The old "Torah vs Science" debate has once again chosen to raise its ugly head and, with a weary sigh, we find ourselves once again having one of the most useless debates in Jewish history.
Let's get one thing straight off the top: Rav Natan Slifkin's greatest talent isn't his intelligence or his writing skills. It's his uncanny ability to get people obsessed with him in a negative way. There are two blogs I know of which seem to be dedicated to attacking him. Now Rav Moshe Meiselman, the mentor of one of Rav Slifkin's most persistent nemeses, has published a book purporting to defend Chazal's infalliblity when it comes to their statements on science and medicine conflicting with the current state of knowledge.
Rav Slifkin has spent enough time on his own blog deconstructing the flaws in this work. I have little to add to his statements, especially as I have not nor do I plan to purchase it.
I just think that it should be stated again: the debate between the rationalists and irrationalists in this area come to down one simple question: Were Chazal closed-minded dogmatists unwilling to consider any sourec of knowledge other than the mesorah they'd received from their teachers?
For the irrationalists the answer is "yes". This means that if Chazal said that water is warmer at night because the sun is going underneath the ground then that's the real reason it is, not because it's releasing heat absorbed during the day. If Chazal say that the Sun revolves around the Earth, then reality be damned. Scientisits, they don't know nothing!
Since it is axiomatic for the irrationalists that the mesorah contains all branches of knowledge and is direct from Heaven it therefore follows that since Chazal knew the mesorah perfectly they cannot be questioned on any of their statements. To do so is heresy and therefore those who do so much be fought with vigour.
For the rationalists the answer to the question is "no". This means that if Chazal said that a certain disease is treated by a combination of herbs and mystical incantations it's because Chazal were working with the medical knowledge base of their time. They weren't stupid. It wasn't that they didn't know. When it comes to Torah knowledge is eternal. Nobody knows Torah better than Chazal and when it comes to Torah knowledge we cannot contradict them, only try to understand them.
When it comes to science what's "true" changes as the knowledge base develops. Once time was a constant. Einstein showed it wasn't. It doesn't mean that scientists who espoused chronoconstancy before Einstein came along were ignorant. They were just as smart but limited by the knowledge base of their day.
This is something lost on the irrationalists. They view criticism or change as a personal attack on Chazal but that's wrong. Rationalists have no less respect for Chazal, for their intelligence and piety along with their incomparable Torah knowledge. It's just that rationalist recognize that scientific statements aren't part of Torah but merely observations Chazal felt should be included in the Talmud.
Is there proof for this position? Well Rav Slifkin has his own but I'd like to suggest a different one, one that is suprisingly applicable in this modern day and era. The Talmud Bavli, Niddah 30b, tells the following:
R. ISHMAEL RULED: [IF SHE MISCARRled ON] THE FORTY-FIRST DAY SHE
CONTINUES [HER PERIODS OF UNCLEANNESS AND CLEANNESS AS] FOR A MALE AND
AS FOR A MENSTRUANT etc. It was taught: R. Ishmael stated, Scripture prescribed uncleanness
and cleanness in respect of a male and it also prescribed uncleanness and cleanness in respect
of a female, as in the case of the former his fashioning period corresponds to his unclean and
clean periods so also in the case of the latter her fashioning period corresponds to her unclean
and clean periods. They replied: The duration of the fashioning period cannot be derived from
that of uncleanness. Furthermore, they said to R. Ishmael, A story is told of Cleopatra the queen of
Alexandria that when her handmaids were sentenced to death by royal decree they were
subjected to a test and it was found that both [a male and a female embryo] were fully fashioned on
the forty-first day. He replied: I bring you proof from the Torah and you bring proof from some
fools! But what was his ‘proof from the Torah’? If it was the argument, ‘Scripture prescribed
uncleanness and cleanness in respect of a male and it also prescribed uncleanness and cleanness in
respect of a female etc.’, have they not already replied, ‘The duration of the fashioning period cannot
be derived from that of uncleanness’? — The Scriptural text says, She bear, Scripture thus
doubles the ante-natal period in the case of a female. But why [should the test spoken of by the
Rabbis be described as] ‘proof from some fools’? — It might be suggested that the conception of the
female preceded that of the male by forty days. And the Rabbis? — They were made to drink
a scattering drug And R. Ishmael? — Some constitution is insusceptible to a drug. Then said
R. Ishmael to them: A story is told of Cleopatra the Grecian queen that when her handmaids were
sentenced to death under a government order they were subjected to a test and it was found that a
male embryo was fully fashioned on the forty-first day and a female embryo on the eighty-first
day. They replied: No one adduces proof from fools. What is the reason? — It is possible that the
handmaid with the female delayed [intercourse] for forty days and that it was only then that
conception occurred. And R. Ishmael? — They were placed in the charge of a warden. And the
Rabbis? — There is no guardian against unchastity; and the warden himself might have
intercourse with them. But is it not possible that if a surgical operation had been performed on the
forty-first day the female embryo also might have been found in a fully fashioned condition like the
male? — Abaye replied: They were equal as far as these distinguishing marks were concerned.
Now, this story is fascinating because it echoes modern science and medicine. We live in what is called the era of evidence based medicine. Medicine, like any branch of scientific knowledge, has its own dogmas, things which have been accepted as true without there being any real proof. It's just something each teacher has told his student because he heard it from his teacher and just accepted it. Nowadays there is an ongoing effort in the medical literature to challenge these dogmas. What's more, there are very specific rules for reading and interpreting new papers. All therapeutic trials are not created equal. What's amazing about this gemara is that Chazal are rebutting Cleopatra's evidence based on very similar ideas. Yes, they start with their dogmatic position but when challenged by secular experimentation that seems to contradict this they are able to point out flaws in the design of the "studies" that render them inadmissable. The implication is clear: if Cleopatra had found a way to satisfy their concerns Chazal would have looked at her findings in a serious fashion.
Honestly, does anyone really believe that if Chazal were to come back to life and discover all the stuff science has figured out in the last 1500 years that they'd simply dismiss it? They wouldn't believe bacteria exist because the mesorah never mentioned it? The flat-earthers amongst them would continue to insist on that position?
Wait, don't answer those questions.
Why should this be so? The rational answer is that Chazal were open-minded in their search for truth. Instead of coming to a conclusion and then selectively choosing the evidence that supported them they were prepared to consider all information since they were involved in a honest pursuit of understanding the Divine mind. This is what made them great, not some mythical omniscience they themselves never claimed to have.
So once again we go back and forth, neither side really listening to each other. It is simply important to remember that the rational position, far from disrespecting Chazal, probably has a better understanding of how they worked and a stronger claim to be their real defenders.