Just the Sources, Sir

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judaism scienceby R. Gidon Rothstein

Does misuse of sources matter? I ask because I meet many Jews today who seem indifferent to it. I don’t mean homiletic or kabbalistic readings, which would require a separate discussion. It is my experience that learned people today both offer and let pass without comment legal and/or theological readings of texts that cannot stand up to minimal scrutiny.

When I have pointed this out in the past (mostly to those on my religious left), people not directly involved in the issue assume and insist that this is another of the disputes that run through Jewish discourse, two well-grounded sides offering different but plausible readings of sources. They refuse to accept that sometimes one side adduces sources that cannot in any reasonable construction bear the weight that person is putting on them.

The most frustrating aspect of this is not the person who offered the sources—we can all become overly invested in our points of view and overreach. It’s that people who hear of that person’s work or views, in my experience, give it credence only because someone said and published it. They do not bother with the work of checking the sources cited, nor are they open to the claims of those who have done that work.

The People of the Book Need to Read

This is, to me, a part of our contemporary discussion of important Jewish issues that needs addressing and redressing. Human beings don’t always agree, even about the meaning of texts that might seem clear; that’s life. But it is a serious communal failing to come to a point where we allow the wildest claims, on the religious right and left, to pass without others considering that the sources cited do not offer anything near justification for that position.

One of the central markers of Orthodoxy is guiding one’s life by texts. If we dull or lose our ability to distinguish arguable and not arguable readings of the relevant sources, that is itself as deep a problem as the most serious specific halachic issues we face. It means we are losing the way to find proper answers to questions that arise.

Defending Proper Process

The example I offer here stems from passages in R. Dr. Moshe Meiselman’s recent Torah, Chazal, and Science. [1]Israel Bookshop Publications: Lakewood, 2013 The book deserves a full review; I offer this only as one concern that jumped out from reading a small subsection.

I offer my thoughts with some hesitation because R. Dr. Meiselman is of obviously far greater erudition (and other positive qualities) than I am or can hope to achieve. Yet I stand by my right and obligation to do so, because the proper study of Torah is central to our national identity. We must protest when too much authority is given to isolated sources and valid alternate readings of sources are dismissed as heretical.

Whats Called Mocking?

Rabbi Dr. Meiselman makes the remarkable claim (and repeats it in slightly different forms) that “the Gemara forbids treating any statement by the Chachamim with contempt or even questioning its veracity [emphasis added]. In fact, any expression of doubt is considered ipso facto to be contemptuous. (p. 123).” I stress again that I object less to the claim itself than to the ways in which he supported that claim.

We would hope to see some Talmudic statements that could be read as saying that. We do not get that. After the statement I reproduced above, R. Dr. Meiselman accurately reminds us that the Gemara clearly asserts that one who is מלגלג על דברי חכמים, who mocks the words of the Sages, deserves being judged (presumably in the World to Come) in boiling excrement. [2]Chapter 9, section 4, (starting at p. 123). He gives his internal references by chapters and sections instead of pages.

It is in defining “mockery” that we run into ambiguity. To prove his view, that mockery includes “treating any statement by the Chachamim with contempt or even questioning its veracity,” R. Dr. Meiselman first references Tosafot Chullin 57b, s.v. Eizil. Tosafot was commenting on a Talmudic discussion that had termed R. Shimon b. Chalafta an עסקן בדברים, which seems to be a pejorative term for one who decides to prove that which should not need proving.

R. Shimon b. Chalafta had decided to see if the ant really has no king or enforcement officer and yet manages to store food in summer, as Mishlei 6:6 says. Based on another Talmudic incident (which we’ll come to) which seems to say that requiring proof before believing the Sages is itself mockery, Tosafotwonders why the Gemara doesn’t see R. Shimon b. Chalafta as a מלגלג, a mocker of the Sages.

The answer given is that he wasn’t verifying the verse about the ants, he was demonstrating how Shlomo haMelech knew this about them.

Presenting One View As Probative, Without Explanation or Defense

R. Dr. Meiselman does seem to correctly capture Tosafot’s assumption, that doubting the statement would have made the man a mocker, but he does not explain how he knows that we have to accept this view as the dominant reading of the Gemara. In the world of Torah, many significant scholars have offered an idea that the consensus of tradition has chosen not to follow.

In this case, for example, Rashi says that R. Shimon b. Chalafta chose not to rely on Shlomo HaMelech’s authority, despite Shlomo’s having said the verse ברוח הקודש, as a result of the Divine Spirit. For Rashi, he’s only an עסקן and not a mocker, despite his having sought proof for that which Shlomo HaMelech said semi-prophetically (not just to demonstrate how Shlomo knew). At best, Rashi and Tosafot seem to disagree about what qualifies as mockery of the Sages.

Omitting Challengers

Maharsha disagrees with Tosafot more explicitly. He first questions Tosafot’s premise, noting that in the story Tosafot used for support, the student actively mocked R. Yochanan (the incident we’ll see below). In contrast, here R. Shimon b. Chalafta only sought the truth of a simple verse in Scripture. Maharsha adds that Chovot haLevavot obligates us to investigate and prove as many traditional belief-precepts as we can. The Gemara wasn’t upbraiding R. Shimon b. Chalafta, in Maharsha’s reading; he was appropriately and properly seeking to place faith on a firmer evidential basis.

R. Dr. Meiselman is free to prefer Tosafot’s view to that of Rashi and Maharsha; he’s free to argue that Tosafot should be seen as more authoritative. But he has to argue it, not just assume it without informing his readers that he has rejected or omitted those views because he found them unconvincing.

Had he written something along the lines of “Sources I find convincing and authoritative, Tosafot in one place and Rashba in one responsum [which we’ll come to] prohibit questioning any definitive statements of Chazal,” that would have been plausible enough. I personally would have opted for the other views, but I would not have felt the necessity or the authority to argue R. Dr. Meiselman’s choice.

It’s his failure to do that which calls for objection. Instead, he said several times that the Gemara assumes this view of how to treat Chazal’s statements, and he presents it as the approach we must adopt. Yet Rashi didn’t read this Gemara as Tosafot did, and Maharsha, with full knowledge of Tosafot’s view, took a radically different approach based on Chovot haLevavot (another authoritative source of Jewish thought).

Reading Into Irrelevance Isnt Acceptance of Chazals View

Aside from seeing that Rashi implicitly and Maharsha explicitly disagreed with Tosafot, there’s room to question whether this is the position of “Tosafot,” broadly speaking. To see why I suspect that’s not so, let’s remember that R. Dr. Meiselman doesn’t say we have to assume Chazal were correct in their presentation of reality of their time; he says we have to accept their definitive statements in our time.

His Talmudic examples on p. 124 show that this is what he means. He points to Yevamot 34b, where Ravin says in the name of R. Yochanan that a woman who did not contemplate getting remarried for ten years will not have children again. When a woman came to R. Yosef and claimed she had had children in that situation, R. Yosef urged her not to malign (be מוציא לעז) the words of the Sages. She then admitted she had had relations with a non-Jew.

This example is problematic even under R. Dr. Meiselman’s rubric. As Aruch LaNer points out, this statement at face value has halachic ramifications we do not put into practice: Maharshal held this should mean that a kohen would have to divorce his wife if she were in this situation, since the childbirth would prove she had had unacceptable sexual relations, rendering her unfit for him.

Aruch LaNer expands that to the case of a man who had not yet had children; just as he is not allowed to marry any other woman who is physically unable to have children (a topic of its own I cannot deal with here), he should not be allowed this kind of woman. Aruch LaNer’s solution is to understand the Gemara to mean that this rule only applies to a woman who hadn’t thought or wanted to be married to anyone in those ten years; since we cannot know what was going on in her head, we can never apply this Gemara.

Aruch LaNer reads this Gemara into practical irrelevance, without questioning its truth. That seems to me, nonetheless, to run counter to the attitude R. Dr. Meiselman promoted.

Is One Tosafot the Same as Tosafot?

But the second case R. Dr. Meiselman quoted takes us to the more glaring problem with his claim. He notes that in Yevamot 75b, Rav assumed a woman had had an affair because she had children while married to a man with a puncture in his testicles. The Gemara held that such a man cannot have children.

Whatever this assumption’s truth at the time, none less than R. Moshe Feinstein argued that it is no longer true in our times, that it is one of the many issues on which nature has changed. [3]Igrot Moshe Even haEzer 2:3. Tosafot to Avodah Zarah, on the Gemara’s statement that cows do not give birth until they’re three (where Tosafot knew of two years old cows’ giving birth), similarly suggest nature has changed. [4]24b, s.v. Parah

In other words, even the scholars of Northern France and Germany who made up the group collectively known as the Tosafot weren’t of one view about how we do or don’t approach statements of Chazal. For Tosafot in Avodah Zarah, if I came to believe that, today, ants indeed do have a king or officer, I could say times change and not be accused of mocking Shlomo haMelech.

That negates any need to “accept definitive statements of Chazal’s …” in our times. We might want to lean towards accepting them, but we could also assume that something Chazal said is no longer true. Once it is acceptable to argue that times can change, R. Dr. Meiselman’s assertion that the Gemara required us to accept Chazal’s definitive statements evaporates. Since that is the position of Tosafot to Avodah Zarah and R. Moshe Feinstein and, as we will see, was how Tzitz Eliezer understood the position of Rambam, we have to wonder what R. Dr. Meiselman meant by saying the Gemara requires us to accept Chazal’s definitive statements.

Is Rambam Good Enough to Disagree with Rashba?

R. Dr. Meiselman also cites Shut haRashba 1:98, where Rashba was asked about the contradiction between the claim in his time, that terefot [animals rendered unfit for eating by virtue of having suffered a mortal injury or, in the case he was discussing, by having an added body part] were living longer than the Gemara had said was possible. Rashba denies the possibility, and urges his readers not to question the Gemara on this issue. He suggests that it qualifies as mocking the Sages, based on many of the same sources as R. Dr. Meiselman offered.

The easiest reading of Rashba supports R. Dr. Meiselman’s position (and, as R. Gil Student showed me, R. Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer 10, Yoreh Deah 24 also seems to take the “Chazal must be right on terefot” position).But R. Dr. Meiselman’s adducing Rashba as proof of a general principle is a problem, in that he himself devotes a section to Rambam’s different approach to terefot. Rambam also comments on the gap between Chazals description of the ramifications of animals’ wounds and deformities and contemporary experience . He rules that we have to follow the Gemara’s halachic conclusions nonetheless, because the Torah obligates us to act על פי התורה אשר יורוך, according to the Torah they [the Sages] teach you. [5]Laws of Ritual Slaughter 10:13

Note that Rambam didnt say we have to believe that Chazal reflect the reality of our times (Tzitz Eliezer 1:24 thought Rambam was saying times had changed, similar to Tosafot in Avodah Zarah). Even if we take Rashba as R. Dr. Meiselman did—and, as I said, it is the easiest way to read that responsum– we again know of another important authority who dealt with the same question differently, seeming not to accept the Gemara’s definitive assertion as factually relevant to his time (although it is continuingly halachically relevant).

Another example of R. Dr. Meiselman presenting one source as the last word, knowing full well of other views of that exact topic.

The Pitfalls of Induction

I also wonder whether there are other ways to read Rashba’s responsum than the one R. Dr. Meiselman advances. He comments on that responsum:

The Rashba’s reference to these two passages [about the woman having a child after ten years with no thoughts of remarrying and the man having a child with punctured testicles] is significant because neither involves a halachah leMoshe miSinai. In both instances, the assessments are those of the Chachamim themselves. It is further evident in both instances that their conclusions apply not only to the majority of cases, but to all cases without exception. It seems clear, then, that in the Rashba’s view all definitive statements of Chazal, even those not based on a halachah leMoshe miSinai, are authoritative. Moreover, all of them are absolute rules to which there are no exceptions. [6]Chapter 14, Section 3, p. 201

I believe that everything after the words “It is further evident” is open for question. R. Dr. Meiselman is sure that since these “assessments” were not traditions from Sinai, they must have been those of the Chachamim themselves. How does he know? Is it impossible Chazal were reporting the scientific consensus of their time, that they were convinced enough of its accuracy that they based their legal judgment on it (as poskim unhesitatingly do today, especially on topics where there was no tradition)?

It also seems problematic that he jumps from the fact that those cases brooked no exception—since the Gemara denied the claims of those who claimed to be exceptions—to asserting that it’s “clear” that Rashba would view all definitive statements as brooking no exceptions. It is an assumption for which he provides no evidence—it could be that Rashba held, for example, that the Gemara’s telling of rabbis’ rejecting claims of exceptions showed Rashba that in this case there could be no exceptions. Rashba might then have assumed it was also true about terefot because those have halachic ramifications. It doesn’t have to be true for every statement of Chazal’s.

Is There a Difference Between Rhetorical and Other Assertions?

More than that, I think it’s not impossible that Rashba in this responsum was writing rhetorically and polemically rather than precisely. This is especially true since terefot was a topic of some tension, where the gap between the Talmudic assessment of reality and the medieval one seems to have been producing pressure on observance already in Rambam’s time. People apparently resisted their animals’ being labeled terefot, with the financial loss that entails,when those animals seemed to live a long and full life.

There are many ways to deal with such pressure, but it does not seem impossible that one way—especially in a time when science is not well-grounded (as is still true today for more areas of science than many of us realize)—is to dig in and insist that the Gemara was right. Recognizing that, I could imagine (although I have no proof) that Rashba’s hard stand here, offered as part of defending the halachic reality of terefot, did not reflect his general view of our obligations towards other statements of Chazal.

Whether or not that last point is convincing, we walk away from R. Dr. Meiselman’s citation of Rashba still remembering that there are other ways to handle that topic, making Rashba one source, not necessarily the determinative one.

Reading Aggadah Literally

The final and, to me, most egregious example comes when R. Dr. Meiselman speaks of how Ran read the incident in Bava Batra 75a that was the source for Tosafot Chullin’s view that even questioning Chazal constitutes mockery. R. Dr. Meiselman cites the story as evidence and then points to a comment of Ran’s as agreeing with him.

In that story, R. Yochanan expounded a verse in Yeshayahu to teach that Yerushalayim will one day be set with precious stones 30 cubitsby 30 cubits. A student who mocked the idea later saw angels preparing just such stones. When he returned to tell R. Yochanan the exciting news, R. Yochanan was unmollified, since the student only accepted it once he saw it. This, R. Yochanan said, is a mockery of the Sages.

It is an important story about our attitude to Sages and their ideas, but there are two significant limitations on what we can learn from it. First, R. Yochanan did not assert the existence of these stones, he derived them from a verse; the most this story would show is that we cannot question Chazal’s reading of verses, far less than R. Dr. Meiselman wants of it. (In the case in Chullin, too, R. Shimon b. Chalafta was reacting to a verse.)

More than that, Rambam in his Mishnah commentary asserted clearly that he felt no obligation to read aggadic sections of the Talmud literally. I don’t need to know how he read this story to know he would have been comfortable allegorizing the parts he found unlikely, while still deriving an important lesson.

R. Dr. Meiselman doesn’t have to accept Rambam’s approach, but he can’t base an obligation that we have to accept the literal reading of every statement in Chazal on a source that he knows Rambam would have read differently (in the Introduction to Chelek, Rambam has choice words for people who insist we have to accept the literal meaning of aggadot).

Putting Words Into Rans Quill

R. Dr. Meiselman closes his discussion of that story by saying, “The Ran in his Drashos calls the student’s attitude apikorsus (heresy). In his view questioning the Chachamim even in non-halachic areas is a form of kefirah [denying fundamental Jewish principles]. It is the obligation of every Jew to accept everything Chazal have told us, regardless of the subject.”

In the footnote, he gives the selection from Ran’s Drashos to which he’s referring [I have been summarizing Ran’s Drashot, focusing on how they offer important alternate ways to think about the world and Hashem’s interaction with it]. Allow me to translate the relevant parts:

“…[Just as we were commanded to follow the Sages’ conclusions regarding Torah law] so we are commanded in all that they tell us as a matter of tradition regarding beliefs [or opinions] and the reading of verses, whether it’s a matter of mitzvah or not, a Jew who diverges from their words… is a heretic and has no share in the World to Come… [Ran then treats and dismisses another story that might have shown this, returning to our story with R. Yochanan’s student] and what R. Yochanan said is not a law or statute of the Torah’s statutes, and even so they treated it as heresy, that he was denigrating the words of Hashem, that he doesn’t believe those he’s required to believe.”

Note that Ran says only that we are commanded in what they tell us as tradition and reading of verses, [and, as I noted in another essay, a later Sanhedrin may disagree with an earlier Sanhedrin’s reading of verses]. For R. Dr. Meiselman to use that to support the view that we have to accept “any definitive statement they make” seems to me a misreading.

Torah Is Broad Enough Without Stretching It

As I said at the outset, what moved me to investigate this one claim at such length is my concern about our ability to differentiate between when two or more readings are plausible and when they’re not. R. Dr. Meiselman’s offering three of many sources as the basis for a blanket assertion about what is allowed to faithful Jews violates the rule of the game, as it were, and debases halachic and hashkafic discourse. There’s enough room for legitimate disagreement within Torah, enough room for multiple views of how to best serve Hashem, that we don’t need, and should defend ourselves against, those who try to add more to the pile than the pile is ready to hold.


1Israel Bookshop Publications: Lakewood, 2013
2Chapter 9, section 4, (starting at p. 123). He gives his internal references by chapters and sections instead of pages.
3Igrot Moshe Even haEzer 2:3.
424b, s.v. Parah
5Laws of Ritual Slaughter 10:13
6Chapter 14, Section 3, p. 201

About Gidon Rothstein


  1. While R Meiselman doesn’t need me to respond for him, I think having learned with him in Chicago, and having studied under R Aaron Soloveichik, both of them would both agree that his objection is to the modern trend that has appeared in the Torah and Science literature. That trend assumes that the scientific statements of Chazal which appear to contradict scientific realia were NEVER a factual statement of realia but rather were based on mistaken science of the their time.
    R Meiselman (and most traditional Charedi authors) prefer limited (ie local) answers and apolgetics and responses such as nature has changed, which allow continued defferential respect of Chazal.

    • I understand that point but he goes much further in his book.

    • That trend assumes that the scientific statements of Chazal which appear to contradict scientific realia were NEVER a factual statement of realia but rather were based on mistaken science of the their time.
      R Meiselman (and most traditional Charedi authors) prefer limited (ie local) answers and apolgetics and responses such as nature has changed, which allow continued defferential respect of Chazal.

      There is a fallacy in this argument. L’havdil, we respect all the great Physicists (and Natural Philosophers) of the past AND present who made great contributions to science despite the fact that none were acting on revelation, and all were and are still basing their conclusions on the current state of knowledge which is always advancing and therefore imperfect. In addition, all current Poskim and great Rabbanim rely on current knowledge to understand matters of science and medicine and they are respected.
      One who disrespects a figure from the past because his or her knowledge did not include discoveries made after their time is being foolish, because their own knowledge base is similarly constrained.
      Therefore acknowledging that Chazal were so constrained is not disrespectful.
      On the other hand, apologetics can easily lead to disrespect because they can look foolish. It might work find textually to say that, at some time in the past, babies born at eight months were not viable while those born at seven months were viable, but it is very implausible, and mostly likely factually incorrect; therefore mandating this belief looks quite foolish. Paradoxically, claiming that Chazal were omniscient in some areas may have an impact opposite to that which was intended.
      Rav Yonah Merzbach said the following in a different context (religious geocentrists), but I think that it applies here (my translation):
      [i]t is because I am concerned with three things [that I am protesting]: 1) The desecration of God’s name, that through this he makes us targets of mockery and laughter in the eyes of others who will mock the denial of reality by those who are God-fearing. 2) And of the purity of belief, that through this he mixes up the concepts of belief which the Torah and Chazal have described, with regard to which beliefs are mandatory and which are not. 3) And because of the danger to to the public, that through this he endangers the belief of those young people who will go out at some point and hear from others that which will open their eyes, and they will infer a general principle from this case in which they were taught ignorance, to respond, God forbid, in the same way to everything that they are taught.

    • I think R’ Rothstein is commenting more on how R’ Meiselman’s argument is made than what it is he’s setting out to show. Quoting sources to prove the opposite of the author’s thesis, or selectively quoting those that support your point and claiming you’re doing a broad survey is not the way to explain Torah. (Or, as R’ Moshe Isaacson noted, any other topic.)

      As for “most traditional Chareidi authors” preferring “limited (ie local) answers and apolgetics and responses such as nature has changed, which allow continued defferential respect of Chazal”, this is not actually in line with tradition. It is more a counter-reformation idea that gained ground in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

      Similarly, there isn’t a rishon I can find that I am sure believed in a young universe. What is now taken as traditional is actually a once-minority viewpoint that gained currency because of backlash against German Reform and American Conservative.

  2. I think it is worthwhile to point out that Rabbi Slifkin has dedicated a series of posts to pointing out the numerous errors in the book in question. For example http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/10/rabbi-meiselman-tries-to-hide-from-sun.html

    The difference between the opening statements of this post and the bulk of it was a bit jarring to me. I applaud the sentiment that more time and attention should be given to actually looking up the sources which are cited, however this is not just a Jewish malady. Whole academic papers have been written based on fabricated wikipedia sources. CNN and other news outlets have been burned many times for failure to do basic fact checking. The world continually rewards who is first and loudest, not necessarily who’s argument is soundest.

    It would be nice if high schoolers or those in beis medrash were taught how to look at contemporary torah with a respectful but critical eye.

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