Battle Tested Hashkafah
When choosing between competing philosophical truths, it can be almost unseemly to consider the practical ramifications of each. After all, surely Truth is more important than whatever real life consequences happens to follow from it. We see though that time and time again people consider real life ramifications when they are engaged in philosophical debate. For example, there is a long running debate on whether free-will is real or merely an illusion because everything is predetermined. Even the determinists may agree though that the belief in free-will plays a useful role in getting people to live productive lives. While it may be a fiction, and one people are determined to believe in at that, it is still a useful fiction for without it no one would feel the urge to do anything. The practical real life ramifications of the two belief systems is itself one reason who many people choose to believe in free will – or so they tell themselves.
Some of the classic arguments in favor of G-d also make use of such a device. What type of world would you rather live in, one created with a purpose in which our actions matter, or a purposeless one in which nothing truly matters and morality as we conceive it is merely a useful fantasy? (I seem to think that some of those arguments have more merit than my fellow bloggers do, but that will be for a later post.) It is even used as a kiruv device. In elementary school one of my rebbeim told the class the story of the irreligious woman who enrolled her sons in Yeshiva, even though that required her to keep a kosher home and Shabbos, simply because of how much better behaved the Yeshiva bochrim were to the public school kids when walking to school in past her house each day. The beauty of Shabbos and other mitzvos are frequently used as reasons to become frum.
When dealing with the Slifkin ban, some of the pro-Ban forces have used such reasoning to support their position. For example, on page seven of his article Rav Feldman writes The Chazon Ish, considered by many to be the posek acharon (final Torah authority) for our times, writes in his “Letters” [Section I, Letter 15] that “our tradition” is that the shechita of someone who denies the truth of the Sages whether in the Halacha or Aggada (the non-halachic parts) of the Talmud is disqualified just as is someone who is a heretic. He adds that experience has shown that those who begin questioning the truth of the Sages will ultimately lose their future generations to Torah. [None of these opinions apply this approach to the words of the Rishonim or Acharonim; only to the Sages. They would not apply as well to passages in the Sages which are allegorical.] The argument that Chazon Ish used from experience is in no way a proof of whether Chazal made scientific errors or not. He is simply pointing out the dangers of such a belief – even if in truth the Rambam and those who agree with him about a fallible Chazal are correct. Now I have no doubt that the Chazon Ish was a shrewd observer of those around him, and therefore much thought much be given to what he reported.
However, we must also bear in mind a clear counter-example. Rav Hirsch held like the Rambam when it came to Chazal making errors, and not only did he not lose his own future generations to Torah, but he saved and actually built up a frum community that everyone had written off as doomed. When you read Rav Hirsch you are always struck by his fierce intellectual honesty and his commitment to truth. But surely he had strategic considerations in mind as well. Torah was being attacked on all sides, and Jews were abandoning it in droves. Rav Hirsch surely knew that is he claimed Chazal never made an error in any area whatsoever he would have been laughed out of Germany and have been unable to accomplish all that he did. One of the key steps to an effective defense is to limit the area vulnerable to attack. By conceding that Chazal may have made errors in science, Rav Hirsch was able to show how they still conducted themselves with the utmost integrity and how they were without equal when it come to their true area – understanding the Word of G-d.
The Chazon Ish and Rav Hirsch were living in different communities, and what would have beeb considered a statement of outright rebellion for an associate of the former – that Chazal may have been extraordinary in morality and theology, but were frequently mistaken in science – would have been the ideal thing to say in the community of the latter, or in the community of the Rambam for that matter. When there has been a well respected science that was openly threatening the Torah community, the approach of the Rambam and Rav Hirsch has proven to be effective. Many of us would not be frum or even Jewish had that approach not been used. When the community hasn't been under attack by science, those who focus their energy on questioning Chazal's science were very possibly taking the first steps to doubting all that they wrote.
The question is which approach would be most effective for us today? I think it quite clear that the approach which has been battle tested for today's environment is the one which acknowledges that Chazal made scientific errors. We are much closer to Germany at the close of the 19th century than we are to Bnei Brak in the first half of the 20th century. We live in the most open society in all of history, and people are exposed to more ideas – both good and bad – than ever before. Science and technology are becoming more and more entwined in everything that we do, and with that is coming more and more respect for them. Those Rabbanim who say that Chazal knew all of modern science will simply be laughed at as the frum community becomes ever more knowledgeable in these areas. And even if there are still some communities which would gain from the infallible Chazal position (better grab them while you can), in no way should someone make blanket statements which would cripple those living in different communities. Imagine if the Rambam and Rav Hirsch had to contend with their communities seeing statements from the most prominent Rabbonim alive that it is heresy to doubt that Chazal were infallible in science. Would they have been able to accomplish all that they did?
Now I prefaced this post by saying there is something unseemly about deciding such a monumental area by such a crude cost benefit analysis. It would surely be better if such considerations were removed from the discussion. If we do choose to include them though, we should realize that they give us far more reason to oppose the ban than to support it.