility and Spirituality as Natural Facts
To stay relatively brief as I try to show that traditional sources imply that Nature is more flexible than it seems, I will use examples only from Rambam, since he is usually pointed to as the pillar of rationalism in Judaism, the traditional authority most accepting of a Nature that follows its course without interference from God.
Yet even Rambam seems to have recognized other factors that impact how Nature works. The first example comes from his commentary on Avot, 5:5, often cited as saying that even miracles are really natural. The Mishnah refers to items created at the end of the sixth day of Creation. Rambam reads the Mishnah to mean that there was no new act of Creation following the first week, and these items symbolize the inclusion within Nature of what look like breaks in Creation. Once the week of Creation was finished, many processes happen regularly, and we call those Nature, and some happen rarely or extraordinarily, such as a rock providing enough water to feed an entire nation.
Many scientifically-minded Jews point to this as asserting the primacy of Nature, with a few exceptions here or there. Perhaps, but it also leaves open the possibility of truly radical exceptions.
Communities’ Experience of Nature
Rambam’s openness to significant changes in Nature, without stepping into the miraculous, is clearer in the Mishneh Torah.[5. Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.] Codifying the Biblical commandment to respond to times of communal trouble—pestilence, drought, war, etc.– Rambam says the mitzvah requirement, to blow trumpets, and the Rabbinic addition, to fast, were ways of stimulating reflection and repentance, out of a recognition that such troubles come because of our sins.
He adds that those who instead dismiss the troubles as the way of the world, as happenstance, are acting insensitively, causing themselves to continue in their path of sin, and bringing further troubles upon themselves. He writes that this is the meaning of Vayikra 26:27-28; the verse says that if we go with Hashem be-keri (which Rambam is reading as mikreh, chance), Hashem will go with us in a fury of keri. In Rambam’s reading, if Hashem brings trouble to inspire repentance, and we ignore it as chance, Hashem will add to those troubles.
At the very least, Rambam is including spirituality as an environmental factor that affects Nature. Even if we read him as taking Hashem out of the picture almost entirely—since he resisted making statements about Hashem, especially those that implied change—he is saying that the Nature Hashem created reacts to our actions; war, pestilence, famine, drought, are all, possibly, the results of sin.
Truth is, I would think this would be obvious, since we say it explicitly in the second paragraph of Shema every day—if we sin in certain ways, Hashem will bring drought and exile to the Jews. Sadly, it’s not, and some Jews resist this idea, about the Torah itself and about Rambam, even when they say it explicitly.
That might force us to concede only that Nature reacts to communities’ spiritual state, but not individuals’. In Guide III:17, Rambam denies Providence over animals—meaning, seemingly, that the nonhuman world operates strictly according to Nature– but accepts Providence over humans, with those closer to God earning more Providence. (This works almost mechanistically; Rambam thinks that Divine influence comes through the Active Intellect, so the more connected one is to the Active Intellect, the more Providence one achieves).
Technicalities aside, Rambam is saying that the events of a person’s life will depend on his or her spiritual state. In the example he gives, if a ship sinks, with loss of property and life, the event itself might be happenstance—since, as Rambam said, Providence doesn’t extend to animals, let alone ships. But who did or didn’t get on the boat has some providential element to it, since people are affected by Providence.
Rambam does not explain how this works. If a truly righteous person, destined for life, decided to get on a ship (or airplane) that Nature will sink, how would Providence stop that?
Rambam notes that we cannot know, but there are limited options. One is that the more Providence we have, the less free will we have, since Providence will be nudging us (without our realizing it) to and away from those natural events we should or shouldn’t be a part of. Of course, that contradicts another principle of Rambam’s, that our free will is nearly absolute, unless we are punished as was Paroh in Egypt. Another possibility is that Providence does manipulate those animals and inanimate objects necessary for human Providence to work out—it would still be true that animals don’t have Providence, but human Providence might lead to Providential interference in Nature.
I don’t want to speculate here about what Rambam meant, only to note that we have, at least, two sources in Rambam that make Nature less fixed and law-driven than it appears, with one in the Guide that requires further discussion to fully elucidate.
The Individuality of Cancer and Weather
How we choose to read Rambam might be impacted by our assessment of how Nature works. If we’re certain that Nature follows laws, we’ll be happy to see in Rambam an authentic Jewish voice that accepted that view. I propose that an open-minded consideration of scientific knowledge today shows room to question this idea.
Let me take two examples, cancer and the weather. For a long time, doctors and the lay public treated cancer as a disease, which affected each individual in the same way. As our knowledge of cancer has progressed, we’ve come to realize that while many cancers share features, many also have mutations that make them specific to the individual stricken. That would mean that while some drugs will kill some cancers in almost all those suffering from it, some cancers require more individualized approaches.
How do these mutations occur? Science’s answer is that they are random, but that’s really a way of saying they don’t know, and cannot see any pattern in those occurrences. It seems to me to open room to realize that the advent of cancer might sometimes be more individual than usually realized, which raises the possibility that its causes aren’t always or only random, nor only physical. (Meaning: it might be random, or it might be how the physical body works, but it might sometimes be Providence as well).
So, too, with the weather. Improvements in scientists’ understanding of weather systems have helped them increase the accuracy of their forecasts. One of the reasons is that they have started speaking probabilistically, meaning that, at least until very close to the event, they don’t say what will happen, they say what experience indicates is the most likely sequence of events.
Alongside this switch, others have shown that weather is a good example of a chaotic system, a system where a small change in initial inputs can, down the road, produce a very large change in the system (by now, it’s proverbial: a butterfly flaps its wings in China, producing a hurricane halfway across the world). Our awareness of that sensitivity to inputs opens the possibility that the spiritual state of the recipients of certain weather might be one of those inputs—how would the same atmospheric conditions produce weather for people who were either really good or really bad? The same or different?
Tish’a B’Av and Insensitivity
As I said at the outset, some of what motivates this piece is my discomfort with Jews who take an approach to Nature that the science itself doesn’t warrant, especially not when Jewish tradition so clearly adds an element that science does not yet recognize.
Second, and more directly, these ideas seem particularly relevant to this time of year, when we again remember that our actions brought about the destruction of our Temple—with all that came with that, including the tradition’s claim that even today, Nature does not offer the bounty it could[6. See Mishnah Sotah 9:12.]– and that the redemption lies in our hands, not only by the physical, political, and military means that have produced such remarkable effects in Israel, but also by more directly spiritual means, if we can only summon the will and drive to do so. I hope we can; I hope we will.
 Hilchot Shechitah 10:12-13.
 Avodah Zarah 24b s.v. Parah
 Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, (Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 2013), p. xxvi.
 Ibid., xxv.
 Laws of Fasts 1:1-3.
 See Mishnah Sotah 9:12.